Pets And Wildlife
Using Science and Love for Animals To Find The Right BalancePosted on: October 8th, 2020
Sheltering-in-Place Blog Entry #26
I have had pets most of my life. I grew up with rescued kittens and considered my dog, Pucho, my best friend until someone stole him. We rescued a fawn when I was little, and we called her Falina. She eventually escaped our yard, and we never saw her again. My godfather’s German shepherds were gentle and sweet to me as a little boy, and I loved to be around them when my dad and I visited. During my high school years, we lived in an apartment building that was not suitable for pets. My buddy and I decided to raise aquarium fish at his large home, and we read up on fish husbandry, as we wanted to raise them and sell them to pet stores. We also studied genetics to apply artificial selection and produce unique colorful broods of long-finned guppies. We raised hundreds of fish and sold a few to people, but the pet stores never bought them from us. We also had plenty of opportunities to be outdoors and interact and learn about wildlife. My friend and I collected venomous snakes from roads near wild areas, learned how to extract the venom, crystalized it, and attempted to sell it to the antivenom labs (another failed attempt at a teenager business). At one point, we had over 20 venomous snakes in cages at my friend’s house, one of the advantages of growing up mostly unsupervised by innocent parents who were unaware of our largely irresponsible and highly dangerous activities. After the business idea failed, we released the snakes where we found them. These experiences were formative, though, and consolidated my desire to become a biologist.
In college, first in Venezuela and then in the US, I had many experiences with wildlife while exploring wild places, learning about plants, fish, mammals, birds, and insects, working in my professors’ laboratories, and joining their expeditions. As my experience and knowledge grew, my understanding of the issues also grew. Biodiversity conservation through research, education, and action became the focus of my work, literally for the rest of my life.
For more than 20 years, my wife and I lived with four cats: three rescues, and one a gift from a friend. These cats were our daily source of care, love, entertainment, and, occasionally, grief. They traveled with us in a large moving van from Florida to California when we first relocated here. They lived an idyllic “island life” in the interior of Catalina Island, watching herds of bison walk and graze close to the house, tiny Island foxes scampering across the yard, and many birds visiting the trees and bushes around the house. Every window was a stage for adventure and watching riveting, wild action. They also went to Costa Rica and shared a cabin in the rainforest with us, watching wildlife from our balcony until they all died of old age or age-related illnesses. They were happy, content cats, cuddly, a bit crazy (what cat is not, right?), and we loved them dearly. They were also indoor cats, spayed or neutered, and with all their claws intact. We watch their diets so they wouldn’t get too fat. We took them to the vet regularly for their checkups. We gave them viewing opportunities for seeing wildlife using hummingbird feeders and window seats. They lived long, healthy, and loving lives and our lives have been richer thanks to them.
Our lives as scientists have given us the chance to become knowledgeable of the issues that affect wildlife. We have adapted our love for animals—including our pets—to wildlife’s needs in many unique settings in Florida, California, and Costa Rica. A substantial portion of our conservation work has focused on finding that balance between pets and wildlife that we could build over the years. And we feel it is important to share what we have learned widely.
Wildlife faces many issues rooted in society’s ignorance of the impact people’s activities have on wildlife. Many of us see the impact every day, and many want to avoid the stress and pain of seeing wild animals suffer. Every year, we receive over 5,500 injured wildlife in our wildlife hospital, most of them are brought to us by sweet, caring people who want to do the right thing. However, the connection between our daily habits and their impact on wildlife is, at times challenging to see, often controversial, and frequently hard to articulate. For example, the impact of domestic cats allowed to roam outdoors and prey on wildlife is as well documented as it is ignored or misunderstood by many cat owners. A person can be a lover of wildlife and support conservation organizations, and still let their pet cats roam outdoors, under the unsupported conviction that cats allowed outdoors are happier and as safe as cats that are kept indoors. My personal experience and the consensus of science is that you can’t be both. Outdoor cats live shorter lives, as they are exposed to deadly and incurable diseases such as feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). They are also more prone to receive injuries from other cats and dogs, from interactions with wildlife, cars, and more. And the impact on songbirds, small reptiles, small mammals, and even invertebrates is massive. And let’s not talk about feral cats and colonies, which are maintained by well-meaning but very uninformed people in many places. There are solutions to all of these issues, and they can improve our pets’ lives and protect wildlife.
We need to do a few things. First, we need to open our minds to credible, reliable, and positive scientific information. We need to understand and accept that these issues exist because of ignorance of the facts, and that we can achieve much good by becoming better-informed individuals.
We also need to demand our leaders become informed and knowledgeable about these issues so they can make better decisions. While long-term or lifelong learning is a path to enlightenment, many species are running out of time and can’t wait until the next generation sees the light and does the right thing. We need to act now. Sound and science-based legislation and protections for wildlife and pets are shortcuts to positive action and results. Leash laws, pet vaccination, and indoor management of cats are as essential as managing protected areas, rescuing and rehabilitating injured wildlife, and educating the public about the issues. We can love our pets and love wildlife and help both of them, but only if we know how to do it. We have all the information we need to fix the issues. We only need the will to do it.
Carlos L. de la Rosa
– The impact of cats outdoors. A report from the American Bird Conservancy.
– A scientific article in one of the most respected journals in the world about the impacts of free roaming cats in the US.
– A well-researched and balanced essay on cats and wildlife published by NPR.
– A good article on how to keep your cats safe, healthy, and happy indoor.
– How to have a happy indoor cat.
– Good guidelines for healthy cats from UC Davis.