domestic house cat
Domestic bliss: Born under a bush in Guerneville, this once feral cat now enjoys the comforts of home. Patience, dedication, and gentle handling can transform a frightened, suspicious feral cat into a trusting, loving companion. (Photo: Barry Bergman)

We humans have an uneasy relationship with nature. Lest you doubt it, consider that the 1964 Wilderness Act defines wilderness as “an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

The notion that people live apart from nature might explain our sometimes skewed views of wildlife—Americans keep as many as 20,000 tigers, cheetahs, and other big cats as pets—and our seemingly unique capacity for destroying natural resources.

By recent estimates, we’re using resources 50 percent faster than they can recover. Despite mounting evidence linking human well-being to healthy ecosystems, we seem constitutionally incapable of changing our behavior.

Conservation biologists try to inspire people to act in environmentally-friendly ways, but often inspire emotional confrontations instead. That’s why some biologists are looking to social psychologists for advice.

Conservation Psychology
It’s no surprise that conflicts arise when two groups view the facts of a situation through a different lens. But the hope is that understanding the social roots of conservation conflicts—how people’s values and beliefs shape their behavior—will suggest strategies for resolving them.

In a study published earlier this month researchers led by Nils Peterson at North Carolina State University applied this approach to a particularly contentious issue: feral cats and their impacts on birds.

Feral cats are simply house cats that, without the care and love of an owner, behave like a wild animal. And it’s hard to imagine a group more emotionally invested in an issue than the women who take care of feral cats. (I should know. I once looked after a mini-colony in the backyard of my Sunset District rental.) As several studies show, cat colony caretakers tend to be women, many of whom also have tame cats at home, see their feral charges as pets, and often cite sympathy, ethical concerns, and love of animals as their main motivators.

feral cat colony
This feral cat colony lives in an Arrow Rock, Missouri, backyard and neighboring grounds. (Photo: Scott Granneman, St. Louis, MO)

No one knows how many feral cats live in the U.S., though the American Veterinary Medical Association suspects the number rivals that of cats living as pets, estimated at 86 million.

By most accounts, feral cats face a miserable life. One study looking at reproductive rates in feral cats found that 75% of kittens died or disappeared within six months. Most were either run over by cars or killed by stray dogs. Feral cats have twice the rate of FIV of house cats and significantly higher rates of bacterial and parasitic infections.

It’s understandable why kind-hearted people take care of cats left to fend for themselves. Unfortunately, these natural-born killers are doing what comes naturally. And wildlife populations, including species common and rare, are paying for our good intentions.

Study after study documents the toll feral cats take on wildlife. Most experts think the cats kill hundreds of millions of native birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fish in the U.S. each year. Wildlife rehabilitation specialists at Walnut Creek’s Lindsey Museum handled more than 1,000 birds with cat-related injuries in 2003 alone. Of course, no one knows how many birds died in backyards or wound up in cats’ bellies.

Some advocates say feeding cats controls their predatory instincts, but the evidence suggests otherwise. A 1999 study of two East Bay parks found that in sites with regularly fed cat colonies, “native birds were markedly less abundant and less likely to nest, and ground-foraging species such as California quail and thrasher were entirely absent.” Feral cats also endanger native raptors by depleting their prey base.

Polarized Views
Against this background, Peterson and his team polled 338 cat colony caretakers and 239 bird conservation professionals (from the Audubon Society, American Bird Conservancy, and similar groups) about their views of feral felines, the cats’ impacts on wildlife, and strategies to control their populations. Many feral cat advocates promote the use of trap-neuter-and-return programs to control colonies, though studies fail to support their effectiveness. That’s probably partly because people abandon their animals faster than caretakers can sterilize them.

Not surprisingly, the two groups held opposite views on nearly every question. “Bird people” viewed feral cats as “pests” and considered “euthanasia” an appropriate management strategy. Just 20% of “cat people” thought feral cats endanger native birds and just 6% thought feral cats carry disease.

African wildcat
Genetic studies trace the origins of the house cat to at least five wildcat species (Felis silvestris), originating in the Near East. The African Wild Cat (Felis silvestris lybica), above, is the house cat’s most recent ancestor in the history of domestication. (Photo: Sonelle, Johannesburg Zoo, South Africa)

For the record, feral cats can transmit rabies and numerous other diseases to wildlife, either indirectly—for example, when feces-borne parasites enter the watershed and infect otters and other marine life—or directly, by spreading FIV to mountain lions and critically endangered Florida panthers who prey on them.

A surprising 59% of caretakers thought feral cats play a natural role as predators. That was true for their progenitors, Near East wildcats (Felis silvestris lybica), which started hanging around farmers and their rodent-infested grain silos in the Fertile Crescent some 10,000 years ago. (Experts think, given the cat’s notorious independent nature, domestication happened as cats adopted people rather than vice versa.) But domestication released these felines from the constraints of natural selection and paved the way for a new species, Felis catus, thousands of years ago.

A Path to Compromise
With little common ground between bird people and cat lovers, whose positions are so tied to personal views of the problem, public education campaigns probably won’t work, the researchers say. Feral cat advocates care passionately about the welfare of individual cats while bird conservation workers (and wildlife biologists) care about the long-term prospects of wildlife populations.

kitty cam and injured bird
The “kitty cam” outfitted on a house cat as part of a research project shows an injured phoebe. Sixty pet cats in Athens-Clarke County, Georgia, wore cameras for 7 to 10 days on their outdoor adventures. The research is a joint project of the University of Georgia and National Geographic. (Photo: University of Georgia)

What might help is engaging cat caretakers in research on feral cat behavior—it’s hard to deny what you see with our own eyes—as well as in programs to protect wildlife. Plus, as other studies show, the best solutions will likely be site specific. Where birds and other wildlife populations are in decline, a more aggressive control strategy might be called for. But in healthier ecosystems or areas that harbor smaller colonies, trap-neuter-and-return might be a reasonable solution.

Some think an even better solution might be housing cats in enclosed sanctuaries, like Belleglen Sanctuary in Chico, which protects wildlife while keeping feral cats safe from disease and injury. But such shelters quickly fill to capacity.

Even though the survey found highly polarized opinions, it also showed that both groups share a love of animals—many “bird people” owned cats and many “cat people” said they love birds too. What’s more, caretakers were optimistic that they could work with biologists to find better ways to manage feral cats.

With one in eight bird species threatened with extinction, this is an opportunity for collaboration we can’t afford to squander.

There’s one thing no one disputes. The kind souls who take care of feral cats didn’t create the problem. People who abandon the animals that depend on them did. It’s illegal to abandon your pet in most states, including California, but enforcement is notoriously difficult. Clearly, we need new strategies to stop this cruel and inhumane behavior.

All the cats I’ve ever adopted were once stray or feral. It takes time, effort, and patience to socialize a feral cat, but there’s nothing like watching mistrust turn to affection. I love to watch the vestigial gestures of wild felids in my house cats, but I know they didn’t evolve as natural predators on the American landscape. They depend on us for food, shelter, and safety. Animal shelters take in 6 million to 8 million cats and dogs each year and euthanize about half of them. We have an ethical duty to take better care of our animals—domesticated and wild—and learn to tell the difference.

Culture Clash: Of Cats, Birds and Conservation 23 April,2013Liza Gross

Author

Liza Gross

Liza Gross, an award-winning independent journalist and senior editor at the biomedical journal PLOS Biology, writes mostly about conservation and public and environmental health. She was a 2013 recipient of the NYU Reporting Award, a 2013 Dennis Hunt Health Journalism fellow and a 2015 USC Data Journalism fellow.

Read her previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.

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