Conflict Exploration: The case of cats in Australia

A story of ethics, science and policy

The case study

In this exploration, we wanted to share perspectives on the controversial case of cats in Australia, also by some called the ‘war against cats’. In 2015, the Australian Government launched the threatened species strategy to kill 2 Mio cats in Australia by 2020 with the aim to protect endemic wildlife. Four years after the strategy was launched, Australian researchers in Conservation Letters questioned the motives (conservation or politically driven) and the science behind the decision.

That this topic is indeed controversial became apparent when a number of people who we invited to explore this conflict with us kindly rejected the invitation with the words that they would feel uncomfortable to comment. We are therefore especially grateful to the two researchers who contributed their Moral Philosophy perspective because we believe that openness to different perspectives is key for a constructive dialogue in conservation.

We posed the following main questions for optional guidance:

  • Why is the matter of cats and wildlife so controversial?
  • Why do you think politicians focus on culling cats rather than on habitat loss (as suggested in Doherty et al. 2019) and could open discussions be fostered to move beyond culling?
  • How do you think the public would respond when culling of cats turns out not to be effective in halting endemic species decline?
The domestic cat (Photo by Pacto Visual on Unsplash)

Moral Philosophy: Carlos Gray Santana

When a potential response to an urgent situation is either unlikely to work at all or unlikely to address the bulk of the problem, under what conditions should we try it anyway?

Carlos Gray Santana is an Assistant Professor in Philosophy at the University of Utah. Dr Santana’s uses ethics to shed light on complicated issues such as the environment and human cognition.

Why is the matter of cats and wildlife so controversial?

Let’s start by assuming that killing cats isn’t a particularly effective way to prevent native species extinctions except on small islands. I don’t think this has to be a mere assumption — the evidence to support it is out there — but I’m not going to clog this post with a bunch of citations. What does this say about the fact that a feral cat cull is a cornerstone of Australia’s Threatened Species Strategy?

Take a step back from that specific question to the broader normative question: when faced with urgency, when should we pursue responses with a low expected payoff? That is, when a potential response to an urgent situation is either unlikely to work at all or unlikely to address the bulk of the problem, under what conditions should we try it anyway?

The answer certainly isn’t “never.” Examples from medicine are illustrative, given that we have a more standardized way of thinking about interventions in the case of urgencies in the medical context than in the conservation one. Consider the case of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Although CPR increases a cardiac arrest victim’s chance of survival, even after receiving CPR they’re still more likely to die than not. Similarly, for many varieties of cancer, chemotherapy takes low odds of survival and transforms them into low, but not quite as low, odds of survival. Both these responses to medical urgencies have a fairly low expected payoff, but we consider them worth trying anyway.

What makes low expected payoff interventions like CPR and chemotherapy worth trying despite the costs and risks involved? Plausibly, it’s a combination of three factors:

1) The situation is dire.

2) If any better alternatives exist, we’ve exhausted them.

3) Even given the low chance of success, the expected payoff outweighs the cost.

Condition (1) seems clear: most of us wouldn’t undergo expensive, painful, ineffective chemotherapy if it was a treatment for acne, for example.

Condition (2) is also sensible. We wouldn’t jump immediately to something risky with a low expected payoff, like chemotherapy, unless we’ve already tried (or it’s too late to try) safer and more effective alternatives, like tumour removal.

And Condition (3) seems reasonable as well. Even with a terminal illness, you might not take an experimental treatment with a 1% chance of success if it would bankrupt your family or would involve a significant amount of added suffering

Uluru, Australia (© Tanja Straka)

Does the Australian cat cull meet these three conditions?

The situation for Aussie fauna is certainly dire. I think Condition (1) is uncontroversially satisfied. But it’s less clear that Condition 2 is met. Other introduced species, pollutants (including the greenhouse gas emissions which are reshaping the climate), extraction, and especially habitat loss and fragmentation are probably bigger culprits in the decline of Australia’s native wildlife than cats are. And even though habitat loss is addressed elsewhere in the Threatened Species Strategy, there’s a good case to be made that it doesn’t go nearly far enough on that front. We almost certainly haven’t made a good faith effort towards dealing directly with the more significant drivers of native species population decline and extinction. If not, then Condition 2 isn’t met, and the cat cull is just foregoing a known effective treatment in favour of an unproven alternative because we’re unwilling to pay the price of the effective treatment.

I’m also sceptical that Condition 3 is met. Given our present knowledge, we don’t have great reason to expect a real ecological benefit from killing 2 million cats. Even the financial cost of the program may thus outweigh the expected benefits. But there’s also the cost in terms of animal suffering. Shooting, trapping, and poisons like 1080 (sodium fluoroacetate) are all messy and painful ways to get rid of the targeted cats, not to mention the members of other species harmed or killed as collateral damage. The ethical and economic costs, I’m saying, likely outweigh the low expected benefit of the cull.

Since the three reasonably conditions for attempting a low expected payoff intervention aren’t met, I’m reasonably confident that the cat cull is, barring further evidence that it would be effective, unwarranted.

Why do you think politicians focus on culling cats rather than on habitat loss?

I was also asked to address why killing cats is such a political focus, given the less-than-overwhelming evidential and ethical support for it. I’m not a political scientist, mind reader, or espionage agent, however, so I can only speculate.

The cat cull seems to me to be a political bone being thrown to conservationists, but it turns out that not only is the bone bare of any scraps of meat, it’s probably not even a real bone — just some overpriced rawhide. But it’s a bone we’re willing as a society to throw because it’s just more of the same: we’ve been pointlessly killing ‘feral’ cats for a long time for all sorts of reasons, including no reason at all. I say “pointlessly” because in most cases (again, small islands may be an exception) cat culls have been ineffective, and in developed environments tend to be demonstrably less effective than sterilization and release programs. And I put ‘feral’ in scare quotes because I don’t think that distinguishing feral from other domestic cats has good scientific grounding.

Despite the fact that large scale cat killings usually haven’t done any good, we’re comfortable with implementing a major cull again, because scaling up ‘business as usual’ feels less threatening to us than undertaking the radical changes like large scale habitat conservation and emissions reductions that will actually give threatened species a fighting chance.


Moral Philosophy: William S. Lynn

As a team, we believe the protection of biodiversity is crucial as it provides indispensable ecosystem goods and services for humanity. Equally as important, we share with others a deep love and concern for the well-being of wildlife, and believe we have a direct moral responsibility to wild lives.

William S. Lynn is a Research Scientist in the George Perkins Marsh Institute at Clark University. The focus of Bill’s work is the ethics and politics of animal protection and sustainability.

Why is the matter of cats and wildlife so controversial?

The relationship between people, cats, and wildlife is not about science per se. It is a complex overlap of ethics, science, and public policy. All three themselves are nested in widening circles of people’s bonds to different kinds of animals, worldviews about how we ought to coexist with other species and nature, and the politics of sustainability. We need to understand each of these alone and in combination to understand the full complexity and controversy over outdoor cats.

A cat on the hunt (Photo by Bundo Kim on Unsplash)

Can you give us an example?

Sure. As a research team, we recently published “A Moral Panic Over Cats” in Conservation Biology.

As a team, we believe the protection of biodiversity is crucial as it provides indispensable ecosystem goods and services for humanity. Equally as important, we share with others a deep love and concern for the well-being of wildlife and believe we have a direct moral responsibility to wild lives.

Our article notes, however, that there are many reasons to be sceptical of the current science around cats’ impact on wildlife. We do recognize that cats can be a problem for island biodiversity, although given the vast human impacts and co-factors with other immigrant species (e.g., mice, rats) even this is not categorical. Even so, claims that outdoor cats devastate native wildlife are mostly speculation fueled by faulty logic (e.g., fallacies like overgeneralization), a lack of requisite knowledge (e.g., background rates of predation) and contested by disconfirming evidence (e.g., kitty cams of actual cat activity).

In addition, we reveal the claim that cats pose an urgent public health threat is nothing more than demagoguery in an effort to stampede the public into removing cats from the landscape “by any means necessary”. This is the coded language used by some conservation scientists for hunting, trapping, and poisoning.

For the moment, however, let us assume that outdoor cats — companioned, stray, and feral — are a zombie apocalypse for wildlife and public health. This would not tell us what we ought to do about it. Rigorous science can help us understand the dynamics between cats and wildlife in varied wild to urban places. But we need ethics to complement it and tell us what we ought to do (or not do) in light of that knowledge. Done right, science and ethics help triangulate on the best public policies so we take both the right and practical action, that is, interventions that are morally and scientifically justified as well as effective.

When it comes to cats and wildlife, however, this necessary intersection between science and ethics is virtually non-existent. To start improving the conversation is why we wrote “Moral Panic,” have a forthcoming special issue on Outdoor Cats in Society and Animals, and will continue to research and publish on the topic.

Why do you think cats were selected as the target species to conserve threatened species in Australia?

The ecological politics of Australia is complex. Australia has a diversity of unique fauna that has not fared well in the face of rampant resource exploitation. Urban legends that informed the governments ‘war on cats,’ such as the existence of 20 million cats in the outback gave the issue a false sense of urgency. So too did an uncritical acceptance of the shaky science I note above.

But for our purposes, allow me to speak to the worldview and presuppositions behind conservation.

The keystone issue is what I call the moral shame of traditional conservation. It presupposes that non-human animals are only (or mostly) of instrumental value as resources, and dismisses (or marginalizes) the intrinsic value of wild lives. This dismissal has two forms. The absolute form believes there is no intrinsic value to animals whatsoever. The relative form may acknowledge the intrinsic value of their lives but places their well-being well behind that of human beings or ecosystems. This prejudice is called by many names — human exceptionalism, dominionism, anthropocentrism, speciesism — each of which has shades of meaning that need not concern us here.

One sees this in the discourse of invasion biology, one of the sciences used in traditional conservation. The latent moral norms of the field are usually anthropocentric or ecocentric, categorically privileging human beings and/or ecosystems over individual non-human animals. This is reinforced by the use of metaphors of war to understand the movement of species from one place to another, and unwanted immigration to understand the relationship between species in ecological communities. It’s language and theory, therefore, tend to see immigrant species as invaders and outsiders while presuming their harm to native ecologies. In truth, this is sometimes the case (think pythons in the Everglades). And yet new species may also be a neutral or positive addition to an ecological community. These are empirical questions that should not be presupposed a priori.

More disturbing is that the political nativism of anti-immigrant politics often has a resonance with the biological nativism of ecological politics. I have heard this thoughtless equivalence made by natural resource managers on several occasions. More nefariously, it is also a feature of ecofascist rhetoric. Cats in this worldview are profiled as an unwanted immigrant, a threat to native wildlife’s way of life (true in some spaces, not true in others), and become targets for traditional conservation’s emphasis on lethal control.

Does this mean invasion biologists are ecofascists? No, but it does remind us that science exists in a social context and draws on the tacit beliefs of its time.

The endangered Mountain Pygmy-Possum (© Australian Alps Collection — Australian Parks, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Main threats: Feral cats and foxes, habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation, and inappropriate fire regimes.

Are there better courses of action than culling cats?

Absolutely. We can’t kill our way back to native biodiversity. Instead, we need creative ethical and scientific responses to problems besetting biodiversity. We can start by learning to morally value the entire community of life, working to reduce the harm we do to other animals, and optimizing our landscapes for both wild and domestic animals alike.

A program of rewilding with an eye to restoring wildness across half of the earth would go a long way to solving our climate and extinction crises while fulfilling our moral imperative to sustain the community of life. In urban and suburban environments, public support for community cat programs, subsidizing catios for apartments and homeowners, and solution-oriented partnerships between animal and conservation advocacy organization can have a similarly positive impact on cats and urban wildlife alike. We might even accept that novel ecosystems are not always a threat and may at times enrich biodiversity. If we rewild our world with compassion for animals in urban to wild places alike, we will go a long way to solving or mitigating the most pressing threats to native wildlife.

This will not end all conflict between native and non-native species. Nor will it obviate the need at specific times and places to intervene and remove or control a species threatening others. Such interventions should always be targeted, well-evidenced, and ethically justified. The least harmful methods should always be used first. If harmful measures are needed, they require rigorous monitoring and ongoing evaluation of their need and efficacy.

Fortunately, alternative paradigms of conservation like compassionate conservation and rewilding are contesting the idea that conservation amounts to killing animals and protecting habitat. Personally, I like to speak in terms of deep compassion, wherein we ethically value and proactively care for both wild and domestic animals, as both individuals and members of ecological and social communities. This gives us the moral and political flexibility to do our best in finding long-term, win-win solutions to conflicts when they arise between people and animals, and animals themselves whether they are wild or domestic, native and immigrant.

Why do you think politicians focus on culling cats rather than on habitat loss?

Compared to changing exploitative means of habitat management and resource extraction, cats are an easy scapegoat. They are much easier to target than addressing the fundamental moral, political, and economic dysfunctions of unsustainable human societies. Even if cats were as destructive as claimed, the focus on them instead of ourselves would be mistaking a symptom for the disease.

For reasons I noted above, claims that cats are the largest single invasive threat to biodiversity are highly questionable. Yet even if you assume this to be true, cats pale in comparison to the aggregate of other anthropogenic factors (e.g., habitat loss, market hunting, building strikes, agriculture and urban sprawl), especially when you consider the cumulative impact of humanity’s depredations on nature. This transformation of habitat into ‘humanitat’ is unquestionably the sole responsibility of humanity.

Instead of blaming cats, we should be looking for ways to live more sustainably and coexist with other creatures more humanely. In fact, the two go hand in hand. As ethicists have long argued, it is our inattention to both the intrinsic moral value of non-humans and nature that is in large part responsible for our depredations on the natural world. To learn to coexist and allow other creatures to thrive will, perforce, mean we develop a more ethical and sustainable culture.

Sydney, Australia (Photo by Jamie Davies on Unsplash)

How do you think the public would respond when culling of cats turns out not to be effective in halting endemic species decline?

I believe for some it will undermine their trust in science and government policy. The demagoguery over cats and public health is particularly damaging and may throw into doubt the motivations and integrity of those demonizing cats.

Yet there is a silver lining. Aristotle notes that politics and public policy are ‘ethics writ large’. The idea here is that we have to attend to the values and especially the moral values that drive public debate, political action, and policy interventions. Perhaps ironically, the vitriol over outdoor cats is an opportunity to take a step back, to appreciate Aristotle’s insights, and begin anew to bring science and ethics to bear on the issue.

To put this in another way, public policy always exists at the intersection of facts and values. Science helps us keep our facts transparent and accountable. The public debate over the science of outdoor cats and biodiversity is part of that process. Ethics helps us keep our values transparent and accountable. The effort to inject ethics into the debate over cats is indispensable for clarifying what are currently problematic presuppositions and wrong-headed policies.

The process for having an ethics-aware, science-informed, and democratically deliberative process for developing good public policy has already been established. In the areas of medical and human subjects research, bioethics has innovated powerful tools for combining ethics and science in the service of the public good. In animal and environmental protection, the ethics review process used as part of the effort to protect the endangered spotted owl in North America is another example. The precautionary principle is also rooted in an ethical commitment to foreseeing, forewarning and forestalling harm to individuals and communities, human or non-human.

I believe if we use these insights and practices in good faith, we should be able to better understand and act on our mutual responsibilities to cats and wildlife.


Synthesis

We are very grateful to the two scientists for contributing with such a thorough response. Both scientists logically argued from an ethical perspective to shed light on the ‘war against cats’ in Australia. They question a number of key elements in the decision to kill two million cats: the effect (mainland) cats have on biodiversity, especially compared to other anthropogenic threats, the effectiveness of trying to kill two million cats with the goal of reducing biodiversity loss and the conditions under which an intervention with a low expected pay-off should be tried anyway. They also stressed the intrinsic value of (wild) animals, beyond their instrumental role and membership of ecological and societal communities.

In their response, both scientists show the complexity of the situation and acknowledge that while cats can certainly be a substantial problem on islands, the practice of killing them in a large country such as Australia does not withstand scientific evidence nor ethical principles. Future approaches could include a logical examination of the problem and its proposed interventions, for example by imagining a similar situation in another context (e.g. medicine). When interventions make logical and scientific sense they should always be targeted, well-evidenced, and ethically justified. The focus on cats in Australia appears to be strongly driven by the fact that it is ‘easier’ to try and address biodiversity loss by killing non-human animals than to focus on approaches with a higher expected pay-off, but which would require systematic changes in the way we live and use the land. Creativity will be needed to come up with approaches that will be both effective and ethically justified. Possibly we can learn from the innovative tools used in Bioethics (medicine).

In conclusion, conservation policy is not just about the facts or the ‘easiest-way out’, it is just as much about the values. Both need to be critically examined when we want to move forward in halting biodiversity loss in a transparent and accountable way.


Call for additional perspectives

We value sharing perspectives from different sides. If you have a different perspective from those shared above and you would like to share this, please contact us.

Exploring Conservation Conflicts

Written by

Exploring various perspectives on conservation conflicts, including Conservation Biology, Moral Philosophy & Human Dimensions. Moderated by Tanja & Lysanne.

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