Cats have been used as scapegoats for centuries. During Medieval times cats were tortured and slaughtered during the terrible witch-hunts. They were initially blamed for bringing the plague to Europe and England. It does seem that much of this latest modern war on cats is once again related to the old “scapegoat” frenzy upon the cat. This time around though, it is often otherwise-intelligent scientists and biologists doing the scapegoating. They call cats “non-native”, “alien”, “exotics” – all translating into “eradicate.” Firstly, cats have lived in the U.S. for 500 years and should no longer be considered non-native; secondly, cats are meso-predators. They have taken over niches left by the slaughter or demise of predators such as the bobcat, wolf and other major carnivores.
The Persecution of Cats
The early Christian church linked cats with so-called pagan religions. As a result, the cat began to fall from favor during the Middle Ages. Western religions started encouraging the cruel torture and burning of cats, condemning them as pagan demons. During the thirteenth century the church blamed witchcraft for the social problems of the time, and cats became a scapegoat – along with witches and nonbelievers. During these medieval times, superstitious beliefs about witchcraft led to the killing of large numbers of cats, which allowed the Bubonic Plague to spread unchecked.The Bubonic Plague, also known as Black Death, killed more than 25 million people throughout Europe between 1347 and 1352, nearly a third of Europe’s total population in just five years.
Many women, who practiced ancient healing crafts using old folk medicines, were accused of being witches. And many women were killed solely because they cared for cats. Cats were accused of being witches’ familiars or even witches in disguise. The Festival of St. John was celebrated annually with the burning alive of cats in the town square. Cat burning was a form of sadistic entertainment in 17th century Paris, France. In this form of entertainment, people would gather dozens of cats in a net and hoist them high into the air from a special bundle onto a bonfire. According to historian Norman Davies, "[T]he spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized." (Pinker, 2007) By the 1400s, the domestic cat had become almost extinct because of rampant persecution.Australian Environmentalist Frankie Seymour says, “by the late Middle Ages, cats in Europe had been hunted, hanged and burned almost to extinction. Then, of course, the Black Death (Bubonic Plague) arrived in Europe and 25 million people…died in five years. (Seymour, 2011) The persecution eventually spread to the New World and in places such as Salem, Massachusetts, more than 150 people were accused of witchcraft. Then, “For the next couple of centuries after ‘the Death’ – centuries which just happened to coincide with the Age of Exploration - cats became popular again. Ships traveling to Asia and Africa were particularly vulnerable to pick up Plague – so cats on ships were considered lucky and necessary.” (Seymour, 2011)
The Mayor of London, along with others, thought that the disease was being spread by dogs and cats and ordered the extermination of all pets. Despite this the plague did not abate but accelerated as the elimination of cats was followed by an explosion of rats. Some people kept their cats in violation of the law and it was found that they did not get the plague. Soon it was realized that rats carried the plague, and that cats would be able to keep populations in check.
In private conversations I have had with some American environmentalists and biologists, including one of the world’s foremost experts on migratory birds, many do acknowledge the bias against cats, but they do not care sufficiently to go against their peers in defense of the cat. A book titled The Domestic Cat: the biology of its behavior resulted from a symposium on cats at the University of Zurich over a decade ago. The scientists at the symposium presented either their own findings or the results of cat predation studies done on 31 islands and on 4 continents. Their conclusion? ”Any bird populations on the continents that could not withstand these levels of predation from cats and other predators would have disappeared long ago.”
The American Bird Conservancy and The Wildlife Society are so predictable. A few of us almost always know what they will come up with next to grab the nation’s attention continuing their 17 year mission to try to have all feral cats killed, and to put an end to all nonlethal, humane care for feral colonies.
So the latest press release from the anti-cat establishment announced that researcher Kerrie Anne Lloyd observed 2,000 hours of video from “kitty cams” and found that 44% of 55 cats “engaged in predatory behavior” defined as stalking, capturing, or killing prey. And 30% were successful. The Athens, Georgia, cats most frequently stalked lizards called Carolina anoles. The cats’ prey did include chipmunks and voles and flying insects and even worms. Just five of the cats’ 39 successful hunts involved birds, Lloyd said.
As long ago as 1993, international Biologist and cat expert, Roger Tabor said: “In biological terms is it insufficient merely to have found that one animal will eat another, that, after all, is what predators do—but is that predation pressure within normal limits?”
Consider what these scientific experts have had to say about cat predation:
Fitzgerald, B. M., and B. J. Karl, 1979: Foods of feral house cats (felis catus L.) in forest of the Orongorongo Valley, Wellington. New Zealand Journal of Zoology 6:107-126
"Cats suppress populations of more dangerous predators such as rats and thus allows denser populations of birds than would exist without them."
Tabor, Roger, 1993: Tabor found that “cats have low success as bird hunters”, and “the bulk of a feral cat’s diet is garbage, plants, insects, and other scavenger material” and therefore cats are “not impacting bird populations on the continents”
Julie Levy, DVM: “Not surprisingly, decades of hand-wringing over this issue have failed to resolve it. Eradication of feral cats has only been accomplished on small uninhabited islands in which a combination of poisoning, shooting, trapping, and deliberate release of infectious diseases was used over several decades at a cost of millions of dollars. These techniques are obviously inappropriate and ineffective on inhabited mainland locations.”
Do we disagree with everything American Bird Conservancy does? No, of course not. We love birds and at Alley Cat Rescue have written about ways to save them. We love other animals, as well as cats.
In fact the only living things I ever deliberately kill are mosquitoes, fleas and flies. I am the crazy person holding up traffic to remove a dead possum, raccoon or skunk from the middle of the road so crows and other birds eating the carcasses don’t get killed by drivers not seeing them, or not caring enough to slow down.
ABC works to reduce birds and window collisions. Estimates of up to 976 million birds per year are killed flying into windows. We support this. They work on reducing the use of pesticides. Millions of birds are killed by ingesting pesticides. One wildlife rehabber that I used to take dying birds to when I worked in a wealthy north D.C. suburb where pristine lawns all looked like the greens on golf courses, told me they were all the victims of pesticide poisoning. I hated walking from my parked car down several blocks to my office in spring, as I used to find so many dead and dying birds. There were no alley cats around these areas. I worked on several colonies in the D C area, and worked at this organization in N.W for 14 years, and there were definitely no feral cats in this neighborhood. The only cats I ever saw were ones staring at me through windows.
ABC promotes shade-grown coffee. ACR promotes shade-grown coffee. They ask people to reduce their carbon footprint. ACR asks people to do the same and to live lightly on the planet.
They promote this through reducing the use of fossil fuels. While we do this as well, I have yet to see them ask people to eat lower on the food-chain. And do they ask people to cut back on fast food? No. Many chains still use cheap hamburger obtained from the rainforests. This is the most important reason for the loss of songbirds. These are important numbers to keep in mind if you want to be a true environmentalist:
- More than one third of the world’s grain harvest is used to feed livestock.
- Some 70 to 80% of grain produced in the United States is fed to livestock
- Half the water consumed in the U.S. is used to grow grain for cattle feed.
- A gallon of gasoline is required to produce a pound of grain-fed beef.
This is where we should be concentrating our energies, if we are really serious about saving the planet and saving birds.
Cattle raising destroys tropical forests. Hundreds of thousands of acres of tropical forests in Brazil, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Honduras have been leveled to create pasture for cattle. This is the REAL cause of the loss of songbirds.
Urban Birds: Many species of native birds inhabit our cities and suburban environments. Most feral cats also live in these same areas. The truth is that bird populations show an increase in their numbers of 20% over the past 40 years. Now, if feral cats are creating the overall decline in bird species, how is it that in the very areas where they thrive, bird populations are also thriving?
The Real Reason American Songbirds are Vanishing
Although songbird populations are declining, other birds such as blackbirds and greenfinches, blue jays and brown-headed cowbirds (both nestling-eating predators) are exploding. As mentioned above, year-round U.S. bird residents are stable or increasing in numbers, indicating the need for serious consideration of reasons why songbirds are in decline. Blaming cats for songbird decline is a facile and simplistic solution to a complex problem.
Professor John Terborgh of Duke University reported in the May 1992 issue of Scientific American that little can be done about restoring songbirds in rural and suburban areas and conservation efforts should be directed towards consolidating and expanding large tracts of forest, such as the Smokies and Adirondacks, to maximize habitat for nesting birds. Terborgh suggests that farmers practice fallowing their fields every two to three years. He is also concerned about the damage done by clear-cutting national forests and overgrazing federal lands.
More than 250 species of songbirds migrate south of U.S. borders. Tropical deforestation is occurring at the rate of 142,000 to 200,000 square kilometers each year, an area roughly the size of Florida. At this rate the world’s remaining tropical forests will be depleted by 2030 and many species of songbirds will disappear along with them.
Dr. Roger Tory Peterson, internationally known ornithologist, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, had this to say about birds and nature: “Most thought-provoking of all is to discover the balance of nature: the balance between a bird and its environment…We learn that each ecosystem has a carrying capacity, and that predation harvests only a surplus that otherwise would be leveled off in some different way: hence, putting up fences and shooting all the hawks and cats will not raise the number of Red-eyed Vireos to any significant degree.”
So let’s cut to the chase: How can we REALLY help birds?
This is an urgent matter, and we are asking you to start taking action today. We cannot waste any more time. And we should NOT have these anti-cat folks always focusing public attention on their small studies showing that cats are predators. Hello, we know this. That is the reason they became domesticated in the first place. They are experts at killing RODENTS, and help cities, towns, farms, counties keep these populations in check. Without cats, According to the Rainforest Action Network, following these simple actions will go a long way to saving the rainforests and therefore the songbirds who make the forests their home.
1) Reduce your paper and wood consumption: Logging companies are cutting down some of the most endangered forests on the planet to make wood and paper products such as office paper, phone books, toilet paper, window trim, lawn furniture, and 2’ x 4's. Over seventy-eight percent of the Earth's original old growth forests have already been logged or degraded. Reduce your own wood and paper use. For example, use both sides of each piece of paper, use your own cloth bags at the grocery store, use cloth napkins and towels, and avoid disposable paper plates and cups.
2) Reduce your oil consumption: You can help alleviate oil's impact on the environment by reducing your own oil and gas consumption. Choose a car that gets good gas mileage and avoid gas guzzling sports utility vehicles. If you drive somewhere regularly, start a carpool. Whenever possible, leave your car at home and walk, ride your bike, or take local mass transportation. Support funding for mass transportation and bike lanes.
3) Reduce your beef consumption: Rainforest beef is typically found in fast food hamburgers or processed beef products. In both 1993 and 1994 the U.S. imported over 200 million pounds of fresh and frozen beef from Central American countries. Two-thirds of these countries' rainforests have been cleared, in part to raise cattle whose meat is exported to profit the U.S. food industry. When beef enters the U.S., it is not labeled with its country of origin, so there is no way to trace it to its source. Reducing your consumption of beef will reduce demand for it and save forests.
ABC has been at this for 17 years---demonizing cats. When will they stop? There are so many serious issues facing the planet right now, and this constant witch-hunt on cats not only consumes their energies, but forces TNR advocates to spend our time and money always defending the cats, and correcting the myths and misinformation.