Cat Wars

Cat Wars

with Pete Marra, PhD, Research Scientist, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

Migratory Bird Center, National Zoological Park, Washington, DC


Pete Marra loves cats. They are among the many pets he’s had over the years, and they are a key part of his work as a conservation scientist. He loves wild birds, too. Unfortunately, so do cats—to the point that some studies show as many as 500 million songbirds in the U.S. are killed by cats each year.

The free-ranging domestic cat, both pet and feral, has become the most abundant mammalian predator on Earth, numbering 80 million to 120 million in this country alone. Whether they are pets that are allowed to roam, fully feral animals, or feral members of a trap/neuter/release (TNR) colony, domestic cats are by nature predators of small animals even when they are well fed by their owners. It is not surprising that cats have been responsible for numerous animal extinctions on islands. The millions of free-ranging cats in this country are inflicting similar devastation on wildlife populations.

What is the solution? It is unreasonable to expect to see the elimination of all free-ranging cats, but better education about responsible pet ownership, combined with effective regulations, could reduce their numbers. Such efforts will require more involvement by government at all levels and the implementation of mandatory licensing, more-engaged animal control programs, neutering, and indoor-cat campaigns. Although people on both sides of this debate feel passionately, there is an urgent need to come together to find common ground.

Dr. Marra is an ornithologist and conservation biologist. His book, Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer, is a compelling writing tracing the historical and cultural ties between humans and cats from early domestication to the current boom in pet ownership. Cat Wars paints a revealing picture of a complex global problem and proposes solutions that foresee a time when wildlife and humans are no longer vulnerable to the impacts of free-ranging cats.

Pete Marra is the director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in Washington, DC. His primary interests lie in understanding the factors that control population persistence and dynamics, so his research examines the roles of climate, habitat, food, and pathogens on the individual condition of both migratory and resident birds.

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