05/17/2014 — Superintendent Jeremy Dixon told members of the Upper Keys Rotary Club at their meeting at the Key Largo Hilton that the increasing cat population spreads diseases such as rabies, hookworm and toxoplasmosis. The latter is of particular concern in the Keys because cat feces runs off into the water and marine mammals are susceptible to the toxoplasmosis parasite.
But more importantly, the stray cats are wiping out native Keys species like the Key Largo woodrat, Dixon said, a species found only in the Crocodile Lake refuge.
Responding to complaints from outdoor cat owners upset about a cat trapping program implanted last year, Dixon said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reached out to them and offered to help build outdoor enclosures, known as “catios.”
Cat owner and dive-shop owner Spencer Slate, who lives across State Road 905 from the refuge, said his cats have been trapped in a wooded lot adjacent to his house, which is not in the refuge.
Dixon maintains that the cats wandered across 905 and onto the refuge. He said the 6,700-acre protected area is the only place traps are placed.
Slate and other outdoor cat owners and advocates also say they have never seen woodrats or feral cats on refuge land. Dixon said that is because both animals are nocturnal
“That’s why people don’t see either in the refuge during the day,” he said.
Dixon said the rats are being killed while they are building their intricate nests.
Florida International University researchers recently found seven woodrat starter nests in the 6,700-acre (650 in open water) refuge. In 1980, there were about six nests per acre.
“There is some question of where did they all go,” Dixon said.
Slate and others say the woodrats’ natural predators other than cats have more to do with the decreased populations. They point to a 2010 experiment in which 15 woodrats were released on Palo Alto Key, where no feral cats live. The radio-tagged rats were quickly killed by snakes, owls and other creatures that live on the island north of Key Largo.
But Dixon said the results of the cat-trapping program are hard to argue with. Since last year, he said 36 cats were nabbed in the refuge.
“That’s pretty significant,” he said.
He also said that remote cameras the FWS set up within the refuge show cats roaming the area at night and hunting.
“We didn’t know how much of an issue this was until we started using the remote cameras,” he said.
Dixon also responded to arguments that the FWS should implement a trap, neuter and release program, instead of trapping the cats and….MORE