Invasive species pose risks to people (e.g., economic, health) and wildlife (e.g., competition, predation). They also pose ecological risks to the diversity of communities and ecosystems. Little is currently known about public attitudes about and tolerance for the risks associated with invasive animals. To address this gap, this research studies the perceived risks associated with feral cats, an invasive, charismatic species, numbering over 25 million in the U.S., and strongly associated with people. The method used in the research is a quantitative mail survey of stakeholders and the public in Florida.

This study advances the theoretical understanding of risk perceptions including the factors contributing to perceptions of direct and ecological risk. The study compares risk perceptions among stakeholders and between stakeholders and the public. The results of this research will enhance management options to minimize the risk of predation and competition for native and threatened wildlife; minimize the potential spread of zoonotic diseases from feral cats to pets and people; and reduce instances of nuisance behaviors: the fouling of yards and open space, killing of birds or ornamental fish and damage to gardens. While this research focuses on one species, the findings will provide insight into the relationship between risk perceptions, tolerance, and attitudes that will influence the management and conservation of other invasive domestic and wild species.

Project Report

Invasive species pose direct risks to people (e.g., economic, health) and wildlife (e.g., competition, predation). They also pose ecological risks to the health and diversity of ecosystems. Natural resource agencies/organizations often cite ecological risks as a reason for using lethal management methods. In the case of feral cats, an invasive species, numbering over 25 million in the U.S., and associated with people, debate about the use of lethal or non-lethal control has led to a conflict between stakeholders (i.e., Trap-Neuter-Return supporters, Audubon members and the public) resulting in heated debate and legal action. The purpose of this research was to (1) determine the factors contributing to stakeholder perceptions of direct and ecological risk, (2) compare risk perceptions between stakeholders, (3) compare perceived risks from feral cats to anthropogenic threats and other natural phenomena, and (4) measure the influence of risk perceptions on attitudes toward management. Intellectual merit. Perceived risks and benefits predicted cat tolerance and support for non-lethal management. However, ecological risk perceptions were more important to Audubon members than to the public or Trap-Neuter-Return supporters. Stakeholders expressed stronger opinions about cat-related ecological risks than the general public. These findings raise important questions about the use of risk-based messages to generate public support for lethal management. Individuals with strongly held perceptions and beliefs are less likely to change their beliefs when presented with new information or information that conflicts with their strongly held perceptions. Given the strong and significantly different opinions about cat-related risks reported by stakeholders, education focused on risks or messages that emphasize specific stereotypes about cats may foster additional conflict or alienate stakeholders, rather than motivate collaboration to reduce the outdoor cat population. Our model confirmed that specific attitudes about lethal management and intentions to support management are driven by strongly held beliefs about cat-related risks. Our model was a better fit to the data when socio-demographic variables (e.g., gender, cat ownership, etc.) were removed. In addition, specific attitudes toward the humaneness and effectiveness of management had the largest direct effect on management support. Our results suggest that stakeholder concern over management policies, may in some cases, be driven by concern over the humaneness of the management method, perceived benefits from the referent species or perceived ineffectiveness of the proposed management approach. This research contributes to the existing domain of animal-related risk perceptions and provides valuable information about the variables influencing public support for lethal management. This research identified important factors contributing to the amplification/attenuation of risks among stakeholders. The benefits perceived from outdoor cats have often been ignored by managers and environmental groups concerned about the potential risks cats pose to the environment. Our results suggest that these benefits are extremely important because they reduce risk perceptions and support for lethal management and should be recognized prior to the implementation of a cat management approach. In designing an outreach program aimed at generating support for cat management, educators and communicators should consider the important role benefits perceptions played in this study and the minimal role that risk perceptions played. Broader Impact. By identifying differences between three stakeholder groups (i.e., Audubon Society members, TNR supporters and the general public) we were able to identify important differences among groups in both specific attitudes, beliefs etc, but also in the importance or salience of these issues for different stakeholders (e.g., risk perceptions may drive support for lethal management among Audubon group members, but not among TNR group members or the general public). Outdoor cats were perceived by students as comparable to other natural risk events and therefore less "risky" than man-made risk events (e.g., nuclear waste, pollution, etc.). Our results raise important questions about the use of public/non-stakeholder surveys to drive cat management decisions. In study one; students were generally apathetic about the issue of outdoor cats and cat management. In study two; the public was more likely to select the "don’t know" option provided, which suggests a lack of understanding or interest in this subject. Public perceptions were more neutral, for most items, compared to stakeholder responses. Public attitudes toward outdoor cats, TNR, ecological risk perceptions, beliefs about outdoor cats and perceptions of cats as "exotic" of were significantly different from both TNR supporters and Audubon groups. Our findings highlight the importance of measuring management preference among all stakeholders. In addition to differences between groups, we also found concrete agreement among stakeholders over the importance of management, with support for mandatory rabies vaccination, owner-provided identification and TNR as a "good management strategy." More importantly, stakeholders on both sides were unwilling to "do nothing" in terms of cat management. This desire to implement some form of cat management can be an important starting point for discussion between stakeholder groups.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Robert E. O'Connor
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University of Florida
United States
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