Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Of Wildcats and Wild Cats: Troubling Species-Based Conservation in the Anthropocene

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Of Wildcats and Wild Cats: Troubling Species-Based Conservation in the Anthropocene

Article excerpt


This article takes the case of Scottish wildcats, threatened with extinction through hybridisation with feral domestic cats, as a site for exploring what it means to conserve a species as such. To this end, the article looks at the practices associated with conserving Scottish wildcats as defined by a definite phenotypical, morphological and/or genetic type, abstracted from indefinite, fleshy organisms emplaced and entangled within changing ecologies. The article describes the biopolitical work of taxonomically distinguishing wildcats (Felis silvestris) from domestic cats (Felis catus) and their hybrids, exploring the challenges presented to this work by the disorderly agencies of wild-living cats. It then outlines and reflects on the proposed captive breeding programme aimed at preserving the 'pure' Scottish wildcat sub-species type. This case highlights the ways in which species-based conservation can conflict with care for individual animals as well as with life's immanent, generative tendencies.


Conservation biology, species, hybridisation, biopolitics, inventive life, Scottish wildcats


The last surviving wild member of the Felidae (i.e. cat) family in Britain, the Scottish wildcat is an elusive animal with the appearance of a large tabby cat with a bushy black ringed tail. With as few as 400 left, it is among the most endangered species in the United Kingdom (Scottish Natural Heritage, 2013). Threats to the survival of wildcats in Scotland include the familiar perils of habitat loss and fragmentation and illegal killing by humans. However, the biggest threat to Scottish wildcats, according to those charged with their conservation, is neither the loss of habitat nor direct killings, but rather the growing presence of feral domestic cats in 'wild' Scottish landscapes (Scottish Natural Heritage, 2013). Rather than the familiar scenario of an 'invasive' species outcompeting a 'native' (1) one for resources, the presence of feral domestic cats in territories inhabited by wildcats presents a different sort of problem for conservationists: within shared spaces of Scottish wild(er)ness (Whatmore and Thorne, 1998), wildcats and feral cats interbreed to produce healthy offspring that in turn interbreed with wildcats, feral cats and fellow hybrids. The threat posed to wildcats by feral cats, then, is one of introgression: the movement of genes from one species or subspecies into the gene pool of another through repeated interbreeding and backcrossing between the two. Thus, the fear of conservationists is that wildcats and feral domestic cats are becoming one indistinguishable group of wild-living cats in Scotland and, in time, the 'pure' Scottish wildcat type will become extinct.

The spectre of extinction through introgression or, to use the more colloquial if less accurate term, hybridisation is not unique to Scottish wildcats. Similar conservation alarms have been raised, for example, in the cases of endangered Grevy's zebras hybridising with common plains zebras (Cordingley et al., 2009), European wolves hybridising with feral dogs (Butler, 1994) and North American red wolves hybridising with eastern coyotes (Braverman, 2015; Fredrickson and Hedrick, 2006). Reports have even started to emerge of polar bears--the mascots and martyrs of the threats posed to wildlife by anthropogenic climate change--hybridising with grizzly bears (e.g. Hoflinger, 2012). Beyond such prominent mammalian cases, numerous examples have been observed in bird, fish and plant populations (for more comprehensive reviews of the matter, see Rhymer and Simberloff, 1996; Schwenk et al., 2008; Stronen and Paquet, 2013; Ward et al., 2012). Yet, although the phenomenon of threatened extinction through hybridisation is much wider than the case of Scottish wildcats, it remains an oddity in a time where anthropogenic biodiversity loss has escalated to the point where many agree we are living through Earth's sixth mass extinction event (e. …

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