Survey shows why claws come out over feral cat management

September 6, 2012, North Carolina State University

The contentious phenomenon of identity politics isn't limited to Democrats and Republicans. A national survey shows that "cat people" and "bird people" have heated differences of opinion, complicating the challenge of managing more than 50 million free-roaming feral cats while protecting threatened wildlife.

A North Carolina State University study to be published Sept. 6 in identifies why the claws come out over feral cat management and which approaches might be useful in finding common ground among those with polarized opinions.

The research started as a hands-on class project for undergraduate and graduate students in Dr. Nils Peterson's Human Dimensions of Wildlife course last year. Team members surveyed 577 people across the U.S. who identified themselves as cat colony caretakers or professionals affiliated with groups such as the Audubon Society and American Bird Conservancy.

"Members of both these groups feel they have concerns that have been ignored," says Peterson, an associate professor of fisheries, wildlife and in the College of Natural Resources. "This feeling of injustice is part of what leads them to identity with their groups."

Bird conservation professionals, whose focus is on protecting species from extinction in the wild, see feral cats as threats to the survival of . Cat colony caretakers, on the other hand, dedicate themselves to caring for neighborhood animals they see as abandoned and neglected by others.

The polarized points of view led to wide differences in responses to factual statements about feral cat management and disagreement about the impact of feral cats on wildlife.

Only 9 percent of cat colony caretakers believed cats harmed , and only 6 percent believed feral cats carried diseases. Colony caretakers supported treating feral cats as protected wildlife and using trap, neuter and release programs to manage feral cat populations.

Many bird conservation professionals, meanwhile, saw feral cats as pests and supported removing and euthanizing them. Within both groups, women and older respondents were less likely to support euthanasia.

"The most surprising result was that cat colony caretakers were more amenable to seeking collaborative solutions to feral cat management than bird conservation professionals," Peterson says. "Eighty percent of the cat caretakers thought it was possible, while 50 percent of the bird conservationists felt that it was."

How could the groups take steps to work together in the face of differing opinions about the scientific evidence?

Peterson says part of the solution is getting buy-in. Cat colony caretakers would have to be involved in deciding which data should be collected and how and where it should be done. When possible, participants should be able to see results for themselves rather than relying on reports from another group. One example: observing firsthand that feral cats kill wildlife rather than reading studies that show feral cats contribute to global declines among songbird populations. Another possibility is training cat colony caretakers to recognize parasites or signs of disease in the animals they see regularly, improving the cats' health and caretakers' knowledge.

Finally, the groups should recognize they share the common ground of caring about animals. In fact, half of the bird conservation professionals owned and cared for cats. Peterson also hopes his students have gained ideas they can use in dealing with conservation and environmental issues, no matter how contentious.

Explore further: Researchers track the secret lives of feral and free-roaming house cats

More information: "Opinions from the Front Lines of Cat Colony Management Conflict," M. Nils Peterson, Brett Hartis, Shari Rodriguez, Matthew Green, Christopher Lepczyk Peterson, Hartis, Sept. 6, 2012, PLOS One.

Outdoor cats represent a global threat to terrestrial vertebrate conservation, but management has been rife with conflict due to differences in views of the problem and appropriate responses to it. To evaluate these differences we conducted a survey of opinions about outdoor cats and their management with two contrasting stakeholder groups, cat colony caretakers (CCCs) and bird conservation professionals (BCPs) across the United States. Group opinions were polarized, for both normative statements (CCCs supported treating feral cats as protected wildlife and using trap neuter and release [TNR] and BCPs supported treating feral cats as pests and using euthanasia) and empirical statements. Opinions also were related to gender, age, and education, with females and older respondents being less likely than their counterparts to support treating feral cats as pests, and females being less likely than males to support euthanasia. Most CCCs held false beliefs about the impacts of feral cats on wildlife and the impacts of TNR (e.g., 9 percent believed feral cats harmed bird populations, 70 percent believed TNR eliminates cat colonies, and 18 percent disagreed with the statement that feral cats filled the role of native predators. Only 6 percent of CCCs believed feral cats carried diseases. To the extent the beliefs held by CCCs are rooted in lack of knowledge and mistrust, rather than denial of directly observable phenomena, the conservation community can manage these conflicts more productively by bringing CCCs into the process of defining data collection methods, defining study/management locations, and identifying common goals related to caring for animals.

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Walter Lamb
not rated yet Sep 07, 2012
Studies that seek to find common ground and get beyond polarized thinking are a step in the right direction, but many of the comments in this article and study abstract reflect a cognitive bias on the part of the researchers that will hinder their ability to achieve that goal. As an active bird watcher myself who successfully reduced the number of stray cats in my neighborhood by 90% with trap-neuter-return, I can attest to the fact that both groups allow their emotions and moral principles to obscure the facts. For instance, directly observing cats preying on wildlife would not, by itself, demonstrate that cats are responsible for the global decline of songbird populations. It is this reliance on anecdotal evidence that has led both groups to inaccurately conclude that TNR either "works" or "doesn't work." What the science actually tells us is that both lethal and non-lethal control methods must impact enough cats to offset the reproductive capabilities of the remaining cats ...
Walter Lamb
not rated yet Sep 07, 2012
[forgive the multiple comments - brevity may be the soul of wit, but I don't think it is the soul of science :)]

... Wildlife advocates would be well served to stop thinking along moral lines and to start thinking mathematically about this problem. If the objective is truly to reduce the number of feral cats, then we should be encouraging local policy makers to embrace a mathematical framework that recognizes variability in factors like funding, human resources, the terrain and biodiversity of a particular setting, etc. Instead, many wildlife advocates are simply offering another extreme ideology that is no more grounded in science than the ideology put forth by cat advocates. Evaluations of lethal and non-lethal methods must be consistent, objective and comparative (for instance, did the study ask how many wildlife advocates believe that lethal control routinely eliminates cat colonies?)

It is encouraging to note that 80% of cat advocates see room for collaboration.
Walter Lamb
not rated yet Sep 07, 2012
It would be nice if more wildlife advocates felt the same way. Anyone monitoring trends in the news knows that the "all or nothing" approach taken by many wildlife advocates is yielding results much closer to "nothing" than "all." Our native wildlife deserves better. By working to educate cat caretakers (one of the encouraging elements of the article and study) about how they can mitigate the impacts of cats on wildlife, and by holding both lethal and non-lethal control projects accountable to consistent standards, wildlife advocates will have more impact than they are currently having. One very important group apparently left out of this study is cat owners, who arguably have a much greater impact on free-roaming cat populations than cat caretakers.

I'll be interested to see the final study.
not rated yet Sep 07, 2012
What we need is a federal law that makes the shooting of feral cats legal. Have it include a hunting license that empowers the holder to terminate with extreme prejudice any feral cat they come across. Have it make the prosecution of feral cat shooters a federal crime and set up an agency that behaves as badly as certain alphabet agencies do to enforce it. After they bounce the heads of a few local judges and assistant district attorneys on the roofs of cars while arresting them and subject them to a nice perp walk for the news cameras, the rest will get the message.
not rated yet Sep 07, 2012
I live in an area where there are no small birds any more. Lots of cats and I don't think that most of them are feral.

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