“Free-ranging” denotes a method of keeping pets outdoors in lieu of confinement. Aside from the supply of basic needs (i.e. food, water and bed), owners let their pets stay mainly out of doors. Nipping separation anxiety disorder in the bud, free-range cats tend to have a better psychological and physical condition, hence many people choose free-ranging. From the perspective of wildlife conservation, however, this act is far more harmful than helpful.
According to data released by Census and Statistics Department in 2019, over 100,000 families (around 4% of the total) owned cats in Hong Kong. There were over 180,000 pet cats, which was a fourfold increase over the figure in 1998. The survey indicated that 60% of the domestic cats were kept in private buildings, village houses, and non-residential buildings (e.g. shops and offices). Some of the owners let their cats roam outdoors.
As a member of the Felidae family, cats and their ancestors were predators in the wild. They are born with the genes giving them an instinct for catching smaller animals. For this reason, free-ranging pet cats in the wild actually pose threats to other animals, for example insects, lizards, mice and birds. An analysis by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute revealed that among the total of 10 to 20 billion birds in the United States, at least 1.3 billion terrestrial birds are killed by free-range cats and stray cats every year. Likewise, there were four Yellow-breasted Buntings (Emberiza aureola), which is a critically endangered species worldwide, killed by free-range cats in Long Valley in autumn 2017. At the time, there were less than 20 individuals in Long Valley. The stark statistics not only demonstrated the danger outdoor cats pose to wildlife, but also sounded alarm bells regarding bird conservation.
Here is the question: is this solely natural selection and survival of the fittest? Definitely not. Some owners refer to freedom deserved by felines when confining them. The truth is, domestic cats, which are regularly fed by owners, are generally stronger and healthier than wild cats of similar size. Outnumbering the wild cats, domesticated outdoor cats are detrimental to nature by hunting smaller animals for nothing but entertainment, not to mention that wild cats may hunt less than pets.
Apart from playing havoc with wildlife, free-ranging felines are exposed to various environmental risks. Outdoor cats are more vulnerable to traffic accidents, parasitic infections and getting lost. The revised Animal Protection Act in Taiwan prohibits domestic pets from going out without the company of an owner who is at least seven years of age. The law also requires owners to implant microchips in their cats, so owners can be traced if the cats get lost.
Still, chasing small prey is an inborn proclivity of the "tiny lions". Ornithologists suggest owners put broader and more eye-catching neck straps on their pets, in order to help prevent wild birds being hunt. If you are a cat lover, why not expand your compassion to other animals as well? To be a responsible owner is your second thought – give your beloved a nice neck strap!