The Outdoor Cat. Two Years On

Two years ago today I gave a keynote on the ethical dimensions of managing outdoor cats. It was to The Outdoor Cat, the first international conference to take up the conservation and welfare considerations of companion, community and feral cats. The conference was a great success in terms of the knowledge shared, networks created, and potential for win-win solutions that recognize the intrinsic value and protect both cats and native wildlife. See my post, The Outdoor Cat: A New Beginning?

Two years on, where are we today? The news is mixed.

Plans to have a biannual meetings building on the momentum of the first conference have not come to fruition. This is unfortunate both for many reasons to be sure. To my mind the most important is the opportunity for people of different points of view to come to a deeper and better understanding of the both the science and ethics of outdoor cats.

Nor has a planned meeting between animal protectionists and conservations that was to be held at the National Zoo in Washington, DC. Many conservation scientist (although by no means all) boycotted The Outdoor Cat because it did not immediately adopt their preferred policy outcome — the widespread killing of outdoor cats by hunting, trapping, poisoning, and lethal injection. The intent of this meeting was to sit stakeholders down to see if they might hammer out areas of common ground, an agenda for further research, and an ongoing dialogue.

The research and policy debate is still centred on whether trap-neuter-return (TNR) is a viable answer for dealing with outdoor cats. Well run TNR can be a valuable tool, but it is not a complete solution. The thing to realize here is that the debate over TNR is not about its effectiveness. Rather it is a proxy for whether one supports traditional conservation or humane approaches to managing outdoor cats. Advocates of TNR may realize that it is not an entire solution, but they cling to the practice in order to reject conservationists emphasis on lethal control. Conservationists may realize that TNR could be part of the solution, but they insist it is not in order to privilege the tools of traditional conservation — killing animals and protecting habitat.

Meanwhile, the American Bird Conservancy and allied groups continue to try to stampede citizens with fears over public health related to rabies and toxoplasmosis. Because I have worked directly with animals, I have a rabies vaccine and been treated for toxo. I do not want to minimize any public health concerns for people, our companion animals, or other wildlife that may be affected by these and other diseases. But the truth is diseases from cats are a minor public health concerns in the scheme of things. People should be far more worried over the flu which kills thousands each year, or multiple antibiotic resistance bacteria that threaten to roll back the treatment of bacterial disease and surgery to First World War conditions.

On a more positive note, there have been some important steps forward.

Ethicists and scientists have begun speaking and writing about the effort to scapegoat cats for biodiversity problems of our own making. This is both a matter of the weak science used to villainize outdoor cats, and well as a previous lack of attention to the ethical implications of how we manage populations of outdoor cats.

The Humane Society of the United States has promoted the humane management of outdoor cats to one of its signature campaigns. Unlike ABC or ACA, HSUS has an abiding concern for the well being of both cats and wildlife, and is looking for win-win solutions. Their cooperative effort to humanely remove outdoor cats from the wild into homes or sanctuaries on the Hawaiian island of Maui is a case in point.

Perhaps most importantly, the vast majority of the people I speak and presented to on outdoor cats reject the notion that killing cats is the only or practical answer to either cat welfare or biodiversity.

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