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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


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!


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    May 7 2013: I don't debate the damage cats do to small animal populations but an issue surrounding this is poverty.Putting aside people that just don't care, do pet owners have any less right to the companionship of cats (or any animal) because they are not educated or financially able to be responsible owners? Government subsidies and enforcement of neutering and spaying might be a real answer to this question. I am just not sure if this is where funds should be allocated though. Another issue is the threat cats pose to human health. Most people don't have the money (or the insurance) to see the doctor let alone take their cat to have regular checkups and the fact is they carry gastrointestinal parasites like helminths and protozoa that are dangerous for pregnant women and people with suppressed immune systems. Maybe if this becomes a human health issue it will get more serious attention and thought from a broader spectrum of people.

    "Gastrointestinal Parasites in Domestic Cats" Cohell et al. (2012) http://cdn.intechopen.com/pdfs/34781/InTech-Gastrointestinal_parasites_in_domestic_cats.pdf
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      May 7 2013: I think you are absolutely right that this issue would become more visible to the public if it were framed as one of human health, which I think it totally will become as more research comes out on the topic. Everything out there on the negative effects that domestic cats have on humans seems quite recent. It all seems to be pointing in the same direction at this point though and I have to think that sooner or later these studies will catch enough attention for this to become a major issue.
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        May 7 2013: Visible to the public is one thing, and legislation is another. Which do you think is more important? Gaining the attention of the public and pursuing whatever course of action seems most supported? Or putting legislation in place that addresses what the research shows? Or another strategy altogether?

        This conversation brings the tension between the inherent value of life and the subjective value we place on "charismatic megafauna" pretty starkly to light. Which should be more important in informing our laws?

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