Chris Watson

Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer

Review, OpinionChris Watson

by Peter P. Marra and Chris Santella

The adage about “standing on the shoulders of giants”, attributed to Sir Isaac Newton, is particularly relevant in the case of a book like Cat Wars. It’s an extended work of science journalism, richly referenced and supported by decades of field and laboratory experiments, hundreds of research papers, each of which has been vetted and verified by thousands of experts in their field. You could place it in the genre of popular science but really… works like this are the pinnacle of peer-review.

Unlike many peer-reviewed publications however, you’ll enjoy reading Cat Wars.

The disaster for biodiversity caused by free-ranging domestic cats has been well-known in ecological circles for decades but it is only relatively recently that the magnitude of the problem has started to gain wider awareness. Cat Wars, examining the problem from a rigorously evidence-based position, deserves to find wide readership. This can be an emotionally-charged topic with irrational fringe elements on both sides but the authors chart a steady course through a potential minefield of misinformation. No blithe hagiography of either camp, Cat Wars gives consideration to the claims and motivations of cat-lovers who would have all cats protected at any cost. But with fast-paced and entertaining writing, the authors bring validated research to bear on every point; piling up the evidence, leaving the reader with a clear understanding of the facts.

Mounting evidence shows that cats are a much bigger problem than we have acknowledged in the past and the authors of Cat Wars argue convincingly that we’re both logically and morally obliged to take steps to address this problem. This is the central thesis of Cat Wars and one which the authors support strongly. They so calmly, categorically and completely dismantle and debunk each counter-argument, that their conclusions are virtually unassailable.

Just as the dangers of DDT were little-known before Rachel Carson wrote her epochal Silent Spring, Cat Wars appears as the breaking of a wave that has been building for some time and is finally hitting with full force. Indeed comparisons to Carson’s book have already been drawn.

Cat Wars familiarises the reader with cats’ evolutionary history and goes on to describe their part in extinctions and the history of our interaction with the species. There are chapters on the rise to prominence of nature-based pursuits like bird watching and even a primer on population ecology in a chapter titled The Science of Decline. Most importantly, the authors have a stab at presenting the best solutions available to us at present. This part of the book also features a chapter systematically refuting the arguments for Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) programs which are commonly held up as a solution and, occasionally, even enshrined in law. As this chapter sets out comprehensively: TNR is no solution at all and may even make the problem worse.

It’s beyond the scope of this review to recap all of the major points but it’ll suffice to note that a spoiler alert is not necessary for me to discuss the major arguments presented in Cat Wars. The short version is: free-ranging cats, whether owned, un-owned or feral, are bad. They’re bad for native cat species due to the spread of disease and increased competition for resources. They’re obviously bad for the billions of native prey animals they take from our ecosystems. They’re also quite bad it seems, and this was the biggest eye-opener for me, for humans.

Cats in the United States are a vector for the Yersinia pestis bacterium, better-known to many of us as the black plague. Although cases of plague transmitted from cats to humans have been rare (just a few cases per decade) of greater concern is the viral disease rabies. This is slightly less rare with a few cases per year in the US, however there are 38,000 post-exposure prophylaxes administered each year (mostly the result of people coming into contact with a suspected rabid cat) costing US taxpayers a minimum of US$190 million annually.

But the stogie for worst cat-borne disease must go to the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii. This single-celled bastard-of-a-thing infects 30—50 percent of humans on Earth and 22 percent (60 million) of the US population and we’re still unsure of precisely how the infection affects brain function in humans. (It is at least correlated, though not necessarily causally, with schizophrenia and suicide). And a significant host of T. gondii, you won’t be surprised to learn, is cats.

Personally, I’d always been more focused on cats’ destruction of wildlife. This chapter was a revelation. The role of cats in the spread of diseases is covered in detail in the chapter titled The Zombie Maker and should be required reading for anyone living with, or even coming into occasional contact with, cats.

As the above passages foreshadow, much of the research presented and many of the cases discussed in Cat Wars are quite US-centric. This is to be expected given that the authors are both from that country but they have done an admirable job of peppering the narrative with illustrative examples from other regions and even commentary from international researchers; John Woinarski and threatened species commissioner Greg Andrews pop up a couple of times and will be familiar names to antipodean readers familiar with the invasive species discourse in Australia. 

My only frustration with Cat Wars is the frequency with which the authors, building up a good head of steam on a particular argument, drop a note in parentheses along the lines of “(more on this in chapter XX)”, or “(see page XX)”. This is an understandable technique for preserving the readability of text and the flow of narrative but in some cases I think the arguments could be served better by brief digression to present references in situ. To this end, and this may just be a personal preference, I’d rather references were indicated in superscript. There is an exhaustive list of references presented alphabetically at the back of the book but it is difficult to attach these to particular points or arguments as they are not cited in the text.

Finally though, the conclusions drawn in Cat Wars and the solutions offered by the authors are as inescapable as they are daunting to consider. With such a large, deeply entrenched and well-funded pro-cat lobby it seems clear that the solution to how we reduce the number of free-ranging cats in the landscape will be one of marketing. (I’ll pause here for that shiver down your spine to subside.) It will come down to getting people to honestly evaluate what they cherish most dearly—with the hope that most people will opt for a rich, healthy and diverse natural world in preference to one pointlessly overrun with cats. It will require people to engage honestly with the facts presented by legitimate researchers and to reject their own biases. With pundits of all stripes proclaiming that we now live in the era of “post-fact politics” this might seem like a tall order. But in the end, it starts with everybody taking responsibility for their part in the solution.

A large feral cat stalking prey in the Australian outback.

Cat-owners need to adopt responsible ownership practices: indoor and contained cats are healthy, safe and happy cats. This is better for cats, better for wildlife and better for people.

Governments and the media need to take responsibility for recognising the validity of scientifically-acquired knowledge and remove TNR from serious discussion. It should be legislated against (certainly not for) and should be lumped with other irrational fringe beliefs like climate science denialism and contrail mind-control conspiracies.

Cat Wars may well stand alongside Silent Spring in the pantheon of classic nature writing. Let’s hope it is as effective in warding off an impending cat-induced biodiversity crisis as Silent Spring was in alerting us to the perils of DDT.


Listen to an interview with author Peter Marra by Phillip Adams on RN Late Night Live


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