Sustainability and Complications of Theory

A family of feral cats live in the garden. We moved in to our current home at the beginning of September, and quickly realised that we were surrounded by hungry felines. At least two are mothers because they both had kittens the week after we arrived. Black mother had two black kittens which were briefly in the greenhouse, but she removed them and I think they must have died because she comes for food without them. Tabby mother also had two kittens, in a cardboard box that was waiting to go for recycling. She had one black and one tabby kitten. The tabby died at a couple of days old, but the black one, a female, has survived. My granddaughter named her Bobbelina. We cut a hole in the side door to the garage, which is now home to Bobbelina, her mother, and a tabby cat with only a stub of tail, apparently the result of a nasty accident. Black mother cat and another tabby, large and fluffy and possibly a pet cat, to judge from its size, appear at breakfast time and tea time, when I put out food and milk.

How much, if at all, should we interfere in the lives of feral cats? Should we let their numbers increase until hunger and disease start killing them off? I decided pretty much straight away to interfere, and borrowed a cage from the vets, into which they will, I hope, venture to eat their food, strategically placed at the far end. Then off to the vets to be neutered.

Cats are so useful to us. They kill rats and mice, and thus help our quest to keep our homes rodent-free. They also kill birds and small field mammals like voles, which do not harm us. The feral cats are part of the ecosystem in which our house is located, but are they a natural part? How do we define ‘natural’? The cats live here, and so they appear to be a natural part of the environment. But if they, or their ancestors, hadn’t originally been someone’s pet, they probably wouldn’t be here. The cats are, nevertheless, dynamic agents within a local ecosystem, affecting many other parts of that system. When they are neutered, their families will not grow, but other feral cats may spot an opportunity and try to occupy the garden.

The family of feral cats highlight the problems I have in deciding what is environmentally sustainable behaviour, and what is not. Leave the cats alone, and they may multiply until their search for food interrupts local food chains and decreases biodiversity. Remove the cats’ capacity to reproduce, and there is ecological interference of a different sort, but interference all the same.

Do we regard environmentally sustainable behaviour as behaviour that appears to give us humans the optimum chance of long-term survival? That’s probably how many of us think. Maybe it’s not a wholly ethical approach, because we are prioritising our interests above those of the rest of the living world. Yet could our quest to control our environment, including the feral cats living in it, be an inevitable consequence of human cognition and thus ‘natural’?

Little by little, I am drawn to the idea that humans are the antithesis of local environmental systems because we are self-aware, we think and reflect, and our thoughts lead us to interfere with our environments, to try and make them more congenial, or more materially rewarding, for ourselves, thereby unbalancing them.

On the other hand, we might just slot in to a much larger system in which our unpredictability is wholly predictable element. Issues of scale, perhaps.

The cats don’t care. They are just snoozing in the afternoon sun.

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