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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 8 2013: Morgan seems to be far to radical to attain success on a small isolated island like New Zealand, so there is no way he could be successful with this idea on a larger scale in the US. People have been known to protest over anything, and taking away one of their favorite "model" (cute) organisms is not going to go over well. I don't even think his methods are logical because a total eradication of any one species from an ecosystem is considered a threat to biodiversity. Even if cats are as dangerous as some researchers assume, they reside as a Keystone species due to their interactions. I don't think there is anything that would make this a reasonable course of action, but the idea of curtailing the effects of cats on biodiversity is sound. Regulation of cats could definitely be handled better, but I do not think that there is a way that all cats can be controlled and monitored. They are wild and many are feral or unregistered cats. Many people have large amounts of unrecorded animal births. Large proportions of these animals will escape or become wild, and once that happens they are impossible to control via the owners. This is a difficult species to monitor because of how close to our homes that it lives. They are right outside our door and people can see anything that we do to them. I'm having trouble figuring out a way that we could eliminate or use this species as we do others, but there is a huge amount of public support for animal safety and regulations on animal cruelty. This animal is too "cute" to use simple strategies of population control, so it might be an invasive species that we have to live with.
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      May 8 2013: I tend to agree that we may just have to live with the problem. The amount of resources it would take to attempt to create a society paradigm shift in how cats are regarded (as "cute" pets, not vermin) is prohibitive and would likely meet with failure anyway. In any event, applying an extreme solution to a moderate problem is illogical. I unfortunately am unable to offer a better solution at this time, but I think that if a solution exists, we must seek it out using a balanced approach.

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