By People Staff
May 02, 2005 12:00 PM

It was, Mark Smith might be the first to admit, a birdbrained idea. When the La Crosse, Wis., firefighter noticed that cats were eating the birds that snacked at his backyard feeder, he came up with a proposal to stop them: Allow licensed small-game hunters to shoot uncollared cats. “I look at them as an invasive species, plain and simple,” Smith told the AP.

Now he’s got a nasty catfight on his hands. Smith’s idea—which he proposed at a 2004 county meeting of the Conservation Congress, a group that solicits input from citizens on wildlife issues—passed a statewide Conservation Congress vote on April 11 and is now just two steps away from becoming law. The prospect of open season on free-roaming cats has caused thousands of angry e-mails to flood Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources, which must decide whether to send the proposal to the state legislature. As for Smith, death threats drove him underground. (He has stopped talking to reporters.) “I don’t think anyone realized how it would blow up,” says Scott Hassett, head of the DNR. “All hell has broken loose.”

In fact there’s a serious problem at the heart of the controversy. “We think cats kill 39 to 40 million songbirds a year in Wisconsin,” says Hassett. “That’s feral cats as well as pet cats that roam.” Still, “you don’t control cats by shooting them,” says Stephanie Shain, a director of the U.S. Humane Society, who favors a trap, neuter and return program to control the state’s feral cat population, estimated at 1.4 million.

Wisconsin’s cat lovers, however, shouldn’t get their backs up: Gov. Jim Doyle has come out against the plan. “I don’t think Wisconsin should become known as a state where we shoot cats,” said Doyle. “[We’re] a state that everybody is kind of laughing at right now.”