For the past week, the mainstream press has widely reported on a paper in which professional wildlife biologists associated with the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service claim that domesticated cats kill as many as 3.7 billion birds and more than 15 billion small mammals each year in the United States. The authors of the paper tried to assess the behavior of “owned” and “un-owned” cats, which would include feral, free roaming and indoor/outdoor cats.

This  paper was authored by researchers with an anti-cat track record, who arrived at their conclusions by picking and choosing data that supported their point of view. To make matters worse, they cite a researcher who was convicted for trying to poison cats. The study ignores many of the real threats to birds and other wildlife populations—deforestation, climate change, changed migration patterns and destruction of birds’ habitats due to development.

Add to this the news about New Zealand business man Gareth Morgan’s campaign to get rid of all cats – Morgan calls for cat guardians in New Zealand to make their current cat their last cat – and it’s not been a good week for cats in the press. What is even more disturbing to me about the New Zealand story is that the New Zealand Veterinary Association issued a statement in support of the eradication of wild, feral, and stray cats. The last time I checked, veterinarians take an oath to “use their scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health, the relief of animal suffering, the conservation of livestock resources,” but apparently that oath does not apply to stray and feral cats in New Zealand.

Thankfully, organizations ranging from Alley Cat Allies to the Humane Society of the United States to the CATalyst Coucil have spoken out and questioned the science behind the Smithsonian’s paper, and addressed the issue in a more measured, and rational, way.

Vox Felina, Peter Wolf’s outstanding blog , which focuses on a range of issues related to the plight of feral cats, suggests that the media is missing the real story behind the paper. In his article titled The Show Must Go On, Wolf calls for a closer look at how this junk science is funded, published and sold to the public.

Alley Cat Allies has started a petition titled Tell the Smithsonian: Stop spreading junk science that will kill cats. According to Alley Cat Allies, the Smithsonian paper “is a direct attack on our progress with Trap-Neuter-Return. In communities across the country, TNR stabilizes and reduces the population of feral cats and saves millions of cats from being killed in shelters.” Please take a moment to sign this petition.

Wayne Pacelle addresses the topic in a blog post titled Cats and Wildlife: An HSUS Perspective, and states that “there are, indeed, tens of millions of domesticated cats who spend time outdoors, and many of these cats exhibit predatory behavior toward wildlife. But it’s virtually impossible to determine how many cats live outside, or how many spend some portion of the day outside. [The study’s authors] have thrown out a provocative number for cat predation totals, and their piece has been published in a highly credible publication, but they admit the study has many deficiencies. Their work is derivative of what others have done on the topic, and they have essentially rolled up what they could find in the literature and done their best to attach some numbers. We don’t quarrel with the conclusion that the impact is big, but the numbers are informed guesswork.”

Dr. Jane Brunt, executive director of the CATalyst Council, a national initiative comprised of animal health and welfare organizations working on behalf of cats, and a feline practitioner in Maryland, expressed concerns that the study and corresponding articles may hamper the ability of shelters to place cats in adoptive homes. “We regret the fact that the articles written about the study have maligned cats as a whole, when in fact, the vast majority of the estimated destruction to wildlife was reportedly by feral or stray cats,” she said. “This works to discourage prospective cat owners from adopting one of the hundreds of thousands of healthy, enjoyable cats that are held in shelters across this nation.” Brunt offers a number of observations in response to the published paper, focusing on resonsible cat ownership, support of Trap Neuter Return programs, and the fact that some of the mammals killed that are cited in the study are pests that present a public health hazard. Read the CATalyst Council’s complete response.

Like many of my cat writer colleagues, and like cat lovers around the world, I am appalled at this study, the media coverage it has received, and the impact all of this may have on cats’ lives.

I don’t have all the answers, but I do believe that it’s important that those of us who write about cats, and those of us who love cats, continue to reinforce the need for responsible cat guardianship, the importance of keeping cats indoors, the need for environmental enrichment (which may include safe or supervised access to the outdoors), and education about the effectiveness of TNR programs for feral and community cats.

22 Comments on Faulty science spreads lies about cats and their impact on wildlife

  1. Feral cats are not the villains. They do more good than harm removing mice, rats, and snakes. Wild dogs do far more harm chasing livestock in packs yet blaming wolves and hamstringing horses causing serious injuries. Be kind adopt a feral cat/cats and show some real love.

  2. Ingrid, I just ran onto this article and thank you for sharing. Science is not good science when everything that does not “prove” your “theory” is thrown out! There was a similar study decades ago about fat in the human diet and resulted in the fear of fats when in actuality the research was faulty and in many cases false.

    I also want to thank you for using the word “guardianship”. I keep correcting people when they refer to me as a cat “owner”. I don’t “own” my cats! They are my family and I am their guardian and thus responsible for their health and well-being. I really dislike the word owner as I don’t believe anyone can or should “own” another living being no matter what the species.

  3. I live in regional Australia and when I got my shelter rescue 7 years ago I had to listen to my neighbour’s complaints about how she would attract rats and kill the local wildlife. Well Bub’s indoors all the time except for her weekly furlough of anywhere between 10 mins to 2 hours. She chatters at the birds but leaves them alone. She does get rough with the geckos and might have helped a few on to their maker but contrary to all predictors of her destruction she is a delight. Except for those times she decides to use my lwg as a scratching post!!!

  4. I was glad to read this. I had no idea! I posted to my page. I’m signing the petition as well. Thank you, Ingrid!

  5. WHEN will Mainstream Media start listening to (and DISSEMINATING) real facts? I have even been approached by people at the subway stop look at my cat buttons and tell me with great seriousness– “CATS kill BIRDS!!”
    Other than bird-killers such as hawks, fox, wolves, dogs, some spiders, some frogs, kids with BB guns, other birds (bluejays rob nests — so do crows and other birds), lawn chemicals – which kill about 7 million birds every year, and collisions with windows and windshields, another 7 million birds… The CAT that kills the most birds is the CATerpillar Bulldozer that knocks down whole forests and displaces birds and wildlife.

    I saw this happen in my neighborhood, right under my windows — One forest, one CATerpillar bulldozer– forest (including three beautiful buckeye trees) GONE in two days. THOUSANDS of birds used to sing there daily– after 2 days– ALL gone, including 2 groundhogs that I saw running away in a panic. The fox were gone too. NO cat could have ever caused such mayhem and destruction and loss of life.

    Where do the birds and wildlife go when displaced? Elsewhere,, but in “elsewhere” there are OTHER displaced critters there too — and the fight for survival gets harder. Every day, in every part of the world, the CATerpillar bulldozer is still doing its work destroying habitat. BUT.. I have NEVER seen an outraged article appealing to the public to SAVE birds and wildlife by NOT so wantonly destroying our forests. People DO believe what they read, even if it is NOT based on fact. God help the cats.

  6. We have four rescue cats and they spend part of the day outside. We live on 43 acres which are mostly wooded (never sprayed or fertilized) and have a 1 acre pond. There are more birds, frogs, lizards, geckos, insects and wildlife than you can imagine. No chemicals seem to be the ticket …

  7. Thank you so much for posting this! I work with feral cats doing TNR, and I know from experience that this article contains so many misleading and false ideas. I’ve signed the Alley Cats Allies petition and have spread the word to my friends. Thanks for standing up for the under-cats.

    • Thank you Sarah for your good work to help the feral cats. We have a local group in DuPage County, Illinois, Feral Fixers. They do amazing work too. I’ve seen what TNR does right in my own neighborhood. Wonderful results and the small feral colony is well cared for!

  8. As far as I’m concerned, cats do the world a service by controlling the number of mice, rats, insects, birds, etc. If there were no cats, the bird and rodent population would explode. Without our feline exterminators, we would be left to find another way to deal with these issues. I wonder why the ‘geniuses’ behind this haven’t thought this through? How quickly would the rodents would multiply and take over!? It’s much easier to control the feral cat populations, don’t you think?

    Humans have to stop trying to control everything! We have screwed this world up enough as it is!

    • Absolutely, Kerry! During the Dark Ages, cats are being demonized and annihilated which was why rats proliferated causing the Black Death.

  9. Another excellent post Ingrid, thanks for more good information on this. I had not heard about this study, it hasn’t received much attention on my local news but I’m definitely signing the petition and will pass this along. A friend of mine is involved in a TNR program that is going around here which is a good thing.

    This study is just another unfortunate example of people twisting statistics to support a predetermined outcome they had already decided they wanted to come to.

  10. Thank you for this super important post!! I’m happy to see that people and organizations are starting to rally against this faulty study. Some damage has probably already been done, as I think there are always cat haters waiting to jump on the anti-cat bandwagon. But hopefully intelligent people will see this study for what it is. As for Gareth Morgan? Despicable!!

    • I agree, Julia, the mainstream press coverage has most likely done some damage, which is why it’s important that we continue to educate people about the truth about cats.

  11. Well said Ingrid!
    Eventhough cats are magnificent predators and through the years I have had proof of that, the mentioned article seems biased and can be misunderstood easily. Not good at all.

  12. There was no doubt in my mind that these “scientific findings” were exaggerated bits of anti-cat propaganda. Without a doubt outdoor cats hunt (and woe to anything that gets inside our house if we’re not there to intervene!). The numbers are too high to be realistic, especially since there are countless cases of successful TNR programs here and abroad.

    Thank you for posting this. I will be forwarding it to all interested parties.

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