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Friday, June 1, 2018

The Killer Among Us

This last week, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute welcomed a very special arrival - the hatching - the birth of a Micronesian kingfisher.  The kingfisher, of course, is a species of considerable conservation significance as it is extinct in the wild.  It was driven to such dire straits due to the predatory attentions of the invasive brown tree snake  Efforts to eradicate the snake on Guam have proven difficult. 

The kingfishers should be grateful that it's just a snake.  There are some invasive predators which are a lot harder - and more controversial - to get rid of.   There is one invasive species which is unforgivably deadly to birds, lizards, and small mammals.  Unlike the snakes, it kills not only for food, but (for lack of a better word) fun.  Unfortunately, it is also almost universally beloved, which makes control difficult. 

That predator is the domestic cat.

Wherever humans have gone, they've carried a host of animal companions with them, wittingly and otherwise.  Rats and mice have been among those, so it's not too surprising that we've also brought our most efficient mousers with them.  Besides, a lot of people just enjoy cats.  Unfortunately, cats don't limit their killings to invasive rats and mice.  They also kill lots of native wildlife.  Some have been pushed to the edge of extinction.  Not all of these killer cats are on islands or distant countries.  Most of them are right here in our own backyards.

There are two kinds of cats out their killing songbirds and other wildlife.  Some of them are strays - feral cats that have been abandoned or bred in a wild state.  No one is feeding them, so they have to fend for themselves.  Others are house pets which are allowed to roam outside.   Even a well-fed house cat will have a hard time resisting killing wild animals, as anyone who has ever had their pet leaving a still-twitching present on the doorstep.

If this was any other species, the solution would be obvious (and it still is to many conservationists) - "Exterminate them."  It's worked with rats, pigs, snakes, and other invasive predators.  The problem here is that we're talking about cats, and people who like cats... well, they really like cats.  The thought of controlling cat numbers with lethal control is very upsetting.  I had a hard time realizing how hard-core some of these folks are, but they would rather see every bat, bird, or lizard in their community devoured rather than sacrifice one cat. 

Many cat advocates champion TNR - Trap, Neuter, Release - as a means of controlling feral cat numbers.  The theory is that if you kill cats, they'll just breed more.  If you leave fixed cats in place, they will hold down spaces that would otherwise be occupied by cats which could breed.  The problem with this is that the cat's inability to breed in no way impairs its ability to hunt  A neutered cat will still hunt and kill for the rest of its life. 

As for the cats which have actual homes, what of them?  The best solution would simply be not to let them outside.  After all, we don't let dogs run amok, so why should we do the same with cats?  Some cat owners have taken to constructing enclosed outdoor playpens for their pets, called "catios."  Again, the die-harders (and there are a disturbing number out there) are outraged.  They view any attempt to curtail their pet's wanderings as barbaric. 

A lot of these people simply say "It's nature."  Even though it's not.  Cats are not part of the natural world that these species evolved in.  Others will say it's not really that big of a problem.  Evidence would disagree - according to the Smithsonian, cats kill over 2 BILLION birds a year.  And then of course you get lots of whataboutisms - what about wind mills, or windows, or habitat loss?  All real subjects of concern... but not the subject at hand.

For another perspective of the cat wars, click here - and really, you have to go down to the comments.  These people are nuts...

Picture credit: Saverio Maria Gallotti / Alamy

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