Not our Tiddles!

Guest post by campaigner, activist and cat-lover Emily Jones:

In the UK, where there are no plans to manage the cat population nationally or locally, cat owners like myself who also value wildlife are presented with a challenge…

“It’s that time of year when we look out the window and see birds building their nests. Some have already got young, we can hear the hungry cries of nestlings, and see the busy parents bringing back food for a nest full of gaping mouths. Soon baby birds will start to fledge, test their wings and leave the nest. Once out, a fledgeling is beset with danger. Many predators will feast at this time of year, looking on the vulnerable birds as an easy target while they learn to fly. Owls, weasels, magpies, crows, foxes, and even rats will take and eat a baby bird, but of course cats are prolific, and arguably the least justifiable, bird hunters.

Baby birds really have little defence against cats. They are naturally good hunters. Wikipedia describes the cat as having “a strong flexible body, quick reflexes, sharp teeth and retractable claws adapted to killing small prey’. The earliest known domestic cat was found near a human Neolithic grave in southern Cyprus, buried around 9,500 years ago. As there is no evidence of this kind of cat being native to Cyprus, it is believed that they were brought from Africa. Stored grain attracted, as it still does, mice and rats, and cats who lived near humans would benefit from the easy hunting. This was of course a symbiotic relationship, and humans encouraged cats as they killed these small grain thieves, keeping their numbers down. Thus we created the domestic cat, an animal that was useful to humans in its skill in killing animals that are not useful to us.

It is easy to see how this relationship developed, and how cats moved from our barns to our houses, and from their status as working animals to loved and doted-on pets, though they have, of course, not lost their abilities, and their skill in keeping numbers of mice, birds, and other small creatures down. There were 10.9 million ‘owned’ cats in Britain last year, according to the PDSA, and 24% of adults now ‘own’ a cat. With recorded cat numbers growing (these figures don’t include stray cats) we are arguably at a point where our cat population is unsustainable. Here in the UK we are trying to encourage many declining species with nature reserves and reintroduction programmes. Perhaps it is now time for a shift in thinking as cats are an introduced species, not a native part of our ecosystem, and no longer helpful to our aims as a society (at least not in such large numbers).

Let’s be clear, this is not the individual cat’s fault. It is in their nature to kill, and to practice hunting as if it were a game. If you don’t intervene you could watch a cat batting a vole, toad or baby thrush about, injuring it, then letting it try to get away, before eventually killing it, and either eating it, leaving it there, or bringing it inside as a present.

The RSPB, say that ‘cats in the UK catch up to 100 million prey items over spring and summer, of which 27 million are birds’. They then go on to explain that this is just the number of prey items which are known about, adding that, ‘We don’t know how many more the cats caught, but didn’t bring home, or how many escaped but subsequently died’. However, they also say that there is no evidence to suggest species decline is related to our cat population, explaining that ‘many millions of birds die naturally every year, mainly through starvation, disease or other forms of predation’.

A 2013 US study, describing itself as a ‘systematic review’, found that ‘free-ranging cats cause substantially greater wildlife mortality than previously thought’ though. The study estimated that ‘free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.3 – 4.0 billion birds and 6.3–22.3 billion mammals annually’. These figures can’t be directly compared with the much smaller UK of course, but rather than saying the cat population is not having an impact on wildlife, they conclude that ‘scientifically sound conservation and policy intervention is needed to reduce this impact.’

Dr Peter Marra, author of ‘Cat Wars’ and head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Centre says, ‘sixty-three species extinctions around the world are now linked to booming cat populations. The problem is exacerbated in areas with very sensitive eco-systems, like New Zealand’. In 2018 a southern New Zealand town planned to ban the keeping of domestic cats in an attempt to support native wildlife. Rather than a local cull (which is often the method used for invasive species management), the initiative suggested a system where cats were neutered, lived out their lives, but after death would not be replaced by its ‘owner’. The idea was voted down.

However in the same year, New York state were taken to court for not doing enough to protect Piping Plovers, an endangered species nesting in Jones Beach State Park, from a colony of feral and abandoned cats. After the court settlement a relocation programme was set up for the cats, which were trapped and moved to refuges elsewhere. To date, at least twenty-six cats have been moved from the park, and the project is ongoing. It has become an offence to abandon a cat in the Park, and any stray cats that are reported are caught and moved. It is still too soon to tell the results of this study, but it is a fairly ground-breaking move. 

There is actually very little long-term research available into how the wildlife of an area would respond to a cat population being removed. Small mammal, reptile and bird populations may well increase (which other predators would of course benefit from), but with complicated ecosystems it is hard to predict what other changes might happen. Stray cats have been managed in other areas, but mostly from the angle of disease control, overpopulation and neglect rather than wildlife conservation. Very few other strategies or ideas on how to manage cat population increases have been published. It is perhaps unsurprising, considering the response from cat loving communities across the world, who are usually very opposed to any mention of cats as a problem to be managed. On its publication ‘Cat Wars‘ prompted a petition asking cat lovers to boycott the author and Princeton University Press for publishing it.

In the UK, where there are no plans to manage the cat population nationally or locally, cat owners like myself who also value wildlife are presented with a challenge. Many of us take in rescue cats or strays, and then have to decide whether to confine our cat indoors, build them a wildlife-safe outdoor enclosure, or let them outside to hunt and inevitably kill other animals. There are products we can buy to help with this: rainbow collars, bells etc. However anecdotal accounts seem to say these only reduce deaths of birds, and are not a complete solution. One online review stated ‘the only things they’ve caught since they’ve been wearing them are moles and voles, I assume because they are blind’.

So should we keep our cats indoors? Lots of people who keep cats will say this is cruel, or a loss of liberty for the cat. The charity Cat’s Protection offers a little advice on its website. It suggests having regular ‘play sessions’, to mimic hunting, keeping them indoors while birds are fledging, and through the night, and making sure bird tables are high up. It’s not surprising they don’t say more, though, this is a very delicate and emotive subject, with the most dedicated vegan animal lovers and wildlife experts shying away from conversations about cats’ habits, and excusing their own animal as ‘not a good hunter’ or ‘a lazy cat’ to sidestep the issue. However with a seemingly ever-rising number of people owning a cat in the UK, this is not a problem we can ignore indefinitely, and perhaps we need to look at legislation around cat ownership.

The interesting moral debate here is where responsibility ends. Ultimately we are responsible for our cat. It’s a domesticated animal and in our care, but what’s our responsibility to the birds in our garden, or the moles and voles that our cat could encounter if out and about? In a way we could argue that we are not responsible for them: we chose to take in a cat, but have no involvement with what lives outside our houses and therefore no responsibility to keep them alive and uninjured. This seems to be a popular view, evidenced by how many cats can be seen out hunting. However it is perhaps not very ecologically responsible. It is, of course, much easier to respond to our cat: we see them every day, they will let us know if they want to go out in the garden, if they are bored or hungry, whereas the birds and creatures they kill are often unheard victims, killed at night while we are sleeping, or while we are at work and the cat is left alone to create its own entertainment.

I’m sure many readers will find this article uncomfortable: but alongside campaigning against hunters and gamekeepers etc shouldn’t we also be looking a little closer to home? Many of us will have a cat, often with the best intentions of caring for that creature, and perhaps we’ve never thought about the local impact?

We are often called upon to think about our environmental impact though. In the last couple of years the Extinction Rebellion protests have brought matters of environmental responsibility into the mainstream news. We are asked to consider our carbon footprint, recycle our food packaging and get the bus. Our individual impact is discussed as part of a world-wide effect, global warming, peak oil, orangutans dying out as we cut down the rainforest for palm-oil plantations. All of these issues are valid, but so is of course the local wildlife that is killed by a pet cat. We especially need to consider the endangered species around us. The RSPB has a traffic light system for the conservation status of the UK’s birds, and sixty-seven species – one quarter of all our birds – are now on the Red List.

A shift in how we consider our cats could be useful. They are an inevitable element of human inhabitation, but they are also globally ranked as one of the hundred most prolific non-native invasive species. The management of invasive species is, of course a difficult topic in itself, and I would assume most readers are against culling. Dr Marra was wildly criticised for suggesting that euthanasia of feral cats may be an option for managing their populations, but a more appropriate method would be to try to slowly reduce cat numbers through neutering, and indeed there have been several programmes throughout the world where stray cats are caught, neutered and released. However the problem in the UK stems more from ‘pet’ cats than strays. Before we can implement a management system, it seems that we first need to change our mindset about our cats and start to accept widely that they are an issue for our ecosystem. Then perhaps we can adopt a strategy.

Once we are ready to make a start on a cat management policy, the practicalities should not be too much trouble. Cats will be much easier to regulate than any wild invasive predator as a large number of them are already documented, cared for, and are already taken to vets. The real challenge is moving towards accepting that there is a problem here which needs to be addressed.” – Emily Jones, May 2020.