The Inconvenient Truth About Cats

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


Taking The Family Out Of Family Day: Rethinking B.C.'s Newest Stat Holiday

The initiation of B.C. Family Day as a statutory holiday represents, for many, a personal and historical triumph.  For others however, it is simply more weight added to an already cumbersome load. If politics can guarantee us anything, it might be that policymaking never fails to polarize public opinion.  Between divided schools of thought, legislation has a tendency to fall into a, “he-said-she-said” table tennis of political forum, making something as seemingly innocuous as Family Day, become the main thrust of incendiary debate.

Part and parcel of premier Christy Clark’s, "Families First" agenda, (a political platform focused on creating policies to ease the burden of B.C. families), the new stat holiday pays homage to the prior two decades of multiple failed legislation attempts, aimed at establishing a statutory holiday for B.C. families.  Following Clark’s successful election however, on October 3, 2011, it was announced that as a primary measure, a new stat holiday would be introduced to celebrate families across the province.  After a 31,000 strong public poll, the date was adopted for the second Monday of the second month of the New Year, and on February 11th, British Columbia observed its first ever, inaugural B.C. Family Day.

As the general public moves to adopt the new bill with little apparent trepidation, political charades continue to line the coat pockets of public opinion.  In reality, Family Day is more pomp and circumstance than political idealism, and (notwithstanding the nature of politics) it might be reasonable to assume that a strategically concocted pre-election initiative, (like Family Day) may very well prove beneficial for the Liberals when it comes to the voting ballot in May.  Of course let us not forget that Family Day arrives late to British Columbia, having already been well established as a provincial statutory holiday in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, P.E.I. and Saskatchewan.

Proponents of the new bill proclaim that Family Day is not only fiscally advantageous for the province but also essential to the well being of our society.  Balance might well be the operative word here.  If we type into Google the reasons for why people take holidays, several common factors emerge.  Fitness, mind and body, relaxation, inspiration, reconnection, discovery, sleep, family, health, productivity and kindness… These are what contribute to a life well balanced and well lived.  With this in mind, many concede that compensations like Family Day, are representative of our government’s newfound commitment to general well being.  Marianne Drew-Pennington from BC Council for Families concurs, stating, "setting aside an annual holiday in B.C. that values parenting and the role of families in raising children and building communities demonstrates appreciation for these unsung heroes.”  But before we blow our own horn, let us not forget the many other presiding issues on the docket that plague political morality, such as, lower childcare costs, affordable daycare, (at present childcare costs in BC are anywhere from between $9,000 to $14,000 per year per child), demand for more licensed childcare facilities, and pediatric care.  Therefore, another stat holiday linking New Years and Easter seems to falls short of other, more pressing political issues.

Christy Clark, alongside Margaret MacDiarmid, Minister of Labour, Citizens’ Services and Open Government, have proudly advocated that the statutory holiday is intended not only to celebrate B.C. families, but also to support local economies by encouraging its citizens to utilize their communities’ resources, programs and special events.  Clark claims that B.C. Family Day will therefore see a subsequent (albeit 2-3 day spike) in public spending during the off-season, when economies and businesses tend to flounder.  Both Chris Dadson, president of Kootenay Rockies, and Tourism Minister Pat Bell, have defended Clark’s sentiment, arguing that the holiday will provide a significant boost to the B.C. tourism sector.   Working hand-in-hand with a variety of partners (including B.C. Parks, municipalities, regional tourism associations, the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association, the Canada West Ski Areas Association and the private sector) the province has labored to create affordable opportunities for families to enjoy the special day together.  In Vancouver for example, there were concerts featuring local Juno award winners, as well as street entertainment, face painting, a hockey shoot out, local artists and more.  Ian Tostenson, president of the BC Restaurant and Foodservices Association concurs, saying, “B.C. Restaurant Week February 11 to 17 coincides with Family Day and showcases the incredible innovation and value of our industry…We encourage everyone to get together with their loved ones on Family Day and support the many people who own and operate restaurant and food establishments in B.C. and continue that celebration throughout the week."  This statement was echoed by David Lynn, president and CEO of Canada’s West Ski Areas Association, who said, “We are very pleased with the outcome and we are confident that this decision will drive significant benefits for the tourism industry, the provincial economy and the people of British Columbia.”

Apart from all the praising proclamations made by our politicians and chairmen, criticism of the bill continues to plague its advocates.  Many small business owners reject the onus of Family Day, which places unnecessary financial strain by forcing them to pay staff for an extra day.  In response to the censure, Christy Clark stated, “a lot of other economies across Canada have gotten used to Family Day, including Saskatchewan, which is one of the fastest growing now.”  While this is true, we must take into account B.C.’s modest economic growth forecasted for the coming years.  Comparing our economy to Saskatchewan’s is not necessary representative.  It is a well-known fact that our prairie brethren lead the nation not by political idealism, but by potash, oil and gas. B.C. might well reap the benefits of its own liquefied natural gas project in the coming months, (if the premier gets her way) however the bulk of our GDP still relies heavily on foresting and mining, which cannot altogether realistically compete with the economies of Alberta and Saskatchewan.  And while B.C. continues to reel from the grips of a harrowing recession, we begin to emerge within a shrewder consciousness that echoes the sentiment nothing in life is free.  So without the stars in our eyes, we start to wonder… who is footing the bill?

British Columbians already enjoy nine statutory holidays per year, with a minimum two-week vacation entitlement (presaged in B.C.’s Employment Standards Act) as well as an additional one-week vacation extension after five years of employment, and five days of entitled unpaid family leave.  Critics of Family Day argue that adding another statutory holiday is therefore not only unnecessary, but also costly.  Businesses that close for the holiday lose an entire production day, while their wage costs remains the same, (since workers must be paid an average day’s pay). With no offsetting reduction costs and lower revenues, owners, employees and consumers therefore end up footing the bill.  Although higher prices may conceivably compensate for the loss, increasingly competitive markets for most goods and services make this option ultimately unviable.  Notwithstanding the recession and our slow growing economy, the HST/PST debacle, and the minimum wage increase, (recently imposed by the Clark government) the Canadian Federation of Independent Business estimates that BC Family Day will cost small and medium businesses roughly $42 million.  This of course, does not take into account the added cost of any larger businesses.  And let us not us forget about the average B.C. family, for whom this particular stat holiday is supposedly intended.  As an illustration, Canadian taxpayers will subsidize tens of millions of dollars to provide the additional (paid) day off for the 359,000 provincial and municipal public sector workers, (or the two and a half times standard pay if they work the stat).  And while Clark and those in her camp, claim that the holiday will rather improve the economy, (as families are expected to spend money on entertainment and recreational activities) any increase in demand for goods and services will be offset by the increased wage costs businesses will have to bear.  However additional concerns over the nexus effects of the bill, have many British Columbians worried.  Increased spending by families on their day off may potentially contribute to less spending at other times throughout the year, while the obligatory onus on local businesses to provide free services or reduced rates to promote Family Day will not only see a loss of revenue, but will also increase total annual expenditure, as they will have to sustain the increased wage costs.  Lastly, there is no guarantee that a day off for British Columbians will provide B.C. with the kind of economic stimulus that has been projected.  Many use long weekends to travel southward or east to Alberta, (such is evident with Alberta’s Family Day which conversely sees a modest commercial boost to B.C.’s economy during the third week of February).

Family Day may seem like a noble gesture by the Clark government to provide support for B.C. Families and stimulate local economies, however, we as the taxpayer, must call a spade a spade.  The bottom line is, statutory holidays are not free. Taxpayers, workers, and business end up paying, which is why it is important that we understand fully the implications of such policies.  There are indeed many benefits that coincide with the implementation of Family Day, primarily the opportunity to disengage from the rigorous (albeit sometimes tedious) routine of daily life, and we can all agree that balance in order to promote general well being should never be undervalued.  However, like all things political, policy presents polarization, and in the end, divides society along diverging beliefs and interests.  Therefore, to form a holistic opinion on any political policy, it is imperative that we, the people and taxpayers, educate ourselves on the full intention, implication, cause and effect of each government policy, so we too can make decisions based on our own welfare and understanding.

- Elizabeth Cucnik




Bill C-45: Redefining Canada's Idea of Democracy

Canada’s Conservative government has made many promises over the years, some of which have simply slid into the slipstream of political darkness, while others have conveniently been cut up into bite-size, chewable pieces that our politicians can easily swallow.  Of course, when it comes to the world of the shrewd, we shouldn’t expect anything less.  If we were completely honest with ourselves, we would assume that the realization of any political promise (especially those sprinkled lavishly along the campaign trail) does not reality make.  This year however, the Conservative government seems to be tackling some of its pre-election campaign pledges to strengthen the Canadian economy by reassessing the federal budget.  Even if, (surprise surprise) the effectiveness goes hand-in-hand with other, less favorable legislations… (But hey, we’ll take whatever we can get, right?)  While Canada struggles to wriggle free from the clasp of a worldwide recession, all things fiscal continue to dominate the political arena and, albeit, public discernment.  At the forefront of Canadian concern, we see the economy affecting all aspects of society.  The reality of budget balancing, fiscal management, federal spending and taxes, is therefore not only imperative but also fundamental, (as it speaks directly to our democratic consciousness).  However, while the dream of Canadian equality appears to be dwindling in the face of our increasingly stratified culture, redemption by the Conservatives seems like a tall order to fill.

Wrapped up lavishly in a 443-page federal budget omnibus bill, 64 pieces of legislation, (touching on everything from environmental rules, to business tax breaks, to judge’s salaries and employees’ take-home pay) reveals the more demure, democratic side of parliament (perhaps a consequence of public pressure from media, nonprofits and other government-regulating groups).  Pension reform has been the thrust of that impetus, which, if carried out successfully, will consequently save our government over $2.6 billion.  So just how does it do it?  Well, firstly by removing some of the financial onus off of the crestfallen taxpayer’s shoulders. This means making those platinum-plated retirement plans for federal employees far less generous.

The move to self-regulate, disperse, change and equalize comes at a ripe hour.  Many Canadians have no pensions whatsoever, while the rest of us can only dream of receiving such hefty sums upon retirement, (which, by the way, the Conservatives have increased by two years). The Canadian Taxpayers Federation was recently quoted saying that Canada’s MPs have the best pension fund "on the planet,” the bulk of which is contributed by the taxpayer, albeit padded lavishly by kush legislation that ensures maximum growth and protection.  Currently, our government subsidizes the majority of government pensions, dishing out six times the amount paid by MPs into the plan.  However statistics released last June by the CTF tallied an even greater cost disparity between the taxpayer and the MP, tipping the scales at a staggering 24:1 ratio.

If we were to break it all down into laymen’s terms, the reality of government expenditure on things like federal employee pension plans would come as a dreadful surprise.  Presently each MP makes just under $158,000 a year and, following the current legislation, after only six years of sitting in the House, at 55 years of age, each MP qualifies for a pension based on the average of his or her best five years of salary.  This means Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be eligible to collect a pension of at least $223,500 per year by 2015, while Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae, (if he continues as party leader) can collect a pension of at least $71,400 per annum.   NDP MP Pierre-Luc Dusseault on the other hand, who was elected last year at the age of 19, can collect a pension of $40,000 per year if he retires at the age of 27, while twenty more MPs will be able to collect over $100,000 a year if they retire or lose after the following election.  This of course, is not taking into account the guaranteed 10.4 per cent interest rate, which, (by the way) outperforms the Canada Pension Plan by 60 per cent over the last 10 years.  Based on the interest rate return, taxpayers are therefore paying an additional $248,668 into the fund, per MP.  If we combine dollar contribution and the guaranteed interest rate, we see that our input into these funds, amounts to a staggering $102 million a year.  Yes, we may not know it, but we are indeed making those deep politician pockets, even deeper.  Without a doubt, this sham is an exploitation of magnanimously epic proportions, highlighting a severely misplaced trust in our hallowed conviction of all things “democratic.”  So while our government doth protests that it is attempting to make the necessary changes, one has to wonder, what other undemocratic elements plague this administration?

Looking at the upside of Bill C-45, Canadians can be somewhat pleased that parliamentarians will soon share the cost of their pension contributions on a 50-50 basis with taxpayers, (which means that Harper himself would be giving up at least $70,000 a year in eventual pension payments). However, despite the progressions, there is an undercurrent of dubiousness that seems to mock Bill-C45, calling into question the very democratic nature of our own government.  For example, it is uncertain how much MP’s and senator’s salaries might increase to compensate for the proposed pension contribution requirements, while those already serving will not have to worry about any pension eligibility change.  Yet critics argue that some of the other major changes presented in the bill are also inherently inequitable, such as the Navigable Waters Protection Act, the elimination of the Hazardous Materials Information Review Commission, the removal of the federal board for Employment Insurance premium rates, and the Merchant Seamen Compensation Board.  And while the word, “undemocratic” seems almost offensive to Canadians, it may very well be because we live, for the most part, under a veil of political ignorance and apathy.  The truth is, governments are like businesses, predominately ruled by personal gain, self-interest and profit and ours is no different.  This is why it is more important than ever for Canadians to speak out and have a voice in local and federal government.  We must understand and appreciate the power of collective knowledge, activity, awareness and engagement that can ultimately affect  the very landscape of our own political future.

-Elizabeth Cucnik