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Jon Cox

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Cats pose a serious threat to biodiversity: Why do we accept it? What should be done?

According to the ASPCA, there are around 90 million owned domestic cats (Felis catus) in the U.S., and taking into account strays and feral cats, the total number is estimated to be as high as 160 million (1). Loss et al. (2013) estimates that cats roaming outdoors kill 1.4-­3.7 BILLION birds and 6.9­-20.7 BILLION mammals in the U.S. annually (2). Reptiles and amphibians such as snakes, lizards, frogs, etc., are also frequently killed by cats.

Cats are even more popular New Zealand, where they are contributing to declines of endemic birds such as the critically endangered kakapo (3), which have evolved in the absence of predators. Businessman/philanthropist Gareth Morgan is trying to gather support for legislation that would aggressively deal with stray and feral cats and potentially eliminate cats from New Zealand to take pressure off of threatened species (4 & 5). With Morgan’s plan, in addition to regulation that would reduce cat populations and increase owner accountability, residents would be encouraged to not replace their cats. As of now the majority of New Zealanders surveyed are in opposition to Morgan’s initiative.

Would a proposition like Morgan’s meet similar resistance in the U.S.? Probably, but is he on the right track? Would you personally support something like it for your state or country? Why or why not is it a good idea? Is this type of legislation necessary to curb the problem and protect wildlife? If you disagree, what are some alternatives? Will the aesthetics and familiarity of cats keep them off limits to such ideas in the opinions of the general public?

1. http://www.aspca.org/about-us/faq/pet-statistics.aspx
2. http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/pdf/Loss_et_al_2013.pdf
3. http://www.avianweb.com/kakapo.html
4. http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/01/24/170191917/new-zealand-environmentalist-wants-to-eliminate-cats-to-save-birds
5. http://www.livescience.com/26525-cat-eradication-new-zealand-save-birds.html

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Closing Statement from Jon Cox

Thanks to everyone who contributed to a thought provoking discussion!

I think we can all agree that we need to be responsible with our pets! For the sake of ecological and human health. And pet owners must realize that their carelessness is costly. Plans to completely eliminate cats from areas where they are very popular are pretty far fetched, but stricter regulation is a must, and domestic cats do NOT belong in the wild, period. Feral cats need to be seen and dealt with just as any other invasive species. However, extreme caution is necessary in any attempt to remove them where they have become established as a keystone species.

Check out Australian cat laws for a look at the legislation adopted by a people who cherish their native wildlife and do not want to see it be destroyed by invasives.

And lastly, we must keep in mind that invasive species are just one way in which we threaten biodiversity. Overexploitation and especially habitat loss pose even greater threats to species survival.

Thanks again!

Jon

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    May 6 2013: This idea seems a little radical, yet, possibly something to seriously consider. Before we go cutting out all house pet population, though, I think it's important to educate the general population importances of biodiversity and the serious affects cats are having on it. After that, I think more research needs to be done on some ways to approach this idea. That could include research like surveying which species of cats are more likely to decimate animal population, if there are some places or environments in which cats are more likely to kill birds or amphibians than in others, or if its possible to train cats to not eat/kill other creatures (doubtful but maybe worth looking into). I think something does need to be done but I'm not a huge cat lover, so it's hard for me to really be concerned about losing to many of them. But if it was a dog it'd be different for me. Tough topic because many people consider cats apart of their families. but I think there're systematic adjustments that can be made where humans can enjoy their cats still, and, where cats won't be as destructive to the creatures they prey on.
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      May 7 2013: I agree with most of your statement, but I tend to think that the eradication of all cats is too extreme of an option to merit much consideration at all. As another poster already pointed out, if we consider exterminating one species because it poses a threat to biodiversity as a legitimate solution to this problems, then in fairness, we must apply that same standard to the species that poses the GREATEST threat to biodiversity - humans. Although that would realistically never happen, that standard could still be applied to other species (like dogs, whose population has a well documented impact on the environment). Where do we draw the line?

      Additionally, it's possible that eliminating or reducing the population of domestic felines will have negative ramifications to other ecosystems that will be very difficult to predict. There are many passive relationships between lifeforms on this planet that remain unseen, and if we start pulling on "loose threads", significant portions of the tapestry of nature could come undone.
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      May 8 2013: I love the idea of researching which types of cats are more prone to hunting than others. I think someone may have already mentioned this but perhaps we could even breed more docile cats. We could do breeding programs with current cat breeds, selecting for docility. That way, we could maintain cat diversity (since people like the looks of different breeds) and if successful, people could keep their cats and the stress to biodiversity would be diminished.

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