Science. Denial. Graphic Novel.

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

This is not a blog about climate change.  This is about domestic cats.

How is it that this common every-day pet has become the focus of a bitter, ostensibly unsolvable controversy that has pitted animal advocates and conservationists, bird lovers and cat lovers, animal scientists and animal activists against each other? It’s simple. We allow our pet cats to roam freely outdoors, effectively turning our neighborhoods into wildlife battlegrounds.

Why do we do that? We would never let our dogs run free. And we would not tolerate our neighbors’ dogs free-wheeling around. Are we mystified by cats? Do we enjoy what we perceive as their wildness, admire their resistance to training? Perhaps cats bring out a bit of our own rebellious tendencies. It’s difficult to tell. But it appears that we appreciate their independent nature so much that we are willing to relinquish one of the basic rules of responsible pet ownership, ensuring our pets will not impinge on the health and well-being of our neighborhood.

There is almost uncontested evidence amongst scientists and conservationists that an estimated 60 million free-roaming domestic cats in the United States participate with feral cats and strays in the killing of between 500 million and one billion birds and billions of small mammals each year.

Such numbers cannot be ignored for their potential negative impact on habitat and bird and animal populations. Not surprising, there is fierce resistance among animal advocacy groups like Best Friends Animal Societies and Alleycat Allies to accepting these statistics, claiming misinformation and scaremongering targeted against outdoor cats.

Interestingly, a research project conducted by National Geographic and the University of Georgia that followed 55 urban, free-roaming cats via camera (Kitty-Cam) revealed that several of the cats had found second homes where they received food and affection, and that only 25 of the 55 subjects spent their time hunting, primarily small lizards and mammals. Many of the subjects spent a great deal of time resting – very cat-like behavior!

In an attempt to bring cat- and bird-lovers together, an organization called Nature Canada has developed a program to celebrate the contributions cats and birds make to our lives, our environment, and our communities… Their aim is to help Canadians learn how to take care of birds and cats. In 2016, Nature Canada collaborated with author Margaret Atwood in the production of Angel Catbird, a series of graphic novels aimed at bringing attention to the specialness of both birds and cats, and to encourage behaviors that would keep both cats and birds safe.

By and large, to protect both birds and cats, the advice is to keep cats indoors.

I have three indoor cats. But I keep them indoors for self-serving reasons. I am able to regulate their diet (with a supplement of ‘cat grass’ I purchase from the local pet store when the cats have vandalized my house plants in search of green nutrition.) I have avoided an infestation of fleas, given up the ‘joy’ of receiving gifts of mouse and bird carcasses, and any other presents my cats decide to bring home. Plus, I have, so far, avoided huge vet bills resulting from cat encounters with predators, as happened to my pet Zeke when he was an outdoor cat. Zeke had a confrontation with a raccoon, which cost him an eye and which cost me $500 in rehabilitation expenses.
Do I think this approach is best for my cats? I don’t know. Frankly, everything in me says they should be outside doing what comes natural to cats; stalking, hunting, exploring.