Ten Years of Catio Tours

by Bob Sallinger, Conservation Director

When Bird Alliance of Oregon and the Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon (FCCO) present the Catio Tour in mid-September it will mark the tenth anniversary of this event and more than a quarter century of successful collaboration between our two groups. The relationship between the FCCO and Bird Alliance of Oregon is rare, almost unheard of for a feral cat advocacy group and a bird conservation group to work together, let alone maintain and build a relationship that spans decades. Some would say it is heresy. However, we work as closely with the FCCO as we do with many of our sister conservation organizations, and it’s a relationship predicated on trust, creativity, and mutual respect for each other’s priorities. At its core, it is about recognizing that we need to find solutions that advance the welfare of all animals. Catio Tour is a prime example of that ethic.

Catio Tour - Himalayan cat resting in catio

That cats harm wild birds is really not a question. While habitat loss and climate change present existential threats to avian populations, we know from extensive peer-reviewed research that a variety of anthropogenic (human-caused) hazards including window collisions, light pollution, pesticides, poaching, and, yes, cats, also put pressure on wild birds. Cats are regularly placed at the top of that list. In some cases cats threaten vulnerable populations, and in others they simply threaten the birds in our yards, neighborhoods, and natural areas. Cats are one of the most common reasons for phone calls from people concerned about local wildlife and for intakes of injured wildlife at our Wildlife Care Center.

We can debate till the cows (or cats) come home whether the 2013 Smithsonian study estimates (based on 90 other studies) of 1.4 to 4 billion birds killed by cats in North America per year are accurate. It doesn’t matter. The point is that the number is huge, and in a world in which avian populations, both rare and common, are plummeting, we cannot afford to ignore major causes of mortality. The 2019 report Declines of North American Avifauna, published in Science, concluded that North American bird populations have declined by nearly 3 billion birds since 1970. Bird Alliance of Oregon focuses the vast majority of its avian conservation efforts on protecting and restoring wildlife habitat across Oregon’s forests, grasslands, deserts, and urban landscapes, but we have also developed innovative campaigns to reduce the impacts of significant anthropogenic wildlife hazards.

The question is not whether to address cat predation, but rather how to most effectively address it. Unfortunately, the avian conservation community has little progress to show for more than a century of advocacy. In recent decades, the discussion has been dominated by a death-match debate between avian and cat groups over whether feral cats should be rounded up (and for the most part, killed) or whether priority should be placed on trying to reduce feral cat populations through the approach of “trap, neuter and return” (TNR). City after city has become bogged down in this polarized debate, and free-roaming cats have proliferated.

The FCCO-Bird Alliance of Oregon partnership was born of a desire to take a different approach—one that recognized that our community cares about the welfare of both cats and birds and wants humane approaches to resolving this conflict. It was also born of the recognition that real progress is only going to come when you truly engage the community. The number of free-roaming cats—feral, stray, or owned—is not going to go down until the community thinks about responsible cat ownership differently. FCCO and Bird Alliance of Oregon work together toward that end.

Over the past 25 years, we have worked together on outreach and engagement, public policy, research, and resolving specific high-priority conflicts. When an issue comes up involving cats and birds, we sit down and work through it together. When an issue comes up within that cat welfare community that impacts birds, the FCCO is the first to flag it and give us a call.

And then there is Catio Tour! FCCO Executive Director Karen Kraus called me about a decade ago and announced that we should do a joint tour of outdoor cat enclosures modeled on Portland’s “Tour de (chicken) Coops.” We could recruit 10-12 people who have built catios to open their yards to the general public. FCCO and Bird Alliance of Oregon would register people, provide them with a map, and host information tables at each site. My first take was “cute…weird…perhaps useful.”

Photo by Ali Berman.

Turns out, Catio Tour is like the Bruce Springsteen concert of feline welfare events. That first year, we hoped that maybe we would get 250 registrants. Within a few weeks of opening registration, we had over 600 registrants and had to cap the event. In subsequent years we have regularly sold out at 1,400-1,600 registrants. I routinely get calls on the morning of the event from “friends of friends” who heard I “could sneak them in.” Disappointed host applicants that were not selected have threatened to do their own tours. Multiple cities across the United States have created catio tours based on ours. Portland Community College developed a course on catios and featured it on the cover of their 2019 course catalog. However, we knew we had truly arrived when we were featured in Martha Stewart Living.

Today Catio Tour still features a wide range of exciting catios from innovative “do it yourself” jobs to professionally designed and built catios that are nicer than my house. It also features online events, information, and access to catio resources. More than 15,000 people have gone on Catio Tours over the past decade, and a majority go to get ideas for building their own catios. Catios are springing up across the metro region, with more than 900 individual catios—and those are just the ones we know about.

It doesn’t solve the problem of cat predation on birds, but every catio means at least one less cat on the street and one more cat owner thinking about responsible cat ownership differently. No significant environmental problem lends itself to simple, quick solutions, but our partnership with FCCO has allowed us to explore a variety of creative new approaches to what has long been an intractable problem and harness the energy and enthusiasm of a community that values both cats and birds. Please join us for this year’s Catio Tour and learn more about the Cats Safe At Home Campaign at catssafeathome.org

Get Your Catio Tour Tickets!

September 10 | 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.

Catio Tour Tickets