A disclaimer: I am an avid bird watcher, and I have cats. Three indoor cats, to be exact, and three cats that hang around my house outdoors, the remnants of a once larger "cat colony" that showed up uninvited here the summer after we moved in, nine years ago, in the body of a promiscuous female I called "Evil Calico". The bird loving me and the cat loving me had intense internal struggles about how to handle the outdoor cat population; bringing excess cats to a shelter was not an option around here, and although we have a .22 rifle, I never felt right about the killing solution. As it turned out, the number of cats eventually dropped to two females, one male, and a kitten has not survived to maturity in two years. This "cat herd" did provide my Best Cat Ever, though:
I read the published paper, which can be found at no cost here. Since I seem to have left that part of my brain that deals with methodology and statistics behind as soon as I defended my Master's thesis, I was glad that another source, Vox Felina, did a thoughtful job of critiquing the methodology and conclusions.
Now, I think we can find some points that cat people and bird people can agree upon. And, I think the media did a disservice to both groups by portraying each as single minded fanatics. One, cats, if left to roam, will kill what they can. Sometimes they won't even eat it. (Humans have this same disgraceful habit) Two, there are specific areas, such as islands, where predation by cats, whether pet or feral, has contributed to the decline, and even extinction, of some species. For these areas, a recovery plan, if feasible, should definitely address the harm done by cats.
...a study that gives numbers without context is meaningless. Do we have population estimates of the bird population in the US? As a fish biologist, I know how difficult it is to get an accurate estimate of the population of fish in a small lake.
...a study that gives numbers without any estimates of what species are killed, and in what proportion to the total, is meaningless.
...The issue of mortality is hard to convey to a public who does not have a basic understanding of animal population dynamics. A certain number of any species will succumb to mortality, without affecting the overall population. Certain species that are adapted to the urban environment may occur in higher numbers than what would be expected in nature, and may also be preyed upon by urban cats.
And then we have conflicting issues of compassion. The drive of compassion in humans is undeniable; it is what keeps us civilized, it is what gives us hope. One side has compassion for the prey, the poor vulnerable victims of a predator brought upon all corners of the earth by humans. One side has compassion for the cats; it is not their fault they are here, and that they have an urge to kill (a Sylvester and Tweety cartoon comes to mind, in which Sylvester attends a twelve step program for his "addiction"). Cold, hard science tends to disregard compassion. In my career I have seen, on one hand, ridicule for people who bring "nongame" species in (i.e. songbirds) for rehabilitation; on the other, I have seen many people who choose wildlife management as a career who think the only good cat is a dead cat.
Can we find common ground? I think the media hype surrounding the "study" that came out this week only serves to divide people. As is the case with most stories that qualify as "news" these days.
UPDATE: Apparently I am not alone in thinking this way. NPR blogger Barbara J. King questioned the statistical validity of the study, as well as its usefulness:
There is a (mostly) thoughtful discussion in the comments section of King's blog post.Demonizing cats with shaky statistics, however, won't help us build the pillar of understanding required to strike a satisfying balance between the needs of cats and their supporters with the needs of wildlife facing a feline threat.