In his foreword to The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation, Jonathan Franzen suggests that “human beings, at their best” are capable of “deep appreciation and compassion for other forms of life, and of understanding that their own well-being is inseparable from the well-being of the natural world” [1].

His article in the most recent issue of The New Yorker suggests that those other forms of life do not include cats. In Franzen’s telling, cats, however affectionate they might be at times, “have a savage side as well, sharp of tooth and keen of claw,” and a “penchant for disembowelling wildlife.” Worse, they’re “non-native”—simply not a part of Franzen’s “natural world.”

This is nothing new for Franzen, a long-time member of ABC’s board, who’s gone out of his way to vilify cats for years now. In fact, the New Yorker piece is little more than a rehashing of the usual talking points deployed by the conservation community and PETA’s better-off-dead evangelists (for whom Franzen narrated a graphic PSA earlier this year).

TNR “doesn’t work”?

Check. (It’s “a strategy with no firm basis in science,” and “the handful of studies reporting success with TNR have been seriously flawed in one or more ways.”)

Cats as murderous super-predators?

Check. (Not only “sharp of tooth and keen of claw,” but more than likely having a “negative effect on American ecosystems.”)

Community cats as public health threat?

Check. (Cats “represent a significant source of human exposure” to rabies, and “fleas were a suspected vector in one of several typhus deaths reported in [Los Angeles] in 2022.”)

Community cats in poor health?

Check. (“A tabby with a huge tumor-like growth on its side. Two sway-backed, deformed looking cats.”)

Expressed empathy for community cats?

Check. (“The cats were skittish and hungry, endearing. It wasn’t their fault that they were on the street.”)

Exaggerated community cat numbers?

Check. (Neighborhoods “overrun with cats.”)

Comparison to hoarding?

Check. (“Feeder-breeders… are effectively outdoor-cat hoarders, akin to the people who hoard cats in their dwellings.”)

Xenophobic dog whistles?

Check. (As “non-native predatory species,” cats are “depriving native predators of meals they might have had.”)

On and on it goes, for more than 8,500 words.


It’s not difficult to understand how Franzen got so much of this so wrong, given his sources. Take those public health threats, for example. “Rabies is relatively rare in cats,” explains Franzen, “but more cats than dogs are infected with it, and they represent a significant source of human exposure.”

While it’s true that more cats than dogs test positive for the virus (216 cats vs. 36 dogs during 2021, the most recent year for which data are available [2]), CDC reports challenge the idea that cats are a “significant source of human exposure.” Indeed, the last time a cat transmitted rabies to a human in this country was 1975 [3]. Since that time, 26 cases have been attributed to dogs (mostly among military personnel serving overseas), 32 cases have been attributed to wildlife, and another 54 to unknown causes (many of which are assumed to be associated with bat bites, which can be difficult to detect).

That leaves seven cases, all traced to arterial and organ transplants [4]. Again, there was just one instance of transmission from a cat over this same period.

And what about the risk of typhus? “Flea-borne typhus has been steeply on the rise in Los Angeles,” writes Franzen, “and cat fleas were a suspected vector in one of several typhus deaths reported in the city in 2022.”

Again, a CDC reports provides some important context, painting a rather different picture. During 2022, there were three deaths related to flea-borne typhus in all of Los Angeles County (population 9.8 million). And before 2022, “the most recent flea-borne typhus-associated death in [the county] was reported in 1993” [5]. The report notes that, in the case of one patient, “potential flea exposure included stray kittens living in the patient’s backyard.” However, “all three patients had comorbidities that might have placed them at increased risk for severe disease” [5].

I guess it makes for a better story the way Franzen tells it.

He takes a similar approach to the impact of predation. Franzen notes—correctly—that some of us “point to studies that have shown that birds killed by cats are less fit, on average, than birds killed in other ways, such as collisions with buildings.” He then goes on to hypothesize that perhaps “birds killed by cats are less fit because they were already stressed from living near them” (likely a reference to a dubious 2013 study of blackbird parents).

The problem with Franzen’s hypothesis is the empirical evidence to the contrary.

The studies in question used sampling techniques to ensure, as much as possible, that the birds examined came from the same population [6,7]. There’s simply no evidence that those killed in collisions with buildings or cars were any different in terms of their proximity to cats. And a similar pattern has been observed among other predator-prey dynamics [8,9].

Why this is such a tough pill to swallow is a mystery. Those of us who grew up watching Wild Kingdom learned that predators tend to catch “less fit” individuals. This is Predation 101.


So, what should we go about outdoor cats? Owned cats should be kept indoors, argues Franzen. To “humanely reduce the unowned-cat population,” though, is tricker:

“It might include TNR, provided that the cats are registered, microchipped for identification, and released to safe and confined locations. Since TNR will never be enough, there would also need to be ongoing efforts to remove cats from the environment, partly through adoption, partly through placement in sanctuaries, and partly through euthanasia.”

Again, more of the same tired talking points we’ve heard for years. There’s nothing new or different—or even interesting here. There’s no reason to think registration and microchipping would contribute to reduced community cat numbers. If anything, registration is likely to backfire, deterring caregivers from participating in TNR programs. And Franzen’s vague reference to “safe and confined locations” seems like nothing more than a feel-good way of distracting us from all the “euthanasia” he’s got in mind.

Even die-hard TNR opponent Peter Marra recognized the futility of sanctuaries, at least on any large scale [10]. Which leaves TNR, adoption, and, of course, “euthanasia”—a combination that describes the current situation in communities across the country. If that were effective, wouldn’t we know by now?



  1. Lebbin, D.J.; Parr, M.J.; Fenwick, G.H. The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation; University of Chicago Press: London, 2010; ISBN 0-226-64727-7.
  2. Ma, X.; Bonaparte, S.; Corbett, P.; Orciari, L.A.; Gigante, C.M.; Kirby, J.D.; Chipman, R.B.; Fehlner-Gardiner, C.; Thang, C.; Cedillo, V.G.; et al. Rabies Surveillance in the United States during 2021. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2023, 1–9, doi:10.2460/javma.23.02.0081.
  3. Sung, J.H.; Hayano, M.; Okagaki, T.; Mastri, A. A Case of Human Rabies and Ultrastructure of the Negri Body. Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology 1976, 35, 541–559.
  4. Dyer, J.L.; Yager, P.; Orciari, L.; Greenberg, L.; Wallace, R.; Hanlon, C.A.; Blanton, J.D. Rabies Surveillance in the United States during 2013. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2014, 245, 1111–1123.
  5. Alarcón, J.; Sanosyan, A.; Contreras, Z.A.; Ngo, V.P.; Carpenter, A.; Hacker, J.K.; Probert, W.S.; Terashita, D.; Balter, S.; Halai, U.-A. Fleaborne Typhus–Associated Deaths — Los Angeles County, California, 2022. MMWR Morb. Mortal. Wkly. Rep. 2023, 72, 838–843, doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm7231a1.
  6. Møller, A.P.; Erritzøe, J. Predation against Birds with Low Immunocompetence. Oecologia 2000, 122, 500–504, doi:10.1007/s004420050972.
  7. Baker, P.J.; Molony, S.E.; Stone, E.; Cuthill, I.C.; Harris, S. Cats about Town: Is Predation by Free-Ranging Pet Cats Felis Catus Likely to Affect Urban Bird Populations? Ibis 2008, 150, 86–99, doi:10.1111/j.1474-919X.2008.00836.x.
  8. Møller, A.P.; Nielsen, J.T. Genetic Variation in Birds in Relation to Predation Risk by Hawks: A Comparative Analysis. Current Zoology 2015, 61, 1–9, doi:10.1093/czoolo/61.1.1.
  9. Temple, S.A. Do Predators Always Capture Substandard Individuals Disproportionately from Prey Populations? Ecology 1987, 68, 669–674, doi:10.2307/1938472.
  10. Marra, P.P.; Santella, C. Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer; Princeton University Press: Princeton, N.J., 2016; ISBN 978-0-691-16741-1.





I am glad at least that his article led me to find your blog, since that dubious study has always bothered me. I have a few questions that I never see brought up.

The biggest decline in bird populations have been of birds that feed on flying insects and this has been connected to the huge decline in insects. Cats don’t kill these birds because they rarely land on the ground. If you account for these birds, are the populations targeted by cats in the US actually in any decline? Also what is the predation of cats on non native bird populations? Franzen talks about the California quail, which had been extensively introduced into new habitats across the us and around the world, probably displacing native bird populations. There are other nonnative birds in the US as well.

Bravo Peter! I hope his mention of your blog in the article brings lots of traffic from people who wouldn’t normally see it, and they read this reply! Nicely done!!

Thank you for the comment!

I haven’t given too much thought to predation of specific classes of bird (e.g., insectivores). That said, the results of this study (which Franzen refers to) suggest that the “aerial insectivore guild” makes up a relatively small share of the estimated overall loss over a 50-year period.

This same study estimates that there are now about 7 billion birds in North America during the pre-breeding season, with about 5.7 billion found in parts of the U.S. relevant to that 2013 Nature Communications paper (i.e., the 48 contiguous states, excluding coastal and wetland birds). A careful look at the studies used for the model in the earlier paper shows that newborn and juvenile birds account for only about 25% of the birds killed in the studies used as inputs for the computer model. And only 11 of 367 individuals (3%) were wetland species.

The authors’ estimated annual mortalities attributed to outdoor cats therefore represent approximately 18–53% of the adult bird population in the contiguous U.S.—year in and year out. This seems highly improbable—even more so when other major sources of mortality are considered.

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