DRISCOLL REPLIES: A particular sentence seems to have caused confusion, one where we write: “Cats, in contrast, are solitary hunters.” What should have appeared in print is the more specific: “Wildcats, in contrast, are solitary hunters.” The social structure of feral cats is heavily influenced by resource availability. Unless they are feeding from a point source (perhaps a kind person or a garbage dump), feral cats sourcing their own food are solitary. Yet even well-socialized cats do not achieve the level of sociality seen in lions, which hunt cooperatively.
As for their benefits, cats have never been bred for any “behavior” in the sense of a utilitarian task such as shepherding, retrieving, guarding or even pulling, as some domestic dogs were.
It has been suggested that the plagues afflicting Europe during the Middle Ages are a consequence of a reduction in cat numbers during that time and a supposed rise in rat numbers. But humans’ susceptibility at the time had more to do with the Little Ice Age and the Great Famine—with resulting changes in socioeconomic structure, living patterns and hygiene—and also with the prevalence of the black rat, Rattus rattus. The plagues ended after the climate improved, promoting a restoration of agricultural productivity and more dispersed living quarters. Perhaps most important, the black rat was displaced by the brown rat (R. norvegicus), which is not as susceptible to infection. The inability of cats to control plague is anecdotally highlighted by noting that the plague also struck places where cats were always
in high density.
Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Letters."