May 2022
Alan Dean Foster

Nurture vs. Nature

My wife and I have raised and fostered a lot of cats over the years. I don’t know how you more clearly define “a lot,” but I think what qualifies is when you start forgetting names and have to begin writing them down. So I won’t try to list them all here (which would also suggest an attempt to falsely pad the word count in this column, so we’ll give formal feline nomenclature a pass).

Every one of them has been kept as an indoor cat. I do occasionally allow MK, one of our current cats, outside for a short saunter. But only when I can go with her. There is a personal reason and a scientific reason for this.

The personal reason is because I don’t think anyone in Prescott who truly loves their cat will allow them outside unaccompanied. This isn’t Manhattan. There are predators everywhere (okay, there are predators in Manhattan too, but nearly all are of the two-legged variety, and that’s for a different column). While most are interested in less dangerous prey (rabbits, rock squirrels, chipmunks, lizards), there are some large and strong enough to take a house cat — first and foremost, coyotes. More rarely, foxes and hawks. At night, great horned owls. A couple of months ago I spotted a ferruginous hawk sitting in a dead tree on the ridge above our property. It was back yesterday, an unmistakable bird. This is the largest hawk in North America and it could easily take a cat. Or a small dog. I suppose as pet owners we should be thankful we don’t have any Harpagornis around. So if you love your cat, why would you let it outside unaccompanied? It’s not like it has to be walked, like a dog. It doesn’t need acres of space to be happy.

As I said, the other reason is scientific and involves — birds.

I love cats, but I also love birds, and the inescapable fact is that the softly purring furball in your lap is also a cute little cuddly killer. It’s not their fault. Nature designed them that way. No matter how much we might like to imagine it, and despite the occasional nosh of pickle or apple, the fact is that there are no vegan cats. Left to themselves out in the wild (even the wilds of Prescott, which has considerably more wilds than Manhattan), a house cat will revert to its natural instinct to kill and consume whatever it can catch. The annual small mammal take by outdoor cats in the US is breathtaking, but the majority of small mammals killed by felines often involve mice, rats, gophers, and other unendangered critters. Birds are not nearly as fecund, and too many are endangered.

So what’s the actual number of birds killed by cats in the US?

2.4 billion. Yes, billion. That’s every year.

Nor do cats discriminate. They’re just as happy to eat a rare songbird as a common house finch. Worse, they tend to leave larger “pest” birds like urban pigeons alone. After habitat loss, in the US outdoor cats are the second-largest contributor to wild-bird mortality.

To restate: it’s how they are programmed. In their hunting and dietary habits, house cats are barely one step removed from wild felines the same size. Leopard cats in Borneo, jungle cats in India, your snoozing tabby: all would freely swap meals, including wild birds. 

So then, you say, why do I let our one cat outside for even a brief walk, even while I accompany her (for her protection)? Because she doesn’t know what to do with a bird. She’ll take a few steps toward one and then slow, giving the (doubtless contemptuous bird) ample time to leave. We have other cats I would never let outside because they plainly (by their actions) would know exactly what to do given such a confrontation, and would leave nothing in their wake but feathers.

I’ve always wondered if some clever training could break house cats of their hunting instinct. I mean, if you can educate one to use the toilet instead of a cat box …. But apparently it’s a simpler matter to train a cat where to poop than not to kill.

C’mon, then. Keep your beloved kitty inside, both to preserve it and to preserve the Prescott environment we all love. If you need a reminder about what’s at stake here, take a good look inside your cat’s mouth the next time it yawns.

No vegan, that.

Prescott resident Alan Dean Foster is the author of 130 books. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster. com.