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To kiss or kill a feral cat


Feral cat stalking through dry grassLast night I was awoken by violent thumps from the ceiling above my bed. It was not Rodents Of Unusual Size that were causing the disturbance. It was a lithe mottled feral cat I sometimes see lurking behind our pumpkins.

Whenever I catch a glimpse of the cat, I have to fight bipolar animal-lover urges. The sentimental kitty-lover in me wants to domesticate the animal: lure it in with milk and sardines, then trap it into a co-dependent relationship where I rub its velvety chin and weep to it about my romantic follies.

My other urge is the environmentally responsible one: to take it to the vet and have it put down humanely.

I don't come to this particular mindset lightly. Until I was 12, the centre of my world was a long-haired tabby called Katie.

She was everything that I was not: elegant, discriminate and, despite her fluffy exterior, tough to the core. She was also slightly brain-damaged, to the effect that she attacked people's ankles without warning. But that's neither here nor there. I am a human being, and so my base inclination is to project my desire onto other species, and to believe that all other species exist to serve me.

Katie probably wasn't the elegant sass-talker I believed she was — it's more likely she was just a cold-blooded killer who was lucky to have her lifestyle subsidised by a small human being dispensing food and hugs.

When she died I was devastated, but I never replaced her. A few years later, I stopped eating meat for ethical and environmental reasons, and for the ensuing decade, I haven't been able to justify the resources and the cruelty of factory farming that goes into nourishing domestic carnivores.

In 2009, a New Zealand study published in New Scientist found that over the course of their lives, medium-sized dogs leave a carbon footprint 2.1 times that of an SUV. Cats leave a footprint the same as a VW Golf.

Cats are also responsible for 33 avian extinctions worldwide, and cause the greatest number of avian deaths every year: one billion birds are killed by cats each year in the US alone (the Gulf of Mexico oil spill killed 'only' 225,000). New Zealand entrepreneur and philanthropist Garath Morgan recently pushed for New Zealanders to pledge to neuter their cats and not replace them when they die in order to replenish native bird populations.

His pledge made international headlines, and sparked controversy among pet owners, as well as providing hours of reading, if you can stand to read internet comments: 'I feel no pity for birds since ... I've had to pick up the pitiful corpses of their babies after they have been ejected from their nest by their parents ...'; 'Hunters actually keep deer populations in check'; 'Cat owners are more selfish and thoughtless than dog owners'.

The problem is not our adorable animal companions — they didn't choose to be both carnivorous and cute, and they aren't responsible for factory farming or their own basic instincts. It's we who are responsible. In sentimentalising cats and dogs, we neglect our own disturbing role in the environmental destruction they cause.

Domestic cats have no natural habitat, and because their food stocks are supplemented by humans, they can reach densities of more than 100 times that of native carnivores. In terms of carbon output, not owning a dog is one of the most significant contributions you can make to reduce your long-term environmental damage.

So how does pet ownership slip under the environmentalist radar, when driving, flying, and meat consumption are central talking points?

The existence of domestic pets is predicated on the sentimentalisation of speciesism: the idea that we are inherently different from, and superior to, all other animal species, and that we consequently have the right to exploit them to our own ends. In the case of pets, the end is companionship. We identify with our pets, and in doing so, prevent them from living according to their instincts, and put other animal species at risk.

I'm not proposing pets be outlawed, but rather that pet owners take the time to consider the impact of pets on their own welfare, other animals, and the environment. A change of heart is urgent. How many cat and dog owners 'love animals' enough to condemn animal slaughter?

Ellena Savage headshotEllena Savage is a Eureka Street columnist and editor of Middlebrow, the arts liftout in The Lifted Brow

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, pet ownership, feral cats



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Existing comments

I adore cats. Cat companions enrich my life which I would find not worth living without one. However I wouldn't object to the humane destruction of a few smug cows.

Solange | 15 February 2013  

Thank you Ellena for this article because it made me think. I am a sentimental, anthropocentric and besotted twit when it comes to cats. We have not had one since the last one died (aged 19) six years ago, and your article has persuaded me that we don't need another one.

Paul Collins | 15 February 2013  

Admirable sentiments, Ellena, but you haven't suggested the simplest way of keeping the bird population safe and that is keeping the pet pussycat inside. All the same sentiments could also be applied to one's offspring (except the neutering and that could be a moot point) since said offspring have a significant impact on environment and other animals. Meanwhile, get that feral cat trapped and humanely destroyed - now that's social responsibility!

JR | 15 February 2013  

My daughter has been home for some months, with a cat. I didn't want it here at all but she just moved in and we had to deal with it. Our garden is full of birds and lizards. I sent my daughter out to get a harness for the cat, and made sure there was no escape for it from the house. What a miserable way to live, two walks a day in the garden, always trying to hunt, rushing up trees to get at birds. Hopeless! Now gone, thankfully, but there really is no excuse for keeping a cat, either inside or outside. Keep a guinea pig if you are that desperate for company, or chickens for that matter, and get a few eggs for your troubles.

janice wallace | 15 February 2013  

Sigh...Janice you clearly don't care for cats and perhaps there is no more excuse for having cats than there is for having children. However unlike guinea pigs and chooks they are capable of learning and most cats will eventually adapt to living inside -pretty easy when most of these creatures spend 16 hours a d ay asleep ( half their luck). They also don't generate nearly the amount of shit as the average guines pig or chook and and are good company. Ever tried to establish a relationship with either a guines pig or a chook? Well-nigh hopeless.

JR | 15 February 2013  

Our family pet is a chocolate kelpie named Russ. He is a medium-sized dog who likes to be patted and is frightened of storms. I take note, though, of Christopher Smart's closing lines in his poem "My Cat, Jeoffrey": For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements/For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer/For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadrupede/For he can tread to all the measures upon the music/For he can swim for life/For he can creep.

Pam | 15 February 2013  

Cats are needed to keep down rats and mice; dogs can guard against intruders, lonely people have companionship. Two dogs are fairer than one dog, for the sake of the dogs. But apart from that, they should not be kept, for all the reasons Ellena gives, plus the amount of other animals needed to feed them. Nobody needs more than two dogs or one cat. Noone in bushland areas should keep any. I have birds and small animals such as frogs for my pets,

valerie yule | 15 February 2013  

Any knowledge of history and human evolution would tell you that the partnership between domesticated animals, and particularly dogs, has been anything but "sentimentalising". It has been for thousands of years the basis on which our development from hunter-gatherers into farmers, and the development of towns, has been based. Animals for food, transport and protection have been vital. Horses, oxen and dogs have played major roles in our development and return we have protected and fed them. A genuine partnership. Circumstances have changed, but that age-old partnership endures and should endure. The fad of the moment, middle-class angst, should not allow us to sweep under the carpet the enduring partnerships with allied species of animals.

G. Hartcher | 15 February 2013  

I own neither a cat nor a dog, but I know several people for whom keeping a pet is by no means some kind of trivial self-indulgence, as this article seems to imply, but a very real key to mental health. The psychological benefits of pet ownership, particularly for the elderly and those living alone, are well-attested. Desperate maladies may require desperate remedies, of course. There are people who believe, in all seriousness, that the very existence of human beings has been so disastrous for the planet that the only moral alternative is for us to voluntarily phase ourselves out. But we should always be wary of this kind of chilling hyper-rationality, which Swift exposes to such devastating effect in A Modest Proposal. I cannot help but notice here a certain whiff of the thinking behind such disasters as The Cultural Revolution.

Cassandra | 15 February 2013  

JR, I have never had any contact with a guinea pig, but I can attest to several mutually respectful relationships with chooks. You just have to learn to think like a bird, that's all. Oh, and refrain from "patting" - they don't like it.

Janet | 15 February 2013  

Personally i would get rid of the SUVs and keep the dog and take it for a walk! I've never yet met a car that wagged its tail when it greeted me. Dogs decided many centuries ago to make us their companions and I'm glad they did. And walking the dog would makes you both healthy! And I'd feed the little "feral"cat - it may be abandoned and scared (with good reason if it thinks it might end up being "humanely" killed) rather than truly feral. I imagine it enjoys living as much as any other creature - including ourselves. Plus I think it's damaging to our own souls to to initiate the death of another creature because we label it "destructive" or because we want to adhere to some notion of what it is to be environmentally responsible - there are so many opinions on this. And surely it's just another type of speciesism if we humans decide which animals to keep and which to get rid of? Unfortunately we still remain the most destructive animals on the planet ps if you want a gentle intelligent herbivore for a pet get a rabbit- they are the most wonderful and lovely animals to observe and know

Ann Beatty | 15 February 2013  

Thanks Janet, but I have no empathy with the bird brained-magpies respectfully excepted. As for "patting" a chook; wouldn't bother.

JR | 15 February 2013  

I'll certainly be recycling our cats, chickens and budgies and replacing them with a family of VW Golfs and a couple of small appliances. Because some idiots have concluded in a study that to do so would be better for the environment. Let's put aside the assumption that the study is correct, and remember that pets are part of the environment. This attempt to idealize nature as some kind of Eden-like wonderland that is somehow separate from us and needs to be kept pristine is hang over from a pre-Darwin Christian mentality in which humans are awarded sovereignity over 'all things bright and beautiful'. Sorry but no one's getting back into Eden by earning environmental Brownie points. It's all a soup, all simmering away together, all of it red in tooth and claw. If an animal makes it to a new location, succeeds in that environment over other species, that is nature at its finest. If that animal makes it to that new environment alongside humans, that only goes to show that cuteness is itself a natural and powerful survival trait.

Craig | 16 February 2013  

It would be interested to see a comparative 'study' to compare destruction of life (animal and human) by humans to that of cats! How many plant, bird and animal species have become extinct courtesy of human greed and indifference. I am not a cat owner - but leave the cats alone until humans stopped killing and maiming, each other and G-d's creatures.

Lynn Mortimer | 17 February 2013  

Life without a dog would not be worth living.

Penelope | 11 May 2013  

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