Conservation, Feral Cats, Heros and Conflict

Whoever thought that I would be so conflicted reading a book by Dr. Jane Goodall? Dr. Goodall is one of my heroes, her determination not only to protect the wild places and animals of the world but also just to continue her research in the early days of her career as a scientist. I admire and respect her dedication to all the animals of the world and to spreading the message of conservation to humans throughout the world. And her ability to find hope in the face of so much destruction and the uphill battle for conservation.

I was lucky enough to attend a lecture of Dr. Goodall’s in May of 2010. It was fascinating and inspiring. I bought most of her books and had her then most recent book Hope for Animals and Their World: How Endangered Species Are Being Rescued from the Brink autographed. I even got to take a picture with her! She has done so much for animals the world over, I was thrilled. I am in the process of reading Hope for Animals, and while it is inspirational to see the work of so many dedicated individuals the world over, it has caused some problems for me as well. The main concern is the role of cats as predators in so many of these stories.

Cats, introduced as non-native species to islands including Australia, have been detrimental to species such as the Mala or Rufus-Hare Wallaby in Australia and a number of flightless birds on tropical islands such as the Galapagos. They have proven to be a particular problem with the flightless birds who have never learned the flight-or -fight instinict essential for their survival. Dr. Goodall shares a story of how a cat on Stephen’s Island, New Zealand, “killed all eighteen of the last Stephen’s  Island wrens known to science, and laid them at its owner’s doorstep.”* Reading that I envisioned my two feral girls depositing mice on my deck and even attempting to bring me a baby bird. Unfortunately the cats, mostly feral, of these islands have caused so much trouble that those dedicated to restoring the endangered bird population and securing the habitat for these birds have had to remove the cats, and many other invasive species. In  this case other species includes pigs, goats, and rats. Even more unfortunate is that in these cases “remove” is synonomous with “kill.”

Reading the introduction to the fourth part of Hope for Animals I found myself upset and  torn. Dr. Goodall writes about her mixed feelings at first, how it is unfair that these cats and other innocent animals brought to the island against their will have to be killed for only done what they are programed to do–survive. She writes how she has always advocated for the individual, “but after learning how some of the efforts to save the very last members of an amazing and unique species–such as the kakapo or the Zino’s petrel–almost failed because of cat predation” she had to “rethink my position.”** Dr. Goodall also writes that “sterilization, as sometimes practiced with stray dogs and cats, simply wouldn’t work […]”***

This leaves me heart broken. I have spent so much of my life working to rescue cats, to promote the use of TNR and advocate for the rights of all animals.  How often I have fought the “bird people” who say that feral cats will destroy native bird populations which are not endangered, and here I have a leading conservationist telling me a story of a cat wiping out the last members of a species! I cannot reconcile my believe and support of TNR with my support for keeping endangered species alive.

I know from first hand experience that I can’t save all the animals. In the end this comes down to a humans trying to fix the mess other humans got us into–over population of cats, introduction of invasive species, hunting (by humans and animals) of species till they are endangered, and overall poor management of the planet we live on. But the bleeding heart inside of me can’t help but cry at the thought of all those other innocent animals–cats, pigs, goats etc–being killed. Especially the cats.

This concern brings me, in turn, to the thought of how some people work so hard to bring a population back from extinction, increasing their numbers to a more sustainable number, while others of us work so hard to reduce the number of a population–namely dogs and cats–so that THEIR population is sustainable and thousands need not be killed needlessly each year. What a mess we humans have, in part, created. As I said above it all comes down to humans and our clumsy and often ignorant management of the planet we have. We have destroyed and exploited the natural resources we have been given so that we can survive and expand, something we have done far too well. We have killed thousands of millions of innocents along the way (human and animals), and exploited others to meet our needs better. We have, for the most part, been horrible stewards of the one planet we have been given.

I intend to look into why sterilization of feral cats and dogs on these islands won’t work, I would assume the basic principle of decreasing numbers eventually leading to no more kittens and thus a colony eventually dying out, would hold on a tropical island as well as in the heart of a busy city.  But I will also assume, because I have to for my own sanity, that the experts have tried this and not just ruled it out by default. I also realize that these island situations are different than situations in America and Europe because cats were introduced by humans and the wildlife had not evolved to survive preditation from animals such as cats. Part of me wants to say “Well it’s survival of the fittest. If those birds can’t adapt then they deserve to be wiped out.”  We can’t let that happen though, not when it was humans fault in the first place.

I know I am not going to have a resolution to my internal moral dilemma anytime soon, but I would be fascinated to hear what others have to say. I request only that all comments be respectful.  I am including a link to the website for Alley Cat Allies, the nation’s leading advocate for feral cats. Their site has articles discussion predation by feral cats in America, and their role in the environment. You can visit the website for the book Hope for Animals here.

*pg 225

** pg 225

*** pg 225


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