Here Kitty: Our Love-Hate Relationship With Feral Cats

Image Credit: Alexey Komarov, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped

While outdoor and feral cats are pretty universally accepted by scientists these days to be environmental hazards of the most destructive kind, the fact remains that they’re… well, cats. They’ve been companion animals for millenia, and often the general public react strongly against proposed measures for feral cats (or even to being told to keep their own cats indoors).

So why is it that despite a wealth of science making the case for feral cat management, many people simply can’t get on board with keeping them in check? And why do ecologists even need the public onside in the first place?

To dig a bit deeper, I spoke to Brooke Deak, a socioecologist based at the University of Adelaide. Brooke has spent the last three years studying the feral cat management debate, trying to better understand the relationship between feral cats and the general public.

Sam Perrin (SP): I guess before we start talking about feral cats, we should start talking about what constitutes a feral cat. What makes a cat a feral, a stray, or just an outdoor cat?

Brooke Deak, University of Adelaide (BD): In Australia it’s easier to tell the difference between the categories of cat. Feral cats here have minimal contact with humans, they don’t use human resources or take food from us. They may have been born as domestic cats, but they’ve escaped and their kittens have been born out in the wild. Stray cats in Australia are semi-domestic cats. They may wander around, but they’re reliant on humans to some degree. And then you have the domestic indoor cats. 

But in the US, Europe and Canada, it’s very tricky to define them. Especially in the US, where every single county and state you go into has a different definition of what a feral cat is. It makes it hard for management purposes to get in there and to know what to do with them. Are they people’s pets if they spend some time in feral cat colonies? Do you Trap-Neuter-Release, or do you kill them, if there’s a chance a human somewhere feeds it sometimes?

SP: Your research focuses on public perception of feral cat management. Why is it so important to get the public onside when it comes to managing invasive species like cats?

Without public support, invasive species management programs often fail. Social license from the community is important to gain in order to use almost any management methods within a locality. Without this, management campaigns can become delayed for years or sometimes indefinitely.

That’s why we need public support, and why it’s important to engage with the community. We need to understand their ideas the public and their attitudes towards invasive species and the effects of those species. It is also important just to bring awareness to the community as to what’s going on, and to bridge the gap between the government and the public as well in terms of building trust. There’s a lot of dimensions to public support for invasive species.

Brooke, seen here with a farmer (left), has spent the last three years getting to grips with the complexities of our attitudes to feral cats. Farmers are often more familiar with the problems they bring, as they are impacted more directly by the cat populations (Image Credit: Michael Rogers, CC BY 2.0)

SP: The anti-science brigade are fairly vocal these days, often with regards to the climate change debate. Yet even people who are all about listening to science in the climate debate will ignore the overwhelming evidence that feral cats – and really all outdoor cats – are bad for the environment. Why is there that rejection of the science in this case?

I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there. There are so many people who get information from places that aren’t completely scientific or don’t have all of the facts. In my experience in the US, there are a lot of people who really advocate for outdoor and feral cats, and a lot of the misinformation about these cats comes from them, saying that we need to save these animals. It gives people the impression that feral cats aren’t that bad, when in fact there are so many negative impacts that they have, such as on humans, on other species of cat, on native felids, and what they can do to pet cats themselves.

Related: Outdoor Cats are a Problem

Then of course there are the people who might accept that outdoor and feral cats do have a negative impact but refuse to believe that their own cat is part of that problem, despite all the scientific evidence that says that it IS a problem, and perhaps there’s an emotional aspect to that too.

SP: The main thing we associate with outdoor and feral cats is their killing of wildlife, but of course there are a lot of other dangers they pose too.

So there’s not much hybridisation here in Australia, but in Europe they have the Scottish wildcat for one, who are already threatened. And there’s definitely a danger to that population due to them hybridising with feral cats. Then further south in Europe you have the Iberian lynx. Feral cats can spread feline leukaemia to the lynx, which hurts those populations even further. 

I don’t think enough people know about that, it’s definitely a big problem wherever there are native felids. Populations are going downhill because of this domestic cat species. They’ll be in danger of extinction if we don’t do something about the feral cats.

Whilst the Iberian lynx is not the same species as the domestic cat (it's not even the same genus), they are still threatened by hybridisation and disease transmission through feral cats (Image Credit: Ex-situ Conservation, CC BY 3.0 ES)
Whilst the Iberian lynx is not the same species as the domestic cat (it’s not even the same genus), they are still threatened by hybridisation and disease transmission through feral cats (Image Credit: Ex-situ Conservation, CC BY 3.0 ES)

SP: As opposed to killing feral cats, many organisations and researchers have proposed the Trap-Neuter-Release approach, whereby a feral cat is caught, desexed, and returned to the wild. The theory is that it prevents the cats from reproducing, keeping down the population long term. How effective is TNR?

Actually I don’t think it’s effective anywhere to be honest, especially not in Australia. Even if you neuter them so they can’t birth more kittens, they’re still going to be out there killing, and it only takes one cat to decimate an entire population of a small mammal or bird species. It might be effective in terms of getting rid of the cat’s reproductive abilities, but not in terms of their impact. After being neutered, they’re still out there killing and spreading disease. 

It might work in the long, long term to manage the populations, but it’s not very realistic. I don’t think there are the resources or funding to make it work effectively, in the US or Australia. It’s definitely not an option for Australia, because we have so many endangered species that are really under immediate threat from cats.

SP: There are a lot of different techniques for dealing with feral cats. You were able to fill out an entire seven minute video explaining them all (linked below). How good is public knowledge of these different techniques?

Not very. It depends on familiarity with the methods and the feral cats debate in the first place. You have farmers who are much more familiar with control techniques. Certainly sheep farmers and people with livestock, because they’re directly affected by the feral cat presence.

People in residential areas aren’t as familiar. That’s understandable, most of the time it doesn’t impact them. But for some management plans, we’ve had issues using poisons or traps designed for cats. Because people aren’t familiar with the science behind the methods, they hear the word ‘poison’ and think “oh you can’t have that around kids and pets and other wildlife”.

SP: Invasive species are the second biggest threat to biodiversity worldwide, and Australia has had a plethora of bad experiences on that front. Yet cats have often somehow managed to frame themselves as outside of the invasive species debate. Why is that??

I think just because we think of them as companion animals. People have cats which creates more of an emotional bond. They see a feral cat and think it’s just like their house cat. They don’t really realise what they’d get themselves into if they went to pet it. 

Also, feral cats in Australia are out in the bushland mostly. You do get some in cities, but not many. It means the nature of feral cats is just not something that they’re very familiar with. The only association they have with cats are cute domestic ones. You wouldn’t own a fox. You could try, but it’s not a great idea.

SP: During the bushfires earlier this year we heard a lot about the plight of the koala. But of course there were a lot of smaller mammals and birds that really suffered as well, and many of those effects were exacerbated by the cats picking off whatever escaped the fires. Are there any species we should be especially concerned about, with bushfire seasons around the counter in Australia?

One in particular is the kangaroo island dunnart. It was in peril before the bushfires and now it’s even worse because the feral cats have been on the edge of the fire line on the island. They’ve been hunting everything and the poor little dunnarts, they don’t really have anywhere to go. I think they’re recovering now slowly, very slowly.

That was the case with a lot of species when the bushfires tore through Australia. The cats had a smorgasbord, and just sat on the edge of the fireline and killed everything that came by. It was awful.

To find out more about Brooke’s work, follow her on Twitter @Deakology.

Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who is really sick of explaining to his friends back home that Mittens is still a murder machine even though he’s got a bell on his collar. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.

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