The Domestic Cat: Bird Killer, Mouser and Destroyer of Wild Life; Means of Utilizing and Controlling It
by Edward Howe Forbush
Commonwealth of Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture, 1916. [Free 112-page download from <http://books.google.com/books>.]
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
The 1916 tract The Domestic Cat: Bird Killer, Mouser & Destroyer of Wild Life; Means of Utilizing and Controlling It, authored by then-Massachusetts state ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush, in original form furnished the quasi-scientific basis for more than half a century of concerted efforts by hunters and birders to add cats to state lists of legally hunted species.
More recently The Domestic Cat: Bird Killer, Mouser & Destroyer of Wild Life has provided the unacknowledged template for the arguments of some of the birders who most vehemently oppose use of of neuter/return feral cat control.
Feral Cats & Their Management, for instance, a 2011 screed by University of Nebraska faculty member Aaron M. Hildreth and Stephen M. Vantassel, appears to be little more than a dumbed-down paraphrasing of the Forbush tract, with updated references.
Reprints of The Domestic Cat: Bird Killer, Mouser & Destroyer of Wild Life have appeared from antiquarian publishers at least twice in the past decade, while the original is easily accessible online.
About half of The Domestic Cat: Bird Killer, Mouser & Destroyer of Wild Life consisted of anecdotal testimony from more than 200 individual correspondents that cats kill birds.
Many of the letters that Forbush quoted came from hunters who were themselves shooting birds when they observed cats pursuing some of the same prey. Often the prey were birds of small species who are no longer legally hunted, but were then often used as target practice.
Interestingly enough, Forbush often presented enough context for his many exaggerated claims for the effects of cats on bird populations to discredit himself.
Like the Feral Cats & Their Management authors, for example, and like many other opponents of neuter/return, Forbush projected his estimates of cat predation on birds from outlandishly high claims about feline fecundity––but Forbush relatively uniquely showed how he derived his numbers.
“Cats are known to have from two to four broods yearly,” Forbush asserted, “with from five to nine in each brood. Hence the necessity for checking such increase promptly by killing all superfluous kittens soon after birth.”
In actuality, in Forbush’s time as now, standard references credited cats with raising at most two litters per year, birthing five to nine kittens in total, only about half of whom survive weaning.
Boston cat massacre
Forbush lauded the Animal Rescue League of Boston and the American SPCA for killing tens of thousands of cats, presenting their data, but said little about what the data actually showed.
The ASPCA, for example, killed 51,000 cats in a concerted effort to purge feral cats from “the tenement district on the east side” in 1911. This did not succeed.
Except in 1911, the Animal Rescue League and ASPCA numbers presented by Forbush in a table appeared to reflect relatively stable cat populations, which might even have been in decline as the advent of the automobile reduced the numbers of stables––and rodent and cat habitat––in their respective cities.
Cat population studies
“Dr. Frank M. Chapman of the American Museum of Natural History believes that there are not less than 25,000,000 cats in the United States,” Forbush noted.
This number is credible, coinciding reasonably well with the findings of National Family Opinion founders Howard and Clara Trumbull in studies done in 1927, 1937, and 1947-1950, which they published under the pseudonym John Marbanks.
Also credible was Forbush’s own observation that free-roaming cats kill on average about 10 birds per year.
Parallel to this, Forbush offered data collected by Walt F. McMahon, a colleague whose focus was on discovering more efficient ways to exterminate cats. McMahon found in 1914 that among 559 cats kept by 271 people in seven eastern Massachusetts cities, 229 were known to sometimes kill birds. Among those cats, 47 were known to have killed 534 birds in the preceding year: 11.3 apiece.
All but disregarding his own data, however, and the greater part of McMahon’s data, Forbush dwelt on the claims of 15 people that their cats killed 20.4 birds per month, and the claims of six people that their cats killed about 50 birds per year.
Context of the times
Much of Forbush’s antipathy toward cats might be ascribed to the context of the times.
For example, more than 50 years before the studies emerged that inspired Rachel Carson to write Silent Spring, Forbush conducted a three-year study of the effects of pesticide spraying on birds. But Forbush was handicapped by lack of knowledge about the sub-lethal neurological effects of pesticides, and by a lack of technology capable of detecting the very small amounts of pesticides that can induce neurological harm.
Failed to recognize symptoms
Among 60 birds found dead under fruit trees that had been sprayed with lead arsenate, “Traces of lead and arsenic were found in two only,” Forbush wrote. “Others met death in various ways, such as flying against wires or buildings,” which today would be recognized as probable effects of pesticide intoxication.
“One [bird] had been shot; but 19 showed marks of the teeth and claws of cats,” observed Forbush, never considering that the mostly air-feeding insectivorous birds commonly found in orchards during spraying season might never have descended within reach of cats had their ability to fly not been impaired.
Born in 1858, Forbush became curator of ornithology for the Worcester Natural History Society at age 16. The Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture hired him in 1893 to identify whether bird species were good or bad for farmers. He served as state ornithologist from 1908 until his death in 1929.
Forbush’s lifespan coincided with the era in which New England wildlife was more depleted than at any time since.
Logging, ploughing, damming, and unrestrained development had stripped away the forest cover, denuded the grasslands, and dammed and polluted the rivers.
Birding with a shotgun
Birding then was done chiefly with a shotgun, after which the dead birds were identified and taxidermically mounted.
Forbush did a great deal of lethal birding, but much less study of mammals. Predatory wild mammals, furbearers, and most wild species considered edible had already been extirpated from most of Massachusetts before Forbush had much opportunity to see them, let alone to kill them.
The loss of native predators and fur-bearers, especially foxes, enabled feral cats to expand into some habitat that cats could no longer hold after coyotes emigrated into the void left by the loss of foxes, while the collapse of the market for trapped fox fur enabled the relatively few surviving foxes to breed back up to the diminished carrying capacity of the New England habitat. But this was long after Forbush died.
There were, however, some native predators left at large, even if Forbush and his informants never saw or killed them.
Many of the accounts of alleged cat predation that Forbush quoted from his correspondents appear to describe instead the behavior of other species, including pine marten, also called “fisher cats,” who had become so rare as to be misrecognized when seen, and only within the past 25 years or thereabouts have begun to make a comeback.
For instance, cats may hunt newly hatched chickens, as Forbush charged, but they do not kill them by the hundreds, as some of his correspondents claimed, if adult hens are present to defend the chicks.
Cats rarely kill full-grown poultry of any sort, let alone make a living on turkeys, as one writer asserted.
Very few cats are in the 20-plus-pound size range that the purported chicken and turkey killers proved to be, when shot or trapped; but this is the normal size range of bobcats.
Forbush mentions claims that cats were often trapped in northern Maine and Quebec, “even upward of 30 miles from any house or clearing.” This is possible, but might more likely reflect a misunderstanding of the Quebecois idiom chat sauvage, literally translated “wild cat,” but most often used to mean “raccoon.”
Forbush and fellow ornithologists G. K. Noble and Howard H. Cleaves in 1913-1914 failed to identify the behavior of herring gulls and black-backed gulls when they discovered the dismembered remains of hundreds of thousands of roseate terns on Muskeget Island, off Nantucket.
Egg hunting in the 17th and 18th centuries, followed by plume hunting in the mid-19th century, had pushed roseate terns to the brink of extinction, but after a brief recovery in the early 20th century, their numbers again crashed.
“There are no trees on the island,” Forbush wrote, “therefore hawks and owls do not nest there, and do not remain there during the nesting season of the birds. There are no predatory mammals except the cat, and the indigenous short-eared owl was exterminated years ago. Therefore the cat is practically the only enemy with which the gulls and terns have to contend.”
Blamed cats for gull predation
That the gulls were killing the terns was belatedly recognized about 80 years later, by which time roseate terns were again almost lost. Both lethal and non-lethal gull control were introduced to nearby islands in 1998. Non-lethal gull control was extended to Muskeget in 2000. The roseate tern population doubled in the next five years, and is now higher than at any time since 1920.
“It is undeniable that the cat may be affected by certain diseases and that it may transmit some infections, such as scarlet fever or smallpox,” Forbush continued. “But in the nature of the case much of the evidence is not such as would convince the bacteriologist,” meaning that it was not really plausible even given the limited understanding of disease transmission of that era.
“Nevertheless,” Forbush labored on, “it will be conceded that as a carrier of disease, especially to children, no animal has greater opportunities.”
His evidence consisted entirely of two articles by one Dr. Caroline A. Osborne, who seems to have left little other trace of herself in medical history. Osborne accused cats of infecting humans with bubonic plague, whooping cough, mumps, and foot-and-mouth disease, of which only bubonic plague even afflicts cats.
Cats & rats
Cats contract bubonic plague in the same manner as humans, from yersina pestis bacteria carried by a flea whose natural hosts are rodents.
However, in 1910 the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that outbreaks of rabies, diptheria, tuberculosis, and smallpox had been traced to “alley cats” consorting with free-roaming pets. “As much danger lurks in a cat as in a rat,” the USDA warned.
Cats are now known to be not a vector for any of these diseases, either. While cats can become rabid, if bitten by another rabid animal, and can transmit rabies while in the brief “furious” phase that immediately precedes death, there is no rabies strain endemic to cats, meaning that cats cannot carry rabies for long in a highly contagious yet inconspicuous “dumb” or latent phase.
Dogs, skunks, foxes, raccoons and bats do have endemic rabies strains, can carry and transmit rabies for days, weeks, or even months before succumbing to it, and are therefore magnitudes of order more likely to spread rabies than cats, rodents, and other species who tend to die soon if infected.
“Eliminate as we would a wolf”
Forbush favored tracking and treeing cats with dogs before shooting them, a procedure which in the urban and suburban feral cat habitat of today would be considered both impractical and inhumane. Hildreth and Vantassel recommended against using dogs. Otherwise, their instructions for killing cats were essentially identical.
Forbush sought “to eliminate the vagrant or feral cat as we would a wolf.” By coincidence Feral Cats & Their Management co-author Scott E. Hygnstrom was thanked for advice by the editors of at least two recent texts describing wolf control methods.
By 1985, however, more than 75% of the American public had come to believe that extirpating wild wolves from the Lower 48 states had been an ecological mistake.
Wolves had already begun to recolonize the northern Great Lakes states, and a decade later were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park, the northern Rocky Mountains, and the Arizona/New Mexico region.
Despite the vehemence of the continuing opposition to wolf restoration in western open-range ranching county, the view that wolves should be protected and appreciated, not persecuted, has only gained favor over the past three decades plus.
Forbush in context
Though comparable public opinion research has not been done pertaining to feral cats, it is likely that feral cats are at least as favorably viewed as wolves by most Americans today.
Cruelty to cats, including feral cats, is today often criminally prosecuted, when the perpetrators can be identified.
In that context, The Domestic Cat: Bird Killer, Mouser and Destroyer of Wild Life might most politely be recognized as ill-informed, and most bluntly, as an insidious work of hate literature.