While they may be loved for their charming antics and fluffy fur, cats are natural predators at heart—and photographer Jak Wonderly is all too familiar with that. After all, he was recently awarded for his portrait of 232 victims of cat attacks. Birds made up the majority of his subjects, but among the rest were small mammals and reptiles.
Wonderly’s photo, titled “Caught by Cats,” visualizes the deadly effect cats can wreak on their natural surroundings. The photo recently came in first place in the 2020 BigPicture Photography Competition’s Human/Nature category, reports Cordilia James for National Geographic. It displays all the animals brought to WildCare, a wildlife hospital in San Rafael, California, that died after being injured by cats in 2019. WildCare received 321 such animals that year, and only 89 survived. The rest, despite WildCare’s attempts at treatment, didn’t make it.
The animals captured by Wonderly constitute a tiny fraction of cats’ annual death count. In the United States alone, cats kill an average of over 2 billion birds and 12 billion mammals each year. Cats are the leading cause of non-natural bird deaths, accounting for just under 75 percent, according to a 2015 study.
“It was a challenge to envision something somber, dignified, truthful, and not causing revulsion,” writes Wonderly in his caption of the image on his website. “I also wanted to honor the difficult work of wildlife rescue and WildCare’s hospital staff.”
Wonderly aimed to compose the carcasses, which had been collected and preserved for a calendar year, in a way that conveyed the magnitude of the deaths caused by cats while also engaging viewers for long enough that they can look closely at the photo, per National Geographic.
Melanie Piazza, WildCare’s director of animal care who conceived the original idea for the project, says the goal was not to shock or disgust.
“We wanted to present the animals as respectfully as possible and grab people’s attention with their beauty,” Piazza tells National Geographic.
A 2017-2018 National Pet Owners Survey indicated that 42.7 million U.S. households own 94.2 million cats, making cats the second most popular pet after fish. While about three-fourths of pet cats are kept indoors, the other quarter are free-roaming or outdoor pet cats. Indoor cats are not much of a problem, but even hybrid indoor-outdoor cats still kill about two animals per week. Still, even these hybrid cats aren’t the primary issue, reports Rachel Gross for Smithsonian magazine in 2016.
Unowned cats, including strays and feral cats, are the biggest killer, Peter Marra, former head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and author of Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer, told Smithsonian. On average, they kill three times as many animals as owned cats.
Some say cats should be allowed to hunt freely as any predator would in their local ecosystem. However, Marra said stray cats are often “subsidized” by humans, receiving food and other forms of support that allow them to reproduce at an unnatural rate. These once-owned cats pose a threat to their natural environment, Piazza says.
“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 tells National Geographic. “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.”
As Marra explained, there is no easy solution to the issue of the unowned cat population. Animal welfare advocates have pushed trap-neuter-return, a system that catches unowned cats, sterilizes them, then returns them to the wild. To Marra, however, trap-neuter-return is more of a placebo than an actual solution. His proposal is to trap unowned cats and either find them a home or euthanize them. As for outdoor pet cats, the solution is simple: keep them inside.
“Conservation starts in our own backyard with the choices we make about our pets, fences, plants, and feeders,” Wonderly writes on his website. “I hope this photograph will encourage dialog [sic] about how our choices impact the animals around us.”