That post about stray cat management sure set off a firestorm, both here and at Salon, where it was syndicated. It ended up being a story people either loved or hated, which didn't entirely surprise me. As I said in the post, "The people in favor of euthanizing cats think that ecosystem health is more important than any one animal, while cat advocates care about individual welfare." If people are coming from different ethical standpoints, reconciliation is difficult.
Nonetheless, I wanted to provide some more resources and reading about managing cats and wildlife management ethics more broadly. I'll surely dig in even deeper in the coming months but, for those of you chomping at the bit, here's some additional reading.
Nature Education has a great overview of the ethics of wildlife management and conservation, addressing many of the questions at the root of this debate. What responsibility to we have towards wild animals? How do you balance the welfare of individual animals while managing ecosystems? These are going to become increasingly important questions in the coming years, and society is going to have to make some hard choices about how far we will go to keep ecosystems in balance, for the sakes of people and wild animals. Just passively browsing today I found two articles about this--one about choosing between owl species in Slate, and the other about animal management (including cats) in the Florida Keys.
For more on the social roots of cat management conflict, here's a paper published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE which tries to make sense of the two polarized sides--the cat people versus the bird people. They found that many of the "cat people" were also bird people and vice versa but, nonetheless, the polarized views persisted. The authors' present a few reasons for this: misinformation, lack of information, different interpretations of data and, overall, identity politics.
Why are people so obsessed with cats? Tom Chatfield took a stab at the question in this 2011 Prospect article, "The Cult of Cats:"
Vermin-catching skills aside, cats are not useful to humans in any instrumental sense, nor much inclined to put themselves at our service. In contrast to the empathetic, emphatically useful dog, a cat’s mind is an alien and often unsympathetic mix of impulses. And it’s perhaps this combination of indifference and intimacy that has made it a beast of such ambivalent fascination throughout our history. Felines have been gods, demons, spirits and poppets to humankind over the centuries—and that’s before you reach the maelstrom of the internet and its obsessions. They are, in effect, a blank page onto which we doodle our dreams, fears and obsessions.
Another article, published in Scientific American, takes a stab at the same question. (Paywalled)
Looking beyond cats -- is the ownership of any pet sustainable? Andrew Thaler tackles the question at Southern Fried Science.
Beneath their cute, fluffy fur, pets in the developed world hide some very problematic truths about sustainability and economic growth. There are more than 76 million pet cats in the United States, and an estimated 47 million in Europe. This may not seem like much, but consider this: in a recent talk at the Ecological Society of America, Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund estimated that the average European house cat consumes 16 times more resources – food, water, energy – than the average human being living in poverty in Africa. Estimates like this should be taken with a grain of salt, but if we assume for a moment that they are generally close, then we’re talking about an additional 1.97 billion people. That means if you lose the cats, you could double the amount of resources available to the 2 billion people living on less than $2 a day.
On the animal welfare side, in October the podcast Philosophy Bites interviewed Rutgers University law and philosophy professor Gary Francione about whether any use of non-human animals is ethical. (The discussion turns to pets ~11 minutes in.)
And for the record, in no way would I ever suggest that citizens should go out killing cats. I'm talking about wildlife management programs run by professionals.