Is it legal to kill feral cats in Hawaii?

No, is the plain answer to the question in the title unless there are particular and unusual circumstances. We are able to say that with confidence because Hawaii’s legislature recently (early 2022) tried into pass a law (HB 1987) which permitted and indeed mandated the mass culling of feral cats by poisoning over a set period with goals as to numbers and it was stopped in its tracks by campaigners against the bill. The law was being introduced to protect Hawaii’s precious native birds and control toxoplasmosis which has been transmitted it is believed from feral cats to monk seals via the cats’ faeces. There has been a proliferation of feral cats in the state due to careless cat ownership and lax controls such as widespread TNR which might have alleviated the pressure on the birds.

Feral cat Hawaii
Feral cat Hawaii. Image believed to be in the public domain.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

It was decided that mass poisoning was dangerous to other animals and in the words of Sylvia Dolena of Aloha Animal Advocates:

We should not contribute to the high rate of extinction to the species in Hawaiʻi by taking action to spread poison to do different kinds of methods to eradicate one species without a lot of research. If we really want to save the native species and the environment, we need to focus on the root causes of the extinctions and not just target one species, the felines.

The bill was introduced into Hawaii’s legislature on January 4th, 2022. It stopped there according to the website. The report is: House
– Feb 04, 2022: The committee(s) on AGR recommend(s) that the measure be deferred.

Alley Cat Allies played a strong role is stopping the passage of the bill.

Existing law on killing feral cats

Hawaii has comprehensive animal welfare laws like any US state. It is a felony of the first degree to kill a pet cat and of the second degree to kill a feral cat ‘without need’ (§ 711-1109 Cruelty to animals in the second degree). The law exempts ‘pests’ which can be killed. But to the best of my knowledge feral cats are not legally labelled as ‘pests’ in Hawaii. Therefore, they are protected from citizens who want to kill them (wrong? – tell me please).

There is a common-sense aspect to this discussion which overrides almost everything. The Hawaii government can’t make the killing of feral cats legal in their state because they’d be authorising the killing of indoor/outdoor pet cats as well for the reason that at a distance you can’t tell the difference between the two. So, if a Hawaiian shot a feral cat but found out that it was a domestic cat, the state would have sanctioned the crime. The state can’t be involved in state sanctioned criminality.

The Hawaii Invasive Species Council recognises the above point when stating:

Feral cats are identical to the common pet cat and are actually the same species separated only by lifestyle and behavior.

The bill HB 1987 is reproduced in full below:

SECTION 1. The legislature finds that feral cats contribute to widespread ecological disruptions that threaten native wildlife, particularly in island jurisdictions. Once feral cats are introduced to islands, they prey on a variety of native species, many of which lack evolved defenses against mammalian predators, resulting in severe population declines and extinction. Worldwide, feral cats on islands have contributed to over thirty endemic bird, mammal, and reptile extinctions, including the extinction of the Lāna‘i Hookbill and Hawaiian Rail and extinction in the wild of the Hawaiian crow (‘alalā), and are the principal threat to almost eight per cent of the critically endangered birds, mammals, and reptiles on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species (Red List).

As one of the most harmful invasive species, feral cats represent a direct threat to Hawaii’s native wildlife populations, particularly its native bird populations. The legislature further finds that Hawaii has the highest per-capita number of endangered birds in the United States, due to introduced predators, habitat loss, and disease. At least sixteen bird species classified as threatened on the Red List, as well as other federally- and state-listed endangered bird species, are affected by the predation of feral cats on the Hawaiian Islands. These include the critically endangered palila, Newell’s shearwater (‘a‘o), Laysan duck, puaiohi, ‘akikiki, and ‘ākohekohe. Since Hawaii’s native birds evolved without mammalian predators, they have no natural defenses against feral cats. Many exhibit little fear of potential predators and often lack avoidance behaviors. Although the exact number of birds killed by feral cats in the Hawaiian Islands is unknown, a 2015 study conducted at Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge found that over the course of two years cats killed two hundred fifty-two native birds — ninety-four per cent of which were endangered species.

The legislature also finds that predation among cats is instinctive, meaning that even well-fed cats will hunt and kill wildlife. In 2020, a single cat killed twelve critically endangered Newell’s shearwaters, which is particularly devastating for the species since breeding does not occur until age six or seven. In the same year, another single, free‑roaming cat killed at least nine endangered Hawaiian petrel (‘ua‘u) chicks over the course of three days in a remote area of the Hono O Nā Pali Natural Area Reserve on Kaua‘i. These recent examples illustrate the harmful impact a single cat can have on Hawaii’s fragile native bird populations.

The legislature additionally finds that feral cats are responsible for the spread of diseases such as Toxoplasma gondii — a potentially lethal parasite shed exclusively in the fecal matter of cats that contaminates terrestrial, freshwater, and marine environments and has been shown to negatively impact birds, humans, and other mammals that may become infected with toxoplasmosis. Toxoplasmosis among humans is considered to be a leading cause of death attributed to foodborne illness in the United States and is particularly harmful for individuals who are pregnant or have a compromised immune system. In Hawaii, toxoplasmosis is also an identified threat to the conservation of native species such as the nēnē, Hawaiian crow, and Hawaiian monk seal. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, toxoplasmosis is a leading cause of mortality among endangered Hawaiian monk seals, with at least twelve Hawaiian monk seal deaths since 2001 attributable to the infection.

The legislature further finds that there is strong support among Hawaii residents for effective management to reduce the abundance of feral or free-roaming cats in the Hawaiian Islands. According to a 2013 University of Hawaii survey, nearly eighty‑seven per cent of Hawaii residents agreed that feral cat abundance should be decreased. The three most common explanatory variables for respondents’ stated desires were the dislike of seeing feral cats, lack of intrinsic value of feral cats, and risk feral cats pose to native fauna. Approximately seventy-eight per cent of respondents supported permanently removing feral cats from areas with threatened or endangered fauna. Responses indicated that the most preferred technique for managing feral cats was the live capture and lethal injection technique, whereas the trap‑neuter-release method was the least preferred technique.

The legislature additionally finds that the use of techniques such as the trap-neuter-release technique or other efforts that support the feeding or re-release of feral cats into the wild or public spaces are not recommended by the Hawaii invasive species council, since these efforts are not an effective strategy to reduce the number of feral cats in an area or the predation and disease impact of feral cats. Instead, the Hawaii invasive species council recommends that proposed methods for mitigating the impacts of feral cats on native wildlife and humans should be humane and supported by peer-reviewed, scientific evidence demonstrating the efficacy of such methods.

The legislature recognizes that the Australian government is at the forefront in developing humane, effective, and justifiable methods to cull invasive feral cat populations. Australia’s Threatened Species Strategy identifies a wide and flexible kit of science-based tools for controlling feral cats in different settings, including baiting, which Australian researchers recognize as the most effective method for controlling feral cats when there is no risk posed to non-target species. Utilizing the specially designed Curiosity and Eradicat feral cat baits, the Australian government has been able to humanely control feral cats in conservation areas on a broad‑scale level. Over the course of five years, Australia made significant inroads into tackling the impacts of feral cats with the establishment of many new predator-free safe havens and initiated feral cat control across more than eighteen million hectares of Australian landscape.

The legislature believes that the State must also actively manage its invasive feral cat population in the interest of public safety and for the protection of critically endangered native wildlife. Therefore, the purpose of this Act is to require:

(1) The department of land and natural resources to conduct a point-in-time count of feral cats per island by June 30, 2023; and

(2) The invasive species council to develop and implement a program to effectively reduce the feral cat population in Hawaii by December 31, 2025.

SECTION 2. (a) The department of land and natural resources shall conduct a point-in-time count of feral cats per island by June 30, 2023.

(b) The invasive species council, in consultation with appropriate county, state, federal, and international agencies and private organizations, shall develop a program to effectively reduce the feral cat population in the State as provided in subsection (c). In developing the program, the invasive species council shall consider methods successfully used in Australia to cull the feral cat population, including the use of the Curiosity and Eradicat feral cat baits.

(c) Based on the point-in-time count of feral cats conducted by the department of land and natural resources pursuant to subsection (a), the invasive species council and appropriate state agencies shall immediately implement any findings and recommendations and start the program developed under subsection (b) to cull the feral cat population as follows:

(1) Eliminate the feral cat population on the islands of Kauai, Maui, and Hawaii by December 31, 2025; and

(2) Reduce the feral cat population on the island of Oahu by fifty per cent by December 31, 2025.

SECTION 3. There is appropriated out of the general revenues of the State of Hawaii the sum of $ or so much thereof as may be necessary for fiscal year 2022-2023 for a point-in-time count of feral cats per island and development and implementation of a program to effectively reduce the feral cat population in the State, pursuant to this Act.

The sum appropriated shall be expended by the department of land and natural resources for the purposes of this Act.

SECTION 4. This Act shall take effect upon its approval; provided that section 3 of this Act shall take effect on July 1, 2022.

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