Killing cats to save birds is not a solution

A book just published calls for an all-out war on free-ranging cats, writes Richard Collins

Killing cats to save birds is not a solution

A BOOK just published in the US has put the cat among the pigeons. In Cat Wars, the Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer, Peter Marra and Chris Santella call for an all-out war on free-ranging cats. Dr Marra is director of Washington’s Smithsonian Migratory Bird Centre. Santella is a journalist and travel writer.

Cats outnumber dogs by about 20% in America. There are 74m to 96m house cats and about 70m feral ones. Some 34% of homes have a cat. Marra and Santella claim that felines kill 130m to 400m birds each year and spread disease to animals and humans. Britain’s nine million cats kill 55m birds annually.

Examining the Irish situation for this column four years ago, we estimated that the bird mortality here is around 4m. Felis catus is among the hundred most invasive alien species listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

More birds reptiles and mammals are killed by cats in America than fall victim to vehicles wind turbines and window collisions combined. Marra and Santella say that the problem is worsening. An “ecological and public-health disaster” is “pending”. Like the climate-change deniers, cat owners are a powerful special-interest group resisting change. Owners do “not view the birds and mammals that fall prey to domestic cats as sentient beings but, instead, as playthings for their beloved companions”.

Most owners accept their pets threaten birds. They want to address the problem but the measures proposed in Cat Wars raise their hackles. The trap-neuter-return approach, in which feral cats are captured neutered and released, is deemed to be “no solution”. Spayed cats can’t reproduce but they continue killing birds. Providing havens for them encourages people to dump unwanted animals, exacerbating the problem.

Marra and Santella want all strays eliminated. “From a conservation ecology perspective, the most desirable solution seems clear; remove all free-ranging cats from the landscape by any means necessary” they advocate. How not to win friends and influence people!

Few bird-lovers share their views. Britain’s largest conservation charity, the RSPB, doesn’t favour a war on cats; many of its million-plus members are cat owners. Killing “by any means necessary” is especially repugnant but Marra says that they don’t advocate the “inhumane treatment of animals”. Ecology professor Marc Bekoff, writing in The Huffington Post, thinks “the killing of all free-ranging cats truly is a murderous experiment, it’s ethically indefensible and likely won’t work”.

Cats have been our companions for a very long time; they have earned our respect. Farming began in the Middle East around 12,000 years ago. Rodents raided grain stores, spreading disease. Cats were welcomed as pest controllers and soon became semi-domesticated. Seed-eating birds also were attracted to the cereal bonanza.

Domestic cats arrived in Europe with the Neolithic revolution over 5,000 years ago. The immigrants, derived from the north African race of the species, interbred with the native wildcats and still do.

The history of cats in America is different: The domestic species is completely alien there. The first ones arrived with European settlers during the 17th century. American birds, therefore, have had less time to adapt to their presence.

Some argue that the term “domestic cat” is an oxymoron; all cats, they say, are wild. Pussy lives with you on her terms; you don’t own her. “A dog is man’s best friend, a cat is a cat’s best friend”. We don’t object to hawks and falcons taking birds; it’s their nature to do so. Unless the feral cat is reducing biodiversity, shouldn’t we treat it as yet another predatory species?

  • Marra, P & Santella, C Cat Wars, the Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer. Princeton University Press.

More in this section

Cookie Policy Privacy Policy FAQ Help Contact Us Terms and Conditions

© Irish Examiner Ltd