Apocalypse meow: ‘cuddly killers’ under fire

Meow or never: Cat Wars says that cats need to be culled as soon as possible. © Grumpy Cat Ltd

They are fluffy, funny — and deadly. According to a new book, cats kill so many animals that they represent a grave environmental threat. Its arguments have not gone down well with everyone…

Humans adore cats. We have kept them as pets for millennia, and today we own hundreds of millions of them. They make for some of our most beloved characters, from Puss in Boots to Doraemon. Videos of them flood YouTube, where they talk, dance, play pat-a-cake and generally act super-cute.

But they dominate more than the internet. As a new book reminds us, our furred friends are also overlords of the wild. In fact, argues Cat Wars, they kill so many animals that they are a menace to nature. Forget super-cute: they should be reined in, the authors warn, ‘by any means necessary’.

The book considers the impact of stray and free-roaming domestic cats. It points out that they are predators at heart, and that by feeding them, we keep their numbers up. According to the authors, these ‘cuddly killers’ execute four billion birds and 22 billion small mammals yearly in the USA alone, and are responsible for extinctions around the globe. By spreading disease, they also threaten human health.

The notion that cats endanger our environment is nothing new: conservationists such as David Attenborough have been saying so for years.

But the authors advocate drastic solutions. Asserting that the neutering programs favoured by some simply do not work, they suggest that euthanasia is essential to bringing the feline population down.

Their arguments have ruffled many feathers. Some question their evidence, claiming for example that neutering has been effective. Others take issue with their tone: one reviewer called the book ‘sensationalist, one-sided [and] utterly anti-cat’.

Others yet criticise it on ethical grounds, insisting that the killing of animals is never justified.

Cat lovers and cat sceptics tend to fight with a zeal that would make Tom and Jerry blush. Cat Wars has exacerbated the conflict. More than that, it has stirred up a debate about the purpose of conservation: does it make sense to kill one animal for the sake of another?

More than one way to skin a cat

This isn’t about whether you like cats, say some. It is about whether you value birds, insects, rodents, reptiles — in short, our entire ecology. The fact is that cats are alien to most of the countries in which they live today, and simply don’t belong there. Neutering and adoption may sound ideal, but they are not effective enough. Sadly, euthanasia is unavoidable.

Something needs to be done, agree others. But there are more humane solutions. Cat owners ought to cut down on their pets’ freedom, say by using catios. We should learn from campaign groups who are successfully working together to tackle this problem. Felines have lived alongside us for ages — let’s not be the generation that turns on them.

You Decide

  1. Why are cats so popular with humans?
  2. Are all animal lives worth the same?

Activities

  1. Write half a page describing a historical civilisation that respected cats, and half a page on one that did not. Compare the two. Which viewpoint do you agree with more?
  2. Write a short story from the perspective of a cat on the prowl. Try to imagine its feelings and motivations.

Some People Say...

“Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.”

Winston Churchill

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t want my cat to die!
Don’t worry: the grim reaper isn’t coming for kitty just yet. But it may be a good idea to keep your pet indoors — or to equip it with a leash, or a bell to warn prey, when it goes outside. Domestic cats (an estimated 86 million) outnumber strays (80 million) in the USA, and curbing their predatory urges would make a big difference.
Can’t these urges come in useful?
Sure. Many civilisations have used cats for pest control: Medieval English sailors, for example, would always carry one on board to eat mice. But cats don’t discriminate between species that bother us and those that we want to preserve. Environmentalists first began to sound alarm bells a century ago; as the feline population has increased, the voices calling for control have got louder.

Word Watch

Millennia
Experts believe that cats were first domesticated in the Middle East between 10 and 12 millennia ago. See Become An Expert for more on the history of pet cats.
Pat-a-cake
Honestly — watch the YouTube video in Become An Expert.
Cat Wars
Its full title is Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer (Princeton University Press).
Authors
Journalist Chris Santella and Dr Peter P. Marra, director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in the USA.
Disease
Such as rabies and toxoplasmosis. The book’s critics argue that it exaggerates this danger: rabies, for example, is now easily treated in the West.
Neutering programs
Known as Trap-Neuter-Return programs, they round up stray cats, vaccinate them against rabies, spay or castrate them and return them to the wild. Many of these programs are carried out on World Spay Day, which takes place in February.
Catios
An enclosed outdoor space for pet cats to play in. The word is a fusion of ‘cat’ and ‘patio’.
Working together
Cat Wars cites the example of the Audubon Society of Portland and the Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon.

Subjects

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