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Cats in Garden Ecology

A Spirited Defense of Cats as printed in the letter column of the Mediterranean Garden Journal:

A reader quotes the Los Angeles Times: “Cats are not a natural part of the ecosystem.” Many people believe this, I know. But everything alive is “a natural part of the ecosystem, including me and the letter writer. Whichever of the current theories of evolution you accept, we are all in this together. The evolutionary role of cats is to live in symbiosis with Homo sapiens . Painstaking human breeding has made cats the hunters that they are today.

At the same time, everything alive is a “native predator and can spread disease”, including me and the letter writer. We are all predators and we are all prey, and we are all “natural”.

Cat.jpg Orichat in a tree

But symbiosis is also part of the process. Humans need cats who have greatly contributed to our survival since the beginnings of agriculture. Anyone living in a farming community knows that farm cats are still encouraged to protect crops (“You owe them room but not board” says one farmer still today). Moreover, during the spread of Bubonic plague in Europe, at a time when cats were widely persecuted, cat-tolerant communities fared much much better than others, since the disease was carried by…rats.

Have we made cats too good at their job? Do they disturb some ideal ecological balance, as much or more than we do ourselves? Let’s look at these statistics. Where do figures like “7.8 million birds in Wisconsin” come from? How could any reliable experimental framework be set up to test something like this? It has been done on a smaller scale—and in Wisconsin! The results are reported in the interesting book Cats and People by Frances and Richard Lockridge. They cite a study in the American Journal of Mammalogy made in Wisconsin in the early nineteen thirties, conducted at the urging of hunters who claimed that cats were wiping out the bobwhite quail in their region. A certain Dr. Gerrington killed fifty cats (“of which seven had been pets”) and examined their stomach contents, where he found various rodents, garbage, grasshoppers, June bugs, a heavy cord, a piece of cloth, three small birds, and not a single quail. A similar study was made in Oklahoma in 1941, also motivated by complaining hunters, again showing mainly rodents, 4% birds, 2% reptiles and 26% human garbage. The Wisconsin researcher found “scant evident of adult strong winter birds suffering cat predation to any extent”. Of course individual cats like individual humans may be exceptions. In these studies, the “natural predator” most threatened by feline competition was, once again, Homo sapiens. There seem to be no more recent studies, only such vastly speculative “statistics” as were quoted. Hopefully, scientists today have fewer opportunities to actually round up cats and kill them, even in the Midwest.

“Cats hunt even if well fed”. So do dogs—including the many who kill cats. So do humans. So do many other mammals and birds and I dare say bacteria. But cats have a special reason for doing so, since their “natural” nitch is to live in symbiosis with a species—us—who so often abandon them.

“Cats play with their prey” –this was not mentioned here I’ll address it as it often comes up. I have no explanation for this, except to say that any cat owner knows that cats play with anything that moves in a jerky manner, including balled up newspaper. It seems other small woodland mammals also play with their prey. And bigger ones? We are told that if attacked by bears or tigers, the best strategy is to play dead. No one has informed the mice. We don’t understand how this works exactly but then, it is only in the last twenty years of human history (with a few exceptions like Montaigne and Darwin) that Homo sapiens has tried to understand animal behaviour from the animals’ point of view. Scientists are now saying that for all higher mammals, play is an important part of their education.

Cats spread disease? So, apparently, do cows and sheep and chickens, and look at the appalling ways Homo sapiens has dealt with that. Cat feces affect sea otters? Why should sea otters deserve more room in “the bigger picture” than cats, who have so often saved our lives and livelihoods? If we could just deal with HUMAN feces, we would demonstrate a real sense of responsibility about “the impact of our decisions on the planet”.

The hatred of cats (remember the letter in these columns about a neighbour who shot cats on sight) is a scapegoat mechanism to cover our own sins. What bothers me most about this letter is an implicit logic of exclusion. “Cats are not part of the natural ecosystem” reminds me of another American writer, Barbara Kingsolver, who claims that “cats are not real animals.” (Are they Martians? Plastic?). This is how it works. A particular group is demoted—it does not belong to the natural ecosystem, “the bigger picture” or in other cases to the human race. Next comes the suggestion that members of this group should be sacrificed for the general good. Does this remind you of anything? I find these implications truly disturbing. If any species should be done away with for the general good, it is Homo sapiens. But I don’t believe that. I only believe we should finally acknowledge that we, too, are part “a natural part of the ecosystem”, predators and prey, both carriers and victims of disease.

Let me end on a more positive note. As a long term country cat owner whose cats love to present me with gifts, I can offer a way of for saving cat prey (in our case, mainly big lizards as yet unharmed). I have a small fretwork woollen shawl I put on my knees when working. It takes just seconds to throw this over the head of the cat with a lizard in its mouth. The cat drops its prey and backs up to disentangle itself. The lizard freezes and I can easily pick it up in the shawl and put it outdoors again without getting bitten myself. We live with three cats and our hillside, over thirty years, has increased immeasurably in species of both plants and animals because we don’t use pesticides. In winter, birds feed regularly on my windowsill, about three meters from where I am working. Often a cat will sit on my desk and watch them, fascinated. I consider this a kind of television for my cats. The birds know perfectly well there is a pane of glass protecting them, and the cat never attempts an attack. I will perhaps write another time about the joys of working outdoors with cats, about their exploration of space (prudently avoiding ambush) their sensuousness, their role as moving sculpture… and the companionship. Symbiosis is one of evolution’s best sides, no?


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