First, kill the cats

Jonah Goldberg

3/16/2005 12:00:00 AM - Jonah Goldberg

Wisconsin is considering allowing the hunting of cats. Not cougars or mountain lions or tigers on the loose but putty-tats: Sylvester the cat. Morris the cat. Garfield.

The aim is to prevent the mass-killing of birds by cats, mostly of the feral - i.e., wild - variety. In other words, some people want to give granny a shotgun so she can kill Sylvester before he gets Tweety Bird.

I'm more of a dog guy, but I like cats. Nonetheless, a cat massacre makes more sense than you might think.

Let's start with the big picture. If you know anything about American environmentalism, you know that Rachel Carson, author of "Silent Spring," is a secular saint. Time magazine named her one of the "100 People of the Century." In 1992 a highfalutin panel of distinguished experts named "Silent Spring" as the most influential book of the last half-century. "More than any other (book), it changed the way Americans, and people around the world, looked at the reckless way we live on this planet," writes Philip Shabecoff in "A Fierce Green Fire," his history of U.S. environmentalism.

As the name suggests, the thesis of "Silent Spring" was that the birds were dying from the ravages of DDT and other pesticides. The chemical was found to thin the eggshells of some species of birds, most notably eagles and falcons - which, a pedant might add, are not particularly known for their contributions to melodious springs.

Carson's science was deeply flawed, partly because we've learned a lot more since then and partly because she was interested in scoring ideological points. She asserted, for example, that DDT was a carcinogen in humans, which isn't true. For a thorough debunking of the Rachel Carson myth, see Ronald Bailey's "Silent Spring at 40" in the June 2002 issue of Reason magazine.

Anyway, while Carson's cancer scare was a big deal, the part of the book which has kept "Silent Spring" on the shelves is the bit about how spring would no longer bring a symphony of songbirds.

Well, the inconvenient truth is that cats kill more American birds, particularly songbirds, than DDT and pesticides ever did.

Wisconsin is considering allowing residents to shoot feral cats in part because a respected study found that felines kill between 7.8 million and 217 million birds in Wisconsin alone. Data from a Michigan study suggest that some 75 million birds are killed there just in the summer alone.

Estimates for how many birds cats kill in the United States vary almost as widely. The lowest estimates are around 100 million and go up to the 2.5 billion, though the consensus seems to hover around half a billion. What this leaves out, of course, is that many vulnerable bird species are particularly threatened by cats (and, alas, sometimes dogs as well), a non-native predator that often kills small animals for the fun of it.

Cat defenders say that this is all bogus. If cats didn't slaughter the birds, natural predators would. Maybe, but they are, uh, natural predators, and nature's a big deal for environmentalists, right? Or have I been reading the wrong magazines? They also claim that losing habitat to development is a bigger threat than cats. OK, but even if that were true in some places, why should that get cats off the hook?

This raises an important insight into what is really going on here. The objection to DDT and pesticides has a great deal to do with the fear of technology and material "progress." For example, Carson's memory is still invoked regularly by the anti-pesticide movement today. Anti-pesticide activists claim that some 67 million birds die every year from such chemicals. In other words, compounds that make food cheaper and more abundant for everybody kill between 10 and 20 percent of the number of birds killed by cats every year. And yet, environmentalists are terrified of making cats a major issue, because it will split the movement. An official at the World Wildlife Fund calls the cat issue a "third rail" for environmentalists.

Whether DDT was as bad for birds as Carson and her heirs claim is still the subject of great controversy. What is not controversial is that the bans and regulations Carson's work implemented came with real costs. In the Third World, malaria continues to kill millions because Carson-induced DDT phobia. The bias against pesticides produces lower food yields with no proven benefits for human health.

Meanwhile, the contribution of feral cats is 100 percent aesthetic. We like kitties. This raises an outrageous double-standard. Dogs - our closest allies in the animal kingdom - can be shot for harassing wildlife or livestock. But free-loading cats are protected when they massacre birds for sport. Where's the justice?

This isn't to say that there aren't other important reasons why spring is becoming more silent. But the loss of habitat, pesticides and the advent of wind power all bring significant social benefits. While tolerance for the multitude of feral, often diseased, wild cats is pure, spoiled self-indulgence.