Chris Watson

cats

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.

CBW

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

 

Buy it at Andrew Isles

 

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Contained Cats & Crowdfunding Conservation Justice

OpinionChris Watson

Kent Wilson shot his neighbours’ cat the other day. With nothing more to go on, that seems like a shitty thing to have done, doesn’t it? Predictably, the tabloid press and online trolls bought themselves an all-day ticket and went to town…

ADELAIDE CAT KILLER ESCAPES CONVICTION was the headline that 9news.com.au went with.

ADELAIDE HILLS MAN AVOIDS ANIMAL CRUELTY CONVICTION said the headline on 5mu.com.au

The Advertiser led with NATURE-LOVER KENT WILSON, WHO SHOT AND KILLED NEIGHBOUR’S CAT, SPARED ANIMAL CRUELTY CONVICTION BY COURT.

Never backwards in cramming as much eye-catching clickbait into a headline as possible, the Daily Mail went with an even more wordy headline: MODEL WHOSE CAT WAS SHOT AND BURIED BY HER NEIGHBOUR SAYS SHE IS NOW TOO SCARED TO WALK NEAR HIS PROPERTY AFTER HE ESCAPES PRISON SENTENCE.

You’ll notice, however, that all of these headlines share a common, and crucial, piece of information: no conviction was recorded against Mr Wilson and that’s important.

An earlier court proceeding had found Mr Wilson guilty of ill-treating an animal to cause death or harm, which he unsuccessfully appealed in the Supreme Court. Despite that failed appeal, at the sentencing, not only did he not get a prison sentence, but Mr Foley, in the Adelaide Magistrate’s Court, refused to record a conviction against him despite the urgings of lawyers for the RSPCA. Bizarrely, for an organisation which ostensibly concerns itself with cruelty to animals in a case that categorically involved no animal cruelty, the RSPCA were hoping that Mr Wilson might receive the maximum sentence for this offence; a $50,000 fine or four years in jail. Instead, Magistrate Foley recorded no conviction and, noting that Mr Wilson had already paid compensation to the cat’s owners, issued a fine of $2000.

In his sentencing remarks Magistrate Foley was very clear as to why he had decided to spare Mr Wilson a conviction for animal cruelty:

“The typical example involves a person who either grossly neglects an animal or whose motive is to simply cause pain and suffering. I accept you genuinely believed [the cat] was a threat to native wildlife on your property, particularly bird life.”

 Mr Wilson had previously been ordered to pay the RSPCA’s costs relating to the appeal.

A neighbour's cat in my back yard. Why do cats get a free pass?

RSPCA: For All Creatures Great & Small?

If all you do is scan such stories in the papers, that’s about as much information as you might have gleaned from the commercial media. As always though, there’s a lot more to it and the more you learn, the more understandable Mr Wilson’s actions become and the more perplexing becomes the RSPCA’s determination to pursue a legal decision against him.

Speaking on the phone with Mr Wilson the other day, his love for animals was obvious. He enthused to me about the 5 acre former apple orchard that he and his family took over 40 years ago and have since been managing for biodiversity. He has counted 60 species of bird on the property and regularly sees Short-beaked Echidna and Western Grey Kangaroos. The property shares a boundary with a 100 acre bushland reserve which is also rich in native wildlife.

Kent says that he routinely sees cats hunting on the block and his usual response is to chase them away, follow them to the boundary of his block and ensure that they have left the property. On the day that Kent shot the neighbour’s cat, he had already shooed away 4 cats – 2 with collars and 2 without. The cat he ended up shooting had already been chased off the property twice the same morning and Kent had been trying to trap it for 2 months without success. It wasn’t wearing a collar.

He’d previously asked his neighbours to keep their cat contained within their own property; a request that was either repeatedly ignored or with which the cat’s owners found it impossible to comply. After repeated attempts to trap the itinerant cat and shoo it off his block only to have it return a short while later, Kent took the, by his own admission, rash decision to shoot it. He’s a licensed and experienced shooter and firearm owner. He discharged a legally registered rifle on private property in full compliance with relevant laws, quickly and humanely killing the cat. He then buried it on his block.

If there is any animal cruelty evident in these actions I must have missed something. Hunters around the country perform similar actions around the country on a variety of animals and usually with a much lower standard demanded of the ethics and humanity of their actions. In this case, a single animal was humanely shot by a legally permitted and experienced practitioner in accordance with ethical guidelines for the humane destruction of pest animals set out by the RSPCA themselves here.

Neither can Kent’s actions since shooting the cat be impugned. When an owner inquired about the cat, Kent made no attempt to hide his actions and openly stated that he had shot the animal and buried it on his property. Without this single act of honesty none of these vindictive legal proceedings, and vindictive is precisely what they are, would have occurred. Pet cats which are allowed to roam freely beyond the confines of the owner’s property often go missing, the victim of snake or dog attack, falling down drains or ditches or getting bowled over by traffic. All of this is acknowledged in the RSPCA's own policies relating to pet cat containment and responsible ownership which can be found here. A less honest man could have chosen the path of least resistance and denied any knowledge of the pet’s whereabouts and that would have been the end of it.

And some media outlets have done their best to ensure that Mr Wilson’s honesty does not go unpunished. This includes making far too much space for neighbours’ baseless attacks on his character including claims that they are afraid of him or too scared to go near his property. This is a very serious innuendo and is utterly unfounded. It amounts to a suggestion that Mr Wilson actually intends physical harm to the cat’s owners should they approach him. This is slanderous, ridiculous and is not supported by the merest acquaintance with the facts of the case or Mr Wilson himself. He’s a long-serving volunteer member of the Country Fire Authority, the local scout group and a dedicated conservationist. He and his family have been well-known members of the local community for 40+ years. Any attempt to paint him as some sort of anti-social, animal-hating, gun-toting weirdo is transparent fabrication of the most laughable (and pernicious) kind. 

 

An Indoor Cat is a Safe & Healthy Cat

Which brings us to the most perplexing aspect of this story: why has the RSPCA pursued this case against Mr Wilson? The RSPCA is a federal organisation made up of representative societies in each state and territory with a combined annual budget in the vicinity of A$80,000,000. The organisation’s website states its vision is, “to be the leading authority in animal care and protection.” The same page states their mission as “to prevent cruelty to animals by actively promoting their care and protection.” That’s great. Fighting negligence and animal cruelty; promoting responsible pet ownership, care and animal health. I’m right behind all that. Come to mention it, so is Kent Wilson.

This is the most important point to come out of this case for me. The RSPCA is utterly confused; firstly about what constitutes animal cruelty and secondly about the expansiveness of its chosen, decidedly biblical, motto, “For All Creatures Great & Small.”  If this case is an accurate measure of how they prosecute their chosen duty, perhaps a better motto might be, “RSPCA: For Cats, Dogs & Livestock”.

Considering that the RSPCA relies on charitable donations for a large chunk of its bottom line, you might speculate that perhaps there is a lot more to be milked from the public purse through appealing to the emotion we attach to our companion animals than the cursory sympathy shown for the plight of native animals. That would quite neatly explain the apparent limiting of their concerns about animal cruelty, mostly to animals kept by humans rather than animals more broadly. But that’s pure speculation.

The RSPCA has prosecuted a member of the public for humanely killing an introduced predator; an act which spared countless native animals a less humane fate. In their simplistic ethical calculus it seems the RSPCA bestow human companion species with greater weight; which is fine if that’s their choice, but it should be reflected in their publicity material.

The fact that the animal in question was a neighbour’s pet is what Kent Wilson is really paying for – not cruelty. And if we’re to believe any of what the RSPCA claims to stand for, why is it not holding the cat’s owners to account? Their pet was unsupervised and roaming free outside the boundaries of their property. They left it vulnerable to predation by wild animals and free to prey upon threatened native species as well. In this case, irresponsible ownership also brought their pet into the rifle sights of a neighbour who should be as free to have the native wildlife on his property untrammelled by cats as his neighbours are to own them. According to the RSPCA, the onus is on the animal’s owners to restrict them, for their own safety and health, to their own property. Why then, is it not the RSPCA’s duty to enforce this?

This case throws up numerous questions that the RSPCA could be putting to local councils and state and federal politicians rather than harassing individuals with vexatious legal action. There are many questions which are relevant to their stated aims that they seem to be acting counter to:

Why aren’t cat owners legally bound to contain their pets?

In a few places they are – how can these laws be better enforced?

Why are we wasting resources wrongly targeting a private citizen when the Victorian duck shooting season persisted despite all scientific advice that it is inhumane and unsustainable?

Why aren't feral cats, considering the massive threat they pose to native animals, a major issue being investigated and publicised by RSPCA?

Rather than vilifying a man who hastily, perhaps even rashly (but humanely) took action to protect native wildlife, the RSPCA’s considerable public profile and financial clout should be put to the task of helping cat owners across the country to understand one simple truth: an indoor cat, is a safe and healthy cat. At the moment, the propagation of that crucial message is being left to other organisations like the Discovery Circle at UniSA, Land for Wildlife and Arid Recovery.

If the RSPCA really is for all creatures great and small, then our record for mammal extinction alone, and the extent to which stray and feral cats are responsible for that, show them to be derelict in their duty.

 

Support Kent

Kent Wilson has not shied away from accepting the consequences of his actions in this case. He has been unfairly penalised for the negligence of others. I don’t think he has done anything wrong.

A fund has been set up to ensure that Kent Wilson is not out-of-pocket as a result of these legal proceedings. Your donations and support are gratefully received not only to offset Mr Wilson’s legal expenses, but as a show of support for a citizen who has been erroneously singled-out by an organisation which is hoping to deflect attention from the shortcomings of its own policies by attempting to make an example of him.

DONATE HERE

(Excess money raised will be donated to Arid Recovery in South Australia who do a lot of research around feral cat ecology and threatened species recovery.)

 

A place for everything and everything in its place. A Leopard Cat Prionailurus bengalensis, in eastern Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Photo used with kind permission Samantha Hopley.

Postscript

I’m regularly accused of hating cats and have already worn a great deal of abuse from this article and my opinions expressed elsewhere. I shudder to think what Kent and his family have had to endure. I’m a well-known animal lover. I love cats too. I can even find them cute in the right circumstances, but I mostly get excited about wild animals. I have stalked Puma in the cloud-forests of Ecuador and the Andean foothills in Chile. I’ve trudged Bornean rainforest at night hoping for a glimpse of Sunda Clouded Leopard and was delighted to come away with an encounter with a Leopard Cat instead. I’ve almost gone cross-eyed and been eaten alive by midges while scouring the Scottish highlands for the increasingly rare Scottish Wildcat. Any accusation that I hate cats is simply false. I recognise, however, that owning such a beautifully evolved predator as a domestic pet carries a very serious responsibility which I don’t think is taken seriously enough in Australia.

I cannot abide any cruelty toward, or mistreatment of, animals. As a professional scientist, I’ve been employed on cat-control programs many times in the past and have euthanased countless animals. This is always done humanely, in keeping with strict ethical guidelines and under regularly updated permits. It’s very important not to conflate these actions with cruelty or hatred. I don’t enjoy killing any animals, but when it has to be done it should be done humanely.

Numerous species of cats are seriously endangered around the world. If you have time and energy to spend defending cats, seek out the charitable organisations listed below which are working to protect and study these vanishing species and they will welcome whatever help you are able to offer. Please don’t waste your time abusing me (or others) for supporting evidence-based responses to our own ecological crises here in Australia or trying to convince me that there is a place in our landscape for feral cats or that your house cat doesn’t do any damage. All the evidence says you are probably wrong.

This is an emotionally-charged subject but it doesn’t have to be. Cat-lovers and conservationists simply need to recognise that we are on the same side. We are all against animal cruelty and support the protection of our native animals as well. The simple message that we all need to get behind is: an indoor cat is a safe and healthy cat.

 

Learn more about endangered cats...

The Snow Leopard Trust

Cheetah Conservation Fund

Felidae Conservation Fund

Clouded Leopard Project

Amur Leopard & Tiger Alliance

Panthera.org

Save Tigers Now

Sand Cat - Saharan Conservation Fund

The Cape Leopard Trust

Scottish Wildcats

Mountain Lion Foundation