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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: A proposition similar to Morgan’s would be met with similar, if not harsher resistance in the United States. Our country was founded on independence from government, which still is present in a lot of America. Our idea of having the “freedom” to choose what we want to do, although sometimes limited in today’s America, is backed by this thought of being independent, and being able to live your life without the government knocking on your door.

    Is Morgan on the right track though? Absolutely. Cats are acting as an invasive species for the kakapo and other bird species, which is severely affecting the biodiversity on New Zealand. This can disrupt many ecosystems if cat populations are not reduced, which may prove to be more costly in the long-term for New Zealanders. But who are we to point the fingers at cats? Humanity is responsible for more biodiversity loss than any other species on Earth.

    I think it’s a start of a good idea. Government intervention is crucial if we are to curb the bad habits of humanity, even if it is against the constituency. Sadly, many problems like these are political, and people do not wish to lose their paid political positions.

    Rather than a strict command and control policy of banning cats, why not levy a tax with cats? Felines that are not documented may become documented when taken into the vet. A yearly tax on owning a cat may persuade others to limit the amount of cats they own. Tax revenue generated from this plan can only be used strictly for restoration and preservation of many habitats so that it can protect the vulnerable bird species. This not only holds government responsible for the environment, but also the individual so they can think of the social costs of owning cat, and not solely the private costs. In the long run, this plan may prove to be efficient in protecting biodiversity, even more so that Morgan’s plan of just banning cats.
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      May 7 2013: I like your idea of levying a tax against cat owners, but I'm skeptical that the tax alone would sufficiently incite responsible pet ownership. Sadly, many people opt to abandon their pets in the wild after incurring expenses that they either can't afford (or won't) pay, so I worry that a tax would increase instances of pet abandonment. In addition to carrying some undesirable moral implications, it would also have the potential to exacerbate the very problem it was designed to fix.

      Although I cannot presently offer a better solution (this will require more thought and research), I believe this problem will need to be solved with a multifaceted approach. The solution will need to encourage personal responsibility over one's own cats (or restrict cat ownership to those who can demonstrate it, perhaps), balance the tax in a way that would discourage abandonment, and simultaneously account for the fact that many policy changes have the potential to be self-defeating. This solution is not an easy one.

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