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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: I think outdated attitudes around pets are a major part of the problem. HIstorically, cats served a very important function in some communities: controlling rodent functions. However, it doesn't take a cat in every household to do this. Cats for individual households is the result, I would argue, of the shift in thinking toward nuclear families and an individual-centered society. Maybe a significant part of reducing the high number of cats is to re-imagine pet ownership as a community activity. Although anecdotal, I have noticed that many of the cats in my neighborhood hang around lots of different houses in the neighborhood; they are already communal. Sharing cats would reduce the amount of cats dramatically!
    Moving from cars to public transportation has been hampered by cultural priorities around car ownership as much as by infrastructure and scientific difficulties. Are pets an analogous situation, in which it is our ideas of pet ownership, not necessarily our technical solutions to pet over population, that need re-imagined?
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      May 8 2013: I myself like cats but am more of a dog person. I think that cat sharing would be awesome! It would be cheaper to own a cat for one thing and it would greatly reduce the problem with the number of cats. It would be harder to do in smaller towns because everyone is more spread out but in cities and places like Eugene I think it would work. But, again I am not really a cat person and for people that LOVE cats I think the idea may not go down so nicely. Maybe someone that really is a cat person could share their feelings on this idea.
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        May 8 2013: This is a really cool idea! I know quite a few people who buy a cat and love it at first but... when the magnitude of the responsibility really sets in they itch to get rid of it. By having some sort of pet sharing program one could set aside a couple of weeks or months to have a cat and decide if they really want one or if it's not for them.
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      May 8 2013: Hi Carson,

      You touch on a great point: Pets became like many other pieces of private property: initially we own as much as we need, but after a while it gets to a point when it is no longer about what we need, but about showing that we can always buy and own more in quantity and more expensive pets. And where there is demand, animal breeders will step in with supply

      Sadly, for some people shared ownership (what used to be the commons) is a dreaded concept... and some might worry that starting with pets could lead down a slipery slope towards one of those terrible -isms... where people might start thinking about sharing food, shelter, resources... scary indeed!

      ;-)

      cheers
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        May 8 2013: Yup. Yes there are lots of responsible animal lovers out there whose pets are their best friends, however pets have largely become just another possession or toy, a compulsory thing to own. And when the owner is irresponsible the pet and other living things suffer. My next door neighbors own about 5 dogs, which they just ignore or yell at most of the time, and the house across from them has several as well, and there are so many cats wandering around my neighborhood at any given time. It is crazy. There are probably at least as many pets on my street as there are people.

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