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Coming to the table

Katie Lisnik, director of cat protection and policy for The HSUS, invites us to move beyond the caricatures

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It's time to focus on the details where collaboration and compromise can occur.

With the momentous election—and days, weeks and months leading up to it—still fresh in our minds, I have been reflecting on some of its unfortunate similarities to the “debate” over the cat and wildlife issue. Regardless of how you voted and how you feel about the results, I’d ask that you take a step back and think about how polarized and personal the presidential race became. I’m not one to post political stuff on social media (it is just not my cup of tea), but I did watch with interest the increasingly strident attacks from both sides against the candidate they did not want to see in office. The debate, as played out on Facebook walls, in Twitter wars and on many other platforms, focused not on the detailed policy issues and why we should vote FOR a candidate, but instead devolved into attacks on character flaws—and perceived ones at that—of not just the candidates themselves, but anyone who would support them.

OK, so what does this have to do with cats, right? After all, this is the Animal Sheltering blog, not Katie’s Political Thoughts blog. Well, I see the same sort of personal attacks, dismissals of entire groups of people and their values, damaging rhetoric and gross caricatures increasing in the realm of cats and wildlife and I find it extremely disappointing.
Recently I had an opportunity to speak at a wildlife conservation and management conference about outdoor cat issues, and I called for collaboration and an understanding of the various stakeholders that all have a valid voice on this issue. Sitting back and listening to my fellow panelists and the audience, I was struck by several comments leveled against the “cat people”—namely, that we support trap/neuter/return only because we’re ignorant of the science, aren’t intelligent enough to understand conservation science or we have toxoplasmosis that has altered our brains and caused us to have a sick infatuation with cats. Some of these remarks were made (I hope) in jest, but there was a kernel of true belief there that upset me very much as the afternoon progressed.

Now the “cat people” aren’t without blame either. How many times have you seen or heard a quote from a TNR advocate calling government officials or wildlife conservationists “cat killers” or “cat haters,” or dismissing their concerns as a result of simple callousness or a desire to remove cats as competition so they themselves can go out and hunt the wildlife? If you haven’t seen this, take a look. It is out there. Of course, the media doesn’t help—and often fans the flames—but we need to acknowledge that the flames are there to fan in the first place.

The recent Cat Wars book by Dr. Marra and Chris Santella ramped up the rhetoric on both sides; take a look at the comments on the Amazon page:

“A fanatastic [sic] job of honest reporting. The feral-cat mafia is in high dudgeon, and Mara couldn't have a better endorsement than that.”

“It should be pointed out it's a near-certainty that those who have reviewed Dr. Marra's 'Cat Wars' with only one star haven't read it. Cat-nutters are somewhat lacking in diligence, critical thinking skills and work ethic”

“This is the dumbest, most ignorant book that could possibly be written, it's like there was a stupid contest and this author won”

“This book is a childish, ignorant diatribe written by cat haters who know nothing about cats or science.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t find these sorts of responses to be helpful.

The real answers and solutions lie in the middle—and that, apparently, is a really difficult place to reach nowadays. However, I firmly believe that in both realms, the majority of people have very similar end goals but disagree on the approach (or candidate) to get us there. The good news is that common goals mean we can have thoughtful discussions on what actions will achieve those goals, and which ones won’t.

It will take empathy and compassion; an understanding that, while someone may disagree with you on the issue, it isn’t because they hate you or something you hold dear, it is because they value something a bit different and are working hard to protect it, just like you are. Values are a tricky thing; they aren’t based purely on science, but they’re not totally emotional (or caused by a parasite) either. They form our world views and can raise very strong feelings, to be sure. Yet there is room for thoughtful dialogue if we can consciously put a lid on those strong feelings, leave behind the over-generalizations of the “other” and focus on the details where collaboration and compromise can occur.

And yes, I said that dirty word—compromise. It’s needed on both sides. It isn’t comfortable, it will be hard work, and no one is going to get all that they want. But we’ll end up with a path forward, and maybe a better understanding of each other. I know we won’t all hug it out and become best friends, but surely we can sit down and have some rational discussion. I’m ready to sit at the table. Will you join me?


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.