The Things People Say (or Don’t)—Part 3

The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) is among the most visible organizations to oppose TNR—and put PR ahead of the relevant science (which ABC has been doing for years now).

ABC was one (along with the L.A. Audubon Society and Urban Wildlands Group) of several petitioners in the case that eventually led to an injunction against publicly supported TNR in Los Angeles. Following the court’s decision, ABC’s Senior Policy Advisor, Steve Holmer, told the Los Angeles Times:

The latest estimates are that there are about . . . 160 million feral cats [nationwide]… It’s conservatively estimated that they kill about 500 million birds a year.

Days later, I sent Holmer an e-mail, asking for details about his figure of 160 million feral cats (the number of birds killed could, I assumed, be addressed later). To his credit—and unlike the people I tried to contact at the Urban Wildlands Group and L.A. Audubon Society—Holmer actually replied, leading to a cordial but brief correspondence in which he directed me to the work of Nico Dauphiné and Robert J. Cooper.

Sure enough, just two pages into Dauphiné and Cooper’s article [1] (available for download via the ABC website):

There is therefore an estimated total of 117–157 million free-ranging cats in the United States.

But there are a number of significant problems with their estimate—which is calculated by combining an estimated number of feral cats with an estimated number of owned cats having outdoor access. Here, in a nutshell, is a breakdown of their calculation:

Dauphiné and Cooper start with 60–100 million “stray and feral (unsocialized) cats, nearly all of which range freely outdoors” a figure taken from a 2004 paper by David Jessup [2]. But, because Jessup didn’t cite his source(s), this is actually no estimate at all. At best, it’s a guess—and one intended to paint as stark a picture as possible.

Then, citing a 2004 paper (which in turn cites a study commissioned by ABC—the results of which are summarized here) by ABC’s Linda Winter [3], Dauphiné and Cooper suggest that “approximately 65%” of pet cats “are free-ranging outdoor cats for at least some portion of the day.” Taking 65% of 88 million—the number of pets cats estimated by the American Pet Products Association’s 2008 National Pet Owners Survey—the authors arrive at 57 million pet cats with outdoor access.

But what does that mean, to be free-ranging for at least some part of the day?

A 2003 survey conducted by Clancy, Moore, and Bertone [4] suggested that nearly half of the cats with outdoor access were outside for two or fewer hours a day. And 29% were outdoors for less than an hour each day. And a closer look at the study commissioned by ABC  indicates similar behavior: “35% keep their cats indoors all of the time” and “31% keep them indoors mostly with some outside access.” [5]

For Dauphiné and Cooper, though, these cats are no different from feral cats. For them to simply add the number of “part-time” outdoor cats to the population of “free-ranging outdoor cats” is highly misleading! The authors have no idea what impact these cats might have on bird populations—which is the stated purpose of their paper.

Note: For a closer look at the flaws in Dauphiné and Cooper’s paper, download “One Million Birds,” by Laurie D. Goldstein.

*     *     *

OK, back to Steve Holmer and the L.A. Times

Holmer’s estimate of 160 million is not a range, but the high limit of a seriously-flawed estimate (which is itself based on little more than wild guesses). And he refers specifically to feral cats—an error even Jessup, Dauphiné, and Cooper (none of whom, it seems, is likely to give feral cats even the slightest benefit of the doubt) don’t make.

Given the context of the discussion—TNR in Los Angeles—such an error was likely (perhaps intended?) to have serious consequences. To suggest that there are 160 million feral cats in this country—approximately one feral cat for every two human inhabitants—is irresponsible and manipulative. And it raises doubts about the integrity of ABC and its representatives. All of which I told Holmer. His reply read, in part:

We are doing are [sic] best to convey the facts as they become available. The 160 million figure was based on an earlier version of Nico’s latest paper and are now being updated in our materials which should now say:

There are currently 88 million pet cats in the U.S. according to a pet trade association, and that number is growing. In addition, it is estimated that there may be 60–100 million free-ranging feral cats in the U.S., and that these cats may collectively kill more than one million birds each day. Reducing this mortality even a small amount could potentially save millions of birds each year.

I haven’t checked the ABC website to verify Holmer’s claim. In any event, the damage was already done; ABC and the other petitioners had put a stop to publicly supported TNR in Los Angeles. And, from what I’ve seen (I’ve yet to wade through the thousands of pages of discovery documents in the case), they’d done so by selectively overlooking, ignoring, and misrepresenting the scientific research. Or, in the case of Holmer’s comment to the Times, simply “inventing” it.

By the way, I asked Holmer about his revised figure of “more than one million birds each day” killed by cats. He’s stopped replying to my e-mail.

1. Dauphiné, N. and Cooper, R.J., Impacts of Free-ranging Domestic Cats (Felis catus) on birds in the United States: A review of recent research with conservation and management recommendations, in Fourth International Partners in Flight Conference: Tundra to Tropics. 2010. p. 205–219

2. Jessup, D. A. (2004). The welfare of feral cats and wildlife. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 225(9), 1377-1383.

3. Winter, L., “Trap-neuter-release programs: the reality and the impacts.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1369-1376.

4. Clancy, E. A., Moore, A. S., & Bertone, E. R. (2003). Evaluation of cat and owner characteristics and their relationships to outdoor access of owned cats. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 222(11), 1541-1545.

5. ABC. (1997). Human Attitudes and Behavior Regarding Cats. Washington, DC: American Bird Conservancy. Available at:

The Things People Say (or Don’t)—Part 2

Like the Urban Wildlands Group, the Los Angeles Audubon Society seems eager to spread the word about the “threat” of feral cats. But, just like Urban Wildlands Group, what they’re saying doesn’t always add up.

The L.A. Audubon Society was (along with the Urban Wildlands Group) a petitioner in the case (LASC BS115483) that eventually led to an injunction against publicly supported TNR in Los Angeles. So it was no surprise to see a representative quoted in the Los Angeles Times:

“At San Pedro’s Cabrillo Beach, a feral cat colony resides near where snowy plovers nest, said Garry George, conservation chairman for the Los Angeles Audubon Society. At San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, George said, feral cats have wiped out the California quail population. And in San Diego, feral cats roam free near a habitat for the California least tern, which officials are trying to monitor and protect, he said.”

I’ve yet to look into George’s claims—and will reserve judgment until I have. That said, I think there’s reason to be wary. In February 2009, George had an article published in the online version of Los Angeles Magazine that raises questions about his ability to serve as a trustworthy spokesperson on the subject of feral cats. In “How to Make Your Yard a Bird Magnet,” George writes:

If feral cats are destroying your property, including your birds, you can use a Hav-a-Heart trap with a permit from Animal Services. They will spay or neuter the cats you trap and offer to find them a home.

To start with, it’s not clear that George’s bit of advice (including a link taking readers to the American Bird Conservancy’s Cats Indoors! campaign, a topic all its own) belongs in the article all. Then there’s his choice of words (to hear George tell it, you’d think real estate values in L.A. would be suffering for all the destruction wrought by feral cats!).

The real issue, though, is George’s assertion that L.A. Animal Services will sterilize and help find homes for the feral cats you trap. I’ve spoken with a representative at L.A. Animal Services, and was told—in no uncertain terms—that this is simply not the case. And it wasn’t true when George wrote it, either.

It’s hardly surprising—given how overcrowded L.A.’s shelters are with adoptable cats—that they’re not offering to find homes for feral cats (which often make for “difficult” adoption candidates). For George to suggest that these cats were headed for a happy ending is highly irresponsible. Either he didn’t know any better, or he intended his statement to be misleading and deceptive (he failed to respond to my inquiries on the subject). In either case, George had no business writing what he did. The fact that he did write it raises unsettling questions about his integrity and that of the organization he represents.

All of which begs another rather unsettling question: Do supporters of the L.A. Audubon Society fully understand what they’re supporting?

The Things People Say (or Don’t)—Part 1

Wildlife/bird advocates opposed to TNR are eager to talk to the press, so why won’t they reply to my e-mail?

Just about the time I was writing my response to “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” (Conservation Biology, Volume 23, No. 4, 887–894), its lead author, Travis Longcore, began showing up in the news. The Urban Wildlands Group, for which Longcore serves as science director, was the lead petitioner in the case that would eventually lead to an injunction against publicly supported TNR in Los Angeles.

Given the obvious bias and overall tone of Longcore’s paper, I was hardly surprised to read what he told the press. There’s this, for example, from an interview with Southern California Public Radio:

“Feral cats are documented predators of native wildlife,” said Travis Longcore, science director for the Urban Wildlands Group. “We do not support release of this non-native predator into our open spaces and neighborhoods, where they kill birds and other wildlife.”

Hardly the stuff of controversy, at least at first glance. Who can argue with the fact that cats kills birds and other wildlife? That’s what predators—including cats and a number of other species, too, of course—do. Nobody’s debating that. What impact this predation has on birds and wildlife is another matter altogether—one Longcore doesn’t address here. (I’ll be addressing this issue repeatedly in future posts, starting with a critique of Longcore’s essay in Conservation Biology).

What’s more interesting is Longcore’s reference to cats as “non-native” and wildlife as “native.” It’s a recurring theme in the feral cat debate: native is inherently good; non-native is inherently bad (even worse is invasive non-native, another term often used to demonize cats). Never mind the fact that the cats are here because we brought them here, or the hypocrisy of the native/non-native argument. We routinely protect non-native species from native predators—consider, for example, the current controversy over livestock and wolves. Again, a topic to delve into more deeply in the future.

A week later, Longcore was quoted in the Los Angeles Times:

“It’s ugly; it’s gotten very vicious,” said Travis Longcore of the Urban Wildlands Group, one of the organizations that sued the city on behalf of the birds. “It’s not like we’ve got a vendetta here. This is a real environmental issue, a real public health issue.”

No vendetta? Maybe not, but Longcore’s essay in Conservation Biology has an agenda that takes priority over the science (hardly surprising in retrospect—given the timing of its publication, it must have been written while Longcore was preparing for the L.A. case). His apparent concern for the environment and public health strike me as largely disingenuous.

Also from the Times:

Those cats, Longcore said, often are diseased. And when colonies are fed, the practice often attracts more cats, either from around the neighborhood or because people dump new cats.

Let’s set aside for the moment Longcore’s assertion about colonies attracting cats, feral or dumped (I’ll get to that in another post). What about his suggestion that “these cats are often diseased”? In his own paper, Longcore acknowledges a rate of only 5–12% overall for feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and/or feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). In the largest of the studies he cites, more than 12,000 cats were tested for FeLV and FIV, revealing an overall rate of infection of 5.2%, which, noted the researchers, “is similar to results previously reported for feral cats and for pet cats.” [1]

What about rabies? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “approximately 1% of cats… tested for rabies were found positive” in 2008, the last year for which statistics are available.

It’s difficult to see how these rates of infection would lead anybody to suggest that free-roaming cats are “often diseased.” And I don’t expect to get any clarification from Longcore. While he seems eager to talk to mainstream media, which accepts his claims at face value (and passes them along as accurate to the public), he has yet to respond to my e-mail inquires.

I realize that taking issue with Longcore’s comments will no doubt strike some people as nitpicking. But such statements—which put PR before science—only impede any honest discussion of the issues.

[1] Wallace, J. L., & Levy, J. K. (2006). Population characteristics of feral cats admitted to seven trap-neuter-return programs in the United States. Journal of Feline Medicine & Surgery, 8, 279–284.

Nibbling at the Margins—Part 2

In December 2009, my critique of “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” (Conservation Biology, Volume 23, No. 4, 887–894) was rejected by outgoing editor Gary Meffe. Frustrated that Meffe was willing to publish something he considered “nibbling at the margins” topic-wise, but then reject a thoughtful critique of it, I appealed—noting, among other things:

  1. Longcore et al. were very “careful” about the studies they selected, and even the particular claims within the studies cited (this despite the fact that they criticize TNR advocates for their “reference to selected peer reviewed studies”). The authors make no attempt to explain their rationale for this obvious cherry picking.
  2. Although I was, as Meffe suggests, “critiquing the overall literature in the area and pointing out its complexities, problems, and uncertainties,” it was only to put the original essay into context. Meffe’s comment ignores the larger issue: Longcore et al. were essentially breathing new life into flawed studies by citing them uncritically. And here, Conservation Biology is also implicated (which might help explain Meffe’s decision to reject my commentary), a point I made to Meffe:

Conservation Biology is, according to the journal’s website, “the most influential and frequently cited journal in its field.” I’m afraid that by publishing the essay submitted by Longcore et al., Conservation Biology has effectively given its “stamp of approval,” thereby burying more deeply the complexities of the subject and its body of literature. No wonder bird advocacy groups have embraced the paper, including PDFs on their websites—here, it would seem, is additional “proof” of the damage cats are doing to bird populations!

In the end, Meffe didn’t budge. And neither did current editor Erica Fleishman, who seemed to have little patience for the subject. What Meffe found to be too broad, Fleishman read as a “fairly personal critique,” adding, “…we aim for objective presentation of facts that may provide evidence contrary to a previous publication rather than (what comes across as) a more pointed rejoinder to authors and the journal.”

At this point, it seemed clear that I was getting nowhere. Nevertheless, I appealed, explaining what I intended to include in my paper:

… regarding “a more comprehensive piece,” what I’m proposing is a detailed review of the literature regarding cat predation on birds, the scope of which includes—but also goes well beyond—the material covered in the essay by Longcore et al.

Once again, my appeal fell on deaf ears, eliciting this response—obviously intended to put an end to the discussion—from Fleishman:

Thanks for the detailed explanation. I think it would be best to pursue publication of your review in a different journal. Good luck and again thank you for considering Conservation Biology.

Perhaps I will follow her advice and submit a similar proposal to another journal. For now, though, it’s all going right here. Indeed, many of the next several posts will draw on the main points I made in my first letter to Conservation Biology.

Nibbling at the Margins—Part 1

Since I first became involved with the Great Kitty Rescue, I’d begun slowly compiling journal articles and news stories related to feral cat management, and in particular, TNR. As a newcomer to the world of cat rescue, I was struggling to sift through the many claims made—on both sides of this highly controversial issue—regarding its efficacy and potential impact.

When I came across the essay “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” (Conservation Biology, Volume 23, No. 4, 887–894). I thought I’d struck gold. Here, I naively assumed, was what I’d been looking for, all neatly complied in a single document (complete with an extensive list of references, allowing me to chase down all of the original research as well). As it turned out, the discovery of this essay proved to be a turning point—but not in the way that I expected. Instead of answering my questions, this paper (the details of which will be the focus of many future posts) raised many more. This “critical assessment,” authored by Travis Longcore, Catherine Rich, and Lauren M. Sullivan—with its glaring omissions, numerous misrepresentations, and obvious bias—revealed for me the ugly side of the feral cat/TNR debate.

So I did what any writer in my position would do: I wrote a letter to the editor.

I was then invited by outgoing editor Gary Meffe (who had been at the helm when the original essay was published) to submit a letter for possible publication in the journal. The letter, suggested Meffe, was “to be substantive and shed more light than heat. In other words, if it is simply a difference of opinion it will not be suitable. I always look for letters to be substantive critiques of a paper.”

Which, I maintain, is precisely what I delivered. Meffe, however, disagreed, and—to his credit—explained in detail his reasoning:

I am not saying it is unimportant to conservation, but it is a fairly narrow and specialized topic. Publication of the Longcore et al. paper was nibbling at the margins to begin with, but I and the reviewers felt that it had enough relevance and interest for us to publish it. I am reluctant to further engage the topic in the journal in great detail, so any responses to it need to be very focused and address specific errors in the paper. Your critique gets into assessment of the broader literature on the subject and its use by Longcore et al. I don’t think this is the format to do that. You are really critiquing the overall literature in the area and pointing out its complexities, problems, and uncertainties; one could do that for almost any topic in conservation and probably for many papers that are published. If this cat TNR literature really is problematic then it calls for a much more comprehensive critical assessment in a thorough review paper. Thus, if you would like to prepare a comprehensive review paper on cat TNR that thoroughly examines the literature and its complexities and problems, then perhaps that could be of interest to this journal.

Not the response I was hoping for, obviously—but I’d already invested too much to give up so easily. Perhaps my next letter would be more successful…

Barrier-free Blog?

As I’ve suggested elsewhere, I don’t claim to have all the answers to the numerous complex questions raised in the feral cat/TNR debate. But I’m very interested in asking better questions—the sort of questions that might stimulate a more conscientious debate of this important issue. Vox Felina, I hope, will help me do that—and, who knows, perhaps arrive at some answers too.

So, now that I’m getting started, I keep coming back to the words of Gary J. Patronek, the former Director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, and one of the founders of the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium. My copy of Patronek’s 1998 article, “Free-roaming and feral cats—their impact on wildlife and human beings,” published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medicine Association (JAVMA), is becoming rather shabby, as I continue making notes in the margins and covering it with a rainbow assortment of highlighter.

Patronek begins his final section, “Conclusions and Possible Solutions,” with this:

It is unfortunate that the debate about free-roaming cats is often framed as pro-cat and anti-wildlife, or vice-versa. This attitude polarizes groups and individuals who otherwise have common concerns about animals and the environment, and is a barrier to developing effective public policy.

Let me be clear: though I am certainly in the “pro-cat” camp, I am not at all “anti-wildlife.” I’m far more interested in finding common ground than I am in further polarizing the parties involved. That said, I will not stand idly by while opponents of feral/free-roaming cats—and TNR in particular—mishandle, misconstrue, and misrepresent the research for PR purposes.

The “effective public policy” Patronek refers to is needed more urgently than ever. But to get there—to really tackle this incredibly complex issue—we first need to untangle some of what’s being said. This is precisely what I intend to do with Vox Felina. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis put it so eloquently, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”