Setting out food to feed the feral cat population that inhabits Naval Air Station Patuxent River may seem harmless, but the unexpected further-reaching ramifications of that action could be potentially catastrophic.
Feral cat colonies have existed at both Pax River and Webster Outlying Field for years, aided by a population of civilians who lay out food at various locations near buildings and at wood line locations.
“That food doesn’t just attract cats, but other wildlife as well, such as raccoons, foxes, coyotes, vultures and other birds,” said Lance McDaniel, Pax River’s environmental division director. “And vultures can take down an aircraft.”
Risks to humans
McDaniel is closely involved with the installation’s Bird/Animal Strike Hazard, or BASH, program. The BASH group comprises personnel from the Environmental Division and Air Operations, who along with squadron aviation safety officers, meet regularly and work to keep birds and animals at bay in support of airfield safety and the mission. Flocks of birds and larger birds are known to cause the most damage to aircraft.
“Vultures are a high-risk species to aircraft, typically because of their size and the fact that they’re found in multiples not just singles; we’ve struck vultures with aircraft here,” explained Natural Resources Specialist Jim Swift. “Leftover cat food is attracting vultures. We’ve seen vultures at the feeding stations, and they’re not coming from just a block away, they’re coming from a couple miles away.”
The vultures, which can weigh up to 4 pounds and have a 6-foot wingspan, are becoming habituated to these feeding areas even though they occasionally move around, McDaniel noted.
“They know where the feeding stations are and eventually they’ll begin to roost here [and present an ongoing BASH problem],” he said. “Right now, they’re in the air traveling to and from the feeding stations, mostly in the daytime, and that’s when we fly. People need to realize a vulture can do millions of dollars of damage to an engine or result in the total loss of an aircraft, but it could also result in the loss of life.”
The wildlife attracted by the food — as well as the feral cats themselves — are becoming less distrustful of humans and are coming closer to hangars and buildings, even during the day, posing a safety problem and possible health risk for all Pax personnel.
“The cats aren’t vaccinated and could be carriers of disease, rabies being the most dangerous,” Swift noted. “It’s not only lethal for the cats, but also for people and other animals that come in contact with these cats, and a lot of these feeding stations are around people’s workplaces. The longer the cats become dependent on people, the more they’ll want to interact with people and the more chances there will be of those interactions resulting in a negative outcome as far as some sort of disease or rabies.”
Coyotes have also been coming in closer to workplaces and residential areas.
“Not only do the coyotes smell the food left out, but the cats the food is attracting are an excellent food source for them,” Swift said. “Bringing additional wildlife [into populated areas] will cause hazards and that doesn’t end well for the wildlife, for sure.”
Even welcome wildlife, such as songbirds, are being negatively impacted.
“Feral cats will eat songbirds,” McDaniel added. “The annual surveys of our bird populations are showing reductions because we’ve introduced an invasive species — a domesticated animal — into a wild situation. They don’t just eat the cat food that’s laid out for them.”
Cause of the problem; a possible solution
The feral cat situation, which has only grown worse over the years, is believed to have come from a combination of residents negligently dumping pet cats before moving, and well-intentioned cat lovers who are doing one of two things.
“They’re either trapping, neutering and re-releasing the cats that were on base, or they’re bringing cats on base to release because they think of Pax River as some sort of sanctuary,” McDaniel said. “They’re also the ones putting out the bowls of food and water because they don’t believe the cats can fend for themselves. We have a few of these people and their vehicles on video and camera, and some people on base will call us and provide us with their license plates and descriptions when they witness these feeders.”
It is illegal to release or feed any animal — wild or domestic — on a federal facility, Mc Daniel noted. Anyone caught releasing or feeding feral cats or wildlife will face disciplinary actions administered by their command or the installation. Fines and other criminal penalties can be levied for tampering with or destroying traps and other control devices.
“My job is to manage the animal population on the installation, and I can’t do that when people are setting up multiple cat feeding stations that move around, with multiple people at each station, sometimes not feeding until 11 at night. I sweep up food three times a day and throw it away. It’s a waste,” McDaniel said. “As a first effort, we’re required to use humane traps to trap and remove the cats, and then turn them over to a shelter; but these people will trip the traps so they won’t work, making them unsuccessful.”
For the record, McDaniel considers himself a “cat person,” but as head of the base’s environmental division, and with the responsibility of managing Pax River’s wildlife, he’s been left with few choices.
“We’re allowed to humanely trap them, but if traps aren’t successful, then we will humanely dispatch them,” he stated. “I’d rather not do that. What would be nice is if we could enter into a partnership with one of the feral cat groups outside the fence line for a couple weeks to trap them and have them taken off base. It’d give them a chance at a future. Those groups have the manpower, expertise, and supplies needed to trap the cats.”
McDaniel can be reached by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.