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Complexity in Conservation

The Legal and Ethical Case of a Bird-Eating Cat and its Human Killer


Loren B. Byrne
Department of Biology, Marine Biology, and Environmental Science
Roger Williams University


Conservation biology focuses on the scientific study and practice of preventing biodiversity loss. Many complex sociocultural factors affect the success of conservation. This case study presents the true story of a Texas man who killed a cat that was killing piping plovers, a type of endangered bird species, and was prosecuted for it.  In Texas, it is a crime to kill an animal that "belongs to another," and there was evidence that another person was feeding the cat, which otherwise appeared to be feral. Students engage in a role-playing activity as jurors; they discuss the case and collectively decide whether the cat killer should be acquitted or convicted. This role-playing coupled with follow-up discussions help students examine and articulate their own views on a controversial environmental issue and gain a better understanding about the complex interdisciplinary nature of conservation science and practice. Developed for an advanced undergraduate course in conservation biology, the case could be adapted to courses across levels (introductory through advanced) and with various disciplinary foci (e.g., political science, ethics, anthropology).

  • Analyze the situational factors, evidence, and arguments pertaining to a court case that involves environmental, legal, and ethical dimensions of a conservation issue.
  • Articulate, justify, and defend their personal views and values about a controversial environmental issue.
  • Recognize the complex and sometimes conflicting and tense relationships between sociocultural and environmental dimensions of conserving biodiversity.
  • Discuss how the ethical, legal, and scientific dimensions of a conservation case study can or cannot be reconciled with each other to generate a synthetic perspective.
  • Explain how and why conservation science and practice require an interdisciplinary approach that integrates perspectives from many fields of study.
Keywords: Conservation biology; biodiversity; endangered species; environmental ethics; environmental laws; piping plover; Charadrius melodus; birds; feral cats; Galveston; Texas
Topical Area: Ethics, Legal issues, Policy issues
Educational Level: High school, Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division, Graduate, General public & informal education, Continuing education
Formats: PDF
Type/Method: Analysis (Issues), Debate, Dilemma/Decision, Discussion, Role-Play, Trial
Language: English
Subject Headings: Natural Resource Management   Wildlife Management   Ecology   Environmental Science   Interdisciplinary Sciences  
Date Posted: 11/13/2012
Date Modified: N/A
Copyright: Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.

Teaching Notes

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I used this for my non-majors bio course and this case generated a lot of discussion. I added a bit of material to read ahead that I think helped the students understand both sides. The website at is a good resource on cat colonies and catch and release programs and research articles on cat killing. The movie "Secret Lives of Cats" is available for free at, and I made sure to show cute videos of plover running about on YouTube. Thank you for this excellent case. I will be using it again.

Heather Rushforth
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Greensboro, NC

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