Jonathan Franzen's Great Hypocrisy
The New Yorker publishes his dangerous, misinformed ideological screed that threatens to turn the U.S. into a cat graveyard
Jonathan Franzen, the fiction author and self-proclaimed bird fanatic, has published a hit piece in The New Yorker, calling for the roundup of cats to protect so-called “native” birds. In it, he calls on shelters to re-evaluate their “preoccupation with shelter kills” because “there’s no shortage of adoptable kittens...” In other words, he wants to go back to a time when “shelters” killed cats and kittens in much larger numbers.
To make that case, Franzen offers little beyond exaggerated claims, ad hominem attacks, and clichés. He ignores history and relies on arguments that are unscientific and hypocritical and will lead to the sadistic abuse of cats.
And aside from the political cover it will give policymakers who want to turn millions of cats and kittens into ash, the great tragedy of the Franzen piece is that The New Yorker saw fit to publish it. It rehashes arguments debunked in the 1990s and early aughts. It relies on other ideologues determined to kill cats, like the fanatics at PETA, who put to death 99% of cats. And it comes after universities, shelters, communities, health departments, and even states embraced a community cat sterilization program as an alternative to “catch and kill” — or worse, like Australia and New Zealand, torture — because the evidence shows it is a good, humane, and effective policy; conclusions that the last three decades of experience have confirmed.
If you care about cats, birds, and the emotional well-being of humans who selflessly care for cats daily; and if you want sound government policies based on science, reason, and compassion rather than misinformation, prejudice, and hatred, you should view Franzen’s piece for what it is — a dangerous, misinformed ideological screed that seeks to turn back the clock on decades of progress.
A community cat program protects cats, birds, and people.
A community cat program — sometimes called “Trap-Neuter-Release” (TNR) — spares cat suffering, caregiver suffering, and humanely resolves conflicts. It reduces perceived “nuisance” behavior, disagreements between neighbors, and subsequent complaint calls to city officials. It reduces the number of cats without resorting to harm. It encourages kindness toward cats as caretakers provide positive role models for others to emulate. And it is humane: a comprehensive 11-year study of outdoor cats found that they had similar baselines in health, disease rates, and longevity as indoor cats. Subsequent research gave community cats “A+” grades across various physical and health characteristics. In another study, less than 1% of over 100,000 community cats admitted to seven major community cat programs across the United States were killed for debilitating conditions. It is, in short, effective.
In a community cat program, cats who are social with people are adopted into homes, cats who are not social with people are sterilized and allowed to live out their lives outside of homes, and community cat caregivers are “afforded the physical and psychological benefits of maintaining a bond and mutually beneficial relationship with the cats.”
Caregivers report the relationship is “as strong as the bonds with their own pets.” Like pet cats, community cats “looked to them to keep them safe and fed.” In most cases, the cats have “names and personalities,” and caregivers report immense suffering when animal control officers kill the cats. That suffering is “significant,” leading to grief, trauma, poor physical health, and long-term psychological distress, including profound guilt, loss, and inability to eat.
Cats and their caregivers are not the only ones harmed. Nativism also harms human children. “School children have been and are continued to be encouraged to hunt, trap, and drown [animals], and then to humiliate their corpses.” Given that the link between animal violence and human violence is well-known and well-established, it is not surprising that killing animals imprints children for using violence to solve perceived problems.
But Franzen doesn’t care about their suffering. And he doesn’t really care what the science shows, either. In the article, he says that cats kill upwards of four billion of the roughly seven billion birds in the U.S. every year, an over-the-top claim that not only strains credulity, it defies scientific analysis.
A community cat program protects birds by reducing the number of cats, cat home ranges (and, therefore, the chance of contact with birds and other wildlife), and hunting. Moreover, research on four continents (Europe, North America, Australia, and Africa) shows that free-ranging cats do not threaten bird populations or biodiversity. The conclusion is not surprising.
In addition to the large percentage of indoor-only cats (roughly 60% in the U.S.), cats who go outside rarely venture very far: approximately 150 feet, the equivalent of one to three houses on their block. Moreover, neutering reduces home ranges by 79% and activity by 30%. Their ranges tend not to overlap with wildlife. And despite popular belief that cats are opportunistic, well-fed cats tend not to hunt.
While the common conservationist belief that cats are serious predators of continental birds and other animals has no scientific basis, cats do, however, catch some birds and other small animals even if they do not impact populations. And given that their relationship with humans vastly increased their numbers and ranges, contraception by humans would help reduce their numbers, home ranges, caloric needs, and thus predation.
In other words, sterilization programs would protect individual birds, rodents, and other small animals. But “conservationists” oppose community cat sterilization programs and thus work at cross-purposes with their proclaimed goals. Their doing so suggests they are motivated by harming cats, not protecting birds.
Franzen’s nativist policies do not protect the environment.
Proponents like Franzen try to legitimize cat killing under the false mantle of “environmentalism,” but this, too, is a non-starter. The environmental movement was founded to protect animals, trees, and waterways from chainsaws, traps, poisons, and guns. By contrast, Invasion Biology, which is the core belief system fueling the killing agenda, turns that on its head: using those very things against animals, plants, and waterways if they are deemed or contain species of plants and animals deemed “non-native.”
“Non-native” and “invasive species” are pejorative terms, inspiring unwarranted fear, knee-jerk suspicion, and a lack of thoughtfulness and moral consideration. They are the language of intolerance, based on an idea most of us have rejected in our treatment of our fellow human beings — that the value of a living being can be reduced merely to its place of ancestral origin.
They are also unscientific.
Each species on Earth has a characteristic distribution on the Earth’s land surface: But in every case, that distribution is in practice a single frame from a very long movie. Run the clock back only 10,000 years, less than a blink of an eye in geological time, and nearly all of those distributions would be different, in many cases very different. Go back only 10 million years, still a tiny fraction of the history of life on Earth, and any comparison with present-day distributions becomes impossible since most of the species themselves would no longer be the same.
This never-ending transformation — of landscape, climate, plants, and animals — has occurred, and continues to occur, worldwide, resulting from various factors: global weather patterns, plate tectonics, natural selection, evolution, and even the devastating effects of impacting asteroids.
Close your eyes and randomly stick a pin on any location on a map, then do a Google search of that region’s history, and what you will invariably find is that at some point in time, that location looked very different than it does today, as did the plants and animals who resided there. For example, over 10,000 years ago, a sudden burst of monsoon rains over the vast Sahara desert transformed its dunes into a savannah that could sustain life, including people and giraffes who migrated into the area. Today, it is once again a barren expanse of sand. Roughly 74 million years ago, Tyrannosaurs, Ceratopsians, and Sauropods roamed the continent of North America, which was divided down its middle by a vast, ancient sea. In the distant past, the now frigid polar regions of the Earth were moist, temperate, and blanketed by forests.
The geographic and fossil records tell us that there is but one constant: change. Natural selection, artificial selection, migration, adaptation, and evolution are inherent to all life on Earth. Indeed, this process is accelerating as up to one-third of all species must move because of climate change. While nativists claim they want to protect them, when these animals move to a new territory, as they must to survive, nativists support killing them in the new territory. The animals are damned either way.
Thankfully, a growing number of biologists, ecologists, and ethicists are condemning the “nativist” views expressed by Franzen. Many scientists and academics argue that we should not “judge species on their origins,” calling “the practical value of the native-versus-alien species dichotomy” unworkable and counterproductive.
Today’s management approaches must recognize that the natural systems of the past are changing forever thanks to drivers such as climate change, nitrogen eutrophication, increased urbanization and other land-use changes. It is time for scientists, land managers and policy-makers to ditch this preoccupation with the native–alien dichotomy and embrace more dynamic and pragmatic approaches to the conservation and management of species — approaches better suited to our fast-changing planet.
Specifically, these scientists blame nativists for fueling “an unwarranted moral panic over cats.” They state that “free-ranging cats should be accepted as legitimate members of their ecosystems.” They also state that the scientific evidence is clear that removing one species to help another does not work: it is a slaughter with no end and no potential benefit.
Franzen’s nativist policies will lead to sadistic cruelty.
Despite this, Franzen’s views, and those of other nativists like him, have fueled a war on cats that has led to cats being hunted with bows, hung by the legs and disemboweled, and getting their heads cut off while alive. Nativists have since also turned to even more painful ways to hurt cats, including a laser-sighted device that sprays cats with a lethal gel they lick off while cleaning themselves. After several days of suffering, the gel causes the cats to die from anoxia (oxygen deprivation). They suffocate. “All poisoned cats captured on video were initially lethargic, then had difficulty walking (ataxia) before lying down and remaining largely motionless.”
Not content with such extreme violence, some nativists are now exploring “Genetic biocontrol options” to increase the amount and length of their suffering even more, such as introducing genes that make cats “more susceptible to disease.” While Franzen may disclaim these practices, by embracing nativism and referring to cats as little more than “killers” with a penchant for “disemboweling wildlife,” “non-native predators,” “rabies vectors,” and a “nuisance,” he opens the floodgates to our darker natures and our most base instincts that lead to these very outcomes. Indeed, the notion that “native” plants and animals have more value has its roots in the human xenophobia movement, being similarly “founded on nationalistic and racist ideas that were often cloaked in scientific jargon.”
Franzen’s views are hypocritical.
Aside from embracing views that lead to cruelty and killing, Franzen is also a hypocrite. By his own (il-)logic, humans are also “non-native” to most places we reside on Earth. We belong to a species that is the most “invasive” the planet has ever experienced, causing virtually all of the environmental destruction, including the tragic decline of birds. We also support a viciously cruel industry that kills billions of birds and other animals annually to be eaten.
Yet, for reasons based entirely on narrow self-interest, nativists do not hold their own actions to the same standards that they impose upon cats: they do not live exclusively indoors, move back to the continent where humans first evolved, or stop killing and eating birds and other creatures. In The New York Times, Franzen even admitted to eating the very same so-called “native” birds he blames cats for eating; specifically “cooked blackcap warblers or other songbirds — which is also known as Cyprus caviar and can go for $100 a plate” on the black market. Like the rest of his claims, his defense for doing so strains credulity.
In the end, it is not “predation” that nativists object to. Animals prey on other animals all the time without their complaints. Indeed, “The insect currently suspected to be killing more trees than any other in North America is the native mountain pine beetle Dendroctonus ponderosae,” but this is ignored and dismissed as just nature doing its thing. Moreover, nativists themselves prey on some birds by eating them, and they prey on animals they label “non-native” by eradicating them. They partner with chemical companies to poison rivers and lakes. And they embrace the clearcutting of trees, despite their vital role as habitat and in carbon sequestration. For nativists like Franzen, predation is unacceptable only when it involves an animal they do not like. And regarding animals they do not like, the cat is irrationally proclaimed to be Public Enemy No. 1.
Invasion Biology — nativism — isn’t science; it is ideology, and a particularly violent one at that. In the neighborhood of bad ideas, it is — to borrow a phrase — the most ramshackle house on the street. It is unsurprising then that even the National Audubon Society once accused Franzen of “extreme intellectual dishonesty” regarding birds and climate change. That this comes from another nativist organization with a similar vendetta against cats should give anyone pause about listening to anything he has to say about it.
From The No Kill Advocacy Center: Protecting Community Cats.
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