News of a study claiming cats are responsible for the deaths of 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds and 6.9 to 20.7 billion mammals annually in America sent the world's editors scrambling this week for photographs of cats looking vicious. The New York Times website took the prize by posting a picture of a beastly looking cat with an adorable-looking rabbit dangling from its mouth.
Researchers from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute examined local surveys and pilot studies in order to reach their rapidly disseminated conclusions, published in Nature Communications.
"Domestic cats are destroying the planet," the blog i09 warned in their headline.
"Cats killing billions of animals in the U.S.," wrote the BBC, reporting that Pete Marra, one of the authors of the study, claimed that cats are "the top threat to U.S. wildlife."
This was the British Petroleum oil spill of public-relations disasters for cats. News outlets listed their prey as a cornucopia of cuteness – squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks and songbirds were given top billing.
Few invasive species are killed by cats, said Dr. Marra. The small rodents they consume aren't Norway rats or mice, "but native species such as meadow voles." Not just any vole but the meadow vole, that pastoral ambassador of goodwill.
Honestly, I started to wonder if a cat had broken Dr. Marra's heart.
I was able to reach some cats for comment at Feral, a cat bar not far from my home. I sat on a bar stool and was immediately served a dead shrew.
"Oh. Thanks. Could I get a Jameson's and soda?" I said to the tabby tending the bar. He stared at me blankly before nudging the shrew a little closer to me with his paw and tilting his head to one side.
A black cat jumped onto the seat next to me and laid a dead starling beside the shrew before rubbing his head against my shoulder.
The mood in the bar was sombre. "You look down," the bar-tabby said to me. "Would it help if I showed you my ass?"
"No. Just a drink, if you don't mind," I tried again.
"From the faucet?" he said. "We have a number of running faucets on tap."
"She doesn't want any of that," said the black cat. "You're here about the study, aren't you?"
"I thought we weren't going to talk about the study, Mr. Whiskers," said the bar-tabby. "Patrons come in here to forget."
"I'm a journalist," I said, if only to convince them I really needed a drink.
"Yeah, aren't you the one who's always bothering the monkeys? Am I shedding enough on you? You look cold," said Mr. Whiskers as Tom, a rugged tomcat, leapt up on another bar stool.
"This hit us pretty hard," said Tom. "This is not cool for cats. Look, we thought you were hungry."
"You should've said something," said Mr. Whiskers. "All I know is, when I left a meadow vole in a slipper, I'd come back and find that vole gone. Sometimes I heard a squeal of excitement."
"Now we read in The New York Times that our gifts weren't welcome. One day you're carefully arranging a dead robin on the kitchen counter for the one you love, the next day you're 'one of the greatest global anthropogenic threats to wildlife.'"
"You mind if I take a look in that fridge over there?" I said. "Research."
"Go ahead," said the bar-tabby. "Whatever makes you happy."
"Don't worry, I'll keep an eye open for anything that might trip you," said Mr. Whiskers, jumping down from his barstool and weaving in and out between my feet as I walked to and from what turned out to be an empty fridge.
"I kept your seat warm!" said Tom brightly, staying firmly on my seat when I returned.
A Siamese came over and shyly dropped off a dead baby squirrel.
"Would you like a hairball with that?" said bar-tabby.
"I'm good," I said, turning to leave. "But thanks." They purred, and I felt bad.
"Would you like us all to follow you home and yowl for hours on your front porch?" said Tom.
"I'll just get a cab," I said. "You guys are great."
All three just stared, in different directions, but as if there were something really important there. And I found myself, as had happened before, unable to do anything but to sit back down and stroke the bartender's head.