Your cat is a killing machine. If you've ever started your day by stepping barefoot on one of its victims, laid lovingly at the foot of your bed, you already know this. "That's nature for you," you undoubtedly said, laughing the laugh of an apex predator so comfortable at the top of the food chain that it keeps another predator around just for fun.
But according to the new book Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer, cats are fuzzy little ecological scourges. Co-authors Peter Marra and Chris Santella argue that cats drive some of their prey species to extinction, spread disease, and shouldn't be let out of the house. It's not an entirely new idea. In fact, author Jonathan Franzen, who wrote the foreward to Cat Wars, has been campaigning against outdoor cats for ages.
What is new is that Cat Wars explicitly prescribes death as a solution for at least some of the world's problem cats. "From a conservation ecology perspective, the most desirable solution seems clear—remove all free-ranging cats from the landscape by any means necessary," the book says. Cat lovers haven't responded kindly and have turned the book's Amazon page into a shitshow of one-star reviews with "I didn't read this but…" in them.
I got in touch with co-author Peter Marra, head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, to find out why he hates cats so much.
VICE: Why do you hate cats?
Peter Marra: Completely wrong. I like cats. Cats have an odd affection toward me. When I'm in a room with cats, I swear they come right to me. I've owned a cat. I would argue that I'm actually a cat lover, and I'm arguing for the humane treatment of cats. I'm not arguing for the inhumane treatment of cats "by any means necessary." That was a quote that was taken out of context.
The book does say "by any means necessary."
It says from a conversation ecology perspective we need to remove cats by any means necessary, but the next sentence says, "But such a solution is hardly practical given the legions of cats roaming the land—as many as 100 million unowned animals, plus 50 million owned cats that roam—and the painful question of what to do with the cats even if they could be captured."
"I'm not arguing for the inhumane treatment of cats 'by any means necessary.' That was a quote that was taken out of context."—Peter Marra
OK. Why are they such a huge problem?
Cats have caused enormous impacts on biodiversity. In my research we determined that there were at least 33 species of mammals, birds, and lizards—vertebrates—that have gone extinct because of cats.
Can you point to smoking gun evidence that cats are the definite culprit in these extinctions?
Nowadays, we don't know why a third of the bird species in North America are declining. We know habitat destruction is a big part of it. We know climate is changing, and maybe influencing that, but the problem is that most species extinctions are caused by multiple and interacting effects. We need to understand what the primary threats are and then try to remove those threats. It's a combination of things. In some cases, cats are the primary factor. In some cases, they're a contributing factor.
What would you say to someone who said, "OK then, let's find the biggest factor in each case, and go after that"?
If we were to deal with only the single factor that mattered in human health, you know what we would do? We would deal with only heart disease. We would ignore AIDS. We would ignore all cancers, and a whole suite of things, so we could deal with only the one primary threat to health. That would be silly.
You argue it's not just the extinctions, right? What else is there?
Disease impacts are equally significant. We're now starting to understand that toxoplasmosis is linked with things like schizophrenia, bipolar, suicide risk—all kinds of things—extroverted behavior, and car accidents. In the United States alone, it's thought that 11 to 22 percent of people are infected with toxoplasmosis. Even PETA—typically we're on different sides—but in this case, we're on the same page. PETA [argues that] it is inhumane to put a cat back out into the landscape where it's exposed to being hit by dogs, mauled by coyotes, and contracting diseases. It's an inhumane way to treat our cats.
"… as conservation ecologists we've got to remove these threats, because these are invasive species"—Peter Marra
In that case "trap-neuter-return" programs, which sterilize cats and then let them go, would leave cats in inhumane circumstances, right? What do you propose then?
We need to consider—in some cases—euthanizing these animals. [Some cats] may be in fairly urban areas and may be fairly innocuous when it comes to disease risk for humans and for wildlife. I'm not as concerned about those cats. Those cats are fine. In some cases, like Hawaii, where it's essentially ground zero for species extinctions now in part because of cats, as conservation ecologists we've got to remove these threats, because these are invasive species. Those cats need to be removed off of the landscape—they just do. We need to protect the landscape. That's our responsibility.
How will we know which cats have to die?
They'll go through a whole series of complicated processes to decide whether an animal should be euthanized or not. When there's particular risk associated with something, there'll be an evaluation that occurs, and a decision will be made, based on science, and based on data.
And the ones that are less of a risk to their environments can just go about their business?
Where we decide to leave them on the landscape, we need to come up with an agreeable approach to managing them. I'm not saying we need to euthanize cats all across the landscape—that's the last thing I'm suggesting. I'm suggesting in those cases, we need to microchip them, if we catch them we need to give them vaccines, we need to catch them again and give them booster vaccines, we need to monitor their numbers over time, so they're not impacting wildlife. We need to have wildlife professionals involved in managing those colonies.
"My guess is, your one-toothed cat may not be killing any animals. It's very possible. What you have to remember is that your cat might walk into the street and get hit by a car."—Peter Marra
A lot of people claim their cats don't kill animals when they go out. Are those guys OK?
Cats don't bring all their kills back. In fact, studies show they only bring about a third of the prey they kill back. It's very possible that people aren't seeing what their cats are doing. If you're not watching, how do you know?
My cat is 13 years old and only has one tooth. I'm positive she's not killing anything. Can she go out?
My guess is, your one-toothed cat may not be killing any animals. It's very possible. What you have to remember is that your cat might walk into the street and get hit by a car. Your cat might go in the front yard, and a dog might be loose, and it gets a hold of your cat, and with one shake, its neck is broken. It doesn't take much. The outdoor cat issue is not just about the impact it has on wildlife. It's a cat welfare issue, too.
If we can't let them out, what should people like me, with cats who long for the outdoors, do?
I'm seeing more and more people walk their cats on leashes. I'm really impressed with this, I've gotta say. For your older cat, it might not make it two steps. But there are these things like "Catios" in Portland, Oregon, this fantastic group that gets together on these patios for cats, so cats can enjoy the outdoors without impacting wildlife and without putting themselves at risk.
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