You’ve probably read that cats control the minds of their owners by transmitting a parasite into their brains. As The New Daily reported, the main effect is to promote impulsive behaviour.
Like letting the cat loose to murder the local bird life for example.
This comes to mind with the publication of a new study that finds cat owners fall into five categories in terms of their attitudes to their pets’ roaming and hunting.
The study, from the University of Exeter, is titled ‘Diverse perspectives of cat owners indicate barriers to and opportunities for managing cat predation of wildlife.’
Spoiler alert: not caring faces off against impotence
The study is part of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute in Cornwall’s ongoing research project ‘Cats, Cat Owners and Wildlife’ which aims “to find a conservation win-win, by identifying ways of owners managing their cats that benefit the cats as well as reducing wildlife killing.”
University of Exeter researchers surveyed UK cat owners and found they sat in five different categories (and if you’re a cat owner, I’d be interested to hear which category fits your beliefs):
- Concerned Protector. These are people who keep their cats indoors to keep them safe from the world. Their main worries are cats being stolen, lost or killed. They don’t have strong feelings about hunting behaviour and wouldn’t keep their cats indoors solely to stop them hunting.
- Freedom Defenders believe cats should be able to roam where they please, like wild animals. Cats hunting is a good sign of normal behaviour and helps control the rodent population. They oppose any restrictions of cat access to the outdoors.
- Tolerant Guardians believe that the benefits of roaming outweigh the risks of the cat being injured or lost. They love wildlife and cat hunting is the least attractive part of cat ownership, but it is just what cats do. They’re not sure how cat owners can effectively reduce hunting behaviour.
- Conscientious Caretakers believe cats should have access to the outdoors but they don’t oppose some containment. Hunting by cats really bothers them, and they particularly worry about birds. They believe owners should have have some responsibility managing their cat’s hunting behaviour.
- Lasseiz-faire landlords believes it’s natural for cats to want to go out into the natural world and if they fall foul of it (dogs, bigger cats, SUVs) that’s natural too. They’ve never seriously thought about the effects of cats on wildlife populations. They’d be more likely to manage their cat’s hunting behaviours if it was killing things all the time.
The response to the survey amounts to hand-wring and no practical, effective solution on the horizon.
What next? A big fat nothing
“Although we found a range of views, most UK cat owners valued outdoor access for their cats and opposed the idea of keeping them inside to prevent hunting,” said lead author Dr Sarah Crowley.
“Cat confinement policies are therefore unlikely to find support among owners in the UK. However, only one of the owner types viewed hunting as a positive, suggesting the rest might be interested in reducing it by some means.
“To be most effective, efforts to reduce hunting must be compatible with owners’ diverse circumstances.”
One problem here is the researchers appear to minimise the problem.
In a prepared statement, they note that “most pet cats kill very few wild animals, if any, but with a population of around 10 million cats, the numbers of birds, small mammals and reptiles taken can accumulate.”
In the last 10 years there have been a string of reports in British media that small native birds have just about vanished from English garden, as is certainly the case in Australia. Loss of habitat and pollution get a fair bit of the blame. See here, here and here.
Why not cats? I suspect it’s because pet owners and advocacy groups are a political nightmare, even among themselves. Ten years ago, the Victorian Cat Protection Society was tearing itself to pieces in an argument over the management of hundreds of thousands of kittens that nobody wanted.
This is why both sides (wildlife versus house cats) are careful to be as polite as possible in their response to this research.
Consider this from Tom Streeter, Chairman of SongBird Survival: “This latest research we have funded reveals the incredibly diverse perspectives amongst cat owners in regard to their pets’ hunting behaviour.
“If nature is to ‘win’ and endangered species thrive, a pragmatic approach is needed whereby cat owners’ views are considered as part of wider conservation strategies.”
iCatCare’s Head of Cat Advocacy, Dr Sarah Ellis, said: “The finding that many UK cat owners actually care a great deal about wildlife conservation and their cats’ impact on it, suggests that some owners are receptive to employing cat-friendly ways of reducing hunting.”
Let’s get real with the Australian perspective
In 2019, Australian National University researchers published a shocking book-length study that found domestic cats are killing an estimated 230 million native Australian birds, reptiles and mammals every year.
Throw in feral cats and the death toll blows out to more than two billion a year. See The New Daily‘s report on feral cats here.
A co-author of the study, Professor Sarah Legge, said in a statement that “people have very deep and conflicting opinions about cats, but there is no denying they are a catastrophic problem for Australian wildlife, which evolved without cats.
“Australia’s mammal extinction rate is by far the highest in the world and cats have been a leading cause of at least 20, or two-thirds, of our mammal extinctions over the last 200 years.”
On average, each pet cat “kills about 75 animals per year, but many of these kills are never witnessed by their owners.”
As she later told The Guardian: “All we need to do is keep pet cats contained.”
In that same report, Dr Sarah Zito, senior scientific officer for companion animals at RSPCA Australia, told The Guardian: “Contrary to what some might believe, cats do not need to roam to be happy. Indoor cats can live longer lives, protected from all these dangers. And, if provided with everything they need, they can be just as happy at home.”
A study from North Carolina State University, published in March, made the same conclusion: keeping cats in the home could blunt the loss of wildlife.
To do otherwise, well, it’s like that fabulous Cats movie: it just doesn’t make any sense.
To see what you can do to attract small native birds back to your gardens, check out Australia’s great citizen science Birds in Backyards.
Okay cat owners: discuss!