What is a cat? Reconciling the cute with the killer

In his book, “Faith in Conservation: New Approaches to Religions and the Environment,” Mark Palmer asks his readers a simple question: what is a fox?

“To some people, it is simply a reddish-coloured mammal; to others it is a classic example of urban adaptation by wild animals; to yet others it is something to chase on horseback. To some animal lovers, the fox is a symbol of the survival of nature against urbanization and the cruelty of hunters… to the chicken farmer, the fox is a predator who can wipe out a livelihood…

So let’s ask the question again. What is a fox? Our answer has to be: “It depends on what you believe.”

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I will offer my viewpoint as a conservationist on a very contentious topic: the impact of outdoor cats on native wildlife. To begin, I pose a parallel question to Palmer’s: “What is a cat?”

  1. To many Americans, it is a beloved household pet. For the most obvious evidence of our love of cats, you need not look farther than the millions of adorable cat videos plastered over the internet. 
  2. To others, it is an important means of controlling rodent populations in barns. 
  3. To still others, it is a risk to human health. Cats carry several diseases that can be transmitted to humans, for example Toxoplasma gondii and rabies.
  4. To birdwatchers, it is something to drive away from your yard before it kills the birds at your feeder.
  5. To many cat owners, it is simply a part of natureSome cat owners do not see their cats’ behavior as problematic; they are “simply acting as a predator should.” (And technically this is true – they are predators, but they are certainly not natural ones. What makes a cat in the USA different from a red-tailed hawk, or a coyote? Red-tailed hawks and coyotes evolved here & are part of the natural ecosystem).
  6. To conservationists, it is an invasive species. Cats kill billions of animals per year in the United States alone; they have brought as many as 33 species to extinction globally; they have been listed among the 100 worst non-native invasive species in the world.

Cats are many things, depending on what you believe. This is why the topic of managing outdoor cat populations is so polarizing, as evidenced by the Amazon reviews for Peter Marra and Chris Santella’s new book, “Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer.” The ratings are almost exclusively either 1 or 5 stars, with no middle ground. 

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Let us begin by admitting that cats are both adorable household pets and invasive predators. These are not mutually exclusive. We have reconciled similar extremes with plenty of other animals which have proven detrimental to humans or the ecosystem. What makes cats different?

Let’s consider what it would look like if we treated cats the way we treat other animals.

Treating cats as we treat other invasive species would mean deliberate attempts to eradicate all stray and feral cats from the ecosystem. We do this when the situation is dire, even when the invasive species can be considered a pet  – just look at the Python Challenge in Florida or Project Isabella in the Galapagos. Would the public support this if it meant saving vulnerable ecosystems from feral cats? If not, why are the lives of native animals – many of which are endangered – worth trading for cats, but not for pythons?

What if we were to treat cats as we treat dogs? Dogs and cats are both beloved family pets, but with one major difference: the general public has become responsible for their dogs. Perhaps it is time to extend leash laws to cats, so they must be kept indoors or be adequately supervised outdoors (i.e., on a leash or in a “catio“). Many owners have already brought their cats inside, since indoor cats are less likely to be hit by cars, be injured in fights, be preyed upon by coyotes or other animals, accidentally ingest poison, or catch diseases (cats are four times more likely than dogs to carry rabies, mainly because they come in close contact with wildlife like raccoons and bats). 

young-cat-1373902_960_720Taking it a step further, what if feral cats were treated as feral dogs? When a feral dog is found, animal control is called, the dog is removed from the area to be adopted, put into a sanctuary, or – as a last resort – euthanized.  These measures are commonplace for one type of beloved pet, but cause an uproar when discussed in the context of another.

As I reflect again on Marra and Santella’s Amazon book reviews, I notice that several of the 1-star critiques pose a similar question: many things kill native wildlife, so why pick on cats? In response, I ask: in the struggle to conserve species and ecosystems against an immeasurable number of challenges, why are cats alone sacrosanct?

Ask yourself again: what is a cat? Our native animals and ecosystems may depend on the answer.

Emily is an MSc student in Biodiversity, Conservation, and Management. She is interested in human-wildlife conflict, tropical forest conservation, non-native species, and trophic cascades. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @emilyneil15

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