A research project on endangered species in the hammocks of North Key Largo uncovered an unwanted cast of video stars: Cats perched atop manmade woodrat nests.
"The cats are doing the things that cats do when they hunt," said Jeremy Dixon, manager of the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
"It's not the fault of the cats," Dixon said. "It's the fault of owners who allow their cats to trespass into the refuge, or people who dump cats on North Key Largo."
To protect the endangered Key Largo woodrat and the Key Largo cotton mouse, refuge staff will soon step up efforts to identify and possibly fine owners of cats trapped in protected lands.
"We will return the cats when possible," Dixon said this week. "This is not about killing cats. It's about getting cats out of the refuge."
A new informational campaign backed by nine conservation groups soon will be released to caution pet owners near North Key Largo.
"The first time we capture a [pet] cat, we'll give the owner the benefit of the doubt with a warning," Dixon said. "The second time could mean a fine of $175, and could include a mandatory appearance in federal court."
Mike Cove, a wildlife biologist working on his zoology doctorate at North Carolina State University, specializes in using sensor-triggered remote video cameras to record animal activity.
"It's a noninvasive survey that doesn't affect the animals," Cove said Monday. "We obtain a ton of data from the photos."
Cove's current project seeks to gauge whether manmade structures placed by the refuge and its volunteers are being used by the endangered Keys rodents. The "supplemental" habitats are used by woodrats and mice, along with birds, snakes and short-tailed shrews, he said.
And they attract cats apparently seeking whatever is inside the nests.
Cove rotates the location of his cameras every few days among the hundreds of manmade habitats placed in the hammocks. "This year, we recorded seven cats at the first 54 nests."
In 2013, he recorded 284 nests and taped a total of two cats.
"Woodrats and cotton mice fall prey to owls, snakes and other native predators," Cove said. "The problem is that cats are not supposed to be there. As a result, the woodrats and are predator-naive about a predator that is a rodent specialist."
Since 2010, the refuge staff has captured 84 cats on refuge land. Some are repeat offenders; a couple were trapped up to eight miles from their owners' homes.
Cats found in the refuge generally are taken to the Key Largo Animal Shelter for identification through collar tags or microchips.
ORCAT, a protection agency for Ocean Reef Club's 300 resident cats, monitors the North Key Largo community's feline population. "We don't mind the refuge trapping cats but we have a big problem with killing cats," group co-founder David Ritz said.
"If they want to trap, we encourage them to place the traps near the woodrat nests -- not just outside our fence line, which has happened before," Ritz said.
ORCAT believes the 200 free-roaming Ocean Reef cats rarely leave the property, Ritz said. "There are probably 10 other reasons woodrats are in decline, rather than cats," he said. "I wager they catch a lot more raccoons and opossums than cats."