If You Build It, They Will Come

Vox Felina logo: one-year anniversary

…though I am certainly in the “pro-cat” camp, I am not at all “anti-wildlife.” I’m far more interested in finding common ground than I am in further polarizing the parties involved. That said, I will not stand idly by while opponents of feral/free-roaming cats—and TNR in particular—mishandle, misconstrue, and misrepresent the research for PR purposes.

…effective public policy… is needed more urgently than ever. But to get there—to really tackle this incredibly complex issue—we first need to untangle some of what’s being said. This is precisely what I intend to do with Vox Felina. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis put it so eloquently, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

I wrote those words a year ago today, thus launching Vox Felina.

A year into this project, the vision and mission remain unchanged. As does my commitment to “illuminate” the bogus claims made by those who continue to promote the shameless witch hunt against free-roaming cats.

This commitment, I now realize, will keep me busy for a very long time. (Imagine: at one time, I actually worried about running out of material!)

Over the past twelve months, I’ve accumulated hundreds of academic papers, theses and dissertations, book chapters, reports of all kinds, and newspaper articles. (Despite the cumbersome nature of the process, I still believe in reading what I cite; this, I’ve learned, is not to be taken for granted.)

Posts frequently exceed 4,000—even 5,000 words. (At 348 words, that inaugural post was easily one of the “leanest.”) And still, the to-do list continues to grow.

But, so does the audience.

Vox Felina has attracted the attention of the San Francisco Chronicle, Best Friends Animal Society, and Animal Wise Radio, among others.

At last check, the blog has 157 subscribers and 621 “Likes” on the Vox Felina Facebook page.

Best of all—and much to my surprise and delight—the blog has attracted a team of die-hard supporters who go out of their way to provide me with news items, background information and material, and invaluable feedback. To these bright, ambitious, and generous souls—many of whom I’ve yet to meet—I am immensely grateful and deeply indebted.

As I say, the task at hand is greater than I anticipated—but so is the collective will to accomplish the task. So, a moment of celebration (e.g., a slice of cake, a toast, etc.), and then it’s back to work.

Year 2 begins…

Cat Management Plan Reads Like Fiction

In her recent attempt to “respond to recent comments and misinformation voiced by concerned citizens,” Anne Morkill, Refuge Manager for the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges, misrepresented both the rationale for, and implications of, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s indefensible Predator Management Plan. My response to Morkill’s opinion piece was published in today’s Upper Keys Free Press (download 15.4 MB PDF) (p. 43) under the headline “Cat management plan reads like fiction”:

I’d like to challenge some of the assertions made by Anne Morkill in her recent letter (“Refuges, animal advocates have common goal,” March 30), beginning with her suggestion that the impact of free-roaming cats on the Keys’ wildlife is well understood. In fact, the rationale presented by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in its Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex Integrated Predator Management Plan/Draft Environmental Assessment (download PDF) demonstrated quite clearly that the organization lacks the necessary understanding (e.g., estimates of population size, range, diet, etc.) to begin “managing” cats on or near the refuges.

Given the fact that the USFWS has been struggling with this issue for years (at taxpayer expense, of course), one might expect a better foundation of knowledge from which to proceed (again, at taxpayer expense).

Morkill is quick to brush aside allegations that wildlife impacts have “been overstated and the science is flawed,” but offers little in the way of details. She notes the obvious—that cats do kill birds, small mammals and so forth—but says nothing about the extent of such predation or its impact on those populations of greatest concern (e.g., the Lower Keys marsh rabbit and Key Largo woodrat, etc.). And her mention of “popular literature” as a legitimate source for such evidence—a reference, I assume, to Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom, in which the author (who sits on the board of the American Bird Conservancy) gives voice to his own opinions about cats and birds through one of his characters—is enough to erode any credibility she may have had on the subject.

On the other hand, much of the “justification for action” presented by USFWS in its Predator Management Plan is itself a kind of fiction. To support their claim that free-roaming cats have been a major cause of 33 extinctions around the world, for example, USFWS references studies of species that simply aren’t extinct. And, among the “evidence” of island extinctions are studies that—in addition to having nothing to do with extinctions—were not conducted on islands (e.g., rural Wisconsin, the small English village of Felmersham, etc.).

USFWS claims that free-roaming cats kill at least one billion birds every year in the U.S., but provides virtually nothing in the way of support. Indeed, one the three articles referenced—published in a birding magazine—is about defending one’s garden from neighborhood cats (“… try a B-B or pellet gun. There is no need to kill or shoot toward the head, but a good sting on the rump seems memorable for most felines, and they seldom return for a third experience.”). Another article cited by USFWS isn’t about cats at all. Or even invasive animals. It’s about invasive plants.

For USFWS to include such egregious errors in its Predator Management Plan (and there are plenty more, as I’ve documented in my comments to USFWS) suggests carelessness, clearly, but also a disregard for the public they are supposed to serve.

Had USFWS been more diligent in its review of the science, its plan would have addressed the risk of removing free-roaming cats from the Keys. If the agency were successful in removing the cats (unlikely, given their poor track record), the population of black rats would likely skyrocket—and decimate the very populations of native birds, mice and rats USFWS is trying to protect. As would the use of rodenticides that they would use ordinarily to control the population of rats. This phenomenon is well documented in the scientific literature, yet USFWS fails to acknowledge even the possibility in the Keys.

And they fail to acknowledge what’s involved in “successful” removal efforts. On Marion Island, located in the sub-Antarctic Indian Ocean, it took 19 years to eradicate something like 2,200 cats—using disease, poisoning, intensive hunting and trapping, and dogs. This, on an island that’s only 115 square miles in total area (slightly smaller than the combined area of the Keys), barren and uninhabited. The cost, I’m sure, was astronomical.

USFWS has a much more difficult task on its hands, obviously, though one would never guess this was the case reading through its Predator Management Plan.

And finally, a few comments about Morkill’s claim that “the service will not kill any cats.” Does she really think readers won’t pick up on the game she’s playing? If USFWS goes through with its plan, as proposed, it’s quite likely that many cats will end up dead. Does it matter that the dirty work will be done by Monroe County animal control shelters, rather than USFWS? As Morkill points out, the shelters “will be responsible for choosing the best future for the cats,” which, she adds, “may be adopted by individuals or groups that can provide long-term care.”

I asked Connie Christian, executive director of the Florida Keys SPCA, about this issue earlier this year, and she told me, “We do not have an outlet for feral cats that are brought to us without a request for return.” In other words, that “best future” Morkill refers to is—almost certainly—no future at all.

Like Morkill, I “agree that this is a people problem.” Unfortunately, she missed the irony in her comment: some of the people at the heart of the problem are right there at USFWS.

(Animal) Wise Guy

Animal Wise Radio Logo

My sincere thanks to Animal Wise Radio hosts Mike Fry and Beth Nelson for giving me the opportunity to talk about Vox Felina on Sunday’s show. I highly recommend tuning in each week, or adding the show to your list of favorite podcasts.

If you missed it, you can check the complete show in podcast format (there are two segments dated 4/10/11). An MP3 file (21 MB) of my interview (approximately 22 minutes) is available here.

The Feral Feeding Movement

SF Weekly Cover (30-Mar-11)

SF Weekly is San Francisco’s smartest publication. That’s because we take journalism seriously, but not so seriously that we let ourselves be guided by an agenda.”

At least that’s what the paper’s Website says.

Now, as somebody who reads SF Weekly only rarely, I want to be careful not to generalize. But if last week’s feature story is typical, then it’s time for the paper to update either its About page or its editorial standards.

“Live and Let Kill” isn’t particularly smart. And, as journalism, it falls well short of the “serious” category.

Reporter Matt Smith argues that “greater scrutiny may be just what the feral feeding movement needs,” while he swallows in one gulp the numerous unsubstantiated claims made by TNR opponents.

Indeed, Smith pays more attention to colony caretaker Paula Kotakis’ “cat-hunting outfit” (“green nylon jacket, slacks, and muddied black athletic shoes”) and her mental health (“For Kotakis, strong emotions and felines go together like a cat and a lap.”) than he does the scientific papers he references (never mind those he overlooks).

His reference to “the feral feeding movement” reflects Smith’s fundamental misunderstanding of TNR, and his dogged efforts to steer the conversation away from sterilization, population control, reduced shelter killing, and the like—to focus on the alleged environmental consequences of subsidizing these “efficient bird killers and disease spreaders.”

Here, too, Smith misses the mark—failing to dig into the topic deeply enough to get beyond press releases, superficial observations, rhetorical questions, and his own bias.

Make no mistake: there’s an agenda here.

Science: The Usual Suspects
“Environmentalists,” writes Smith, “point out that outdoor cats are a greater problem to the natural ecological balance than most people realize.” Actually, what most people (including Smith, perhaps) don’t realize is that Smith’s sources can only rarely defend their dramatic claims with solid science.

Populations and Predation
Smith’s reference to the American Bird Conservancy, which, we’re told, “estimates that America’s 150 million outdoor cats kill 500 million birds a year,” brings to mind the 2010 L.A. Times story in which Steve Holmer, ABC’s Senior Policy Advisor, told the paper there were 160 million feral cats in the country.

Smith got a better answer out of ABC—but ABC’s better answers are only slightly closer to the truth.

Surveys indicate that about two-thirds of pet cats are kept indoors, which means about 31 million are allowed outside (though about half of those are outdoors for less than two or three hours a day). [1–3]. So where do the other 120 million “outdoor cats” come from? And if there are really 150 million of them in the U.S.—roughly one outdoor cat for every two humans—why don’t we see more of them?

Reasonable questions, but Smith is no more interested in asking than ABC is in answering.

The closest Smith comes to supporting ABC’s predation numbers is a reference to Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom, a book “about a birder who declares war on ‘feline death squads’ and calls cats the ‘sociopaths of the pet world,’ responsible for killing millions of American songbirds.” (The fact that Franzen sits on ABC’s board of directors seems to have escaped Smith’s notice.)

In Smith’s defense, chasing down ABC’s predation numbers is a fool’s errand. Such figures—like the rest of ABC’s message regarding free-roaming cats—have more to do with marketing and politics than with science.

No 1. Killer?
For additional evidence, Smith turns to Pete Marra’s study of gray catbirds in and around Bethesda, MD.

“In urban and suburban areas, outdoor cats are the No. 1 killer of birds, by a long shot, according to a new study in the Journal of Ornithology. Researchers from the Smithsonian Institution put radio transmitters on young catbirds and found that 79 percent of deaths were caused by predators, nearly half of which were cats.”

Let’s see now… half of 79 percent… That’s nearly 40 percent of bird deaths caused by cats, right? Well, no.

Although SF Weekly included a link to the Ornithology article on its Website, it seems Smith never read the paper. Like so many others (e.g., The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, etc.), he went with the story being served up by Pete Marra and the Smithsonian.

The real story, it turns out, is far less dramatic than headlines would suggest. In fact, neighborhood cats were observed killing just six birds.

What’s more, even if Marra and his colleagues are correct about the three additional kills they attribute to cats, the title of “No. 1 killer of birds” goes not to the cats, but to unidentified predators, as detailed in the Ornithology paper:

“During our study of post-fledging survival, 61% (42/69) of individuals died before reaching independence. Predation on juveniles accounted for 79% (33/42) of all mortalities (Bethesda 75% (6/8), Spring Park 75% (12/16), and Opal Daniels 83% (15/18) with the vast majority (70%) occurring in the first week post-fledging. Directly observed predation events involved domestic cats (n = 6; 18%), a black rat snake (n = 1; 3%), and a red-shouldered hawk (n = 1; 3%). Although not all mortalities could be clearly assigned, fledglings found with body damage or missing heads were considered symptomatic of cat kills (n = 3; 9%), those found cached underground of rat or chipmunk predation (n = 7; 21%) and those found in trees of avian predation (n = 1; 3%). The remaining mortalities (n = 14; 43%) could not be assigned to a specific predator. Mortality due to reasons other than predation (21%) included unknown cause (n = 2; 22%), weather related (n = 2; 22%), window strikes (n = 2; 22%) and individuals found close to the potential nest with no body damage (n = 3; 34%), suggesting premature fledging, disease or starvation.” [4]

Taken together, the detailed mortality figures and the study’s small sample size make a mockery of Smith’s claim, and—more important—its implications for feral cat management. Which might explain why he didn’t bother to share this information with readers.

The Power of One
“If trappers miss a single cat,” warns Smith, “populations can rebound if they’re continuously fed, because a fertile female can produce 100 kittens in her lifetime. Miss too many, and the practice of leaving cat food in wild areas will actually increase their numbers by helping them to survive in the wild.”

As Michael Hutchins, Travis Longcore, and others have pointed out, I don’t have a degree in biology. Still, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that “a single cat” isn’t likely to reproduce on its own.

Nor is a female cat—even with help—going to produce 100 kittens over the course of her lifetime. A study of “71 sexually intact female cats in nine managed feral cat colonies” found that:

“Cats produced a mean of 1.4 litters/y, with a median of 3 kittens/litter (range, 1 to 6). Overall, 127 of 169 (75%) kittens died or disappeared before 6 months of age. Trauma was the most common cause of death.” [5]

To produce 100 kittens, then, an unsterilized female would have to live at least 25 years. Smith fails to reconcile—or even acknowledge—the obvious discrepancy between claims of of-the-charts fecundity and—to use David Jessup’s phrase—the “short, brutal lives” [6] of feral cats.

Do these cats breed well into their golden years, or, are they “sickened by bad weather, run over by cars, killed by coyotes, or simply starved because feeders weren’t able to attend to a cat colony for the several years or more that are called for,” as Smith suggests?

Clearly, the two scenarios are mutually exclusive.

California Quail
The closest we get to the “demise of native birds” promised on the cover is Smith’s observation that “wildlife advocates blame the city’s forgiving attitude toward feral cats for helping to almost wipe out native quail, which used to be commonplace.”

This is not a new complaint, as a 1992 story in the San Francisco Chronicle illustrates:

“A decade ago, the hedges and thickets of Golden Gate Park teemed with native songbirds and California Valley quail. Now the park is generally empty of avian life, save for naturalized species such as pigeons, English sparrows and starlings.” [7]

But the Chronicle, despite its dire proclamation (“One thing seems certain: San Francisco can have a healthy songbird population or lots of feral cats, but not both.” [7]), did no better than SF Weekly at demonstrating anything more than correlation. This, despite interviews with scientists from the California Academy of Sciences, Point Reyes Bird Observatory, and Golden Gate Chapter of the Audubon Society.

A few years later, Cole Hawkins thought he found the answer. Conducting his PhD work at Lake Chabot Regional Park, Hawkins reported that where there were cats, there were no California Quail—the result, he argued, “of the cat’s predatory behavior.” [8] In fact, Hawkins found very little evidence of predation, and failed to explain why the majority of ground-nesting birds in his study were indifferent to the presence of cats—thus undermining his own dramatic conclusions.

A quick look at A. Starker Leopold’s 1977 book The California Quail (a classic, it would seem, given how often it’s cited) offers some interesting insights on the subject. (Full disclosure: this was a quick look—I turned immediately to the glossary, and then to the two sections corresponding to “Predators, cats and dogs.”)

In the “Quail Mortality” chapter, Leopold describes Cooper’s Hawk as “the most efficient and persistent predator of California Quail,” [9] in stark contrast to cats.

“The house cat harasses quail and may drive them from the vicinity of a yard or a feeding station (Sangler, 1931), but there is little evidence that they catch many quail in wild situations. Hubbs (1951) analyzed the stomach contents of 219 feral cats taken in the Sacramento Valley and recorded one California Quail. Feral cats, like bobcats, prey mostly on rodents.” [9, emphasis mine]

The picture changes somewhat, though, when we get to Leopold’s chapter on “Backyard Quail”:

“Cats… not only molest quail, but skillful individuals capture them frequently… Feline pets that are fed regularly are not dependent on catching birds for a living, but rather they hunt for pleasure and avocation. They can afford to spend many happy hours stalking quail and other birds around the yard, and hence they are much more dangerous predators than truly feral cats that must hunt for a living and therefore seek small mammals almost exclusively (wild-living cats rarely catch birds).” [9]

As to how many “skillful individuals” reside in Golden Gate Park, it’s anybody’s guess. (The idea that few cats catch many birds while many cats catch few if any, however, is well supported in the literature.) And, while they may be well fed, it’s not clear that their very public “yard” and skittish nature afford the park’s cats “many happy hours stalking.”

(A more recent source, The Birds of North America, provides an extensive list of California Quail predators—including several raptor species, coyotes, ground squirrels, and rattlesnakes. Cats are mentioned only as minor players. [10])

Another complaint from the area’s wildlife advocates, writes Smith, is “Toxoplasma gondii, “shed in cat feces, that threatens endangered sea otters and other marine mammals.” But not all T. gondii is the same. In fact, nearly three-quarters of the sea otters examined as part of one well-known study [11] were infected with a strain of T. gondii that hasn’t been traced to domestic cats. [12]

Once again, domestic cats have become an easy target—but, as with their alleged impact on California Quail, there’s plenty we simply don’t know.

Feral Feeding

For Smith, the trouble with TNR is its long-term maintenance of outdoor cat populations. “Its years of regular feeding,” he argues, citing Travis Longcore’s selective review of the TNR literature, [13] (which Smith mischaracterizes as “a study”), “causes ‘hyperpredation,’ in which well-fed cats continue to prey on bird, mammal, reptile, and amphibian populations, even after these animals become so scarce they can no longer sustain natural predators.”

But that’s not what happened in Hawkins’ study (though he did his best to suggest as much). And it’s not what happened in the two Florida parks Castillo and Clarke used to study the impact of TNR.

Over the course of approximately 300 hours of observation (this, in addition to “several months identifying, describing, and photographing each of the cats living in the colonies” [14] prior to beginning their research), the researchers “saw cats kill a juvenile common yellowthroat and a blue jay. Cats also caught and ate green anoles, bark anoles, and brown anoles. In addition, we found the carcasses of a gray catbird and a juvenile opossum in the feeding area.” [14]

That’s it—from nearly 100 cats (about 26 at one site, and 65 at another).

Calhoon and Haspel, too, found little predation among the free-roaming cats they studied in Brooklyn: “Although birds and small rodents are plentiful in the study area, only once in more than 180 [hours] of observations did we observe predation.” [15]

Feeding and Population Control
Smith’s description of the vacuum effect reflects his misunderstanding of the phenomenon and the role feeding play in TNR more broadly:

“Feral cat advocates believe removing cats from the wild creates a natural phenomenon known as the ‘vacuum effect,’ in which new cats will replace absent ones. (Key to the ‘vacuum’ are the tons of cat food TNR supporters place twice a day, every day, at secret feeding stations nationwide.)”

Smith would have readers believe that TNR practitioners bait cats the way hunters bait deer. In fact, the food comes after the cat(s), not the other way around.

Cats are remarkably resourceful; where there are humans, there is generally food and shelter to be found. Indeed, even where no such support is provided, cats persist. On Marion Island—barren, uninhabited, and only 115 square miles in total area—it took 19 years to eradicate about 2,200 cats, using disease (feline distemper), poisoning, intensive hunting and trapping, and dogs. [16, 17]

As Bester et al. observe, the island’s cats didn’t require “tons of cat food” as an incentive to move into “vacuums”:

“The recolonization of preferred habitats, cleared of cats, from neighbouring suboptimal areas served to continually concentrate surviving cats in smaller areas.” [16]

Still, those “tons of cat food TNR supporters place twice a day, every day, at secret feeding stations nationwide” are key to the success of TNR—just not in the way Smith suggested. Feeding allows caretakers to monitor the cats in their care, “enrolling” new arrivals as soon as possible.

By bringing these cats out into the open—via managed colonies—they’re much more likely to be sterilized and, in some cases, vaccinated. Many will also find their way into permanent homes. Take away the food, and these cats will merely slip back into the surroundings, go “underground.”

And in no time at all, the ones that weren’t sterilized will be breeding.

•     •     •

By framing TNR (the “feral feeding movement,” as he insists on calling it) as “animal welfare ethics on one side, and classic environmental ethics on the other,” Smith overlooks some critical common ground: all parties are interested in reducing the population of feral cats. He also allows himself to give in to an easy—and rather tired—narrative: the crazy cat ladies v. the respected scientists.

At the same time Smith recognizes Kotakis’ dedication and accomplishment (“In her tiny bit of territory in the eastern parts of the park, her method and dedication might just have created a tipping point that has produced a humane ideal of fewer feral cats.”), he can’t resist commenting on her OCD (including a quote from a clinical psychologist who, we can safely assume, has never even met Kotakis).

Meanwhile, Smith couldn’t care less about looking into the science.

I suppose “Live and Let Kill” is balanced in the sense that Smith gives “equal time” to both sides of the issue, but that’s not good enough. Serious journalism demands that readers are provided the truest account possible.

Literature Cited
1. APPA, 2009–2010 APPA National Pet Owners Survey. 2009, American Pet Products Association: Greenwich, CT. http://www.americanpetproducts.org/pubs_survey.asp

2. Clancy, E.A., Moore, A.S., and Bertone, E.R., “Evaluation of cat and owner characteristics and their relationships to outdoor access of owned cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2003. 222(11): p. 1541-1545. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2003.222.1541

3. Lord, L.K., “Attitudes toward and perceptions of free-roaming cats among individuals living in Ohio.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2008. 232(8): p. 1159-1167. http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/javma_232_8_1159.pdf

4. Balogh, A., Ryder, T., and Marra, P., “Population demography of Gray Catbirds in the suburban matrix: sources, sinks and domestic cats.” Journal of Ornithology. 2011: p. 1-10. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10336-011-0648-7


5. Nutter, F.B., Levine, J.F., and Stoskopf, M.K., “Reproductive capacity of free-roaming domestic cats and kitten survival rate.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1399–1402. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2004.225.1399

6. Jessup, D.A., “The welfare of feral cats and wildlife.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1377-1383. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15552312


7. Martin, G. (1992, January 13). Feral Cats Blamed for Decline In Golden Gate Park Songbirds. The San Francisco Chronicle, p. A1,

8. Hawkins, C.C., Impact of a subsidized exotic predator on native biota: Effect of house cats (Felis catus) on California birds and rodents. 1998, Texas A&M University

9. Leopold, A.S., The California Quail. 1977, Berkeley: University of California Press.

10. Calkins, J.D., Hagelin, J.C., and Lott, D.F., California quail. The Birds of North America: Life Histories for the 21st Century. 1999, Philadelphia, PA: Birds of North America, Inc. 1–32.

11. Conrad, P.A., et al., “Transmission of Toxoplasma: Clues from the study of sea otters as sentinels of Toxoplasma gondii flow into the marine environment.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2005. 35(11-12): p. 1155-1168. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6T7F-4GWC8KV-2/2/2845abdbb0fd82c37b952f18ce9d0a5f

12. Miller, M.A., et al., “Type X Toxoplasma gondii in a wild mussel and terrestrial carnivores from coastal California: New linkages between terrestrial mammals, runoff and toxoplasmosis of sea otters.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2008. 38(11): p. 1319-1328. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6T7F-4RXJYTT-2/2/32d387fa3048882d7bd91083e7566117

13. Longcore, T., Rich, C., and Sullivan, L.M., “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return.” Conservation Biology. 2009. 23(4): p. 887–894. http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/pdf/Management_claims_feral_cats.pdf

14. Castillo, D. and Clarke, A.L., “Trap/Neuter/Release Methods Ineffective in Controlling Domestic Cat “Colonies” on Public Lands.” Natural Areas Journal. 2003. 23: p. 247–253.

15. Calhoon, R.E. and Haspel, C., “Urban Cat Populations Compared by Season, Subhabitat and Supplemental Feeding.” Journal of Animal Ecology. 1989. 58(1): p. 321–328. http://www.jstor.org/pss/5003

16. Bester, M.N., et al., “A review of the successful eradication of feral cats from sub-Antarctic Marion Island, Southern Indian Ocean.” South African Journal of Wildlife Research. 2002. 32(1): p. 65–73.


17. Bloomer, J.P. and Bester, M.N., “Control of feral cats on sub-Antarctic Marion Island, Indian Ocean.” Biological Conservation. 1992. 60(3): p. 211-219. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6V5X-48XKBM6-T0/2/06492dd3a022e4a4f9e437a943dd1d8b

Going Native

Two Archaeological photosEvidence of cats as pets? In Cyprus, 9,500 years ago (left) and, 3,500 years ago, in Peru (right).

As reported in yesterday’s New York Times, the history of the domestic cat is being rewritten—yet again. (Whether this piece gets the same attention as Elisabeth Rosenthal’s “Tweety Was Right” story remains to be seen—and I, for one, am not holding my breath.)

Arrivals and Departures
For years now, there has been some debate surrounding the arrival of cats in North America. Some have argued that cats were brought over by the Vikings (which might explain the resemblance between Norwegian Forest cats and Maine Coons [1]), while others have suggested that cats first arrived with Christopher Columbus or—roughly 100 years later—with the original settlers of Jamestown. [2]

A 2009 article in Scientific American demonstrated the uncertainly surrounding this issue in one of its illustrations: “Americas: 500 years ago?” [2]

Recent research, however, is challenging such estimates in a big way.

Working in the New Mexican desert, a team of archaeologists was shocked to find evidence of what appear to be domestic cats dating back to the late Archaic Period (roughly 8000 to 2000 BC). This, noted one of the researchers, isn’t entirely unexpected—it’s generally accepted that cats “sort of domesticated themselves” in response to the rise of agriculture elsewhere in the world. [3]

Even there, the story has been changing:

“Scholars long believed that the ancient Egyptians were the first to keep cats as pets, starting around 3,600 years ago. But genetic and archaeological discoveries made over the past five years have revised this scenario—and have generated fresh insights into both the ancestry of the house cat and how its relationship with humans evolved.” [2]

Indeed, a 2007 paper in Science made headlines when the authors, using DNA evidence, demonstrated that “the earliest evidence of cat-human association involves their co-occurrence in Cyprus deposits determined to be 9500 years old.” [3]

Closer to home: just last year, a site in Peru revealed that cats were being domesticated 3,500 years ago in the country’s ancient Lambayeque region.

All of which raises the question: What’s the difference between native and non-native species?

Well, if you’re a domestic cat, it might just be the difference between life and death. “The claim that the cat’s exotic status should count against it often is employed in policy arguments about cats as a conversation-stopper,” writes Cornell’s James Tantillo, “that the cat is an exotic ‘alien’ is supposed to trump all other values in the debate.” [4]

For TNR opponents, it’s the gift that keeps on giving:

  • In a recent news release, the American Bird Conservancy describes the domestic cat as “a highly efficient non-native predator.”
  • The Wildlife Society, publisher of The Wildlife Professional, refers repeatedly to cats as “non-native” and “invasive” in a special section of its Spring Issue called “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats.”

Still, none provides anything by way of a definition or objective measure.

In his provocative 1998 essay, “Nativism and Nature: Rethinking biological invasion,” Jonah Peretti argues, “it is unclear how long a species needs to be established in a location before it is considered native. Is a species ‘naturalised’ in 100 years, 1,000 years, or 10,000 years? The distinctions are arbitrary and unscientific.” [6]

“Nativist trends in Conservation Biology have made environmentalists biased against alien species. This bias is scientifically questionable, and may have roots in xenophobic and racist attitudes. Rethinking conservationists’ conceptions of biological invasion is essential to the development of a progressive environmental science, politics, and philosophy.” [6]

Us and Them
The biases Peretti refers to are remarkably selective.

Where’s the outcry against honeybees, for example, which originated in South and Southeast Asia? “In many places,” suggests Mark Sagoff, “one can hardly imagine the landscape without alien species.” [7]

“Virtually everything down on the farm is an exotic: of all crops, only sunflowers, cranberries, and Jerusalem artichokes evolved in North America. Corn, soybeans, wheat, and cotton have been imported from some other land. Cattle came from Europe. Rockfish—or striped bass as they are known outside Maryland—are native to the Bay but have been introduced up and down the Atlantic and Pacific coasts for sport and commercial fishing. More than 90 percent of all oysters sold in the world are produced by aquaculture, and almost the entire oyster industry on the West Coast is based on a species imported from Japan.” [7]

Our very identities can be wrapped up in what is, in fact, alien, notes Sagoff. “Kentucky identifies itself as the ‘Bluegrass State,’ but bluegrass immigrated from England.” [7]

And immigrants, Sagoff points out, are—broadly speaking—often unwelcome.

“…those who seek funds to exclude or eradicate non-native species often attribute to them the same disreputable qualities that xenophobes have attributed to immigrant groups. These undesirable characteristics include sexual robustness, uncontrolled fecundity, low parental involvement with the young, tolerance for ‘degraded’ or squalid conditions, aggressiveness, predatory behavior, and so on.” [7]

I don’t know if I’m willing to go that far—and yet the parallels are both undeniable and striking. (“Feral Cats and Their Management,” don’t forget, was still trying to sell the idea—debunked long ago—that “a pair of breeding cats and their offspring can produce over 400,000 cats in seven years” [8] as recently as late 2010)

“The exotic issue,” argues Tantillo, “raises the philosophical problem known as the ‘is-ought’ problem: form a descriptive statement of what is, it is logically invalid to conclude automatically from that fact to what ought to be the case without some type of intervening moral argument.” [4]

For many, what ought to be the case is the idyllic past—as exemplified in the Leopold Report, which lay out the vision for the country’s national parks:

“As a primary goal, we would recommend that the biotic associations within each park be maintained, or where necessary recreated, as nearly as possible in the condition that prevailed when the area was first visited by the white man. A national park should represent a vignette of primitive America.”

As Peretti points out, however, primitive America is not only irretrievable; it’s also a myth.

“It is assumed that Europeans found the Americas in a pristine, natural state. The goal of management is to protect and recreate native nature, before it was altered, invaded, and degraded by European culture and European biota. This perspective often relies on an idealised and patronising attitude toward Native Americans… Many anthropologists and archaeologists challenge the view that Native Americans lived in perfect harmony with nature. Rather, they assert that Native American hunters were responsible for the extinction of the bulk of the Pleistocene megafauna. By the time Europeans arrived, most of these native species had already gone extinct. [6]

Re-writing History?
So, what if cats were here long before Europeans arrived? What if the domestic cat has actually been—as these recent discoveries indicate—in North America for 4,000 or 5,000 years? Or 10,000 years?

This changes everything, doesn’t it?

Well, it might on any other day of the year. On April 1st, though, it changes nothing—because it’s simply an April Fools’ fabrication (though nearly all of the “supporting evidence” is, I hasten to point out, completely accurate).

Unfortunately, even if such news were true, it’s difficult to imagine it making the slightest difference to TNR opponents—for whom the whole non-native argument is neither biologically nor philosophically based. It’s simply a red herring.

Take that away from them, and they’ll just find something else.

Literature Cited
1. Tabor, R., Cats—The Rise of the Cat. 1991, London: BBC Books.

2. Driscoll, C.A., et al., The Taming of the Cat, in Scientific American. 2009. p. 68–75. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-taming-of-the-cat

3. Driscoll, C.A., et al., “The Near Eastern Origin of Cat Domestication.” Science. 2007. 317(5837): p. 519-523. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/317/5837/519.abstract

4. Tantillo, J.A., Killing Cats and Killing Birds: Philosophical issues pertaining to feral cats, in Consultations in Feline Internal Medicine Volume 5, J.R. August, Editor. 2006, Elsevier Saunders: St. Louis, MO. p. 701–708.

5. Longcore, T., Rich, C., and Sullivan, L.M., “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return.” Conservation Biology. 2009. 23(4): p. 887–894. http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/pdf/Management_claims_feral_cats.pdf

6. Peretti, J.H., “Nativism and Nature: Rethinking biological invasion.”Environmental Values. 1998. 7: p. 183–192. http://www.erica.demon.co.uk/EV/EV710.html

7. Sagoff, M., What’s Wrong with Exotic Species? 1999, Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy. https://scholar.vt.edu/access/content/user/hullrb/PUBLIC/sagoffexoticspecies.pdf

8. Hildreth, A.M., Vantassel, S.M., and Hygnstrom, S.E., Feral Cats and Their Managment. 2010, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension: Lincoln, NE. elkhorn.unl.edu/epublic/live/ec1781/build/ec1781.pdf