A New Book Called 'Cat Wars' Calls For Killing Free-Ranging Cats

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Cat Wars calls for a massive assault on all free-ranging cats

“From a conservation ecology perspective, the most desirable solution seems clear—remove all free-ranging cats from the landscape by any means necessary.” (Cat Wars, pp. 152-153)

In the process of writing about an on-going war on wolves (please see, for example, “Defenders of Wildlife Supports Killing Wolves: Livestock Win,” “Defenders of Wildlife = Defenders of Livestock? Why Do They Support Killing Wolves in Washington?”, and links therein), I received a new book by bird advocate Dr. Peter Marra, head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, and writer Chris Santella, called Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer. I was very surprised by much of what I read.

Along with numerous other people, I’ve been wondering when killing “in the name of conservation” is going to stop. Some people think it’s simply business as usual, and there aren’t any workable non-lethal humane alternatives. Killing members of one species to save others of their species, or killing individuals of one species to save individuals of another species, is all well and good and that’s the way it is. Some people say they don’t like the killing but don’t do much to stop it. Our human-dominated world presents numerous frustrating and complicated challenges. We’re living in an epoch called the Anthropocene, the “age of humanity.” We’re all over the place ― here, there, and everywhere ― and we’re the cause for the unprecedented loss of other animals, their homes, and destructive climate change. Actually, we’re living in the “rage of inhumanity” because there are far too many of us and we think we’re the only show in town.

The move from wolves to cats was dishearteningly seamless. Simply put, the authors of Cat Wars are confirmed bird advocates and activists and foes of all free-ranging cats. To wit, their book calls for a no holds barred, one-sided war on cats, in which the authors conclude, “From a conservation ecology perspective, the most desirable solution seems clear—remove all free-ranging cats from the landscape by any means necessary.” (pp. 152-153; please click here for information on the phrase “by any means necessary”). The authors use the phrase “free-ranging” to refer to feral, outdoor, and community cats.

Many of the topics they consider need to be discussed under the general umbrella centering on the ethics of pet keeping, a topic considered in detail by Psychology Today writer Dr. Jessica Pierce in her book called Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets (for an interview with Dr. Pierce please see “Are You Ready to Give Another Animal the Best Life Possible?).

Clearly, the authors are not advocating removing free-ranging cats softly, nor are they advocating any form of euthanasia or mercy killing. Rather, they are advocating outright and unregulated removal “by any means necessary.” When I asked some people what this meant to them, answers ranged from trapping, snaring, poisoning, bludgeoning, and shooting. A number of people feared we would see violence “in the name of science.”

Lest anyone say that these are hysterical responses, one only has to read the very words that Marra and Santella wrote. It’s not asking too much from people to write what they mean, and although the authors surely read through their manuscript many times as did reviewers and editors, the phrase “by any means necessary” remains. Cats are vilified and no attention is paid to the emotional lives of these sentient beings.

Even those who endorsed this book can’t agree on what it’s actually all about. The comments on the back cover range all over the place. For example, Jonathan Franzen calls the book a “compassionate handling of a highly fraught issue,” Ted Williams sees it as a “dispassionate examination of America’s free-ranging cat debacle,” whereas Scott Weidensaul claims the authors offer “commonsense solutions to one of the most polarizing issues in avian conservation.” It seems as if they didn’t read the same book. In my opinion, this book is thoroughly dispassionate, and I shudder when I think that the call for an all out war on free-ranging cats “by any means necessary” could refer to anything that could possibly be called “compassionate handling” or “commonsense solutions.”

Collateral damage: In addition, the authors don’t seem to care much about what’s called “collateral damage,” the harming and killing of non-target species. Some of the methods of removing they sanction are incredibly non-selective and it will not only be free-ranging cats who are harmed and killed. I’m sure dogs and as well as other animals, including cats who escape the confines of their home, will be among the slaughtered.

What Cat Wars is all about

The phrase “by any means necessary” is among the most reprehensible statements I’ve ever seen, and of course, in addition to it being morally repugnant, it is not based on science and it won’t work. And, think about the horrific lesson it offers to youngsters. The authors totally ignore the cognitive and emotional lives of cats, and view them as mere disposable objects. I’m glad I’m not their dog, and I’m surely glad I’m not their cat. The suggestion to wage war on free-ranging cats essentially lays out what this sensationalist, fear-mongering, and one-sided book is all about. I suppose one might congratulate the authors for being so transparent about their dismissive attitude.

The description for Cat Wars, published by a prestigious university press, reads:

In 1894, a lighthouse keeper named David Lyall arrived on Stephens Island off New Zealand with a cat named Tibbles. In just over a year, the Stephens Island Wren, a rare bird endemic to the island, was rendered extinct. Mounting scientific evidence confirms what many conservationists have suspected for some time―that in the United States alone, free-ranging cats are killing birds and other animals by the billions. Equally alarming are the little-known but potentially devastating public health consequences of rabies and parasitic Toxoplasma passing from cats to humans at rising rates. Cat Wars tells the story of the threats free-ranging cats pose to biodiversity and public health throughout the world, and sheds new light on the controversies surrounding the management of the explosion of these cat populations.

This compelling book traces the historical and cultural ties between humans and cats from early domestication to the current boom in pet ownership, along the way accessibly explaining the science of extinction, population modeling, and feline diseases. It charts the developments that have led to our present impasse―from Stan Temple’s breakthrough studies on cat predation in Wisconsin to cat-eradication programs underway in Australia today. It describes how a small but vocal minority of cat advocates has campaigned successfully for no action in much the same way that special interest groups have stymied attempts to curtail smoking and climate change.

Cat Wars paints a revealing picture of a complex global problem―and proposes solutions that foresee a time when wildlife and humans are no longer vulnerable to the impacts of free-ranging cats.

It’s difficult for me to figure out why Princeton University Press would publish this book, not because it calls for a repulsive and outright war on cats, but rather because it lacks the scientific rigor that characterizes numerous other books they’ve published.

“Cat people” versus “bird people”: A false dichotomy

Early in Cat Wars there is a rather insidious attack on pro-cat people as not caring about the environment and wildlife, which is most likely completely untrue. On page 28 we read, “More and more people are valuing birds and swelling the ranks of bird-watchers. Likewise, there are more cat owners in America now than at any time in history. But far fewer people, it seems, can summon affection for both cats and wildlife—and empathy for those they perceive to be on the ‘other side.’ As each side has swelled in numbers, the stage has been set for ‘bird people and ‘cat people’ to square off, forgetting, perhaps, that they are all animal lovers in the first place.”

The “I love them but we gotta kill them” attitude baffles me. It’s hard to imagine that people who favor removing free-ranging cats “by any means necessary” truly love them. When I hear this I always say, “I’m glad they don’t love me.” Yet, in another essay, we’re told that Dr. Marra claims to like cats.

Along these lines, the third chapter of Cat Wars is called “The Rise of Bird Lovers and Cat Lovers: The Perfect Storm.” This chapter is the authors’ interpretation (read: “skewed”) of the history of “bird lovers” and “cat lovers.” It concludes by saying that “Many cat advocates will aggressively contest the damage that free-ranging felines inflict upon bird populations. They will likewise deny the diseases that free-ranging cats spread to other mammals and even humans. But their hearsay and denials pale in the light of evidence of cat impacts on islands and the emerging hard science on their impacts on mainlands.” Again, the myth is repeated and developed that cat advocates are misguided, dangerous, and delusional people.

In chapter 4, titled “The Science of Decline,” the authors write, “After forty-five years of bird population decline, it seems obvious that our currently available legal instruments are failing.” (p. 55) It recognizes that human activities are “largely responsible for the declines of bird species” (p. 56) and it is “difficult to identify with any precision the relative impact of a mortality factor, such as the free-ranging cat, to all birds that make these journeys over such large spatial areas and wide expanses of time—and most bird species (>75 percent) in North America migrate!” (my emphasis; p. 57) This comment hardly supports the authors’ thesis that cats are responsible for a significant number of bird deaths.

The authors then go on to write about cats as dangerous vectors for disease (Chapter 5 is called “The Zombie Maker: Cats as Agents of Disease”), and they conclude, “Free-ranging cats clearly pose a significant threat to a number of wild animals … [the] solution is to remove them—once and for all—from the landscape.” (p. 94)

They also completely discount the use of Trap-Neuter Return (TNR) programs in their chapter 6 called “Trap-Neuter-Return: A Palatable Solution That Is No Solution At All.” For more on TNR programs please see “Key Scientific Studies on Trap-Neuter-Return” and “Evaluation of the effect of a long-term trap-neuter-return and adoption program on a free-roaming cat population” in which it is concluded, “A comprehensive long-term program of neutering followed by adoption or return to the resident colony can result in reduction of free-roaming cat populations in urban areas.”

Is the public really “blissfully unaware?”

In chapter 8 titled “A Landscape with Fewer Free-Ranging Cats: Better for Cats, Better for Birds, Better for People” we read, “From a conservation ecology perspective, the most desirable solution seems clear—remove all free-ranging cats from the landscape by any means necessary.” (p. 152-153) Any means possible, of course, opens the door for killing cats using incredibly brutal methods. In addition, the public is blamed for being “blissfully unaware” of the significance of the problems at hand (p. 153).

In this chapter we also read, “Perhaps the greatest obstacle to convincing humans to take greater responsibility for their pets and act more responsibly on behalf of their environment and the health of the greater society is the growing ignorance and indifference about the natural world.” (p. 166) This is a most insulting charge for which these authors offer absolutely no scientific support at all. It’s just more blaming a public that is supposedly “blissfully unaware.”

Here are a few more snippets:

“It is abundantly clear that free-ranging cats are not the primary threat to the future of birds and other wildlife. Habitat destruction, climate change, and pollution all come to bear on the well-being of wildlife populations; if we as a society hope to maintain these species for future generations, we need to act on all fronts to stem the tide. In the same light, we must act on many different fronts to reduce the populations of free-ranging cats and reduce their impact on native animal populations, both as predators and as vectors of disease. No one solution will prove a silver bullet; only a multipronged strategy will begin to reduce the number of free-ranging cats in the wild. A landscape with no (or at least fewer) free-ranging cats is the only hope for mitigating the toll these animals take on native wildlife and diminishing the spread of disease from cats to human populations.” (p. 145-146)

“Perhaps the owners did not view the birds and mammals that fall prey to domestic cats as sentient beings but instead as playthings for their beloved companions.” (p. 149)

“There is little question that free-ranging cats—both the unowned and the owned pets allowed to roam freely outside—pose a pending ecological and public-health disaster.” (p. 170)

Note that the authors recognize the victims of cat attacks as sentient beings, but feel it’s totally fine to kill other sentient beings such as the cats and other nonhumans who will fall prey to efforts to kill all free-ranging cats.

There will be blood: A conservation problem from hell

In a previous essay called “Thousands of Cormorants to be Killed: There Will be Blood” I wrote about an excellent piece by science writer Warren Cornwall called “There Will Be Blood,” and noted it is a must read for anyone interested in keeping up with current discussions and debates about the supposed need to kill animals of one species to save those of another species. At the beginning of his essay Mr. Cornwall writes, “The pressure to reach for a gun to help save one animal from another is stronger than ever. And it has triggered a conservation problem from hell.” He’s right. Mr. Cornwall also notes that the history of conservation is “tinged with blood.” For example, noted conservationists John Audubon and Aldo Leopold were quite comfortable killing members of one species to save members of another species, and so too are many conservationists nowadays.

If some people, even very few, choose to follow Marra and Santella’s advice to wage war on all free-ranging cats, there will indeed be blood, and an incredible amount of pain, suffering, and death.

What should the future of conservation look like? When will the killing stop?

Should we kill for conservation? Open discussions and debates about the vexing and daunting question that centers on asking if we should kill for conservation are much-needed as we head into a future where more and more species will become imperiled and endangered because of what we are doing to them and to their dwindling habitats. We choose to destroy their homes and then we choose to destroy them. There is something very wrong, disheartening, and disingenuous about this course of action and the ways in which we decide who lives and who dies.

We’re going to have to make difficult choices in the future, and choosing not to kill in the name of conservation is a viable option that is now on the table. Do we really want to continue the bloody history of conservation strategies? Time will tell, but times truly are changing. However, you wouldn’t know this from Cat Wars. I suppose teachers could use this book as an example of “conservation gone bad” and how not to solve the problems at hand.

Important lessons from compassionate conservation

The authors briefly dismiss (p. 117) the rapidly growing international field of compassionate conservation that can and is reshaping conservation ethics in the Anthropocene. They misleadingly claim that compassionate conservation “risks ignoring the lives and experiences of wildlife.” This couldn’t be further from the truth, because paying careful attention to “the lives and experiences of wildlife” is precisely what compassionate conservation is all about. They totally ignore its basic tenets, namely, “First do not harm” and the life of every individual animal matters (please also see “Compassionate Conservation Meets Cecil the Slain Lion,” “Compassionate Conservation: More than “Welfarism Gone Wild”,” and “Compassionate Conservation: A Discussion from the Frontlines With Dr. Marc Bekoff”). By paying careful attention to the ways in which other conflicts have been solved without harming and killing the animals, humane and non-lethal solutions will emerge to the satisfaction of all stakeholders. An excellent place to begin to look for such examples is on the homepage for The Centre for Compassionate Conservation.

Harness anger into positive action: The killing of all free-ranging cats truly is a murderous experiment, is ethically indefensible, and likely won’t work. Even if it did work, it’s morally repugnant and shouldn’t be pursued. All in all, I don’t see how Cat Wars will change anyone’s mind about cats, because it is so sensationalist, one-sided, and so utterly anti-cat. My brief discussion here is only the tip of the iceberg of what is covered in this misleading and sensationalist book. If you disagree, please harness your anger into positive action.

Killing cats “in the name of science”: Readers and cats beware

On the one hand, really I didn’t want to write this essay and surely didn’t want to call attention to this unveiled diatribe against cats. On the other hand, I’m sure that with the title it has it will attract a good deal of attention. I hope people who choose to read Cat Wars will do so very carefully. It’s sickening and disheartening in far too many places, but that’s the price of admission. If you’re looking for a fair and balanced account of the situation of hand, this is not the book to read. Even if you don’t especially like cats, this book surely isn’t “the cat’s meow.” Indeed, if taken seriously, this book will lead to the loss of the wide range of vocalizations for which cats are well known as well of the lives of many other hapless and innocent individuals who are caught in the crossfire.

Returning to the authors’ stance on all free-ranging cats, please keep in mind that the authors advocate removing cats “by any means necessary” ostensibly “in the name of science.” This is a thoroughly heartless conclusion that will undoubtedly lead to horrific pain, suffering, and death not only for cats, but also for other animals, because some people surely will appeal to science and say something like, “Scientists said it’s ok to do this.” It is not.

Note: The comments here are also very interesting. For example, Bryan Kortis is right on the mark when he writes, “The book pits people with common goals against each other and only encourages the violence of extremism, not solutions.”

As of early morning, September 3, here are the ratings for the first 100 reviews on Amazon. They are totally skewed. I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s also interesting that some of the very few people who gave five star reviews accused those of writing unfavorable reviews of having not read the book because it wasn’t out yet. This is not so, at all, as I received the book from Amazon earlier than the stated publication date and there is no reason to accuse them of not having read the book other than to cast doubt on their views.

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Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in early 2017.

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