A recent article in the journal Nature alleges cats are responsible for killing billions of animals in the U.S. annually. In jargonistic terms, “free-range domestic cats,” particularly “un-owned cats,” may kill as many as 3.7 billion birds and 20.7 mammals annually. The article’s findings have spread rapidly across the web, with media outlets including USA Today, Time and Huffington Post running stories about this supposed environmental havoc that felines are having on the natural environment throughout the United States. The study’s authors call trap-neuter-release (TNR) programs “potentially harmful to wildlife populations,” because they work gradually – leaving birds and wildlife at risk.
Advocates for a more humane approach to controlling feline populations are pushing, if not clawing, back hard. Becky Robinson of Alley Cat Allies slammed the research and criticized the study, pointing out some research was a half-century old. Robinson also highlighted research cited in the study that was the work of a former Smithsonian researcher who lost her job after she was found guilty in Washington, DC of animal cruelty–as in attempting to poison cats in her Northwest DC neighborhood.
It is true that cats kill birds and small rodents: after all that is what they are instinctively wired to do, as anyone who knows how to use YouTube can attest. But reading through the Nature article, I could not help but wonder: did the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and their fellow researchers at the Smithsonian cherry pick data for a conclusion that a crew of bureaucrats had already reached about the impact of cats on wildlife? And why not focus on the some of the larger reasons for the destruction of wildlife and its habitat, as in rampant overdevelopment and environmental degradation? And finally, if our society has such a problem, is it time for business to step up and help combat a problem that has long overwhelmed financially strapped animal non-profits and municipal animal control agencies?
As Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society points out, the three co-authors of the Nature study, Scott R. Loss, Tom Will and Peter P. Marra, came up with numbers that are in reality “informed guesswork.” Guesswork is a kind word: stating that cats kill 6.9 to 20.7 billion mammals annually is not an estimate–it is throwing a bowl of jell-o on a wall to see what will stick.
Even the authors admit that their methodology has shortcomings–I would go so far to say the quality of research was at best marginal and would not pass muster at any respectable university. We know businesses are good at sponsoring studies that result in a predetermined outcome favorable to them; apparently employees of government agencies can do the same. Never mind the cats versus birds argument that has has brought out more than enough hysterics: throwing out provocative numbers to attract the attention of large media outlets is not research–I would call it irresponsible. The blame for loss of wildlife does not lie at kitten paws.
The stubborn fact is that approximately 4 million cats are already euthanized annually, according to the Humane Society of the United States. And while it is true that cats kill their fair share of birds, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) does a fairly good job killing birds for various reasons.
What the study also ignores is the fact that while there is a long way to go to keep domesticated animal population under control, we have come a long way. When it comes to animal control, Alley Cat Allies, the Humane Society and hundreds of small local organizations have made progress with trap, neuter and return (TNR) programs.
Anyone who grew up as recently as the 1970s and 1980s might remember folks showing up in front of a store to give away free puppies or kittens to whoever would take them. Much, not incremental, progress has been made to reduce the number of stray cats and dogs in our communities.
So instead of touting a solution – killing more cats – in search of a problem, let us focus on much larger problems: humans’ encroachment on wildlife among other environmental challenges.
And it is now the time for businesses to step up and raise awareness amongst their employees, customers or stakeholders–and strongly consider animal welfare non-profits for their corporate giving and community grant programs. Many veterinary clinics and non-profits offer a hour or two of low-cost spade and neuter programs a week–clearly more time is needed. And finally, TNR has worked, and such programs cost taxpayers almost nothing: it costs about $100 to euthanize a cat. Forget about the emotional argument–killing more cats will be a government boondoggle. We just need more TNR programs funded, and more influential Bob Barkers reminding everyone to spay and neuter your pets.
Full disclosure: Leon Kaye is a dog lover, NOT a cat lover. Based in Fresno, California, he is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable Brands, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost). He will explore children’s health issues in India next month with the International Reporting Project.
[Image credits: Leon Kaye, donut shop, Fresno; Beth Fish, Richmond, VA]