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We talked to Dara Wald and Anna Peterson, authors of Cats and Conservationists: The Debate Over Who Owns the Outdoors about feral cats and the conversation surrounding them.

Cats and Conservationists is the first multidisciplinary analysis of the heated debate about free-roaming cats. The debate pits conservationists against cat lovers, who disagree both on the ecological damage caused by the cats and the best way to manage them. The book aims to see through the smoke of the debate, and facilitate collaboration in order to manage outdoor cats and minimize the damage they cause.


 

Q: Could you briefly explain the debate surrounding feral cats, and what the two sides in the argument are purported to be?

Anna Peterson: The two sides are sometimes framed as “bird people” and “cat people,” who are supposedly at odds with each other in every possible way. “Bird people” think outdoor cats kill huge numbers of wild animals, including song birds and endangered species, and want to eliminate outdoor cats in order to protect wildlife and ecosystems. They often think that trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs are ineffective ways to reduce the cat population and that stricter measures, including lethal ones, are required. “Cat people,” on the other hand, think that outdoor cats do not contribute to minimal ecological damage, that TNR programs usually work well to reduce or stabilize cat populations, and that outdoor cats have as much “right” to exist as other animals. This is very simplified, but it’s a common way that the debate is framed.

Dara Wald: The problem with simplified framing is that it often dismisses or ignores value-based differences driving public debate over outdoor cats. The folks involved in this debate have strongly held beliefs about the world, about science, and about animals. These beliefs are associated with specific worldviews or orientations (e.g., conservationist vs. animal welfare) that influence how individuals’ select and interpret information. Thus, conservationists are more likely to pay attention to and accept widespread scientific consensus that cats kill birds. While TNR supporters are significantly less likely to be exposed to this message, and when confronted with it, they are less likely to agree that cat predation poses a risk to wildlife or environmental health. So, this simplified framing could actually be reinforcing the differences between these groups and contributing to greater polarization between interested parties. That’s why it’s important to identify alternative voices and pathways to promote constructive conversations.

 

Q: It seems that many intend to frame the two sides of this conflict as being uncompromising and combative, your book talks about that framing, could you explain?

Peterson: The simplistic bird people vs. cat people frame does portray the two sides as rigid and mutually exclusive, as though there are no common values or interests. Our research finds that while the conflicts are real, there are many shared values. While some people may be uncompromising, many other people who care about this debate are open to conversation and compromise. We think that constructive conversations among different stake holders – conservationists, cat advocates, local residents – can help reveal common interests and goals and provide people with the information they need to make better policy decisions. For example, it’s important to know what ecological damage cats might be doing in a given area, because their impact is really different in a disturbed urban or suburban area than it is in an ecologically fragile place like a coastal or island environment. Good information about issues like that can help people have better conversations and reach constructive policy solutions.

Wald: The language and frames we use to describe an animal or a topic can send a signal about how much we value a species, which identity group we belong, and whose science we accept. Think about the difference between the terms “evolution” and “creation” or “global warming” or “climate change.” Using a specific frame or term can unintentionally send a signal to your audience about your position. This positionality can make it hard to start a constructive conversation. The goal of this book is to encourage constructive conversations among all the communities interested in this debate. To do this, we looked at the common frames employed by prominent voices and groups. You’ll also notice that we use the term “outdoor” cats instead of “feral” cats throughout. We chose the more neutral term because we want this book to be accessible to all the groups involved in this debate.

 

Q: What do you feel are some of the other major misconceptions the general public may have about this debate?

Peterson: I think one misconception might be about how important this issue is to many conservationists. While many people in the “general public” aren’t aware that there is a conflict, and maybe not even that there are lots of outdoor cats running around, the people who are aware of the issue often feel very strongly. The first time this issue came up in a classroom for me, it was with a bunch of environmental science grad students, and I was surprised at how passionate they were about this issue and how heated the discussion became.

Wald: Agreed. I was also surprised once I started studying this issue that it has really important implications beyond cats. The debate over outdoor cats is an example of what happens when strongly held beliefs and values drive conflict over environmental issues. There are important parallels between this issue and public debate over the safety of GM foods, the benefits of wind energy, and the risks associated with climate change. Unlike these national/international issues, decisions about how to manage outdoor cats can be addressed at the local level. There are groups already involved and committed to developing solutions that save the lives of birds and cats and yet they are often dismissed, ignored, or belittled by the media and the environmental community. This is a pattern that can create resentment, distrust, and a sense that environmentalists, and other expert groups are not acting in the public’s best interest. My goal is to encourage constructive discussions and community-led solutions that are inclusive, supportive, and sustainable – whether the topic is cats or other complex, contested environmental issues.

 

Q: Many are relatively comfortable considering certain animals (moles, snakes, raccoons, opossums, etc.) as pests to be exterminated/captured. How do you feel this does/should affect the debate around feral cats?

Peterson: Most people, at least in the US, put cats in a very different category than “vermin” – they see cats as pets, even if they are unowned, and not pests. Our research and other studies show that even “bird advocates” often have pet cats of their own, whom they love. That’s why there is a debate about what to do about outdoor cats, when there is not nearly the same level of conflict about other invasive predators. In some ways, as certain conservationists will argue, this distinction is not well-grounded: if we focus on cats’ intrinsic qualities or on their ecological role, they are not all that different from many other species. What makes them different is their relationships with us. Humans have a historical relationship with cats, as our two species have interacted for thousands of years, in addition to the personal relationships that many people have with cats today. For better or worse, these relationships profoundly shape how people feel about the “feral cat problem,” and we cannot ignore them, if we want constructive solutions.

Wald: I agree. One major difference is the human connection. In addition, people are generally attracted to and interested in charismatic mammals. As much as I love snakes, birds, and raccoons, I understand why the World Wildlife Fund has a panda on its logo.

 


Thank you so much to Dara and Anna for their time! You can read more about outdoor cats and the debate surrounding them by getting your own copy of Cats and Conservationists or picking it up from your local library!

You can get 30% off Cats and Conservationists and any other Purdue University Press books by ordering from our website and using the discount code PURDUE30.