Walk down any given street or alley in China and you’ll likely come across one, if not several stray cats. Sometimes sweet, sometimes snarling, they’re our constant companions: We watch over them, photograph them, sometimes even feed them — though in truth, it’d be more accurate to say they’re the ones who have us eating out of the palm of their paws.
But while no one wants to think ill of a cuddly kitten with no home, we also shouldn’t let our love blind us to the impact our cat-coddling is having on other wildlife. I first woke up to the risks posed by stray domesticated animals while on a research trip to Changtang, part of the Tibetan Plateau, in 2015. As we were driving down the mountain one afternoon, the driver suddenly cried out, “Dogs!” He pointed to a spot in the distance, where three stray dogs were attacking two goas, or Tibetan gazelles. By the time we rushed over, one of the goas had already slumped onto the ground, its back chewed bloody. We brought it to the local Forestry Bureau for treatment, but it died two days later.
That incident made me want to know more about the ecological threat posed by stray domesticated animals. I soon realized that very few scholars had conducted academic research into this topic in China. We lacked even basic data, such as the population and annual predation rate for strays.
To fill this gap, my research team and I devised a questionnaire and distributed it nationwide. We chose to focus our attention on cats, largely because of their extremely high population densities in Chinese cities and thus relatively major impact on the urban ecosystem.
In the end, we collected more than 2,000 responses. Based on the results, we estimated the number of animals hunted by China’s stray cats each year could be as high as 12 billion or more. Admittedly, this is just an estimate, a first stab at figuring out the rate of cat predation in China. We’ll need much more empirical and experimental data on free-ranging cats before we can fully understand the threats they pose to the country’s biodiversity.
Yet, even if the effects of stray cat predation on Chinese mainland wildlife are not as dire as they would be on an isolated island, the presence of such a large population of strays still has consequences. Cats might crowd out other predators occupying a similar ecological niche, like Siberian weasels, while also putting pressure on birds and other prey, which can have ripple effects all along the food chain.
In light of our findings, my team and I came up with a few simple suggestions to keep the cat population under control. First, implement a pet registration system, requiring pets to receive a microchip implant during their purchase or adoption. Second, target and reduce the number of stray cats by regulating the domestic pet market, improving the pet breeding system, and banning animal abandonment. Third, draw up laws protecting small animals and animal welfare. Such laws should restrict abandonment and animal abuse while guaranteeing the basic welfare of strays. Fourth, establish much-needed shelters for taking in and managing stray animals.
For most people — those outside the policymaking process — our advice was even simpler. Just follow the “three don’ts”: Don’t let pets roam, don’t abandon them, and don’t feed strays. The first two are easy to understand. Keeping cats at home reduces the risk they pose to wildlife, while not abandoning them keeps the stray cat population under control.
But for cat lovers, the third suggestion, “don’t feed them,” can be a bit hair-raising. In fact, it definitely is. After media outlets reported on my research, I was inundated with questions, criticisms, even personal attacks. One writer vilified me for being “unscientific” and “unethical.” “I’ve helped with stray cat efforts for five years and have never seen them (the felines) catch a single animal,” they wrote. “I only see them rifling through trash cans. I asked other volunteer friends, and none of them have seen such a thing, either.”
I understand these arguments. Really, I do. It’s hard for anyone to feel nothing when a tiny kitten comes up, peering at you with their pleading eyes and mewing for food. “If I don’t feed them,” you might think, “then won’t they just hunt even more?” In the short term, possibly. But long-term, cats are natural hunters. Most cats will still hunt birds and other prey, even if they are fed daily. And the artificial feeding might increase their ability to resist environmental risks and therefore increase their potential reproductivity.
It’s that longer lens we need when approaching this problem. We have to see the ecological chain reaction behind our actions, even those motivated by kindness. Our feedings and excessive doting tip the environmental scales even further toward cats when, in the long run, what’s best for cats, us, and our environment as a whole is a stray population that is in harmony with the species around it.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: A stray cat sleeps on a car roof in Xiangyang, Hubei province, 2019. People Visual)