New Year, New Team Trash
And why NYC can't solve a rat problem with more cats
It's not just you, things do look a little bit different! This is a new email platform, and WELCOME to Team Trash!
Why change things up? Well, one of my goals for this year is to try and grow this newsletter, to bring more people on to Team Trash. Unlike most people begging you to subscribe to their Substack, I am not looking to turn this into my paid gig (at the present moment). The reality is that, for the first time in a long time, I have opinions. Educated opinions on human-wildlife conflict that I really want to share. Because knowledge is the first step toward understanding, and understanding is the first step toward changing the way we exist in our environments.
What makes those opinions so educated, you might ask? I'm Bethany Brookshire, a science journalist. In my previous life, I was a scientist with a Ph.D. in Physiology and Pharmacology. Now, I'm a journalist with a book, Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. In my book, I've tried to show how the animals we hate say very little about the animals themselves. Instead, pests are about us, what we want, and what we believe about the environments we live in.
In the process of researching the book, I've learned a huge amount about urban ecology, wildlife ecology in general, and how humans view their environments. Only a little bit of it made it into the book. I'd like to start putting some of the rest here.
I hope maybe you'll come along for the ride, to read, to think, to chat, and maybe to change how you think about the world, just a little bit.
Welcome to Team Trash.
That was plenty of bellybutton gazing. Let's clear out the lint and talk about why New York City cannot solve a rat problem with more cats.
Because yes, Curtis Sliwa (who lost to Mayor Adams in the latest election) is a great rescuer of cats and has offered to help Adams with his rat problem with an army of feral cats. Adams' rat problem aside, Sliwa is far from the first. When any city has a rat problem, one of the first things people ask about is whether or not they should hire some hungry cats to take care of it.
There are in fact loads of programs out there, sometimes called Blue Collar Cats or Working Cats or Alley Cats, that offer outdoor stray cats as adoptees for people trying to keep rats and mice away from their business. The idea is that of course cats hunt rodents, so a hungry predator will keep them at bay.
Cats do, of course, hunt rodents. When it comes to mice, cats are quite talented. But when it comes to rats? Unfortunately, cats just aren't interested. There's even research to back this up. Michael Parsons (cited in the NYT article) an urban ecologist at Fordham University, spent 18 months studying a feral cat colony that happened to be right next to a bad rat infestation.
When the cat colony was present, the scientists did see fewer rats. But it wasn't because the cats were hunting the rats. It was just because the cats and rats avoided each other. Rats stayed out of sight, and cats didn't bother the rats. In 18 months and 306 videos, only three rats ever perished at the paws of cats. Three.
Why? When I talked with Parsons about it, he said it might just be a matter of size. Yes, rats are smaller than cats. But they're not THAT much smaller. Adult rats can weigh about a pound. A stray cat is, on average, about 9 lbs. So a rat is, to a cat, about the size of a small dog to a human (if a human is 200 lbs, we're looking at an 22 lb dog).
Sure, you could take a 22 lb dog. But could you do it without being hurt at all? Without getting bitten or scratched? Cats have little interest in prey they need to work for, especially because a stray cat on the street isn't going to have someone to apply bandaids. So rats avoid cats, and cats avoid rats.
Unfortunately, this means that a strong parade of stray cats isn't going to solve NYC's rat problem anytime soon. And in places where native wildlife is vulnerable to cats, kitties might start more problems than they solve. For more on that, you're just gonna have to get my book. It's even an editor's pick for best nonfiction on Amazon!
Where have you been?
How was your holiday? Do you have any resolutions for the new year that are writing or science-related? I'd love to hear them.
Where have I been?
The Washington Post reviewed my book, and they LOVED it! I'm so thrilled. "Brookshire mutters asides, even jokes, but she doesn’t talk down to the reader. She has done her research and writes with style. No formal jargon could better convey the information that in Massachusetts black bears “do not hibernate so much as lightly snooze.” Several times I laughed aloud, but I also underlined surprising information on almost every page." (For those wondering, the animal in my picture is a rat. Her name was Magrat. The commenters appear to think she has a tumor. She was in fact out of surgery and her fur was growing back. Sadly, she passed away of old age a few weeks after the photo was taken. She was a delightful little critter and is missed.)
My latest piece, in Sierra magazine, looks at how human expansion might make animals living nearby more crowded--and more likely to run into each other.
In book appearances, you can hear me on Just the Zoo of Us, where I'm telling the world about Cane Toads. They might only earn a 5/10 for aesthetics, but they knock it out of the park for effectiveness.
And last, but not least, I started reading the Iliad recently, and I had THOUGHTS. So many thoughts. And now I'm live-tweeting the Iliad. It's the most fun I've had on Twitter in ages.
I am currently reading the #iliad because I needed a sleep book and wow. Y'all I was not PREPARED.
I thought I knew the story of Helen of Troy and wow I did NOT AT ALL. (🧵/n til I get bored)
— Bethany Brookshire (@BeeBrookshire)
Dec 29, 2022