In this corner: cute, cuddly killing machines. In the opposite corner: endangered birds. Who will emerge the victor?

That's the question in Cape May, N.J., where the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is studying ways to protect nearby endangered piping plover populations from roaming housecats and stray or feral cats. Possible recommendations from the agency, according to the Associated Press, include "asking the city to adopt laws requiring cats to be licensed, prohibiting free-roaming cats and abandoning cats and feeding wildlife, including feral cats."

The study and its possible ramifications has emotions running high in Cape May. The city hosts the annual World Series of Birding, and the New Jersey economy benefits enormously from bird watching (to the tune of $2 billion a year). But Cape May is also proud of its local cats, and has put a lot of effort into controlling the growth of its population of strays without resorting to killing unwanted animals. At least one conservation group, the New Jersey Audubon Society, hopes everyone can agree on a middle ground that doesn't pit species against species.

According to a 2004 article from National Geographic, "some experts estimate that each year domestic and feral cats kill hundreds of millions of birds, and more than a billion small mammals, such as rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks." (On a personal note, that's why we keep our own cats indoors.)

Story by John Platt. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in August 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007