Cat Wars: Book review

Earlier this year I wrote an article on Gardening with Cats. There I discussed options for those individuals who enjoy gardening with cats outdoors, those who bring in plants that are desirable for their house felines and options for those who want to deter cats from their garden beds.

This month Princeton University Press published the 216 page Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer by Peter P. Marra and Chris Santella. Where the authors most likely would have preferred me to only include the last two options of the article. The authors tell the story of the threats free-ranging cats pose to biodiversity and public health throughout the world, and shed new light on the controversies surrounding the management of the explosion of these cat populations.

I love cats and I love birds. I understand, however, that cats are not from North America or many other regions of the world, and are causing many problems often associated with invasive species, such as decreasing biodiversity, spreading diseases and causing extinctions. Yet, many cat enthusistats do not believe these problems are caused by cats. For whatever reason, it is more believable that other invasive species are worse, like those menacing Burmese pythons, Asian carp, cane toads, zebra mussels and northern snakeheads.

The authors, appropriately, start off the book with the obituary of Stephens Island wren.

In 1894, a lighthouse keeper named David Lyall arrived on Stephens Island off New Zealand with a cat named Tibbles. In just over a year, the Stephens Island Wren, a rare bird endemic to the island, was rendered extinct. One cat with a cute name was responsible for the destruction of entire bird species.

Mounting scientific evidence confirms what many conservationists have suspected for some time—that in the United States alone, free-ranging cats are killing birds and other animals by the billions. Equally alarming are the little-known but potentially devastating public health consequences of rabies and parasitic Toxoplasma passing from cats to humans at rising rates. Cat Wars tells the story of the threats free-ranging cats pose to biodiversity and public health throughout the world, and sheds new light on the controversies surrounding the management of the explosion of these cat populations.

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Like, I mentioned earlier in this post I love cats, especially my Princeton and Julian. And I love birds. The authors in Chapter 3 acknowledge that there are people who love both and their passions run deep. Chapter 3, titled The Rise of Bird Lovers and Cat Lovers: The Perfect Storm, states that people who care for free-ranging cats are well intentioned. These individuals and the organizations that support them, might even enjoy bird watching. However, the authors say, “the fatalities add up to literally billions of amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals a year, which is enough to impact the well-being of whole species.

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My cats Princeton and Julian enjoying cat grass from the garden, indoors.

Chapter 4 titled, The Science of Decline starts off with this pertinent quote:

“Few problems are less recognized, but more important than, the accelerating disappearance of earth’s biological resources. In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it is perched.” – Paul R. Ehrlich

The story of Roosevelt’s passion of conservation and land preservation (through his “bully pulpit”) was very interesting.  It also speaks to Chapter 4’s title, when we consider that humans have been causing mass extinctions for centuries. After all it was humans who transported cats globally.  It is nice to think of a president who had not only knowledge of extinction, but solutions to help those endemic organisms.

“The Roosevelt presidency put wildlife conservation on the map in the United States at a make-or-break moment in our conservation history,” the authors write.

This compelling book traces the historical and cultural ties between humans and cats from early domestication to the current boom in pet ownership, along the way accessibly explaining the science of extinction, population modeling, and feline diseases. It charts the developments that have led to our present impasse—from Stan Temple’s breakthrough studies on cat predation in Wisconsin to cat-eradication programs underway in Australia today. It describes how a small but vocal minority of cat advocates has campaigned successfully for no action in much the same way that special interest groups have stymied attempts to curtail smoking and climate change.

Cat Wars paints a revealing picture of a complex global problem—and proposes solutions that foresee a time when wildlife and humans are no longer vulnerable to the impacts of free-ranging cats.

Birds, in this book, to me represent a larger ecosystem. How are we working to save the indigenous wildlife? Why is it easy to ban the sale of Burmese pythons in Florida and not cats?

Is this book, just a confirmation bias phenomenon? I already believed that cats are causing havoc on wildlife, and this book confirms my preconceived thoughts. Do those individuals, who care for cats outdoors also suffer from confirmation bias? Do they historically believe cats could not be capable of destroying native populations and thus no research can change their minds?

Do you have cats that roam outdoors? If they kill only a handful of birds or native mice a year is it detrimental to the ecosystem?

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