Natalie Angier, "That Cuddly Kitty Is Deadlier Than You Think". January 29
I WAS raised a Protestant, and trained as a scientist, but I was born dyspeptic, and that's my real allegiance. I'm a cat owner, and animal lover, but I'm not a sentimentalist. I feed birds, squirrels, raccoons, opossums, rabbits, and I don't know how many other nearby animals. I'd never doubt the results of a study just because I didn't like them, but I wouldn't believe one just because it was in the Times. Aside from the requirements of cheap preteritio, I would never, ever try to impugn a study by mentioning the pointedly, and ironically, criminal behavior of the former Secretary of one of its sponsors. And I can recognize ripe possum shit even from upwind.
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.
We are--please put on a hat so you can hold onto it--six whole paragraphs away from noting that the study "admittedly" comes with wide ranges and uncertainty, though who admitted this is not admitted. The fact that the study is a concatenation (sorry) of local surveys and pilot studies, as opposed to, say, observation, will actually turn up as, oh, the next sentence.
So, to begin with, if we expect the great cross-section of the American public to treat scientific evidence with respect, maybe we could start by reporting on it accurately.
And maybe this is the place to stick in personal experience? Yes, cats are cute and cuddly, but if you don't realize they're the most efficient, and wanton, four-legged (ahem) predators on land then reading it in a newspaper ain't gonna help you.
I've been around cats for fifty years, and the only one in all that time who was an actual serial killer was my first pet, a stray we adopted at my insistence, who'd probably wandered off the farmland they were rapidly turning into suburban streets. He routinely brought home rabbits--full-sized rabbits--and all manner of rodent. Pretty sure his main hunting ground was the farm field across the street they were tearing up to build the new high school. When we moved away his kill rate dropped to almost nothing.
That was a long time ago, but I was a boy, with a boy's curiosity (we played out of doors in those days), and I don't remember finding birds, or parts of birds, in his wake. Probably because birds can fucking fly. We've been in our present house fifteen years. Six cats in that time, though only one was allowed to roam. Four bird kills, total, but only one was actually confirmed. In the meantime we've had three birds die from colliding with windows. So spay or neuter your glazier. (There are more confirmed kills by hawks, Dr. Cat Hater.) They've killed plenty of voles, field mice, and chipmunks. That's because the place is fucking overrun with voles, field mice, and chipmunks. Take that up with the State of Indiana, which lets you gun down any varmint you see, at any season, day or night.
There are at least four neighborhood cats allowed to roam who turn up at our house from time to time. Never had any evidence of any catching a bird. And that's hunting over seed. Birds can fucking fly. If we had a native penguin population in the Midwest it might be different.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, that's not the whole answer. Yeah, the study, or the people trying to publicize it, try to disavow the attack on pet cats, who are "only" 30% of the problem. This, in scientific parlance, is known as "lying your ass off for the greater good (grant money)".
scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that domestic cats in the United States — both the pet Fluffies that spend part of the day outdoors and the unnamed strays and ferals that never leave it — kill a median of 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals a year, most of them native mammals like shrews, chipmunks and voles rather than introduced pests like the Norway rat.
Yeah. My cats haven't brought home any nutria, mute swans, zebra mussels, or Chinese honeysuckle, either.
Listen, the results of a study are absolutely nothing without we understand the methodology of the study, the details of peer review, and counter arguments. We're not getting those from the Times. We might get some from the original article itself, assuming we had thirty-two bucks to spend. [This, we might note, for a study funded by the Smithsonian (70% of operating funds from the government), and the (presumably U.S.) Fish and Wildlife Service (100%). ] I'd just steal the thing, but then some Federal prosecutor would hound me to my death. Why is it that professional journals could teach the Indianapolis Star a thing or two about privateering?
I'm not saying I don't believe y'all; I'm just saying that number sounds like maybe we should double check the math. I'm saying that I'd be a little more comfortable if you'd mention the uncounted billions killed by incontinent development and capricious habitat destruction, all of which requires opposable thumbs. North America, last time I travelled there, was a continent, not an island. And when you talk about how feral cats aren't hardscrabblers, like coyotes, I'm reminded of the number of people in these parts willing to shoot, trap, or poison coyotes because there's a rumor one of 'em killed the Widow Henderson's precious Fifi. Thanks for helping them load.
Maybe we can stow the sensationalism, or save it for NASA's next funding push, which should be any day now. And maybe, if you can't handle predation, then bird watching is not your thing. I hear Norway rat tracking can be quite the amusing little challenge.