Zeke, a white and gray shorthair cat with a penchant for destroying rats, is known in his Boston neighborhood as a fearless wanderer.
At one point, a neighbor called its owner, Tricia Brennan, sounding slightly panicked.
“Zeke is in the back and it looks like he’s fighting a raccoon,” the neighbor said, according to Ms. Brennan, a Unitarian Universalist minister.
“‘What to do?'”
The showdown ended when the neighbor scared off both creatures with a broom, but the story only cemented Zeke’s legend. It was also a reminder that cats are descendants of the Near Eastern wildcat, a fierce, solitary hunter.
You’ve seen them out there — well-fed cats, sometimes with collars, stalking the streets like they own them or collapsing on a warm sidewalk to bask in the sun.
Cat lovers find them charming. Wildlife and bird lovers see furry killers and blame them for the decline in bird populations and the deaths of untold numbers of voles, chipmunks and other small animals.
How you feel about outdoor cats can also depend on where you are in the world. In the United States, about 81 percent of domestic cats are kept inside, according to a 2021 pet cat demographic study. But elsewhere, it may be far more common to let them roam. In Denmark, only 17 percent of cats are strictly indoor pets, according to the same study. In Turkey, it is so common for feral cats to roam freely in and out of cafes, restaurants and markets that a documentary was made about the phenomenon. In Poland, they were recently called “invasive alien species.”
And in Britain, where the 2021 study said 74 per cent of cat owners let their felines roam outside, many cat charities are advising pet owners on the best ways to keep cats safe outdoors. The idea can be shocking to their American counterparts, who often refuse to adopt cats to people who want to keep their pets outside.
“We’ve always done it this way,” said Nicky Trevorrow, a cat behaviourist at Cats Protection in Britain, who encourages owners to bring cats in at night and feed them high-quality diets to prevent aggressive behavior.
The fascinating world of birds
“As a behaviourist,” Ms Trevorrow said, “I would have to say very much that I’m in the camp of giving cats room to breathe and be outside.”
But should cats have this much freedom?
“We can only get them so many animals.”
During most of the 20th century, most cats stayed outside, said David Grimm, author of “Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relation with Cats and Dogs” and deputy news editor at Science.
The invention of kitty litter in 1947 made indoor cats more acceptable.
“But even then, people considered cats the least domesticated animal,” Mr Grimm said. “And nobody wants to clean a litter box.”
In 1949, the Illinois General Assembly passed the “Cat Sickness,” a measure intended to protect birds that would have fined people who let their cats outdoors. Governor Adlai Stevenson vetoed the bill.
“It’s in the nature of cats to do a certain amount of unescorted roaming,” he said in a letter to lawmakers. “In my opinion, the State of Illinois and its local governing bodies already have enough to do without trying to control feline delinquency.”
It wasn’t until the 1980s and early ’90s that more Americans began bringing their cats indoors as conservationists warned of declining bird populations and veterinarians warned that an outdoor cat was more prone to diseases, pests and infections and could be vulnerable to attack. from larger predators such as coyotes and hawks, or speeding cars.
But many owners have also felt conflicted about keeping a curious, restless creature inside, said Mr. Grimm, who has trained his own cats to walk on leashes when outside.
Keeping them in “didn’t feel right,” he said. “Just like I wouldn’t keep my kids inside all day. We can only get them so many animals.”
Mrs. Brennan, Zeke’s owner, tried to keep him inside at first. But she clicked her heels together, slapped Mrs Brennan’s hair and lashed out so hard her teenage daughter was locked in her room.
“It’s an uneasy peace you make,” said Ms. Brennan, 65, “having an outdoor cat.”
A killer named Tibbles?
Wildlife experts often tell the story of Tibbles, a cat who traveled with his owner to New Zealand in 1894.
The pair settled on Stephens Island, where a species of small flightless bird abounded.
But when Tibbles arrived, alone hunted the birds to extinctionenvironmentalists claimed.
Where cats have been introduced, they have decimated native creatures, according to a 2011 study by biologists.
“I feel very strongly that it’s a pretty destructive invasive species,” said Jason Luscier, an associate professor of biology at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York. the number of outdoor cats around the world.
Professor Luscier, who stressed that he likes cats (“they’re super nice”), said it is feral cat colonies, which multiply easily and can overwhelm an ecosystem, that pose the biggest threat to birds and other wildlife. life, no outdoor pets that come in at night and are fed regular meals.
Can cats roam outside ‘without slaughter’?
Ms Trevorrow, the UK behaviourist, said people often failed to see the biggest threats facing birds, such as habitat loss and the commercial use of pesticides that kill insects, the birds’ natural prey.
“I just feel like cats are being used as a scapegoat,” Ms Trevorrow said.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Britain said the decline in bird populations has been caused mainly by man-made problems such as climate change, pollution and agricultural management.
While there is evidence that cats may kill up to 27 million birds a year in Britain, “there is also evidence that cats tend to take weak or sick garden birds,” said Anna Feeney, a spokeswoman for the organisation.
“Cats are unlikely to have a significant impact on populations,” he said in an email.
Ms Trevorrow has written guides for cat owners who want to keep their pets outside and maintain a garden that will attract birds and other pollinators.
“There is a way to have both without slaughter,” Ms Trevorrow said.
However, the best way to keep your cat—and the wildlife—safe is to keep it on a leash, keep it in a fenced-in area, or build a catio that allows it to play outside without exposed to the elements. , said Dr. José Arce, veterinarian and president of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Not all cats love the great outdoors.
Kelly Goshe said two of her family’s three cats, Catson and Puff, are determined hunters. They roam around their deck and backyard in suburban Cleveland under the watchful eye of her children, Sylvia, 9; Corinna, 7; and Wesley, 4.
The cats gave them little choice, he said. Cutson “will do anything to get out,” Sylvia said.
Puff has figured out how to open the sliding door with her feet, she said.
But Luna, Puff’s sister, is afraid to go outside.
“We let her stand by the screen door,” said Mrs. Gosse. “He’ll just look at it and run away.”
Susan C. Beachy contributed to the research.