Almost everyone has seen them: stray cats that are homeless and live outside, or cats whose owners allow them to spend time outdoors. Regardless of the type of outdoor cat, there are those who say these cats catch pests and should have the right to live outside while others contend that they cause problems for the natural environment. Though cat predation of local wildlife has been previously studied, who is it that is really concerned about the issue of outdoor cats and how do their opinions differ or coincide about what to do with them?
A recent study published in Biological Conservation sought to answer those questions. They noted that the liveliest debate over outdoor cat management strategies occurred between two main stakeholders: wildlife advocates and animal rights activists. Rather than simply focusing on public opinion polls, the researchers find that we must take into consideration the input of these stakeholders in order to find what the two groups have in common in terms of perceptions and strategies for managing outdoor cats.
The wildlife advocates, sometimes thought of as the bird nerds and tree huggers, are often represented by the Audubon Society, a bird and conservation advocacy organization, representing the first stakeholder in this issue. As a group, they tend to highlight the risks that outdoor cats present to wildlife, proposing euthanization to manage the cat populations. Across the aisle sit the animal rights activists, or “crazy” cat people, who underscore the benefits of outdoor cats and propose trap-neuter-return (TNR) strategies for management. Often the media has portrayed these two groups as being completely polarized rather than pointing to some of their commonalities, something the researchers wanted to investigate.
In their study, survey methodology was employed to get a representative sample of the Florida general population, as well as representative sample of both Audubon and TNR stakeholders, to then use both univariate and multivariate analyses to examine the data. The researchers defined outdoor cats as those that may be owned or un-owned, that may be social or unsocial, and that may spend all or some of their time outside.
The aims of the study were to identify similarities in stakeholder opinion – what do the bird nerds and cat lovers have in common? – about management of outdoor cats, specifically examining their attitudes and beliefs about outdoor cats, perceptions of cat impacts on the environment, and attitudes about how to manage them.
The results do show some commonalities, but also some key differences. Cat advocates, as measured by support of TNR policies, expressed significantly more positive attitudes about outdoor cats than Audubon members or even the general public. They were also significantly more likely to agree with the positive impacts of outdoor cats to people and nature. Conversely, the Audubon members not only expressed negative attitudes about outdoor cats, but also identified with negative statements about the consequences of outdoor cat populations.
Members of the general public, however, tended to fall more toward neutral responses. This highlights the problem of exclusively using public opinion surveys without considering key stakeholders. Because the general public does not have a strong opinion about this subject, they are particularly vulnerable to biased terminology that can result in inaccurate responses, underscoring the need for neutral survey wording.
Yet despite their differences, there are there are key similarities among the conservationists, animal rights organizers, and the general public. A majority of respondents (83 percent) preferred non-lethal management methods, while only 13 percent preferred lethal management and 4 percent said to do nothing. The most preferred management method was trap-neuter-release (TNR), with the general public more supportive if this were the least costly option. There was also widespread support for mandatory rabies vaccination and own identification.
Some are still not completely satisfied, however. Remaining concerns about TNR methods, especially by some Audubon members underscores the importance of developing new, non-lethal management methods such as collar-mounted bibs, cat free zones, mandatory spay and neutering, and a limit to the number of cats per household. It remains unknown, however, whether any of these methods would gain more widespread support than TNR, so for the time being, we’re left with that.
For conservation efforts in general, it is important to understand public opinion, including those of stakeholders, about animals and the environment because these attitudes can influence how we manage or address certain animal populations. For outdoor cat populations, it is important to not only consider stakeholder opinion, but actively work to find commonalities in opinions and strategies to work toward more effective management solutions that are humane to cats while also protecting the natural wildlife. That way both the bird nerds and cat lovers can walk away satisfied.
Wald, D.M, Jacobson, S.K, and Levy, J.K. Outdoor cats: Identifying differences between stakeholder beliefs, perceived impacts, risk, and management. Biological Conservation 167: 414-424.
By Colleen Fugate (modern)