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Must Cats Die So Birds Can Live?

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Illustration by Bigshot Toyworks   

This proposal has received support from an unlikely ally, PETA, whose president, Ingrid Newkirk, argues TNR is more about making people feel good than cats. “It’s not a kindness, it’s a fantasy,” she says. “Homeless cats, they don’t die of old age. They get hit by a car, they drink antifreeze, somebody slings a brick or a rock at them. Why not, when you knock them down, just have them never wake up again? It’s a horrible decision, but it’s a nicer decision.”

“That’s ridiculous,” scoffs Jane Hoffman. “I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. Should I be killed?”

Since the animals in question can’t weigh in, the debate over which side deserves to live or die is left to their human representatives, whose antipathy for each other seems almost primal in its intensity.

Cat advocates say there are greater threats to wildlife than cats, like habitat loss, and that conservationists are only targeting them because of a deep hatred of cats. “It’s like speciesism, racism, whatever other -ism,” says Becky Robinson.

Conservationists say cat advocates are bullies who prey on people’s emotional attachment to cats in order to promote a practice that is detrimental to the environment and public health. They point to studies like California professor Travis Longcore’s “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap–Neuter–Return” as evidence that TNR doesn’t really work, and brandish reports about dolphins in Florida and otters in California infected by toxoplasmosis as proof of harm resulting from their irresponsible insistence on it. “This is not about bad animal behavior,” Fenwick says. “This is about bad human behavior.”

Cat advocates say the conservationists have wildly exaggerated the numbers in hopes of fulfilling a hate-filled agenda. “The bird people—” says Hoffman, who pauses to utter a disclaimer made by everyone herein, that these labels are unfortunate, that she loves birds as well as cats, but when it comes to this issue, one is either a bird person or a cat person, like one is Sunni or Shiite, a Blood or a Crip—“the bird people have distorted any research that has ever been done on the impact of feral cats.” They point to instances where they say TNR has worked, like on the campus of the University of Central Florida.

“That’s not a study,” sneers Ed Clark. “That’s a letter home from summer camp.”

But the cat people hold the trump card, and the conservationists know it. The likelihood of anyone other than Fenwick signing the order condemning masses of America’s favorite pet to death is slim. “You have to think about what we want as Americans,” says Robinson. Sure, she feels bad that cats kill birds, she says, but it’s their nature.

“But it’s not nature,” Fenwick explodes. “Cats are not native species.”

Robinson takes equal umbrage at this argument, which to her sounds frankly un-American. “What does that even mean, native species?” she demands. “Like the white man? Are we native?” she asks, gesturing at the space between us. “If we got rid of all the native species, all that would be left is Indians. And we did a good job of annihilating them.”

Immersed in their mind-bendingly toxic argument, the two groups fail to see the ways they could help each other. “It’s unfortunate,” says Bob Sallinger of the Audubon Society of Portland, Oregon, which so far is the only organization to reach across the aisle. “The American Bird Conservancy and Alley Cat Allies have dominated the issue, and they are mirror images of each other.” The Portland Audubon Society’s arrangement with the local feral-cat group, with whom they partner on PSAs about spaying and neutering and keeping cats indoors, has seen Sallinger shunned by his own people. “Ted Williams in Audubon magazine said we were intimidated,” he says, laughing incredulously. “Intimidated! We were one of the first litigants that triggered the spotted-owl wars! We’re not afraid of a fight.”

According to Fenwick, this is more than a fight. “This,” he says, sitting underneath a headdress spiked with replicas of feathers from the Bolivian blue-throated macaw, “is a war.”

And the way people at war behave makes the animal kingdom look like The Lion King. Last summer, Ken Ross was called to a crime scene in Putnam County. A dead cat had been placed at an intersection, its head severed from its body. Weeks later, another was shot in the back. Looking down at its limp body, he asked himself a question. “Do we have a serial killer out there torturing cats, or do we have a situation where the cats are such a problem that people are taking things into their own hands?”


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