The Scottish Wildcat* (Felis silvestris grampia) represents the last surviving wild member of the cat family in Britain (Fredriksen, 2016). It is a famously elusive and untameable species (Gartner et al., 2014), which resembles the domestic tabby cat, with a large black-tipped bushy tail. It is among the most endangered species in Britain, with under 400 individuals left in the wild (Fredriksen, 2016). Despite being protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), a number of threats have resulted in such a diminished population of wildcats: the most important of these include viruses transferred from domestic cats, shooting by gamekeepers concerned about their predatory behaviour (Hubbard et al., 1992), destruction of habitat, and introgression.
This post will focus on the complex ethical and biopolitical concerns around “introgression”, which is the fancier term for describing hybridisation, which in this case takes place between Scottish wildcats and feral domestic cats (Macdonald et al., 2010). Whilst many encounters between Scottish Wildcats are combative (Hubbard et al., 1992), hybridisation has been a huge concern for wildcat conservationists. This is because when wildcats breed with domestic cats, they produce fertile hybrids, which when themselves breed will lead to the Scottish Wildcat genes being slowly replaced by those of domestic cats, gradually wiping out the “pure” Scottish wildcats of which there are already so few (Fredriksen, 2016).
“The fear of conservationists is that wildcats and feral domestic cats are becoming one indistinguishable group of wild-living cats in Scotland and, in time, the ‘pure’ Scottish wildcat type will become extinct.” – Fredriksen, 2016
In order to combat hybridisation, many suggest that feral domestic cats should be removed from the areas in which Scottish wildcats have been recorded. This can be through direct killing neutering, putting “curfews” on cats by cat owners (as encouraged in Australia to limit wild and domestic cat contact) or removing Scottish wildcats entirely from their natural environment and preserving them in captivity (Macdonald et al., 2010). These methods are made significantly trickier as although feral domestic cats can be legally controlled, Scottish wildcats can’t – and because the two subspecies look so similar, these methods of population management could do more harm to the Scottish wildcat population than good (Fredriksen, 2016). One study reported by Macdonald et al. (2010) further looked at solutions to this problem across the Scottish Cairngorms, proposing a combination of neutering confirmed feral cats, educating cat owners and educating gamekeepers to identify wildcats, to prevent accidental shooting. But to control hybridisation from the wildcat end, keeping them in captivity seems to be the preferred approach.
Captive breeding offers an “insurance policy” to the species and its genetic purity: Removing individuals from their habitat is justified as it allows a captive population to be maintained in the hopes of later release when conditions improve (Fredriksen, 2016; Macdonald et al., 2010). However, the co-presence of feral domestic cats is not going to go away quickly: the number of Scottish wildcats may only be in the low hundreds, but the total number of wild cats across the area is in the thousands (Macdonald et al., 2010).
“The irony of the wildcat captive breeding programme would be, of course, that by attempting to conserve a ‘pure’ version of the Scottish wildcat, the very thing that is prized about the wildcat is lost: its wildness.” – Fredriksen, 2016
Wild cats meeting the stringent definition of “wildcat” are rare: morphological and genetic features are difficult to determine at the individual level. So maybe the more important question here is not how to conserve Scottish wildcats and separate them from their domestic cousins, but to determine why it is that hybrids are “threats” to pure Scottish wildcats instead of being seen as a development of the population of wild cats in Scotland (Fredriksen, 2016). This is where the biopolitics and ethics comes in: Why is one species valued and protected, when hybrids are controlled and given no conservation value, despite filling the same ecological niche in the wild?
Fredriksen (2016) is of the opinion that captive breeding is a human construct in which a preferred “pure” species iconic to a particular landscape (in this case, the Scottish wilderness) is favoured over one which threatens this ideal:
“This discourse of the threat of ‘genetic pollution’ to the ‘pure’ lineage of the Scottish wildcat lays bare the ultimately eugenicist workings of the biopolitical parsing of valued and unvalued lives in the conservation of species.” – Fredriksen (2016)
This is quite a controversial opinion, but is also a logical one: it highlights that conservation should be more supportive of changing wildlife populations and the development of new species and wild cat populations through time, rather than trying to return back to a particular “ideal” state by preserving a particular species characteristic of such a state. However, opponents challenge this idea for a number of reasons. In their study on conservation of rare plants, Longton and Hedderson (2000) discuss the ethical reasons why rare species should be conserved. These include aesthetics, improvement to human quality of life (through seeing such creatures), our innate obligation to protect endangered species, the need to protect genetic diversity and concerns around ecosystem stability (Longton & Hedderson, 2000). I would also add to this list the value of protecting something which has been in an area for thousands of years, and the value of saving such a species from manmade threats. But when acknowledging that some animals are given greater value than others based on their charisma, popular appeal or genetic “purity”, it does question the ethics of controlling “threat” species to protect them.
*’Wildcat’ refers to the genetically pure Scottish Wildcat subspecies. ‘Wild cat’ (with a space in between) or ‘feral cat’ refers to cats which are living in the wild, rather than as pets.
Hubbard, A.L., McOris, S., Jones, T.W., Boid, R., Scott, R.& Easterbee, N. (1992) Is survival of European wildcats Felis silvestris in Britain threatened by interbreeding with domestic cats?. Biological Conservation, 61(3), pp.203-208
Gartner, M.C., Powell, D.M. & Weiss, A. (2014) Personality structure in the domestic cat (Felis silvestris catus), Scottish wildcat (Felis silvestris grampia), clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa), snow leopard (Panthera uncia), and African lion (Panthera leo): A comparative study. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 128(4), p.414
Fredriksen, A. (2016) Of wildcats and wild cats: Troubling species-based conservation in the Anthropocene. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 34(4), pp.689-705
Macdonald, D.W., Yamaguchi, N., Kitchener, A.C., Daniels, M., Kilshaw, K. & Driscoll, C. (2010) Reversing cryptic extinction: the history, present and future of the Scottish Wildcat. Biology and conservation of wild felids, pp.471-492
Longton, R.E. & Hedderson, T.A. (2000) What are rare species and why conserve them?. Lindbergia, 25(2/3), pp.53-61