Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: February 1, 2023 by Crystal Uys
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.
About the author
Ingrid King is an award-winning author, former veterinary hospital manager, and veterinary journalist who is passionate about cats.