Garden Tool

The timing was uncanny. Four days after my post “Inside Job,” Washington Post columnist Adrian Higgins reported incorrectly that two-thirds of pet cats are allowed outdoors. Higgins doesn’t mention where he got that figure, but considering the sources he used for the piece—including the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), The Wildlife Society, and Dauphiné and Cooper’s 2009 Partners in Flight paper—it’s not hard to sort out.

Ditto for his matter-of-fact assertion that “the cumulative effect on birds is significant, according to experts.” Higgins relies on Dauphiné and Cooper for estimates of both the number of “stray and out-and-out feral cats” (“there may be as many as 100 million such cats in the country”) and birds killed by free-roaming cats (“at least one billion birds are killed by cats annually, ‘and the actual number is probably much higher.’”). [1]

Higgins’ column appeared exactly one week after the release of Charles Seife’s book Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception. Proofiness, writes Seife, is “the art of using bogus mathematical arguments to prove something that you know in your heart is true—even when it’s not.” [2]

Many—perhaps most—of the scientific claims made by opponents of free-roaming cats/TNR are textbook cases of proofiness. Nevertheless, they are often accepted at face value by the media, which—simply by passing them along for public consumption—gives these assertions unwarranted credibility.

Pete Marra
The central character in Higgins’ story is Pete Marra, a fellow gardener and a research associate at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Marra’s name rang a bell.

Sure enough, this is the same Peter P. Marra who, along with nine others (including Dauphiné and Cooper), authored a comment in Conservation Biology earlier this year, entitled “What Conservation Biologists Can Do to Counter Trap-Neuter-Return: Response to Longcore et al.” (the publication of which prompted a series of Vox Felina posts, beginning with this one).

What Marra and his co-authors penned is an unapologetic call to action:

Proponents of TNR are well organized and push for TNR-friendly policies in communities and shelters around the United States, often with little opposition from the conservation biology and wildlife ecology communities… Regardless of why the scientific and management communities have remained relatively silent, it is imperative that we now begin speaking out. [2]

As I have argued, the silence that so frustrates Marra and the others may simply reflect the fact that so much of the work he and his colleagues defend is largely indefensible. Indeed, “What Conservation Biologists Can Do” is, in its own way, representative. Consider the authors’ comparison of TNR with hoarding:

The animal welfare community opposes “cat hoarding,” whereby people care for more pets than they can adequately support, because it is considered inhumane. Trap-neuter-return is essentially cat hoarding without walls. Considering that most communities have laws banning animal hoarding, we should consider the same standard for outdoor cats as those that are in a person’s home. [3]

But their interest in using the law to put a stop to TNR doesn’t end there. Marra and his colleagues continue:

…it may become incumbent upon us to take legal action against colonies and colony managers, particularly in areas that provide habitat for migratory birds or endangered species. [3]

The authors quote a 2003 article written by Linda Winter, the former director of the ABC’s Cats Indoors! campaign, for the Hawaii Audubon Society newsletter:

“…releasing cats into the wild and supporting feral cat colonies is a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act, as well as laws prohibiting animal abandonment.” (her emphasis, not mine) [4]

As a frequent critic of Winter’s writing, I was eager to read the newsletter (which can be downloaded here). It turns out Winter was referring to a 2003 report submitted by Pamela Jo Hatley—then a student in the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law and part of its University of Florida Conservation Clinic—to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Winter—and by extension, Marra and his colleagues—are unambiguous on this point: TNR is a clear violation of both the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act. But, of course, law students don’t make legal decisions; that’s what we have courts for (which might explain why, years later, Travis Longcore and his Urban Wildlands Group took a rather different approach in their TNR-related lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles).

But back to Hatley—there’s another familiar name. In fact, I’d seen it right beside Marra’s earlier this year. See, Pamela Jo Hatley is one of the 10 co-authors of “What Conservation Biologists Can Do.”

So why didn’t the authors just cite Hatley’s work directly, rather than turning to Winter’s version of it? Simply put, Winter’s version is a better story—short and sweet, and brimming with certitude.

But if Marra and the others—Hatley included—wanted to distance themselves from the original, it’s understandable. Though her legal arguments are somewhat compelling, Hatley’s report is a minefield of misrepresentations, flawed estimates, and unsubstantiated claims where the science is concerned (e.g., extrapolating the Wisconsin Study to Florida, and then suggesting that “the actual number [of birds killed by cats in the state] may be much higher” [5]). In other words, more proofiness.

Its title, Feral Cat Colonies in Florida: The Fur and the Feathers Are Flying, is a good indication of how seriously the report—ostensibly a formal document submitted to a federal agency—should be taken.

Getting Dirty
To read Higgins’ column in the Post, one gets the idea that he and Marra are merely fellow gardeners, perhaps having bumped into each other at the local nursery or hardware store. And that’s where the story began. It could be.

But there’s a sentence in “What Conservation Biologists Can Do” that’s been bothering me ever since I read Higgins’ piece:

Conservation biologists have just as much opportunity to make their points at local meetings, through the news media, and at outreach events as do TNR proponents. (emphasis mine) [2]

I have no idea whether Higgins and Marra knew each other before Higgins began work on his column, or how Higgins feels about cats. And I’m not one to go in for conspiracy theories, either.

What I am sure of is that Higgins—as a journalist—should have done his homework. He did not. (To be fair, Higgins did speak with Alley Cat Allies; but “equal time” is a poor substitute for accuracy.) And the consequences of his carelessly scattering a few figures around a column devoted to gardening are considerable: the seeds of proofiness!

Maybe readers don’t expect Higgins to know (or care, even) how many free-roaming cats there are in the U.S. Or how much time pet cats spend outdoors. Still, though, Higgins is an avid gardener—he, of all people, should be able to recognize bullshit.

*     *     *

SPECIAL THANKS to Louise Holton, founder of Alley Cat Rescue, who brought the Washington Post article (along with countless other news items over the past few months!) to my attention. She and Maggie Funkhouser, ACR’s Director of Communications and Public Relations, have become invaluable resources.

Literature Cited
1. Higgins, A., Bird lovers see roaming cats as a major threat to many species, in The Washington Post. 2010: Washington, DC. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/28/AR2010092803999.html

2. Seife, C., Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception. 2010: Viking Adult.

3. Lepczyk, C.A., et al., “What Conservation Biologists Can Do to Counter Trap-Neuter-Return: Response to Longcore et al.” Conservation Biology. 2010. 24(2): p. 627-629.

4. Winter, L., “Popoki and Hawai’i’s Native Birds.” ‘Elepaio: Journal of the Hawaii Audubon Society. 2003. 63(6).

5. Hatley, P.J., Feral Cat Colonies in Florida: The Fur and the Feathers Are Flying. 2003, University of Florida Conservation Clinic: Gainsville, FL.

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