Hawaii has a cat problem.
The Hawaiian Islands are no strangers to invasive species, European colonization has introduced a plethora of foreign creatures to its delicate ecosystems. Mosquito eggs stowed away in pools of water only to hatch in an environment that evolved without them. Argentinian ants added Hawaii to their list of conquer territories when cargo ships unintentionally brought them to the islands, as did fire ants who also thrived in the defenseless new world. Naturally, snakes and rats found their way aboard human ships as well, humanity can’t go anywhere without its two greatest enemies. But perhaps one of the most devastating forces to set foot on the shores of Hawaii (besides Europeans) is felis catus, the domestic cat.
Likewise, it is only fitting in a game that has already borrowed so much from real life to acknowledge the feral cat problem plaguing Hawaii in the form of Alolan Meowth.
Like its real life counterpart, Meowth is not native to the Alola region. The species was introduced to the islands as a gift to the royal family from a distant unidentified region, most likely Kanto. Through a combination of selective breeding and excessive pampering, Meowth evolved into its Alolan form which reflects its terribly destructive lifestyle. Once the monarchy fell, the Meowth turned to the wild and became what we would call a feral animal, a species that was initially domesticated but has since returned to the wild.
In the time since the fall of the monarchy, Meowth have become quite common across the islands, much like their real-life counterparts who currently inhabit all eight Hawaiian Islands. The cats have no predators and sit comfortably atop the food chain, free to feast on an ecosystem that evolved independently of its influence and thus is open season for one of evolution’s finest predators.
While their Pokémon counterparts evolved into a different form, feral cats on Hawaii, as in most places, have remained relatively unchanged, appearing no different from domesticated cats in everything except behavior. As any cat owner knows well, even domesticated cats are fairly independent and are nowhere as needy as, say, dogs. Despite years of selective breeding, cats are still, essentially, tiny tigers that you keep in your house. This is bad news for wildlife.
For starters, in the time since their introduction, feral cats have wreaked havoc on island ecosystems. Feral cats are responsible for the extinction of 33 island species, and currently pose a threat to 8% of critically endangered birds, mammals, and reptiles. Feral cats on Hawaii have been especially devastating towards local bird populations. Exact numbers are difficult to come by mainly due to the rarity of the birds, but a recent study conducted in 2013 by the University of Hawaii, National Park Service, and the U.S. Geological survey monitored the burrows of the Hawaiian Petrel, a bird native to the island. Out of the fourteen burrows monitored, feral cats were found to be present in eight. However, feral cats are not just a problem on islands. Over 2.4 billion bird deaths have been attributed to your feline friends in the United States alone.
As we have seen from previous gameplay trailers, the Alola region is already home to a diverse population of birds, particularly the various forms of Oricorio. It isn’t much of a stretch to assume that the presence of Meowth has had its own devastating impact on the Alolan ecosystem. Who knows how many native species have suffered at the hands of Meowth, or have even gone extinct from predation? Oricorio and its various forms may currently be endangered like many native Hawaiian species. If the games intend to continue their streak of mirroring real life, then it is quite possible that Oricorio’s endangered status may be reflected in its rarity. The player may only be given a single opportunity to capture each form, similar to legendaries and a few other Pokémon such as Volcarona and Kecleon.
However, predation is not the only threat that feral cats have introduced to the islands. Cats can serve as hosts for Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that requires cats to complete its life cycle. Feral cats can unwittingly carry the parasite from ecosystem to ecosystem, spreading its infectious eggs through its feces. This can often contaminate water sources—marine and freshwater—as well as spread on land where bird and even humans can fall victim to it.
In the Pokémon World, we already have Pokérus which is highly beneficial. But considering that feral cats are often hosts for diseases, is it possible that Alolan Meowth will be instrumental in spreading a new PokéPathogen? Or perhaps it was Meowth that initially introduced Pokérus to the Alola region, however, due to the island’s isolation, the normally benign virus is actually harmful to the native population, similar to how island populations in our world are often susceptible to diseases that seem harmless to us since we have built an immunity to them over the years.
While it is fun to speculate on the implications of a feral species running rampant in a fictional ecosystem, the issue of feral cats is serious and needs to be addressed. Hopefully, by just the inclusion of this Alolan form, more attention can be brought to the destructive power of our feline friends when we act carelessly on their behalf.
For more information on feral cats and other invasive species in Hawaii, check out the Hawaii Invasive Species Council’s website, as they were a great resource for this blog post, as was the American Bird Conservancy.