In 1983, archaeologists excavating an 8000-year-old site in Cyprus discovered remains of a jawbone belonging to an ancestor of the domestic cat, Felis catus.
For those among us who are not familiar with the Mediterranean, Cyprus is an island that would not have had any naturally occurring wild cat populations.
Besides being impossible for a cat to swim to the island from the mainland, cat owners know all too well how felines feel about swimming.
The only plausible explanation was that this cat was brought over to the island by seafaring people of the time. Yes, it could have been a wild cat but there would be no logical reason for our ancient cousins to bring along an angry, screeching, clawing feline on the journey with them unless the cat was domesticated, a pet.
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Then in 2004, while digging up an even older site in Cyprus, cat remains were found buried along with the remains of a human. This proved that cats were domesticated at least 9500 years ago.
A study published by Science Magazine in May 2007 declared that all domestic cats found today are ancestors of Felis sylvestris, a Middle Eastern wildcat. The name literally translates to “cat of the woods”. A few researchers from the study believed that feline domestication began as far back as 12 000 years ago.
This may seem like a bit of a stretch considering the Cyprian specimen was dated at 9500 years but this would make sense when you realise that humans stopped being nomadic and began establishing settlements along the same period.
As we see today, large human settlements and mass grain storage bring rodents and other pests which in turn brought along wildcats and other small predators like birds of prey and snakes.
Like dogs, who were domesticated millennia before, humans saw cats as being useful and began caring for them as the cats helped with rats and mice which would otherwise decimate crops and stored grain.
Unlike dogs, cats have always been ambivalent toward their human “caretakers”. Many owners agree that cats seem to have mixed feelings when it comes to humans. This may point to a deep connection to their wild instincts.
A connection all too evident when looking into the effect of domesticated cats’ predation on wild bird and small mammal populations around the world.
Cats are relatively low maintenance pets. They don’t need too much attention, know where to go potty, don’t need much space, no loud barking and literally clean themselves. There’s no arguing that they’re good pets to have especially in dense cities and apartment buildings.
Globally, domestic and feral cats kill billions of native birds, mammals and reptiles. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List records show that on islands, cats are responsible for the extinction of 33 native bird, reptile and mammal species.
A study published on Nature.com in January 2013 stated that cats were responsible for bird deaths estimated to be in the hundreds of millions annually in the United States alone. The study concluded that free-ranging domestic cats kill an estimated 1.3 to 4 billion birds and 6.3 to 22.3 billion mammals annually with feral cats being responsible for the majority of these deaths.
It is widely believed that cats bring home their kills as gifts for us but many studies have only used this as an indicator of the extent of cat predation on local wildlife.
A 2012 UK-based study by Dr Rebecca Thomas revealed that out of the study population, an estimated 18.3 birds are killed every year by domestic cats. This is higher than the “bring-home” kills only because it was logically assumed that cats do not bring home every single prey animal that is killed.
This was confirmed by a study conducted in Cape Town in 2020. Researchers Sharon George, Koebraa Peter and Frances Morling undertook research that incorporated 22 Cape Town suburbs with a sample population of 130 cats.
Previous research found the density of cats in Cape Town averaged 150 to 300 cats per square kilometre, low compared to countries like Australia, New Zealand and the US but 300 times higher than the density of wildcats such as the Caracal and African Wild Cat.
Like the study in the UK, researchers realised the cats were seldom bringing home prey that they may have killed. The students turned to high-tech “Kitty-Cams”, super lightweight collar cameras that would allow us to see what the cat sees.
The Kitty-Cams were tested in nine suburbs and once footage started coming in, the numbers quickly changed. It was found that the average of 16 “bring-home” kills was vastly under-representing the true data which showed that the cats were killing and eating 80% of their prey on the spot meaning that the 16 only represented 20% of average cat kills.
This vast underestimation was not the only discovery made by the young researchers, it was also found that cats seldom took home reptiles or amphibians which were previously not considered a common prey animal due to the rarity of a cat bringing them home. The use of the Kitty-Cam helped researchers to realise that the average number of kills per cat was around 90 animals a year and not 16 as per previous estimates.
The overall study concluded that since there are an estimated 300 000 cats in and around Cape Town, the total estimated kill rate is about 27.5 million animals per year. This staggering number only includes the City of Cape Town.
The cat food industry estimated that there are a total of 2.4 million domestic cats in South Africa, if we use the rate of kills as per Cape Towns cats, this would suggest a likely total national cat-kill number of around 216 million prey animals annually.
The main concern regarding the results of this study is that at least 2200 cats live within 150m of the edge of Table Mountain National Park. These cats are consuming an estimated 200 000 prey animals, many of which are likely to be taken from within the park itself or have wandered into gardens bordering the park.
As a cat owner, you could discourage this behaviour by attaching a bell to your cats’ collar to alert birds and mammals of its presence, unfortunately, reptiles do not have viable hearing so cats would most likely begin killing more of them.
You could get a cat bib, this would help prevent pouncing but would not hinder eating, walking or drinking. Another viable idea is to create an enclosed backyard or patio area where your cat would not be able to get out of. This would allow the cat to explore the outdoors without risking the lives of our indigenous critters.