I first had the evils of adorable kittens pointed out to me by the superstar novelist Jonathan Franzen. Or, to be more accurate: by Walter Berglund, a character in Franzen’s spectacular novel, Freedom. Now, this Walter chap is a man whose views I can identify with–concerned (read: terrified) by the dangers of population growth and climate change, in love with the natural world… He’s also a man possessed with a consuming hatred of domestic cats. That last one was new to me.
Walter isn’t just crazy: he hates cats because he knows they are killers. Wild birds throughout his native Midwestern USA and across the world meet their fates in the paws and claws and teeth and jaws of innocent families’ beloved cats. (He’s also maybe a little crazy.)
New research published in Science yesterday indicates that the problem is even bigger than anyone previously knew. According to the authors, domestic cats kill between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds every year, with native species making up the majority. BILLION! The authors, who are from the Migratory Bird Centre at the Washington National Zoo and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, also found that somewhere between 6.9 billion and a whopping 20.7 billion mammals are killed by cats annually.
These numbers, which the authors came up with by doing a lot of complicated statistics with previous studies, far exceed any previous estimates. I can only imagine how furious Walter would be now if he didn’t have the good fortune of being fictional.
My girlfriend adores cats, and I’m certainly not immune to their charms, so I imagine one day I might end up owning one. Will this make me a terrible person? There is some comfort in the not-too-suprising fact that most of the damage is done by unowned cats. But the study authors do report that a substantial portion of the deaths are in fact due to those luckier cats happily padding out of their warm houses for a day’s hunting. They recommend limiting your cat’s access to the outdoors, or keeping it inside completely.
For someone who already owns an outside cat though, these new findings might not be good for any more than a brief twinge of guilt. I can imagine shrugging them off myself. How do we respond when scientific findings challenge our lifestyles or our emotional reactions, even in relatively small ways like this? Should we aim to be more rational creatures? Will you drag your cat inside, or invoke Walter’s ire?