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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: I agree that something needs to be done to cut down the amount of killing that domestic cats do but I personally love cats and would not give them up.

    I have a few ideas about how to regulate the cat population (a few of which have been touched on earlier in this conversation)....

    1. We could make all domestic cats that are pets indoor animals only. There is really no good way to regulate this but I think more people would comply with this if it was law and if they were educated about why the law was going into effect.

    2. I think that cat owners should have to register their cat through a vet's office (with the vet reporting to a regional or national database). I see this registration involving having a chip injected into the cat as the registration number.

    3. Regulated domestic breeding - These people would have to apply for a license to breed and there could be a limited number of licenses per year per area (as they do with hunting tags). The kittens would all have to be reported and chiped by the vet after they are born and before they are sold to new owners.

    4. More funds and resources allotted to spay/neuter clinics for feral cats. With more resources and domestic cats being kept indoors we could drastically reduce the number of these cats roaming the streets.

    5. And finally, if the owner has no intent of breeding their cat they must spay/neuter them by a deadline.

    Does any of this sound feasible?
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      May 7 2013: A rule without enforcement is just a suggestion. Unless you somehow enforce this, there will be minimal compliance.

      I like the idea of having cats being registered at the vets office. A step further would to be to place a tax on cats. Those who own a cat would be taxed for owning one. The tax would be set at the same level of the social costs created by the cat. This way the owner can pay for externalities created by the cat. These funds can only be used for restoration and preservation in the environment that the cat damages.

      Some may not take their cats in for fear of this registration and not wanting to pay a tax. However, when a pet becomes sick then the individual will be morally obligated to take the cat to a vet. This will be the enforcement part of the law. It also applies for individuals who breed cats. Those who refuse to take their cats in will eventually do so. We could also subsidize spraying to keep cat populations down.

      In the end, government and the individual are held responsible, and the winner is the environment.
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        May 7 2013: I'm not sure about taxing pet owners of cats. That doesn't seem like something the public would pass due to the amount of taxes we already have. Although... you could make the cost of cats from breeders and those from the humane societies slightly higher (adding in the tax that way so it is just a one time fee when you buy the pet).

        I also think that it would be hard to pass all of these ideas at once (in the United States at least) but if one part of it could be passed and then research done to show effectiveness the public may be more invested in the tax or other regulations regarding cats.

        As far as taking in your cat to get registered.... You are right... Some people would simply oppose to this and others would call it government conspiracy to get ahold of personal information but as time goes on and breeders, humane societies, and citizens bring in their pets to get registered more and more will be registered. I do not imagine all of this happening overnight. It would take people a while to warm up to the ideas (and even to the fact that something needs to be done) as well as take an abundant amount of time to get all of these pets registered and the current strays and feral cats spayed and neutered.
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      May 7 2013: My main concern is that many of your proposals seem relatively expensive (either because of enforcement costs or the price of chips). While I like Alex's suggestion of a Pigouvian tax, I agree that it seems pretty unfeasible with the political atmosphere.

      I wonder if there are other, more cost-effective solutions. Someone mentioned developing a sort of birth control shot for cats earlier in the thread. While I don't know how long a shot could be effective, I think we should be focusing on solutions that are cheap and easily disseminated. Tracking down whether every pet owner keeps their cat indoors or fixes their cat just don't happen.
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        May 7 2013: How is a shot going to be more effective or less money than spaying/neutering your cat? And we know that spaying and neutering is effective birth control.

        I do realize that my solutions would cost money as does every other solution we are coming up with in this conversation so we again to that idea of putting a monetary value on ecosystems. How much are we willing to lose versus how much are we willing to invest in saving.
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          May 8 2013: Spaying and neutering is certainly effective, but can be costly (upwards of $50 a cat) and requires recovery time for the animal. I can't see a shot being more effective but certainly cheaper. Again, it's a flawed idea though due to the temporary nature of shot-based birth control.

          I didn't intend to disparage all of your ideas because of their cost. You're right that any solution will require some financial investment. I just wanted to point out that many of the ideas proposed on this thread would require a degree of enforcement that I don't see being funded. My hope is that someone might produce an idea for a cheap way to address the problem on a wide scale (I'm thinking syringe/needle exchange programs to reduce HIV as a model). A birth control shot is probably not it but I think it's along the lines of how we should be thinking, versus top down legislation that counters the sentiments of the majority of the population.

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