He is Bill Johnson, the chief executive officer of the federally owned power and utilities company, the Tennessee Valley Authority
Pete Marra is haunted by cats. He sees them everywhere: slinking down alleys, crouched under porches, glaring at him out of wild, starved eyes.
People assume that Marra, head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and author of the recent book Cat Wars, hates cats. This is not the case. “I love cats,” he says, calling them “fascinating, magnificent animals,” that seem to have a “freakish love for me.” He’s even considered a pet cat, despite being mildly allergic. “This is the thing people don’t realize,” Marra told me recently at a café near his office in Washington, D.C. “I’m both a wild animal advocate and a domestic animal advocate. If my mother thought I wasn’t supporting cats, she’d be flipping in her grave.”
It’s an understandable mistake. After all, Marra has made himself the public face of what sounds a lot like an anti-cat crusade. For years, the wildlife ecologist has been investigating the lethal implications of cats and urging that pet owners keep them indoors. Now, he argues in Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer, co-authored with freelance writer Chris Santella, the time has come for more drastic action: a concerted, nationwide effort to rid the landscape of cats. (The book is based on Marra’s personal and scientific research, and the views and conclusion are expressly his own and do not represent those of the Smithsonian Institution.)
That effort will require an ugly reality: the targeted killing of felines. “No one likes the idea of killing cats,” Marra concludes in his book. “But sometimes, it is necessary.”
Marra might like cats. But he also sees a bigger picture. In his day job, he and his team at the migratory bird center track the global movements of birds and tease apart threats to their existence. He knows that birds don’t just twit around pointlessly. They pollinate plants, spread seeds, control insects and protect environments from the effects of climate change; they are the glue that binds healthy ecosystems together. “Birds are critical,” he says. And outdoor cats, he and other ecologists have determined, are the leading human-influenced cause of dead birds.
In 1962, biologist Rachel Carson wrote that “in nature nothing exists alone.” Marra couldn’t agree more. Like Carson, he thinks of life on Earth as a complex tapestry in which each species represents a single thread. Outdoor cats threaten that tapestry. Their crimes include contributing to 33 extinctions around the world and counting, to say nothing of their potential to spread deadly diseases like rabies and Toxoplasmosis. They hold in tooth and claw the power to destroy that delicate web—like, well, a cat unraveling a ball of string.
Americans own about 86 million cats, or one cat for every three households. That makes cats more popular, petwise, than dogs, and we haven’t even gotten to Internet memes yet. But not all pet cats are created equal. The majority of them—about two-thirds to three-fourths, surveys say—are your sweet, harmless, cuddly housecats, which seldom set foot outside. Marra takes no issue with these lap cats. Their instincts may be lethal, but they rarely get the chance to harm more than a house mouse.
The other one-quarter to one-third, though, aren’t so harmless. These are outdoor pet cats, and they are murderers. Equipped with laser-quick paws and razor-tipped claws, these natural born killers are the stuff of every bird and small mammal’s nightmare. Often we love them for just this quality; the hard-working barn cat has nipped many a country mouse infestation in the bud. But sometimes their deadly instincts spell trouble for animals and ecosystems we value—and often, Marra argues, desperately need.
Marra tells the story of Tibbles the cat, who traveled with her owner to an untouched island south of New Zealand in 1894. There, she single-pawedly caused the extinction of the Stephens Island wren, a small, flightless bird found only in that part of the world. Most cats aren’t as deadly as Tibbles, but your average outdoor pet cat still kills around two animals per week, according to the Wildlife Society and the American Bird Conservancy. The solution for these cats is simple, says Marra: Bring them indoors. The Humane Society of the United States agrees.
So far, so good. Now comes the real problem: unowned cats, which include strays and ferals. Born in the wild or abandoned, feral cats spend almost no time with humans; they’re basically wild animals. Stray cats, by contrast, often have a working relationship with humans. They might live in managed communities, where a human caretaker regular feeds and watches over them—“subsidizing” them, in Marra’s words—meaning their numbers can soar to rates they wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Whether stray or feral, these cats kill on average three times as many animals as owned cats, according to Marra.
No one knows exactly how many stray and feral cats stalk the U.S. They are, by nature, elusive and transient. In a 2012 study, Marra used an estimate of 30 to 80 million; the Humane Society estimates a more conservative 30 to 40 million. Adithya Sambamurthy from the Center for Investigative Reporting’s The Reveal recently reported that unowned cats may rival the number of pet cats, placing them at about 80 million. That means, for every lap cat hunkering over his dish of Fancy Feast, there is another one prowling around for his dinner—like an evil twin, or a particle of antimatter.
For these cats, there is no easy solution. This is where Marra’s unorthodox plan comes into play. As he writes:
“In high-priority areas there must be zero tolerance for free-ranging cats. If the animals are trapped, they must be removed from the area and not returned. If homes cannot be found for the animals and no sanctuaries or shelters are available, there is no choice but to euthanize them. If the animals cannot be trapped, other means must be taken to remove them from the landscape—be it the use of select poisons or the retention of professional hunters. “
Feral cat advocates and ecologists agree on very little. But one thing they both will say is this: There are too many cats outside. Feral cat advocates say these dense numbers threaten the welfare of cats themselves, which lead miserable lives colored by fights and starvation. Ecologists, meanwhile, worry about those cats’ victims—as well whether the cats might be spreading disease to humans and other animals.
For Marra, it is clear that outdoor cats represent the Silent Spring of our time. Not only are cats the single worst threat to birds caused directly by humans, but they are also the easiest problem to fix, as compared to many-leveled threats like climate change. For him, it is obvious what we must do. Yet he is also starting to understand the challenge of making others see the world as he does. “To me, this should be the low-hanging fruit,” he says. “But as it turns out, it might be easier stopping climate change than stopping cats.”