When we think about our pets, the majority of us think companionship, friendship and domestication. Cats, much like their canine counterparts, have co-existed alongside humanity throughout millennia, and have entertained various roles in human civilization for nearly 10,000 years. The subject of legend and deities, sacred symbolism and the occult, cats have enjoyed a predominate manifestation of worldwide culture. The most widely accepted theory for the domestication of cats dictates that over time, cats diverged from their wild African ancestors through natural selection, and while tolerated by humans, easily adapted to hunting vermin in and around human settlements. It wasn’t until the late 15th century however, that migrants from Europe introduced the common house cat to North America. The domestic feline has since retained a presence in the Western Hemisphere, effecting not only society, but also the delicate coexistence between man and nature.
The issue of cat control is not a simple one. Deriving from the complex of animal management, the argument over owned ‘outdoor’ cats, as well as the crusade to save or discourage feral populations, not only polarizes, but also transcends public opinion. Having become something of an institutional belief, the debate over cat control has paved the way for a grassroots advocacy. The debate over feral populations and household cats, involves a multilateral approach that includes meta-analysis study and cross-disciplinary methodology. Considerations over the history and nature of the domestic cat, as well as the environmental impacts and risk factors associated with ‘free-roaming’ felines, are measured against an anthropogenic effect on the entire global ecosystem. These types of studies provide us with a thorough illustration demonstrating the cause and effects of pet-ownership as well as outline possible solutions to the damages that follow pet owner negligence.
A recent breakthrough study conducted by the University of Georgia and National Geographic offers a stunning in-depth look into the lives and behaviors of domestic cats. Researchers attached individual micro video cameras to sixty outdoor house cats in Athens, Georgia, whereby scientists were able to visually examine the lives of these study cats throughout the four seasons. Staggeringly, the report revealed these cats averaged roughly one kill for every 17 hours spent outside, which translates into 2.1 kills per week. Of these kills, only 25 percent made it back to the home. This astonishing discovery challenges previous mortality rates of birds and animals by outdoor house cats that were formerly estimated at around one billion per year. Now experts agree that outdoor cats kill up to 4 billion animals a year, (that includes birds, lizards, mice, voles, chipmunks, shrews, frogs and snakes, all of which are key components to a balanced ecosystem). The study however, did not incorporate the impact of the estimated 60 million feral or stray cats that roam the United States alone, which, as previous research suggests, contributes equally, (if not more) to the mortality rates of North American wildlife. If we take into consideration these wayward populations, we are thus looking at a dramatic increase in such numbers, whereby we face an astounding ecological disorder. The findings of a recently published peer-reviewed study, lead by a team of research scientists from the Smithsonian Conservations Biology Institute of Migratory Birds, estimates that 2.4 billion birds and between 6.9 billion to 20.7 billion mammals are killed annually in the United States by both feral and house cats that are allowed to roam free. However, the environmental impact of outdoor cats may not be the only thing that will have cat owners second-guessing their free-roaming felines. The University of Georgia and National Geographic study also revealed that those study cats engaged in risky activity, whereby 45 percent crossed roads, 20 percent entered storm drains and crawlspaces, and 25 percent interacted with unfamiliar cats, increasing the potential for fights or disease transmission.
In Dennis Turner’s book, The Domestic Cat, Turner defines the house cat as a creature of interdependence, which, unlike dogs, predisposes them to wander and hunt at will. In other words, our furry little friends lead a sort of double life – half familial, half wild, a little bit of nature, and a little bit of culture. John Bradshaw, author of, The Behaviour of the Domestic Cat, concurs, stating that, “in behavioural terms, domestication has probably had less effect on the cat than on any other domestic animal. Association with man has little altered the cat’s wild behavior patterns.” According to Bradshaw, domestic cats have therefore preserved a gamut of fully functional predatory behaviors that are practiced from an early age by kittens and used to a substantial degree by adults. This understanding of the domestic cat heralds the visceral notion that our feline friends are not meant to be kept indoors because they are inherently wild. However there are several problems with this theory. As both Turner and Bradshaw illustrate, household cats are not in fact wild animals, rather they are domesticated creatures that display certain dominant, instinctual behaviors. Nevertheless having incorporated cats into our human way of life for the past several thousand years, we cannot realistically assume that cats can thus be left to their own devices. Moreover, while cats are not native predators to the Western Hemisphere, nesting North American birds like the quail, have no natural defenses to offset any attack from such agile predators. It is an inconvenient truth for cat lovers everywhere – that cats disturb wildlife, and if left unchecked, wildlife may not continue to persist in the manner that it does today. Of course, cats alone are not wholly to blame for the deteriorating state of our present ecosystem; while pollution, habit destruction, climate change and anthropogenic threat all contribute to species decline. However, cats are nevertheless a catalytic factor that society at large can no longer ignore.
Many cities and countries worldwide are revisiting the complex issue of cat predation, domestic control and feral populations. In Duluth, Minnesota, for example, the city reinforces a leash law, making it illegal for any cat to roam freely, (even in one’s own yard), without proper supervision. As of January 1rst 2011, Oakville, Ontario, has joined neighboring communities of Milton, Burlington and Hamilton in the prohibition of free roaming cats, while a countrywide ban on all outdoor cats has recently been proposed in New Zealand by renowned environmentalist, Gareth Morgan. Morgan, who has gained worldwide notoriety for the said proposal, advocates that cats should be kept indoors, and that cat owners should be forced to invest in outdoor cat-proof enclosures. For many pet owners, Morgan’s proposal may seem exceedingly far-fetched, unethical or even unconstitutional, however, in reality, the prohibition of outdoor house cats, actually favors the cat lover. Based on the University of Georgia and National Geographic study, we now know that life for an outdoor cat is anything but ideal. Death and injury from vehicles, dogs, coyotes, and other wildlife, as well as the potential to contract fatal diseases such as rabies, feline distemper, and the feline immunodeficiency virus, as well as the number of lost, stolen or poisoned cats, makes an outdoor lifestyle for this domestic pet, inherently dangerous. It is a known fact that outdoor cats on average, lead significantly shorter lives than their indoor counterparts, not to mention the health threat free-roaming and feral cats pose to humans populations through the spread of diseases like rabies and toxoplasmosis. Hence the push to remove outdoor cats from our culture supports both cat lovers and bird and animal conservationists alike. The solution should therefore appear straightforward. Cat owners must keep their cats indoors, whereby organizations, coalitions and conservation groups should lobby local government to pass animal bylaws prohibiting free-roaming cats, (just as they do dogs and other domesticated pets). Secondly, the public, alongside pet-owners and policy makers, should be educated by veterinarians, the SPCA and local animal groups on how to provide the ideal indoor lifestyle/environment for their cats, which includes at least one litter box per cat (cleaned daily), something to scratch, resting areas, perches, toys and places for refuge. Additionally, properly enclosed and supervised outdoor areas for cats should be considered, as well as training leashes and bell collars.
The solution for the feral cat populations on the other hand, is slightly less definitive. While some argue that a Trap Neuter Release program may help to reduce the number of feral cats, opponents argue that the practice is far too difficult to administer, time consuming, costly and ultimately ineffective, (especially while those cats released back into the communities still continue the carnage of destroying wildlife). Many conservationists, researchers and scientists propose that these cats be kept either in supervised enclosures, trapped and adopted out to loving homes or euthanized. Maureen Palmer, producer of the documentary, Cat Crazed, spoke out about her experiences during filming, where she witnessed the sterilization of feral cats at a volunteer spay-neuter clinic in Los Angeles. Palmer describes the incident as “heart-breaking,” while most of the feral cats observed had infections that would never heal, broken bones, and large abscesses around their teeth and mange. Palmer’s horrific detail supports the SPCA’s proposal of euthanizing those cats that are sick and present a health hazard to the general public. So while the jury is still out on how communities and local governments should deal with feral populations, one thing remains absolutely clear – the real antagonist is not the outdoor house cat or the feral cat; it is rather the irresponsible pet owner who is part and parcel of a culture of cat autonomy. Any initiative to stop the support of feral cat populations by banning public feeding and cracking down on pet negligence, as well as decreasing the amount of outdoor house cats through public awareness and the implementation of animal bylaws, will help to support the recovery of our native bird and animal species. In doing so, we would also be investing in our future by providing some restorative measures to help sustain the delicate balance of our ecosystem. In order to reduce the impact of cats, scientifically sound protection; public awareness and policy intervention is needed. The cat control debate is therefore not a call to fight, but rather a call to action, one that everyone worldwide must answer.
- Elizabeth Cucnik