A Critical Assessment of “Critical Assessment”—Part 1

The first in a series of posts that breaks down my critique of the essay “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” (Conservation Biology, Volume 23, No. 4, 887–894) by Travis Longcore, Catherine Rich, and Lauren M. Sullivan.

How many birds are killed by cats? It’s a fair question. And if Longcore et al. are to be believed, we actually have a pretty good handle on this issue:

Feral and free-roaming cats are efficient predators, and their abundance results in substantial annual mortality of wildlife. Churcher and Lawton (1987) concluded that cats were responsible for 30% of the mortality of House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) in an English village. May (1988) extrapolated their results to an estimated 100 million birds and small mammals killed per year in England. Although this extrapolation is often criticized for the limited geographic scope and number of cats studied, Woods et al. (2003) confirmed and refined this result with a larger sample size and geographic area that included England, Scotland, and Wales. From a survey of cat owners that documented prey returned by 696 cats, Woods et al. (2003) estimated that the 9 million cats in Britain kill at least 52–63 million mammals, 25–29 million birds, and 4–6 million reptiles each summer. In North America Coleman and Temple (1996) developed estimates of cat densities in Wisconsin and associated mortality of 8–217 million birds per year.

The relationship between cat predation and bird populations is highly complex, and our understanding quite limited—something Longcore et al. only hint at. It doesn’t help matters that results of small, isolated studies are often extrapolated from rural to urban environments, from one region to another, and so forth. In 1995, Churcher himself cautioned against making such leaps: “I’d be very wary about extrapolating our results even for the rest of Britain, let alone America,” he told Catnip, a newsletter published by the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

Actually, Churcher went much further: “I don’t really go along with the idea of cats being a threat to wildlife. If the cats weren’t there, something else would be killing the sparrows or otherwise preventing them from breeding.” [1] Although Longcore et al. seem eager to cite Churcher and Lawton’s now-classic work as “evidence” of the damage cats can do, they make no mention of Churcher’s later comments (just one of many examples of their tendency to “cherry pick” from the literature only the bits and pieces that fit neatly into their argument).

But back to the number of birds killed by cats. Many of the studies on the subject—including those cited by Longcore et al.—are quite flawed. Among the numerous issues that call into question their estimates are assumptions regarding the number of cats that actually hunt, the number of cats allowed outdoors, the number of cats that live in a particular area, and so forth. And then, of course, there are the risks inherent in estimating population numbers and characteristics based on a small sample size.

(In fact, Woods et al. go to some lengths to emphasize the limitations of their study, conceding, for example, that they “may have focused on predatory cats.” [2] This is just one of many reasons the authors cite for requesting that their work be treated “with requisite caution”—a request apparently ignored by Longcore et al.)

By referring uncritically to such studies, Longcore et al. give far greater importance to this work than is warranted. Repeating—and therefore reinforcing—figures known to be erroneous and/or misleading is simply irresponsible.

The fact that the “English village” study and “Wisconsin Study” have been so thoroughly discredited (see, for example, the comments of Nathan Winograd, director of the No Kill Advocacy Center, and a report by Laurie D. Goldstein, Christine L. O’Keefe, and Heidi L. Bickel) raises some unsettling questions about their inclusion in a paper billed as a “critical assessment.” For example: Are the authors interested enough in rigorous scientific inquiry to look beyond “the usual suspects” in their assessment of the key issues?

One might also wonder: Given the important literature that Longcore et al. choose to overlook, ignore, or dismiss (to be addressed in detail in future posts), what is their motivation for writing the essay in the first place? Actually, this question was answered in January, two months after the paper’s publication, when L.A. Superior Court Judge Thomas McKnew decided in favor of an injunction against publicly supported TNR in Los Angeles (LASC BS115483). The Urban Wildlands Group (for which Longcore serves as Science Director, and Rich as Executive Officer) was the lead petitioner in the case.

If “Critical Assessment” is any indication, the case had much more to do with politics, PR, and marketing than with science.

1. n.a. (1995). What the Cat Dragged In. Catnip, 4–6.

2. Woods, M., Mcdonald, R. A., & Harris, S. (2003). Predation of wildlife by domestic cats Felis catus in Great Britain. Mammal Review, 33(2), 174-188.

Works cited in “Critical Assessment” excerpt:

• Churcher, P. B., & Lawton, J. H. (1987). Predation by domestic cats in an English village. Journal of Zoology, 212(3), 439-455.
• Coleman, J. S., & Temple, S. A. (1996). On the Prowl. Wisconsin Natural Resources, 20, 4–8.
• May, R. M. (1988). Control of feline delinquency. Nature, 332, 392-393.