Killers in the Garden

Image from WIkimedia Commons, 1916.  (There were more modern ones, but this was the least gruesome.)

Image from Wikimedia Commons, 1916.
(There were lots of modern images, but this was the least gruesome.)


Another “oldie”—an essay that’s never been published. I felt it was appropriate as we have a new kitten in the ’hood. He’s growing big and he’s fast; sometimes we see him springing from tree to shrub to outdoor chair on our neighbor’s patio, when he’s allowed out.

—Sandra Knauf

Killers in the Garden

My adolescent daughters saw him first, slinking around our front garden. They squealed as if they had just spotted Chris Hemsworth or Channing Tatum.

“Oh, look!”

“He’s so cute!”

“Wonderful,” I said, eyeing the object of their affection. “Just what we don’t need. A new neighborhood cat.”

“Awww, he’s a nice kitty,” they cooed.

A few days later, I discovered Artemis (they had named him) in the wicker chair by our front door, napping comfortably, like he owned the place. He opened one eye, not at all startled to see me. Handsome (and he knew it), young, a big grey tiger with lovely green eyes.

Already we had a routine.

“Meow,” he said.

“Scoot!” said I.

He darted off across the yard, parkway, street.

I began my Saturday morning watering and a few minutes later, Artemis came from around the side of my house, whisking off in the direction of the street as frantic cheeping sounds came from his mouth. “You little bas. . .”

But already he was gone. More outdoor chores. Two birds screeched, flying around the ash tree out front. Artemis was close to their nest, about fifteen feet up.

This time my daughters came outside.

“Oh no!” they squealed. “He’ll fall and kill himself!”

“We should all be so lucky.”

My snarky remark did not come from disliking cats, but over the last decade I’d changed. I’d become a . . . gardener. Gardeners develop a deep fondness for the feathered folk. As we work outside, we commune with them. We watch them build nests, hop around flowers and puddles, pull worms from the ground, snatch moths from the air, make glorious birdy love on fence and roof line and tree branch and on the potted plants and everywhere else. We provide water, shelter, and sometimes food. We admire and feel protective of their offspring. In return, they share their appreciation (I feel this often) and their songs. They watch us too, working and playing in the garden, experiencing our little life dramas and joys. They are tender companions of a different sort. Our gardens, for them, are sanctuaries.

At the same time, I admire predators. I love their grace and daring, their beautiful sleek fur, large eyes, and intelligence. We’ve shared our lives with a few well-loved cats over the years.

But here’s the troubling part. A study of Felis catus (the domestic cat) and their hunting habits was conducted in Great Britain a few years ago. The time period of the study was between April 1 and August 31 (breeding season) and the number of cats was 696. Based on their studies, they concluded that a British population of 9 million cats brought home an estimated 92 million prey animals. Over half were mice or rats but 27 million were birds. Again 9 million cats, one breeding season, 27 million dead birds.

Another study in southeast Michigan estimated deaths were higher, about one bird per week, per cat. This would be 198 million birds in Great Britain in that same five month period, or more than 7 times their estimate.

The British study noted that when cats were kept in at night the numbers were significantly lower, as were the numbers when owners attached bells to cats’ collars. Of course, the number of dead playthings or trophies kitty brought home was negatively related to kitty’s condition and age.

I guess this makes sense (bell them, lock them up) but I am one of those people who hate to see cats shut up inside. To exclude them a thousand exquisite joys of nature, which includes the healthfulness of fresh air and sunshine and the freedom to live to their full potential of cat-ness (which, yes, includes hunting) is, at least not to me, acceptable.

So, what’s the solution? As they say in all relationships, it’s complicated. However, that shouldn’t prevent us from making good decisions or trying to come up with better solutions for harmonious living. We all know it’s possible.


"Betania e Jimmy" from Wikimedia Commons. Posted by

Betania e Jimmy” from Wikimedia Commons.
Posted by Mila and Max.




Filed under Garden Dangers

23 responses to “Killers in the Garden

  1. Cindy

    I feel the same love/ hate with my cat


    Excellent work my dear. The bird populations are going down… we gardeners all know that. I know that. I, too, love cats and used to have them as pets, but no more. I would love to post this on FaceBook. Any ideas of how I can do that??

    Love ya. Was just sharing the Zera book with visiting friends! It is a wonderful book, Sandra! B

  3. Amen. Keep them indoors.

  4. Ruby

    Oh, I can’t agree with you more. I have had a bird snatched right off the bird feeder on my deck but the neighbour’s cat. Before moving into the city, I always had cats….FARM cats! They kept the mice down in the barn. Problem is in an urban area, there are only “neighbourhood” cats. One may think that they own a cat, but if you let it outdoors, it becomes everyone’s cat. When a neighbour wishes to acquire another cat, I would love it they would survey the neighbourhood and pose the question, ” Do you want another cat?”…Because that cat will be in all of our yards. Yes, I am a gardener first, bird lover second, and cat lover down the line somewhere.

    • That is so true, Ruby! Cats that roam free in the city are everyone’s’s cat (and everyone’s problem if they are a problem). Thanks so much for commenting.

  5. Susan

    I should point out that the study, at least the one in the US was flawed. We all know that cats kill birds, but not, apparently, in the numbers stated in that study. My cats are all indoor cats, for their own safety, as we live next to a very busy street. I do have some feral cats living in my back yard, however. Only prey I’ve seen so far was a very large rat. I don’t put up feeders or houses because I don’t want to entice birds to my yard & possible danger. Wish I could protect the cats from humans as easily. I’ve lost one of the feral cats to poison & one was hit by a car this last year. But more have move in to take their place. I love all animals. They are a part of nature.

    • Feral cats are at risk for many tragedies–that’s another sad issue–and I wonder how humane is that existence? I’m sure they don’t receive regular vaccinations, either, and that brings up the possibility of endangering other cats and pets who have homes.

  6. Lisa Ann

    I was enjoying the recently hatched doves in my backyard tree from my deck when a hawk swooped in, snatched one, and flew away. I rushed out front in pursuit and then realized…I can’t fly. Cats, hawks…nature. I guess its not always pretty.

  7. Philip Alan Sandberg

    The scientific studies are clear–there is a major problem with bird and small mammal predation by outdoor cats. I have been a cat owner most of my life, always with indoor cats (and neutered). Still, I see feral cats in my yard, yesterday one with a bird. Although it is not a total solution, our community has taken the approach of trapping and neutering feral cats in the town and then releasing them back locally. It at least prevents a growth of population. If all cat owners could accept the fact that their cats are natural hunters and control their reproduction, it would help. Cats are not evil; they are just following their natural instincts.

  8. I agree with you too. Cats can be lovely companions but they are indeed killers and the numbers of birds killed is crazy! Not to mention lizards and other small critters. It would be great if all they went after were mice and rats but not the case. We have a neighbor cat that visits on a regular basis, a big, fluffy orange tabby named Toulouse. Not only does he chase our lizards and birds, he’s a little crazy and attacks us if we are not careful or foolishly try to pet him. I actually ended up at the doctor after a bad bite from this kitty. What’s the solution? I don’t know, there are too many ferals and you can’t lock them all up, or exterminate them either.

  9. Rebekah Shardy

    One cat can kill 300 birds in one year.
    If you don’t choose to keep your cat inside then keep it indoors fron dusk until 10 am the following day. This is when baby birds are most vulnerable to cats. I love cats too but I want a future world that includes the wonder of birdsong. AND NEUTER AND SPAY YOUR KITTY!

  10. Thanks for the comment, Rebekah. I learned about spaying the hard way. We have had three cats over the last twenty years and the last cat we had we decided to let have kittens–just one time. (The girls were young and we thought it would be a good/fun experience for the children, to see these births.) When I wrote friends looking for homes, I received a very harsh letter from one asking what the hell was I thinking–and telling of the problem with cat overpopulation. I educated myself and found out how many kittens one cat could produce during a lifetime (and then it of course increases exponentially!). I also did not realize that cats could get pregnant again while they were still nursing a litter! We took Elowen in the week that we gave away her kittens (at six weeks old) and had her spayed. They said that during the procedure they found she was pregnant again. I felt horrible about that.

  11. Bridget O'Hara

    Great article, Sandra! It’s a quandry-indoors or outdoors??
    We lost two cats in the first month we moved up here to the mountains (although i think Sparky was just pissed and left), so we’ve kept them indoors ever since. I’m working on my husband with the idea of doubling the size of our small deck and making a ‘catio’ room of it. (Chipmunks

    Bridget in Divide

    • Thanks, Bridget. Yes, there is that the danger of cats being victims of predators. I have heard of kitties getting taken by owls and other animals, especially in rural areas. Nature does not care. The “catio” idea is a good one! Thanks for sharing.

  12. I have always been an organic gardener hauling home 200 lb. sacks of vegetation home to make compost etc. and never had given too much thought to the cat issue until I had developed a beautiful garden in a county neighborhood when my son was a toddler.
    My neighbors had begun collecting “feral” cats that had been spayed /neutered by the local Friends of Animals society and releasing them into their backyard; next door to my backyard garden and son’s play area.
    My once sweet smelling organic garden rapidly became the largest litter box I have seen to date. The cats would claw straight down a young row of seedlings and deposit foul smelling piles of feces. At one point I counted 17 cats sitting on my side of the fence line cleaning their little kitty faces while my Doberman just watched; he’d grown weary of trying to deter them, there were just too many. My son came in the house crying with cat feces on his hands. These neighbors became indignant when confronted with the damage their cats were causing the entire block.
    Simply stopping the reproduction of these pests/pets is not enough. If I had 17 Boston Terriers regularly defecating in my neighbor’s yard I would be paying terrible fines. The same should apply to cat owners who feel it is their kitty’s right to roam as it pleases. Even one cat pooping in my salad garden is one too many. I don’t want them killing my carefully cultivated lizard population either. Let’s not compare cats to owls and Hawks who are not well fed “pets” killing on the side.
    Forgive me if this sounds snarky: Creamy cat feces salad dressing anyone?

    • I have felt a little of your pain, too. I have dug my hands into the soil, planting, to come up with cat feces that was covered in the mulch, I have helped out an elderly neighbor (in her 80s) whose 90-year-old neighbor had 19 stray (feral/semi-feral) cats she was feeding. Nineteen! Many would all go into my friend’s garden to defecate. How they love the freshly turned soil! Horrible situation. We tried deterrents such as orange peelings and orange extract (they are supposed to hate the smell) but even if she had solved the problem in one garden bed, someone else would have to suffer as the toilet/s were moved to their property. Someone else here has posted about being attacked by a feral cat. Obviously it is a problem that is not being remedied by half-solutions (neutering and spaying). I thank you very much for sharing your story!

      • Rebekah Shardy

        Solution to cats using gardens as a super-size litterbox: mulch it with straw. Works for me.

  13. Fantastic tip, Rebekah. Thanks for sharing!

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