Category Archives: The Forefront

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.

The Changing Face of Ecology: Part Six

Image Credit: Lahiru Prabudda Fernando, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped

In a year like 2020, when everything short-term seems disastrous, it’s hard to focus on long-term change. How everything from ecology’s relationship with the public, to the health of freshwater ecosystems, to just our general sanity seems to be in flux at the moment.

But we’ve been reading about that ad nauseam recently, and I’m sure there will be plenty more to come. So instead, let’s return to an ongoing segment, and have a look at some of the ways that ecology has changed over the last few decades, according to some of the intriguing and prominent researchers we’ve had the chance to speak to over the last few months.

As usual, full interviews with each ecologist can be found by clicking on their names.

Dan Baldassarre, Associate Professsor at the State University of New York, Oswego

Behavioural Ecology

I think for me probably the biggest thing has been the “-omics” explosion. Genomics, transcriptomics, microbiomics, the incorporation of genetic data into anything that anybody does. It has gotten cheaper and the software has gotten better, so it has just sort of exploded. When I started my dissertation I was really a behavioural ecologist, I didn’t know anything about genetics or wetlab work at all. I started dabbling a little bit with genetic techniques that when I started were pretty rudimentary compared to what people do now. What we can do now was completely unheard of back then. So I would say those types of technologies, and the expectations to have those types of data in a lot of ecology projects, that’s the biggest change for me.

Vigdis Vandvik, Centre Director for bioCEED, University of Bergen

Community & Global Change Ecology

The availability of big data, which has made global biogeography scale down and local experiments scale up. It’s meant that these two aspects of ecology on very different scales have started to meet.

But also, especially in the last few years, a big change has been the talk of ecology and sustainability as a global threat to the world economy in reports by organisations like IPBES and the World Economic Forum. In 2011 when climate change appeared on the WEF’s list of global economic threats I remember I felt the hairs rise on my neck. And even then, if someone had told me then that in 2020 almost all of the top ten threats to the world economy would just be biology-related, I would have bet half my house against that. If organisations like the WEF are recognising the severity of the climate crisis, it gives me hope.

David Lusseau, Professor at the Technical University of Denmark

Marine Sustainability

I think the biggest change has been that we now take the human element in ecology more seriously. Simply because it’s a more pressing need. During my undergraduate as an ecologist, I was working in population ecology, we were concerned about population growth rates, understanding the role of vital rates in population ecology. And we would process the data, create some models, and as far as conservation went, we would give the results to the managers and let them deal with it. And now we’re realising how important it is for ecologists to understand the human element in ecology. And not just from a conservation perspective, but as an interesting ecological topic in its own right. From the natural research perspective it’s an interesting subject to ask questions about. So I think that’s been the biggest change.

Screenshot from 2020-08-10 17-13-20

Pictured from left: Cecilia Medupin, Dan Baldassarre & Vigdis Vandvik (All images licenced to relevant ecologists, CC BY 2.0)

Cecilia Medupin, University of Manchester

Freshwater Ecology

Although my academic and work experience has been in industry, environmental regulation and academia, I have an overview of the social, technological, core biological and regulatory application of environmental management including river monitoring and assessment. In order to have a holistic understanding of environmental challenges, it is important to have a broader mind-set to informing solutions/decisions. For example, when I started my PhD, I wanted to understand the cause of pollution on an urban river. To do this effectively, I needed to relate with the regulators to acquire long term data for that location, connect with the water companies who manage the water infrastructure for that location, relate with members of the public and then relate with the researchers who were my supervisors. Ecology provides you with that type of opportunity. I have seen an increase in awareness of the need for this sort of integration, and funders are keen. We’re heading towards a future where environmental challenges to our rivers, our lakes can only be resolved through broader and effective interactions of disciplines and people. This way, we would make informed decisions and provide solutions that are stronger and more sustainable for all.

Jane Reid, International Chair Professor, Norwegian university of Science and Technology

Evolutionary Ecology

The increase in quantitative skills has been enormous because. When I did my PhD, I hadn’t really gotten any training in statistics, and certainly not in any form of statistical programming. An equivalent to R did not even exist yet. The level of my experience with statistical analysis coming out of my undergraduate were along the lines of doing a t-test or possibly a linear regression. That was all we had. And then even during my PhD, people were trying to run a mixed model, like a really simple Gaussian mixed model, and there was one person in the department that had some kind of software package that could just about do it, but only he knew how to do it. So anyone who wanted to use that approach had to talk to him and he had to battle with a programming language that could barely be said to have a user interface. So just the transformation in how we can now all implement really complicated statistical analyses has revolutionized things I think.

Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who is just hoping that ecology doesn’t change too much more before he finishes his PhD. 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.

The Changing Face of Ecology – Part One

The Changing Face of Ecology – Part Two

The Changing Face of Ecology – Part Three

The Changing Face of Ecology – Part Four

The Changing Face of Ecology – Part Five

Rebuilding Our Relationship With Urban Rivers With Dr. Cecilia Medupin

Rivers have played a monumental role in determining where people live. Their importance in providing water, transportation and a raft of other ecosystem services has meant that even today most of the world’s largest cities are situated close to a major source of freshwater, from Sydney to Delhi, Quebec to Karachi.

Yet despite their role in our history, urban rivers today are often facing increasing levels of pollution as a result of human activity. As well as often being a huge tourist drawcard, and an ongoing resource for fishers, joggers and portable BBQ toters, freshwater ecosystems carry a disproportionate number of aquatic species, which makes this trend increasingly worrying.

After meeting at last year’s British Ecological Society Annual Meeting, I got in touch with Dr. Cecilia Medupin, a freshwater ecologist at the University of Manchester. Cecilia works to increase peoples understanding of rivers, including the project Our Rivers, Our City. I asked Cecilia abut our connection with rivers, the challenges they face, and how to inspire research and change in urban rivers.

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The Public and Private Faces of Birds with Professor Dan Baldassarre

More than perhaps any other taxa, birds have managed to associate themselves with the beauty of nature. An ecosystem devoid of bird calls just feels like it’s missing something, and whilst tigers, koalas and elephants might be the face of many a conservation movement, you can’t lure them to your backyard or local park with a simple feeder (at least I hope not). The bird-watching community worldwide is massive, and ranges from casual backyard birders to those who are willing to travel far and wide to see a new species.

For bird scientists, there are pros and cons to the public’s love affairs with birds. The bird community is a huge source of information and a great place to raise awareness of conservation issue. Yet at the same time, our idealisation of birds has led to a lot of misconceptions, both about their population health and their private lives.

Professor Dan Baldassare came into bird ecology through a fascination with animal behaviour. The author of the fantastic paper “The Deal With Birds” (which we’ll get into in a subsequent article, Dan has spent his academic career studying the lives of a range of birds, from the striking Northern Cardinal to the incredible vampire ground finch.

I spoke to Dan recently about our relationships with birds, some of the positives that have come from it, and how our perception of them may have blinded us to some of the realities of their lives.

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Esther Ngumbi: Food Security in the Face of Climate Change

One of the few positives to come out of a recent spate of catastrophic weather events has been the fact that climate change is now nigh on undeniable, and more people than ever are working to prevent its future effects. Yet there are parts of the world in which climate change is more than the progenitor of random disasters, where it has become an everyday reality.

One such area is sub-Saharan Africa. Despite being one of the poorest regions of the world, it’s also a region that has enormous potential for agricultural transformation, helping to solve not only local food crises, but global ones as well. A prominent example is Kenya, where the agricultural sector contributes to over half of the Gross Domestic Product, and provides food and employment for more than 80% of the population. Working for Kenya and other countries in the region is the chance to avoid mistakes made by other regions in the past, as they benefit both from hindsight and improved technology. Yet working against them is that encroaching threat of climate change.

It’s a topic that Assistant Professor Esther Ngumbi, of the University of Illinois has been vocal about. Esther grew up on a farm in rural Kenya, and has witnessed the effects of increased drought and weather variability over the last decade. Esther’s work on food security in Africa has seen her work published in everything from the Journal of Chemical Ecology to Times Magazine.

At 2019’s BES Annual meeting, I got the chance to speak to Esther about everything from African governments to the shifting of climate baselines.

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Appreciating the Nature On Our Doorstep With Kelly Brenner

Image Credit: Kelly Brenner, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

Over the last few months, extenuating circumstances have confined us to our homes, and the areas immediately surrounding them. For those who love nature, being trapped in the city or suburbs might seem like we’ve lost our daily opportunity to explore the ecosystems around us. Yet over recent years, the push to appreciate urban ecosystems and the species that flourish in them has grown. The exploration of urban ecosystems makes up the lion’s share of my PhD. With the increasing urbanisation seen worldwide, we are at risk of getting alienated from nature, unless we actively make an effort to stay in touch – the phrase: “You can’t save what you don’t love, and you can’t love what you don’t know” comes to mind. Urban ecosystems can offer the opportunity to reconnect with nature without having to travel far and wide to find a patch of green.

With this in mind, Sam and I recently had the chance to sit down and talk to author Kelly Brenner. Kelly, whose book Nature Obscura chronicles the many fascinating lives of urban species, has been leading the charge for renewed appreciation of the nature that is available right outside our doorstep, or in the backyards of those fortunate enough to have them. We spoke with Kelly about her new book, our attitudes toward urban nature, and even how useful Pokemon Go is in an urban nature context.

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Environmental Responsibility in the Tourism Industry With Professor David Lusseau

Image Credit: Pentapfel, Pixabay licence, Image Cropped

Fascination with nature drives a huge chunk of tourism worldwide. The plains of Africa, the Amazon Rainforest, the Swiss Alps and their associated species are huge economic drivers for their respective countries, and they (ideally) increase people’s appreciation of nature. There are plenty of great examples of ecotourism as a pathway for both education and conservation.

Yet when an industry is driven by money first, nature second, of course there are going to be manifold examples of businesses deprioritising the natural phenomena they are associated with, often to the direct detriment of that phenomena. Think the masses of pollution now found around Mt Everest, or the damage caused by avid snorkellers on the Great Barrier Reef. I’ve had my own experience with tourist companies deliberately spreading misinformation about the reef – more on that at this link.

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Turning Students Into Scientists with Professor Vigdis Vandvik

Ask any two researchers what separates a student from a scientist and you’ll likely get two completely different answers. Often I hear people writing their PhD thesis being referred to (and even referring to themselves) as scientists-to-be, which is surely ridiculous, considering the amount of time they spend creating data and publishing research (NO I’M NOT BITTER). But even below that level, I know plenty of Master’s students who have put together singularly impressive datasets or papers that must qualify them for the seemingly subjective title of scientist.

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Towards Equality in Ecology: BES Edition

Every year, ecological organisations like the British Ecological Society and the Ecological Society of Australia make efforts to create a more inclusive society. Over the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to attend several annual meetings run by such organisations, and even in such a short space of time, the differences are marked. Name-tags with gender pronouns are starting to become the norm at large ecology conferences, the audience seems to represent a much more diverse community, and conversations and workshops around promoting inclusivity are now commonplace.

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The Changing Face of Ecology: Part Five

Image Credit: rumpleteaser, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

2019 was a year in which many changes that our planet is experiencing came to the fore, capped off in December by the Australian bushfires, a phenomenon that scientists predicted would start to occur with increasing intensity at the beginning of last decade. With all the change that our planet is currently undergoing, it’s always worth noting that the discipline of ecology itself has changed as well.

Over 2019 we got to sit down and talk to some pretty exciting people. And whether they were at the forefront of genomics, the science-policy interface, or the wave of inclusivity currently sweeping ecology, they all had some great comments on how ecology has changed over the last few decades.

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