When Public Relations Compromises Public Health

If you missed the Orange County Vector Control District’s press release, announcing last year’s dramatic decrease in flea-borne typhus cases, you’re not alone. Apparently, the agency’s commitment to “inform and educate the public about the shared responsibility of vector control” is no match for their commitment to link the area’s typhus cases to outdoor cats almost exclusively.

So, while some of us think the most recent statistics are newsworthy, OCVCD probably sees them largely as a most inconvenient truth. How, for example, does the agency explain the significant decline in typhus cases over the same period Orange County Animal Care implemented its return-to-field program? OCVCD has alleged repeatedly that this program increases the risk to the public—but the evidence suggests otherwise.

Well, I suppose that’s why there’s no press release.

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“Cat Wars” Roadshow, Part 1

Somebody needs to explain to the folks at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University the importance of managing expectations. According to the institution’s Facebook page, Peter Marra, who’s speaking this evening as part of its Town Square series, “will outline the evidence he and co-author Chris Santella have presented in their new book Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer.”

“He will discuss the scientific evidence confirming that free-ranging cats are killing birds and other animals by the billions and the devastating public health consequences of rabies and parasitic Toxoplasma passing from cats to humans at rising rates.”

Spoiler alert! Marra and Santella provide no such “evidence” in their book.

That’s not to say that Marra won’t have plenty to talk about of, course. Earlier this month, he ramped up his campaign of misinformation, scaremongering, and magical thinking with an appearance on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight in which he further misrepresented his junk science.

So, who knows what he’ll come up with tonight.

It’s more than a little troubling to see the Academy promote Marra’s witch-hunt, hosting him as part of a program “designed to engage and provide relevant educational content to the public on environmental issues.”

“Town Squares focus on critical global issues in environmental science by featuring prominent thought leaders and their findings on biodiversity, freshwater issues, climate change, and evolution. Environmental advocates, scientists, and community members come together for an opportunity to further their knowledge about environmental and sustainability matters through accurate, real-time scientific information.”

I don’t know about other events in the series, but I think it’s safe to say that many attendees of tonight’s talk will leave the venue less knowledgeable, not more.* On the other hand, if they’re looking for “real-time information,” Marra’s shown he’s more than willing to make up his “facts” on the fly.

* Even so, I’m sure Marra will have his supporters. Indeed, somewhere in the audience might be his former colleague, Nico Dauphiné, who left her prestigious post-doc position at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center after she was found guilty of attempted animal cruelty. Now Nicole Arcilla, she’s a post-doc researcher in Drexel’s Biodiversity, Earth, and Environmental Sciences department.

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Peter Marra: Post-Truth Pioneer

Nearly four years before the terms fake news and alternative facts made their way into common usage, there were Peter Marra’s mortality “estimates.” Developed at great expense to taxpayers, Marra’s computer-generated figures suggest that outdoor cats kill up to 4.0 billion birds annually in the 48 contiguous states. [1] Even without getting into the details, it should be obvious that the claim is simply nonsense—since the best estimates available indicate that there are only 3.2 billion birds in the continental U.S.

Nevertheless, with the publication of Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer late last year, Marra doubled down on his “estimates,” making this tidy bit of fiction the centerpiece of his campaign of misinformation, scaremongering, and magical thinking.

All of that seems like a lifetime ago now—before Donald Trump became President, and, together with his largely inexperienced and woefully unprepared staff of cronies, plunged us into a Bizarro World. Up is down, black is white, right is wrong. Foreign policy is made and unmade in 140-character outbursts.

Not to be outdone, Marra’s stepped up his game—misrepresenting his own work (which, again, was junk science to begin with) and proposing a new theory of urban ecology.

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Petition: Challenge Cornell University to Remain Neutral on “Cat Wars”

Given the junk science, red herrings, and desperate scaremongering that plague Cat Wars, why is Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology rolling out the red carpet for co-author Peter Marra?

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“Outside” Takes Aim at Outdoor Cats

In his 2007 TED Talk, author and social critic James Howard Kunstler decries the “immersive ugliness of our everyday environments in America,” arguing that the inevitable result of such failures is a bleak landscape of “places that are not worth caring about.” Taking aim at the civic center in Saratoga Springs, New York—somehow both imposing and soul-crushingly banal—Kunstler paints a picture of that pivotal moment when the whole project came undone:

“You can see exactly what went on at three o’clock in the morning—the design meeting. You know, eight hours before deadline, four architects trying to get this building in on time, right? And they’re sitting there at the long boardroom table with all the drawings, and the renderings, and all the Chinese food caskets are lying on the table, and—I mean, what was the conversation that was going on there? Because you know what the last word was—what the last sentence was, of that meeting. It was: Fuck it.”

I imagine the scene is somewhat different for the staff of Outside magazine—conference calls as opposed to conference tables, for example, and more flannel and fleece than exists in all the architecture firms combined. Still, it was Kunstler’s image of that fateful moment when all hope for a project is lost that immediately came to mind when I read “Hawaii’s Crazy War Over Zombie Cats,” published late last month on the magazine’s website.

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They Tried to Make Me Go to Rehab

In what I can only imagine was intended to be a dramatic headline, the Washington Post announced last week: “A wildlife rehab center confirms that cats are killers.” Did we really to confirm that domestic cats are, just like their wild relatives, predators?

Apparently so.

What’s next? A Sunday magazine feature investigating the presence of gravity, perhaps? Or a three-part series, complete with online photo gallery, on heliocentrism? We can only hope. In the meantime, what exactly did this wildlife rehab center learn about the hunting habits of outdoor cats?

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Hawaiian Monk Seals: The Latest Excuse for Toxo Hysteria?

Hawaiian monk seal at Five Fathom Pinnacle, Hawaii. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and N3kt0n.

The latest “black mark against domestic cats,” explained a headline in yesterday’s Washington Post: “They’re killing Hawaii’s rare monk seals.” As is so often the case, though, in the age of click-bait journalism, the story is considerably more complicated than the misleading headline suggests.

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Conservation Biology, Outdoor Cats, and the Magic 8-Ball

For too many in Hawaii’s conservation community, the answer is always the same—regardless of the question being asked.

Examining the ongoing campaign to eradicate Hawaii’s outdoor cats, one soon discovers a familiar pattern: the rationale is often based on flawed science (often produced by government agencies). But, perhaps because of conservation concerns more desperate than those on the mainland, there’s an unsettling tendency to “interpret” scientific evidence in a way that will implicate cats regardless of a study’s actual results.

No matter what the research question, it seems the answer is invariably “cats.”

Witness, for example, a paper published earlier this year in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases, in which the authors suggest that outdoor cats pose a threat to Hawaii’s state bird, the Nene (or Hawaiian goose), by spreading the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. One problem: the island where the researchers found the greatest seroprevalence of T. gondii infection among the birds, Molokai, just so happens to be home to perhaps the most dramatic increase in their numbers in recent years.

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The “Need” for More Killing?

The press is making it out that I am like Josef Mengele, but shelters already do this now. Last year millions of animals were euthanized because we don’t have the resources to take care of them.”

—Peter Marra, co-author of Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer, in a recent interview with National Geographic


Even before Cat Wars was officially released (in print, anyhow), the pushback had begun. Among the more notable examples were Marc Bekoff’s blistering critique in Psychology Today and Gwen Cooper’s smackdown on the Hi Homer! blog (the likely source for that Mengele reference). More recently, Barbara J. King offered a much more tempered response on NPR’s Cosmos & Culture blog.

“It’s not a war against cats that we need. We should slow down, critically review the assumptions that underpin the science, and resist panicky, dire recommendations.”

All the while, Marra’s been trying to back away from his inflammatory rhetoric—witness the National Geographic piece, for example, followed by a Q&A with VICE.

One wonders: given the fact that he’s promoting the killing of this country’s most popular pet—on a scale that would dwarf anything this country’s seen—what did he expect?

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What’s Several Billion Birds, Among Friends?

Frequently cited estimates for birds killed by cats in the U.S. actually exceed the number of birds estimated to be in the country. Documents obtained via Freedom of Information Act raise as many questions as they answer.


As I pointed out recently, the annual mortality estimates proposed in the 2013 paper, “The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States,” don’t add up. Or, to be more precise, they do add up—and up and up. Indeed, the authors’ “conservative” estimate of birds killed by outdoor cats appear to exceed the total number of land birds estimated to be in the country.

According to the Partners In Flight Population Estimates Database—which, given its intended use for “bird-conservation planning,” would seem to be the go-to source for the best estimates available—that total is 3.2 billion. That’s only 33 percent greater than the median estimate (2.4 billion) developed by Scott Loss, Tom Will, and Peter Marra—leaving very little room for the many other sources of mortality, [1] including the 365–988 million birds they’ve estimated are killed annually as a result of building collisions. [2]

And the high-end of their “conservative” estimate of annual cat-caused mortalities (4.0 billion) actually exceeds the PIF estimate by a significant margin—raising serious questions about the validity of the work portrayed by Marra, in Cat Wars, as the culmination of a century’s worth of evidence implicating cats in the decline of birds and other wildlife. [3]

As documents obtained via Freedom of Information Act reveal, though, this isn’t the weirdest part of the story.

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Is the CDC Ignoring Science When it Interferes with a Cozy Relationship?

When does collaboration cross the line into research misconduct? And why is it bad for public policy, cats, and people care about both of them?

Back in August of 2013, I wrote a post asking whether the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was doing the American Bird Conservancy’s bidding. As should be obvious, the question was intended to be provocative. As it turns out, though, it was also more than a little prescient.

Documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests reveal a pattern of questionable behavior from CDC epidemiologist Jesse Blanton, whose cozy relationship with various ABC staff resulted in the publication—and extensive promotion—of a paper that’s become one of the go-to tools in TNR opponents’ arsenal (see Note 1).

And yet, despite its glaring flaws and dubious origins—which together raise serious questions about research misconduct—both the CDC and John Wiley & Sons (publisher of Zoonoses and Public Health, the journal in which the paper appeared) have been eager to dismiss concerns over this poster-child for publicly funded junk science.

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“By Any Means Necessary”: War is Declared on U.S. Cats

Cat Wars is, to anybody familiar with the topic, an obviously desperate attempt to fuel the ongoing witch-hunt against outdoor cats “by any means necessary,” including the endorsement of discredited junk science, an oceanful of red herrings, and B-movie-style scaremongering. The book’s central thesis—that outdoor cats must be eradicated in the name of biodiversity and public health—is, like the authors’ credibility, undermined to the point of collapse by weak—often contradictory—evidence, and a reckless arrogance that will be hard to ignore even for their fellow fring-ervationsists.

In early 2010, Peter Marra co-authored a desperate appeal to the conservation community, calling for greater opposition to trap-neuter-return (TNR). “The issue of feral cats is not going away any time soon,” he and his colleagues warned, “and no matter what options are taken, it may well be a generation or more before we can expect broad-scale changes in human behavior regarding outdoor cats.” [1] Since then, Marra, who’s been with the Smithsonian Institution’s Conservation Biology Institute since 1999 and now runs its Migratory Bird Center, has only become more desperate.

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“Investigative Report” Targets TNR Efforts

In their second report in a recent series investigating the two-year TNR pilot program in Hillsborough County, Florida, television station WFLA revealed evidence of “gruesome feral cat deaths.” Apparently, some of the cats are being returned to their trapping location too soon, and dying tragic deaths as a result of post-surgery complications.

Or at least that’s what the headline implied. The story changes pretty quickly after that, though.

“How are [the cats] adjusting after surgery?” asks 8 On Your Side’s senior investigative reporter Steve Andrews, rhetorically. “No one knows for sure.”

Wait—no one knows for sure? Aren’t these people supposed to answer questions?

Not to be deterred by his team’s admitted lack of knowledge, Andrews persists, referring vaguely to “pictures of what’s happened to some” cats that have been released. “The pictures are so disturbing, News Channel 8 managers won’t allow them on television.”

But they are—of course—on the WFLA website. Such is the state of “investigative reporting” in the click-bait era.

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Appealing to Our Better Nature

It’s not every day that I hear from somebody whose work I’ve criticized. (In fact, I rarely receive a response from those I reach out to for comments or clarification.) Imagine my surprise, then, when I received an e-mail from somebody involved with Nature Canada’s “cats indoors” campaign who was interested in better understanding my objections. Even more surprising was my subsequent telephone conversation with Sarah Cooper: exactly the sort of thoughtful, open exchange I’d hoped for when I launched Vox Felina six years ago today.

It doesn’t hurt that Cooper, who’s largely responsible for Nature Canada’s communication strategy for the campaign, is curious, witty, and charming.

Over the course of our conversation (nearly two hours, if I recall correctly), she gave me plenty to think about. So, to mark Vox Felina’s six-year anniversary, I want to reflect on that previous post a little bit and ask readers to weigh in as well.

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Million Cat Challenge: History In the Making

When I wrote about the launch of the Million Cat Challenge, in December 2014, I suggested that it “felt like something historic.”

“As if we’ve entered into a new era of animal sheltering where cats are concerned. This ambitious campaign promises to be a game-changer not just for the million cats it aims to save (over the next five years), but for sheltering itself.”

Well, here we are just 17 months later, and the Challenge is already surpassing the 500,000-cat milestone. Apparently, the future is now.

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“Cats Indoors” Campaigns: A Grave Threat to Outdoor Cats?

In the interest of full disclosure: I keep my cats indoors 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s an uncompromising policy I’ve adopted for their safety — and my sanity. I encourage others to keep their cats indoors, too. Why, then, do I object so strenuously to “cats indoors” efforts, such as Nature Canada’s recently launched Keep Cats Safe and Save Bird Lives campaign?

It’s a question to which I’ve given a great deal of thought since I first began blogging about the ongoing witch-hunt against outdoor cats nearly six years ago, and it mostly comes down to the following:

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Biosecurity: Declaring War on Hawaii’s Cats

Imagine, if you will, the following scenario:

The small colony of cats for whom you’ve been caring for years (sterilization and vaccination was just the beginning) lives quietly on your property. Thanks to the “cat fencing,” they’re safe from outside threats, and they’re no threat to nearby wildlife or to any neighbors who might consider them a nuisance.

And yet, they’ve been targeted for seizure and removal—or worse, eradication.

Vigilante fringe-rvationist (think Galveston’s Jim Stevenson)? No.

Online troll escaped his mother’s basement to make good on his tedious, typo-plagued, threats? No.

The party responsible, in this case, is the Hawaii Invasive Species Authority—or any party with whom the Authority might choose to contract (which, I suppose, might actually include the likes of Stevenson and the trolls).

Orwellian, sure—but maybe not all that far-fetched.

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Cats and Caregivers Targeted in Hawaii

A pair of bills winding their way through Hawaii’s legislature threaten community cats, their caregivers—and the very wildlife some supporters claim they’re trying to protect.

On barren, uninhabited Marion Island, it took 19 years to exterminate approximately 2,200 cats — using feline distemper, poisoning, hunting and trapping, and dogs. [1, 2] The only “handouts” these cats received were “the carcasses of 12,000 day-old chickens” [2] injected with poison. If there was any evidence of starvation, I’ve not read about it.

In Antioch, California, a 2014 feeding ban proved futile. “Opponents of the ban have simply ignored it without much consequence,” reported the San José Mercury News, “while city officials admit they don’t have the resources to enforce the law.”

Why, then, does anybody even remotely familiar with this topic think a feeding ban would reduce the number of unowned, free-roaming cats? Where’s the evidence?

And yet, this magical thinking is exactly what TNR opponents are using to sell Senate Bill 2450 to residents of Hawaii (including the state’s legislators).

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Toxo “Hype Train” Running Out of Steam?

Recent research is challenging the “conventional wisdom” that infection with the Toxoplasma gondii parasite can alter human behavior, lead to mental illness (especially schizophrenia). As a recent post on Discover magazine’s Neuroskeptic blog notes, “The idea of ‘behavioral’ toxoplasmosis has driven a huge amount of research and media interest.”

Of course, it’s also driven the witch-hunt against outdoor cats—used by the American Bird Conservancy and others in their ongoing campaign of misinformation and scaremongering.

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D.C.’s Department of Energy and Environment Ignores Advocates, Science, and Common Sense

In my inaugural blog post for The Huffington Post, I take on Washington, D.C.’s Department of Energy & Environment and the agency’s demand that TNR programs in the District “will be revisited and reassessed.” Check it out for yourself here.

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