The war between cats and birds is a one-sided bloodbath that has been waged since the world was young.
Domesticated cats, angels cast out of God's kingdom for their unspeakable crimes, are doomed to spend their mortal lives vomiting balls of their own hair and being casually surveilled by their owners. The lucky ones enjoy moments spent hunting down and then decapitating, gutting, and depositing their prey onto their owners' throw pillows, welcome mats, shoes, bath mats, and beds.
Birds, those winged and sometimes colorful creatures that often succeed in life by waking up earlier than their competition and seem determined to kill us by infecting us with their flus, often fall victim to cats.
Cats have a natural instinct to kill birds. Birds have a natural instinct to find death in the pockets of life. This is the way things always were — until humans inserted themselves into this bloody cycle. Over the past few years, natural selection has become laced with human intervention and feelings, and the preference of feline versus avian has split the animal-loving population.
Why cats are considered serial killers
"Most people aren’t aware of the degree to which free-roaming outdoor cats are a problem in this country," American novelist Jonathan Franzen told Grist in 2010. "At least a million birds a day are killed by them, so we’re talking about a minimum of 365 million birds in America alone in the course of a year — perhaps as many as a billion."
Franzen's interview with Grist was in regards to his novel Freedom. In that book, the protagonist is so perturbed by a neighbor cat's unchecked murder of birds that he drives the feline to a shelter to be euthanized. People who are not named Jonathan Franzen believed the story was a devilish satire. But Franzen — a man who once intimated that he considered adopting an Iraqi child as a means of better understanding young people — viewed his depiction of feline murder justice was a true portrayal.
"I was after a purely realistic portrayal of contemporary conservation work in Appalachia," he said.
He's not wrong. There have been cases of bird lovers getting arrested for attempting to poison of feral cats, studies conducted on the type of people who intervene in this struggle, hipster movements, and even reactive hipster movements. And coming in the fall of 2016, novelist Margaret Atwood will publish a fictional superhero story about the conflict, in graphic novel form.
Margaret Atwood is writing a graphic novel that hinges on real-life tensions between cat lovers and bird lovers
In 2016, Margaret Atwood will publish her first graphic novel, Angel Catbird, with artist Johnnie Christmas. Atwood, an award-winning writer, has made a name for herself with novels like The Blind Assassin, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Heart Goes Last; this foray into the comic book style of storytelling is something that people are eager to see. Many writers who primarily work in other mediums, including novelist Neil Gaiman and director Joss Whedon, have written pretty successful and acclaimed graphic novels, and many people are excited to see how Atwood will bring her own kind of magic to the medium.
"I have concocted a superhero who is part cat, part bird. Due to some spilled genetic Super-Splicer, our hero got tangled up with both a cat and an owl; hence his fur and feathers, and his identity problems," Atwood said via a press release.
However, plot details beyond the title character being both a superhero and a bird-cat hybrid are fuzzy; the book itself is probably in an early stage. Still, there's a small hint in the fine print: Dark Horse Comics is publishing the book as part of an initiative called "Keep Cats Safe and Save Bird Lives."
Overseen by the conservation charity Nature Canada, Keep Cats Safe and Save Bird Lives hasn't launched yet, but I spoke to Eleanor Fast, the organization's executive director, to get some details on the initiative. The program is set to begin in the spring of 2016, and its aim is to reduce the estimated 200 million bird deaths that occur in Canada each year due to cat predation. An estimated 80 million of those deaths, Fast says, are caused by pet cats.
"We'll be encouraging people in a lighthearted way to stop their cats from free roaming," Fast told me.
Free roaming is when cats are let outside unsupervised. The Keep Cats Safe initiative wants to eliminate the practice by suggesting that homeowners keep their pet cats indoors or put their cats on a leash or harness when the cat is outdoors.
"Outdoors, cats should be treated in the same manner as dogs," she said, explaining that cats run the risk of catching diseases or getting hit by cars when they explore on their own. "They deserve the same level of care."
Keeping a cat inside and/or supervising a cat when it's roaming outside, Fast says, will also reduce the number of bird deaths. The initiative's goal is to save around 3 million bird lives in its first year.
Of course, wrangling a cat into a harness is easier said than done. And it's mildly humiliating for both of the creatures involved in that situation, whether you're the cat in a harness or the human taking a harnessed cat for a walk.
"I love cats," Fast said, stating that Nature Canada will work with many municipalities and pointing out that there are other alternatives for keeping both cats and birds safe outdoors, like a fenced-in outdoor space for cats.
I asked Fast a few times about what side of the fight she's on, because in the US the tension between bird people and cat people is more strident.
"We're not partisan at all," she said, laughing.
In the United States, the fight is both partisan and real
When Nico Dauphine decided that she wanted to kill a few pesky bird-killing cats, she did it alone. And you can watch her do it over and over again, because her attempted feline murder is immortalized on surveillance video. Dauphine, beanie on her head and cotton tote slung over her shoulder, moves choppily. She reaches into her bag. She puts whatever is in her fingers into a planter. She repeats this a few more times, looking around surreptitiously but failing to notice the security camera watching her.
We'd later find out that Dauphine, a former researcher at the National Zoo who also holds a PhD in wildlife ecology, was actually fumbling around her bag for rat poison and that she was placing it in the food left out by a neighbor for feral cats in the neighborhood. Dauphine had seen the feral-cat sympathizer around her apartment building and had initially emailed building management to do something about it.
Then, unsatisfied with management's lack of action, Dauphine took the problem into her own hands. And in 2011, she was found guilty of attempted animal cruelty but did not serve jail time, as the judge in the case believed that her career would suffer greatly from the incident.
Dauphine is the face of the partisan fight between bird people and cat people.
"A cat-poisoning case would have generated outrage under any circumstances, but Dauphine’s position in the pro-bird firmament made it a full-blown scandal," New York magazine's Jessica Pressler wrote in 2013. "To cat people, the incident was proof of what they’d been saying about the bird agenda all along, and they seized on her arrest with righteous glee."
Pressler explains that Dauphine eventually left the city after receiving death threats.
By and large, the fight between bird people — who are also called "birders" — and cat people isn't quite as extreme as Dauphine's attempted cat murder suggests. But her vigilantism proves that many intelligent people are very passionate about this fight and that some of those intelligent people won't necessarily act that way.
Dauphine's logic is a radicalized version of what birders believe: that when a cat is allowed to go outside unchecked, the result is the death of many birds. The solution? Figure out a way to control cats — feral ones especially — and save more birds.
How the bird camp defines that desired "control" varies depending on whom you talk to. But one tactic that strikes fear into any cat person's heart is what's known as aggressive euthanasia.
"The bird community’s position is, 'We need to get rid of the feral cats, and that means cats must die,'" Franzen told Pressler back in 2013. "We feel bad about that, but we can morally justify that position, with all of the birds that they are indirectly killing."
What cat lovers and birders believe, explained
Earlier this fall, the New York Times magazine posed a question of whether you would go back in time and kill "baby Hitler" if given the chance. The question was the subject of so much online discussion that a Republican presidential candidate thought it would be in his interest to publicly reveal his answer. If baby Hitler had fed feral cats, I think most birders would say that baby Hitler absolutely deserved to die.
Cat enthusiasts, like ones you'll find at Alley Cat Allies, a national cat advocacy organization, believe in the humane treatment of all animals. That means treating feral cats with compassion, engaging in the practice of TNR (trap, neuter, and release), and helping cats live healthy, humane lives — even if it means those cats might kill birds.
The number of birds that die because of cat predation in the US varies, but there's a general agreement that it's a lot. Estimates from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center range from 1.7 billion to 3.7 billion birds per year. But cat enthusiasts don't see this as cause for concern, and they believe that even though there are a staggering number of bird deaths each year — many cat lovers are quick to remind you that glass buildings have killed millions of birds, but no one proposes they get torn down — they have little to no impact on bird population.
"If what you’re proposing is a mass eradication by the tens of millions of this country’s favorite companion animal, you better bring some evidence to the table," Arizona State University professor Peter Wolf, author of the blog Vox Felina (no relation to Vox.com), told Science Line in 2013. "I’m not seeing that."
The war between cat people and bird people has become a culture war
In pop culture, cats have long been a mascot for personal and female loneliness. Though that's changed more recently with the advent of BuzzFeed and the online popularity of cat GIFs, the "crazy cat lady" concept — usually a single, older woman with unbrushed hair who may smell like soup and owns a multitude of cats — still exists.
Further, there's been a recent hipsterization of birders. Franzen essentially became the face of birders in 2005, when he began writing about birding for the New Yorker. In 2012, he appeared in Birders: The Central Park Effect, an HBO documentary about the birds that live in Central Park and the One Direction–like human following they have cultivated by just existing.
Birders and cat people can agree that neither of these "representative" figures is particularly flattering: You're either a person without friends or you're a Jonathan Franzen fanboy. However, this divide does offer useful ammunition for both factions to snipe at one another and to deter nonpartisan humans from siding with the opposition.
Plus, science has found that some aspects of the stereotypes are true. A 2012 study in the journal PLOS One surveyed cat colony caretakers (CCCs) and bird conservation professionals (BCPs) and found that cat and bird lovers tended to be split down gender lines. Male birders supported aggressive euthanasia, while female cat colony sympathizers were more likely to let feral cats kill birds without consequence:
Opinions also were related to gender, age, and education, with females and older respondents being less likely than their counterparts to support treating feral cats as pests, and females being less likely than males to support euthanasia.
Favorite animals have always been avatars for humans. You can tell a lot about the people who enjoy the majestic prominence of giraffes (they're kind souls) versus those who favor chlamydia-carrying koala bears or the necrophiliac rodents known as otters (monsters, all of them). It's no different with birders and cat allies.
Atwood's graphic novel is an olive branch
Margaret Atwood is a birder. She and her partner Graeme Gibson are joint honorary presidents of the BirdLife Rare Bird Club. But she and Nature Canada believe that Angel Catbird can be an olive branch between cat people and bird people.
The novel's story focuses on identity — the central superhero is caught between the feline and avian worlds — and the ability to see both sides of the fight. According to editor Daniel Chabon, it'll be humorous, and Nature Canada's Fast believes it can be a "win-win" situation for both cats and birds.
But Canada and America, like cats and birds, are different beasts. In America, the "keep your cat on a harness" advice might not be enough to sate the thirst of avian allies when there is attempted feral cat murder happening in the streets. And in America, the fight over what we do with feral cats (euthanasia versus TNR) is already poisonously partisan.
"We don’t want that to happen in Canada," Fast said, letting loose a nervous chuckle.