Objects That Matter: The Bird-Saving Collar

Vigilantes who hunt down feral cats run up against animal-cruelty laws and social norms; one Texas veterinarian sparked outrage after she bragged on Facebook about killing what she thought was a feral tomcat with a bow and arrow.
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Vigilantes who hunt down feral cats run up against animal-cruelty laws and social norms; one Texas veterinarian sparked outrage after she bragged on Facebook about killing what she thought was a feral tomcat with a bow and arrow. (Photo: Julia Christe)

One day, George spotted a bird with a fan-shaped tail and black stripes running down its neck. Moments later, he slunk through his cat door with the bird in his mouth — a ruffed grouse that was practically the size of a chicken. Nancy Brennan, his owner’s girlfriend, was fed up. She had already tried outfitting him with a bell, but the noise did little to warn the birds: George was a stealthy cat. Then Brennan remembered something she’d read about songbird anatomy: Birds rely heavily on their eyesight — they have a higher proportion of cone photoreceptors in their eyes than mammals do — and so she wondered if they might be better able to see cats (and flee them) if the cats wore brilliant, flashy collars.

Domesticated cats kill between 1.3 and four billion birds every year in the United States, according to some estimates, which far exceed the avian mortalities that researchers attribute to buildings, cars, wind turbines, and airplanes combined. Around 69 percent of these bird-killing cats are probably feral, including barn cats and strays that are fed by humans. But Brennan believes cat owners should nonetheless feel obligated to care for wildlife.

Brennan, who lives in rural Vermont, initially sewed a prototype collar that, at first glance, resembles a hair scrunchie. To a bird’s eye, it transformed her camouflaged cat into a highly visible predator. To his human companions, George looked a little bit like an Elizabethan court jester who favored flashy 1980s-era neons. Most important, Brennan says, “He stopped bringing birds in. I thought, ‘Well, that’s a good day.’ And then it was the entire summer. It was incredible.”

In 2009, Brennan founded a company, Birdsbesafe, and — buoyed by two recent studies — she has convinced more and more skeptical pet owners to slip these covers around their pet’s collar. As she sees it, they’re a conservation tool and a conversation starter: If every cat owner outfitted their ferocious feline with a bird-saving collar, she suspects, hundreds of millions of lives could be spared annually. Which, Brennan says, was her sole intent: “I wasn’t trying to make the cat look stupid.”

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