'Cat got your fish?' and the environmental ethics of keeping cats
I couldn’t pick a more incendiary topic for a Monday. Even if I recycled last week’s Cesar Millan post, condemned a breed of dogs, and picked on the HSUS––all in one post––it still wouldn’t raise hackles any more than the opinion piece Paul Greenberg put out in the NYT yesterday. Well...at least not my hackles.
Titled, “Cat Got Your Fish?,” it starts with a sad story:
“My cat Coco died recently. Actually, we euthanized him to alleviate his suffering from cancer.”
And from thence it devolves:
“And while this was a sad moment, it was made less sad because Coco’s death also alleviated ever so slightly the suffering of the sea.”
Mr. Greenberg’s fundamental point is well taken. The pet food industry uses 10% of the supply of wild forage fish in the world. As he also cites in his article, this staggering amount means the average American cat eats more fish every year than the average African human.
Though environmentalists have thus far levied their wrath against salmon farming operations and the like, in which it takes three pounds of wild-caught fish to produce one pound of its farm-raised cousins, Greenberg points to cats as a potential area of environmental moral outrage.
But while the salmon industry is moving forward with reform, per Mr. Greenberg, the US’s number-one pet (in terms of population size, not dollars spent) is stealthily eating up our seas.
It’s an issue we should all acquaint ourselves with, this use of fish meal and other fish meal-eating protein sources to feed our pets. After all, the pork and poultry industries use up 24% and 22% of the world’s fish meal respectively. And that also feeds our pets. By the time you do the math it’s likely our pets consume well beyond the 10% of fish meal that goes into their commercial food supply.
There’s undeniably great stuff in Greenberg's piece. Furthermore, I believe that reducing our pets’ impact on our global resource limitations is an issue that’s too seldom raised. So much of the focus is on our consumption of fossil fuels (still the biggie) and other human environmental foibles that sometimes the Prius-driving crowd forgets that pets are capable of exerting their own collective stamp on the world.
It’s a little scary, all this animal protein being spent on pets in a world where limited resources govern how we treat our oceans, spend our dollars and feed our humans. So thank you, Mr. Greenberg, for pointing out yet another environmental cost of owning a pet.
But why’d he have to single out cats?
While I’m clearly hard-pressed to disagree with the facts raised by Mr. Greenberg’s piece, I couldn’t help but feel that something was still way off base about the crux of his argument.
Perhaps it was his intimation that cats are somehow more responsible than other pets for raping our oceans. After all, dogs consume more proteins and, as he reports, pork and poultry live off fish meal, too.
Or maybe it’s that Greenberg goes too far by initially framing the argument in terms of how much cats might displace what lands on human plates. As if our cats are somehow responsible for taking fish out of the mouths of African children when in 2009, Africa’s food shortages may well be the result of human politics over all other concerns.
Furthermore, when he offers solutions to the dilemma, he raises vegan diets as potentially helpful by way of reducing our cats’ carbon pawprints. Yet after pointing a finger at the ASPCA’s stance against feline veganism he ends up backtracking cheekily...in favor of keeping guinea pigs.
But there was something about this article besides the glib banter that irked, and I just couldn’t put my finger on it...until finally a glimmer of realization: Perhaps what really kills this piece for me is the pervasive sentiment that underlies it:
After giving “cat Got Your Fish?” another go-round, it seems that pets to Greenberg are more like a luxury good on par with a factory farmed steak and an SUV than a companion or family member. Why else tick off the good that’ll come of Coco’s demise only to describe an attempt to replace his presence with a greener one?
Sure, to most of the world pets are luxuries. But to those of us living in nations where pets are one choice among many now-indispensable “luxuries,” does Greenberg’s brand of tongue-in-cheek finger waggling seem justified...or fair?
After all, a cat’s carbon footprint is easily offset by a variety of other choices, including home-cooked fare that relies on proteins we might otherwise waste, reasonable quantities of food (which most cats could use more of for their own health, anyway), minimization of outdoor colonies through TNR (trap-neuter-return) programs, and/or eschewing a variety of other lifestyle choices that might easily prove far more injurious to our planet than our cats.
Consider that one man’s cat is another man’s sea bass habit, pickup truck or lackadaisical home energy consumption patterns...and that even guinea pigs can exert a mighty, three-toed print themselves.