Predator, Prey, and Pathogens

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Lucia has come into her own as a magnificent hunter. Yesterday, while I was weeding the garden, she brought me a rather unusual present. This young opossum was mortally wounded by a firm bite to the neck, the classic predation mark of a feline. It’s a bit of a mystery to me why cats bring their prey to people, but not unusual. The size of this particular gift was impressive. It demonstrates something about cats we don’t always remember; size. Cats are not limited by size like other animals. They will take on anything graspable and wiggly, twitching or darting. Lucia has brought a snake, vole, mouse, and a young rat. The opossum was a first, but perhaps not the last. Once a cat is confidant in her abilities, she’ll strike without hesitation. This is the consequence for introducing them into the environment. I am glad she’s sticking to ground animals, though the snake was a tragic loss.

This opossum would have matured into a chicken killer, though most of them stick to our compost pile. Most of the chickens lost at Leafhopper Farm fell to the jaws of an opossum, so I have little compassion for the strange omnivores. Lucia seemed a little overwhelmed by this hunt, perhaps that’s why she brought her prey to the bigger predator (me). Humans are predator animals, not prey animals, hence our success at world domination, and having thumbs with big brains to use them. The cats know this, and buddy up to us for support. That’s my theory anyhow, and for this cat, it pays well.

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Muir is also hunting, but I rarely see his trophies. I think he eats most of them on the spot. What they drag to the door and leave as mementos can carry a lot of disease, so be aware of cleaning up after your pets to prevent contamination. Unlike his sister, our tom is very cuddly and social, though Lucia is learning to snuggle more as she matures. The personality of our cats is undeniable, and a pleasure to watch as they come into themselves. What they are sharing with us during snuggle time is something to monitor. Many feline diseases are transmittable to people.

Recently, we began letting the cats have complete freedom day and night. They can crawl through a raised cat door into the grain room for shelter and safety, but the door is open 24/7. Since introducing the cats there has been a noticeable drop in rodent activity around the farm. I have not put any bait out this season, and am relived to sleep soundly at night. Previously to the feline introduction, I would often wake at night to the sound of chewing under the house. The rat holes are caving in down by the chicken coop, another sign of successful extermination. The grain room is totally free of rodents, and I feel good about not putting out poison around the farm anymore.

I’m sure there will continue to be many small scurrying things around the landscape, as hugaculture beds create good habitat and shelter for small rodents. Leafhopper Farm does not want to completely eradicate mice and voles, though the rats are not welcome at all. Owls and hawks also need to eat, so the cats manage the populations, rather than pressing them out completely. Also, our cats stay near the barn and house, they are not wandering down to the creek or into the back field (yet). The plan is to encourage them to stay out of the wildlife areas of the farm, to allow nature her space too.

When you have grain on your property (including birdseed), you’re going to have a rodent issue. With smart planning, it’s a manageable issue, as long as you stay on top of it. Through 5 years of experimentation, Leafhopper Farm has chosen cats as the answer to our rodent challenges, but that does not mean it’s a cure all for everyone. One problem with cats, besides their indiscriminate killing, is their poop. Many laws are now being passed about keeping cats around agricultural land. Cats bury poop wherever they can, and that includes fields where crops are grown. Pathogens in that poop can contaminate food crops, making consumers sick.

 

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At Leafhopper Farm, I’m training the cats to stay out of the gardens, but I can not control larger acreages. My domestic felines also have routine vet visits to make sure they are not carrying disease. Feral cats cannot be managed in the same way, and people growing food in places where there are lots of feral cats should be aware of the risks. This goes double in urban areas, as open soil is rare, and feline fecal counts are much higher. Find out the laws in your area and be diligent about your food. Know the risks of introducing any livestock or pets on your land. We’re a far cry from “the good old days” of the simple life, and ignorance is no defense.

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