Every year upwards of 25 million birds are killed in Canada due to collisions with buildings, communication towers, wind turbines, and as a result of being tangled into marine gillnets. From window decals to flashing lights, humans have tried numerous preventative measures to stop these deaths. Their degree of success depends on the method, the location, and the types of birds in that ecosystem—amongst many other factors—and results are highly variable.
What may seem like benign interventions that—at worst—just won’t work, actually have the capacity to do harm. As an example, In Peru, bycatch (i.e., accidental catch) of Guanay Cormorants was reduced more than 80% after researchers attached green lights to gillnets. At the same time, bycatch of Peruvian Boobies increased. Possibly due to the boobie’s attraction to the lights.
Similarly, when researchers set out to the Baltic sea to compare the effects of attaching light panels, constant green lights, or flashing white lights to gillnets on sea birds (in particular the Long-tailed duck, a vulnerable species) they found that the nets with flashing white lights caught more ducks than the normal, non-illuminated ones.
When non-native animals are introduced to an ecosystem, quite often, the very delicate balance of that environment is thrown off. Plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, and everything else in a biome are connected through the food web, meaning that small changes to any part of a habitat can have extensive consequences.
From zebra mussels in Canada to grey squirrels in the United Kingdom, invasive animals have become a massive problem with increases in global travel and shipping. We enact biosecurity laws and protocols, quarantine procedures and mandate pesticide treatments to try to limit their spread; but despite all our efforts to curb invasive invasions, there is one species that we tend to give a pass to: cats.
Domestic cats are not native to anywhere. While they are descended from Felis lybica, the African Wildcat, the domestic cat is a different species. They are even given a separate Latin species name: Felis catus.
Even when well fed at home, domestic cats often engage in predation and hunting behaviours. With some variance depending on location, cats tend to kill more birds and small mammals than anything else. Since domestic cats are an introduced species, they have tremendous potential to upset intricate ecological situations.
Some researchers strongly believe that domestic cats’ damaging influence on the environment has already been robustly demonstrated. They feel it is crucial to act immediately and decisively if we want to have any hope of counteracting the damage done by domestic felines. For example, in 2018, conservationists from Oklahoma State University and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute published a paper wherein they denounced what they described as organised misinformation campaigns spreading junk science about domestic cats’ effects on ecosystems.
They invoke the Merchants of Doubt moniker—the name given to the “cabal of industry-beholden” contrarian scientists who denied evidence of harm by tobacco smoking, DDT and climate change for financial gain—and liken outdoor cat advocates to “cigarette and climate-change fact fighters” pushing “propaganda.”
Conversely, other researchers feel that many conservation scientists are fueling an unwarranted moral panic over outdoor cats with exaggerated claims and inadequate evidence. In response to the 2018 Merchants of Doubt publication, researchers from six universities around the world collaborated on a rebuttal. They wrote that:
equating the resources and power of global corporations and economic elites (e.g., Exxon Mobil) with the reach and advocacy of comparatively small non-profit organizations and university academics strains the [Merchants of Doubt simile] past the breaking point.
The authors take issue with conservationists concluding that cat advocates are acting with nefarious or bad faith motives and feel that calls for things such as “remov[ing cats] — once and for all — from the landscape” by “any means necessary” are sensationalist and premature. Instead, they call for better research to investigate the severity of the risks cats pose to habitats and the appropriate levels of interventions, and humane but effective alternatives to simply killing and banning outdoor cats.
A White-Hot Issue
If you’re not that familiar with the literary style research papers are usually written in, let me just say, it’s not usually quite like this. Usually, one side of an academic debate is not accusing the other of being corporate shills. The vast majority of the time, there are no mentions of “zombie apocalypse[s]” or calls to let things “weigh heavy on our shoulders.”
The rhetoric throughout the literature on outdoor cats is very inflammatory. The cats/birds issue isn’t just a problem to be solved. It is a fight; a conflict; a war. Solutions to this situation are needed urgently. Danger is imminent. “Drastic times call for drastic measures.” People “must ask themselves which animals should be saved but do so quickly because there is no time to [do both]… before extinctions occur”.
Clearly, the environmental impact of cats on birds, and the welfare of cats, are contentious and emotionally charged topics. It makes a lot of sense that they are. Environmental stewardship is an important role that humans are morally obligated to fulfill. Especially in the face of an existential threat. At the same time, cats also represent life that should be protected. Cats long ago transcended their status of just-another-animal. From their initial roles of pest control, they have become members of the family. Given as much, cat owners often take advice regarding their pets personally.
The thing is, this highly polarised landscape filled with provocative language and antagonistic interactions isn’t helping either side. And it isn’t helping the birds, or the cats, either.
Whether cats impact wildlife in a meaningful and long-lasting way is a question for the experts in this field. They do not seem to agree, which implies the need for more research on the matter. Either way, it doesn’t particularly matter who is “right” anymore.
What matters is how needlessly divided the debate has become.
A Birdy Binary
A false dichotomy has been created wherein one can either care about native wildlife or feline welfare, but never both. Either cats are the enemies — the representations of humans’ entitlement and disdain for the earth — or the most perfect companions, too often neglected and maligned, who are just following their natural instincts.
We do ourselves a massive disservice by reducing this complex and multifaceted issue to one side versus another, or ‘us versus them’. People are lumped into supposedly either loving birds and hating cats or vice-versa, when in truth, most conservationists and pet owners are motivated by similar loves of nature, flora, and fauna.
This artificial divide encourages more polarising solutions, more extreme takes and leads to fearmongering and moral panics. It not only creates this illusion of a lack of a middle ground, it eliminates any of the methods or solutions that would originate from there.
We can become so hyper-focused on advocating for one position that we become blinded to other parts of the issue. Habitat loss is displacing bird populations and climate change is affecting their ability to find food and water. As cities sprawl outward, they remove homelands for birds and disrupt migration routes. In Canada, around 100 million birds are estimated to die every year due to collisions with buildings, power lines and cars.
Such black-and-white thinking discourages the peer review process. With little room for nuance, any criticism of a study’s methods can be seen as dissent. Scientists need to feel free to question how research is performed and how it draws its conclusions without fear of being labelled as agents of misinformation.
It’s Getting Mean in Here
Outside of academic discussions, the binary division between perceived “bird lovers/cat haters” and “cat lovers/bird haters” is even wider. This pattern is seen to varying levels across social media, traditional media, and interpersonal relationships. Expressing the wrong opinion on Twitter about indoor/outdoor cats can lead to harassment and ostracisation.
We should all know that an anecdote is not good evidence for anything on its own. Nonetheless, let me tell you a short one.
I have written on a variety of “controversial” topics in the past — menstruation, copycat suicides, female ejaculation, transgender children, border walls — but only once have I been kicked out of a science-themed social media group. I was removed after sharing my (then) most recent article on whether bells on cat collars work to reduce the amount of prey that domestic cats kill. For the record, three studies (one published in 2005, one in 2006, and one in 2010) have shown that cats brought home less prey when they wore bells. But very quickly, the thread of responses devolved into name calling and insinuations of nefarious or financially motivated intentions.
Empathy works, not… whatever that is
What should be a logical debate on policies and practices has turned ugly. The cats and birds issue has become a hotbed for sensationalism and hyperbole, no matter your stance. And the worst part about it is that we know it won’t work as well as collaborative and kind approaches would.
We know that when trying to change somebody’s mind, what tends to work is empathy and ongoing dialogue. We want to avoid judgment, disdain, or anger. Scientists need to be transparent about how they draw their conclusions and accept legitimate criticisms. Science is not perfect or magic but just a tool to help us understand the world around us. Trust is crucial for effective communication of knowledge, and trust cannot be built on anything but honesty and openness.
Actually helping wildlife and domestic pets alike requires engaging with all stakeholders. Especially the ones that oppose your stance. As much as we may want to rant and kick and scream at the people who disagree with us, it’s pointless. Not only that, it’s actively detrimental to their understanding and your ability to communicate with them. Like with so many things, in science communication, kindness is key.
Evolution is often thought of as a solely long-term process. But the conception that its effects are only seen after millions of years ignores a crucial part of the evolutionary process: adaptation. Because we tend to fixate on the drastic changes caused by evolution over huge timescales, it’s easy to ignore the small variations between generations that add together over time to form the big evolutionary changes we focus on. This unintentional side-lining of small adaptations can blind us to the ways in which humans are directly affecting the evolutionary processes of nature. From tuskless elephants to fish that can’t smell, animals are developing specialized adaptations to allow them to live in ecosystems that have been disrupted and altered by mankind. These adaptations are one step in the evolutionary process that already bears the unmistakable marks of humanity’s influence.
Just as humans are changing the planet, they’re changing the fauna that inhabit it. Here are some examples of how.
Consider these pros and cons before attaching a bell to your cat’s collar.
Does your cat bring you dead animals? While this common behaviour is kind of yucky, it’s also sort of endearing – your cat is bringing you what she believes to be an excellent gift. But despite their generous intentions, hunting by domestic cats is affecting ecosystems and pushing some species to extinction. So what can you do to keep your cat from catching wildlife? There are two primary solutions to consider: keep her inside, or attach a deterrent (such as a bell) to her collar.
A closer look at the options
Of course, the easiest method of preventing your cat from killing birds and rodents is to keep her inside all the time. In the safety of your home, your feline’s exposure to prey animals will be limited to any mice that happen to get into your house. If you aren’t willing to curb your feline’s wanderlust, a common alternative is to attach a bell to her collar to alert wildlife of her approach. But is this a safe and effective option?
The pros and cons of bells
A number of studies have looked at whether or not bells help prey escape from cats, and the general consensus is yes! Bells on collars seem to reduce the amount of prey caught by about half, which could be enough to no longer pose a threat to ecosystems.
Effectiveness aside, many pet parents worry that a bell will hurt their cat’s ears. According to Veterinary PhD student Rachel Malakani, a collar bell will produce sound at about 50-60 dB, but studies have shown cats to be unaffected by sounds under 80 dB. While some cats with anxiety may not react well to the bell’s sound, it’s likely that the majority of cats simply won’t care.
Some owners worry that as well as alerting prey, a bell would also alert large predators to a cat’s presence. While this is possible, given most predator’s acute hearing, it’s unlikely that the relatively quiet noise of a bell would make the difference between your cat getting detected or not. If you live in an area where your cat is at risk of being attacked by large animals you should probably be keeping your cat indoors anyway, or at least supervise their outdoor activities. You can also invest in a cat enclosure, which will allow your feline to enjoy the fresh air safely!
If you’re unwilling to put a bell on your furry buddy, you do have another option – cat bibs. Sold under names like Birdsbesafe, these devices are brightly colored to alert potential prey to the cat’s presence before they can pounce. While your cat might look a bit silly wearing a rainbow bib, the scientific research on these products shows they reduce predation rates by roughly the same amount as bells. That said, the devices that rely on color to alert potential prey work much better on birds (who have very good color vision) than they do on small mammals (who generally have quite poor vision).
If you’re scared of attaching any collars or collar-mounted devices to your felines – you shouldn’t be. While fears that cats can become strangled or trapped by a collar caught on debris are common, actual adverse effects from collars are rare. One study looked at 107 veterinarian practices and found only one collar-related injury per every 2.3 years, with collar-related deaths being even rarer. You can mitigate your fears further by using a breakaway collar.
If your cat ventures outdoors, especially if you live in an area with endangered species, please do your part to aid conservation efforts by outfitting your kitty with an anti-hunting device.
Hibernation is the sleep-like process that involves a depression of metabolic rate, body temperature and breathing rate that many animals enter during the coldest months. It allows animals to survive only on their energy stores (fat and muscle) until the hunting and foraging get good again in the spring. But the list of true or deep hibernators does not include bears, though it does include ground squirrels, hedgehogs, and some butterflies, simply because bears don’t depress their biologic processes enough. Ground squirrels lower their metabolic rates by about 90%, and bears just don’t do that. Who knew there were levels of hibernation?