Standard image of the new scientist

The secret weapon in the war between domestic cats and wild animals

To prevent cats from killing billions of birds and small mammals each year, we need to get the help of people who love them, which means getting into the minds of cat owners

Surroundings


October 28, 2020

By Aisling Irwin

ARIE TROUWBORST hadn't expected death threats when he published his article on cats last November. An environmental law specialist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, Trouwborst and Han Somsen, also from Tilburg University, had argued that cat owners across the European Union could be prosecuted under current law for allowing their pets to hunt. "I routinely address controversial topics like wolf management and trophy hunting, but they're all pale compared to the malicious responses they've received," he says.

It's the newest episode in the ongoing "Cat Wars". From New Zealand and Australia to the United States and Europe, cat owners and conservationists compete as a growing body of research has found cats guilty of killing wildlife and ousting local rivals. For example, a headline report estimated that domestic free-range cats kill at least 1.3 billion birds and 6.3 billion small mammals each year in the United States alone. Another study found that domestic cats in the Netherlands kill almost twice as many animals as their wild counterparts.

Emotions are high and the angrier conservationists get, the more cat owners dig in. But there could be a better way. "I'm pretty tired of the conflict focus of some conservation biologists," says Wayne Linklater of California State University in Sacramento. "The solutions lie with the people who are most interested in cats, not the people who are not interested in them." To this end, he and several other social scientists are researching cat owners themselves to see what would motivate them to change their behavior – and that of their cats.

Nobody doubts that cats kill wildlife: …