In some circles, it feels like confessing to murder.
As an ecologist, I have dispatched dozens of feral cats. Norway Rats, too, the occasional Domestic Goat and wild pig, copious numbers of House Sparrows and European Starlings, extensive patches of Purple Loosestrife, traps full of Japanese Beetles and trees blanketed by Gypsy Moths.
To be sure, these are living things and, thereby, they automatically command my respect for their successful evolutionary strategies and their inherent right to exist.
All these organisms have traits in common, however, that override my ethical sensibilities and demand that I act in good conscience for the overall environment.
Simply put, they are aliens and incredibly destructive.
They are non-native organisms that out-compete native species for limited natural resources such as food and shelter. As a rule, exotics do this very well, spreading like a plague in areas where they become established.
The ecological and economic aftereffects of their introduction can be as wide as continents.
Let me make a distinction here between human-accelerated changes and natural ones. In a sense, introduced organisms populate the whole world. For example, wild species sometimes move through our landscape unexpectedly, on their own volition. For example, we hear rumors about panthers in Florida’s Gulf Coast and Virginia’s southwestern mountains. These are native species “introducing” themselves into our backyards and parks and then move on. However, they are natural additions that have gradually adjusted to their prey and associated fauna in the region.
Exotics, on the other hand, are introduced deliberately or inadvertently. Their introduction provides no time for fine-tuning with native organisms; and, because they tend to be aggressive generalists, exotics accelerate ecological change in irreversible fashion.
Purple Loosestrife also known as Lythrum salicaria, was transported from Europe in the 1800’s as a medicinal herb and seeds on the ballast of ships. This spectacularly beautiful plant has since spread from New York State to Wisconsin and northward into Canada, changing rich native wetlands into homogeneous stands of loosestrife. Northern wetlands have been in decline for decades now, and we may lose several endangered species, because of this fecund plant.
We introduced European Starlings at the turn of the 20th century into New York City’s Central Park because a local Shakespearean society wanted to display all the birds mentioned in the Bard’s plays. (See Act I, Scene III of “King Henry the Fourth.”) Now they are found coast-to-coast and quickly displace native species such as woodpeckers and bluebirds. The economic costs of exotics, and the resulting losses of ecosystem services, are immense.
Cats … well, who knows where cats originated? Asia? The Middle East? An estimated 66 million cats live in the United States alone with more than 35,000 kittens born every day! The majority of these cats are left outside some or all of the time. Not only are cats an exotic species in North America, but they’re also a domesticated species.
Despite our emotional attachment to them, we know that cats were selectively bred over thousands of years to produce traits with no relation to the delicate balance of any natural ecosystem. Like other domesticated species, cats should be carefully and responsibly managed. Allowed outside and without our imposed controls, cats destroy ecosystems, kill native birds and small mammals (even when they are well fed at home), and wreck predator-prey relations.
Yet, because we love our pets, we operate under the misguided notion that cats are “happy” only when they can roam freely outside the house. Where in all this is a conviction about conserving wildlife and preventing the suffering caused by this human-engineered, rapacious killer? Letting a house cat roam freely outdoors is like liberating a four-legged Frankenstein monster into the countryside.
Let’s look at some common misconceptions offered by cat owners for their irresponsible actions. Some of the following comments are adapted from publications by SPCA chapters and their affiliates, organizations long-respected for their devotion to animal welfare.
“It’s only natural that cats hunt.” We have already dismissed this claim. Cats are a domestic species. A cat killing a wild animal is no more “the natural order of things” than a car killing the same organism. In addition, we all know about the tendencies of cats to kill for sport. Wild predators kill for survival.
“My cat doesn’t hurt anything.” Cats do not necessarily take their kills home. Even if it isn’t killing, it is raiding garbage, defecating in children’s sand boxes, spraying houses, or alarming birds at feeders? It is precisely because of feral neighborhood cats that I do not maintain a bird feeding station near my home.
“My cat only kills moles and the occasional bird. That’s OK with me.” There is no way to guarantee this naïve speculation about limited hunting unless, of course, you trail your cat. If you consider moles and the occasional bird as undesirable or unimportant species, they are still part of an interconnected web that affects entire ecosystems. Cats can dismantle the balance of food webs profoundly. Cats kill an estimated one billion songbirds annually in the United States, some of them rare and declining rapidly. That’s a billion songbirds that would otherwise be present in natural ecosystems to sing, to consume insects, and to bring joy into our lives.
“My cat wears a bell” or “My cat is de-clawed.” A small, tinkly bell is not loud enough to prevent cat predation. The bell might not even ring if the cat slowly stalks its prey. De-clawing is not an effective solution because cats don’t need their claws to capture or kill some of their prey. A de-clawed cat will simply bat a bird to the ground and bite it. And let’s be fair to the cat: a de-clawed cat is a defenseless cat.
“It’s cruel to keep a cat indoors.” What’s cruel? Keeping a cat confined responsibly like any domestic species or in order to avoid speeding cars, rat-poison, fleas, round worms, dog or fox or coyote attacks, rabies, toxoplasmosis, feline leukemia? Offering this argument usually includes a matter of inconvenience for the pet owner; it’s easier to let the cat outdoors than to keep it stimulated indoors. It’s the ole’ television-as-pacifier trick again by careless parents. Cat owners who have lost their pets to the great outdoors need to point fingers at themselves for their naiveté and irresponsibility. They killed their own cats through negligence.
“My cat won’t stay inside.” Who makes the rules of the household anyway? Like children, our pets depend on us to set limits for their safety and well-being.
I’m not picking on cats. This is simply a starting point for me to effect positive ecological change. My training as an ecologist includes wildlife resource management. As a wildlife manager focused on sustainability and healthy ecosystems, I recognize the need to restore ecological balance when certain populations of organisms accelerate like a locomotive without a driver.
Management is our best approach when we humans have initiated an imbalance for both wild and exotic species. Today we cull deer herds because we removed their natural predators long ago and we instigated farming practices that continue to encourage their proliferation. We already manage deer, moose, turkey cattle, horses, pigs, goats, trout, and apples. We need to manage cats, too. My management proposal is a simple one: keep your cat indoors at all times!
What’s the big deal? E.O. Wilson, Pulitzer-prize winning scientist and author, warned in 2005: “The threat of invasive species is perhaps our most urgent economic and conservation challenge.” It’s a human pressure point evident across the planet like biodepletion and human-accelerated climate change. Today, the Domestic Cat may be the most widespread alien predator in the world – with devastating ecological consequences.
Herman Viola and Carolyn Margolis, in their 1991 book called Seeds of Change published by the Smithsonian Press, cautioned us: “Today we are living in … a nature of synthetic landscapes, and remade ecosystems. There are no sharp boundaries, only a progressive attenuation of nature primeval and a growing human tyranny as [Earth] inexorably shifts from natural to disturbed (unnatural) to artificial (post-natural). Today little if any of the original wilderness of the Americas remains truly original, untrammeled, and untainted …. a planet so dominated by the human species that unadulterated nature has no place to hide, no realm beyond the reach of humankind; even the weather and the seasons are no longer tamperproof.”
Doing nothing promotes the trend. Correcting one troublesome issue, even with a small effort, will help secure a better world for generations to come. For the health of ecosystems, hardly a difference exists between a Domestic Cat and a noxious weed like Purple Loosestrife. We are obliged as stewards of Earth to eradicate both as humanely as possible wherever they have been introduced.
H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D., is an ecologist, science educator, and conservationist living in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. He is also the founder of Bioquest Solutions LLC, a multi-service environmental consultancy at home and abroad. Bruce may be reached at [email protected]