It’s 10 PM. Do you know where your cat is?

It’s 10 PM. Do you know where your cat is? thumbnail

This article was originally featured on Hakai Magazine, an online publication about science and society in coastal ecosystems. Read more stories like this at

In the early months of the coronavirus lockdowns my wife shared daily cat videos with me. By shared, of course, I mean she flipped the screen of her phone and thrust it at me across the table: “Look!” And for the next 10 minutes, we’d scroll–cat taking a bubble bath, cat robbing a fishmonger, cat playing the piano to an audience of two cats and a dog. As I walked in the door, my head was covered in snow, she said “Cat Lawyer” to me. This is a video of a Zoom lawyer in Texas who has stuck a kitten filter on during a Zoom court case. My hat was covered in snow, but we continued to watch.

“Cat Lawyer” went viral in February 2021, a year into the pandemic, when we had tried for several months to get an actual cat to live with us in northern Iceland. Many people were disappointed to find that animal shelters were empty and they long for the companionship and comfort of feline friends. The Icelandic cat breeders didn’t answer their phones and the local veterinarian authority cracked down on illegal kitten sellers for the first time. It seemed that cats were enjoying the best year since the advent of the internet.

Today’s Icelanders are fighting for freedom.

In April, Akureyri–the largest municipality in the country’s north, with a population of 19,000 people and some 2,000 to 3,000 cats–decided to ban their feline residents from night roaming outside. Several years ago, Husavik, a neighbor, banned cats from roaming outside at night. As the debate about free-roaming cats grows, other Icelandic cities are considering banning them. Some people–the “no animals in my backyard” or NAIMBY-ists–proclaim free-roaming cats are nuisances that should be confined like any other pet. Others see cats as a threat to ecosystems and kill birds.

Domestic cats are rarely part of an ecosystem, and despite thousands of years of domestication, cats still prefer their food at 38 degC–the lukewarm temperature of fresh blood. They are more like their ancestors, African wildcats than dogs and wolves. Their ear flaps, with 32 muscles to rotate, are extraordinarily quick at picking up high-pitched sounds like a mouse’s squeak. Their eyes are large for a small head and adjust to the available light like a camera’s aperture. They have a three-dimensional sense of hearing and whiskers. Their sheathed claws provide silence. They can also jump vertically up to five times their height without difficulty.

Introduce this graceful assassin to areas where migratory bird populations have adapted to new environments. The damage can be irreversible and there are alarming examples of it being used worldwide. The International Union for Conservation of Nature Invasive Species Specialist Group lists cats as one of the 100 worst invasive species in the world. Their paw prints can be seen all over the place. Numerous studies have implicated cats in the global extinction of at least 63 species–40 birds, 21 mammals, two reptiles–and contributed to the endangered status of another 587 species. And nowhere do cats, particularly unowned cats, cause more damage than on islands: free-roaming cat islanders are linked to at least 14 percent of global bird, mammal, and reptile extinctions. Iceland has only one terrestrial predator and cats have decimated off-shore bird colonies.

Perhaps pandemic exhaustion added to my brain, but only positives–lower stress levels for one–associated pet ownership resonated with us. We were fortunate enough to find Ronja, a tabby cat that we named after Astrid Lindgren’s forest-dwelling Astrid Lindgren character, through a series of luck. Although she is adorable, she is also a menace to all living things and my ankles. Ronja will attack my feet whenever my feet touch the sofa, chair or bed. The inside is where death first appeared. Our houseplants died. She ate whole window flies. After the snow had melted, I opened my window. She ran out the window.

It’s 10 PM. Do you know where your cat is?
Ronja, the author’s cat, has the personality of a serial killer. Egill Bjarnason

In a world that divides us into dog people and cat people, Iceland has always been the home of cat people. The city of Reykjavik banned dogs for much of the last century, until 1984, based on the idea that they were farm animals. The city’s bourgeoisie cats nap on geothermal-heated sidewalks and befriend world-famous guests–in 2011, the New Yorker published Haruki Murakami’s short story “Town of Cats,” probably inspired by his visit to the Reykjavik International Literary Festival, where he noted the lively cat scene. The felines’ chef-d’oeuvre is inducing humans to an annual display honoring cats’ power: each December, the city places a huge metal cat statue downtown at Laekjartorg square, opposite the prime minister’s offices, to celebrate the folkloric YuleCat, a giant-sized creature that tortures children and eats them alive.

This cat-friendship is as old and well-established as the country itself. The Norse who mastered sailing from northern Europe to this middle-of-nowhere island some 1,150 years ago likely had cats on board their ships. Henry the Viking Cat, the first cat to set its eyes on the stony beaches, was a cat that had places to raid. Iceland is, in basic geological terms a volcanic hotspot that has become a bird colony and country. The Arctic fox was the only terrestrial mammal that arrived with the livestock and cats, having traveled via sea ice from Greenland or Russia at some point prior to writing records.

It’s 10 PM. Do you know where your cat is?
A statue in the Icelandic city of Reykjavik of a giant cat that’s mean to kids. Deposit Photos.

Very few wild animals choose to live in a domestic environment. At the dawn of agriculture, the cat agreed to kill a few rodents in exchange for leftovers and–assuming ancient cats were as somnolent as modern cats–places to nap for 12 to 18 hours of the day. Yes, cats were social companions of needy people in ancient Egypt. However, their primary role was in farm work. And this wonderful arrangement lasted, roughly speaking, for 10,000 years.

Now we want them to stop.

Surveys show that Icelanders support cat curfews in areas with private homes and private gardens. Their reasoning is primarily idiosyncratic. They compare roaming cats to drunken town residents. To paraphrase some online comments about cat visitations: “cat urine sprayed the patio,” “challenged another cat to a 3: 00 a.m. duel and killed the yellow daffodils,” “last week he came into the house, and the pharmacy is out of pet-allergy drugs.” Cat supporters reply along the lines of, “Get a life and try to tolerate the outside world; cats are a delight and have roamed Iceland as long as we have.”

The ecological impact seems secondary to public policy. This is evident when Husavik (made famous by the Netflix series Eurovision Song Contest The Story of Fire Saga ,) became one of the first European cities to impose a cat curfew. Back in 2008, the debate began when a local feral–domesticated and unowned–population became troublesome, perhaps because their population hit a tipping point. Four months old cats can become pregnant with up to six kittens per litter. A single female can get pregnant three times a year, and have over 150 descendants within two years. Husavik’s growing number of unowned cats began to live next to a fish farm at the town’s edge, where they enjoyed eating land-grown char. A geothermal drilling project’s water runoff created a permanent habitat for coastal birds. This was a happy accident for the cats. Spring came, nesting began. Trouble started.

It’s 10 PM. Do you know where your cat is?
The city of Husavik in northern Iceland, known for its starring role in the movie Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, banned cats from outside in 2008. Deposit Photos.

Studies in the United States suggest feral cats cause some 70 percent of bird mortality, which is blamed on cats in general. Unowned cats should be euthanized and felines banned from rural areas of the municipality with the most nesting sites should be the obvious solution to these Husavik bandits. Farmers would be upset by this. Instead, local people, who tended to be opposed to cats as nuisance animals, used this opportunity to impose a cat curbew only within town boundaries.

Menja Von Schmalensee, a West Iceland Nature Research Centre expert on invasive species, said that the ongoing cat wars are often driven by idiosyncratic preferences and not science. She says that there are areas where feral cats should be banned from the outside, if they cannot be eliminated completely. “In other areas, such bans would be too harsh. My concern is that every community will follow the loudest group , regardless of facts

All over the country, the same story echoes, especially from the cliffs where birds nest.

In 2007, Yann Kolbeinsson, armed with a laptop and a camera mounted on a bendable rod, conducted an annual summer survey of Manx shearwaters on Heimaey, in Iceland’s Westman Islands archipelago. The seabirds nest on cliffs and capes, and spend their day at sea. Kolbeinsson would search for signs of nests and push the camera down a tunnel to find a burrow.

As Kolbeinsson scanned inside, through the black-and white live stream of his camera’s camera, he would make brief observations one after the other. Most days, his entries were like this: empty egg, empty bird, egg and egg, bird, bird, empty, empty. He noticed something completely new one day: cat eyes.

Four kittens stared straight at the camera. A little feral family was living in a raided home just over one kilometer from the island’s settlement of 4,300 people.

This was not good.

It’s 10 PM. Do you know where your cat is?
Seabirds, such as Manx shearwaters, nest on capes and cliffs in Iceland’s Westman Islands archipelago. Deposit Photos.

On these 15 dome-shaped islands that make up the Westman Islands, the Manx shearwater created its largest colony in Iceland. A 1990 study indicated a population of 6,000 breeding pairs, which now appears to be on the decline, though recent research is murky. Researchers consider the changing ocean food web to be the most serious problem. While seabird populations are declining in the region, researchers believe that the most significant problem is the decline of seabird populations. Feral cats, which attack and eat chicks in many areas, are still contributing to the decline.

Birds nest in offshore colonies to avoid land predators and to take precautions to avoid larger birds. For example, the storm petrel stays at sea during daylight hours to avoid being attacked. Cats have night vision and are active at nights, especially unowned cats. Kolbeinsson points out that removing cats is not always a simple solution since it can in turn make rats and micewhich can attack eggs and chicksmore prevalent.

And then there’s toxoplasmosis. This is a disease caused a parasite that many people have but have not heard of. Toxoplasmosis can be spread from cats to humans, although most human transmissions occur through eating raw meat. Only cats that hunt wild prey (i.e. indoor cats) can transmit the Toxoplasma Gondii parasite via their feces. Although symptoms are rare in healthy people, the parasite can cause serious complications for human fetuses if it is present in pregnant women. (Advise to cat owners: Clean out your litter box every day. The T. gondii parasite is not infectious until it has been shed for at least five days. About 10 percent of Icelanders have the parasite based on a 2005 study, as do some 40 million Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s 10 PM. Do you know where your cat is?
The Toxoplasma gondii parasite’s robust oocysts–eggs–easily travel in fresh water and the open ocean. Deposit Photos.

Wild, domestic cats are the only hosts that can transmit the parasite from the terrestrial environment into the marine environment. Without them, the organism cannot complete its life cycle. The parasite’s robust oocysts–eggs–easily travel in fresh water and the open ocean. Toxoplasmosis has resulted in the death of endangered Hawaiian monk seals as well as California sea otters. Birds can also be affected by the parasite, which can cause anorexia and diarrhea, respiratory distress, and even death. A study of 10 species of seabirds in the western Indian Ocean found that 17 percent of them carried antibodies against toxoplasmosis. The parasite is also present in Hawai’i’s native bird, the alala. This species can survive in captivity, but is extinct in nature. It is possible that toxoplasmosis may have arrived in Hawai’i through contact with Europeans and their domestic cat.

Disease aside. It was the feral cats’ brutal natures that inspired Asmundur Palsson, a local exterminator, to take action following Kolbeinsson’s discovery. Palsson started shooting feral cats and setting traps at the foot of bird colonies, “all in the interest of protecting our Manx shearwaters,” says he.

Palsson killed about 40 animals the first year but eventually gave up: some people in town kept sabotaging his effort by putting rocks in the traps. Palsson had a. 22-caliber rifle, had wiped out invasive bunnies–the European coney, native to France, Spain, and Portugal–but when it came to cats, animal welfare appeared to outweigh ecological impact.

It’s 10 PM. Do you know where your cat is?
Deposit Photos.

Instead, volunteers set up a shelter on the island for feral and stray cat, using a technique called trap-neuter release. Cats are solitary hunters and can roam large areas. It takes time and effort to bring one cat into a shelter and it is nearly impossible to keep up to the population growth. Also, once the cat is released into the wild, with well-fed and neutered , he/she will be the same predator as all feral cats.

Solitary habits also make cats hard to count and explain why global cat population estimates range somewhere between 500 and 700 million and why estimating the ecological damage of cats has a huge margin of error. The United States alone sees cats kill between 1.3 billion and four billion birds each year (excluding Hawai’i, Alaska, and other places). These numbers were derived from meta-research that used big-picture data taken from published articles to estimate the number of free-roaming cats as well as their appetite for birds. Canadian researchers used a similar method to estimate that cats kill between 2 and 7 percent of birds in the southern part of Canada. This is where most people live. The first-ever study estimating the problem in China, published in 2021, blames cats for the annual death of 2.9 billion reptiles, four billion birds, and 6.7 billion mammals, on average, in addition to a staggering number of invertebrates, frogs, and fishes.

These findings suggest that cats are the greatest threat to birds’ anthropogenic mortality. They are even more dangerous than building and window collisions. Even worse than poisoning and cars? The cuddly, cuddly cat.

Why is it so cuddly for humans? They rub their legs against our legs, lick our nostrils, and knead us stomachs. It’s almost as if they see us as another cat. One theory suggests that this is exactly what we are. John Bradshaw, a cat behavior researcher, claims that cats perceive humans as larger cats. Based on the way smaller cats interact with larger cats, Bradshaw claims that cats see us as slightly more superior cats, but are still clumsy by cat standards. Bradshaw in his book Cat Sense , discredits the idea that cats bring their prey inside to give them a gift. Instead, cats have a tendency to bring prey into a safe place, but once they start feeding, they forget that wild meat tastes worse than chicken-based cat food.

Cats kill more birds than most people think. Their owners often believe that their cat is a murderer. In one 2013 study, researchers in the US Southeast affixed “kitty cam” body cameras to cats to monitor their hunting: they returned only 23 percent of prey to the house. I assumed that Ronja had only caught six to seven birds in her first summer as a cat owner. Each time I was shocked. It took a wounded shorebird, a whimbrel fighting for its existence on the living room floor to convince me to admit the problem. Ronja is a serial killer. Interestingly, about a third of pet cats are similar to Garfield from the comic strip. Garfields don’t think hunting is worth it, and only for very rare occasions. Some breeds are more dangerous than other. But for most cats, either they’ve got a killer personality or not: among owned cats, only around 20 percent are considered super hunters, so good at their craft that a single bell around their neck will do little to kill their ambition.

It’s 10 PM. Do you know where your cat is?
Domestic cats kill between 1.3 and four billion birds annually in the United States alone (excluding Hawai’i and Alaska). Deposit Photos.

The shopkeeper at the pet store told me that a single bell was merely an effort on the owner’s behalf. At best, a bell about the size of a marble reduces cat’s effectiveness by half. However, several studies have shown that it has little to no effect. Larger bells are more effective, but they can also make noise if the cat is chasing around like a Swiss cow at night, which can cause stress to the hyper-hearing cat. I was advised by the shopkeeper to use a ruffled collar as well as a bell. The colorful fabric collar, resembling that of a clown, is the antithesis of camouflage and makes the cat, at least in the springtime, 19 times less effective than an unencumbered cat. However, the cat’s effectiveness in the fall is only 3.4 times lower with ruffled collars. Sometimes, the collars can fall off. A long, colorful plastic band can be worn around the neck. This “pounce protector” prevents cats from lowering their heads to ground. Another option is the keto diet. A controlled 2021 study of 355 cats in England found that cats on a grain-free, high-meat-protein diet hunted about 40 percent fewer birds than those eating the low-end dry food.

But none these strategies can stop cats from attacking bird nests. Friends suggested that Ronja be leashed in the yard. The American Veterinary Medical Association endorses a policy that encourages cat owners to limit outdoor life to outdoor enclosures, such as cat patios–so-called catiosor to being on an attended leash, effective if training starts when a cat is young. Icelandic veterinarian colleagues have condemned cat curfews. The Icelandic Veterinary Association stated last year that while some cats are able to live indoors, others have trouble with it. “Containment can cause stress and aggressive behavior and may be accepted by some cats who don’t know any other. Nighttime curfews are supported by the association, especially in spring when birds nest. This is because cats are more effective as hunters. Research suggests that cats not owned by their owners are more likely to exhibit nocturnal behavior. )

It’s 10 PM. Do you know where your cat is?
In Husavik, where pet cats are banned from being outside, a one-year-old named Freddie Mercury enjoys his cat patio–a catio. Egill Bjarnason

We decided to keep Ronja indoors during nesting season. She had stopped making such amazing escapes and we were able to control her behavior. I bought her delicious fish jerky and explained to her that indoor cats can live up to four times as long. To prove us wrong, she gained excessive weight.

We have always loved and hated cats. The Japanese maneki-neko–the beckoning cat, with one paw raised and “waving”–symbolizes luck; a run-of-the-kitty-mill black cat signifies ill fortune. Cats were killed by Catholic priests during the European witch-hunt period. Islam values cleanliness and respects them. Surveys suggest that in parts of Iceland about 50 percent of residents want cats banned from outside. This debate is still new. People accepted the roaming cats of their neighborhood, and never questioned the wisdom. Until others started questioning the, pardon, catus quo.

A shift in attitude is taking place. Rodull Reyr, a cat owner who has lived in Husavik his entire life, says that the cat curfew has changed how people view cats. “When a teenager sees a cat outside today, they appear provoked, as if they’ve spotted an unwanted guest in their neighborhood.”

In Australia, two municipalities in Melbourne introduced cat curfews: Monash in 2021 and Knox in 2022. Earlier, in 2015, the country embarked on a mission to cull two million feral cats. From mid-2015 to mid-2018, Australia killed 844,000 feral cats with poison and traps. Two Dutch law professors wrote in an environmental journal that allowing cats to roam free of control violates the Nature Directives, which are the oldest European Union legislation regarding the environment. The authors cite studies on the impact of cats on birds and conclude that cat owners must control their free-roaming cats. “Stray and feral cats must be removed or controlled when they are a threat to protected species

Last November, the town of Akureyri voted to ban outdoor cats entirely as of 2025. Cat lovers across the country threatened to boycott the famous dairy products of the town in protest. Local artist rallied support to the Cat Party ahead local elections scheduled for May. Four weeks before the election, the ruling majority relaxed the ban on a total curfew. The debate continues, characterized by idiosyncratic passion.

Iceland’s environmental protection agencies have so far avoided public debate, which may explain why the topic remains underexplored. It is unknown how many cats roam the country. In Akureyri, in accordance with local laws, pet owners have registered only 200 cats, a fraction of the total population. The most fundamental question is: If Iceland bans cats from outside, will this increase the number of birds in Iceland? Experts aren’t sure because most cats live in towns, and most birds nest outside of them. Icelanders will have more birds in their yard without cats. Quite possibly, and that is when the question comes down to our values: a 2021 paper in Ecological Economics based on economic data from 26,000 Europeans found neighborhood birds make people as happy as money. A 10 percent increase in bird species in the environment raised life satisfaction about 1. 53 times more than a similar proportional rise in income. On the other hand, we release the soothing “cuddle chemical”–oxytocin–when petting a cat, the same enjoyment we get from social bonding with our own kind. Cat ownership is a proven way to help lonely people feel connected.

Ronja is the third word that my one-year old son learned to use after mama (baby-Icelandic meaning pacifier) and dudda. The family was devastated when the cat disappeared in December. There had been a terrible snowstorm and I had shut the window before going to sleep, thinking that the cat was still in the living room. The next morning, paw prints were found in the snow. They were located in circles below the window. After Ronja-less for two days, I started walking around the town like a cartoon detective following cat steps through snow to private gardens and parks. I reached out to homeowners who had a basement window that was open to ask them to check on her twice. I contacted all local Facebook groups and recruited children for my help. I assumed she was dead and began to work on my grief.

I love birds so maybe Ronja’s death would be a relief. But I also love Ronja, and I was ecstatic six nights after she went missing, around 2: 00 a.m. when she leaped through an open window and strolled into our bedroom. We were able to greet her with awkward enthusiasm, before she moved to her corner. As many cat owners, I am now in cognitive dissonance about my cat and my environment. I do keep her inside at all times.

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