IMPACTS OF DOMESTIC X WILDCAT HYBRIDS
IMPACT OF SMALL CAT HYBRIDS ON THE ENVIRONMENT
According to some researchers, traditional conservation efforts to protect the Scottish wildcat may be misguided. It has interbred with domestic cats for around 2000 years, so long that it no longer makes sense to preserve the wildcat as a separate pure-bred species. Discounting the Kellas cat, a variety derived from wild/domestic hybrids, there are essentially two groups of wildcats. One group more closely resembles the domestic cat. The other, with less contact with domestic cats, resembles the true wildcat, but no-one knows how pure it really is. Genetic markers suggest that the difference between wildcats and domestic cats is small. Instead, the slow displacement of wildcat by the more adaptable feral domestic or by hybrids is evolution in action. Attempts to conserve or reintroduce supposedly pure-bred wildcats are simply doomed to failure. Although wildlife groups will disagree, some researchers argue that the pure wildcat should only be protected if it plays an important role in the local ecosystem.
Cryptozoologist are often credulous individuals who cite myth as fact. Cryptozoology bulletin boards are littered with claims that Maine Coons are part Lynx, Norwegian Forest Cats and Siberian Cats are part Scottish Wildcat (by which I assume the writers mean European Wildcat!), that Bengals are part Leopard and other folklore. Unfortunately would-be crytozoologists exist in a world apart from cat breeders who could provide them with accurate information about a breed's origins or about the ease of difficulty domestics with wildcats (and hence the likelihood of such hybrids occurring naturally). Many seem unaware of how widely domestic cats vary in type, size and pattern and hence misidentify wholly domestic cats as hybrids. The concerns about wildcat hybrids going feral are therefore overstated.
In the Fortean Times, cryptozoologist Karl Shuker suggested that escaped Leopard Cats (F. bengalensis) may have resulted in hybrid offspring in Britain although the difficulties encountered in the Bengal breeding programme suggests otherwise.. he wrote that there was a "... realistic chance that interbreeding between escapee jungle cats, leopard cats and feral domestic cats has begun in Britain's countryside" but fails to take into account the problems encountered by Bengal breeders. His suggestion of a "self-perpetuating strain of notably large hybrids" is unrealistic, since continued interbreeding will restore the smaller sized "norm". Likewise the suggestion that non-native genes will lead to an "unpredictable addition to the British ecosystem" is faulty since the wild influence is diluted by interbreeding with the native population. Domestic cats will simply assimilate the non-native genes, from whatever source, as they have done throughout their long evolution. Only where the non-native species predominates or in isolated colonies where an exotic male breeds with his hybrid daughters and grand-daughters will there be any real shift from moggy to wild species type.
Nigel Brierly feared the impact of Maine Coons on the environment, however he was under the misconception that the breed was a huge Lynx-hybrid. His experience of the breed was limited to one or two aberrant individuals which lacked the genial temperament typical of the Maine Coon breed. This, along with exaggerated claims about the average size of Maine Coons, led him to conclude that they were "not ideal pets" and that they represented a threat to the Brown Hare in the UK. The Maine Coon contains no wild genes, is not a vicious giant and poses less of a threat to Brown hares than is posed by the hare coursing bloodsport.
On 19th September 2009, the British newspaper "The Telegraph" published a factually inaccurate scare story about "Supercats" dangerous to other pets and even small children. It compared early generation Savannahs to the "wholly domesticated" later generation Bengal. The report claimed the Savannah to be 3 times larger than a domestic cat, 35 lbs in weight and able to jump 7ft vertically. While this applies to servals and possibly to F1 Savannahs (which fall under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act (DWAA) and require special housing), later generations of Savannah have diluted serval genes and are within the normal size range of domestic cats and would not present additional risks to people or animals.
What are the dangers of feral cats breeding with escaped wildcats or with escaped hybrids? Unless an escaped wildcat/hybrid finds its way into a small, isolated domestic cat population and its progeny are fully fertile, Shuker's fears of a self-perpetuating strain of notably large hybrids are very wide of the mark. However, would-be cryptozoologists have seized upon the idea.
In an example from the deer world, Waipiti were introduced into Red Deer herds to improve Red Deer type. However, the Red Deer type degenerated instead because the Waipiti genes were swamped out. Hybrids must be selectively bred using the best specimens from each generation and backcrossing to those from preceding generations to fix traits in the population. Left alone, nature breeds out the influence of introduced individuals (who are usually in a minority) until the norm is restored. As Robinson noted, the hybrids do not breed true and over the succeeding generations there is a selective return to the original genetic combination prevalent in the area
Apart from the Jungle Cat and African/European Wildcat (F libyca subspecies), which readily mate with domestic cats, there is a greater likelihood of non-native genes - in very dilute amounts! - entering the moggy population from designer-breeds than from escaped exotic pets.
Though fascinating to hypothesise what would happen if all these errant exotic genes met up in the cat population at large, studies suggest that we need not worry about races of oversized hybrids. As a cat rescue worker I find the prospect of domestic-cat-sized, "queer-tempered", rosette-patterned, stumpy-tailed, tufted-eared felids no worse than the bad-tempered ferals I already encounter. F. catus already contains such a hotch-potch of genes that it would absorb any infusion of new blood from escaped exotics without tripling its size or endangering livestock. Any wild-type genes will be so greatly outnumbered by domestic type genes that their influence will be negligible or quickly lost.
THREAT TO WILDCAT SPECIES
In recent years, cat breeders in North America, have experimentally crossed domestic cats with a number of different wild species to produce wild looking domestic breeds. Some of the more complex hybrids involve several different wild parents as well as a variety of domestic breeds. The wild species used were originally restricted to Leopard cats (F bengalensis) in the Bengal, Bobcats (F rufus) in the Desert Lynx and, to a much lesser extent, Geoffroy's Cat (F geoffroyi) in the Safari. Anthony Hutcherson's article in "TICA Trend" (journal produced by The International Cat Association) noted that a far wider variety of wild species are now being used: F chaus, F geoffroyi and F serval. Since that article, the list expanded to include the Fishing cat F viverrina. Interestingly, part of the rationale behind these hybrids was conservation of wildcat species. There is also a specialist cat fancy, REFR (Rare and Exotic Feline Registry) for hybrid breeds. Hutcherson said it was hoped that these hybrids would relieve pressure on the world's wild cats, adding; "Perhaps people will be more concerned over the plight of some of the wild cats if their loving companion is one with a wild heritage."
This issue was referred to Dr. Jill Mellen, Conservation Research Coordinator of the Metro Washington Park Zoo in Portland, Oregon. She was apparently unaware of the substantial increase in the number of wildcat species now involved in hybridization or of the popularity of hybrid breeds. She was appalled by the trend. Part of her job is to facilitate the conservation of wildcat species through education and through captive propagation of endangered wild species. Dr Mellon considered the pet trade (include use for hybridization) to be yet another factor contributing the decline of wildcat populations.
The wildcats used for hybridization are captive bred and not collected from the wild; however they might have been more useful as part of a captive breeding program for their own species and not for producing wild-looking pet cats. Hybrid breeders assured her that they use only captive-bred cats which were bred for the pet trade. Those cats might otherwise have been neutered, declawed and kept in unsuitable conditions by persons with no experience of wildcats and potentially abandoned destroyed if they became unmanageable. The advantage of a wild looking domestic cat is that it can be owned without a permit and kept in a household environment. If wild looking domestic cats are available, safe and suitable for an ordinary household environment, the demand for wildcat pets might decrease.
The European Wildcat, especially the Scottish subspecies, has become endanged through continued natural hybridization with free-ranging domestic cats. The hybrids also compete with the true wildcats; in particular because domestic cats breed more frequently. Dr Mellon considered this particularly relevant in the case of Bobcat hybrids. She felt that calling them "natural hybrids" is incorrect since domestic cats are an introduced species in the USA. The occasional Bobcat x domestic hybrid is therefore unnatural and could accelerate population decline in Bobcats. The Bobcat model cannot be compared to the European Wildcat situation since the amount of hybridization is extremely low and most accounts are based on the appearance of the offspring not on a witnessed mating! Dr Mellon's definition of natural is nit-picking. Natural, in the context used by cat enthusiasts, means "occurring in the wild state, not arranged by breeders".
The goal of hybrid breeds is to produce a cat that is wild in appearance but domestic in temperament. These cats appeal to owners who might otherwise buy a wildcat, but lack the facilities or expertise to care for it properly. Though wildcats are undeniably attractive and exotic looking, Dr Mellon considered the need to "own the wild look" to be selfish. Unfortunately this seems to be an innate desire in humans - many ancient cultures around the world had menageries; modern zoos are derived from menageries. However, the number of wildcats used in these programs is small and if it reduces the ownership of wildcats as exotic or novelty pets then it is of value to the wild species.
Mellon was concerned about the well-being of the individual wildcats used in hybrid breeding programs and the impact on the populations of wild cats. Responsible breeders take great care of their wildcats; as mentioned earlier those cats might otherwise have been sold to inexperienced or unsuspecting pet owners. Are the individual wild cats housed adequately in accordance with standards governing the size of enclosure and the dietary requirements? In the case of responsible breeders, the answer is yes. In the case of backyard breeders, these do not house their own domestic cats adequately. They are no better or worse than those whose wildcat "pets" (including pumas and ocelots - neutered, defanged and declawed) are seized from inadequate conditions by Animal Control agencies. Breeders of exotic hybrids issue a wealth of information on diet and accommodation on the web, illustrating a commitment to caring for their charges.
Dr Mellon hoped that the wild cats were legally obtained (as opposed to illegally obtained, wild-caught animals) and that the owners had the appropriate wild animal permits. Again, the answer is yes. However does America as a whole have a problem with black market wild animals (i.e. wild caught animals); if so, this should be tackled on a national level and not by targeting individual breeders. The advantage of the wild looking domestics is that no permits are required. It is not known how many wildcats are being kept illegally as pets in the USA, or how many illegally kept wildcats are abandoned when the owner can no longer cope.
Her greatest concern about the captive hybridizations was the apparent disregard for what a species is all about. Each wildcat species has evolved for a particular niche in nature. She considered it presumptuous of humans to want to "mix and match" the genes of wildcats in order to produce a wild-looking domestic pet and consequently diluting the wild genes that nature evolved over thousands of years. Hybrid breeds do nothing to enhance the conservation of endangered cats, but support the further loss of genetic material. Yet those genes will only be diluted if the hybrids escape into the wild population and then only if enough hybrids (or domestics) escape so that their genes prevail as is happening with Scottish wildcats in Britain.
Recent research shows that "species" is largely a human concept and that many animals interbreed with close relatives in the wild; this is found in species as diverse as butterflies, birds and dolphins. Hybridization is now believed to have evolutionary value as it provides faster adaptation to a new or changing environment; even if only a few offspring are fertile these may be better adapted to the environment than either parent was. Where cats hybridize in the wild it demonstrates that the cats themselves have scant regard for the concept of species; as illustrated by the plight of the Scottish Wildcat. A tomcat will mate with whatever is available and on oestrus so long as it is a cat of roughly the right size. Humans are forcing wildcat species closer together (through habitat destruction) and inter-species matings may become more common as the cats make do with whatever mates they can find. Unfortunately many of those inter-species matings will not produce offspring and where offspring are produced, many will be infertile. The escape of hybrid pets will do no more and no less damage to the wild population than existing free-ranging domestic cats.
The greatest threat to the F silvestris and all of its subspecies (except for the domestic cat) is hybridization in the wild with stray or feral domestic cats. Hybridization has been taking place over a long period of time. Not surprisingly, hybrization has been happening for longer in areas where domestic cats have been present for thousands of years i.e. in those areas where the cat was domesticated. Domestic and feral tomcats appear to have a competitive advantage over male wildcats in access to oestrous females. This is due to domestic cats usually being larger and more populous. (Mendelssohn 1989). Hybridization in captivity demonstrates that distinctive characteristics of the African wildcat, such as its long legs and reddish-backed ears, are generally lost (Smithers 1983). Hybrids are often distinguishable by white markings caused by the gene for white spotting which is common in the domestic cat popuation.
In South Africa, it is impossible to find pure wildcats near to human settlements where there are domestic cats. Some "wildcats" have the common domestic cat trait of white legs and white patches on their bodies indicating hybrid ancestry. Hybrids have also been found far from human habitation e.g. in the Kalahari some 75 km from the nearest human settlement habitation while feral domestic cats have been found in Rub el Khali (uninhabited sand desert in the south-eastern Arabian peninusla), hundreds of kilometres from any human habitation. As well as hybridization, wildcats are threatened by feline panleukopenia which is carried by the more resistant feral domestic cat.
Dr Mellon urged TICA to reconsider its support of wild x domestic cat "breeds", but with so many wildcats already being bred for the pet market (where they will most likely be neutered and therefore their genes will be lost completely) the hybrids are a drop in the ocean. It is up to the breeder of the wildcat to decide whether or not to sell their stock as pets, to hybrid breeders or to species breeders. With natural hybrids, it is up to owners to neuter their free-ranging cats. With habitat destruction, pollution and hunting killing off animals at an unprecedented rate, soon those wildcat genes may not exist outside of zoos and wild looking domestic breeds. With domestic cats so widespread, it seems inevitable that hybridization will lead to the virtual extinction of the pure African and European wildcats and their replacement by hybrids. While humans want to conserve the pure-bred wildcats, nature is selecting for the far more successful genes of the domestic cat.
A couple of wildlife rescue centre websites have taken it upon themselves to perpetuate serious misinformation about Bengals and similar hybrids: that if owners are lucky the F5 generations might eat cat food and be house-pets, that the hybrids are seriously maladjusted and will take on German Shepherds and stalk old ladies. Those sites state that people create hybrids to get wild-looking cats with tame temperaments but end up with domestic-looking cats with wild temperaments. They are then surprised at receiving hate mail from owners and breeders of Bengal cats! While their aim of protecting wild species is commendable, they may face a legal challenge against such blatant misinformation about later generations hybrids, since the breed standards call for unchallenging temperaments.
To set the record straight: F1 hybrids (those with a wild species as one parent) and F2 hybrids (those with a wild species in the grandparent generation) are not housepets. An F4 bred back to a wild cat results in an F1 hybrid (not in an F5) because there is a purebred wild ancestor in the parent generation. In many countries, a special licence is required for cats so close to a wild ancestor and they must be housed in secure accommodation and licensed as hybrids. The pet quality Bengal is F4 onwards. The percentage of wild genes in F4 and later generations is extremely small, only a few percent and the temperaments are wholly domestic. Reputable breeders are cautious when homing early generation hybrids and will take great care in socialising the cats and ensuring they go to owners competent to look after cats with a high percentage of wild blood. The later generations of Bengal are less wild than feral domestic cats; I can personally vouch for this, having handled both feral cats and Bengals. Poor ownership can result in antisocial behaviour in any breed of cat, whether later generation hybrid or wholly domestic; I can also vouch for this, having been on the receiving end of a poor socialised Persian cat's temper.
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