Are Cats A Threat To Nature Or Simply Man's Favorite Scapegoat?

Jan 30, 2013

Is this the face of a killer? He would be, if given half the chance.
Credit Tricia Woolfenden

A teddy bear of a cat stretches across a desk. His baseball-sized orange paws skim the keyboard as his purring body contorts into a position that exposes an expansive patch of striped belly. The tableau, which plays out in my home office on a near-daily basis, is a pleasant distraction from this week's reminder that my loyal companion is a natural born killer.

The New York Times this week weighed in on the hot-button topic of "the domestic cat as nature's foe" with a piece that is drawing hundreds of comments from wildlife activists, cat lovers, and cat haters alike. The story, "That Cuddly Kitty Is Deadlier Than You Think," appeared in the paper's science section and details a recent report from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The study's findings estimate that domestic cats (both feral and household pets) "kill a median of 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals a year." Most of those are native critters versus the invasive species conservationists wouldn't mind seeing eliminated. 

NYT's Natalie Angier writes:

The estimated kill rates are two to four times higher than mortality figures previously bandied about, and position the domestic cat as one of the single greatest human-linked threats to wildlife in the nation. More birds and mammals die at the mouths of cats, the report said, than from automobile strikes, pesticides and poisons, collisions with skyscrapers and windmills and other so-called anthropogenic causes. 

Angier, who spoke with both scientists and animal welfare groups for the story, took perhaps a more nuanced approach to the topic than did Slate's Laura Helmuth who last week set off a firestorm with her click-baitingly-titled piece, "Cats Are Evil." The post -- which comes illustrated with an image of a cat with a prodigious under-bite -- details a New Zealand economist's desire to rid the island nation of cats. Helmuth agrees with the plan and likens cats to parasites, writing, "perhaps the worst pet of all, environmentally speaking, is a cat."

Across the pond, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is singing a different tune. The United Kingdom-based bird conservation group remains unconvinced that cats are single-handedly destroying bird populations in the UK. 

It is likely that most of the birds killed by cats would have died anyway from other causes before the next breeding season, so cats are unlikely to have a major impact on populations. 

Closer to home, the Florida Invasive Species Partnership identifies feral cats as an invasive species in the state. They estimate there are 5.3 million "free-ranging" cats in Florida and the animals are having a profoundly negative impact on songbird populations. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission echoes numerous wildlife and animal welfare activists in its recommendations that pet owners "consider making (their) cat an indoor cat."

This brings me to the creature slumbering on my work space. Do I believe this lazy, loving lump of fur is a blood-thirsty threat to Florida's songbirds and other wildlife? Without a doubt. Enjoying the company of cats and nature needn't be contradictory pursuits; simply keep the beasts inside. As the humor site The Oatmeal affectionately observes, "Dogs are a man's best friend. Cats are man's adorable little serial killers."