Help Save the Birds at the Caroni Cat Sanctuary!

For those of you who think I’ve gotten the title mixed up, well there’s much to talk about. Firstly, I must admit that the inspiration for the title of this piece comes from an article that was published recently, check it out here. The anonymous author makes reference to yours truly regarding some comments I supposedly made. The original post is here, have a read and freely compare both passages.

What’s really going on is this:

There is an existing population of feral cats at the Caroni Bird Sanctuary. Most of us are familiar with the Caroni Bird Sanctuary, either you’ve been there before or have heard about it in some form or fashion. Within the last few months, the population has ballooned into alarming numbers, with some reports of over 100 cats at the sanctuary. Personally, I’ve seen on average somewhere between 20 and 50 cats on various visits.

Let’s take a look at cats. Most of them hunt alone, with success rates of up to 60% in some species. They are complete predators and fit right in at the top of the food chain in their native ecosystems. Which brings me to my next point. The mangrove at Caroni, Trinidad in general is not the native ecosystem of these cats. In fact, we already have a top feline predator here – the Ocelot. But even the mighty Ocelot isn’t part of the ecosystem at the swamp. Such arises the painful topic of invasive species.

In the Florida Everglades, the authorities are struggling to deal with the influx of invasive pythons that are competing with American Alligators as top predator. Actually, forget the Everglades. Happening right now is an even more pertinent example. Australia is currently home to possibly more than six million feral cats, which have been estimated to kill more than one million birds every day.

Feral cats on average live around 4 – 5 years in the wild, and about twice that with human intervention. Human intervention being regular feedings at certain locations, for example if people should take it upon themselves to go to Caroni Bird Sanctuary and feed the cats. Wait, that’s already happening. In fact, as a response to this very issue, a number of animal rights organizations have begun encouraging people to go feed the cats, lest some horrid person (me) would cast an evil spell, exterminating all cats. What their well-intended actions are actually doing is potentially the very worst plan of action in this situation.

Feeding feral cats will ensure that they are well, fed. Cats are consequently likely to have a higher percentage of kittens surviving to adulthood as food is never in short supply. As mentioned previously, their lifespan is going to be longer. Adult females will be making up to three litters per year with most of the kittens surviving to adulthood. Everything is fair game for the cats. From grasshoppers to the small mammals within the mangrove to the birds. Perhaps even a sleeping Silky Anteater?

Some folks seem to believe that if cats are fed, they will not hunt. Well, if the cats aren’t fed, they will hunt for their food. If they are fed, they will hunt for their amusement. All cats are innate predators and even my fattened housecat will lunge at anything that moves.

And most importantly, basic common sense would dictate that if there is a known area where cats are being dumped and fed, this is a beacon to any prospective cat-dumpers that hey, here’s a place where you can dump your unwanted kittens and some bleeding-heart, socially awkward and repressed emotional wreck of a human being will feed them and defend them viciously (on social media only). Takes the guilt out of it right?

The more cats that are at the swamp is the larger the area they are going to take control of. Cats can roam vast distances, sometimes up to many miles in a day, patrolling their territory (which can be up to 25 acres, even more) and feeding themselves (obviously).

Last week, on a routine tour in the swamp, we came upon a large tom perched on some mangrove roots approximately a kilometre into the protected area. The tour guide immediately stopped the boat, rammed the engine into reverse and we floated back to where the cat was. He asked me to photograph the cat, as none of the authorities believed him when he informed them of the extent of the feral cats’ range.

feral cat in bird sanctuary







Well, now we have photographic evidence. But where do we go from here? Do we leave them alone? Do we trap, neuter, return?

The consequences of our actions must always play a hand in decisions. Let’s look at this objectively.

The cats are lives, individuals, with personalities, souls and yes they are sentient beings. As a cat owner (maybe it’s the other way around) I can definitely attest to that. So the first instinct is to preserve life. However, preserving life of the cats in the swamp is also jeopardizing the lives of other sentient beings that call the swamp home. So which life is more important? Ideally, we need to do this without taking any lives at all.

Is it possible to preserve the cats’ lives but just get them out of the swamp? Maybe. Animal welfare is not my forte, so I have reached out to various folks who are actively involved in the field. From this experience I have learned a lot. Most important lesson being that there is a high occurrence of illogical and rash thought within these circles. The search for a level head turned out to be a most difficult one, but eventually I found one, and hopefully we will be able to progress from this point onward.

Either way, the cats need to be removed as soon as possible. Tour operators and other persons who are in the swamp every day have noticed that the cats are reaching further and further into the swamp – and this where they can be seen. We don’t want this to reach a level where the cats are occupying areas within the sanctuary that are unreachable. As we all know how long things take to get done here, combined with our propensity to be reactive rather than proactive; it’s a delicate situation really but it is at the same time completely urgent.

The Caroni Bird Sanctuary is an internationally known, protected wetland that is not only home to a vast diversity of avian and non-avian species of wildlife, but it is also one of the main selling points of the country. Each year, countless people who are in no way birdwatchers visit the swamp and are blown away by the seemingly endless streams of scarlet flowing into the evening roost. I’ve read about this attraction in birding journals that have no connection to Trinidad. If this situation is allowed to run wild, this not only damages the ecosystem at the swamp, but the livelihood of the tour operators there, and eventually and possibly irreversibly the reputation of the Caroni swamp as a tourist attraction.

It is no secret that ecotourism is on the rise worldwide, and Trinidad needs to wise up very soon or else we will be left behind. A village in Guyana (Rewa) is now raking in millions of dollars purely from ecotourism. This is a village of just over 300 people, by the way. It needs very little investment and has a high potential for payoff. But I will expand on this later. For now, just have some blind faith in this birdman when he says that ecotourism can save this country’s economy from the oily grips of a dying industry.

All this aside, let’s look at some of the species that I have seen and photographed in my recent visits to the Caroni Bird Sanctuary. Some are easier to see than others. A Common Potoo has been seen on the same snag for some weeks now, and that can only mean one thing: it’s got an egg in the oven! For those of you who have never seen this bird, I strongly suggest that you make the time to visit as well, think about trying to find this bird yourself.

common potoo










Other birds may not be as cryptically plumaged as the previous bird, but their habits make viewing difficult. Another bird that’s mostly active at night (you can tell from those huge eyes I’m sure) is the Boat-billed Heron. I’ve only seen this bird a handful of times prior to this excellent opportunity we had last week. This is a favourite bird of hunters, by the way.

boat-billed heron-4










There are a few species of cuckoos that inhabit the wetlands across T&T, and although this isn’t the absolute rarest, views of a Little Cuckoo don’t come that often!

little cuckoo










Many of the birds that make their homes within the wetland are particular to the habitat. Our now famous $50 bird, the Masked Cardinal can be seen easily without even going on a boat as they are fed breadcrumbs by the security personnel at the visitor’s centre. In the same place where the same security also feeds cats. I’m going to leave the connection of those two thoughts up to the reader.

masked cardinal






Even hummingbirds can be found in a mangrove swamp! This lovely bird is a Green-throated Mango, a literal mangrove specialist.

green-throated mango stretching







What most people head into the swamp to see is Scarlet Ibis en masse, however. And the views rarely disappoint. Few things can beat that blazing scarlet.

scarlet ibis-3







For us birdwatchers though recently there’s been a new star attraction. A number of American Flamingos have reappeared, numbering over a hundred! Adults, juveniles and everything in between, these enigmatic birds are a major attraction, especially in such numbers.

american flamingo 8x3-2





When we visited last, we enjoyed observing these large birds until the sun dipped well below the treeline, casting its rosy glow on the already rosy birds. Felt like a dream. Let’s keep it magical.

american flamingo-6