Jonathan Franzen Explains the Number One Threat to American Birds

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Jonathan Franzen is considered one of the finest contemporary American novelists—Crossroads is the latest of his bestsellers—so it’s no surprise that his words are just as powerful in person as they are on paper. He is passionate about animals and the environment and recently sat down to talk with PETA about why he’s so concerned about the effect roaming cats have on birds and the environment and how roaming can be deadly for the cats themselves. His insights are as compelling as his novels.

It is amply demonstrated that it’s actually dangerous for your cat to be outdoors.

—Jonathan Franzen

The Outdoors Is a Huge Threat to Cats’ Lives

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the majority of reported cat deaths outdoors are caused by trauma, most commonly due to being hit by cars or attacked by roaming dogs. Some cruel people poison, shoot, burn, drown, or otherwise torture and kill cats. Being outdoors also increases the odds that a cat will freeze or starve to death, succumb to parasites, contract deadly contagious diseases, or endure countless other horrific fates. In his novel Freedom, Franzen includes the story of a neighbor’s cat who was left outdoors until one day she was killed in a fight with raccoons.

Cats Left to Roam Outdoors Also Cause Trauma

Companion cats allowed to roam outside may occasionally bring home a dead mouse or bird, but this represents just a fraction of the animals they maim and leave for dead.

No matter how well-fed they are, cats are instinctively driven to hunt, and as a nonnative predator species, they don’t fit into native U.S. predator-prey ecosystems. As Franzen explains in the video, roaming cats are the number one direct deadly threat to American birds. They kill an estimated 1.3 to 4 billion birds and 6.3 to 22.3 billion mammals every year in the U.S. alone. Free-roaming cats have also contributed to the extinction of 63 species of birds, mammals, and reptiles.

[L]etting your household cat outdoors is tantamount to throwing your garbage out your window of your car. You’re harming the common natural space.

—Jonathan Franzen


Franzen says he finds trap-neuter-release “particularly infuriating” and points out that it doesn’t prevent homeless cats from suffering and dying painfully, nor does it reduce their population. It doesn’t matter whether a cat enjoys human company or not—all cats are domesticated and incapable of surviving on their own for long. They depend on humans for everything, including food, water, veterinary care, shelter, and protection, and they suffer badly without these necessities.

This misguided practice also leads to more homeless cats because it makes people believe—wrongly—that cats can survive on the streets and that someone else will take care of those abandoned on the side of a road or behind a business.

“Almost always when I speak to a person who’s read my books, if the person mentions, ‘I have a cat,’ they immediately say, ‘and I keep the cat indoors.’ They add, ‘I didn’t used to.’”

—Jonathan Franzen

Cats Don’t Belong Outdoors

The best thing you can do for your cat is to keep them safe inside with you, for their own sake and for that of the wild animals they prey upon when left outside. If your cat is eager to explore outdoors, you can give them opportunities to do so under supervision. Cats should be allowed outdoors only for walks on leashes that are attached to well-fitting harnesses designed for cats. Not every cat can get used to a harness and leash, though, so if you’ve given it your best effort and they’re not comfortable, stick to a window perch or catio.

A gray and white cat sits on a couch next to a yellow pillow

To learn more about how you can provide your cat with enrichment indoors, check out PETA President Ingrid Newkirk’s book 250 Vital Things Your Cat Wants You To Know (aka “the cat guardian’s Bible”):

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