Dear EarthTalk: I understand that pet cats prey on lots of birds and other "neighborhood" wildlife, but isn't it cruel to force felines to live indoors only? And isn’t human encroachment the real issue for bird populations, not a few opportunistic cats? -- Jason Braunstein, Laos, NM
While it is true that habitat loss as a result of human encroachment is a primary threat to birds and wildlife of all kinds, outdoor cats are no doubt exacerbating the loss of biodiversity as their numbers swell and they carry on their instinctual business of hunting.
While habitat loss as a result of human encroachment
is a primary threat to birds and wildlife of all kinds,
outdoor cats, counting both pets and feral animals, no
doubt exacerbate the problem by killing up to 3.7
billion birds each year -- along with up to 20 billion
other small mammals. Credit: iStockPhoto
The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Peter Marra estimates that outdoor cats in the United States, counting both pets and feral animals, kill up to 3.7 billion birds each year—along with up to 20 billion other small mammals. Researchers estimate that roughly 114 million cats live in the contiguous U.S., 84 million of them pets and the rest feral—and that as many as 70 percent of pet cats spend some time roaming outside and hunting.
“Cats are a nonnative species,” reminds Marra, adding that they often target native species and can transform places that would normally harbor many young birds into “sinks that drain birds from neighboring populations.” As a result of this ongoing predation, many environmentalists and animal lovers think cats should stay inside. “The big message is responsible pet ownership,” Marra says. He acknowledges that feral cats may be the bigger problem, but pet cats still catch as many as two billion wild animals a year.
The non-profit American Humane Association reports that there are several ways to keep indoor cats happy even though they are restricted from chasing and hunting wildlife. Getting Fluffy a companion (another cat or even a dog) is a good way to provide an outlet for play. Likewise, interactive toys, scratching posts, cat perches and other amenities—check with any well-stocked local pet store—can make the indoor environment a stimulating yet safe one for housebound cats and should serve to prevent stir-crazy behavior.
Meanwhile, another non-profit, the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), adds another reason why cat owners might want to think about restricting their pet’s territory to inside: Research shows that indoor cats live significantly longer lives than their free-roaming counterparts. “Life for outdoor cats is risky,” reports the group. “They can get hit by cars; attacked by dogs, other cats, coyotes or wildlife; contract fatal diseases, such as rabies, feline distemper, or feline immunodeficiency virus; get lost, stolen, or poisoned; or suffer during severe weather conditions.”
But the fact that feral cat populations have gotten so large in recent years makes the problem that much more vexing. Researchers concede that efforts to catch and either neuter or euthanize feral cats have proven ineffective given their booming populations, leaving cat owners wondering whether jeopardizing Fluffy's mental health for the sake of saving a few birds is really even worthwhile.
CONTACTS: Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, nationalzoo.si.edu/scbi/; American Humane Association, www.americanhumane.org; American Bird Conservancy, www.abcbirds.org.
Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that there has been an increase in uranium mining in the U.S. due to a renewed interest in nuclear energy? What are the health and environmental ramifications of this?
-- Paul Raffman, New Bedford, MA
Even though the 2011 tsunami and ensuing nuclear disaster in Japan
should have served as a wake-up call regarding the dangers of nuclear
energy, many politicians and policymakers in the U.S. and elsewhere
still push for the expansion of nuclear power -- and with it increased
uranium mining. Credit: iStockPhoto
The big boom for American uranium mining was in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the U.S. remained the world’s leading producer of the radioactive element for many years until 1980 when U.S. production fell off dramatically due to dropping uranium prices as other countries stepped up mining of their own sources. Today American miners turn out only about 10 percent of what they were producing in 1980.
But that may all change as several deep-pocketed mining interests have turned up the heat on lawmakers to allow them to explore and open up new sources of uranium across the American West and elsewhere. The non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council reports that the timing is no coincidence since the program that has been supplying a large portion of U.S. uranium needs in recent years—Russia’s surplus weapons uranium stockpile—is ending this year. This restriction of supply is predicted to drive prices up. Mining interests are pushing hard to open up promising sites to their drills while keeping many existing uranium mining sites open but inactive in hopes they get the green light to ramp up extraction.
The dark sides of uranium mining are well documented by now, though workers in the industry during its heyday had no idea how hazardous the element would be. Indeed, uranium miners have experienced high rates of cancer, heart disease and birth defects. Stronger regulations have since been put in place to protect mine workers, but increased cancer rates still remain an issue for current and former mine workers.
As for risk to the public, uranium mining releases radon from the ground into the atmosphere, thus posing a slight risk to surrounding populations. Radon and other pollutants can also make their way into streams, springs and other bodies of water and can contaminate drinking water in surrounding communities. According to a report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), uncontrolled releases as a result of natural disasters like floods, fires or earthquakes can also be an issue for those around uranium mines, with even a single minor incident potentially leading to dramatic and lasting effects.
In addition to its direct human health impacts, uranium mining can jeopardize the health of ecosystems. Radioactive materials can pollute air, water and the soils near a mine. And the waste products produced from uranium mining, known as tailings, remain potentially hazardous for thousands of years and must be disposed of in specially designed, hugely expensive disposal sites. No one can be sure how effective these disposal sites will be after hundreds of years or longer. Meanwhile, decommissioning uranium mining and disposal facilities to make affected areas safe for other activities remains overwhelming; the process can take centuries, is expensive and can be dangerous for workers and the surrounding environment.
The issues surrounding uranium mining underscore the importance of developing cleaner, greener sources of energy. But even though the 2011 tsunami and ensuing nuclear disaster in Japan should have served as a wake-up call regarding the dangers of nuclear energy, many of politicians and policymakers in the U.S. and elsewhere still push for the expansion of nuclear power—and increased uranium mining. Nuclear may not have the carbon footprint problem of fossil fuels, but it is clearly not the answer to our energy woes.
CONTACTS: NRDC, www.nrdc.org/nuclear/files/uranium-mining-report.pdf; NAS, www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=13266&page=123.
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