Non-native Species

Nutria, recognized by the US government as an invasive species (photo via USDA)

The subject of non-native or invasive species covers animals (including insects, fish and any eggs produced by non-native species), plants (including their seeds), as well as bacteria and fungus and is very complex. These organisms have been introduced to non-native areas both intentionally and unintentionally. The harm they cause may be to native species, the environment, the ecosystem, and/or the economy and it may have a ripple effect, compounding the damage.

When referring to cats as a non-native species, which cat haters often do, perhaps reference is being made to the fact that cats were originally domesticated in the Near East roughly 10,000 years ago, then further refined in ancient Egypt a few thousand years later. Humans took them aboard ships for rodent control, people fell in love with them as pets and, fast forward, cats everywhere.

Whether or not cats meet the definition of non-native species (legally, they don’t) can be debated but certainly there are free roaming cats who live part or all of their lives outdoors and come into contact with wildlife. And an alarming number of people, and I can’t stress this enough, hate them.

Setting aside the violent nutters, some people hate cats because they see the predation. That is, look out window, see cat carrying dead bird, hate cat. It’s rather more difficult to envision a rainforest being destroyed thousands of miles away and the associated displaced, dying and dead animals and plants so, less connection, less hate. That’s my theory anyway.

Then there are those who choose to believe that cats are responsible for killing millions, billions and kajillions of birds, despite the flawed basis for these projections.

To be clear, I am strongly in favor of keeping cats indoors when not being leash walked or enclosed in a catio type structure outdoors. I also recognize this is not possible for feral cats, homeless cats, cats in war zones, cats in severely impoverished areas, etc. Trap/neuter/return programs and colony caretakers aim to manage and eliminate these populations over time but again, cat haters choose not to accept the facts.

A feral cat who was neutered, vaccinated and medically treated before being released. Photo by Casey Post.

Where I stand on this complicated issue: On the one hand, I feel we have an obligation to prevent extinction of living organisms and I recognize that non-native species and cats, to an extent, play a role. On the other hand, killing is anathema to me. I’d like to see all the non-lethal options comprehensively addressed before anyone talks about killing. Let’s stop destroying our rapidly diminishing wetlands and, where possible, resurrect them. That’s just one example but a significant one, even if only considering birds:

Many birds are dependent on wetlands for a majority of their life, and 80% of the threatened and endangered bird species rely on wetland habitats.

If saving and restoring wetlands sounds like hard work that would require teams of regional experts, involvement of local and federal officials and lots of funding, yeah I get that. But it doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing. And again, this is just one example of non-lethal means of supporting native species.

Photo by Marianne Denton, via Twitter

I also understand that removal of non-native species, keeping them alive, transporting them back to their native areas, possibly thousands of miles away – if the native area is able and willing to accept them, is a logistical nightmare and I can’t even imagine the pile of money required. And given that the entire effort could be undone by someone releasing an unwanted exotic pet or, in the case of plants, a strong wind, it seems overwhelming. But unless each individual case is evaluated on its own merits, how will we know? It’s no good painting every scenario with the same broad brush when lives hang in the balance.

I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind on this issue. My hope is to provoke thought and further discussion. Thinking about things in new ways is how problems get solved. And preventing extinction is worth some challenging thinks.

4 thoughts on “Non-native Species

  1. Such an important discussion to provoke, so thank you for this post. It will, indeed, require some “challenging thinks” to arrive at strategies that solve problems without unnecessary killing (which is never a long-term solution anyway). It involves getting down into the weeds of the issues and asking “why?” a LOT…And maybe also, “Why not?”

  2. You’ve brought up some very good points and I think we, as custodians of the earth, should be doing everything we can to preserve habitats and the native species that live within them. But ponder this: Isn’t the movement of plants and animals from one area to another part of the evolutionary process of the planet? Think about how the earth has been changing over time – climates, plants, animals, etc. Best example is the Ice Age where many plants and animals were wiped out. This had nothing to do with people. Maybe we should worry less about stopping the process, and more about how we might be interrupting the process. Can we prevent extinction? In many cases yes, by preserving habitat where possible, but animals and plants migrating, being introduced naturally or more recently with assistance, has been the story of the earth since it was created. Just my thoughts.

  3. Blaming cats for everything that’s wrong, and hating them for nothing seems to be entirely too common. That they kill billions of birds and small mammals is nonsense. It is based on fallacies as you point out. It is not even common sense. Cats have been with humans for about 10,000 years, and running loose for most of that time. There shouldn’t be a single small bird left alive by now if they were that efficient. Birds have wings, mostly they fly away. Humans have been much better predators, and in Europe still are – poachers catch millions of small birds for the market, and have become a greater threat to their survival than any cat. Then there is habitat loss, pollution, climate change, city buildings, other predators, etc. But hey, lets just blame the cats. You can read some about bird poaching in Europe and Asia here:

  4. Ares1942 is correct. Predation by cats is the least of birds’ concerns right now.

    We’re destroying their habitats, destroying their food sources, and even messing with their migrations and mating cycles.

    Tracy Mohr is also correct – change is normal for all of the earth. There are few things that don’t change (sharks, for example, but even they have gotten smaller). Trying to save “native” species is… anti-evolutionary. Sure, some may be dying off because of things we did, but aren’t we also part of nature? For some reason, we like to think of humans as “other” when it comes to the natural world – a non-factor. But we are the largest drivers of change in nature (for good or ill).

    Jonah Peretti has a paper called “Nativism and Nature: Rethinking Biological Invasion” where he challenges the idea of nativism.

    Some quotes –

    “Furthermore, it is unclear how long a species needs to be established in a location before it is considered native. Is a species ‘naturalised’ in 100 years, 1,000 years, or 10,000 years? The distinctions are arbitrary and unscientific. These factors suggests that the study of biological invasion does not rest on a rigorous scientific foundation.”

    “Humans have existed with nature for tens of thousands of years. If ‘real nature’ is human-free, it becomes questionable if ‘real nature’ even exists. People have been moving biota for thousands of years on five continents. This biological mixing has intensified inrecent years due to the globalisation of cultures. In this milieu, it becomes extremely difficult to identify the natural, native, or original conditions of an ecosystem. These factors, combined with current trends in ecological theory, have complicated conservation biology’s stated task of protecting biodiversity.”

    Some ecologists/biologists are starting to push back on the idea of nativism. It has become an excuse to kill things we do not like. But at the same time, it does nothing to protect the things that are native, but inconvenient (see coyotes). The belief that outside things are “bad” is based on emotion, not science.

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