About The “Cat Indoors” Program And Trapping Free-Roaming Cats in Refuge Areas

Key Largo Woodrat, photo USFWS
Key Largo Woodrat, photo USFWS

Regarding “Cats Indoors” program and trapping free-roaming cats in the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge and Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park:

There have been several highly emotional expressions of concern from Key Largo resident John Donnelly recently published about the cat-trapping program in the protected areas of North Key Largo. The whole discussion has gone on for months, and has generally been a waste of time for all concerned.  Mr. Donnelly’s criticisms, at their heart, boil down to undeserved ad hominem attacks on Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge manager Jeremy Dixon, who is a dedicated public servant, doing his job in a careful, diplomatic and measured way, better than did his predecessor, who was also highly regarded.

For the record, Mr. Donnelly is a personal friend and a valued member of our organization, as is the manager of the USFWS Crocodile Refuge, but Mr. Donnelly is misinformed on this issue and his claims of government overreaching are incorrect. The Florida Keys IWLA chapter recently directly considered his concerns at a chapter meeting, and there was no support for his position.

Here are the facts, as our organization understands them. The public should be aware of these circumstances:

1. In 1984, the Key Largo woodrat (neatoma Floridana smalli) and the Key Largo cotton mouse (peromyscus gossypinus allipaticola) were identified as requiring special protection and were listed as “endangered” by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Chapter officers from our organization and other local organizations attended and participated in the hearings leading up to the listing decision.

2. These two species occur, as best as we know, only in the protected areas of North Key Largo. Efforts to relocate some animals to other islands have failed.

3. During the 1990s, additional development associated with the Harbor Course South part of Ocean Reef Club spread into a portion of the area occupied by these endangered animals. At that time, in response to a challenge from conservation organizations, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Florida Game and Fish Commission inventoried the animals and provided assurances that despite the Ocean Reef Club development, the endangered species would be protected and, pursuant to the Endangered Species Act, steps would be taken to promote the recovery of the species.

4. Since the 1990s, the numbers of these animals surviving in North Key Largo has plummeted, from an estimated population of 5,000 woodrats in 1990 to fewer than 1,000 today.

5. Studies conducted since the 1990s have shown that predation by free-roaming domestic cats, either pet cats or feral cats, have been a significant factor in the decline of the numbers of the endangered animals. Remote cameras placed within the habitat have recorded the images of pet cats, from nearby residences, with woodrats in their mouths.

6. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has a statutory obligation to enforce the provision of the Endangered Species Act, including protection of animals listed on the Endangered Species List. The Key Largo woodrat and Key Largo cotton mouse are such species.

7. Having identified the domestic cat as an exotic predator that is negatively impacting the endangered animals, the USFWS does not have the option of allowing that predation to continue. They are required to enforce the law and protect the listed species.

8. In an effort to work with neighbors of the refuge and state park, the local USFWS refuge manager met with nearby residents and their civic organizations in an attempt to inform them about the need to prevent their cats from entering the state and federal lands where the endangered species live.

9. Following those meetings, a program to trap domestic cats inside the refuge was instituted, which has reduced the free-roaming cat population inside the refuge.

10. Since the cat-trapping program was instituted, there has been some apparent increase in the numbers of woodrats, which suggests that there was a causal link between the presence and numbers of cats and the woodrat decline.  Here is a link to the most recent Cat Monitoring Progress Report.

11. Traps, used to capture cats inside the park and refuge, do not injure cats, however some cats injure themselves trying to escape from the traps after capture. Nor are they designed to “lure and snatch” family pets. There is no justification for wildlife officers to dedicate any of the public land as a buffer where cats can roam without being subject to being trapped. It is the responsibility of pet owners to control their pets and keep them out of the park and wildlife refuge.

12. Cats that are captured and can be identified with a particular owner are returned to the owner with a warning to keep the cat indoors. An earlier agreement with residents at the north end of the park to keep returned cats inside a confinement facility has not been followed, and some returned cats have been trapped a second time. Cats that cannot be identified as belonging to a particular person are delivered to the County Animal Shelter.

13. The USFWS does not “execute” cats. It delivers the cats whose owners are unknown to the animal shelter. If the animal shelter is unable to find a home to adopt a cat, the cat may be euthanized. We don’t know exactly how that is accomplished, but we believe it is done in a humane fashion.

14. Although it has been suggested that “trap-neuter-release” programs are an alternative, the reality is that neutered cats continue to hunt as they did before neutering. Such a program, even if it prevents reproduction, is not a solution to the problem of cat predation on endangered animals, and even if it is used in Miami-Dade County, there is no valid reason to use it in North Key Largo, nor is there any evidence that released cats in Miami-Dade County are not causing harmful impacts on wildlife there.

15. Life for free-roaming cats in the hammock of the park and refuge is a miserable existence, of disease, mosquitoes, fleas, ticks, fighting for territory and mates, and potential starvation. Cat owners who really care about the welfare of their cats will keep them indoors where they will be well cared for and can live a long and healthy life.

16. It has been suggested, variously, that the USFWS employees engaged in managing the refuge and protecting endangered species are a) overpaid, b) bureaucrats, c) some kind of “brown-shirt” thugs “compel[ing] compliance to their policies,” or d) intent on luring innocent cats into the refuge so they can become victims of the cat removal program. None of these allegations is true.

17. It is true that those of us who are cat-owners love our cats. None of us wants our pets to be captured or killed. If we have dogs, we do not allow them to run free. If we have pet ferrets, we do not allow them to run free. If we have any other kind of pet, we do not allow them to run free, at least not in North Key Largo. That is the responsible course of action for us to take, as pet owners. If we are responsible pet owners, we should not allow our cats to run free either.

18. References to the cat-trapping program as one to “injure and destroy … innocent creatures” are both false and intentionally misleading. His statement that “Traumatizing and killing cats is cruel and savage. Its criminal for FWS to injure and destroy these innocent creatures” is pure hyperbole and has no basis in fact. There is no intent to traumatize or kill the cats. And it is neither cruel nor savage to enforce the law to prevent the killing of endangered wildlife.

19. The cat-trapping program carries out federal law to protect endangered animals. If their cats being trapped inside the park or refuge disturbs some cat fanciers, the answer to their dissatisfaction is within their own control. They should keep their cats indoors. If that isn’t sufficient for them, they need to work to change the requirements of the Endangered Species Act or get a different kind of pet.

20. The Florida Keys Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America supports the program to remove free-roaming cats from the state park and wildlife refuge, not because we “benefit from agreeing with [USFWS]” as Mr. Donnelly suggests, but because it is the right thing to do to protect the endangered animals that live in those public lands.


Mike Chenoweth
Michael Chenoweth

Michael F. Chenoweth,

President,  Florida Keys Chapter Izaak Walton League of America

The Izaak Walton League of America, founded in 1922, is America’s oldest broad-spectrum conservation organization. Its motto is “Defender of soil, air, woods, water and wildlife.” It has a reputation for supporting workable, commonsense solutions to natural resource protection issues. The USFWS “Cats Indoors” program to keep free-roaming cats out of the public lands on North Key Largo is consistent with these goals and deserves broad public support.


Post Office Box 236, Homestead, Florida 33090

(305) 451-0993


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4 thoughts on “About The “Cat Indoors” Program And Trapping Free-Roaming Cats in Refuge Areas

  1. This article is well thought out and documented. It is also written by someone who has cats and wants to protect them, humans, and wildlife.

    About the accusations of cats injured during trapping: trap represents the first letter in TNR. Trapping is trapping when using human traps. The animal goes after bait and the door slams shut. The traps being used to catch the cats are not leg traps, snares, or any inhumane manner of catching the cats. It is not ok to trap to protect wildlife, but it is ok to trap under TNR? Same traps, same potential for minor scrapes in both situations. Once a feral cat realizes it cannot get out, it usually stops fighting, settles down and waits for the door to spring open.

  2. Bravo! Thank you Mr. Chenoweth for your rational and well-thought-out article. Keep up the good work! Frankly Mr. Donnelly’s hysterical rantings had grown quite tiring.

  3. Michael, thank you for your well-thought out submission. I consider you a dedicated and respected friend. As you know, just because you make statements in your article, it does not make them true or accurate.

    The government is overreaching in its cat trapping practices. Cat hunters were caught, by several individuals, placing their cages on private property, with the intent to snare family pets that lived there.

    At another location, fences surrounding the homes of citizens with cats were cut open to get at their pets. As advised by an attorney, this is a theft and destruction of private property by the government.

    The local USFWS did not meet with all neighbors of the refuge and state park in an attempt to inform them about the need to prevent their cats from entering the state and federal lands, as stated in your information.

    Your statement that “traps used to capture cats inside the park and refuge, do not injure cats”, is false. A family’s pet was so badly beaten during a trapping, that it was unrecognizable by its owner. Pictures of this animal’s bloody nose and lacerated face were taken.

    Cats are not responsible for the decline in population of the Key Largo woodrat. There are 21 active predators living within the refuge that eat woodrats. Scientific studies have concluded that that the demise of the woodrat is due to these predators.

    Again, another piece of misinformation. ‘Cats delivered by the USFWS to an animal shelter, are euthanized humanely’. This is not true. Witnesses have observed traumatized and injured creatures, crying out in terror, killed while still in their traps.

    In answer to Sal Grey’s comment, thank you for your contribution. As far as the trapping involved in a Trap-Neuter-Release program, it’s a once in a lifetime experience for the cat, as it will be immediately returned to its caregiver, never to be traumatized again.

    In many instances, it is not necessary for the caregiver to trap the cat that they’re having neutered. On those occasions when securing the animal is necessary, it’s done by the individual who will be caring for that cat the rest of its life. Not a government vender, who may be delivering the animal for slaughter.

  4. John Donnelly,

    Just because you are passionate about cats does not mean you have a grasp on the science behind the issue. Notice that Mr. Chenoweth references secondary sources of information or directly cites them. He builds a compelling amount of evidence from a logical stance on the issue. You might learn from his credible and respectful way of presenting information.

    I would just like to advise you Mr. Donnelly that you are making assertions that lack respect for individuals involved in the issue at hand. You are making baseless claims and presenting them as fact. Many of them. And in doing so painting a false picture of what is going on, and a false picture of resource managers involved. I would assert that doing so is disrespectful.

    I ask readers of John’s Donnelly’s comment – if the content doesn’t automatically make you do so – to question every claim he makes.

    John, please exercise more respect and cease and desist with your passion filled – but baseless – claims. I would caution you and your claims of trapping on private property and cutting of fences – making such assertions without any proof is not helping your case and is only making you seem more like an impassioned fear monger.

    Your use of words like “slaughter” (when PETA actually supports euthanasia as a more humane option versus a stressful feral existence for cats) shows your passion but also your detachment from a logical view of the reality of the situation. I saw an op-ed from you where you seemed to think that a picture of a kitten licking a squirrel was relevant evidence to back your viewpoints.

    That disconnect between what you perceive as evidence of what is going on, and what is actually going on in reality, is the real problem here.

    If you want credibility, you have to build it through logical claims, assertions backed by proof, and a demonstration that you have some grasp of the science behind the management practices in question. You do none of this.

    I respect your passion and your desire to make a difference. In the end, your desire to disseminate your misguided opinions may help the situation through exposing more people to the issue at hand. I trust that the average informed person can then pick apart your cherry-picking of information and creative pseudo-science and can develop their own opinions. I thank Mr. Chenoweth for presenting more credible information on the topic at hand.


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