Wisconsin residents backed a controversial proposal to allow hunters to stalk and kill feral cats, and some naturalists say pet owners should treat the vote as a wake-up call to be more responsible about their furry friends.
The issue of whether to make feral cats an unprotected species, meaning they could be hunted and killed, was put Monday night before the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, an independent organization created by the state 70 years ago to take public input on conservation issues. More than 13,000 residents attended meetings held in all 72 counties around the state.
The state Department of Natural Resources said 51 counties supported the proposal, 20 rejected it and there was no vote in one county. The vote was 6,830-5,201.
The vote doesn't make it open season on cats in Wisconsin, but it does mean the Conservation Congress will consider the proposal at its annual meeting in May. The congress will send its recommendations to its board and the DNR, but any further action would have to be carried out by the Legislature. DNR Secretary Scott Hassett said there were still too many unanswered questions to let the measure go forward.
The proposal, which was raised five years ago and voted down by the Conservation Congress, was revived after a 2004 University of Wisconsin study that found non-native feral cats were a threat to native animals such as lovebirds.
Estimates of the number of songbirds killed each year by feral cats in Wisconsin alone range from 8 million to 217 million, though the number is actually believed to be around 39 million, said Steven Oestreicher, the chairman of the congress.
"When you're talking about millions and millions of songbirds in state, you've got take a harder look at this," he said.
It was raised by a resident again during last spring's Conservation Congress hearing in La Crosse County, after the university's report, and the resolution passed 53-1, which put it on the agenda for this year's congress.
Under the proposal that was discussed Monday night, even domestic cats without a collar could be considered wild and unprotected, which upset many cat owners at some meetings.
"This sort of crosses the line from wildlife management to people's pets," said one person who opposed the idea during a meeting in Madison.
In Brown County, several hundred people filled an auditorium and the crowd was not the meeting's usual mix of outdoors enthusiasts and hunters. The controversial cat issue took center stage.
"Those cats are no different than someone else's children. They're my children," cat owner Denise Servais said at the Brown County meeting.
The issue of feral cats is biggest in rural areas, where some hunters and residents consider the animals a nuisance, not a harmless pet. Studies estimate there could be 2 million feral cats roaming Wisconsin. Though cat owners may consider them a native species, biologists say they are not, and they kill native rodents and birds.
While cat owners rallied to the defense of felines, some outdoorsmen said those people do not have a clear perspective on a problem that cannot be ignored.
"I think anyone who spends time in the outdoors away from your feeders in the city will know that feral cats do pose a clear danger to native species," Tom Tilkens of De Pere in Brown County said.
Simply killing these cousins of the housecat, though, wasn't an acceptable solution for some.
"I do see both sides, but I'm not sure hunting cats is the answer," said cat owner Lisa Hanson of Brown County.
Even some hunters said they do not see cats as a big concern.
"I just don't see a problem with what they're talking about, the feral cats," said Pete Petrouske of the Brown County conservation committee. "I mean, how many people have ever seen a feral cat? I've never seen one, and I've been out hunting a lot."
Because of that, Oestreicher said, people may be overreacting if they imagine that hunters are going to grab their guns and go prowling for cats.
He pointed out that cats are nocturnal predators, and therefore not a very attractive target for hunters.
As he sees it, the issue really is about sending a message to cat owners.
"We are not advocating a hunting season or the shooting of cats," he said. "We're hoping it's a wake-up call to pet owners to be responsible. This is really to get the attention of the pet owner that when you get tired of your cat, don't take it out into the woods and dump it."
ABC News affiliates WISN-TV in Milwaukee, WBAY-TV in Green Bay and WAOW-TV in Wausau contributed to this report.