Those of us who love the majesty of big cats often find ourselves mesmerized by footage of tigers, pumas, and lions going about their daily lives. We are fascinated by their agility, speed, instincts, and behaviors. It’s easy to see the similarities big cats share with their smaller, domestic cousins in our homes. Pound for pound, both have tremendous strength, wonder, and grace. Anyone who shares their life with a cat can agree that domestic cats carry the same independent streak that we see in big cats.
Despite these, and many more, similarities, big cats and the smaller cats who live among us are often seen very differently in the public eye. Yet when we apply the same scientific lens that we use for big cats to the domestic cat species, Felis catus, we can benefit from some dramatically changed perspectives.
Cats in the Landscape
Small cats have always had a place in the natural landscape. As cat behavior expert John Bradshaw wrote, “Cats still have three out of four paws firmly planted in the wild, and within only a few generations can easily revert to the independent way of life that was the exclusive preserve of their predecessors some 10,000 years ago.”
The ancestors of Felis catus first settled alongside humans in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. As ancient human civilization began amassing stores of grain, the grain attracted rodents, which in turn attracted cats. Since then, cats have traveled the world with humans, living side-by-side with us, most living self-sufficient lives outdoors. Today, we often refer to these outdoor cats, who don’t always rely on or seek close companionship with people, as feral or community cats.
Cats in our homes, by contrast, is a modern phenomenon. Only with the advent of spaying and neutering, and the arrival of kitty litter just 70 years ago, did it become practical for cats to live inside with us full time. However, the history of cats makes it very clear that it is just as natural for Felis catus to live outside as it is for lions and tigers, or closer to home, for squirrels, raccoons, and birds.
Food and Survival
All cats choose to live near food and shelter. Just as big cats such as lions move to follow their food, Felis catus gravitates toward the food sources that are available near human developments, as they did with ancient settlements thousands of years ago.[i]
So it is no surprise that studies have shown feral cats eat discarded food, bugs, and small rodents. When cats hunt, their successes are limited to animals who are convenient and easy to catch.[ii] The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds finds that birds who are caught are most often “weak or sickly” individuals. Predation is a normal process in nature that biologists explain plays a part in strengthening the prey species’ gene pool by ensuring the fittest survive to procreate.
In recent years, concerns have been raised about what impact outdoor cats might have on wildlife populations. It’s important to remember that Felis catus has been a part of the outdoors for thousands of years. In fact, a brief examination of history shows the removal of cats from ecosystems – something that is impossible to do in large terrains but has been done at great expense on a handful of small islands – can cause more harm than good to other species.
The main threats to all species on our planet are habitat destruction, climate change, pollution, and other human activities. The solutions to these problems rest in our hands. We humans need to adjust our behavior if we wish to see extinctions decrease. Condemning Felis catus ignores the real causes of species loss, reveals a disturbing ignorance of the long-standing symbiotic relationship between outdoor cats and human civilization, and betrays a startling lack of understanding of the feeding habits of outdoor cats. As noted conservationist Dr. William Lynn points out, “…even the most ardent supporter of rewilding should admit that it is human beings who bear direct moral responsibility for the ongoing loss of biodiversity in our world. A war on cats ignores their intrinsic value, wrongly blames them for mistakes of our own making, and fails to adequately use nonlethal measures to manage cats and wildlife.”
Toward Enlightened Public Policy
Accepting that cats around the world live outside with limited human contact is key to understanding and helping these animals. Just as many kind people feed birds to help them through winter, so, too, do others offer food and shelter for outdoor cats.
People can further help cats through Trap-Neuter-Return. TNR is a process in which cats are humanely trapped, spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and returned to their outdoor homes. Many communities have found that TNR stabilizes cat populations in areas of concern, stops cats from breeding, decreases euthanasia rates at shelters, reduces the number of calls of concern about cats that local governments receive, and saves taxpayer money. Even for those who are not interested in feral cats, this last point – saving taxpayer dollars – is a compelling reason to support TNR. TNR also keeps cats from being killed simply because they are unsocialized to humans and therefore unadoptable. For these reasons, communities increasingly conclude TNR consistently produces the best results among all options available to coexist with community cats.
One approach that has repeatedly failed is catching and killing outdoor cats. After more than 100 years of catch-and-kill policies across America, an ever-growing number of cities and counties have moved on and have no interest in going backward. In Washington, D.C., for example, the City Paper (September 15, 2015) reported on a controversial, regressive wildlife plan proposed by a city agency: “…Washington Humane Society’s vice president of external affairs, Scott Giacoppo, wrote that the Wildlife Action Plan as proposed ‘would result in the rounding up and killing of feral cats – essentially a reversal back to the animal policies of the 1800s that were ultimately proven to have no impact on the population at all.’” In December 2016, in response to extensive public pressure and strenuous objections by the city’s animal control agency, the D.C. City Council voted unanimously to remove language from the wildlife plan implementation bill that would have allowed the Department of Energy and Environment to eradicate feral cats.
Here to Stay
When cats are removed from an ecosystem in a catch-and-kill program, neighboring cats move in to take advantage of the food and shelter. These new cats reproduce and the population rebounds. This is called the vacuum effect. Catching and killing cats is an endless cycle that is a waste of money. Millions of cats are killed year after year, yet feline populations persist. The resounding failure of this approach throughout time has been a major driver across America to find more effective and humane approaches. Thus far, TNR is the best we have found.
More importantly, this is a compassionate country whose people don’t want cats rounded up and killed. Some wildlife advocates, and even a few misguided animal right activists, call for the extermination of outdoor cats, but these calls are grossly out of steps with American public opinion. In a 2007 Harris Interactive poll, more than 80 percent of Americans indicated they believe leaving a stray cat outside to live out her life is more humane than having the cat caught and killed. When calls are made to round up and kill massive numbers of cats, time and again society balks. Peter Marra and Chris Santella, in their book, Cat Wars, admit as much in their assessment of the lack of political support for rounding up and killing cats, concluding, “American authorities remain resistant (if not heartily opposed) to the idea of managing free-ranging populations by lethal means.”[iii]
Our discomfort with government catch-and-kill policies for cats is compounded as we become aware that this lethal method is grossly ineffective. More and more cities and counties across the nation have come to see that cats are part of the fabric of the modern American landscape. Increasingly, TNR programs are recognized as a mainstream approach to managing the cohabitation of cats and humans in shared ecosystems.
Every cat, big and small, should be valued and protected. We strive for a world where all domestic cats have a safe community in which to live, including those whose homes are outdoors.
[i] Fitzgerald, B. Mike and Dennis Turner. “Hunting behavior of domestic cats and their impact on prey populations.” In The Domestic Cat: The Biology of Its Behavior, 2nd Ed., Turner, Dennis C. and Patrick Bateson eds. (Cambridge University Press: New York, 2000) 164.
[ii] Fitzgerald, B. Mike and Dennis Turner, pp. 151-175.
[iii] Peter P. Marra and Chris Santella. 2016. Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 106.
This post was previously published on National Geographic’s CatWatch, March 10, 2017.
This post was previously published on Huffington Post, March 15, 2017.