Killer Cats

The New York Times (via Renee) has finally caught up to the Oatmeal‘s reporting on the problem of domestic cats killing wildlife:

…scientists estimated that domestic cats in the United States — both the pet Fluffies that spend part of the day outdoors and the unnamed strays and ferals that never leave it — kill a median of 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals a year, most of them native mammals like shrews, chipmunks and voles rather than introduced pests like the Norway rat.
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.

The article goes on to describe the ensuing debate between cat lovers and environmentalists. But apparently there’s one thing they can agree on:

All concur that pet cats should not be allowed to prowl around the neighborhood at will, any more than should a pet dog, horse or potbellied pig, and that cat owners who insist their felines “deserve” a bit of freedom are being irresponsible and ultimately not very cat friendly.
“We’ve put a lot of effort into trying to educate people that they should not let their cats outside, that it’s bad for the cats and can shorten the cats’ lives,” said Danielle Bays, the manager of the community cat programs at the Washington Humane Society.

Well. It may be that environmental concerns justify keeping cats inside, but let’s not pretend it’s better for the cats. It may keep them alive longer and make them more sociable with humans, but those are hardly the only metrics on which we should judge a cat’s quality of life.

Hobbes, the cat I grew up with, was an urban outdoor cat for most of his long life. I don’t think this was a deliberate decision on my parents’ part; he was just so desperate to get outside that it would have been difficult to keep him in. (I don’t have a photo of him at hand, so I used a picture of his namesake above.) He wasn’t the most competent hunter; he got his share of birds, but his arch-enemies the squirrels were always a little too quick for him. I can vividly remember him chasing a squirrel towards a chain-link fence, then smacking into it like Wile E. Coyote while the squirrel scurried straight up. He never gave up, though, and the quest to finally catch one of those squirrels was a central animating passion in his life. Aside from that, he survived countless scuffles with strays and even being hit by a car — only to spend the last year of his life completely blind, invisibly harassed day and night by the two kittens who’d already been adopted to replace him.

If we’d managed to keep him indoors, I’m sure he would have been fatter, cuddlier and a lot more comfortable, and he probably would have lived longer too. But it’s pretty clear to me which life he would have chosen. After all, he did choose it, every time he bolted out the back door in the morning.

You know how some dog breeds are restless and unhappy unless they have a job to do? I think hunting and exploring are like that for most cats, and it’s hard to completely satisfy those instincts in a confined space. When cat owners say that “indoor cats are happier,” what they probably mean is “indoor cats make their owners happier.” (Or, as my friend Kat suggests, “I am a lunatic and I think I can read my pet’s mind.”)

I’m not saying you should feel guilty if you own an indoor cat. I just don’t think you have a right to shame others for letting their cats roam. And I find the reasoning in this article to be a little too cute and convenient. Your cat may seem perfectly content sitting on your lap while you watch Mad Men, but if he could choose instead to be stalking some frightened rodent through a vacant lot at twilight, are you really so sure he’d turn that down?

It’s also a bit silly to talk about cats as “disruptive predators” in ecosystems that are already formed mostly by human habitation. Those shrews and chipmunks may be native species, but in the cities and suburbs where cats threaten them, it’s not as though they’re living a natural lifestyle in natural numbers. The complaints from people who feed birds are particularly amusing, since their entire hobby is based on interfering with the “ecosystem.”

As the article and comments make clear, the bulk of the problem is feral cat colonies, which should be dealt with regardless. I’m not sure it’s productive to pressure people to keep their pet cats indoors as well. But if we do, let’s at least acknowledge that we’re making a tradeoff, not doing the cats a favor.