Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Coyote vs. Cat, Cat vs. Bird

July 30, 2010

In the last few weeks in Gloucester County, Virginia-- where I live, across the river from the famous Yorktown Battlefield—-friends and acquaintances report that they’re losing pets and cared-for feral cats to coyote attacks. I trust these sources, and the reports are coming from various parts of our semi-rural county, so the problem appears to be widespread.

At this point I’m trying to gather information, and have contacted a local reporter who should be able to separate the facts from hearsay and circumstantial evidence. At present, it does seem clear that coyotes are killing cats and dogs in my area in a way that hasn’t happened before, even if at this point the scale of the problem is unknown.

This situation raises distressing ethical issues. As readers of this blog know, my husband and I are active in cat rescue work. And, when I am speaking about ‘Being With Animals’ on the radio or during a public lecture, and mention our cat work, people will comment that many birds – and other small animals- must be killed by the cats we help save. Isn’t work on behalf of feral cats contributing to serious loss of, and suffering by, birds and other wildlife?

I’ve never had an easy answer for this question. I don’t see a lot of evidence of cat-hunting behavior at our colony – feathers, dead animals, and so on-- but that doesn’t prove anything. I just don’t know how much they are killing. I can easily imagine how, for birders especially, this situation is upsetting.

On the other hand, the work we do is dedicated equally to two premises: feral cat numbers must be reduced as dramatically as possible (that’s why we spay-neuter all feral cats we can trap), and while they are alive, feral cats deserve to be cared for and free of hunger and threat. I can’t back off from these principles.

Now, with coyotes threatening some local cats, both feral and domestic (though not, to date, ours), a set of parallel questions arises. Shouldn’t, by sheer consistency of logic, the coyotes be allowed to satisfy their hunger by hunting whatever animals they target? No, I don’t think so. The coyotes are coming into peoples’ yards and that presents a degree of danger – to pets and to children as well as to feral cats— that makes the coyote vs. cat circumstance different than the cat vs. bird one.

Should the coyotes be shot and killed, then? I can’t get behind this plan. Coyotes are living creatures and I won’t join the local hunting party that some are talking about forming. Is it feasible to trap and remove the coyotes from the area? Where would they go? Who will pay?

I have no answers. Just lots of questions, and a big worry that all this is going to end very badly for animals.


  1. July 30, 2010 6:16 AM EDT
    This has been a problem in our area for quite awhile now--before our cats became indoor ones (partly because they killed birds), we lost one--likely to a coyote (or even a fisher)--and local farmers claim that coyotes kill calves and sheep, too. While I'm very VERY opposed to the hunting parties that happen around here, I've read that coyotes tend to stay away from areas where they know there's a chance they'll be hunted and that they may become like "park bears" if they don't feel threatened. Being with Animals is SO complicated.
    - Mary Pratt
  2. July 30, 2010 10:06 AM EDT
    It would be great if the coyotes could be trapped, spayed/neutered and released and then fed in a spot away from people and pets, so they don't associate populated areas with food.

    The cats you feed don't HAVE to hunt birds and other wildlife, because you feed them. I would imagine that cats without catch-neuter-release-feed caregivers ARE a threat to the general ecosystem, but that tended pods like yours have a much smaller impact.

    I hope your community comes to a thoughtful, reasoned solution. I know it must be painful for you. :(
    - <a href="">Marian Allen</a>
  3. July 30, 2010 12:20 PM EDT
    Complicated IS the word. I'm hoping some other cat activists may comment here. Recently I was told by a person agitating *against* feral cats that because the feline eating and hunting instincts are separate, even well-cared-for ferals hunt, and decimate wildlife. I have to follow up on this-- it's hard for me to believe that our cats could possibly have as great an impact on birds and small mammals than very hungry ferals.
    - Barbara J. King
  4. July 30, 2010 1:47 PM EDT
    I love cats...and I've been a proponent of indoor cats since the late 1970s, when roads (not coyotes) were the biggest threat. Cats DO have an impact on bird populations, especially ground-nesting birds (Whip-poor-wills come immediately to mind as a bird I heard routinely as a child in suburban/rural Maryland, but whose population has decreased frighteningly since then, with pressures from cat predation as well as habitat fragmentation.)

    That being said, I strongly support spay-neuter-release of feral cats as a way to stabilize those particular populations. That being said, much as I hate the idea, contending with predators including coyotes is a part of feral cat life. My wholly unsubstantiated theory with increased coyote predation nearer to human habitation is 1) too damn many people encroaching ever further upon "wild" places, 2) feral and pet cats/small dogs are an increasingly plentiful food source, easier and more consistent than deer or rodents, 3) coyotes who are able to supplement their diet with pets may raise more pups, and 4) coyotes teach their pups hunting skills, so the increase of pet-aware-and-hunting coyotes may be growing faster than coyotes who are shyer about near-human contact.

    My personal (and laughable) solution to coyotes is to increase the coyote predators, obviously unworkable with current human settlement! Or else reduce the ready food source (pets inside, outside in coyote-proof runs or supervised, no kibble left out).
    - Julia S.
  5. July 30, 2010 2:17 PM EDT
    Helpful comments, Julia S., thanks. In support of your point about people increasingly encroaching upon wild places, I want to include here a link that Alley Cat Allies sent me upon reading my blog. For anyone reading along here, I recommend it highly because it shifts the discussion to our own impact and responsibility:
    (you may need to cut and paste)
    - Barbara J. King
  6. July 30, 2010 4:38 PM EDT
    The problem becomes complicated when humans and their emotions are involved. Everything on earth exists to eat and be eaten. We disrupt this process when we decide to create an environment not in harmony with nature. Our pets are as precious to us as our children, and they need our protection. But that doesn't mean that we should do anything to harm the predators.

    I have a friend who has lots of animals and lives in an area with coyotes. She brings the cats indoors at night or when no one is home. No pet food is left outside that might attract coyotes. Her chickens are securely penned, but she lost young chicks to a hawk when they were unsupervised. She also recently lost a foolish rooster who seems to have stuck his head through the wire mesh. Only feathers were found, so it's likely that a coyote or similar dragged him through the fence. Tragic, but she isn't going to attack the coyotes for expressing their natural behavior.

    Remember, the phrase "good fences make good neighbors" also applies to our relationship with wildlife.
    - Barbara S. (Help an Elephant)
  7. July 30, 2010 4:38 PM EDT
    I have read that coyotes are spreading throughout the continent and can be spotted even in New York City. They are one of those animals that benefit from a human presence and dense human populations, because of the garbage we create, as well as because of the plants and animals we have. Coyotes were said to love the apricots that dropped from the trees in Santa Fe. I don't think it will be possible, or even desirable, to hunt down coyotes, and the only effective predator would be a microbe of some kind. Keep away! We will get into a bird-that-ate-the-spider-that-ate-the-fly situation. Best to just protect your children and your pets. Capture, neuter and release feral cats if you cannot keep them as pets. Pet cats are healthier and live longer if they are kept inside. Feral cats, neutered or not, face the dangers of the wild. But at least if neutered, they will not contribute to the multiplication of the feral cat population. Unneutered cats multiply fast, as you know.
    So, I think you are doing the right thing, Barbara. Let the wild be wild. Protect your small children and small animals by keeping them carefully guarded. Oppose firearms of all kinds, whatever their purported use.
    I'll stop now.
    - Peggy Trawick
  8. July 30, 2010 4:54 PM EDT
    I'm writing from NYC, Peggy, and if I see a coyote I will report back! But I don't mean to make light of any of this.

    Barbara S. and Peggy are both right, in my view, to continue to place the emphasis on human behavior and intelligent human solutions. All our domestic cats live indoors. It's hard for me not to worry because our enclosed sanctuary area for 11 former ferals is full-- we can't overcrowd it and this leaves our (spay-neutered) colony in "the wild" so to speak. But the human-devised solution just cannot be the shooting of coyotes.
    - Barbara J. King
  9. July 30, 2010 6:40 PM EDT
    I agree, because I have seen, that for cats, hunting and the need to eat are two different things. The most well-fed cats cannot keep their eyes off of birds they see through the window, and when they are outside they will hunt and kill that bird and bring it into the house if they can. Same with mice, lizards, baby rabbits. They don't even eat them, most of the time, just bring them in as a gift for their owner and feeder. They are proud of their gift! They will even drop it in your purse when you are not looking! I think it must go back to a time when people actually ate these things that the cat dragged in, as the cat guarded the grain from these very same creatures. And so we had a symbiotic relationship that we'd rather not have anymore. But the cats have not forgotten and continue the ancient ritual.
    - Peggy Trawick
  10. October 15, 2010 7:25 PM EDT
    In ref to Peggy's comment about cats bringing their prey to humans: I think that when your cat feels like a member of the family it is provisioning it's humans just as it would provision it's kittens. And I agree that the hunt/kill instinct is mediated by more than just hunger. Audubon did a study of the effect of outdoor cats on bird populations - it will shock you!
    - Melanie

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.