Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Is this kitty a killer?

Look at the book cover to your left. Look at that little black and white face. I ask you, is that the face of a killer?

Now, I write murder mysteries, but even for me that question might sound a bit odd.I mean, I’ve always promised my readers that no matter how many human bodies stack up, I will never hurt or kill a cat in one of my books. But make a kitty the murderer? Well, it’s a possibility.

You see, the seed for my new Theda Krakow book, Cries and Whiskers, was planted a few years ago by an email. That email was about a prominent animal rights group. It said PETA KILLS PETS. Well, I didn’t know what to believe, so I followed the links, did some reading and talked to some people – and found myself smack in the middle of a debate that pitted animal rights against animal welfare advocates.

In brief, and to vastly oversimplify, I should explain: Animal Rights people basically regard us all as equal creatures. Animal Welfare people see us - humans - as as, well, dominant and thus responsible for the care of animals, including those we’ve domesticated.

So where’s the conflict? Well, some animal rights people - not all - think that we should eliminate domestic animals. They look around at the damage that domestic animals, such as my beloved cats, do to native species – birds, voles, whatever – and regard them as hostile invaders. This topic has recently come to a more general audience thanks to a New York Times Magazine article that discussed predation, referring to a recent case in Texas of a birder who shot a cat because it was hunting piping plovers, which are endangered. The magazine article cites the World Conservation Union as saying that domestic cats are among the 100 worst invasive species.

So, in other words, these particular animal rights people are the folks who would answer yes - that cute kitty is a murderer! Animal welfare people, and I guess I’m in that camp, say theres a middleground - that we owe something to these animals that we created.

But what? Well, to some extent, there’s a compromise that can settle part of this conflict. Keep your cats inside! It’s better for the birds - and its healthier for the cats as well. And if you think your cat will be deprived, think again. Cats are obligate carnivores - hunters. They have short bursts of energy and they sleep or rest - as many of you know - at least 70 percent of the time.

Play with them 20 minutes maybe twice a day, and you’ll have given them sufficient excercise. Then give them a nice window seat, maybe a pillow or a blanket, where they can watch the birds. That's all you need to do. You'll be saving birds. And you’ll save them from dangers ranging from poisoning by antifreeze to being eaten by coyotes and fishers. Yes, there are coyotes in man suburbs now. And you’ll save your pet from the risk of being shot by an avid birder

But this compromise doesn’t help with a bigger part of the problem: Ferals. Ferals, after all, are domestic animals - such as cats, though there are also feral pigs and dogs - that have been abandoned and “gone wild.” Often feral colonies contain multiple generations - animals that have grown up in the wild and are no better suited to be pets than a bobcat or a lynx would be. But they are not wild, not “Native” - and they do hunt to live.

There are people are working with feral cats. Some people trap them and keep them inside, but that has its own problems. What is more common is TNR - trap, neuter, return, in which the cats are trapped, then often vaccinated and always neutered, and then released back to the area and social community they know. This is another compromise, and not without its critics. Some people call it abandonment - but many see it as the only practical solution. But it’s only a partial solution. The colonies may not grow (or they wouldn't if we could get people to stop abandoning their pets), but they are still out there, suffering through all kinds of weather and, yes, hunting to live. And so even TNR doesn’t resolve the basic conflict.

When Cries and Whiskers opens, a woman is out in a winter storm, trying to trap and save cats that have lost their last bit of shelter. But it’s a touchy subject and as my heroine Theda and her buddy Violet find out soon, things can get violent. After all, the winter can be deadly to animals and people alike – and in Cries and Whiskers Theda and Violet have to deal not only with winter storms but also a deadly designer drug, s money-hungry developers and people of strong – some might say rabid – convictions. A lot of these people mean well, but as we all know, sometimes the best intentions go very far astray.

The above is a version of a guest blog I did for Working Stiffs, which then evolved into a talk I gave at Partners and Crime, Harvard Book Store, and Brookline Booksmith last week and this past week. It has sparked some lively discussions, so I thought I'd reproduce it here. By the way, I signed stock at all three of these bookstores, so if you're looking for a signed copy, click on through to them. They'll ship your signed copy to you.


Caroline said...

I find all of this fascinating. But I've seen the devotion dogs give their owners--would animal rights people say that this is conditioned response? And the cat I had as a child was devoted to my mother to the point of near insanity. Again, is this a conditioned response?

I'd also like to ask what may seem a facetious question, but I'm very serious. We have a mouse problem. Would animal rights groups say to live and let live?

Clea Simon said...

They probably would, Caroline! They'd say the mice are native and we're the invaders!

As for devotion, they'd probably say that's a pack response - dogs and cats maybe see us as the dominant animals in their group. Any other thoughts, folks?

Liz said...

In New Zealand a study recently found that cats protected rare birds. When cats were cleared from an island where the rare bird breeds fewer chicks were hatched. The rats ate the eggs and the rats flourished without the cats!

I wrote about it in my cat blog:

Clea Simon said...

Wow - I have to read your blog. Are the cats feral? Are the rats? I'm wondering if either predator is native or if this is a case of two feral animals cancelling each other out.

Linda L. Richards said...

This is an issue that comes up quite a bit in my area. For various reasons, we have a large feral cat population and some people say they threaten the local songbird population. For my part, I hear songbirds all the time, but have seen very few of the cats, so...

There's a program in place here just as you say: to trap the ferals, neuter them, find homes for the babies, and return the adults to the wild. (My partner and I are actually on a waiting list for one of these wild babies. Oooh... fodder for my blog in the new year!)

I know there are other alternatives to releasing them, but they're unthinkable. I mean, you can't make a pet of an adult feral, can you? So what's left? Destroying them? How is thay better? (Clearly, in this forum, that's rhetorical. I don't imagine you standing up for those who would put them down!)

Liz said...

Hi Clea- to answer your question the rats are not native to New Zealand. One type of rat arrived with the first people to populate NZ, Maori, around 600- 800 years ago. Europeans brought more on their ships in the 1800s. Cats came with the Europeans.

In fact only one mammal is native to NZ and that is a bat. We have several flightless birds which are at risk. They had no need to fly until rats, stoats and cats arrived.

Thanks for responding. Its an interesting topic.

Clea Simon said...

Thanks for filling me in, Liz. So in the NZ case, it's one feral canceling out another ... very interesting!