Counting Cats

Years ago, it was common for media accounts about community cats to remark—typically with a tone of some astonishment—that a caregiver had a name for every cat in their care. For caregivers, of course, and anybody familiar with TNR, this was no surprise at all. Indeed, it would be surprising not to have names for the cats you see on a regular basis.

For whatever reason, I don’t see this element included in news stories anymore. It’s not because caregivers have stopped naming cats, though—I’m sure of that much. Such frequent, close interactions also allow caregivers to track the regulars, identify newcomers, and note disappearances. As a caregiver myself, I find this ability—to provide a reasonably accurate count of the cats we see regularly, often on a daily basis—rather unremarkable.

For some TNR opponents, though, there is simply no way that such counts can be trusted. After all, they argue, most of us lack the training to provide accurate and reliable population estimates. This is apparently what it’s come to: faced with empirical evidence that poses a direct threat to their dogmatic belief that “TNR doesn’t work,” these people have begun to dispute our ability to count cats. Read more

Lethal removal of cats backfires (again)

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” —Abraham Maslow

Just three months after an intensive culling effort, conservationists observed no difference in the area’s population of cats. Nevertheless, they describe their campaign as “effective,” arguing that lethal methods could be improved only if they were more “intense and continuous.”

Non-lethal methods, it seems, never occurred to them. Read more

Measures of fitness rejected by TNR opponents

Analysis of recent bird mortality event seems to confirm earlier research showing that birds killed by cats are generally in poor health.

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“Island Conservation” wins creative writing award

In September 2019, the U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs awarded Island Conservation $244,756 “to implement a showcase eco-system rehabilitation and restoration project in the UNESCO-designated Rock Island Southern Lagoon of Palau,” an archipelago of nearly 450 small islands in the western Pacific. The focus of the project was to be “removing invasive rats from the Ngemelis Island complex and promote the recovery of seabird populations.”

Seven months later, the non-profit appealed to OIA for nearly a quarter-million dollars more, this time to “remove” cats from Palau’s Ulong Island. One would expect such a request to be a detailed account explaining, among other things, why, before even getting underway, their original project had so expanded in its scope as to justify a budget twice the size of the original.

Apparently, though, such rigor is unnecessary—perhaps even unwelcome—at OIA. Instead, a little creativity seems to be the key to winning over the agency’s decision-makers. Less than one month after receiving the request, the agency awarded Island Conservation $239,922 “to eradicate feral cats in the Ulong Island area of the Rock Islands Southern Lagoon.”

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CAPE FEAR(MONGERING)

In late 2009, Sharon George was struggling to recruit participants for her master’s thesis. A student in the University of Cape Town’s conservation biology program at the time, George was studying the hunting habits of suburban Cape Town’s pet cats. Although she’d distributed 600 questionnaires, only 32 had been completed—a response rate George describes as “very poor” in her thesis [1].

“The project in general was very challenging because of the way many cat owners perceived it. The majority of cat owners were unwilling to participate in the study because they felt it was ‘against’ cats and would lead to extreme measures being taken to control cat numbers” [1].

It turns out, the majority of cat owners were not wrong about that.

George’s results were published online in July as part of a larger study, accompanied by a media release (PDF) warning that “the research highlights the need to address the impact of cat predation on Cape Town’s wildlife, particularly near protected areas such as the Table Mountain National Park.” This led (not surprisingly) to sensational headlines proclaiming “‘200,000-plus’ wild animals slaughtered in Table Mountain National Park by Cape Town cats each year” and “Apocalypse Miaow II: ‘Keep cats inside property’, SANParks urges Capetonians.”

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 “Ecological impact” and other baseless proclamations

It’s difficult to imagine now but when I started this blog—10 years ago Monday—I worried that I’d soon run out of material to write about. Not only is there no shortage of material, but these days—when facts are up for grabs and media accounts are prone to false equivalencies cultivated in the name of “balance”—Vox Felina’s mission seems more urgent than ever.

Something else that hasn’t changed over the past 10 years: the protectionist practices of editors green-lighting the publication of badly flawed research.

Perhaps it’s oddly appropriate, then, that the impetus for this post is the same one that prompted the blog’s inaugural post—and, indeed, the blog itself. Once again, my response to an article was quickly rejected by a journal.

Authors of the article, which was published recently in Animal Conservation, boldly claim that “pet cats around the world have an ecological impact greater than native predators but concentrated within ~100 m of their homes.”  Read more

IGNORING ITS OWN DATA, NOAA FISHERIES RAMPS UP CAMPAIGN AGAINST CATS

Photo: NOAA Fisheries

Earlier this week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries office posted a story on its website warning of “localized lethal outbreaks” of toxoplasmosis among endangered Hawaiian monk seals. This comes after one seal died as a result of infection with the parasite and another is being treated by NOAA Fisheries staff. In 2018, three others were reported to have died from toxoplasmosis.

“The first documented monk seal death due to toxoplasmosis occurred in 2001. The disease has now killed at least 12 monk seals, making it a leading threat to the main Hawaiian Islands population.”

It’s difficult to see how 12 mortalities over nearly 20 years constitutes a “leading threat.” Indeed, according to NOAA Fisheries’ own reports, the monk seal population in the Main Hawaiian Islands might actually be at an all-time high. Read more

Schrödinger’s… Birds?

It’s difficult to imagine now—after a banner week of revelations, accusation, and obfuscations—but headlines earlier this month were dominated by dire warnings of a different kind: a looming ecological collapse as demonstrated by dramatic declines in North America’s birds. Coverage included stories in the New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, National Geographic, Vox, Scientific American, and many other publications.

According to the reports, North American bird populations have declined by about 29 percent since 1970, a loss of roughly 3 billion birds.

Which leaves only about 7 billion birds. But just six years ago, researchers (some of which were also involved in this most recent study) published a paper estimating that outdoor cats kill 1.3–4.0 billion birds annually in the contiguous U.S. alone.

Are we really expected to believe that this one source of mortality (estimated only for the Lower 48 states, remember) is responsible for killing more than half of the continent’s bird population, year in and year out? Although numerous news accounts have referred to cats as contributors to the declines in bird abundance, I’ve yet to see one questioning this basic arithmetic (see Footnote 1).

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Bad Medicine

Between 1979 and 2015, more than 13,000 U.S. veterinarians died. At least 398 of them took their own lives. Which, according to recently published research, is 2.1 (for males) to 3.5 (for females) times higher than the suicide rate nationally. Those working with companion animals (as opposed to, say, “food animals”) were among veterinarians most likely to die by suicide [1].

Unfortunately, the study provides no breakdown for shelter medicine vets, who generally see more killing than any of their colleagues other than perhaps those working with the aforementioned “food animals.” It’s not difficult to imagine higher rates of suicides among these veterinarians, certainly—but let’s set that aside for the moment and assume it’s no different from the overall rate for companion animal vets.*

What would happen if TNR opponents had their way—and the killing of healthy cats increased by a factor of 10, 20, or more?  Read more

Interior Desecration

Referring to a recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Los Angeles Times describes the considerable damage (much of it likely to be irreversible) done by “Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his minions” as evidence of the profound ignorance and brazen corruption that have come to dominate public policy over the past two years.

“Among the up-is-down, night-is-day practices of the Trump administration, one of the most dangerous and disturbing is its habit of turning America’s leading science agencies into hives of anti-science policymaking.”

Reading the UCS report, one can only imagine the number of times the authors must have wanted, desperately, to use the term train-wreck. Or shit-show.

Alas, cooler heads prevailed. Still, the message comes through loud and clear, beginning with the report’s title: “Science under Siege at the Department of the Interior: America’s Health, Parks, and Wildlife at Risk.” Although government leaders should carefully consider the best available science in their policy making duties, argue the UCS authors, Zinke’s DOI:

“has instead stifled politically inconvenient research, put industry interests ahead of public health, and undermined science-based rules and regulations. The department has established a clear pattern of suppressing science and scientific evidence, particularly when they run counter to the interests and priorities of the coal, gas, and oil industries.” [1]

None of which is news to anybody paying attention. (For a painful refresher, check out the timeline provided in the UCS report, which documents no fewer than 40 “milestones” in the first 21 months of the Trump administration.) Still, in some corners of DOI, this “monumental disaster” would seem to be more a difference of degree than kind. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I’m looking at you.  Read more

Magical Thinking: The Gift That Keeps on Giving

When a representative of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife proposes—apparently in all seriousness—that “permanent closed catteries” are a feasible solution to managing the country’s population of unowned, free-roaming cats, a number of questions come to mind. What evidence led to such a conclusion? How much funding is ODFW willing to allocate? What is the agency’s drug testing policy? Etc.

Let’s start with that first question.  Read more

USDA’s Treatment of Laboratory Cats: Breed, Infect, Kill, Repeat

Photos from inside USDA Agricultural Research Service laboratory, courtesy of White Coat Waste Project.

Picture in your mind a Venn diagram: one circle labeled “animal cruelty,” the other “wasted tax dollars.” The intersection, where the two circles overlap, is labeled “USDA Toxoplasmosis in Cats project.” That’s the visual takeaway from an exposé published earlier this week by the White Coat Waste Project, a non-profit whose mission is to “cut federal spending that hurts animals and Americans.” Read more

Putting the “Con” in “The Conversation”

Full disclosure: I’ve listened to Hawaii Public Radio’s The Conversation exactly once, so I’m not going to make any broad generalizations here. Still, as an unapologetic Public Radio junkie, I found Tuesday’s show to be a bit of a train wreck.

According to the show’s website, the topic to be discussed was toxoplasmosis, the risks posed by outdoor cats, and “how to manage the situation.” In fact, relatively little attention was paid to the risks—either to humans or wildlife—and discussion of legitimate management options was avoided almost entirely. Instead, listeners (the broadcast is available here) were in for a campaign of misinformation and scaremongering fueled by useless factoids—including, for example, a reference to the estimated “14 tons of cat poop” deposited annually in Hawaii’s state parks. Read more

The Ends Justify the Means?

In a 2011 paper published in the Journal of Wildlife Management, Jeff Horn and his co-authors estimate the home range of owned and unowned cats, arguing that “greater activity levels and ranging behavior suggest unowned cats have a greater potential impact on wildlife than do owned cats.”

“Our results indicate that feeding and owner care modifies the space use and activity of free-roaming cats, information that is important for making decisions on controlling cat populations and the potential spread of disease.” [1]

Although the authors don’t specify which method(s) of control they consider preferable, it’s safe to assume TNR is probably off the table. Consider, for example, Horn’s description of cats as “invasive” and his recommendation that “management steps need to be taken in regards to this species, despite the social and political controversies that surround it.” [2] For Horn and his co-authors (and many of their colleagues in the conservation community), the “management” category seems to include almost exclusively lethal methods.

Of course, anybody proposing the killing of this country’s most common companion animal on an unprecedented scale,* ought to provide some solid evidence—and, while we’re at it, at least one feasible funding mechanism—to advance the necessary public policies. But a review of Horn’s data reveals a number of problems, raising serious questions about the validity of his conclusions and justification for his recommendations. Read more

Peter Marra: Energizing the Base

It’s hunting season, a fitting time for Peter Marra to be reiterating his call for the killing of outdoor cats. Earlier this week he delivered the keynote address at the annual conference of the Ohio Community Wildlife Cooperative, and tonight he’ll be in Baraboo, Wisconsin, presenting “Cats, Birds and You: Keeping Cats Indoors.”

This latest stop on Marra’s Extermination Nation tour is a homecoming of sorts. It was at the nearby University of Wisconsin–Madison, in the early 1990s, that the modern witch-hunt against outdoor cats began with the infamous Wisconsin Study. Using little more than cocktail napkin guesswork, UWM professor Stanley Temple and graduate student John Coleman “estimated” that outdoor cats killed up to 219 million birds in rural Wisconsin alone. [1] Although Marra’s “estimates” are significantly higher, his (flawed) methods—and motive—are striking similar to Temple’s.

(Fun fact: The two were among 10 authors—including Nico Daphiné, Marra’s former post-doc, who was forced to resign after she was found guilty of trying to poison cats—of a 2010 letter calling for conservation biologists to “counter trap-neuter-return.” [2])

Nearly eight years later—and faced with more pushback than he’d apparently expected—Marra’s still reworking his message for mainstream audiences. Look past the media-friendly rhetoric* and cowardly back-pedaling, though, and his call to action (just like Temple’s) is unchanged: the killing of cats on an unprecedented level. Read more

96.5% of Australia’s Birds Safe from Cats!

Photo courtesy of Hugh McGregor and Arid Recovery

Perhaps the most alarming headline announcing the findings of an Australian study last week was from Newsweek: “Cats Kill One Million Birds Per Day Pushing Many Species to the Point of Extinction.” In fact, the research itself makes no mention of extinctions. Indeed, as the researchers themselves explain in the paper’s abstract, “it remains challenging to interpret this mortality tally in terms of population viability or conservation concern for Australian birds.” [1]

Challenging, in part, because the mortalities attributed to cats* account for only “about 3.5% of Australia’s terrestrial bird population.”1 Funny, there was no mention of this little detail in Newsweek piece—or in the phys.org article upon which it was apparently based.

Far more troubling, though, was its omission from the media release announcing the publication of the research. Read more

An Exterminator by Any Other Name…

What do you call an organization, staffed by (at most) three individuals, responsible for the deaths of at least 1,789 cats between January 2011 and September 2016? Well, if you’re Gail Mihocko, director and founder of Project Cat, you call it an “animal welfare organization dedicated to assisting felines in need in our local community.”

“Assistance” is an interesting way to put it, since, in this case, Mihocko’s involvement is almost always fatal. In fact, according to a news story published last month, Project Cat killed more than 11 times as many cats as the organization adopted out over the past year.

The fact that Mihocko is unapologetic about her “work” is unsettling enough, but the fact that she’s able to do it—for several years now—without running afoul of the law is truly puzzling. How can this be legal?

At this point, there are far more questions than answers. Read more

TNR Meets Graphic Design History

In 2001, the Amsterdam design studio Experimental Jetset created a T-shirt that soon made its way into design history books. Even more surprising, according to its creators: the T-shirt’s “dry, minimal design… has become a format, a standard, for other people to work with.” Intrigued—and probably more than a little flattered—the team at Experimental Jetset even compiled an online collection of the wide-ranging designs inspired by their project.

A key reason for the design’s success is its ability to act as a stylish, machine-washable secret handshake. “If you get the reference,” explained How magazine in 2012, “you and the T-shirt wearer are automatically cool with each other.”

So how many people will get the reference in this particular case? I have no idea.

One way to find out: get a T-shirt (or tank top, tote bag, or any number of other products now available in Vox Felina’s Society6 online shop) for yourself and see how people respond. Then, leave me a comment on this post.

Cat Tests Positive for Rabies, Unleashing a Clown Car of Crazies

If you’re reading this from Hillsborough County, Florida, I hope it’s from the safety of an underground bunker—while you await the movers’ arrival. You need to get out while you still can because—well, you know… rabid cats.

As local “investigative reporter” Steve Andrews put it in one of three melodramatic pieces on the subject, “It’s rabies roulette in Hillsborough County.” Actually, journalistic Jenga is more like it. But that’s Andrews in a nutshell: half used-car salesman, half ambulance-chaser. And, as he’s made clear through his previous “reporting,” also hell-bent on shutting down TNR efforts in the area.

Unfortunately, the local news media isn’t the only source of misinformation and scaremongering. Read more

New Research Challenges Alleged Links Between Cat Ownership and Mental Illness

Writing last week for Scientific American, Yale School of Medicine research fellow Jack Turban waded into the controversy surrounding cat ownership, Toxoplasma gondii, and the parasite’s alleged role in mental illness—asking (and answering) the question, “are cats really to blame for psychotic behavior?” As it turns out, not so much.*

“In the largest and best-controlled study to date, the researchers showed that those exposed to cats were at no increased risk of psychosis after controlling for a number of other variables (including ethnicity, social class, and dog ownership—to control for exposure to animal stool).”

But wait—what about all those scary headlines…? Read more