The 232 animals in this photo were killed by house cats in just one year

The image seeks to draw attention to the billions of birds and other animals killed annually by domestic cats.

Thursday, September 24, 2020,
By Cordilia James
Photographs By Jak Wonderly
This version of an award-winning photo features birds, rodents, reptiles, and other animals brought to WildCare ...

This version of an award-winning photo features birds, rodents, reptiles, and other animals brought to WildCare Animal Hospital in San Rafael, California, that had suffered lethal injuries from cats in 2019.

Photograph by Jak Wonderly

From wineries to wildlife, Jak Wonderly is no stranger to making photos come alive using light, layout, and composition. But to capture something beautiful in dead animals? It was a new challenge.

Wonderly’s photo, “Caught by Cats,” recently won first place in the 2020 BigPicture Natural World Photography Competition’s Human/Nature category. His image highlights a grim picture: The photo would need to be multiplied 10 million times to come close to showing the billions of animals killed by cats each year.

A 2013 study estimated free-ranging domestic cats kill between 1.3 and 4 billion birds – on top of between 6.2 and 22.3 billion mammals – every year in the United States alone, the majority by feral or unowned cats. Figures released by the Mammal Society show the UK's estimates for domestic cat kills to be more sober, but still shocking: around 100 million prey items between Spring and Summer, of which 27 million were birds – and not counting the creatures the cats didn't bring home. According to the RSPB, there is no scientific evidence to link cats to bird population decline in the UK.  

The inspiration for his photograph came from the work of WildCare, a nonprofit wildlife hospital based in San Rafael, California. Of the 321 animals that were injured by cats and brought to the centre in 2019, only 89 survived. The other 232, shown in Wonderly’s photo, died despite WildCare’s efforts to save them.

“To have this many in front of you, to know that they all died from the same cause, really made me contemplate what was going on,” he says.

Wonderly worked on the layout of the carcasses, brainstorming arrangements that would visualize the large death count and captivate viewers long enough for them to look closely. The original idea came from Melanie Piazza, director of animal care at WildCare. Piazza has worked in wildlife rehabilitation for more than 20 years, treating injured outdoor cats and other wildlife throughout her career.

Pursuing the “Caught by Cats” project proved to be an emotional experience. The day before the shoot, Piazza removed the preserved bodies from freezers at WildCare and took them home to defrost. The next day was filled with brushing and bandaging wounds to stop them from leaking, while Wonderly arranged and took photos of them.

“Our goal was not to be disgusting or shocking. We wanted to present the animals as respectfully as possible and grab people’s attention with their beauty,” Piazza says.

WildCare's Melanie Piazza holds a western tanager killed by a cat. Photographer Jak Wonderly documented the 232 animals injured by cats in 2019 that WildCare couldn’t save. Of the more than 300 animals brought in with injuries from cats, only 89 survived.

Photograph by Jak Wonderly

The problem with outdoor cats

Cats have contributed to the extinction of 63 species of vertebrates, most of them birds, says Peter Marra, director of the Georgetown Environment Initiative. “The fact that they’ve caused these extinctions is bad enough…. [Additionally] we know that they have a significant impact on populations globally, whether they’re threatened or not,” he says.

Marra, who was formerly the director of the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center, is the author of Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer, which details why cats can be dangerous to species diversity. Since the book’s release in 2016, not much has changed regarding outdoor cat regulation, Marra says, but there is a greater awareness and understanding of the issue.

Some argue that cats are natural predators and should be allowed to roam and kill prey as they please. But, according to Piazza, the fight is not fair. This argument overlooks several important factors.

In a natural predator-prey relationship, predators hunt until there isn’t enough prey in the population to feed them, she explains. As the predator population dwindles, the prey population has time to repopulate. Domesticated cats disrupt the cycle.

“They’re in the same area for 15 to 20 years, they’re fed by their humans, they don’t have to hunt to survive,” Piazza says. “They just constantly kill and nothing changes their population, so it doesn’t give local wild populations time to rebound as they would if it was a natural predator-prey cycle.”

The outdoor cat debate is a polarising issue, and Piazza says that the project isn’t meant to alienate animal lovers. Her goal, instead, is to unite them. She suggests keeping cats on leads, having a ‘catio’ (an enclosed outdoor patio for your cat), or pledging to make your next cat an indoor cat. Not only do these practices protect other animals, they keep cats safe and healthy, too.

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