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Outdoor Cats: An Introduction

In: Society & Animals
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William S. Lynn Marsh Institute, Clark University Worcester, MA USA
PAN Works Marlborough, MA USA

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Francisco J. Santiago-Ávila Project Coyote and The Rewilding Institute Larkspur, CA USA
PAN Works Marlborough, MA USA

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Kristin L. Stewart Anthrozoology, Canisius College Buffalo, NY USA
PAN Works Marlborough, MA USA

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Abstract

A moral panic over cats has gripped portions of the conservation community, with claims that outdoor house cats (felis catus) are wrecking havoc on biodiversity and public health akin to a zombie apocalypse. This is a mistake, a result of poor scientific reasoning and selective attention to data, or worse, pure demagoguery. The situation is more nuanced. Outdoor cats can cause significant harm to wildlife in specific ecological contexts, even when there is no evidence they do so across the board. And like all mammals, cats can be vectors of disease, even when they pose no threat to public health overall. Careful attention to the complex questions of ethics, science, and politics is required to understand how people, outdoor cats, and nature interact, and how we ought to thrive together. This special issue brings together a diverse set of articles from different points of view to address these issues.

As the plethora of online media attest, house cats (Felis silvestris catus, a.k.a. domesticated cat, community cat, mollies, feral cats, or simply “cats”) are sovereigns of the internet (Alexander, 2011). The most popular companion animals in our increasingly urbanized world, cats themselves may have cause to believe their popularity is due to their superlative qualities as a species. One of the most adept predators of modern evolutionary ecology, cats across their genus (Felis) are gifted with high intelligence, acute senses, fleet bodies, strong social bonds, and important ecological roles (Turner & Bateson, 2000).

Today the popularity of companion cats is also due to the availability of commercial cat food, indoor litter, their fastidious nature, the low overhead for their care, their underrated social charms, and veterinary medicine for spay/neutering and health maintenance (Wandesforde-Smith et al., 2021). Yet long before such contemporary innovations which made urban living with companion animals that much more convenient and comfortable, precursor civilizations prized living with cats.

The ancient Egyptians worshipped their goddess of pleasure and good health, Bastet, in the form of a cat. The Greeks and Romans prized cats as embodiments of self-possession and independence. In Islamic tradition, the Prophet kept a pet cat and is reported to have said that a love of cats is an aspect of faith. Maritime and land trade routes helped distribute cats across the Old World and in the European age of global exploration across the New World as well. Agriculturalists from many societies lauded the ecological benefits of cats as they grappled with rodents eating stored grain. Similar ecological effects benefited urban residents. In some cities, feral street cats have been actively cared for over millennia (Brown, 2020; Ottoni & Neer, 2020). The popular movie Kedi (Torun, 2016) documents just this in Istanbul, Turkey.

Our history of cohabitation is not, however, solely characterized by admiration, affection, and respect.

Versions of medieval Christianity vilified cats as minions of the devil, and celebrations of St. John the Baptist in Paris routinely burned cats alive in an appeal to providence and good fortune. This carried forward into the modern era. In the Salem Witch trials, for instance, cats were accused of being consorts of witches. There was secular conflict as well. Seventeenth-century English painter and social critic William Hogarth depicted such abuse for sport in his “Four Stages of Cruelty.” In the book, Great Cat Massacre, the historian Robert Darton relates how cats were tried, tortured, and killed by printers seeking revenge against their employer. Equally fraught and more ethically complicated is the British Pet Massacre of 1939. Londoners at the beginning of World War II preemptively killed hundreds of thousands of their cats and dogs as a sign of their commitment to the war effort. It bears mentioning here that many were also concerned with the possibility of their pets suffering under war conditions (Darnton, 2009; Godbeer, 2018; Kean, 2017; Warren, 2010).

The Great Cat Debate

Today, the most heated conflicts over cats occur in conservation and animal protection. To some conservationists who are rightly concerned about native species, cats are a problem for the same reason they were prized by yesterday’s agriculturists and urban dwellers beset with mice and rats – because they are adept predators. They argue that free-roaming cats kill native wildlife to such an extent that they are suppressing populations and contributing to the biodiversity crisis. They also worry that cats pose an urgent threat to human health and safety through the zoonotic transmission of diseases like toxoplasmosis and rabies (see Marra & Santella, 2016)

Other conservationists and many animal protectionists beg to differ. They object to the unfair characterization of cats as an invasive species and vectors of disease constituting something like a zombie apocalypse for biodiversity and public health. They question the rigor of both the reasoning and evidence for cats’ effects on wildlife, noting that guesstimates about outdoor cat populations and their impact on wildlife are both overgeneralizations and disputed by a growing body of empirical evidence that increasingly contextualizes such ecological relationships. In a similar way, animal protectionists and public health specialists also note that in the absence of any empirical data to the contrary, claims that cats pose a public health threat are, at best, mere speculation and at worst, demagoguery (see Lynn et al., 2019).

A primary concern of those who push back against the idea that cats are a global threat to wild nature is the wellbeing of cats, especially those targeted for control or removal by wildlife managers. Undeniably, some methods used to “remove” cats from the landscape have negative implications for their wellbeing. The poisoning of cats in Australia and the suggestion that cats should be removed “by any means necessary” (Marra & Santella, 2016) are examples that underwrite these concerns. Instead of lethal management, many argue for trap-neuter-vaccinate and return (TNR/TNVR) and other nonlethal policies to balance the interests and wellbeing of cats and wildlife (Schaffner et al., 2019). Such nonlethal options reflect a deeper ethical concern for the intrinsic moral value of cats and wildlife, suggesting that ethical criteria need to factor into policies and practices aimed at managing human-cat-wildlife interactions (for example, see Wandesforde-Smith et al., 2021).

This special issue appears at a time when the debate over outdoor cats is in flux. While the media and a few conservationists continue to foment a moral panic over cats (Loss et al., 2022; Steinmark, 2022), many conservationists and animal protectionists are working towards more nuanced and mutually respectful engagements with the issue.

For instance, a collaboration between animal protection and conservation groups is undertaking the DC Cat Count (https://hub.dccatcount.org) to understand the population and predation of cats on native and immigrant wildlife in Washington, DC. To date, the project has produced two studies documenting a much lower population of outdoor, and in particular, feral cats than previous guesstimates predicted, as well as the spatial variability of predation on native or immigrant species based on supplemental feeding and habitat characteristics (Flockhart et al., 2022; Herrera et al., 2022). Both studies undermine the narrative that all cats everywhere are an existential threat to biodiversity and therefore ought to be “removed” from the landscape forthwith. More studies like the DC Cat Count are needed to establish context-sensitive evaluations of cats’ effects on native and non-native wildlife.

Over the horizon, we foresee one issue that portends increasingly acrimonious debate: Should cats be permitted to kill wildlife at all, whether or not there are impacts on species diversity or public health?

There are two parts to this argument. The first is that humans have dominion over, and responsibilities of care for, domesticated animals. Being domestic animals, cats are not “wild,” and it is not “natural” for cats to kill wild animals. So, too, the lives of cats are less healthy and secure outdoors than indoors. Therefore, we should keep cats from going outdoors and preying on wild lives. One reflection of this is seen in campaigns to keep companion cats indoors, which can include killing cats that remain out-of-doors (Australian Government, 2015; Conservancy, 2022; Longcore, 2012; People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 2022).

The second is sometimes called the problem of predation. In this view, carnivory is a natural evil and any predator killing other animals is morally wrong. As a matter of ethical consistency, the thinking goes, humans should intervene to stop predation. The extensive use of contraception or the use of genetic engineering to either drive predators to extinction or make them into herbivores are two proposals for bringing this into being (Johannsen, 2020; Sapontzis, 1987).

On the other side of the ledger, the idea that we have dominion over cats is contested by a growing awareness of animal ethics in general (Midgley, 1984). A more particular challenge is our evolving understanding of cats as either a non-domesticated or self-domesticated species. Self-domestication here refers to the mutualistic bonds between people and cats, not the control and domination narrative presupposed by traditional and now suspect accounts of domestication (Bradshaw, 2013; Hurn, 2012). As Wandesforde-Smith and colleagues (2021) note, this can place cats beyond the boundaries of domesticity, especially when we consider our responsibilities to the physical, cognitive, and behavioral wellbeing of cats kept in indoor environments (see also Sandøe et al., 2017; Tan et al., 2020).

Additionally, ending predation altogether is a remote prospect. It faces a buzzsaw of concerns including the role of predation in evolution and ecology, the imposition of a liberal, humanistic ethic onto the bodies and persons of other animals, the resonant history and policy of persecuting carnivores to protect livestock and satisfy speciesist interests, worries about the moral and political right of humans exercising sovereignty over animals, and questions over the nature of natural evil (Chignell, 2021; Dunlap, 1988; Ehrenfeld, 1978; Groom et al., 2007; Wadiwel, 2015).

Simultaneously conceptually complex and practically intangible, we did not have space to examine this issue in detail. We do, however, believe it should be the focus on further analysis in a special issue of its own.

Contributing Authors

To address the great cat debate, we are especially fortunate to have a set of research and reflections from scholars deeply familiar with the complex scientific, ethical, and political aspects of outdoor cats.

Quantitative ecologists Tyler Flockhart, John Boone (Great Basin Bird Observatory), and their team of interdisciplinary researchers discuss how widespread data collection and constructive engagement among stakeholders can improve methodologies, information, and policy decisions. In their article, “Evidence-Based Estimates of Domestic Cats in Urban Areas Using Collaborative and Interdisciplinary Science: The Washington D.C. Cat Count,” Flockhart and colleagues describe an innovative, collaborative project (DCCC, https://hub.dccatcount.org/) that can contribute new quantitative tools to obtain valid information on numbers and distribution of outdoor cats, and how such tools can impact and improve a range of policies. Moreover, the DCCC’s collaborative approach to knowledge generation can create a “common language” that can reduce conjecture in both science and policy and can contribute to shared understanding of diverse ethical issues and concerns.

Spatial ecologist Michael Strohbach (Technische Universität Braunschweig, Germany), biologist Numi Mitchell (The Conservation Agency, New Jersey USA), Mariel Sorlien (School of the Environment and Life Sciences, University of Rhode Island), and Scott Marshall (Department of Environmental Management, State of Rhode Island) explore the feedbacks between feral domestic cats (Felis catus), coyotes (Canis latrans), raccoons (Procyon lotor), and skunks (Mephitis mephitis) at a trap-neuter-return (TNR) feral cat colony in the article, “Confluence and Implications of Cats, Coyotes, and Other Mesopredators at a Feral Cat Feeding Station.” To compare the effects of three different feeding regimens, they used a motion-activated camera to estimates of the size of the cat population as well as the visitation frequency of wildlife. This involved analyzing 12,272 photographs using a mark and recapture technique for six sample periods over two years. Variations in the feeding regimen at the TNR colony appeared to have an effect, with abundant food on the ground being associated with increased coyote, raccoon, and skunk visits. During the study, the population of cats dropped from 17 to 12 individuals, and the cats appeared to have short life spans. They conclude that feral cat feeding stations may expose cats to increased predation risks, particularly when leaving abundant food in bowls on the ground.

In “Managing our relationship with free-roaming cats in Zoopoland,” George Washington University Law School Professor Joan Schaffner proposes Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlycka’s Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights as a fruitful ethico-political paradigm for human-cat relations. Professor Schaffner’s article takes us on an overview of Zoopoland, a contemporary, fictional jurisdiction using Zoopolis principles to ground human-cat relations and interactions. Professor Schaffner discusses how Zoopolis’ three different political categories of relational communities – citizens, denizens, and foreigners – with their respective positive and negative duties, can be applied to the spectrum of human-cat relations. Thus, cats with guardians can be regarded as citizens, stray cats as denizens, and feral cats as foreigners living in a wild sovereign, all with a right to flourish within their respective communities. For each category, Schaffner provides suggested management strategies, with particular attention on each strategy’s infringement on cat rights and burden of proof for implementation of interventions on cats.

Dr. Joann Lindenmayer (Department of Public Health and Community Medicine, School of Medicine, Tufts University) and her colleagues explore the application of a One Health paradigm to the challenges posed by free-roaming cat populations in “Applying One Health to free-roaming cats.” One Health integrates concern for the health and wellbeing of people, other animals, and ecosystems, recognizing that each depends on the others. This interdependence is key to One Health, as well as an interdisciplinary approach, which is required to solve complex, shared health challenges. Free-roaming cats present particular challenges within certain ecosystems to the extent they affect other wildlife and people. Lindenmayer and colleagues discuss how One Health, as a concept and collaborative process, can be implemented to clarify goals, encourage collaboration, and assess the outcomes of interventions on cats, wildlife, and people, with the ultimate aim of improving the wellbeing of all.

In “Consider the (Feral) Cat: Ferality, Biopower and the Ethics of Predation,” Massey University Senior Lecturer Nicholas Holm invites us to explore how cat “ferality” is central to “anti-cat conservation.” Holm builds on prior work that conceptualizes ferality as an expression of Foucauldian biopower. He then proceeds to explore how cat ferality is complicated by cats’ ability to move across ecological regimes of biopolitics as well as beyond the strict disciplinary regulation usually applied to other domesticated nonhumans. Thus, cats’ potential ferality also implies a transition between different ethical expectations and responsibilities, for example, of individual ethical responsibility to immoral/natural processes, with predation being the most concerning. Holm discusses how cats’ movement across regimes allows for cat predation to be seen as unnatural, unnecessary, and therefore unethical, confounding the “predation problem.”

In the final article, “Outdoor Cats: Science, Ethics and Politics,” the editors William S. Lynn (Clark University; PAN Works) and Francisco J. Santiago-Ávila (Project Coyote and The Rewilding Institute; PAN Works) examine the ethics and politics of outdoor cats. Two of our prior publications established some of the fallacious reasoning and evidentiary weakness of claims that cats are a universal threat to biodiversity and public health (Lynn et al., 2019; Lynn et al., 2020). A key finding of these articles was that the ethical dimensions and policy implications are under-studied. Here, the authors build on that work to examine the ethical and policy implications of outdoor cats.

Vision

The debate between animalists and conservationists (see Schaffner 2022 this issue) is full of vitriol, as evidenced in any number of lurid news articles about cats, e.g., “The Evil of the Outdoor Cat” (Conniff, 2014). While our collection of articles will not resolve this dispute with finality, we offer a set of reasoned and evidenced articles that seek a more nuanced understanding.

Significantly, ours is not a wholesale refutation of one or another position in the great cat debate. The ecological and social relationships between cats, conservation, and public health are complex. Moreover, like all political and policy disputes, the debate over cats is primarily driven by values. Whether one cares primarily about the wellbeing of individual animals, or the integrity of ecosystems is one out of many of those value disputes. It is also highly contextual. All of us as authors care about both cats and wildlife, and the wicked problem is trying to find ways to do right by both. We hope our efforts contribute to a softening of the dogmatic positions that frequently characterize this debate.

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