’ve assessed spotted owl feuds and wolf re-introductions,”
said Dr. William Lynn, an environmental ethics professor
at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. “I’ve never,
though, seen the anger the cat issue provokes.”
For a century, debates over cat-on-wildlife violence played
out in esoteric shadows, a testy but fringe spat with hunters and
birders on one side and cat aficionados on the other. It would
have stayed that way, but two things happened between World
War II and now that embroiled us in the emotive mess Dr. Lynn
describes: first, we suburbanized, and then we fell madly in love
with housecats while simultaneously doing so with wildlife.
According to the American Humane Society, American cat
ownership grew from roughly 4 million in 1945 to 85 million
today, while in the same time period, birdwatching went from a
quirk of wealthy kooks to a national pastime.
While the politics surrounding the issue have grown fractious, most people with an ostensible stake remain ignorant
or neutral. Many casual birders have cats themselves, and out
in the country farmers still keep barn cats for the same reason
Neolithic North Africans first did 10,000 years ago – to kill
rodents. Whatever warblers, thrushes, butterflies, and rabbits
they snuff on the side – along with all the feral offspring their
ramblings produce – usually get tucked into the “That’s just part
of nature; what’s the big deal?” file. The same is true for the bulk
of presents pet cats leave on their owners’ doorsteps.
But with wildlife facing the grim grab bag of eco-stressors
that it is – from climate change to habitat degradation to pollution – domestic felines and what they kill have begun to
receive thorough study and more attention recently. The data
suggest that in New York and New England alone, cat-kills
likely play out several thousand times a day. Early June, say,
outside Hartford, Connecticut. Thirty houses went in last fall
along a powerline. A chestnut-sided warbler pair didn’t know
people were managing the line for early successional cover, but
the shrubs were there, so in went their nest. With the houses,
though, came something new.
Rotating its ears independently, the calico heard the days-old warbler chicks 40 yards off. Soft-padding here, now there
– stopping, listening, homing in – it closed half the distance.
Yards away, the female warbler scratched last year’s leaves, then
popped up to snatch a tent caterpillar off a white oak in its
last act. Having pounced, the cat pinned the fading bird while
adjusting its ears, triangulating those persistent cheeps.
“It’s true,” said Megan Washburn, a Massachusetts North
Shore cat owner. “We let our lions roam. I know there are complications with that, but it’s part of their make-up. Two of them
can’t catch colds, but Maui could support the family.”
A NUMBERS GAME
Fortunately for wildlife, our affection for cats coincides with
an equally gushing passion for their prey, particularly birds.
Politically, ecologically, socially, and even philosophically, then,
we are faced with a dilemma.
“Anything affecting the interface between the human and
natural worlds is delicate cloth,” said E. J. Barnes, a Cambridge,
Massachusetts-based illustrator once ensconced in pointed
feral cat tussles in the western part of the state. “If you pick one
thread, the whole thing unravels.”
With many once-rural areas of the Northeast facing increasing
human populations, the question of boundaries is a fretful one.
Cats vex it further, raising questions of what stewardship means,
how responsible we are to creatures that don’t directly benefit us,
and who decides what those benefits are, all of which aggravate
the uneasy if not impossible dispute over distributing animal
welfare evenly. Not simple stuff, particularly with cute cats, cute
birds, and the people who adore each living side by side.
For now, domestic cats are the lesser worry. Though their take
is still worrisome, everything from outdoor cat pens – “catios”
– to bells, to de-clawing and other measures have diminished
the amount of wildlife they kill. At the heart of the issue, then,
are feral cats, though getting a firm grasp on their numbers is
“Nobody knows what’s out there,” said Grant Sizemore, an
invasive species specialist for the American Bird Conservancy,
which favors culling feral cats. “The Smithsonian study put [the
number of feral cats] at 30 to 80 million.”
That 2012 study, conducted by Scott Loss, Tom Will, and
Peter Marra from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology
Institute and the Fish and Wildlife Service, touched off much
of the current teeth-gnashing. It compiled and analyzed past
research on the topic, with its authors eventually concluding
that cats kill trainloads more wildlife than was previously
thought. The number of projected bird deaths was never small,
but correlated with the 30- to 80-million feral cat number and
estimates of what the 85 million pet cats kill, the Smithsonian
THE GORDIAN KNOT:
FERAL CATS AND WILDLIFE
By Mike Freeman