Alley Cat Rescue begins project at Kruger National Park
KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, South Africa––Alley Cat Rescue, of Mount Ranier, Maryland, is now “working to implement trap-neuter-return programs for stray/feral cats around Kruger National Park,” according to founder Louise Holton, to keep African wildcats from hybridizing with their domestic descendants.
Having “advocated for the humane management of both feral cats and wildlife since inception,” added an August 2018 media release about the project, “Alley Cat Rescue previously worked with a South African group to initiate a neuter/return program at the Pilanesberg Game Reserve, northwest of Johannesberg.”
Holton, originally from South Africa, formed Alley Cat Rescue in 1997, after cofounding Alley Cat Allies with Becky Robinson––still the Alley Cat Allies chief executive––in 1991 to help introduce neuter/return to the United States. Holton left Alley Cat Allies in 2000.
“Ancestor of domestic cat”
Since then, as well as pursuing U.S. projects, “Alley Cat Rescue has been working for years to preserve the lineage of the African wildcat, the ancestor of today’s domestic cat,” the Alley Cat Rescue media release continued. “The African wildcat has been known to mate with domestic cats in the wild. This results in hybridization which decreases the genetic integrity of pure African wildcats.”
Confirms Wikipedia, “Alley Cat Rescue is currently the only organization known to have a program specifically aimed at conserving African wildcats and reducing what some refer to as genetic pollution by domestic cats.”
The Alley Cat Rescue neuter/return projects in South Africa operate with the cooperation of the South African National Park Service, a rare example of a working collaboration between a neuter/return organization and an agency which as a matter of policy seeks to eradicate “introduced” and “invasive” species.
Whether “genetic pollution” of African wildcats by domestic cats, owned or feral, is really a threat to the “genetic integrity” and survival of African wildcats depends chiefly on whose theories about biodiversity and evolution one accepts.
In question, for example, is whether there can even be such a thing as a “pure” member of any clade, meaning a linear line of descent, regardless of “species” definitions, if the clade member is still capable of mating successfully with other clade members, and has apparently done so, as opportunity permits, for many thousands of years.
For cladists, who rely on genetics to determine species relationships, the only clear boundary delineating a species is inability to breed successfully with other species. What by conventional species definitions is “pure” is to a cladistic scientist often just a familial distinction between inbred and outbred populations.
The belief held with religious zeal among the South African conservation establishment, however, as among mainstream conservationists in much of the rest of the English-speaking world, is that race-mixing is a leading threat to the survival of endangered species, and is therefore to be prevented by fair means or foul, including shooting, poisoning, trapping and gassing.
Exterminations of allegedly “impure” or “non-native” animals, in particular, are currently vigorously pursued in New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, and by U.S. agencies including USDA Wildlife Services and the National Park Service.
Ferals in greatest danger
Considering that reality, feral domestic cats dwelling in proximity to African wildcats are actually the cats in most imminent danger and most likely to suffer as result of sharing their habitat.
In further view that changing the present bio-xenophobic mind-set of the global conservation establishment may take as long or longer than did ending South African apartheid, and in recognition that the leading cause of death for domestic cats worldwide has long been population control killing, introducing neuter/return to Kruger National Park and other African wildcat habitat is at minimum the humane response to “too many cats,” whether or not it does anything to help African wildcats.
According to the Encyclopedia of Life, “The African wildcat (Felis lybica), also called Near Eastern wildcat is a wildcat species that lives in Northern Africa, the Near East, and around the periphery of the Arabian Peninsula,” listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as a Species of Least Concern, because it is very broadly distributed, with little apparent difference among regional populations.
But concern for the African wildcat is rising. Explains the Alley Cat Rescue web site, “In 2017, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the global authority on the status of threatened and endangered species, set up the Cat Classification Task Force,” which “recognized two separate wildcat species: the European wildcat and the African wildcat.”
African & Asian subspecies
The IUCN further recognized three African wildcat subspecies, including the North African wildcat, also known as the African desert cat or sand cat, found mostly in Saharan Africa; the Southern African wildcat, found in sub-Saharan Africa, from Kenya south to South Africa; and the Asiatic wildcat, a subspecies believed to be of African origin, dwelling in southwest and central Asia, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Mongolia, and China, with small populations possibly occurring in other nations as well.
“African wildcats look similar to domestic cats due to their close genetic makeup,” acknowledges Alley Cat Rescue, while arguing that “The two species do have several distinctions. True African wildcats don’t have any white markings on their coat and have unusually long front legs, which causes a loose-limbed gait comparable to the cheetah. They can have a range of coat colors, depending on their habitat: from light sandy stripes in deserts to dark grey/brown stripes in forested areas.
Distinctive black stripes
“Regardless of their habitat,” Alley Cat Rescue stipulates, “African wildcats have distinctive black stripes that run horizontally along their cheeks, definitive black rings that circle the legs and tail, and they usually have rusty-red ears.”
African wildcats, Alley Cat Rescue continues, are “comparable in size and weight to the domestic cat.”
But “When an African wildcat and domestic cat mate,” Alley Cat Rescue believes, “the offspring will not inherit all of the genetic traits of the African wildcat, potentially including advantageous traits that help them survive. Hybridization can result in a phenomenon called outbreeding depression, where the mating of two genetically distinct individuals results in the offspring having lower chances of survival because of the loss of certain genes.
Hybrid vigor & disease resistance
“Another issue with hybridization,” Alley Cat Rescue argues, “is the potential for the spread of diseases. Feral cats have transmitted illnesses such as feline leukemia, feline immunodeficiency virus, calicivirus, and coronavirus to African wildcats.”
Without disputing any of this, there is for each argument an opposing case.
For example, “outbreeding depression” can occur. The hinny, or offspring of a stallion horse and female donkey, is a notorious example.
But “hybrid vigor” is a more frequent phenomenon. The mule, a cross of male donkey and female horse, is only a partial example; like the hinny, mules are usually sterile.
How traits are passed along
Among dogs, however, pursuing hybrid vigor is widely recognized as the antidote to the many genetic defects associated with purebreds who have been too closely inbred to maintain “purity.”
Any successful breeding results in relatively random selections of traits from both parents, leaving other traits behind. But the more often successful breeding occurs, among a variety of individuals, the more likely any trait is to be passed along to descendants, in varied combinations contributing in the long run to the survival of any traits that are genuinely useful.
This includes traits that enhance resistance to common diseases. Thus pandemics of feline leukemia, feline immunodeficiency virus, calicivirus, and coronavirus have all raced through U.S. outdoor cat populations over the past 30 years, killing thousands and perhaps even hundreds of thousands of cats, but––after killing the vulnerable cats––have all but disappeared from the afflicted regions soon afterward, while the numbers of cats have rebounded, suppressed only by successful spay/neuter programs.
Divergence & domestication
Continues the Encyclopedia of Life, “The African wildcat appears to have diverged from the other species about 131,000 years ago. The tomb of an African wildcat was found alongside a human tomb in Shillourokambos, a pre-pottery site in Cyprus estimated to have been established by Neolithic farmers about 9,500 years ago.”
Between first domestication and the epoch of cat worship in Egypt, which ended about 30 CE and may have morphed into the generally favorable view of cats prevailing in the Islamic world, little differentiation evolved between African wildcats and domesticated cats. Investigations of Egyptian mummified cats suggest that they produced about one litter of 2-3 kittens per year.
Under pressure of medieval European persecution, however, and probably also in response to harsher northern climates but more abundant prey in urban habitats, domestic cats during the next 1,500 years developed the present accelerated reproduction cycle of two and sometimes even three litters per year.
Domestic cats now come into heat as early as five months of age, instead of at eleven months of age, as with African wildcats. Domestic cats also bear litters averaging four kittens apiece, while nursing the kittens only about half as long.
The greater fecundity of domestic cats appears to underlie much of the anxiety about domestic cat and African wildcat hybridization: fear that cats with primarily domestic cat traits will outbreed and take over habitat from cats of chiefly African wildcat traits.
But the first rule of evolution, as outlined by Charles Darwin in 1859, is that whatever traits best enhance the odds of survival of individuals will prevail over time to improve the odds of survival of their species––or clades, including descendants, even if those descendants are defined by humans as members of other species.
“Low levels of hybridization”
The present Alley Cat Rescue work on behalf of African wildcats can be traced back to a study begun in 2005 by South African National Parks Service scientist Marna Herbst, funded by SANParks, the Botswana Department of Wildlife & National Parks, and the Endangered Wildlife Trust.
The Herbst study evolved over the next decade into a 2014 paper, co-authored with Llewellyn Foxcroft, Johann es J. Le Roux, and Sandra MacFadyen, the title of which states the findings: “Genetic analysis shows low levels of hybridization between African wildcats (Felis silvestris lybica) and domestic cats (F. s. catus) in South Africa.”
“Overall, we found African wildcat populations to be genetically relatively pure,” the team wrote, “but instances of hybridization and a significant relationship between the genetic distinctiveness (purity) of wildcats and human population pressure were evident. The genetically purest African wildcats were found in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park,” in the far northwest of South Africa, adjoining Namibia and just south of Botswana, “while samples from around Kruger National Park showed cause for concern, especially combined with the substantial human population density along the park’s boundary,” since concentrations of people tend to coincide with concentrations of domestic cats, both household pets and ferals.
In the interim, recounts the Alley Cat Rescue web page on African wildcats, “Upon completing her research in the Kalahari [desert] in 2010,” Herbst told Alley Cat Rescue that, “All the cats from my study site inside the park were pure wild cats and the African wildcats and the domestic cats were definitely two separate entities. However, on the border of the park, a semi-tame African wildcat mother had three kittens,” all three of whom, in Herbst’s view, were hybrids.
Herbst recommended introducing spay/neuter service for cats to “the borders of parks and nature reserves where local communities do have pet cats, but not the means to take them to a veterinarian.”
Neuter/return had already received an influential endorsement from Jaclyn Tennent of the School of Biological & Conservation Sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, in a 2009 paper entitled “Management Recommendations for Feral Cat (Felis catus) Populations Within an Urban Conservancy”––specifically, the Howard College Campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, “a registered conservancy where there are differing opinions concerning the resident feral cat population,” Tennant wrote.
“Eradication or reproductive regulation”
“Consequently methods of controlling feral cat populations and the implications of these methods were reviewed. Despite various methods of feral cat population control existing, there are two basic categories: either eradication or reproductive regulation,” Tennant assessed.
“It is suggested that to control the feral cat population effectively in this urban conservancy, a suitable and ongoing sterilization program, run in conjunction with a feral cat feeding program, needs to be implemented. Both programs need to be long-term and overseen by management,” Tennant recommended.
“The feral cat population needs to be maintained at a level that allows the lowest migration rate into the conservancy, as well as a predation rate that will not negatively affect the resident wildlife. This may require some removal of feral cats at the start of a program,” Tennent warned.
“Whatever management actions are followed,” Tennant concluded, “a monitoring program must be put in place to document how effective the actions are.”
Holton, visiting South Africa in December 2010, “spent several nights at the Pilanesberg Game Reserve, where African wildcats have been seen taking residence,” the Alley Cat Rescue web site continues. Though Holton did not see any African wildcats there, she observed feral cats.
On the same trip to South Africa, Holton visited a successful feral cat neuter/return project in Sun City, called the Las Vegas of South Africa, and introduced the Sun City team to the Pilanesberg Reserve managers, helping to fund the neuter/return work that followed at the reserve. The Sun City project was also partially funded by the U.S.-based Summerlee Foundation.
“We helped to fix 150 to 200 cats,” Holton told ANIMALS 24-7. “Unfortunately the woman who ran the project retired,” so will not be part of the Kruger project.
In August 2018 Alley Cat Rescue announced that the Kruger neuter/return campaign “will be managed by Rita Brock, former general manager of the Knysna Animal Welfare Society,” serving southern coastal South Africa since circa 1950.
Before taking the Knysna Animal Welfare Society position in 2012, Brock was a founding member of the Cat Action Team, best known for relocating the last 15 feral cats at the former Robben Island prison colony to Pollsmoor Prison in 2006, and then starting a neuter/return program at Pollsmoor Prison.
The Alley Cat Rescue neuter/return campaign serving the Kruger region is to be based at Hazyview, five miles west of Phabeni Gate, one of the five major entrances to Kruger National Park and the closest to both Pretoria, the South African capital, and Johannesburg, the largest South African city.
“Now living in Hazyview,” according to Holton, Brock is meeting with local veterinarians and “finding out what Kruger National Park animal clinics we can use,” in preparation for the project launch.
“I’m planning on going to South Africa in April 2019 to meet with everyone,” Holton told ANIMALS 24-7. “Hopefully by then the program will be up and running,” with 100 cat traps and a start-up budget of $50,000,” which Holton is still working to raise.
The Alley Cat Rescue project at Kruger National Park claims the endorsement of Llewellyn Foxcroft, 42, a senior South African National Park Service scientist who established his credentials as a foe of “introduced” and “invasive” species as the Kruger alien biota manager, beginning in 1998.
According to the Kruger National Park web page, “Llewellyn’s interest in the possible hybridization of feral cats with the African wildcat population started in 1997 when he saw (and heard) a large number of feral and hybrid cats along the boundary of the Phalaborwa section of the park.”
Meanwhile, “From January 2007,” recounts Foxcroft’s official South African National Park Service biography, “Llewellyn was appointed as the editor-in-chief for the SANparks scientific journal Koedoe, in tandem with his position as scientist: invasion ecology.”
Cited for bravery
Encouraging a neuter/return project from within the “invasion ecology” paradigm, which rejects the role of introduced and feral species as an engine of evolution, takes some courage of conviction, since it means standing up against the shibboleths accepted by most of the rest of the conservation establishment.
But Foxcroft established his reputation for courage during the floods of February 2000, after coming upon four tourists stranded on the roof of a vehicle which had become stranded in the Sabie River.
“Tying a rope to a tree, he assisted all four tourists to safety. One of the tourists could not swim,” recounts the citation Foxcroft received for bravery.