For years, there has been conflict over how to manage outdoor cats, with the liveliest debate occurring between wildlife advocates and animal rights activists, two key stakeholders in this issue. According to a Florida research team, there is significant difference between these two groups and public opinion, causing us to not only draw upon commonalities for managing outdoor cats, but also to reassess the usefulness of public opinion surveys which often systematically exclude key stakeholder opinions.
Published in the journal Biological Conservation, Wald et al. make important interventions in the outdoor cat management debate by drawing upon stakeholder input rather than just public opinion to identify key similarities in the management strategies of outdoor cats, despite media portrayal of this being an exclusively polarized debate.
The first key stakeholders are members of the Audubon Society, a bird and conservation advocacy organization that highlights the risks that outdoor cats present to wildlife, proposing euthanization to manage the cat populations. On the opposite site are cat advocates who underscore the benefits of outdoor cats and propose trap-neuter-return (TNR) strategies for management.
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 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.
Findings show that 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, highlighting the problem with 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.
Despite significant differences in stakeholder opinion about outdoor cats and their impact, there are key similarities among groups in the study. 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.
Remaining concerns about TRN 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 TRN.
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.
As shown in this study, 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.
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 (traditional)