Strip mining kitty litter


So there’s this enduring stereotype about English teachers. We like cats. In my experience, it’s mostly true – among my colleagues (the nice ones anyway), a reliable conversation topic is always the latest amusing cat story/photo. There are other stereotypes also: yes, we do Tweet in complete sentences. But for the purposes of this post, I’m sticking with the cats. If you’re not a cat person or English teacher, please bear with me; I promise there are some Western environmental implications that will emerge shortly.   

First, the background: one of my earliest posts for High Country News, in October, 2010, was a narrative about the death of my outdoor cat Finley and a reflection on the ethics of keeping cats outdoors, given their less-than-ideal impact on the environment. While it was rather far afield from my assignment at the time to write about environmental justice (the human variety), the HCN editors were kind enough to run it, and it received quite a lot of thoughtful comments. The commenters’ remarks, taken as a whole, represent a snapshot of what is to this day a lively debate about cats’ actual impact on birds and other fauna. Some statistics project an astronomical figure; others question those numbers. Still, if you’ve seen little Muffin with a terrified, thrashing hummingbird in his mouth, it’s not a pleasant sight.

Anyway, this begs the question: does keeping kitty indoors resolve all green concerns? If you’ve been following the cat litter debate (I confess I hadn’t been), you know that the answer is no.

My impulse for looking into this subject was, sadly, the recent death of yet another beloved cat, my elderly calico LeMieux (yes, named after the famous hockey player). Unlike Finley, LeMieux was an indoor pet. Indoor cats need a place to “go,” and that, of course, is the litter box. LeMieux was the last in a small group who came to live in our home in the early 1990’s, our first cats. We used traditional clay litter then because it was cheapest and we kept with it because when it comes to the subject of cat elimination, you don’t want to mess with success. Now that LeMieux is gone, we thought of switching to the more convenient scooping litter for our remaining two indoor cats, youngsters who are not finicky about such things. There are dozens of choices in the scoop-able litter market, and some of these claim to be more environmentally friendly (see this advertisement, for example) because they are made of biodegradable or recycled material -- and have a high price tag.

I decided to research this further. I learned that clay-based litter -- both scoop-able and traditional -- is made of bentonite clay. It is extracted via strip mining by companies such as the American Colloid Company. Many of these mines are in the desert southwest. Yikes! This has been receiving more press in recent years, as in this 2010 column in Grist and this often-cited article from Pet Product News International. While the American Colloid Company plays up its efforts at reclamation, and bentonite clay is also used for many other industrial products, it seems sad that something as non-essential as cat litter has to be derived from a practice like strip mining.

The long and short of it is that pet ownership is never going to be a perfectly green undertaking. There are always trade-offs. Still, I think I might spring for the pricier litters made with renewable ingredients from now on. The cats won’t care, but I will.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Image courtesy Flickr user Matt Kimberling.

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