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A tale as old as time: Humans find a new neighborhood—or continent—and decide to engineer the local ecosystem by introducing species from somewhere else. The Hawaiian Islands are plagued by mongooses imported in the 1800s to keep rats from eating the sugar cane. But rats are nocturnal and mongooses diurnal, so while the islands’ rats continued to get fat on the sweet stuff, the state’s birds were suddenly besieged by a previously unknown predator.
Cats have a well-earned reputation as mouse killers, which often transfers to their prey’s larger cousin, the rat. New research shows that rats may be a little nastier and larger than your typical cat likes to tangle with, and felines may not be the master rodent hunters we all imagined.
You adapt to the cat, the cat does not adapt to you: Fordham University’s Michael Parsons was out to study how different pheromones affect rat behavior and set up equipment at a New York City recycling plant. But soon after they tagged the rats and released the pheromones, a handful of feral cats showed up. Unwilling to scrap the whole project, Parsons switched to focusing on how cats would impact the rat colony.
The rats and cats were tracked with sensors and cameras. During a five-month period, even though there were some 150 rats scurrying around the property, the researchers recorded just two kills by the cats.
Release the boa constrictors: Across the United States there are cities that keep teams of cats for controlling the urban rat population. Some animal rescue groups match homeless cats with neighborhoods with numerous rat complaints. In Chicago, the waiting list to get a loner cat reached six months at one point.
Rats can grow to be 10 times larger than mice, and are much more ornery. Once the rodents get to a certain size, cats ignore them and vice versa. Additionally, cats can bring disease, like toxoplasmosis with them, and also tend to forgo hunting rats for easier prey like birds and reptiles. Finding trash or a human to feed them is much easier for feral cats than ambushing a rat.
“I see cats and rats eating out of the same trash piles … At the same time.” Yale researcher Jamie Childs, who studied cats and rats in Baltimore, told The Atlantic.