Conservationists believe cats are the zombie apocalypse of biodiversity and must be eradicated from the outdoors using “any means necessary”. This coded language is used for trapping, shooting, poisoning, and trapping. Many media outlets portray cats as superpredators and murderers. Australia even declared a “war” on cats.
Moral panics are when people feel a threat to their lives, society, or the environment. A moral panic can affect your ability to think clearly and take responsibility. Although the moral panic about cats is rooted in valid concerns about native species being threatened, it masks the true driver: human greed for the natural world. This false crisis is also fueled by scientific errors.
Conservationists and media frequently claim that cats are the main cause of mass extinction. This is a devastating loss of species caused by human activities like habitat destruction and killing of wildlife.
We examined the claim as a multidisciplinary team of ethicists and scientists who study animals in conservation. As any predator, cats can also suppress prey populations. However, ecologically speaking, this effect can be quite extensive.
Cats can have a different impact on urban areas, deserts, and small islands. Small animals that live in areas where there is no vegetation are at greatest risk of being evicted by humans. They have no shelter to hide and are therefore more vulnerable to cats.
When humans kill apex prey, small animals are also at risk. This is because they normally suppress cat activity and densities. In the U.S., cats are a favourite meal for urban coyotes who have moderate feline impact. In Australia, however, dingoes hunt wild cat, which alleviates pressure on small native animals.
The case against cats becomes even more shakier when you add in the contrary evidence. In some cases, cats can even help to conserve endangered birds by eating rats and mice in certain ecological settings. It is also possible for cats to coexist with native prey species.
Cats play different predatory roles in different landscapes, both natural and man-made. Scientists can’t assume that cats are a problem in all places just because they are problematic in certain areas.
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Failure in scientific reasoning
Our most recent publication in Conservation Biology examines a mistake of reasoning that supports the moral panic about cats.
Scientists don’t just collect data and analyze it. Scientists don’t just collect data and analyze it. They also create a logic argument to explain what they see. The reasoning behind a factual assertion is just as important as the observations that support it. This reasoning is what cat claims about global biodiversity are founded on. We found that this happens because scientists often use local, specific studies, and then generalize their findings to the entire world.
Even though some studies may be excellent overall, if the ecological context is not considered, it can lead to unscientific generalizations. This is similar to taking a quote from context and then making assumptions about its meaning.