Trouble in the Cat's Cradle: Understanding tangled care in feral cat management and wildcat conservation

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Sociology, Philosophy, Anthropology


In 2018 Wildcats (Felis silvestris) were brought to West Devon where they are currently being bred, and once their numbers have increased to several hundred they will be released on Dartmoor, reintroduced to an area that they have not inhabited for 150 years. Their reintroduction, it is hoped, will instigate a 'rewilding' of the landscape, resulting in a self-regulating and sustainable ecosystem as they play a crucial ecological role by capping excessive prey populations. Classified as endangered, they currently just survive in their hundreds in Scotland, where recent research has identified that, as well as being killed by gamekeepers, hybridisation with the domestic cat, (Felis catus) - in most cases domestic feral cats - is common and a serious threat to their survival as a species.

Current research on the domestic cat has focused on their role as companion species and their perceived and actual predation on wildlife. Some attention has been given to feral cats in Australia and USA but in the UK, where an estimated 1.5 million feral cats live, there is little literature from the social sciences. Feral cats do not exhibit the tameness of their stray counterparts and will not tolerate human companionship, presenting issues for conservationists as their predatory skills pose imagined or real threat to native wildlife. Their numbers can grow quickly, but as a domestic species they are protected under the Animal Welfare Act (2006), and cannot be culled as per common practice for 'problem' species in conversation science. Instead population control has required alternative approaches in the UK, commonly 'trap-neuter-release'. In the southwest, the charity Cats Protection lead on this initiative, where neutered cats are either released to their original site or on privately owned land with consent from land owners in Devon and Cornwall. Understandably, the Devon wildcat project is concerned about feral cats at the release zone and ensuring minimal contact between them is the desired outcome. There are biopolitical implications for the constructs imposed upon feral cats and wildcats - but there are also practices of care amidst the tangle of conservation that are yet to be understood.

Furthermore, thefocus on populations rather than individuals in conservation science is problematic. Thom van Doreen, for example, urges us to stay with individuals on the brink of extinction and witness their pain, their violence and their death, because such an honest viewing demands responsibility in the witness. True care for a species, he argues, must begin with care for the individuals who comprise that species. Care-full conservation demands attention to the intrinsic value of all members involved in conservation stories, and that requires attention to their pathways and their multispecies interactions. By doing this, van Doreen and others have provided rich multispecies ethnographies whereby humans and nonhumans are inexplicably connected in tangled webs of care and violence, of learning, knowledge, and becoming. For example, tangles of care exist in conservation where care for one species can mean 'taking care of' another.

I intend to focus on the 'trouble' of feral cats to conservation agendas and ask about practices of care. Despite the apparent liminality of feral cats - not tame, not wild - they are very much in tangible, and within tangled, webs of the living. I intend to study this web - this 'cats-cradle' following kin lines from domesticated histories to hybrid presents, the 'becoming with' in multispecies stories, taking care and 'taking care of'. Who is response-able, and how, in the story of feral cats? I will seek to understand the lives that intersect with feral cats to produce a multispecies ethnography and provide crucial insight into feral at management in response to the urgency of the Devon wildcat project, and more wider conservation agendas.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2414097 Studentship ES/P000630/1 01/10/2020 30/09/2027 Sian Amber Moody