RALEIGH — The bitter gulf in understanding between the two factions has widened, deepened and hardened.
It has been fed by accusations of bias, misinformation, skewed data and, lets face it, by emotion-driven decision-making.
Now, though, a new N.C. State University-led study offers a potential path to the kind of common ground that so many Americans are crying out for in these divided times. Common ground, that is, between cat people and bird people.
The study of identity politics among these staunchest of partisan enemies appeared Thursday in the online research journal PLOS One.
It began as a class project for undergraduate and graduate students in Nils Petersons Human Dimensions of Wildlife course last year. The researchers surveyed nearly 600 Americans who identified themselves as cat colony caretakers or bird conservation professionals affiliated with groups such as the Audubon Society and American Bird Conservancy.
Nationally, the debate over the effects of cats on wild bird populations and how to deal with feral cat colonies has been impassioned, with each side claiming the moral high ground and attacking the others beliefs.
In the NCSU study, those looking out for the feral cats felt their charges were misunderstood and should be protected like wildlife, with humane population control via neutering. The bird professionals, meanwhile, tended to view feral cats as an invasive species that should be removed from the wild, a group where neutering doesnt work. Many believe the cats should be euthanized.
Members of both these groups feel they have concerns that have been ignored, said Peterson, an associate professor of fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology in the NCSU College of Natural Resources. This feeling of injustice is part of what leads them to identity with their groups.
The study found that identity politics can warp reality even without an assist from Fox News, MSNBC, Super PACs and partisan spinners.
For example, just 9 percent of cat colony caretakers believed cats harm bird populations; 70 percent believed that trap-neuter-and-return programs can eliminate feral cat colonies, and only 6 percent believed feral cats carried diseases.
But the researchers found that cat colony caretakers were more open to finding collaborative solutions to feral cat management than bird conservation professionals. Peterson said 80 percent of the cat caretakers believed it possible, compared to 50 percent of the bird conservationists.
That opens the door to seeking buy-in from cat supporters for steps that could curb feral cats, Peterson said. For example, they could be invited to participate in scientific studies of cat colonies and their effects on bird populations, so they would be more likely to trust the results than if the studies were controlled by sources they felt were biased.
They also could be trained to see the signs of disease in the cats they interact with, something that could both improve the cats health and caretakers understanding of the reality of disease in feral cat populations.
The topic is important for those interested in wildlife conservation, Peterson said, and seemed like a good way to engage the students.
Its possible for a subject to be so contentious, though, that research becomes difficult. Peterson said similar approach to teaching research methods a couple of year ago didnt end in results good enough to publish. The students were looking into the feuding on the Outer Banks over stretches of beach being closed to vehicles to protect bird nesting areas.
In that case, he said, It was really hard to get good data, because people were just so angry and secretive.