Living Responsibly with a Beloved Predator

Worldwide large cats such as Siberian Tigers to the Lynx are in trouble. Their numbers plummeting. Many are extinct or extirpated. Some, like our Florida Panther, are hanging on to survival with all their retractable claws. The reasons are the usual suspects of large imperiled animals-habitat loss, overhunting, and conflicts with humans.

Wild cats are lethal hunters. We don’t live well with large predators. Perhaps our early history with Saber-tooth Tigers imbedded something in our collective memories.

In 2004, the unearthing of a site at Cyprus, in which a cat had been deliberately buried with a human, made it even more certain that the island’s ancient cats were domesticated. This pushed the domestication date to 9,500 year before present.

Humans became domestic. We cultivated grains, invented religions and created sacred texts. Once our species became sedentary farmers who could store crops and achieve food security, we also attracted small mammals who could eat our precious stores of food. Grains and early paper texts were vulnerable to rodents. Dogs, domesticated as hunters and companions, could not get the job of eliminating vermin done well. Not as well as one Middle Eastern wildcat.

We have all heard stores and seen effigies of the reverence some ancient cultures had for cats. The Egyptians, Romans and Abyssinians bred elegant felines.

Despite their utility as mousers and protectors of food stores, 18th century London was no place for a cat. Christian superstition imbued the cat with demonic qualities and cats were killed and publicly tortured. The English painter William Hogarth (1697-1794) documents this violence in ‘First Stages of Cruelty’ (1751) which depicts awful but common street scenes of morally decrepit London. Thus the black cat has been ever associated with halloween and dark arts.

In May 2007, a study published in the research journal Science secured more pieces in the cat domestication puzzle based on genetic analyses.

The findings?

Domestic cats descended from a Middle Eastern wildcat, Felis sylvestris, which literally means ‘cat of the woods.’ Cats were first domesticated in the Near East, and some of the study authors speculate that the process began up to 12,000 years ago. We’ve purred and snored together for a very long time.

While we have been unable to live with large cats, we have embraced their small, but no less lethal kin.

Nightly Killing Sprees.

A study by The Wildlife Society and the American Bird Conservancy suggests that nearly one-third of free-roaming house cats are capturing and killing wildlife.

Researchers attached “KittyCams” to 60 outdoor house cats near Athens, Georgia. The cameras recorded their outdoor activities during all four seasons with study participants averaging five to six hours outside every day.

“Look, our Kitty brought in its’ prey, how cute”.

For those who live with cats, the sight of a lifeless lizard, bird or small animal isn’t unusual. Easy to dismiss as a relict of old pre-domestic behavior. Killing a few small things isn’t so bad.

Or is it?

The Athens Study results were ‘surprising, if not startling,’ said Kerrie Anne Loyd of the University of Georgia, who was the lead author of the study. ‘We found that about 30 percent of the sampled cats were successful in capturing and killing prey, and that those cats averaged about one kill for every 17 hours outdoors or 2.1 kills per week.’

Are we are living with lethal predators who kill for fun?

It was also surprising to learn that cats only brought 23 percent of their kills back to a residence. ‘We found that house cats will kill a wide variety of animals, including: lizards, voles, chipmunks, birds, frogs, and small snakes.’ KittyCams showed that nearly half of the time (49 percent) cats would leave the prey at the capture site and 28 percent were eaten and never brought home.

So what? My cat kills a few creatures. At least it’s living its life…

There are estimated 60 million feral cats that roam the United States. A University of Nebraska study from 2010 states that cats have been responsible for the extinction of 33 bird species worldwide.

‘If we extrapolate the results of this study across the country and include feral cats, we find that cats are likely killing more than 4 billion animals per year, including at least 500 million birds. Cat predation is one of the reasons why one in three American bird species are in decline,’ said Dr. George Fenwick, President of American Bird Conservancy.

You have no idea what your cat is doing.

The researchers also found that the cats were engaging in risky activity. The study found that 45 percent of the cats crossed roads and 20 percent entered crawlspaces and storm drain systems where they could become trapped. In addition, 25 percent of the study cats interacted with strange cats increasing the potential for fights or disease transmission. Eighty-five percent of the project cats exhibited at least one risk behavior with male cats and younger cats being more likely to take risks.

What we can do?

Spay and neuter.

Then, take your wild tiger for a walk.

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