The War on Cats: Jonathan Franzen and Bird-Lovers Fight Back

With birds more admired than ever in pop culture, will their top predators be driven indoors? Ben Crair on how a new study and Jonathan Franzen have spurred a feline backlash.

With the rise of birds in popular culture, will cats be driven indoors? (Credit: David Gard / AP Photo),David Gard

To the list of recent upheavals, let’s add a new entry: The tide is finally turning against cats. The New York Times made it official Monday with an article headlined “Tweety Was Right: Cats Are a Bird’s No. 1 Enemy.” The article ran beneath a photograph of a gray-and-white kitty munching on the head of a songbird. The cat narrowed its eyes directly at the camera, as if to say, “So?”

The world will no longer tolerate such defiance. Cats, the Times told us, are a pestilence akin to gypsy moths and kudzu. Their appetite for birds is driving some populations toward extinction. “I hope we can now stop minimizing and trivializing the impacts that outdoor cats have on the environment and start addressing the serious problem of cat predation,” one scientist pleaded. 

Why the backlash against our furry friends? Aren’t they just doing what they’ve always done—that is, keep the barn clean of critters?

Maybe. But suddenly the critters we once considered cat food are an object of popular fascination. As Nathan Heller recently observed in Slate, birds are enjoying a surge in popularity. Even before they started dropping dead by the thousands in December, our avian interest was rising, thanks in large part to Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom.

Freedom told the story of Walter Berglund, an obsessive birder who aims to protect local songbirds from the roving feline death squads. Cats, Franzen writes, are “the sociopaths of the pet world, a species domesticated as an evil necessary for the control of rodents and subsequently fetishized the way unhappy countries fetishize their militaries.” 

Reached by email, Franzen says he has heard from many readers who were shocked to learn the extent of the cat problem. “I would stress that I personally am not anti-cat, and that we shouldn't blame the cats themselves when they kill birds; it's in their nature,” he writes. “But with songbird populations falling all across North America, I do think it's time for a movement to keep cats indoors.”

Franzen’s novel is to the anti-cat crowd what Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was to the pure-food movement. “I think it’s significant any time you get ideas like that out in the popular culture,” says Steve Holmer, the director of the Bird Conservation Alliance. “Franzen is a very popular author. He sells many books, and you get people talking about it.”

Franzen, a birdwatcher himself, has a lot in common with his character. The story of how Walter kidnaps a neighbor’s bird-killing cat, for example, turns out to be autobiographical. “It occurred to me that maybe we should stop, because if we got caught, it would be pretty bad press,” Franzen told The Baltimore Sun. “So I thought, ‘Why don’t I write about this instead?” 

You can hardly navigate your way to a good porn website these days without clicking through a couple cat links first.

In an interview with The Guardian, Franzen said he intended the cat section of Freedom partially as “ an educational service.” “At least a million birds a day are killed by them,” he said. “So we're talking about a minimum of 365 million birds in America alone in the course of a year—perhaps as many as a billion.” 

Perhaps cats had it coming. They have, after all, been riding high ever since the Internet turned them into its favorite oddities. There are LOLCats and Maru; Keyboard Cat and Roomba Cat; Lime Cat and Spaghetti Cat. You can hardly navigate your way to a good porn website these days without clicking through a couple cat links first. 

But before we lock cats indoors, we should note: The number one cause of bird deaths is not predators, but rather collisions with windows and buildings. People who can’t stand the thought of keeping Figaro inside can one up Franzen and his followers by knocking down their homes and letting the cat roam free.

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Ben Crair is the Deputy News Editor of The Daily Beast.