Cat Wars: The Moral Shame of Conservation

10/10/2016 09:28 am ET
William Lynn, 2013
Shimsi. A feral cat from Istanbul.

In a new book entitled Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer (Princeton University Press, 2015), authors Peter Marra and Chris Santella purport to awaken the public to the dire threat of outdoor cats (feral and tame, owned and unowned). Their big picture conclusion is that we need a war against cats “by any means necessary” (pages 152-153) in order to do something to protect biodiversity. Unfortunately, the book is bedeviled by basic problems of scientific and ethical reasoning — problems that exemplify the wider and acrimonious debate over cats and wildlife.

Science, Cats, and Biodiversity

There is indeed a crisis of biodiversity, and we are in the midst of the sixth great extinction brought on by humanity’s collective footprint on the planet. There is also no doubt that in some geographic areas — like sea-locked Pacific islands — native ecologies are “naive” to introduced predators, and cats can negatively impact biodiversity. To deny these facts is to live in the same world as flat-earthers and climate deniers.

The core claim by conservationists that cats are an earth-killing machine is nonetheless incorrect. Others like Marc Bekoff, Barbara King, Peter Wolf — all astute observers of human-animal relations — will point to specific factual and analytic problems in the research. These include a dearth in empirical studies of actual cat populations, overestimated rates of predation, implausible statistics, a failure to address falsifying studies, the exclusion of cats from wild habitats by larger predators, the failure of decades of catching and killing stay cats in “shelters”, and more effective non-lethal policy responses. See the online presentations from a 2012 conference, The Outdoor Cat: Science and Policy from a Global Perspective, for a detailed discussion of such issues.

My focus is the bigger picture, that is, the structure of the scientific argument itself.

The logical reasoning behind scientific claims is as foundational to sound science as are methods of data collection, hypothesis testing, and analysis of results. It is precisely on this point that Marra, Santella, and their supporters flounder, violating basic tenets of scientific reasoning when making their claims about outdoor cats. They do so by overgeneralizing the findings of specific, local studies to the world at large. In terms of logic, this involves both the fallacy of composition (all the world is like the part where cats and wildlife have been studied), and the fallacy of hasty generalization (if cats are a problem for wildlife in this place, then they must be a problem in every place).

These logical problems in turn impact their interpretation of the data. Individual case studies are abstracted out of their geographical context, much like pulling a quote out of its context. In this case the authors, along with efforts such as the American Bird Conservancy’s Cats Indoors campaign, are representing the entire surface of the earth as if it were a small Pacific island. The result is a distorted and alarmist picture of the impact of outdoor cats.

Do note that even when individual case studies of cats and biodiversity are sound, the overall conclusion projected onto the world at large remains false. There are simply too many variables to warrant their alarmism — the vastly more important human depredations on biodiversity, the diversity of ecological contexts in which cats are found, and differences in cat personality and behaviour. Advocates of a war against cats have carved out a predetermined conclusion, then backfilled their assertions by cherry picking an accumulation of case studies.

Ethics and the War Against Cats

As for the ethics that informs their work, two matters come directly to hand. The first is the research integrity that governed the creation of Cat Wars. The second is the ethical justification for a global war against cats. Let us start with research integrity.

I have no reason to doubt that most authors of varied cat studies conduct themselves and their work with integrity. We do have perverse examples of anti-cat advocates — like scientist Nico Dauphine and journalist Ted Williams — who have tried to poison or encouraged others to poison neighborhood cats. They are exceptions to the rule.

Moreover, authors deserve to be compensated for their time and effort in academic writing. This usually takes the form of monetary advances or grants to cover costs, buying out time from other work to devote to research and writing, increases in salary due to academic achievement, and royalties from book sales. Key to all of this is the transparency of the funding sources, in order to control for potential conflicts of interest, both financial and ideological.

Still, it is an unusual arrangement for a scientific book on cats to be co-authored by a travel writer and marketing consultant. Santella also performed the vast majority of the interviews used to frame the story. Unless Santella is unusually committed to the issue of cats and biodiversity, I wonder at the terms of Santella’s co-authorship with Marra. Was Santella a ghostwriter paid for his time and effort? If so, then by whom?

So too, the Smithsonian flatly states that “Pete Marra's upcoming book was not worked on as part of his duties as a Smithsonian employee nor was the project funded by or though the Smithsonian”. This information comes from a letter by the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of General Council, made in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. Marra is Head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoo, surely a position relevant to the subject matter of the book and through which funding and labour would arguably be channeled. So it is odd that the Smithsonian is distancing itself from Marra in this respect.

One may then legitimately ask whether this book was conceived and funded as an act of partisan rhetoric using the facade of science to legitimize its point of view. Who and for what purpose provided the funding for its creation? Was Princeton University Press aware of possible issues around conflicts of interest when it agreed to publish Cat Wars?

I do not have answers to these questions as there is no disclosure of such matters in the book. The authors may argue that none was necessary, and they may be correct. I and others should be open to reason and evidence on this score. Yet these curious arrangements warrant that questions about financial and ideological conflicts of interest be asked and answered.

Ethical (Mis)Justifications

Far more troubling is the absence of any sustained ethical analysis over waging war against cats “by any means necessary”, a phrase which clearly references hunting, trapping, poisoning, and other forms of indiscriminate lethal “management”.

There are brief references to ethics scattered about the book. Most orbit approvingly around the “land ethics” of Aldo Leopold, with aligned snippets from environmental philosophers like J. Baird Callicot and Holmes Rolston. Leopold postulated that ethics was an evolved characteristic of social groups that improved our ability to survive. Because our well-being also depends on the natural world — what he termed “the land” — he thought we needed to develop an ethical relationship to the environment as well.

Because Leopold spoke collectively about nature as “the land”, the dominant interpretation of his thought has emphasized the moral value of ecosystems, what in ethics language is called ecocentric wholism. What this mouthful means is that nature has intrinsic value at the level of the ecological community, e.g., populations, species, and ecosystems. Individual creatures, by contrast, lack intrinsic value. Instead they possess only instrumental value insofar as they are part of an ecological community. Similar to how a hammer has no moral value in and of itself, but can be used to build a home for people who do have intrinsic value. This perspective is also the reason that anti-cat conservationists can breezily justify killing outdoor cats. From their moral point of view, cats matter less — or perhaps not at all. This is stock ideology in traditional conservation.


Alongside Leopold’s land ethics, the authors also uses my work on animal and environmental ethics to justify a war against cats. The context they are referencing is the management of barred and northern spotted owls by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Critically endangered by habitat loss, northern spotted owls were further threatened by barred owls taking over their territory. To consider lethal control of the barred owl, the USFWS set up the Barred Owl Stakeholder Group (BOSG) to consider the ethical issues that come with killing owls. I was the ethicist hired to advise and facilitate the BOSG. After a thorough examination of the ethical issues, and in the absence of any non-lethal means of mitigating the impact of barred owls, the Barred Owl Stakeholder Group as a whole believed lethal removal of some barred owls was warranted. My concept of “sad-goods” was key to reaching this decision. Marra and Santella use this concept to justify the extermination of all cats from the landscape (pages 115-117). Whatever sadness is entailed by killing cats en mass, the argument goes, is outweighed by the good it does for biodiversity.

To the chagrin of some friends and colleagues, I am not an animal rights purist. Death and predation are natural, and so ethically I believe there are limited times and places when killing animals is morally justified. Sad-good describes such instances. For instance, when deer are hunted by wolves or subsistence hunters, all three creatures — deer, wolves, and people — have an intrinsic moral value. That a deer will die when being hunted is “sad”, for it is the loss of a living being, a non-human person. Yet the death is also “good”. It is good for the deer in terms of removing weak, sick, and old members from the herd. It is good for the wolf or hunter in that it provides food by which to sustain their families (yes, wolves live in complex families when we let them). Fraught and tragic as it is, it is a sad-good.

But sad-good was never intended to serve as a convenient excuse to kill animals. As my report to the USFWS on the ethics of managing barred owls makes clear, sad-good presupposes the full acknowledgment of the intrinsic moral value of the animals concerned, recognition of our direct duties to those animals, the use of non-lethal management when available first and foremost, and the reservation of lethal management only for specific cases and places. Marra and Santella’s argument fulfills none of these conditions, forcing me to repudiate their interpretation and use of sad-good to justify a war against cats.

The Shame of Traditional Conservation

Marra and Santella are not unique in brushing aside moral concerns about doing right by individual animals. Amongst conservationists, the ecocentric wholism behind Leopold’s land ethics often functions more as a confession of faith and an assertion of righteousness, than it does a spur to critical ethical thinking. It frequently rationalizes the predetermined use of lethal measures against animals no matter what the science or ethics might say. We see evidence of this literally everywhere — in the war against cats in Australia, to the justifications of trophy hunting lions in Africa, to the management of wolves and other predators in the United States. One could go on ad nauseum.

These twin failures of scientific and ethical reasoning do not justify ignoring the impacts on biodiversity that outdoor cats can have. Rather they must encourage more rigourous science, deeper ethical reflection, and a caution against hasty and inhumane actions against cats.

And herein lies the nub of the issue. Cat Wars and the perspective it represents is not only based on flawed science and without moral legitimacy. It is rooted in a worldview that trivializes the value of individual animal lives. This is the shame of traditional approaches to conservation and wildlife management — a preoccupation with killing our way back to biodiversity that is nothing but bloodsport writ large.

We can and ought to do far better.

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