If you read my little podcast recommendations on this site, you know that I am a huge fan of the Urban Wildlife Podcast. I just checked out one of the most recent episodes, Cat Wars (also embedded as audio above), and it is my favorite far and away. Tony and Billy always bring a great blend of insight and passion to their urban ecology explorations, but this particular episode was exceptional in both arenas. And this episode has been brewing for awhile: if you listen to the podcast regularly, you know that for awhile now both Tony and Billy have been urging cat owners to keep their cats indoors.
What’s the problem with cats? Well, as guest scientist Pete Marra makes clear, cats function as an invasive predator that have really incomparable impacts on wildlife. As this episode points out, it is the mutualism (and perhaps commensalism) that cats maintain with humans that fuels their heavy impact on biodiversity. Cats are heavily subsidized by humans: we give them food and we give them places to live. Sometimes we subsidize cats that live predominantly in our homes but are allowed to venture outdoors; that’s a problem. Sometimes we subsidize cats that live in feral colonies; that’s an even bigger problem. The problem — as any cat owner knows — is that even a well-fed cat has the instinct to hunt small animals. And since most cats have total food security thanks to their relationship with humans, the population of cats is not at all constrained by the population of their wild prey. This means that cats can have spectacular impacts on wild life. And if you like wild animals — especially birds — you have to be concerned about this impact.
This episode does a great job of deeply examining the rather complex web of issues that relate to the cat problem. We are reminded that cats are domesticated animals and that that means that we as pet owners/companions have a responsibility to limit their impact on the wild; in practical terms, this means that you should not own an ‘outdoor cat’ and that the maintenance of feral colonies of cats is irresponsible from a biodiversity conservation perspective. I think that this is particularly interesting because cats are very unlike dogs in how they were ‘domesticated’; this Scientific American article points out that cats may have adopted us, begging the question as to whether they are commensal or mutualistic. We all know that many cats struggle to live under the constraints imposed by household living, which in part explains why feral cat colonies are so common. That the nature of the cat is to maintain some of its wild characteristics only emphasizes the importance of responsible cat ownership (and I thought that it was interesting the the animal rights group PETA clearly advocates for keeping cats indoors).
The political component of this episode was also fascinating. The Cat Wars that are the title of both the episode and the book by Dr. Marra are between people and people, not cats and wildlife. I kind of had a sense of this community, but Billy and Tony’s critique of the cat advocacy lobby put it into sharper focus: there are some people who are so crazy for cats (and their supposed welfare) that they are willing to ignore the science that clearly shows that outdoor cats have an adverse affect on biodiversity. One part of this community is the trap, neuter, and release (TNR) movement, which seeks to use spaying and neutering to control feral cat colony population sizes. The problem with this approach is two-fold:
- Even cats that are not reproducing are still killing wildlife; and
- Population control rarely results in declining — or even stabilizing — populations, because fed and protected feral cat colonies become a convenient place for people to dump house cats that they can no longer take care of.
I appreciate the rather courageous stance that Billy and Tony take: we need to use euthanasia to control feral cat populations. This is exactly what TNR activists are trying to avoid, and their thou shalt not kill feral cats fervor has spread to animal shelters, many of which maintain a no-kill policy. The problem with these policies is that they cause many more cats to survive in the wild, killing more wildlife.
There’s a lot of normative nuance here. Do we care more about our domesticated animals than wild animals? What is the responsibility of humans as individual cat owners, and as a society? If you want to grapple with your own values in these areas, this is a great podcast episode to check out.A Minor Post, Behavior, Behavioral Ecology, Belief, Commensalism, Conservation Biology, Ethics, Felids, Invasive Species, Law, Mutualism, Population Growth, Predation, Public Policy, Radio & Podcasts, Temperate Forest, Urban Ecology