Category: wildlife

Did Pope Francis Really Say Caring For Pets Is ‘Selfish’?

Popes have a mixed record when it comes to cats.

Back in the 13th century Pope Gregory IX famously declared cats were at the heart of alleged Satanic rituals in Europe, relying on the account of one Konrad von Marburg, an author of massacres, church inquisitor and all-around idiot known for brutally torturing his victims to elicit “confessions” of heresy.

Von Marburg told the pope that Satanists had a ritual involving a black cat who would walk around backwards while the Satan-worshipers kissed its ass. The pope bought the risible story and believed von Marburg’s accounts of growing numbers of heretics, especially in Germany.

The resulting papal letter, Vox in Rama, did not declare cats were evil and didn’t ask Catholics to kill them, despite widespread claims to the contrary on the internet, but it did contribute to distrust of the animals a century ahead of the Black Plague, when people thought cats were carrying the disease.

The pope who loves cats

Then there’s the Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI.

Pope Benedict
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI with two kittens in 2017. Credit: The Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI Foundation.

Cat lovers around the world rejoiced when it was revealed Pope Benedict was a cat lover and had two pet felines of his own. Cardinal Roger Mahoney, the former archbishop of Los Angeles, said Benedict was wild about kitties.

“The street talk that the pope loves cats is incorrect,” Mahoney said in 2005. “The pope adores cats.”

Catholics petitioned Benedict to help with animal welfare causes and to lend his support to efforts to help the many stray cats of Rome.

Francis the Saint and Francis the Pope

That brings us to our current pope, Francis. The elevation of Francis was met with approval from animal lovers: His chosen papal name honors St. Francis of Assisi, a Radagast the Brown type figure who lived a life of luxury as a wealthy playboy and party-goer until he had a religious conversion, sold all his possessions and became a monk.

St. Francis believed true faith in God meant having a deep respect for animals. While it’s not clear what’s true and what’s apocryphal, there are stories of Francis preaching to birds, nursing various animals back to health and even convincing a wolf to stop attacking a village in Italy in exchange for the villagers feeding it. St. Francis was by all accounts gentle with animals and appreciative of nature.

St. Francis is revered in the Catholic church and beloved by groups like the Humane Society. He is the patron saint of animals, and on his feast day Catholics bring their pets to be blessed at church.

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Pope Francis during a visit with former US Vice President Mike Pence. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Pope Francis continued his namesake’s work with Laudato Si, a papal encyclical which endeared him to animal lovers all over the world.

The encyclical was notable for the church’s strongest language yet in advocating for protecting and respecting animals. PETA made Pope Francis its person of the year in 2015, and the pope was feted by many other animal welfare groups across the world.

In Laudato Si, Francis explicitly rejected the idea that animals are resources for humans to exploit, asserted the Catholic view that animal life has intrinsic value, and called on human beings to be stewards of animals and the Earth. Abusing and exploiting animals is “beneath human dignity,” he wrote, and the associated desensitization and heartlessness of practices like factory farming are a stain on the human race.

Animals, the pope wrote, not only have souls but will “take their place” in heaven, “resplendently transfigured” in the presence of God. He also pointed out the disastrous effects we’re having on wildlife by destroying habitats, carving up the remaining land, over-fishing the oceans, poaching and hunting.

What Francis said about pets

So why are people suddenly upset with the pope?

He made some off-the-cuff remarks about people choosing pets over children, said it was “selfish” to choose the former, and brought up the plight of the world’s orphans. He pointed out that people collectively spend hundreds of billions on pet food and products while humans in the third world lack basic things like clean water, food and medicine. He also said “denying” motherhood and fatherhood leaves us spiritually poorer, as the experience brings us closer to God.

As usual any time a pope speaks, his statements are taken out of context and rehashed in the media. That’s expected, especially in the age of clickbait, the 140-character tweet and the 15-second news segment. Pope Francis gets himself into trouble by sometimes speaking too candidly when he should know his message will be garbled by gatekeepers and information filters, leading to strong reactions to things he didn’t actually say.

The pope wasn’t condemning keeping pets across the board, and he wasn’t saying all pet owners are selfish. His comments were made in the context of a larger discussion on universally declining birth rates in developed countries, specifically Europe’s “demographic winter,” also called a “demographic time bomb.”

In simple terms, Europe’s population is rapidly aging and birth rates are historically low. Populations are dying off, there are fewer people to care for the elderly, and there aren’t enough babies to replace the dead. The average age in Europe is 43, which is 12 years older than the average in the rest of the world.

COVID has compounded the problem, partly due to social distancing and partly due to economic uncertainty as a ripple effect of the virus. Of course it isn’t all that simple, and the demographic winter’s wider effects are complex and well beyond the scope of this blog.

It also helps to remember the Catholic Church has a strong social justice streak. Not the kind that involves writing snarky tweets and first world problems, but real social justice through charity, schools, scholarships, food banks, shelters, soup kitchens, hospitals and innumerable other efforts.

The pope’s background as a native of Argentina, a former janitor and chemist who became the first Latin American pontiff, also colors his outlook. He doesn’t hesitate to call out the hypocrisy of first-world nations, and although we don’t like to hear it, most of the time we need to. After almost two thousand years of popes existing in or near the world’s seats of power, for the first time we have a pope who grew up from the outside looking in.

That’s not to say I agree with everything Pope Francis had to say on the matter, but I think it’s also important to recognize that he didn’t just take shots at people who care for pets out of the blue, and he didn’t condemn people for caring for animals.

Reason #488 To Keep Your Cats Indoors: They Hunt Whether They’re Hungry Or Not

A new study from the UK debunks the claim that cats need access to the outdoors to supplement their diets with wild kills.

Cats who spend a significant amount of time outdoors and regularly kill local wildlife still get 96 percent of their nutrition from meals provided by their humans, according to research by a team at the University of Exeter.

The scientists connected with cat owners through ads on social media, TV and in print publications, specifically seeking out “cat owners living throughout southwest England whose cats regularly captured wild animals and brought them back to the house,” the study’s authors said.

They gave the owners a questionnaire to collect some basic information on the kitties — age, sex, breed, whether they had unrestricted access to the outdoors, and how much time they spend outside — then split the 90 participating cats into six groups.

Cat hunting
A domestic tabby cat stalking in the grass. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

To set a baseline, the scientists trimmed small sections of whisker from each of the cats, then trimmed a second sample at the end of the study.

By comparing stable isotope ratios in the whisker samples, they were able to determine what the cats were eating. Despite regular access to the outdoors and successful hunts, pet food accounted for the vast majority of their diets.

As a result, the researchers concluded, outdoor cats hunt because they’re driven by predatory instinct, not hunger.

“When food from owners is available, our study shows that cats rely almost entirely on this for nutrition,” said Martina Cecchetti, the study’s lead author.

“Some owners may worry about restricting hunting because cats need nutrition from wild prey, but in fact, it seems even prolific hunters don’t actually eat much of the prey they catch,” Cecchetti said. “As predators, some cats may hunt instinctively even if they are not hungry – so-called ‘surplus killing’ – to capture and store prey to eat later.”

A second component of the study was designed to find the best mitigation strategy to change the behavior of outdoor cats.

Each group was given a different strategy: In one group, cats were outfitted with bells on their collars, while another group wore reflective break-away collars and cats from a third group were fitted with BirdBeSafe collars. The other groups were told to make habit changes inside the home. For example, one set of cats was fed a higher-protein diet without grain filler, another group was fed with puzzle feeders, and the last group was given extra interactive play time.

While high-protein diets and play time helped cut down on hunting, the BirdBeSafe collars had the biggest impact on hunting success. The collars come in bright colors designed to stand out to avian eyes, taking away stealth and the element of surprise from cats.

The study was sponsored by Songbird Survival, a British non-profit that funds bird conservation research and looks for ways to mitigate the dwindling numbers of many avian species.

Susan Morgan, Songbird Survival’s executive director, said her group hopes cat owners will do their part to help: “Pet owners can help us reverse the shocking decline in songbirds via three simple, ‘win-win’ steps: fit collars with a Birdsbesafe cover; feed cats a premium meaty diet; play with cats for five to ten minutes a day to ‘scratch that itch’ to hunt.”

Of course there’s an obvious solution the study didn’t include: Keeping cats indoors. While keeping cats indoors is common in the US, cat ownership culture in the UK is different — another subject for another post.

Read the full text of the study here. Header image credit Pexels. Body images credit BeSafeCollar.

Previously:

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A pair of young mountain lions in Florida. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/WOConservation

Sanctuary Jaguar Gives Birth To Beautiful Melanistic Baby, You Can Help Name Her

The Big Cat Sanctuary of Kent, UK — not to be confused with Florida’s Big Cat Rescue — is welcoming a newborn melanistic jaguar, and everyone from the vet staff to the caretakers are fussing over her.

The as-yet-unnamed baby was born to mom Keira and dad Neron in a big-cat breeding program designed to ensure the species survives as wild populations plummet due to habitat reduction and poaching. Staff at the UK sanctuary say the baby opened her eyes the day she was born and was walking by two weeks. That’s an unusually quick development for most cats, but apparently not for jaguars, who live in the deepest jungles of the Amazon.

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The Big Cat Sanctuary’s newest addition. / Credit: Alma Leaper

The sanctuary is allowing the public to pick the baby’s name from among three choices as part of a fund-raiser.

The choices are Inka (Inca) after the Inca people and their empire, Inti, a Quechuan (pre-modern Peruvian) word meaning “Sunshine,” or Killari, a word from the same language that means “Moonlight.” I’m partial to the latter, especially for the image it evokes of the world’s largest black panther — and the largest cat in the Americas — stalking the jungle on a moon-lit night.

The term “black panther” is a catch-all for any felid with melanism. Both jaguars and leopards can have the black color morph, as can domestic cats. Cats with melanism retain their spots, and if you look closely you can see they’re a shade darker than the rest of the cats’ black fur.

Check out the video below to see the little one behaving just like any other kitten.

Can You Spot The Cat? Mountain Lion Edition!

This is the real deal, friends. Not a cheesy low-res photo or an intentionally obtuse shot with three pixels of a tail visible.

There’s a cat in this photo — a puma to be exact — and finding it is a good reminder of how awesome these elusive felids are, as well as how well they hide themselves from humans and fellow wildlife alike:

Hidden mountain lion in Nevada
Credit: John Tull, US Fish and Wildlife Service

The photo comes courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Services and eagle-eyed photographer John Tull, who spotted the well-hidden cat in rural Washoe County, Nevada.

Mountain lions are the second-largest cats in the Americas behind jaguars, and although they look like lionesses, they pose little danger to humans. About 15 people have died in conflicts with mountain lions over the past 100 years. Dogs, by contrast, kill between 30 and 50 people a year.

Mountain lions are also known as pumas, cougars, catamounts and panthers, among other names. The word “panther” is a nonspecific word for large cats and is often used in association with jaguars and leopards.

Known scientifically as puma concolor, these mysterious cats are more closely related to small cats (felis) than big cats (panthera), and have the distinction of being the largest cats who can meow.

Cat Defends His Territory From An Elephant In Thailand

So this story about a cat fearlessly staring down an elephant in Thailand has gone viral, and the photo is admittedly pretty incredible. Bud would’ve soiled himself and bolted, but this cat is truly brave.

“This is my territorah!” we imagine the cat declaring. “Find your own trees!”

The cat’s name is Simba, he’s three years old, and the photos were taken on the night of Nov. 17 in Thailand’s Nakhon Nayok province, about 112 km (70 miles in the Proper American Method of Measuring Distance™) northeast of Bangkok.

Beyond that, though, it’s actually a sad story: You know things are truly dire when we’ve destroyed so much wildlife habitat that elephants are coming up to people’s houses and eating the trees and shrubs in their gardens. Elephants usually do everything they can to avoid humans, and for good reason: Conflicts almost always end poorly for the elephants.

We hope this photo draws the attention of the right people, who can perhaps mitigate the situation or put resources into moving the elephants to a more suitable range.

catandelephant

P.S. Buddy disputes any and all allegations that he would have soiled himself or run away from elephants. In fact, the elephants are lucky they don’t share a continent with Buddy!