Critters Ethics Responsibility Rights

Our Cat Cali gets Fixed

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This morning, my wife and I took our daughter’s Tortoiseshell kitty Cali to San Diego Humane Society, where she will have her operation today. I don’t feel good about taking away the cat’s motherhood, or changing her personality in the process. But I feel obliged by circumstance.

Cali came to live with us in October 2014, after one of my daughter’s four housemates insist the cat go. She and we endured two heat cycles in the last month, while we waited for our appointment date. This morning in Cali’s absence, Neko is unsettled. As am I. She comes home late-day.

Yesterday I posted a poll asking: “Is your cat fixed?” The results and comments are worth calling out. 

Cats By the Numbers
In the United States, there are 74.06 million cats as pets, according to the American Veterinary Medial Association. Another 50 million felines are feral. The Humane Society of the United States gives a substantially higher number for cat ownership: 95.6 million. Forty-eight percent of owners have one cat, and 31 percent two. Just over one-quarter were adopted from shelters, where 3 million to 4 million cats and dogs are euthanized every year, according to the organization.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is none too specific, giving an ownership range that expands the other two numbers: 74 million to 96 million. The group estimates the number of stray cats to be as much as 70 million.

Another stat: 45.3 percent of U.S. households own a cat, according to the American Pet Products Association, which data is the freshest (2013-14). More than one-third of the animals were acquired as strays. That’s the case with Cali, who in June adopted my daughter, after she moved into a student group house. We believe, but can’t confirm, that students moving out of another home abandoned the maturing kitten.

Here in San Diego, the Feral Cat Coalition leads a “trap-neuter-and-return” program that seeks to keep wild, domesticated animal populations from rising. Managed, feral communities often result from the practice. TNRs, while well-meaning, are in this decade receiving some push-back criticism. Long-standing complaint: Feral cat communities diminish bird populations. Many ferals also end up being food for coyotes. Here in California, cats make up as much as one-quarter of coyotes’ food supply, but I don’t see what I consider to be a reliable enough source for the data. Related and useful, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife provides a compelling selection of analyses and commentaries about feral cat communities.

Reaction to My Poll
One of Google+’s newer features is polling, and I didn’t expect huge numbers to mine—certainly not on a Sunday. Thirty-three people responded to aforementioned question “Is your cat fixed?” Three respondents answered “no”, which statistically puts “yes” at 91 percent. The margin of error is zero, since the respondents are self-selected, identified, own cats, and answer a closed question. That doesn’t make the results representative of anything meaningful, however. The sample is small and not demographically defined.

Comments and my responses to them are more meaningful and get to the reason for asking. I see incredible social pressure to spay—like anyone who doesn’t neuter a pet is criminally negligent or just evil.

Let’s start with Twitter, where I linked to the poll. Adi Kingsley-Hughes answers: “Yes. Allegedly it prevents disease, makes them less likely to fight/get injured, and less likely to run away”. Ha! A true journalist, he uses “allegedly”. I respond: “Our other cat is fixed. Hehe, will the aliens say the same when abducting us for pets?” His reply: “Hahaha, probably!”

Paraic Hegarty tweets: “Fix your cat unless you’re a cat breeder”. Oh my.

On Google+, Chris Harpner takes the ethical stance: “Unless you want to take responsibility for every kitten she produces, and by extension, everyone THEY produce, the higher moral ground is to get her fixed. She’s an animal. I promise you, she will NOT be pondering this. Both of my cats are fixed and they’re both very happy cats”.

I explain that “our other cat is fixed. She doesn’t go outside”. To which he answers: “As far back as the 70s, we’ve had cats that weren’t fixed and that ‘never went outside’ and somehow still managed to get pregnant! 🙂 And if she doesn’t go outside, then the moral question is mute anyway, right?”

Jonathan Black gives the health reason that I read about but for which I could find no credible, authoritative study: “Female cats that are not spayed by six months old are twice as likely to get cancer later in their life. At least, that’s what a vet told me”. That’s either a legit reason or another justification for neutering; the vet profits if you listen.

Amit Peri gives reason I appreciate: “My cat was in heat one time before she got fixed and she really suffered. When cats are in heat and can’t find a ‘partner’, they simply suffer. So if your cat won’t be outside I really recommend getting her fixed”. Pure misery is the only way I would describe Cali’s two heat cycles that I witnessed, both within the month of December 2014.

Gene Chiu: “A colleague of mine also just fixed one cat and the other had kittens anyway. Best to be safe than sorry. Pet shelters are already quite full as it is. Why risk putting more kittens in shelters or end up putting some down later?”

Being the typical jokester he is, David Stein comments: “Cat is fixed. I sure wish my neighbor had gotten himself fixed long ago”. Don’t worry, David, the alien abductors will fix that problem.

My Moral Dilemma
Growing up in Northern Maine, where our cats were never fixed—and one likely reason is no societal pressure like today—my moral sense is to let the animals be. But I don’t live on a Maine farm but in a California neighborhood.  Cali lives indoors. She and we suffer through her heats.

Part of my problem is this: I’m a born naturalist, whose consistent observation is that human beings’ efforts to manage and interfere usually are misguided, no matter how well-meaning. Consider the activists freaking out about cats decimating bird populations and their efforts to spay, or even kill, felines. One Ohio State University study shows that coyotes, who in the urban landscape are natural cat predators, deter felines from preying on birds. Nature checks and balances in ways we often don’t anticipate.

Animals breed. They’re offspring die, as they do, too. Feral or domesticated strays are wilder than the many moral high-groundist think. As John Bradshaw explains in his book Cat Sense, felines are quite different from dogs. Humans domesticated dogs. Cats are self-domesticated. Their earliest ancestors joined human colonies that attracted rodents; humans benefitted from wild hunters turned pest-controllers.

Unlike dogs, which are the product of thousands of years of domestication, few cats are more than a couple generations from the wild—and cross-breeding house pets and ferals keeps the animals close to the wild. As he observes, because of self-domestication, “within a couple of generations, cats can revert back to the independent way of life that was the exclusive preserve of their predecessors some 10,000 years ago”. By contrast, “the dog’s mind has been radically altered from that of its ancestor, the grey wolf”.

John Bradshaw expresses what bothers me most about modern-day attitudes towards cats:

We are in danger of demanding more from our cats than they can deliver. We expect that an animal that has been our pest controller of choice for thousands of years should now give up that lifestyle because we have begun to find its consequences distasteful or unacceptable. We also expect that we should be free to choose our cat’s companions and neighbors without regard for their origins as solitary, territorial animals. Somehow, we presume that because dogs can be flexible in their choice of canine companions cats will be equally tolerant of whatever relationships we expect them to develop purely for our convenience.

Until about 20 or 30 years ago, cats kept pace with human demands, but they are now struggling to adapt to our expectations, especially that they should no longer hunt, and no longer desire to roam away from home. In contrast to almost every other domestic animal, whose breeding has been strictly controlled for many generations past the cats transition from wild to domestic has—with the exception of pedigree cats—been driven by natural selection. Cats essentially evolved to fit opportunities that we provided. We allowed them to find their own mates, and those kittens that were best suited to living alongside humans, in whatever capacity is required of them at the time, were the most likely to thrive and produce the next generation.

So, on this day, of Cali’s spay, I act against my better judgement.

Finally, a note on Cali’s portrait: Shot with the Fujifilm X100T.

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