I was taken by surprise to see the number (and intensity) of comments on National Geographic's Facebook page and Daily News website after I wrote a story about a new study on the hunting habits of the domestic cat. . . . There were hundreds of comments. One reader is "sick to death of watching my neighbors cats killing migratory songbirds."The Washington Post ran one of their online express your opinion polls on the issue, and when I took it "Cats have no impact on bird populations" was winning, with nearly 60 percent of the vote. I love it that people express these opinions quite in the absence of any real knowledge. It is well established that cats have decimated some bird populations, viz., island-breeding seabirds, and the only reason to deny this is a love of cats that blinds people to what actually happens in the world. One spokesman for the Best Friends Animal Society (that'll tell you how people feel about cats) accused pro-bird people of making money off scapegoating cats, which really puzzled me. How does that scam work?
"I don't think there should be an all encompassing feline genocide," said another, "but I feel something definitely needs to be done about feral populations."
Others found the study results far from newsworthy: "Yes, all of my cats are killers. That is why I brought them home in the first place" and "I love you National Geographic, but seriously... of course my cat is gonna kill some birds." . . .
Alley Cat Allies and Best Friends Animal Society both questioned the study's estimates and suggested the researchers had ulterior motives. Alley Cat Allies, which calls itself "the only national advocacy organization dedicated to the protection and humane treatment of cats," said the study was a "veiled promotion by bird advocates to ramp up the mass killing of outdoor cats."
But bird lovers are no better. What sort of impact cats have on bird populations in mainland areas, where birds have evolved to deal with mammalian predators, is an open question, especially in the urban and suburban areas where most feral cats live. As I said, there is certainly no shortage of songbirds in my cat-infested neighborhood, and I am not familiar with any real studies on the question. Just throwing out big numbers about how many birds are killed is about as meaningful as wringing our hands over how many trillion krill are eaten by whales. Birds breed fast. But that hasn't stopped, for example, the American Bird Conservancy from calling this latest study "wake-up call . . . the carnage that outdoor cats inflict is staggering and can no longer be ignored or dismissed."
I suppose there is a real ecological issue buried under here somewhere, but find the human side so fascinating that I have trouble seeing beyond it. When it comes to polarization and heated rhetoric, Republicans and Democrats have nothing on bird people and cat people. The rational part of my minds says that what we need is some good science, but I am not sure who I would trust to do it -- really, most ecologists have a strong bias in favor of wild animals and against pets, except for the ones who love their cats too much -- and even if we had such science I doubt anybody would believe it.