Stray cats are an issue in many countries. While many people feel sorry for the cats as they have no home and nobody to love them, there is another way to look at the situation, as stray cats may significantly impact the environment. The level of their impact may vary from one country to the next, and one country where the impact of stray cats is notable is in China. Li Zhongqlu, an associate professor at the Nanjing University’s School of Life Sciences, discussed his experiences of stray cats in China with Sixth Tone. According to Zhongqlu, the sight of stray cats on every street and down every alleyway is an expected sight to which people are accustomed. Some of the strays are friendly, while others hiss and snarl at strangers. It is not uncommon for people to stroke the cats, photograph them and even feed them. However, many people are blinded to the impact that stray cats have on the environment. Furthermore, it is not just cats that are an issue, as stray dogs also pose problems.
Zhonglu first thought about the impact of stray domesticated wildlife during a trip to Changtang (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Changtang) on the Tibetan Plateau. He and his fellow researchers were traveling down a mountainside when the driver alerted them to three stray dogs ahead that were attacking two Tibetan gazelles. By the time they reached the dogs, the Tibetan gazelle was already slumped on the floor with chunks of flesh ripped from its back. Although the team rescued the gazelle and took it for treatment at a nearby animal hospital, the animal died two days later.
The Nationwide Questionnaire
Zhingqlu’s experience made him realize that there were very few studies in China into the impact of stray domesticated animals on wildlife and the environment. There was no data regarding the population of stray animals or the predation rate for strays. Therefore, Zhingqlu and his research team decided to conduct their own study on this topic. They decided to focus on stray cats due to their high population density in Chinese cities. The first step for the time was to devise a questionnaire, and they distributed this nationwide. They collected over 2,000 responses and used the results to estimate the number of animals hunted by Chinese stray cats annually. Their findings showed that the figure was potentially more than 12 billion. However, it is only an estimate, and the team needs to collect more experimental and empirical data before they have a full understanding of the threat posed to China’s biodiversity by stray cats. Yet, the results have made Zhingqlu and his team consider other possible impacts of stray cats.
The Wider Impact of China’s Stray Cats
Zhingqlu believes that even if the figures are not as high as he has estimated, there are still many consequences of having a large population of strays. For example, if the stray cat population continues to grow, they may crowd out other predators, such as Siberian Weasels. Furthermore, it could potentially send a ripple effect along the food chain by putting pressure on species that are common prey, such as birds.
The Team’s Suggestions to Keep the Stray Population Down
Due to the findings of the questionnaire, Zinghlu and his team came up with some suggestions of how to tackle the stray cat population. Their first suggestion was to implement a pet registration system, which involves pet owners having their pet microchipped upon adoption or purchase. Second, they suggested making several changes to the pet market. Their ideas included banning pet abandonment and regulating the pet breeding market to reduce the number of strays on China’s streets. Third, the team believes that drawing up laws to protect animals could make a significant improvement to the stray cat problem. Ideas for law changes include banning animal abuse and abandonment and putting policies in place to protect the welfare of strays. Furthermore, they think there should be more shelters to manage stray animals, take them in, and rehome them if possible. The team also offered some advice to the public that could help to reduce the problem. They advised people not to let their pets roam, not to abandon their pets, and to avoid feeding strays. While the first two are common sense, the third piece of advice has come under fire.
Criticism of the Advice
When Zhingqlu and his team published their findings and suggestions, they were criticized for their suggestion not to feed cats. Many animal lovers believe that not feeding the strays is cruel and that it could lead to further problems regarding stray cats hunting the local wildlife as a means to survival. Following the publication, Zhingqlu faced questions, criticisms, and personal attacks on social media outlets. He faced accusations of his work and advice being both unscientific and unethical. People also contacted him about their personal experiences with stray cats, claiming they had never seen stray cats hunting animals and that they had only seen them feeding from trash cans.
In response to the argument that not feeding the cats will lead to them hunting the wildlife more, Zhingqlu says that this is possibly true in the short-term. However, in the long-term, cats are natural hunters and will probably hunt regardless of whether people are feeding them or not. Furthermore, he argues that feeding the cats may increase the stray cats’ ability to overcome environmental risks and, in turn, increase their reproductivity potential. Overall, Zhingqlu believes that it is important to consider the long-term implications, as humans’ actions can cause an ecological chain reaction. What humans consider as kindness is not necessarily the best thing for the cats in the long-term, nor will it benefit the other species living in the same environment. It is more important to create populations that live in harmony with other species.