The human-cat relationship appears to have hit a rough patch.
Recent research estimates that free-ranging cats in the US kill up to 3.7 billion birds and 20.7 billion mammals each year. A quick Google News search of the term ‘killer cats’ brought back thousands of results, with headlines like, “That Cuddly Kitty is Deadlier Than You Think“. I have to admit, my first reaction was surprise. Not, initially, at the numbers of animals killed, but that this is apparently big news. I think my favourite quote (from the same article) is this one:
“For all the adorable images of cats that play the piano, flush the toilet, mew melodiously and find their way back home over hundreds of miles, scientists have identified a shocking new truth: cats are far deadlier than anyone realized.” – Natalie Angier, New York Times
That is the voice of someone who spends a lot of time on the internet and not much time with cats. Personally, I’m fairly convinced that the domestic cat’s spread and success across the modern world is not borne of their musical talents. In fact, I would say that their ability to catch and kill a large amount of small, furry creatures has more than a fair bit to do with it.
Apologies for the flippancy; it does seem that the numbers provided by this study are significant, if rather broad (there is a lot of difference between the quoted ranges of 1.4–3.7 billion birds and 6.9–20.7 billion mammals). What struck me about the situation, though, was the irony in the idea that the very feature of cats that may have accelerated their domestication – and consequently their success – is now (in some circles) a reviled and unwanted characteristic.
So how did we get here? Well, as with dogs, the prevalent theory is that cats were domesticated by assimilation. They are thought to have first began an association with humans in the near east about 8,500 years ago, possibly drawn to human settlements by the resident populations of commensals – rats, mice etc. – therein.
As is well documented, cats enjoyed significant success in ancient Egypt where they had a variety of mostly positive religious associations; as goddesses (the female cats’ obvious promiscuity may have resulted in their being linked with fertility), as incarnations of the sun god Ra (who was believed to do battle on a nightly basis with the serpent of darkness, as cats would have been observed killing snakes) and as unearthly beings in their own right, perhaps due to the fascinating way in which their eyes react to light.
Their elusive and independent qualities, however, have also led cats to be vilified by humans over the course of our unorthodox symbiosis. In Europe between the 12th and 14th centuries, under the scrutiny of Christianity, cats were associated with heretical sects (who were thought to worship the Devil in feline form) and, later, labelled as the demon familiars of witches; their prevalence as a Hallowe’en costume continues to this day. Even in the 19th century cats’ reluctance to submit to human will – unlike dogs – was seen as malicious and they were little trusted, particularly by those men who saw them as in unfavourable cahoots with ‘womankind’. Their reputation for independence, however, also made them popular with the bourgeoisie of 19th century Europe; it is thought this significantly influenced their adoption as house-pets (in contrast to their previous, much wider role as – yep – rodent catchers). These opposing roles – pets versus pest-control – have caused conflict ever since – I vividly recall waking in the middle of the night to the uneasy scenario of listening to my much-loved cat Jimmy chomping on some unfortunate rodent on my bedroom floor.
There remains today conflict of opinion when it comes to cats. They have enormous (and slightly disturbing) popularity as memes and in viral videos, most of which have little correspondence with ‘normal’ cat behaviour (although Maru, admittedly, is hilarious). Yet they are still not generally kept as pets in countries such as South Korea and, even where common, they are notably less popular than dogs – one survey by Stephen Kellert and colleagues found that 17.4% of the sample US population reported disliking cats (as opposed to 2.6% who disliked dogs). Still, too, they engender hatred: there are several ‘I Hate Cats’ blogs and websites, not to mention a number of books such as the extremely popular 101 Uses for a Dead Cat (which is probably mostly tongue-in-cheek, but rather dark nonetheless).
Behaviourally, cats are talented predators and will hunt a wide range of prey, more varied than their (very close) cousins the European wildcats, though they tend to hunt smaller creatures than wildcats, suggesting they are less skillful hunters. In addition, even feral domestic cats tend to live in the vicinity of human settlements and obtain more food from scavenging than do wildcats (though wildcats will also scavenge from humans on occasion). Interestingly, there is continuous debate as to how different three of the small cat ‘species’ actually are, i.e. African and European wildcats and domestic cats. They interbreed without apparent difficulty. Their lack of significant genetic or behavioural distinctions (with the exception of hunting habits and human-association) suggests to some that cats have retained – as seems fitting to their independent nature – some distance from their human symbiotes, weaving in and out of various levels and types of association with humans.
Now we have a dilemma, though. Sometimes, it seems, the last thing a species should do – unless it is human – is be successful. Domestic cats now inflame debate because they do not fit with certain human ideals of morality, or understand the difference between an endangered robin and an ‘verminous’ rat. Of course, it’s apparently not the pets that are to blame so much as the feral members of the domestic population, those who – for whatever reason – live outside of human control.
Cats are cats. They have changed, a bit, as a result of their enduring association with humans, arguably the world’s most destructive species; and they have prospered and found pastures and prey new as a result. I feel, though, that this new judgement of them is a consequence of our changing, of our inconsistencies, of our transformations and conflicts as to what we value, what is natural and what we should control.
I’m not suggesting that nothing should be done; but I would like to believe that we could approach this dilemma, this domestic with one of our oldest domesticates, in a sensible fashion. That means not being horrified or outraged that cats kill birds, and lots of them, but accepting it as the way of things and moving forward towards a solution – or a compromise. It means acknowledging that the biggest threat to endangered species in the States and the rest of the world is still widely understood not to be cats, but (mostly anthropogenic) habitat destruction. Cats go where humans go; as we have seen, even feral cats remain near human settlements. These studies might provide clues as to how we might best tackle this problem – but please let’s do so with clear thinking and humanity, rather than attributing judgement and blame.
Let’s not turn cats back into ‘demons’ because we have changed our mind about what’s important; let us consider them as cats and make sure that, in equal part, we continue to consider ourselves.
My academic training means I can’t help but reference my sources for some of the above information, however loosely! Some are linked above; those that are not are shown below. Academic Sources:
Turner, D. C. & Bateson, P. 2000. The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. / Podberscek, Anthony (2009). Good to pet and eat: the keeping and consuming of dogs and cats in South Korea. Journal of Social Issues 65(3): 615–632 / Zeder, M. A. 2012. Pathways to Domestication. Biodiversity in Agriculture: Domestication, Evolution, and Sustainability. Ed. P. Gepts, T.R. Famula, R.L. Bettinger et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
News Articles (note the emotive titles):
“Killer cats: deadly pets murder nearly 4 billion birds a year” / “Cats are ruthless killers: should they be killed?” / “The Feline Killer that Stalks the Streets” / “Cats Killing Billions of Animals in the US” / “‘Stone-cold serial killers’: Domestic cats slaughter billions upon billions of animals in US every year”