Across New England, house cats are disappearing.
Missing cat posters are springing up from northern Vermont to Cape Cod, and cat owners are nervous.
“I’d like to think that maybe somebody’s just turned into a cat lover, took them, and is taking care of all these cats,” said Karen Charbonneau of Hinesburg, Vt., who lost her cat Blackie.
But wildlife officials say the culprit isn’t a neighborhood cat hoarder, but a fisher — also known as a fisher cat.
The fisher cat is not a cat at all. It’s a member of the weasel family closely related to the American marten. Like all mustelids (members of the weasel family), fisher cats are generalist predators. Although their name implies that their primary diet is fish, they actually feed on rodents and small game. They will also eat house cats if they come across them.
“Once the [fisher] realizes there’s a bunch of cats there, they will concentrate in that area and the problem continues,” said Hinesburg veterinarian Rich Armstrong.
Meanwhile, in the suburbs of Boston, Mass., reports of fisher cats are on the rise, too.
In Quincy, Kathleen Roach believes she encountered one in her backyard. The animal was making for her trash about three weeks ago, she says.
Linda Ribeiro of Dover said she watched a fisher creep along Glen Street in Natick last month, around the corner from her house. A day later, her cat was missing.
And Debi Whitcomb, a professional dog walker in Natick, said her clients have reported seeing fishers, and some think they are responsible for missing cats in Dover, Natick, and Needham.
No numbers of reported sightings were available from the state, but anecdotally, we can say we have seen a recent increase, as an agency, said Laura Hajduk, a biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, or MassWildlife. She said there can be a long lag between report collection and database entry.
Last year we had our first two reports in Boston, she said. In 2006, we received our first confirmation of fishers on Cape Cod.
In Needham, Mass., Danielle Landry, an animal control officer, said she had an unusual cluster of reports of fishers, about 10, this spring.
Other Massachusetts communities that have reported fisher sightings in recent years include Billerica, Chelmsford, Lexington, and Wilmington.
The fisher can grow to 3 feet tip to tail and weigh 8 to 16 pounds. It has a pointed head with round ears tucked tight against its skull, squat legs, and fur that runs from rich brown to black along its slender body. Like cats, it has sharp, retractable claws.
The fisher cat has a unique screech that distinguishes it from other New England woodland animals such as foxes. To hear it, gohere.
Fishers are found from Nova Scotia in the east to the Pacific shore of British Columbia. They can be found as far north as Great Slave Lake in the North West Territories of Canada and as far south as the mountains of Oregon. There are isolated populations in the Sierra Nevada of California and the Appalachians of West Virginia. They were once more widespread in the United States Midwest, but over-trapping and loss of habitat has reduced their traditional range.
Because fishers hunt at dawn and dusk, outdoor cats — which have the same hunting habits — are particularly at risk.
MassWildlife advises keeping pets, especially cats, indoors, tightly securing trash cans, and avoiding putting out bird feeder suet, which attracts fishers.