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The Evil Of Cat Bashing - In Response To Mr. Conniff's Column In The Ny Times

Mar 30, 2014 · Updated Mar 30, 2014 · ·
  1. Anne
    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.

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  1. erikaremmington
    Very awesome response Anne!
  2. supermax1943
    Thank you for such a great response in defense of the feral cats and the colonies they inhabit. I too get so frustrated with the misinformation. My colony of 50+ eat with the birds side by side, every day, out in the open. It happened because the birds started eating the dry cat food. Pretty soon, they were all eating together. It is a riot to watch the cats actually "herding" the birds away from the food when they want to eat. So much for cats being "natural" bird killers. 
     
    Feral cats kill birds when they have nothing else to eat. Logically, why would a feral cat want to go through all of the trouble to kill a bird and deal with all of those feathers, when he could simply walk up to a bowl and eat without having to do anything else. What I don't understand is why those who want to kill cats don't advocate for everyone to care for the feral cats and feed them, instead of insisting that death is the only answer.
  3. supermax1943
  4. leslieg
    Thanks for writing this Anne. There is something important that cat bashers fail to acknowledge: Birds prey on their own kind. Yes I have personally witnessed a hawk killing a mourning dove in my front yard. I got there too late to save the dove. I have also had my cats dive bombed and attacked by birds protecting a nest. My cats only went out supervised and in almost 20 years only killed two birds. I notice that they never give cats credit for controlling rodent populations! That invaluable service alone is one reason why cats were domesticated...rats were spreading disease. LG
  5. tdiving
    LIving in Florida,we find that this article by Mr.Conniff is typical of articles we read blaming numerous species for the demise of others rather than sticking to the salient point, (which ,to give him his due,he does touch on),that the so called progress of the human race is squeezing wild life into smaller and smaller living areas.
    In our area ,we have numerous outdoor cats which pass through our property every day.
    We feed squirrels,birds and I am sure,creatures that we dont see----never have I seen these cats give more than a side
    glance to any of these creatures.
    I am sure that some wild cats do feed on some of the birds in the area---but how many billions would the have to catch to make a difference--
    What a strange article to be written by a supposedly intelligent author.
  6. rooneyandmuldoo
    Recently I was chastised, as a cat owner, by my new supervisor (a ticklish situation) in the internship I am doing right now. I was not in the position to counter her claim that cats were decimating the bird population. But there is no logic in this accusation. I would guess that with the "trend" to keep cats indoors (as mine are), there are actually most likely less cats outside than in the past. In any event, there certainly aren't more. So there is absolutely no correlation between the reduction in the number of birds and the number of cats on the prowl. It just doesn't make any sense. In fact, I am amazed at how many intelligent people believe this fallacy. Just because there are fewer birds around, it doesn't mean that it is because more are being killed by cats. As Anne mentioned, it is our own destruction/pollution of bird habitat that is causing bird numbers to decline. Cats are just the scapegoat. What about the plummeting population of amphibians, and honeybees? Are cats eating them too? We are the ones screwing things up.
  7. mycatwasthebest
    in my city many recent immigrants and non-native English speakers refuse to spay and neuter or keep their cats indoors. I believe psa's on "foreign" language stations would go a long way towards changing these culturally-induced habits.
  8. caretaker
    Thank you, very much, for your post.  I agree on all points.  

    It is puzzling to me that there is such a push in some quarters for mass extermination of feral cats.  It is illogical to assume that it can be accomplished.  It costs millions of dollars to kill all cats on small islands.  Surely they can extrapolate that to continents...

    The public would not consider it humane to kill cats en masse, so let's move on to workable (and humane) solutions.

    I am a caretaker of colony cats and a member of a TNVR organization in Canada.
  9. nycats
  10. drbobcat
    Very good article (not Conniff's!), but way too kind to an ignorant "born again" cat hater.  The most important point is that these cat haters only have one solution--kill, kill, kill, but contribute nothing to an intelligent discussion on the problems with ferals, with pet owners dumping their cats or letting them run wild. 
  11. jtbo
    I feed birds, have build houses for the birds, so there are lot more birds around than before.

    I know of three birds being eaten by my cats, which two were found dead at the morning on the ground, one they managed to get as foolish bird was walking on the ground near the hedge. But they have got lot more rodents.

    This NY article reveals once again how these extremist green wing nature preserves are so focused to saving every individual creature that they fail to look whole picture.

    Of course it is very human nature to be emphatic and it is so easy to push blame to creatures humans have introduced to wild, but this blame is correctly placed.

    Especially at cities there are huge amount of rats, mice and many species of insects that would not naturally be at such location, without cats there would be far more of those.

    Mine eat insects, they eat flies, spiders, even grasshoppers if they manage to catch one, they eat more of those and less of anything other living things.

    Actually I do have bird feeder almost directly above cat feeding house, often birds and cats are eating at the same time, not even once my cats have attempted to catch a bird, if they would try, there would be surprise for the cats though, any attempt of jumping to birds from cat feeder house's roof will result roof to slip and their jump to fail and they learn fast what not to attempt 2nd time

    I don't blame much of article writer, it is because how education and such works that ones interested from saving wildlife will get to line of work where they can make a change and there is not much to tone down or teaching more critical views to them as ones teaching those things will also have same desire, so it is quite single sided view we all end up with and always we should try to be critical about our views and find if other sides views could make more sense than our own views, this way maybe every side would find the real path to follow bit easier.

    However that is perhaps fantasy, to hope extreme wings to start see more than narrow view of their own.
  12. lyrajean
    Love the response. As owners of an "outdoor cat" I can personally say that the impact of my cat on birdlife is minimal. My Aya would love to think that she's a great bird hunter. I have yet to see her manage to catch one. During the course of a summer, we see her kill a dozen or so mice/voles/chipmunks and other rodent life that thrives in abundance. Getting outdoors and letting off some steam by practicing her predatory instincts (99% of which consists of sniffing the breeze and investigating the yard for any sign of prey animals, not actually catching them) greatly relieves her stress expressed as inappropriate peeing on our furniture. None of our cats have ever been interested in braving minus 20F temps and 2 feet of snow in the winter. Our cat is inside at night even in the summer, because of larger predators so we are not missing any prey. Yet we feel pressure of our neighbors to do as they do and keep the felines inside.
  13. Anne
    Yup. Thanks for the comments, Laurie - I hope you can share this on Facebook too! 
  14. ldg
    ...and I'm sure this didn't escape your notice: "Richard Conniff is an author who writes about wildlife for Smithsonian, National Geographic and other magazines." Yes - the cats kill billions of animals a year meta-analysis published a year ago was by... the Smithsonian.
  15. ldg
    Awesome response, Anne!
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