Animals & the Environment: The World’s Cutest Conservation Crisis

by Savannah Troy

We are living through a unique point in Earth's history: the sixth mass extinction. It is projected that by the year 2050, up to 35% of the world’s species may go extinct. The catastrophic loss of life that is happening all around us is largely due to the effects of global climate change. Ecosystem structure is profoundly impacted by climate change, and not every species is mobile enough to migrate to an area that suits their weather needs (like a tree, for instance). Another way in which ecosystem structure has been altered in recent years, however, is when human dispersal and exploration results in the introduction of nonnative, invasive species to previously undisturbed environments.

Invasive species are scourges, able to out-compete the native residents of an area and quickly drive many species extinct. An infamous example is the brown tree snake that, when it hitched a plane ride to Guam, caused the extinction of 10 out of 12 of the island’s native bird species and the severe endangerment of the surviving two. There is one invasive species, however, that is pervasive on nearly every continent, but rarely viewed as a threat. The domestic cat, though a classic pet throughout human history, is also a fiercely problematic invasive.

Specifically, the problem is when cats are allowed to roam outdoors either full time or part time but are still fed by humans. Cats are predators, and their instinct drives them to hunt. However, because loving owners feed the felines, they are unaffected by the population dynamics of their prey. Thus, they are free to over-hunt prey species without feeling the negative consequences that would normally govern a healthy predator/prey relationship. As a result, cats have been responsible for eliminating 33 species worldwide. The victims are billions of birds and small mammals each year. Of course, this presents a unique challenge: people are emotionally invested in their cats. You cannot manage them as you would another invasive species without sparking serious outrage.

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Original Illustration by Savannah Troy

So what is to be done to protect the prey species? New Zealand very nearly banned pet cats to protect its unique and sensitive wildlife. This proposal didn’t involve cat murder, just the spaying and neutering of existing cats and a call for all future cat trade to cease immediately. While a ban like this might be hard to legislate, there are ways that cat owners can be responsible and care for both their pet and the local wildlife. If you own a cat, spaying/neutering is a top priority. The other key step is to keep your pet indoors, not allowing it the freedom to hunt for sport. This is especially important if you also own bird feeders. Finally, adoption is always a good bet when looking for a new, furry addition to the family. It is especially helpful in this context because it promotes cat population management.

Cats are not to blame- it is humans, after all, that introduced them in nonnative environments and helped to remove them from the food chain. And cats can sustainably continue to be beloved pets so long as humans take the necessary steps to be responsible, environmentally conscious pet owners. As lovable and cute as they are (and as fundamentally important cat videos are to our culture), we must not let our love for cats blind us to the appropriate management of a species.