Article from an interview with Gregory Breton – Director of Panthera France
The domestic cat has gradually conquered the world, whether on our screens or in nature. Its population is estimated at between 0.5 to 1 billion people, only half of whom live in our homes. How did this little cat get to it? What consequences for other felines around the world?
The domestic cat, a partner in the exploration of new worlds.
The birth of the cat family dates back nearly 12 billion years in Asia. Since then, they have naturally colonized four continents. Within this family, the domestic cat dominates all species of wild felines. His conquest was greatly favored by the human being, when at the time of his great discoveries he took him to kill the rats who ate the grain in his holds and were carriers of diseases. The insurance companies of the XVI centuries made it a non-negotiable condition to insure the ships that were taking off. Thanks to this means of transport and this relationship with man, domestic cats have colonized all continents, including those not colonized by their wild cousins, as well as many islands.
Today, with a high estimate of 1 billion individuals, half of whom have returned to live in the wild and are no longer dependent on humans (they are called feral cats), only domestic cats are at least 100 times more numerous than all other wild species of cats (37 to 39 according to specialists). To date, there are in fact approximately:
- 3 800 tigers,
- 20 000 lions,
- 7 000 cheetah,
- 6 to 8 000 snow leopards,
- and very small numbers, less than 5,000 individuals, for small, unrecognized wild species such as the flat-headed cat, the Borneo bay cat, the fisherman cat, and the wild Andean cat.
The endangered wild cat in Europe
Cat lovers or just admirers of their feline grace, we can easily imagine a big family of felines where domestic cats would be cousins of tigers – like a miniature version of these. But as always things are not so simple. At present, we have 36 to 40 modern species of felines in the world, from 8 different lineages.
If we take a minute to look at the genetics of small cats, it is interesting to note that the genetic distance between the domestic cat and the line of the leopard cat or the line of the servals is as important as between humains, chimpanzees and gorillas. Another interesting fact is that pumas will be genetically closer to small cats, domestic cat included, than tiger.
For the small wild felines, which live in our regions and are aroune the domestic cat, the competition is fierce for the survival of their species. One of the major reasons for the disappearance of the European wild cat – also called forest cat or wild cat – is the natural hybridization with domestic cats returned, for some, in the wild because of their non-sterilization. If we take as an example an unsterilized cat living on a farm, she can have a litter of several kittens every year. If these domestic kittens are not sterilized themselves, they will mate with wild cats and create hybrids.
In the Anglo-Saxon countries, veterinary monitoring of domestic cats is much more important in the Latin countries, because of a greater awareness of wild species, their disappearance, as well as the management of domestic species.
The Wild Cat of Scotland – a plan to save them all
In 2013, a wild cat conservation program in Scotland was launched for a period of 9 years to halt its decline. This wild cat is insular, it is considered in critical danger of extinction with a fragmented population estimated between 100 and 300 individuals.
Protecting this population and promoting the reproduction of these cats “is a legal and moral obligation” said Paul Wheelhouse, then British Minister of the Environment, during the presentation of this new conservation plan.
One of the aims of this plan is to better understand this wild cat by estimating the number and distribution of its population in order to focus on the areas where the most viable groups of feral cats live.
Several organizations are mobilized and collaborate to save it. Scottish Wildcat Action coordinates the efforts of 20 groups. Several priority areas have therefore been identified to reduce threats to species in these areas: hybrid cats, predators, mismanagement, etc.
Many organizations are working to save this wild cat including:
- Cairngorms National Park with photographic traps to observe cats in their environment, alongside stray cats and hybrids. Park wardens act on the population by sterilizing stray cats and by raising the awareness of owners to sterilize and vaccinate their domestic cats;
- The Kingussie, Port-Lympne and Chester Zoos with management of the breeding program, with a view to potential reintroductions and the funding of photographic traps and other field study materials to identify areas of predilection wild cat;
- The Mammal Society, an organization that promotes research to learn about ecology, distribution, and mammal conservation, studies the ecology and distribution of the cat.
Hybridization and creation of new breeds – the business of “exoticism”
With the success of cats on the internet, the desire to own wild or semi-wild cats is taking off by ignoring their wild nature and doing unnatural crossbreeding between species. In Europe, there are few voluntary crosses between domestic cats and European feral cats (forest or wild). So why this thought with the leopard cat, the serval, the desert cat or the ocelot?
This is where the exoticism of “domestic” cat breeds comes in. The first wild cat to be hybridized was the leopard cat – a small cat from Southeast Asia. This wild cat does not belong to the same lineage as the domestic cat and the Felis lineage.
However, this hybridization between the domestic cat and the Leopard cat in the United States was a success. Born then a hybrid cat called “Bengal” by the breeders – hybrid cat with the original spotted dress – with important financial stakes: specific feeding, clubs …. After a proliferation of private farms in the United States, the craze is spreading around the world and in Europe and images of Bengal flooding the media. This was also the case with Serval, whose crossing gave the Savannah. Other attempts have been made with felines from South America, such as marguay, ocelot, and Geoffroy’s cat, but none have been successful because of large chromosome differences.
The ethical and environmental issues surrounding the creation and proliferation of hybrid species are currently not a significant global challenge to other priorities in animal health, conservation and other broader issues, so regulation is very limited. So people can create hybrids that, once in fashion, are officially accepted by the LOOF (Official Feline Origins Studbook) because of the pressure in these environments, even if it was not favorable at the beginning. This was the case for the Bengal and it will probably be for the Savannah. The sand cat is for its part in the sights of hybridization, attempts have been taking place for 5 years in England.
Whether through a natural hybridization, because of its very large presence across the continents, or by a desired hybridization for the creation of a new breed, the domestic cat takes precedence over the small wild cats. Humans being the ones who contributed to the expansion of domestic cats, isn’t it our responsibility to participate in the conservation of small cats by sterilizing our cats and not giving in to the exoticism?