In Defense of 'Killer' Cats
Years ago, when I was briefly an adjunct faulty member in the Communications Department at Cornell University, I remember attending a faculty meeting where a full-time tenure-track colleague was giving an advance presentation of a paper he was soon to deliver. He had conducted an experiment to see whether negative political advertising was effective or not, and concluded, after a couple of controlled tests, that it was not. I asked him who his test subjects were, and he said they were volunteer students from Cornell. I asked how representative such a test could be, if the students were from an Ivy League school, and were probably among the smartest, most intellectual young people in the country. He couldn’t really answer. Clearly, his results were meaningless at best, but hey, he would soon be delivering a paper at a prestigious conference.
I’m reminded of that flawed study by the current cat fight over a new study claiming that feral cats are the primary cause of a rapid decline in the US bird population. The authors of the study, according to a heavy-breathing report in the New York Times’ Science section today, “scaled up local and pilot studies to national dimensions,” to conclude that wild and domestic cats kill an annual 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion small mammals a year in the US. If true, this would, they say, make the cat “one of the single greatest human-linked threats to wildlife in the nation.”
I love the decimal points applied to an amalgamation of small geographic studies that all, as the Times notes, “admittedly come with wide ranges and uncertainties.” Decimal points are great tools for implying mathematical rigor when there clearly was none.
The whole thing is of course ridiculous (like those periodic scary, and always seemingly scientific, reports claiming that Iran is building a nuclear bomb, or that Mali or Somalia is about to attack the US). Feral cats have been present in abundance across the US now for a good 150 years, as cats, a European import, have followed modern Americans to occupy the continent. And as European immigrants displaced the native human population, along the way killing off competing predators like foxes, weasels, wolves, lynx, bobcats, and pumas, not to mention raptors, snakes and owls, cats replaced those lost predators==at least where small prey are involved. And yet despite this long-running holocaust, the collapse of songbird populations has been a relatively recent phenomenon, corresponding, oddly enough, not to the dispersal of non-native cats, but rather to the also more recent phenomenon of suburban sprawl and the ubiquitous impacts of the chemical herbicide and pesticide industry.