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"Cat Wars"? Let's call a ceasefire

Beyond the hyperbole in a book that's causing hisses

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Survey after survey have shown that the public favors non-lethal strategies to address free-roaming cat populations

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past week (or taking a break from social media), you’ve likely seen articles, blogs and reviews on the book Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer by Dr. Peter Marra and Chris Santella, released this week. While the book is aggressive in its anti-Trap/Neuter/Return (TNR) and anti-free-roaming cat rhetoric, it is, unfortunately, nothing new.

We’ve heard the arguments before—and as stated previously in this blog, and on various webpages and articles The HSUS has produced, we agree on many points. We want to see more cats safe indoors. We want to see fewer unowned cats on the landscape. We want less disease risk. We want cats to live happy healthy lives, and we want that for wildlife too.

Unfortunately, rather than focus on our common ground, these authors have ramped up the vitriol, challenging the conservation community to rise up and remove cats from the environment “by any means necessary.”

That statement, were it the only one of its kind, would be shocking enough. Are the authors really calling on people to head out to the streets and start bludgeoning, poisoning and otherwise destroying any cat caught outside? This phrase has drawn so much ire that the book’s publisher issued this statement: “Cat Wars by Peter P. Marra & Chris Santella addresses a demonstrable threat that free-roaming cats bring to the long-term health of bird and small mammal populations and provides a science-based survey of the subject. It looks at a wide variety of issues and attempts to provide dispassionate, objective analyses. The authors and the Princeton University Press do not support the inhumane treatment of animals.”  While we disagree that this book is a “dispassionate, objective analysis”, it is interesting that they felt the need to clarify that the authors did not support the inhumane treatment of cats.

The book uses several anecdotes to illustrate a particularly scary or heart-wrenching effect of outdoor cats (as in the case of young Grace Polhemus of Brooklyn, New York, who died a year after being bitten by a rabid cat- in 1913!), then the authors use exaggeration to imply that this kind of outcome is the norm and widespread. Following these scare tactics, a bit later in the section or chapter, there is a sentence or two putting the issue into true context (always much less severe than originally portrayed). In the chapter that mentions Grace Polhemus (called The Zombie Maker: Cats as Agents of Disease—really?) we find this sentence:  “Thankfully, the development of rabies infections in humans due to cats and other animals is extremely rare in the United States.” We agree. Rabies is a serious disease and efforts must be made to protect against it. But casting outdoor cats as an extreme threat misses the point that the rabies issue, and indeed all issues surrounding outdoor cats, are complex, nuanced and are not going to be solved by perpetuating a “Cat War.”

There are so many examples of exaggeration in the book that it would be impossible to address them all without writing a book of our own. Perhaps the most significant chapter centers on collaboration and shared goals. Chapter Eight is titled A Landscape with Fewer Free-Ranging Cats: Better for Cats, Better for Birds, Better for People. We at The HSUS are pleased that our long-held position is acknowledged clearly here. In fact, on the second page of this chapter, the authors state, “It is abundantly clear that free-ranging cats are not the primary threat to the future of birds and other wildlife.”

OK—so case closed? Can we agree we have common ground and actually work together on humane and effective solutions?  Did the authors conclude that a “Cat War” is not needed? Unfortunately, no.

This chapter also discusses a bright spot in Portland, Oregon, a collaboration between the Audubon Society of Portland and Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon (huge shout-out to both of these organizations’ staff and volunteers who are doing the hard work and making positive change). However, Marra and Santella introduce this as an “unlikely partnership,” and the actual collaboration is described in less than a page. Then nothing more is said. No encouragement, no call for other groups to try this out, no praise for this being such a bright spot. Instead the “collaboration” chapter ends up focusing on owned cat issues such as cat licensing, mandatory spay/neuter, and cats indoors efforts.

The authors call out The HSUS for letting a “cats indoors” pledge expire on our website as though it signals some nefarious intent—when in fact this pledge was allowed to expire because it hadn’t gotten much attention and because The HSUS has been focused on proactive solutions for owned cats, like catios that allow indoor cats to get fresh air and outdoor enrichment. A quick look at many of our other cat pages would show that we’re just as clear as Marra and Santella that keeping owned cats indoors is critical. And it’s happening: The American Pet Products Association surveys show an increase in owned cats being kept indoors from approximately 20 percent in the 1970s to around 65 percent as of 2012.  

The authors are supremely confident that “the general public is blissfully unaware of the issue of free-roaming cats.” Really? Survey after survey have shown that the public favors non-lethal strategies to address this issue, an approach that’s out of line with the authors’ view.

The authors are abetted by Princeton University Press in their repeated dismissals of the humane viewpoint, as the publisher states, “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.” Suggesting a commonality between Big Tobacco, climate change deniers and advocates who simply don’t want to see millions of cats needlessly killed when there are better options—well, that’s a false correlation of the sort that leaves one breathless.

The book gives inordinately low estimates for the number of people who feed unowned cats, the number of groups that practice TNR, and the number of municipalities and counties that have endorsed the non-lethal strategy.  This book and so many other anti-TNR proponents are either ignorant or in denial about the army of caregivers and advocates working to help cats in their communities. That, combined with the truly shocking calls for people to do pretty much anything to get rid of cats should be a strong wake-up call for all of us to rise up and demand attention.

We should not sit back and let this latest call for a “Cat War” stand.  There is no “war.” Rather, there is common ground, where the majority of us stand ready to apply ourselves in the most effective ways possible. This means hard work, I know.  But if there is any apt descriptor for all of you, it is surely “hard-working”. Let’s not shy away from this issue. We want cats protected, wildlife protected and people protected, and we have the know-how, the public support and the resources to do it. Let the fringe voices be exactly what they are; out of touch and out of step with our humane society.


About the Author

Katie Lisnik is the Director of Companion Animal Public Policy at The Humane Society of the United States, focusing on raising awareness and effectiveness of pet related public policy at the federal, state and local level. Priority work includes increasing interventions for and reducing community cats populations through sterilization and vaccination programs, ending the use of gas chambers in animal shelters, ending the abusive greyhound racing industry, as well as keeping more pets in their homes and preserving a strong human-animal bond. Katie has an MS in Animals and Public Policy from Tufts University; she is the Past President of the New England Federation of Humane Societies; and a former Board Member and advisor to the Maine Federation of Humane Societies.