In the movie Kinsey, Liam Neeson, portraying the noted (and in some camps notorious) scientist Alfred Kinsey, trying to understand the public outrage that followed the publication of his 1953 book Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, asks a colleague why this book has aroused such indignation while his original study (Sexual Behavior in the Human Male) did not. His colleague replies – and please forgive me for paraphrasing as I could not locate the exact quote – because you just told every man in American that their mothers and sisters were… well, let’s just say that they were doing something which would be very emotionally uncomfortable to imaging them doing.
Giving voice to a fact that many people may very well know, or at least suspect, but not wish to admit is a certain way to achieve public scorn. We may know that the water we buy in little plastic bottles is wasteful and harmful to the environment, but we don’t want to be reminded of that when we’re thirsty. We may know that mobile phones cannot be produced without the purchasing of rare earth minerals mined using slave labor, but we don’t want this pointed out to us when a popular new model is released. And we may know that domestic cats when allowed to roam out-of-doors regularly kill cute little birds and mammals, but we certainly don’t want to be told that this includes our own sweet Mr. Whiskers.
Therefore the fact that shortly after its publication, Cat Wars; The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer became the target of a negative review campaign on Amazon (the modern ersatz reaction that substitutes for public outrage to a book) mounted by cat fanciers did not come as much of a surprise. Nor did the response from some in the natural history community who staged a counter-campaign to flood the book’s Amazon page with positive reviews. How many from either camp actually read the book is, just as it was with Kinsey’s female study, highly questionable. However the fact remained that Peter Marra and Chris Santella had done the unthinkable in its pages: gave voice to a fact that many people know or strongly suspect, but don’t wish to admit.
Those of us who live with pets (companion animals, fur children, etc.) very often consider them as family. In my own household, a ten pound Havanese female holds unquestionable napping rights to some of the most preferred chairs and sofas in the house, and nightly sleeps immediately beside one of her four humans. Even if they do not live with us indoors at all times, they are still special, existing in a place wholly separate and elevated above the rest of the non-human world. By itself, this is not surprising, and would not be so particularly problematic were it not combined with the fact that many who dote on their domestic animals also consider themselves to be friends to the larger world of wildlife as well.
For “dog people,” the potential cognitive dissonance between love for the animal and love for wildlife is not a significant problem. Outside of hunting and specialized working dogs (terriers used for rat control, for example), our canine companions are strictly forbidden by law to harm people or wildlife, or roam at large with the potential to do so. They are required to be vaccinated and licensed, and their abandonment is punishable by the civil authorities. Cats, however, are a different matter.
While many who live with cats give them excellent medical care, including spaying or neutering them, and never allow them to roam out of doors, laws requiring them to do so are not widespread – and even less commonly enforced. Unlike dogs, cats are commonly allowed to come and go as they please, either through a handy cat flap or simply by declaring their primary place of residence a barn, shed, or garage. They can be commonly acquired at no cost (just go to a local strip mall and look for a box marked “Free Kittens”) and can be abandoned with little if any opprobrium if so needed or desired (“they’ll be fine; they can hunt”); sometimes they simply “wander off.”
The problem is that modern American social norms surrounding cats, when combined with their peri-domesticated (at best) state of being, produces, according to Marra and Santella, an ecological effect that is far larger than had previously been imagined. Part of it, explain the authors, is that cats, left to their own habits, reproduce at a remarkable rate for a predator, producing – beginning at a mere four months in age – multiple litters of kittens each year. Part of it is also the fact that cats appear to kill more prey than they eat, and often even only eat part of those creatures that they do kill for food. They are also, due to their marginal level of domestication, capable of reverting to wild status in one generation. All of this has led to a vast, previously uncalculated number of feral cats roaming the city streets and country fields all across the land, killing birds and small mammals in numbers that when estimated by the authors beggared the imagination by reaching totals into the billions – numbers with significant ecological consequences, including, as the history of extinctions on islands has clearly shown, the elimination of entire species from the planet.
Therefore what should be done? In order to bring the vast number of feral cats under control and ensure that owned cats are prevented from contributing to the problem, Marra and Santella propose a combination of solutions. To some, these solutions will seem common-sensical; to others however, they are unthinkable.
As there is a large, loosely organized, and highly vocal community of often well-intentioned and good-hearted people dedicated to the maintenance and welfare of feral cat populations through a volunteer program of regular feeding, sterilization and return (TNR – trap, neuter, return), and in some cases other veterinary care, simply exterminating colonies of feral cats is all but societally impossible in most areas. And even to the disinterested, news of mass shootings or poisonings of even the scruffiest, disease-ridden collection of feral cats inhabiting the outbuildings of an abandoned industrial site would be sufficiently distasteful to cause immediate criticism (at the very least) of those officials who directed it. So powerful is the aversion to taking any measures beyond the questionably effective practice of TNR that many national level conservation organizations shy away from the subject entirely, quite possibly for fear of offending those within their sphere of donating members, upon whom they depend for their continued existence.
Yet the fact remains that a solution must be found, for as Marra and Santella explain, large populations of feral cats, and even free roaming populations of owned cats, not only pose a threat to wildlife, their habits may also put humans at risk as well. Cats can be a vector for a variety of pathogens, including rabies, bartonella, and toxoplasmosis. The last of these is particularly troublesome because researchers are only just beginning to discover the strange and wide-ranging effects it appears to have upon humans.
So what is the solution? As Marra and Santella well explain, there isn’t any single simple one, and the combination of measures that could help won’t be easy, either logistically or socially. The number of feral cats must be reduced, and sufficient resources to find them all homes simply aren’t available.
Consecutively, societal attitudes toward free roaming cats must change – for the health and safety of both wildlife and the cats themselves. Make no mistake, this isn’t a problem that is going away by itself, nor is it one that is anywhere near consensus in some quarters as even being a problem. Nevertheless, the numbers speak for themselves, and as Marra and Santella clearly point out, what these numbers have to say is not something we can afford not to hear.
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Pages: 216 pp.
Date: September 2016
In accordance with Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR Part 255, it is disclosed that the copy of the book read in order to produce this review was provided gratis to the reviewer by the publisher.