Libby Watson writing on splinternews.com coins a term which I like: birdheads. It’s a derivation of ‘petrolheads’ (car lovers) and it is very apt. It applies to ornithologists and people such as Jonathan Franzen, an American novelist and essayist, who prefers birds to cats. He thinks they are more important. And he believes that the bird community needs to focus on getting rid of feral cats which for him means killing them – as many as possible and as fast as possible – in the interest of the conservation of America’s native birds.
Libby Watson makes a good point. She says that cats are not a threat to mankind’s survival as mankind itself is but are simply a threat to birds. And when Jonathan Franzen argues that we are morally justified in killing feral cats en masse because of all the birds that they are killing he is simply saying that he likes birds more than he likes cats. It is nothing to do with conservation or nature. It is simply a preference for one species over another. And that is clearly wrong and it cannot be a reason why people should kill one species to preserve another.
There is however one caveat and it is a point that Libby Watson has omitted, regrettably. It is a point which constantly recurs and which sadly undermines the status of feral and domestic cats on two continents in the eyes of humans. In both North America and Australia the domestic and feral cat is what is described as a non-native species (introduced species). It did not evolve on those continents. The domestic cat’s ancestor is the North African wildcat of the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East.
If the domestic and feral cat was native to North America it would place in stark relief relief the speciesism of ornithologists, cat haters and some scientists and in this case a novelist and essayist, Franzen. Speciesism is the preference of one species over another for no particular reason other than one’s own personal preferences.
But as the domestic cat is non-native to America, when people argue against the domestic cat they will justify their speciesism by implying that domestic and feral cats are of a lower status than the native birds of North America. It is a point which regularly arises in discussions on how to deal with feral cats in Australia. People sometimes equate non-native species to pests to be eradicated.
It is remarkable that even though the domestic cat was imported into America it is thought with the settlers from Europe in the early 1600s, over 400 years ago, they are still technically non-native to the continent.
But should non-native species have a lower status that native species? Sometimes non-native species serve good purposes and they become entirely integrated into the ecosystem of a continent. Eradicating them can have unforeseen consequences. When that happens shouldn’t people in authority put aside speciesism when making decisions about the conservation of native species and place the feral cat on the same level of importance as native birds?
Finally, Canis lupus familiaris (the dog) is non-native to America. The dog does not prey upon the native birds of America but feral and domestic dogs cause a lot of damage to humans but I never see them being criticized because they are a non-native species (4.5 million dog bites occur in the United States every year, and 900,000 of those bites become infected – CDC). Speciesism again?