As Slate reported last week, researchers at the University of Georgia, intent on settling the dispute between Team Indoor Cats and Team Let 'Em Wander, recently released the results of a study performed by equipping outside cats with little cameras to see what they get up to when humans aren't watching. The conclusion? Cats are both ruthless murderers and kind of idiotic about their own safety, and so should not be allowed to roam free without supervision. Nearly half of the cats studied actively hunted wildlife and 85 percent took risks with their own safety. Half the prey killed by cats was left uneaten, murdered for no other reason than the pleasure the cat took in killing it.
Turns out cats can be very convincing when they mew their sack of lies to their gullible owners about how they'll behave themselves if they're let out to wander free. Owners often expressed shock at discovering their beloved fur balls took full advantage of their opportunities to torture and kill small animals for fun. Mother Jones collected the reaction of one distressed owner: "I stopped watching because I knew what the end point was, that the bird wasn’t going to live. I was very upset with my cat." Concerns about bird-killing go far beyond just the unwelcome knowledge of the sociopathic tendencies in your purr machine, however. A conservative estimate of the number of birds killed by cats a year is 4 billion, but a representative for the American Bird Conservatory suggested that this new research could put the number as high as 10 or even 20 billion birds a year. Since cats don't bother to check if a bird is on the endangered species list before they torture it to death, these massacres are contributing to the problem of species decimation.
Apologists for outdoor cats often shrug these numbers off by saying that since it's a cat's instinct to kill small animals, then this can all be chalked up to "nature" and not really a matter of human concern. But the only reason there are so many cats out there is because of people; we introduce them to new environments and sadly, we often let them reproduce rapidly without any check until they've completely overrun the place. Spay and neuter programs help, as do catch-and-release programs to sterilize feral cats who have no hope of living with people. Still, the bird death toll could be even more seriously reduced if people stopped letting their cats roam about unsupervised.
I approach cat ownership in the spirit of the TV show Dexter: Accept that your cats have troublesome urges and learn to channel those urges productively. My cats get to go out with supervision and have even helped me out on occasion with running off squirrels who invade my space to bury nuts in my planters. Having two cats means they have someone to play with on top of their humans, which expends some of that energy. And any insect or rodent foolish enough to cross my threshold is fair game, giving them a reason to live in hope. One of my cats spent the first year of her life as a completely outdoor cat who slept in a barn, so getting her to stop begging to be let out took some spine, but now she's perfectly happy to have her outdoor life limited to small amounts of time on the balcony. If I ever feel bad about exerting power over her in this way, I just remind myself I'm being much more generous to her than she'd be to small creatures that she comes across, which goes a long way toward relieving any guilt.