Last week I gave a Marsh Institute lecture at Clark University on outdoor cats and biodiversity — “The End of Biodiversity: Ethical and Policy Issues Around the Super-Predator, Felis catus“.
The large and engaging audience took some by surprise. At one time it would have me as well, but I have since learned how the combination of cats and wildlife brings out many communities interested in the well-being of non-human animals. Animal life is our closest personal connection to nature, and cats inhabit a liminal state between wild and domestic that is particularly appealing to many.
The questions and comments that came from the audience reminded me how reasonable most people can be. The controversy over cat predation and native biodiversity certainly brings out the ideologues, and I have come to expect dire predictions of the end of biodiversity or blithe dismissals of any threat to wildlife, from people who do not really bother to listen to me, their adversaries or anyone else. Yet the overwhelming majority of people I present to and talk with take a far more balanced approach.
They recognize that the science about outdoor cats is uncertain and cannot justify claims that cats are the leading cause of biodiversity loss. Yet they also understand that an overabundance of cats, especially in biotic communities “naive” to their predation, can wreak havoc. So responding to the issue of outdoor cats and wildlife must be undertaken through adaptive management that is suited to its ecological and social place.
In addition, they understand that this is primarily an ethical issue about doing right by cats and wildlife. A situated ethical response is therefore just as important as place-based, adaptive management. To my mind this requires a portfolio of approaches that stress non-lethal management first and foremost, but cannot rule out lethal management in specific circumstances.
Balancing the well-being of individual cats with the ecological integrity of biotic communities takes wisdom, judgment and compromise. It presents the same kind of unavoidable difficulties in thought and practice as balancing individual human rights with social goods like public health and safety. There are no moral certainties that can make such decisions for us, ensure we are right 100% of the time, or avoid hard cases and difficult trade-offs.
Sadly, ideologues in the conservation, scientific and animal welfare communities have polarized the question of outdoor cats into a standoff between those for or against the use of trap, neuter and return (TNR) in cat colonies. This is a sterile debate. TNR is but one of many techniques and is not a silver bullet that will solve the outdoor cat problem.
More importantly, the focus on TNR cloaks a deeper policy debate behind a facade of scientistic claims and counterclaims. That debate is over the use of lethal measures as a primary tool in wildlife conservation, and by extension, the management of outdoor cats. Arguments over TNR are code for this dispute, a value-laden, ethically charged policy dispute masquerading as objective science.
I am confident we would have more productive community dialogues and develop better public policies if this polarization could be avoided. In our uncivil and politically polarized culture, that can seem like a pipe-dream.
Still there are examples of success. I am thinking of Portland OR here, where a partnerships between the Audubon Society of Portland and the Feral Cal Coalition exemplify the possibilities. The two organizations have a long history of working together to reduce the number of free-roaming and feral cats, something that is good for the cats and good for wildlife. Most recently they cosponsored Catio Tour 2013, an event for those seeking examples of enclosures that allow cats to safely enjoy the outdoors while protecting wildlife from feline predation.
Catio Tour 2013 is an example of something good for companion and wild animals alike. The organizations behind it are also a great example for political animals like ourselves that need reminding on how to behave now and then.
Image: Jean-Luc Picard Lauria (“Wookie”) by Karin Lauria, 2013.