As the name suggests, the European wildcat is a wild cat native to Europe. The European wildcat lives across Europe and looks a lot like a domestic tabby cat - they have black and brown tabby-like markings and are only a little bit bigger than a large domestic cat. Indeed, when talking about the European wildcat, especially in Britain, it’s hard not to talk about the domestic cat as well.
A lot of work has been done by people like Andrew Kitchener to reliably distinguish European wildcats from domestic cats, including genetic testing and ‘pelage scoring,’ a technique used to identify cats by looking at their coat markings.
Even though European wildcats and domestic cats are different species, they can (and do) interbreed, because they’ve lived in close proximity for thousands of years. Often when different species breed their offspring are infertile but this isn’t true for the European wildcats and domestic cats, their hybrid offspring are fertile and capable of breeding with each other or with wild or domestic cats. And this is why the difference between wildcats and domestic cats is important.
Wildcats aren’t threatened across Europe but in Britain they’re critically endangered and this is both a cause and an effect of hybridisation. Because there are so few wildcats they have trouble finding other wildcats to mate with, they’re much more likely to find a domestic cat. And if a wildcat mates with a domestic cat, instead of producing wildcat kittens to reinforce the population, they produce hybrid kittens which, from a conservationist point of view at least, are a problem for wildcat conservation because they dilute the wildcat gene pool, pose a further threat in terms of hybridisation, and don’t contribute to wildcat conservation.
The European wildcat used to be found across Britain but now they only really survive in small parts of Scotland, so there’s a major drive to conserve and restore their population. This is where we get to the violence Claudia discussed with Dinesh Wadiwel in this episode.
According to the conservation practice involved, restoring wildcats requires two things: captive breeding of wildcats to produce kittens to release into the wild, and ‘control’ of feral domestic cats – which are the domestic cats most likely to breed with wildcats.
Let's look at control of feral cats first. As Claudia discussed with Lauren van Patter in a previous episode of The Animal Turn, the concept of feral is not value neutral. Even the categorisation of cats as ‘feral’ is a form of violence since ‘feral’ has negative connotations. John Scasta identifies these negative connotations as ‘pestilent undertones’. Jacquelyn Johnston describes them as creating "exclusionary narratives that construct feral animals as not belonging and in need of management." We don’t view feral animals as domestic and therefore entitled to our protection nor do we view them as wild and worthy of conservation. In fact, we often view them as a threat to conservation, especially when they present what we see as a threat to wild species.
In Britain killing domestic cats is extremely unpopular, but feral cats are still managed in violent ways via trap, neuter, vaccinate, release programmes where feral cats are lured into traps with food, taken to veterinary clinics where they’re neutered and vaccinated, and then released back where they were caught. Not only is the whole process highly stressful for the cats but it’s also an example of the kind of forced medical and surgical interventions which Dinesh was talking about. This can be argued through the fact that cats don’t consent to the procedure and that a trap is used as an instrument of violence to orchestrate the whole process.
We can also identify the three types of violence which Claudia and Dinesh discussed. The use of traps and the non-consensual neutering and vaccination of these cats is intersubjective violence, violence against the cats as individuals. The trap neuter vaccinate release programme is a form of institutional or structural violence against feral cats collectively. And then the classification of cats as feral is a form of epistemic violence which excludes certain kinds of cats from being rights-bearing individuals.
Let’s compare this with the violence which is perpetrated on wildcats. I mentioned earlier that wildcats in Britain were involved in captive breeding programmes to produce kittens for release. This involves their mating and reproduction being entirely dominated and controlled, you could even say coerced, by people. Now conservationists might argue that these breeding programmes are for the benefit of the cats, both individually and as a collective. As Dinesh noted, however, care and coercion (or violence) can look very similar depending on your perspective. So when we look at the relations, especially the power relations, between humans and wildcats in this situation, could we consider the cats to be consensually participating in the captive breeding programme? Do they have control over the programme, over their own bodies and reproduction, or even over their own future?
The fact that these cats are in captivity is a form of violence in itself but, like the traps in trap neuter vaccinate release programmes, the enclosures they’re in also shows us that they’re not consenting to participation in this breeding programme since, if the enclosures were opened, they’d undoubtedly leave.
European wildcats, unlike the African wildcats (the ancestor of the domestic cat) are famously undomesticatable – they’re highly anthropophobic and avoid humans as much as possible. It’s unlikely that we’d see them voluntarily entering into cooperation with people to undertake this sort of breeding programme, even if it is in their interests as a species.
So while conservationists are deeply concerned with species survival and with the welfare of animals in captive breeding programmes, the story of European wildcats illustrates how conservation can sometimes sit at odds with a rights based framework that privileges the experiences of individuals. We can stop and ask what or who the conservation programme is serving? Genetics? Species? Individuals? And what are the ethical implications of all this?
Virginia Thomas is a fellow with the Animal Turn. She is also an environmental social scientist with a PhD in Sociology. Virginia is interested in people’s interactions with their environment and with other animals. Virginia’s work explores the social and ethical questions in human-animal relationships. She is currently a research fellow on the Wellcome Trust funded project ‘From Feed the Birds to Do Not Feed the Animals’ which examines the drivers and consequences of animal feeding. This leads on from her previous research which examined human-animal relations in the media (as part of zoonotic disease framing) and in rewilding projects (in relation to biopolitics and human-animal coexistence).
You can connect with Virginia via Twitter (@ArbitrioHumano). Learn more about our team here.
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