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October, 21, 2016

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Deadly cat poop causes rift among animal defenders in Hawaii

HONOLULU -- Two wildlife issues have collided in Hawaii, pitting one group of animal defenders against another in an impassioned debate. The point of contention? Deadly cat poop and the feral felines that produce it.

Federal researchers believe feces from the legions of stray cats roaming Hawaii is spreading a disease that is killing Hawaiian monk seals, some of the world's most endangered marine mammals. Some conservationists advocate euthanizing those cats that no one wants, and that has cat lovers up in arms.

"It's a very difficult, emotional issue," said state Sen. Mike Gabbard, chairman of a committee that earlier this year heard a proposal to ban the feeding of feral cats on state land. The panel abandoned the bill after an outcry.

"It struck a nerve in our community," he said.

The problem stems from a parasite common in cats that can cause toxoplasmosis, a disease that has killed at least five female Hawaiian monk seals and three males since 2001, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"While eight seals may not sound like a lot of animals, it actually has pretty large ramifications for an endangered population where there's only about 1,300 seals in existence at this point in time," said Michelle Barbieri, veterinary medical officer for NOAA's Hawaiian monk seal research program. Scientists believe monk seals become exposed by ingesting contaminated water or prey.

Stray cats, meanwhile, have no predators in Hawaii and have ballooned in numbers across the state. Some 300,000 feral cats roam Oahu alone, according to marketing research commissioned by the Hawaiian Humane Society in 2015.

Felines are the only animals that can shed Toxoplasma gondii eggs, or oocysts. The parasites enter their digestive tract through infected prey, then multiply in the small intestine and produce eggs. Cats excrete the eggs in their feces, which researchers believe washes into the ocean and accumulates in invertebrates along the sea floor.

The eggs can survive in fresh water, saltwater and soil for up to two years, and any warm-blooded animal can become infected.

California sea otters have died from toxoplasmosis, and it's one of the major reasons the Hawaiian crow, alala, is extinct in the wild. Toxoplasmosis is rarely problematic for people with healthy immune systems, but it's why doctors advise pregnant women not to handle kitty litter.

Many cities struggle with feral cats, but the problem is particularly acute in Hawaii because of its sensitive ecosystem and at-risk native species, experts say. Only two mammals are native to Hawaii: the hoary bat and the Hawaiian monk seal.

"Everything else here-- deer, sheep, goats, cats, mongoose -- they're all invasive. They're all introduced," said Angela Amlin, NOAA's acting Hawaiian monk seal recovery coordinator.

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A Hawaiian monk seal, an endangered species, lies on a Waikiki beach in Honolulu on Thursday, September 15. (AP)

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