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Last Updated: Monday, 26 May, 2003, 14:27 GMT 15:27 UK
Are cats really so bad?
Cats seem loved and hated in equal measure
Okay, they're sadistic murderers - but is it fair that cats have been rated as being as detestable as rats in a poll of British gardeners?

The UK's 10 million cats have had it rough of late, drawing harsh criticism because of their bloodlust and habit of viewing the nation's gardens as their own personal toilets.

Though the animals are the UK's favourite pets, British gardeners have struck back by crowning the cat as one of the most unwelcome visitors to their plots - voting them only slightly more popular than rats in a new poll.

The Mammal Society - which conducted the survey - says cats cut a swathe through the nation's wildlife, estimating that some 300 million animals meet their maker under a cat's paw every year.

Predatory instincts

Out on the prowl, the feline taste for blood appears insatiable, with few British animals off the menu, as cat owner John Etherington testifies.

"Our cuddly, domesticated Siamese tom used to bring home wood pigeons, small birds, adult squirrels, rats, mice, voles, shrews, slow-worms and young rabbits. We watched him chase off foxes. He demolished birds' nests, killed butterflies and many other invertebrates. All these creatures were tortured to death."

A cat chasing shadows
It's only what comes naturally
But are we being too hard on our feline friends? People unfairly judge the hunting habits of cats by human moral standards, says animal behaviourist Sarah Heath - author of Why Does My Cat?

"Cats are solitary predatory hunters. People ask why they kill when they are clearly well-fed - but a cat's motivation to hunt is quite separate from its desire to satisfy hunger."

Even with a full stomach, a cat cannot resist the stimuli of prey passing nearby, says Ms Heath.

"It doesn't make sense for a cat to wait until it's hungry to catch food - there may be none around then. Better to hunt when there's the opportunity and hide the food away."

Saved by the bell?

Owners who have resorted to collar bells to warn prey may have underestimated feline guile.

"Some cats have learned to hold their heads to minimise noise coming from the bells around their necks. Perhaps we need to admire this skill, rather than get paranoid about it."

We haven't always been so upset by such killing instincts. Simon, ship's cat of HMS Amethyst, became the only moggy to win the Dickin Medal - the animal Victoria Cross - for his war on rats.

Naturalist Howie Watkins (r) with a rat
Maybe rats aren't too bad either?
When the destroyer was pinned down by enemy fire during the Chinese civil war in 1949, Simon's rising tally helped safeguard the ship's dwindling food supplies and boost crew morale.

Today, our cities have their own rat problem, with an estimated 70 million of the vermin roaming the sewers and streets.

Even Buckingham Palace has suffered a rodent invasion, and there's not much a corgi can do about that.

Cats have often suffered in comparison to man's best friend, the dog. Labour grandee Roy Hattersley denounced cats as "evil" when the Mammal Society first released figures about the number of wild animals killed by cats.

Mr Hattersley's own dog, Buster - who himself famously killed a goose in a royal park - is "an avenging angel" for attacking these "sleek assassins".

Dog's day

Dogs value the company of humans, cats merely take advantage of our good nature, goes the argument.

The cat's solitary nature is at the root of this, says Ms Heath. "Cats can enjoy social interaction, but don't have a need for it, as dogs do. This makes them look selfish."

Roy Hattersley (r) and Buster the dog
Cats are 'evil' according to Roy Hattersley
Dogs' desire to be close to us comes at a price. In America alone, they attack 4.5 million people a year - killing at least 20. Young children are often the target.

"Dogs learn to attack rather than retreat. Because flight is their first defence strategy, cats tend to run away rather than attack humans," says Ms Heath.

Though the ancient Egyptians revered the cat, it has suffered at the hands of humans ever since.

Familiar problem

The animal's supposed links to witchcraft and the occult led several medieval popes to order bloody retribution against the "familiars".

HAVE YOUR SAY
My cat stays indoors at night, preferring the quilt for the jungle
David, UK

Even today, some view the black cat as an omen of misfortune. They have suffered accordingly - animal rescue charities report owners are wary of adopting the "spooky" creatures.

Even the English language is stacked against the moggy. The spiteful are dubbed "catty". A raucous cry is a "caterwaul". At work, a greedy, lazy boss is a "fat cat".

But, to be fair, we can't hate cats that much. A recent report found our generosity has caused one in four of the creatures to become clinically obese.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Jon Kay
"It seems cats are almost as unpopular as rats"



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