What's a margin-of-error of 90 million when it comes to animal population counts?
According to a new Journal of Wildlife Management study, there are between 50 million and 140 million free-roaming domestic cats in North America alone. By any standard, the couch moggy is one of nature's most successful predators — I only say "one of" because, unknown to me, I'm sure if I dub them the most successful predator out there, some insect or reptile expert will be quick to point out the error of my ways.
The irony, of course, is that many of the iconic big cats people spend thousands of dollars to see in the wild are critically endangered. The domestic house cat can adapt to virtually any terrain or surroundings, so habitat loss is not the issue it is with the lion, tiger, jaguar and other poster species for wildlife conservation.
The trouble, as two recent periodicals illustrate, is that cats are such ruthlessly efficient killers, they can wreak havoc on vulnerable environments and ecosystems, hastening the pace toward a mass extinction. The Hawaiian story is especially interesting, and sobering: Cats may unintentionally introduce viruses into wildlife populations one wouldn't necessarily expect, like the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal. (It's not the cat's fault, by the way, but rather the rats they eat.)
Hawaii is a special case because, despite the serene beauty of sun, sea and surf, the Hawaiian Islands have borne witness to one of the great animal extinctions in recorded history, owing to invasive species like rats and mongooses — and domestic cats — wiping out entire bird populations.
I don't know what the solution is — who does? — but, clearly, keeping one's couch moggy indoors may be a good start.