Feline justice


Life is full of many painful decisions, but ending a beloved pet’s life has got to be right up there among the worst. Last Saturday morning saw us staring at x-rays on a monitor in our vet’s office, dutifully listening to her description of the effects of fluid on the lungs and dreading where all this was headed. Moments before, we’d confidently assumed Finley’s rapid breathing and negligible appetite would be fixed right up with a course of antibiotics; certainly it could be nothing much worse than a respiratory infection. Wrong. It was likely the final stage of some hidden cancer or other malady whose signs had been invisible until now. The tech carried her in wrapped in the blue blanket that would be her shroud, a catheter already inserted in her little gray front leg. Always a shy cat, the look of abject terror in her eyes was a terrible indictment of us that no reassurances of ending her suffering could mollify. This was not the first time we’d been in this situation, but each occasion has its own special sting. As we watched the labored breathing slow, then stop, it was terrible to anticipate the emptiness of her territory under the fruit trees, an area not to be entered without a tribute to its feline mayor in the form of a gentle pat or belly rub.

Yes, Finley was an outdoor cat. I know – in addition to annoying the neighbors, outdoor cats can wreak havoc on urban and rural wildlife, particularly birds. Two recent studies I’ve read, one from the U.K. and one from the U.S., identify specific at-risk bird species which are heavily affected by cat predation, including certain sparrows, bluebirds, and hummingbirds. Accurate estimates of total birds killed by domestic and feral cats are hard to come by, but the American Bird Conservancy suggests that “hundreds of millions” are killed annually, a shocking number. And I’m sorry to say that in her younger years Miss Finley contributed to this number. While pigeons, thrashers, and other large birds never captured her interest, we did sadly witness the odd dove and – sorry – hummingbird succumb to her lightning-fast leaps.

Surely by now you condemn me for my complicity in this environmental crisis, and I accept the blame. Until 10 years ago when Finley and her siblings came into my life, I smugly asserted to one and all that I would only keep indoor cats, and indeed I did, five of them. I repeatedly scolded my neighbor for neglecting her perfectly nice female tuxedo cat, who was forced to roam the streets day and night seeking food from me and others and enduring litter after litter of kittens. When the neighbor decided to get (and consequently neglect) two large dogs, the tuxedo cat disappeared. Weeks later she reappeared under my shed, five scared feral kittens in tow.

So what would you do? Some people, like my despicable neighbor, would do nothing. Others would trap the whole family and have them euthanized, or have taxpayers fund the euthanasia at the pound. Something must be done to stop rampant cat overpopulation. No-kill shelters are perpetually full. But hard-nosed realism has a way of eroding when one must look at unbelievably adorable wee kittens everyday. Many have faced this dilemma; some on a large scale. My plan was to tame them, get them neutered and find homes for the lot, and nearly all of those goals were accomplished. Two found homes, the Mom and a female. In the process of trying to do the right thing I’d fallen hopelessly in love with the others, sweet Finley and her siblings Berto, Vela, and Clarence. They couldn’t come in; my house was already full with five cats, two elderly. So that is how I became a big fat hypocrite. I got them I.D. collars and yearly vaccinations, and bribed them with good food and treats to stay (mostly) in the backyard. But still, there were the occasional feathers in the yard. As a society, this is one of the decisions we’re faced with, to balance justice with compassion. I haven’t figured that one out yet.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University, where she is also the Associate Director of Writing Programs. Outside academia, she’s an avid rafter, kayaker, and horsewoman who also attempts to garden. When possible, she escapes the Phoenix metro area for an undisclosed location in Southeastern Utah.


Cats & Birds: The Flawed Science
Peter Wolf
Peter Wolf
Oct 09, 2010 12:48 PM
First, Jackie, let me express my sympathies. One is never prepared, I am convinced, for the loss of a beloved pet (indoor or otherwise). You’re absolutely right: “each occasion has its own special sting.”

I’d also like to thank you for the life you gave Finley and her siblings. As you suggest, plenty of people would have shown nothing but indifference (or worse) in your situation.

A few points, if I may, about the statistics and predation studies you refer to…

What’s truly shocking about the American Bird Conservancy’s figure (“hundreds of millions”) is not its magnitude, but the flimsy scientific evidence on which it’s based. Simply put, the majority of scientific claims made regarding the impacts of free-roaming cats on wildlife and the environment are plagued with errors, exaggerations, glaring omissions, and inexcusable bias.

The one you refer to by Christopher Lepczyk is among the worst of them, with Lepczyk inflating both predation rates and cat population estimates to arrive at impact numbers perhaps 10 times larger than what the research justified.

The 2005 Baker paper you cite is similar. The work reported there was conducted as a pilot study for a larger research project, the results of which were published in 2008. In calculating their maximum impacts, the authors assumed that all the study cats were hunters (despite the fact that 51–74% of the cats included in the two studies brought home no prey at all) and that bird productivity was zero (i.e., no young birds survive to adulthood). Though the authors admit, “this was clearly not realistic,” they published the numbers anyhow.

Such figures are textbook examples of “proofiness,” to borrow a term from Charles Seife’s recently-released book of the same name. Proofiness, writes Seife, is “the art of using bogus mathematical arguments to prove something that you know in your heart is true—even when it’s not.” Too often, the media, government agencies, local municipalities—and, of course, the public—regard these flimsy assertions as the indisputable truth.

Although the organization typically leaves the bad science to others, the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) is a masterful purveyor of proofiness. Their brochure, “Domestic Cat Predation on Birds and Other Wildlife” (downloadable from their website) is plagued with flawed mathematical arguments (e.g., inflated predation rates, inflated estimates of cat populations, misrepresentations, cherry-picked data, etc.). Misinformation they have refused to correct for years now.

Something you won’t hear from the ABC—or from most scientists—is the critical difference between compensatory predation and additive predation. What if the birds being killed by cats are not healthy enough to contribute to the larger population? In fact, in their 2008 paper, Baker and his colleagues conclude that the birds killed by cats “were likely to have had poor long-term survival prospects” (in concurrence with another study on the subject).

Over the past year or so, I have reviewed and analyzed several free-roaming cat studies (including those you refer to) in detail, and have presented my findings in a rigorous, open manner on my blog, Vox Felina (http://www.voxfelina.com). I invite readers to review (and critique) my analysis and commentary. And, most important, to become part of this important debate, armed with a fuller understanding of the issues.

I agree with you—that, as a society, we’re faced with the dilemma of balancing justice with compassion. And, like you, I haven’t figured it out. As I’ve noted repeatedly on my blog, there are legitimate issues to be debated concerning free-roaming cats (e.g., regarding the efficacy, environmental impact, and morality of trap-neuter-return). But attempts at an honest, productive debate are hampered—if not derailed entirely—by the bogus claims so often put forward by opponents of free-roaming cats/TNR.

Peter J. Wolf
Doc Baker
Doc Baker
Oct 12, 2010 06:14 PM
While I'd agree that the actual science behind estimates of birds killed by cats is likely thin (not a major funding priority for the NSF), there is a good reason to suspect it's relatively high.

Take the Humane Society's estimate of the number of feral cats in the U.S. -- 50 million. Now if we assume that they eat a meat-based meal they caught just twice a week we end up with 5,200 million prey captures (rodents, snakes or other herptofauna, or birds). If only 10% the prey captures are birds that's still over a half-billion (with a b) birds predated by felines in the U.S. each year.

Domesticated cats that spend the majority of their life outdoors no doubt also contribute to the total but I didn't have any comparable starting point to do my back-of-the-napkin statistics on. A reasoned guess would be it's substantial. The point being that it's certainly useful for the previous commenter to point out the weaknesses in the statistics but it'd be more helpful to provide a substantial counter-argument (not to say my technique counts as substantial).
Pat Rathmann
Pat Rathmann
Oct 12, 2010 07:47 PM
Having had an indoor cat who was also outside for a good part of the day until his sad demise from cancer at age 14, I can speak concerning his prey from personal observation. Every catch was proudly returned to us. In those 14 years, I recall chipmunks, field mice, voles, and moles galore, but only a small handful of birds. And oh yes, some garter snakes. I suspect more birds fall prey to hawks, owls, and other bird species than cats.
not just birds
Oct 12, 2010 08:07 PM
Jackie, I'm very sorry for your loss. I also understand your dilemma with the outdoor thing, but am astonished at Pat's response. Are you saying that snakes,chipmunks, voles, etc. are not worthy of consideration? They are a natural part of the ecosystem, while domestic cats most assuredly are not. Ask any wildlife rehabber what the main reason for wild animal injury is, and they'll tell you cats rank right up there. Even if they don't kill, they wound, and their bite will kill eventually just through infection.
I love cats, have 3 rescues, but they must remain indoors. I care too much about wildlife and the environment to contribute to their demise in that manner. I would euthanize ferals before letting them roam, in order to save more animals.
Oct 19, 2010 12:31 PM
Euthanasia is what you do for a terminally ill or terminally injured animal to end its suffering. Killing is what you do to a healthy or treatable animal whose life you want to end for some reason other than to end its suffering. What you are proposing to do to feral cats is killing, not euthanasia.

Whether or not feral felines are a natural part of the ecosystem depends on how far back in time you look. Cats arrived on this continent along with European civilization 500 years ago and they don't seem to have driven any of their prey to extinction yet.

TNR is the most effective means of managing feral cat numbers. The alternative, rounding them up and killing them, is ineffective and inhumane, as feral cats can breed faster than you can catch them, and if there is a food supply, there will be cats.