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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: I don't think Morgan's plan is a reasonable approach towards curbing the expanding cat populations in New Zealand as it suggests that you can place a value on the life of an animal and weight it relative to the life of another animal.

    I think a better idea would be to use artificial selection on captive cat populations and select for cats that are natural pacifists and friendly to birds. They have been doing a similar thing to this with foxes in Russia in an attempt to breed viable domestic pets. One this has been successful they can reintroduce these friendly cats into the local population and slowly replace the bird murdering cats.
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      May 6 2013: How many mice, fish, or other model organisms does science mutilate for the betterment of science? How many cows, chickens and pigs are exploited each year for human consumption? We place values on the lives of animals every day and have for centuries. Cats should be held to the same standard especially when they are destroying the diversity of the environments they live in. We wouldn't let a rodent population get out of hand and let them run amok, just because cats are cute and cuddly doesn't mean that they get the excuse to ruin whole ecosystems.

      On that point, should humans be held to the same standard too? As a human race we are responsible for countless extinction of species and we continue to pave the way for the next mass extinction on our planet.

      Also, could we be using the higher population of cats for scientific study or food source? Instead of pumping unwanted cats with poison to kill them, is there a better way to "recycle" the cat population?
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        May 7 2013: This is an interesting idea, yet, I doubt the hardcore cat lovers which I'm sure includes high up politicians would allow cats to be eaten or used as a science experiment. Maybe in the distance future but I think humans care to much for our house pets right now. Could we maybe simply just make cats more expensive or less available? Or create a tax for having cats? I feel like anyone can get a cat for free. Something needs be done though, the numbers Jon provided are ridiculous...
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          May 7 2013: The idea of a "cat tax" is really intriguing. In the United States, we currently tax many things with negative impacts on biodiversity. For example, industries must pay large fees for emitting pollutants beyond industry standards. Making cats more expensive would be one potential way to limit the number of cats purchased, but it is not an uncommon thing for people to buy purebred dogs for over $1000 and I can imagine cat-lovers paying large amounts of money for their feline friends.
          In order to deal with the negative impacts house cats have on biodiversity, I think we need to treat them like any other species instead of a family member.
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          May 7 2013: I think there might be problems with a sort of cat tax, because many people don't register their cats. I know of many friends who adopted kittens from other friends and then do not register, inoculate, or spay them, and this is happening all over the country. I'm not sure we have the ability to regulate pets, except in the case of pure-breeds and other highly priced species that are being bought and sold. Also, these cats are probably indoor pets that do not account for the large amount of deaths that are mostly attributable to feral and outdoor cats. I think that a scientific use for cats could definitely come into play, and these studies on how they affect biodiversity in ecosystems from urban to rural areas prove their use. I would like to see some more uses of these cat populations.

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