The New York Times chose to publish yet another cat-bashing column entitled "The Evil of the Outdoor Cat". Evil. No less. In this article, writer Richard Conniff claims that outdoor cats are to blame for the decline in the numbers of birds and other wildlife. What are outdoor cats though? This is where the confusion begins. Throughout the article, Mr. Conniff does not differentiate between feral cats and pet cats that are let outside. By doing so, he comes to all the wrong conclusions about feral cat care.
The Allegation: Feline Predation is Pushing Endangered Species Toward Extinction
This claim has been re-hashed enough times, so instead of trying to re-formulate a reply, I'll just use Mr. Conniff's own words. "Intensification of agriculture is eliminating millions of acres of habitat from the countryside. The relentless development of cities and suburbs has also squeezed out wildlife, and will squeeze harder over the next few decades," he writes. This, in a nutshell, is the problem wildlife faces.
How do cats work their way into that equation? Domestic felines only exist where humans do. You won't find any domestic cats at Yellowstone National Park. The very rare cases where you have an established population of domestic feral cats harming wildlife happens only on islands where there are no predators larger than cats. No coyotes, wolves, mountain lions or other cat predators.
I completely disagree with Mr. Conniff's assertion that parks and "forgotten scraps of lands" are islands. If they are in the middle of urban settlements, then they do not make a good habitat for wildlife for many reasons other than cats. If you're referring to land outside cities and towns, then you have larger predators at play that prevent feral domestic cats from taking over.
Predation by domestic cats is but a small side-effect of that ever growing development of cities and suburbs which Mr. Conniff rightly mentions. If you want wildlife to flourish, your problem is with the humans, not the cats.
Keeping Cats Indoors
Mr. Conniff begins his article, and ends it, with a sad story of poor cat ownership. He admits to owning a cat named Lucky, yet for an entire decade, he saw nothing wrong with letting the her wander off for days on end. Little wonder that his cat not only preyed on local birds and mammals, but met an early and sad demise.
Fortunately, Lucky was his last outdoor cat. He writes -
As someone who's been managing a cat care community for almost fifteen years now, let me say this: There is nothing new about this so-called trend. It started long before 2008. Responsible owners do not let their cats outside unsupervised. It has little to do with the cat's effect on local wildlife, which is minimal, at best. It has everything to do with taking good care of your cat and preventing exposure to disease and injury. Had Mr. Conniff bothered to read up on good cat care back in 1998, he would have known better than to let his house pet wander off outside for days on end, and Lucky would probably still be alive and well today.
Feral Cats are Not Pet Cats
So, we've established that pet cats should, in most places, be kept indoors only. Mr. Conniff then goes on to de-legitimize what he refers to as "outdoor cats". As far as he is concerned, there should be no cats outdoors, and therefore this includes feral cats.
Well, guess what. I agree. In a perfect world there should be no feral cats out there. However, feral cats have little to do with the choice of keeping pet cats indoors or outdoors. They are the result of irresponsible cat owners who let their cats breed and then abandon the cats to fend for themselves.
Mr. Conniff does not approve of neutering feral cats. He stops short of actually saying this, but I can only assume he prefers to see these ferals killed instead. The thing is, even if we follow that cruel strategy, it won't help the wildlife one bit. You see, for decades, feral cats were indeed killed, only for new cats to show up and take their place. As long as there are cat owners who abandon intact male and female cats, and as long as there's a human habitat providing limited shelter and food, you will have feral cats.
In fact, the only realistic way to keep the numbers of feral cats down is by managing feral colonies, feeding the cats and most importantly, spaying and neutering them to prevent further breeding. That it also happens to be the compassionate and humane solution, concepts Mr. Conniff seems to associate exclusively with songbirds, is just a side benefit. The important thing is, it's the only viable long-term way to keep the feral cats' numbers under control.
The important thing to understand here, is that Mr. Conniff confuses feral cats with outdoor pet cats. They are not the same. Keeping pet cats indoors is important, but has little effect on the issue of feral cats.
Setting New Trends? Let's Work Together
I confess, Mr. Conniff's article rubbed me the wrong way. From his poor cat ownership skills which resulted in the horrific death of poor Lucky, through his scare tactics associating cats with rabies and toxoplasmosis, and all the way to his implied suggestions of killing off feral cats en masse, Mr. Conniff isn't likely to become a guest writer on cats in our community of cat lovers any time soon. That said, I think there are actually things we end up agreeing on.
We agree that in most environments, cats should be kept indoors only. Our reasons may be different, but the conclusion is the same. I'm glad Mr. Conniff caught up to this so-called "trend" in 2008. Better late than never.
We also agree that there's a real problem of feral cats in many areas. I strongly believe that the way to address the current situation is by T.N.R. programs - trapping, neutering and returning the cats to a managed colony. Obviously, Mr. Conniff feels very differently about the solution. But if we put this aside for a minute and look at the source of the problem, I'd like to suggest that Mr. Conniff and his supporters join us in promoting one core concept: spaying and neutering pet cats.
You see, this is where it all begins. Outdoor cats, be they feral or abandoned stray cats, are the result of irresponsible people who let their Kitty have a litter of kittens. There are simply not enough homes for all of the kittens, and the only cure is in prevention. We should indeed make something "as socially unacceptable as smoking cigarettes in the office", and that's allowing your cat to have kittens.
On a Personal Note
I usually prefer to avoid anecdotal stories because I feel they can be distracting. However, since poor Lucky became such a prominent figure and her story obviously influenced Mr. Conniff to such an extent, I'd like to counter that with my own story.
Our huge backyard used to be planted with avocado trees in it. A couple of decades ago, the avocado trees were taken down because they were no longer deemed profitable for the small-scale farmer who owned the area. When we arrived here, fifteen years ago, the yard didn't have a lot of trees. One of the first things we did was plant a dozen oak trees of the local variety. It was amazing and heartwarming to see the effect of these trees on the local birds.
As the trees grow, so do the numbers of birds, including some fairly rare species. I love birds, and I love wildlife and I absolutely enjoy the presence of these birds. I also have three feral cats in the same yard, in addition to my own pet cat. They are all neutered and well-fed and rarely do they hunt down a bird. I do believe that when they do, it was very possibly a weak, sick or injured bird - the very kind of bird a bobcat would have taken down had we had any around here. A limited amount of predation does not harm the wildlife population and in fact probably helps it. After all, had it not been for us humans, there would definitely be more wildlife around, including some of the birds' and rodents' natural predators.