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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 7 2013: The proposed eradication of cats is rather radical, and I doubt it would ever pass favorably in the public eye. A better solution would be education of the public about the destruction their pets cause when allowed outside (this is the real issue, cats are generally harmless if confined indoors). If there were stronger laws in place about spaying/neutering, this would help control both the domestic and feral cat populations. A trap-and-release (where feral cats are trapped, spayed/neutered then released) program is already in place in the US (not sure about New Zealand) but this is a good way of humanly eliminating populations that most people find easier to stomach than flat out killing them. Having indoor-only policies would also be effective, not only at protecting wildlife but also the cats themselves. It is actually rather inhumane to allow your cat to be outdoors, especially in urban environments. Their life expectancy drastically decreases, due to high risk of getting hit by cars, attacked by predators, and contracting disease.

    One solution besides laws that can help protect native species from contact with cats is to construct barriers that block areas of land set aside as reserves for these native animals. In the early 1900's, a 2,050 mile long fence was constructed in Western Australia called the Rabbit-Proof Fence. Originally designed to keep the rampant rabbit population in control, it has also been effective at keeping other pests like dingoes and feral goats off farmland and native habitats. This fence is still in use today. If you constructed something like this in New Zealand to keep feral/outdoor cats out of reserved land it would allow native species a chance to recover.

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