A “shocking” proposal: It is ok to allow cats to go outside (sometimes)

Reggie Watts, the cat (not the comedian).

Last week, I posted an article on Facebook about a lawsuit over custody of Reggie, a cat. Rae Bees, a woman who adopted Reggie five years ago from a rescue group with an “indoor only” cat policy, is suing that group for refusing to give her her cat back. Reggie was found wandering by a Good Samaritan and traced to the rescue group through a microchip. After the group saw photos of Reggie in the backyard and a post that he was lost “again,” they refused to return him.

I noted that the court awarded temporary custody to the rescue group based on the breach of contract, but is allowing Rae to visit once a week. The ultimate ruling will turn on who owns the property right to the cat: the woman (for a sale of property) or the rescue group (for a breach of contract). In the post, I suggested a third way: give the “property right” to the cat (as a “legal person”). The court should focus on what is in the “best interest of the cat” by appointing a guardian ad litem (a representative). I also noted that I’ve never subscribed to “indoor only” cat policies and never insisted on them when I ran shelters. Instead, I suggested a case-by-case approach which depends on the neighborhood.

Although I had intended the discussion to be about property rights, it ended up being a very passionate discussion about indoor policies. Most people supported them and sided with the rescue group. A lot of the commenters said they were “surprised,” “shocked,” “deeply disappointed,” and “appalled” that I thought any cats should be allowed to go outside. They argued it was not safe outside, that cats belong indoors, that they kill so-called “native” wildlife, and to my astonishment, that I “set cat rescue back 20 years.”

Putting aside the fanciful claim that a single Facebook post could undo two decades of rescue progress and putting aside that as the driving force behind rescue rights laws that make it illegal to kill cats if rescue groups are willing to save them, quite the opposite in fact; I tried to clarify that I did not  necessarily say return the cat. I said that cats are not “things.” They are more than mere property. And so the contract should not be dispositive. I also said the woman’s desires should not be dispositive either (although breaking up this family should be a factor the court considers). What I said was that the property right to his own person should belong to the cat and the court should consider what is in the best interest of Reggie, like we do for human children. We need to think bigger than contracts for property. Doing so, I suggested, will open up a whole host of possibilities for animals and advancement of their rights. But given that most comments instead focused on whether letting cats go outside was consistent with responsible cat care, I want to address the claim by quite a few of the commenters that they are (in so many words) “surprised,” “shocked,” “appalled,” or “deeply disappointed” that:

  1. I take a case-by-case approach to indoor/outdoor;
  2. I do not believe this family of five years should be broken up over a contract clause that is overbroad and because of that, patently unreasonable;
  3. I believe the cat has rights independent of the rescue group and the woman who adopted him and should thus retain the “property right” to his own person; and because of this;
  4. The court’s role should be to determine, via a guardian ad litem, what is in Reggie’s best interest (the way we do for human children).

This claim of “shock” tells me that there are a lot of people who really do not know who I am and what I stand for. It might behoove such people to go back and look at some of the older posts, my blog, my film, and my books. (Everything but my books are free and I make my books available for free periodically.) Anyone who knows me would be shocked to hear me say it was ok never to let cats outside: I’ve never subscribed to sheltering movement dogma and have been challenging it for decades.

Moreover, I must say that I also do not believe people are really shocked—or at the least, they shouldn’t be. The claim, intentional or not, is designed to shut down conversation and reasoned debate. Because when you have a reasoned debate (or, at the least, a dialectic), my position—and those of others on the page who agree with me—is not objectively shocking. It is, in fact, reasonable. And I believe it is the better argument. Just doing a thought experiment about what we share in terms of shared ancestry, history, biology, and sociology with the cat—in short, we are both species of earthlings who evolved outdoors—and how we would feel if we were not allowed outside would bear this out.

It is the better position, moreover, because those who advocate indoor only policies ignore the benefits of going outdoors, overinflate the risks of doing so (and in doing so, directly and indirectly undermine community cat sterilization efforts), and ignore the risks of never being allowed to. As I noted in the post, studies show “that cats which are not, or only rarely, allowed to go outdoors show many more behavior problems than cats which often or always have access to the outdoors.” Moreover, “most of the epidemiologic studies of disease risk factors, conducted for more than a quarter century, have identified indoor housing as a consistent external risk factor for a variety of diseases in cats.”

Please note I did not say that this is necessarily so. You can keep cats indoors and control their feeding and exercise them so that they are not overweight and therefore, subject to a variety of physical diseases, like diabetes, that increase morbidity and mortality (though boredom—another problem—is a drawback that is not so easily overcome). But if you look at trends in veterinary medicine, this has not happened. As a society, our cats are obese and subject to a whole host of health problems that arose when the humane movement shifted its advocacy and cities passed laws mandating an indoor only policy. [See Sandoe, P., et al, Companion Animal Ethics, Universities Federation for Animal Welfare (2015). This sweeping review goes through many of the epidemiologic studies regarding health effects of indoor-only policies.]

Of course, when I have lived in neighborhoods where the benefits of being outdoors were outweighed by the risks, I kept my cats indoors with access to an outdoor enclosure. Between my former home in the middle of nowhere on 17 acres where all my cats went outside (except Sara who did not want to) and downtown Manhattan (where none would) lies a case-by-case analysis.

The view from the back deck of our home near Ithaca, NY, where we allowed all of our cats to go outside.

For those preaching the alleged impact on so-called “native” wildlife, I’ve argued elsewhere why I the evidence shows that the claims are exaggerated and has a good overview of the junk science often peddled by nativist organizations. Here, I want to discuss the xenophobic ideology (it is not a science) of invasion biology, which does not warrant our deference. “Non-native” and “invasive species” are terms that have entered the lexicon of popular culture and become pejorative, inspiring unwarranted fear, knee-jerk suspicion, and a lack of thoughtfulness and moral consideration. They are language of intolerance, based on an idea we have thoroughly rejected in our treatment of our fellow human beings: that the value of a living being can be reduced merely to its place of ancestral origin.

The idea that cats should be labeled an “invasive species” or “non-native” is also hypocritical: forcing onto cats a standard the people who embrace these labels refuse themselves to obey. People are also “non-native” to North America. People belong to a species that is the most “invasive” the planet has ever experienced, causing virtually all of the environmental destruction. And while they blame cats for harming birds, they kill or pay others to kill birds so they can eat them, supporting a vicious industry that kills billions of birds annually. And yet for reasons based entirely on narrow self-interest, they do not hold their own actions to the same standards which they impose upon cats: they do not force themselves to live exclusively indoors, they do not pack up and move back to the continent where humans first evolved, they do not stop eating birds, and they do not impose upon themselves or their fellow humans discriminatory standards which judge the worth of an individual based solely on the lineage of their ancestors.

We need a kinder, gentler, and more tolerant way of viewing the world and the distribution of animals upon it. We also need one more firmly grounded in science. Each species on Earth, writes Professor Ken Thompson, “has a characteristic distribution on the Earth’s land surface: But in every case, that distribution is in practice a single frame from a very long movie. Run the clock back only 10,000 years, less than a blink of an eye in geological time, and nearly all of those distributions would be different, in many cases very different. Go back only 10 million years, still a tiny fraction of the history of life on Earth, and any comparison with present-day distributions becomes impossible, since most of the species themselves would no longer be the same.”

This never-ending transformation—of landscape, of climate, of plants and animals—has occurred, and continues to occur, all over the world, resulting from a variety of factors: global weather patterns, plate tectonics, evolution, natural selection, migration, and even the devastating effects of impacting asteroids. Close your eyes and randomly stick a pin on any location in a map, then do a Google search of that region’s history and what you will invariably find is that at some point in time, that location looked very different than it does today, as did the plants and animals who resided there. Over 10,000 years ago, a sudden burst of monsoon rains over the vast Sahara desert transformed its dunes into a savannah which could sustain life, including people and giraffes who migrated into the area which today is once again a barren expanse of sand. Roughly 74 million years ago, Tyrannosaurs, Ceratopsians, and Sauropods roamed the continent of North America which was divided down its middle by a vast, ancient sea. In the distant past, the now frigid polar regions of the Earth were moist, temperate and blanketed by forests. The geographic and fossil records tell us that there is but one constant to life on Earth, and that is change. So under what pretense does an arbitrarily picked “single frame from a very long movie” chosen by people who refuse to practice what they preach trump the right of cats to live wherever they may be?

That said, I do not like the idea of any animal killing another animal, regardless of whether they come upon one in a field or it is provided to them in a can by the people who feed them. If all creatures on this planet could become herbivores by a snap of the fingers, I would snap my fingers without hesitation. I address this issue in detail and my belief that technology will resolve it in Welcome Home, my book which looks at living with cats (and dogs) from an animal rights perspective.

As it relates to what we feed cats, I cover one part of the argument in an article I wrote for the Huffington Post. The other part which involves CRISPR technology is discussed in the book and best left for another day, because if people are “shocked” that the question of whether cats should be allowed to go outside should be answered on a case-by-case basis, they’ll positively have a heart attack regarding my views about the future of reprogramming predators.* In terms of my own practices, when I have lived in areas where it is relatively safe for my cats to outdoors, I put a little bell on their collar so that other critters will hear them.

But at the end of the day, regardless of whether I can convince my “shocked” readers or not; regardless of whether I can convince them to put aside “shock” and “disappointment” and at least understand that my position is not unreasonable even if they still don’t agree with it; the question I want to pose is whether they really want Facebook to be nothing more than an echo chamber where they only visit pages they agree with.

I’ve read many of the comments on the post and I am, of course, gratified by those who agree with me, calling it (as I believe it is) “balanced” and “reasonable.” I am also gratified by those that do not agree with me and think it is those that bring out the best of Facebook (aside from helping animals find homes). Why?

The French political philosopher Montesquieu once stated, “When you can perceive no noise of conflict throughout a State, you may be sure that there is no freedom there.” In other words, disagreement and discussion are key to a healthy government. When alternative points of view are allowed free expression, the opportunity for the best possible position to be implemented is created.

Of course, assuring that all points of view deserve to be heard does not mean that all positions that may be advocated are of equal merit. If the need for an organized animal protection movement exists because animals not only have a right to live, but to do so free of the human-inflicted suffering that so many of them are forced to endure, then there is a manner of organizing our society that can either thwart or foster those ends. Some ways of relating to animals are better than others.

Determining exactly what those ends are and the means of reaching them through healthy debate is essential to maintaining not only a robust democracy, but an effective movement for social improvement that exists to influence that democracy in a more humane direction, as the animal protection movement purports to do. As a result, our mandate is clear: as a movement, we must debate issues of importance to animals, considering even those points of view that are new, challenge conventional wisdom, or make people in positions of power uncomfortable. Progress for animals, in fact, depends on it. Otherwise, the movement becomes stagnant, flawed ideas are implemented or perpetuated, and animals continue to suffer long past the point when we could have done better by and for them had we only summoned the insight to determine what, in fact, “better” actually is, and the courage to then act upon it.

We owe the animals an open mind and thoughtful deliberation of those views that contradict our own. My hope is that, eventually, the animal protection movement will evolve to welcome rather than shrink from new points of view; not because all points of view are of identical merit, but precisely because they are not.

* As I write in Welcome Home, my sympathies also “lie with the skeptical reader who reckons humans will probably mess things up:” (the history of the Eugenics movement certainly bears that out)… but if it “can reduce suffering, reduce killing, increase happiness, and ensure longevity for all species involved, including cats,” it is “not an idea that should be dismissed out of hand…”


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