Perfectly Comfortable? I’m Not.

As many of you know, the National Zoo has shown no signs of suspending Nico Dauphine, despite her recent arrest on charges of attempted animal cruelty. As a result, at least two petitions are being circulated—one by Alley Cat Rescue, and another by Alley Cat Allies.

I encourage readers to sign both petitions, and also to send letters (an online form is available here). Below is my letter to National Zoo director Dennis Kelly:

Dear Dennis Kelly,

As you know, the National Zoo’s mission emphasizes leadership—in animal care, science, and education—as well as “the highest quality animal care.” But recent events indicate that Zoo management has lost sight of this noble mission.

Indeed, allowing Dr. Nico Dauphine—recently charged with attempted animal cruelty in connection with the poisoning of cats in her neighborhood—to continue her work for the Zoo’s Migratory Bird Center demonstrates a profound lack of leadership, and suggests a remarkably narrow view of “animal care.”

Comments made last week by the Zoo’s associate director of communications, Pamela Baker-Masson, only made matters worse—suggesting that Zoo management isn’t even aware of the research Dauphine is conducting. Baker-Masson told ABC News:

“We know what she’s doing would in no way jeopardize our animal collection at the National Zoo or jeopardize wildlife, so we feel perfectly comfortable that she continue her research.”

But, according to the Migratory Bird Center’s Website, Dauphine’s “current project examines predator-prey dynamics in an urban matrix in collaboration with citizen scientists at Neighborhood Nestwatch.”

The predators in this case are, of course, house cats. And, according to an online application form she’s been using to recruit field assistants (the form was recently removed from the Migratory Bird Center’s Website), Dauphine is asking participating citizen scientists to put cameras on their cats.

And still, the National Zoo feels “perfectly comfortable that she continue her research.” What kind of message does this send to the local community, and to the nation as a whole?

The Smithsonian’s 2009 Annual Report indicates that 75 percent of the organization’s revenue comes from “federal appropriations” (63 percent) and “government grants and contracts” (12 percent). One way or another, these are tax dollars. In standing by Dauphine, then, the National Zoo is violating the trust of its primary funding source: the American people (among whom, 38.9 million households own cats).

Finally, the National Zoo should use the current crisis as an opportunity to review its hiring practices. I think it’s safe to say that Dauphine’s reputation preceded her when she joined your organization. Her extreme position against TNR—and free-roaming cats in general—is well documented. As is her habit of misrepresenting the science surrounding the issue.

In her February 10, 2008, letter to the editor of the St. Petersburg Times, for example, Dauphine—who identifies herself as “a scientist who has studied this issue”—makes an outlandish claim:

“In North America, cats may be the single biggest direct cause of bird mortality, far outnumbering all other causes (including human hunters) put together!”

Not even the American Bird Conservancy—which has, for the past 15 years, taken every opportunity to demonize free-roaming cats—goes this far.

And yet, the National Zoo has Dauphine, together with Dr. Peter Marra (who, in a letter co-authored with Dr. Dauphine, has called TNR “cat hoarding without walls.”), [1] researching the hunting habits of house cats. All of which raises questions about the rigor and validity of the research being conducted—not to mention the integrity of those involved.

As the National Zoo’s director, you have the responsibility to address these issues. I am, therefore, asking you to start by suspending Dr. Dauphine until the charges of attempted animal cruelty are dropped, proven to be unfounded, or in some other way resolved.

Respectfully,

Peter J. Wolf
Independent Researcher/Analyst
Vox Felina

Literature Cited
1. 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. www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/pdf/Lepczyk-2010-Conservation%2520Biology.pdf

Nico Dauphine Update

Photo from an online application form Nico Dauphine was (until Tuesday) using to hire field assistants, whose duties include “assist[ing] citizen participants in deploying miniature collar-mounted cameras on their free-roaming pet domestic cats.”

Tuesday, while animal welfare organizations across the country were issuing statements condemning the alleged cruelty and urging justice in the case, Nico Dauphine’s employer was expressing a rather remarkable lack of concern.

Scott Giacoppo, Vice President External Affairs & Chief Programs Officer for the Washington Humane Society, questioned whether Dauphine should remain employed by the National Zoo in the event she’s convicted.

“If she did do this,” Giacoppo told ABC News, “then we naturally would be concerned about her being around all animals. Whoever would do such a thing is a threat to all animals. It is a slow and painful death. It was callous and complete disregard for animals’ well being.”

According to ABC News, evidence in the case is the result of WHS’s “month-long investigation monitoring video surveillance and matching card swipes in and out of an apartment complex near the scene of the alleged crime.”

The Humane Society of the United States [not affiliated with WHS] issued a statement “applaud[ing] the Washington Humane Society for its investigation” and “urg[ing] full prosecution by the U.S. Attorney’s Office if warranted.”

Alley Cat Allies president Becky Robinson called the story “troubling.” “Intentionally killing cats is illegal and cruel. Criminal charges in this case are appropriate and necessary.”

“Alley Cat Rescue vehemently disagrees with keeping Dauphine in her current position at the National Zoo,” reads a statement posted on the organization’s blog. “[ACR] believes she should be removed until an investigation into these allegations of animal cruelty has been completed.” ACR has started a petition aimed at getting Dauphine removed.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the National Zoo, which oversees the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center—where Dauphine works with her advisor, Peter Marra—was trying to play down the fact that one of its researchers is charged with attempted animal cruelty.

Pamela Baker-Masson, associate director of communications, told ABC News: “We know what she’s doing would in no way jeopardize our animal collection at the National Zoo or jeopardize wildlife, so we feel perfectly comfortable that she continue her research.”

Which begs the question: Does Baker-Masson actually know what Dauphine’s research is?

As I indicated Monday, when this story broke, Dauphine’s “current project examines predator-prey dynamics in an urban matrix in collaboration with citizen scientists at Neighborhood Nestwatch.”

The predators, in this case, are (not surprisingly) house cats. And, according to an online application form (which  mysteriously disappeared from the Smithsonian’s Website Tuesday) she’s been using to recruit field assistants, Dauphine is asking participants to put cameras on their cats—thus allowing her team to monitor the cats’ every move.

Granted, Dauphine’s yet to have her day in court, but still—at this point, who in their right mind would allow their cat to participate in any study sponsored by the Migratory Bird Center.

Predator-Prey Dynamics In an Urban Matrix

According to the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center, Nico Dauphine’s “current project examines predator-prey dynamics in an urban matrix in collaboration with citizen scientists at Neighborhood Nestwatch.” But according to news stories coming out of the Washington, DC, area this evening, it seems Dauphine may have taken on the role of predator herself.

NBC reports: “Authorities say they suspect Nico Dauphine, a PhD who specializes in bird conservation, was poisoning feral cats in her Columbia Heights neighborhood.”

Regular readers will recognize Dauphine’s name immediately, as I’ve been highly critical of her work from the very beginning of Vox Felina. It was, for example, a paper [1] she co-authored with Robert J. Cooper (published in the Proceedings of the Fourth International Partners In Flight Conference) that Steve Holmer, senior policy advisor for American Bird Conservancy, used to justify his bogus claim that “there are about . . . 160 million feral cats” in the U.S.

I’ve pointed out, more than once, Dauphine’s dubious scholarship—citing David Jessup’s unattributed “estimate” of “60 to 100 million feral and abandoned cats in the United States,” [2] for example. Or ignoring the results of multiple surveys suggesting that roughly two-thirds of pet cats are kept indoors, in stark contrast to Dauphine’s assertion that “65 percent, or 57 million, are free-ranging outdoor cats for at least some portion of the day.” [1]

She also misinterprets/misrepresents William George’s classic study, suggesting that “only about half of animals killed by cats were provided to their owners,” [1] thereby creating a convenient multiplier where predation is concerned.

More recently, she and Cooper were responsible for “Pick One: Outdoor Cats or Conservation,” a lengthy article in a special section of the Spring Issue of The Wildlife Professional called “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats.” Which was, not surprisingly, plagued with the same exaggerations, misrepresentations, and errors I’ve come to expect. (Dauphine also authored “Follow the Money: The Economics of TNR Advocacy,” in the same issue—where she does to the political and economic aspects of the debate what she and her colleagues have been doing to the scientific side of the debate for years now.)

•     •     •

Obviously, there’s a great deal we don’t know at this point. According to the NBC story, Dauphine “denies the accusations, saying, ‘her whole life is devoted to the care and welfare of animals.’”

At the same time, it’s my understanding that Dauphine was charged with the same crime accused of similar activities when she was living in Georgia. Perhaps we’ll find out more, one way or the other, about that case as the current case unfolds.

In any event, if these charges prove to be true, Daupine is going to have a lot of explaining—and perhaps a little time—to do.

Literature Cited
1. Dauphine, 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. 2009. p. 205–219. http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/pif/pubs/McAllenProc/articles/PIF09_Anthropogenic%20Impacts/Dauphine_1_PIF09.pdf

2. Jessup, D.A., “The welfare of feral cats and wildlife.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1377-1383. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15552312

http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/javma_225_9_1377.pdf

Special Event: Downtown L.A.

Later this week, I’ll be joining Kate Benjamin, the woman behind Moderncat and Moderncat Studio, and Jackson Galaxy, cat behaviorist extraordinaire and host of My Cat From Hell, for this month’s Meow Mingle Cat Social at Pussy & Pooch pet boutique.

If you’re in the Los Angeles area, please stop by and say hello!

When: Wednesday, May 25; 6:00pm–8:00pm
Where:
Pussy & Pooch Pethouse and Pawbar; 564 S. Main Street, Los Angeles (map)

Close Enough?

Among the findings of a recent study:

Five of 18 cats trapped “between the spring and fall of 2008 and 2009” in central Illinois’ 1,500-acre Robert Allerton Park tested positive for Toxoplasma gondii antibodies. Five of the seropositive cats were trapped at the same site; there, one white-footed mouse (of 21 trapped) also tested positive, and a gray squirrel tested negative. The site where the sixth seropositive cat was trapped revealed similar results among the “small home range” (SHR) mammals found there: one of 34 white-footed mice was seropositive; a fox squirrel was negative.

All of which means… what, exactly?

Although there were five times as many “infected” cats at the first site, infection rates among SHR mammals were only about one-and-a-half times as high as those at the second site. Put another way: given the infection rate among SHR mammals at the second site, one would have expected three seropositive SHR mammals at the first site.

In fact, a press release put out last week put a very different spin on Shannon Fredebaugh’s thesis work (downloadable PDF):

One third of the cats sampled were infected with T gondii, as were significant numbers of the wild animals found at every site. Animals that inhabit or range over territories of 247 acres (100 hectares) or more, such as raccoons and opossums, were more likely to be infected than those with smaller ranges.

But these animals “could have acquired T. gondii infection somewhere outside of the park,” said Nohra Mateus-Pinilla, a wildlife veterinary epidemiologist at the University of Illinois Prairie Research Institute and leader of the study. Animals with smaller home ranges likely picked up the infection close to where they were trapped, she said. This makes these animals good sentinels of disease in a natural area. “The small animals are screening the environment for us,” she said. “So when we sample one of those animals, we are really sampling their lifestyle.”

The absence of bobcats in the park combined with the occurrence of domestic cats and T. gondii infection in wildlife that inhabit small territories strongly suggest that feral, free-ranging or abandoned house cats are the source of the infection, Mateus-Pinilla said. Cats are vital for the survival of the parasite, and so they are—either directly or indirectly—spreading T. gondii to the wildlife in the park. “There’s no other option,” she said.

Well, “one third of the cats” certainly sounds more impressive than “six of 18.” And “significant numbers of the wild animals found at every site” had an undeniable allure to it—though, in fact, the statement applies only to the park’s “large home range” (LHR) mammals (mostly raccoons and opossums).

Far more troubling, though, is the alleged connection between cats, T. gondii, and infected SHR mammals.

Environmental Contamination
“If one infected cat defecates there, any area can become infected,” Fredebaugh said in the press release. “It just takes one cat to bring disease to an area.”

But, as Fredebaugh points out, “environmental detection of oocysts is difficult and was not evaluated in this study.” [1] She simply assumes a causal link between “infected” cats and environmental contamination: more seropositive cats means more contaminated soil.

In fact, Fredebaugh goes further, assuming that the mere presence of cats—seropositive or not—is the key factor in SHR infection rates. In addition to trapping data, she uses data from scent stations and motion detection cameras (which proved largely ineffective, capturing photos of just four cats over the course of the research) to designate each of the eight sites as either high or low “cat occurrence,” as indicated in the following table (please forgive the tiny type):

Table: Shannon Fredebaugh's Thesis

Fredebaugh acknowledges that “scent stations should only be used to identify trends in animal populations and as a supplemental tool in conjunction with other population estimates,” [1] thereby raising serious questions about their use in her study. (She’s not interested in trends, her scent station and trapping data correlate quite poorly, and her use of scent station data is hardly “supplemental.”)

But back to the environmental contamination.

Cats (both domestic and wild) are T. gondii’s definitive host—the animal in which the parasite reproduces sexually. Cats pass the mature, infective form of T. gondii in their feces—a process called “shedding oocysts.”

Although oocysts can survive in soil for up to 18 months, and are resistant to disinfectants, cats typically “shed oocysts only once in their life.” [see discussion in 2] Indeed, according to Dubey and Jones, “Most cats seroconvert after they have shed oocysts. Thus, it is a reasonable assumption that most seropositive cats have already shed oocysts.” [2]

So, who’s to say that the “infected” cats Fredebaugh trapped shed oocysts in the area where they were found? Indeed, we don’t even know that these cats shed oocysts in the park. It’s been suggested (based on a small sample of cats monitored closely from 1974 to 1977) that home ranges of unsterilized feral females can exceed 500 acres, while those of unsterilized feral males may approach 2,500 acres. (Even house-based males, which were also unsterilized, had large home ranges: 865–939 acres.) [3]

What’s more, Fredebaugh points out that, given their “relatively good physical condition,” some of these cats might have been “recently abandoned at RAP.” [1] In which case, they wouldn’t have been “contributing” any oocysts to the park’s soil—assuming they were seropositive to begin with.

Odds Ratios
Fredebaugh expresses her results using odds ratios, a measure easy enough to calculate but rather difficult to grasp intuitively (especially for those of us, myself included, unfamiliar with the measure). A page on the Children’s Mercy Hospital (Kansas City, MO) Website explains odd ratios this way:

“An odds ratio of 1 implies that the event is equally likely in both groups. An odds ratio greater than one implies that the event is more likely in the first group. An odds ratio less than one implies that the event is less likely in the first group.”

(Some examples are discussed in detail here.)

It seems to me that, in this case at least, odds ratios obscure more than they reveal. When Fredebaugh reports “a significant difference in the seroprevalence of T. gondii for SHR mammals at sites with a high frequency of cat occurrence,” we know nothing of sample size or the overall fit of the data (which, ranges from pretty good—for LHR mammals—to pretty lousy—for SHR mammals).

A simple x-y graph illustrates this point:

Chart: Shannon Fredebaugh's Thesis

By (mis?)representing the data in odds ratios, Fredebaugh suggests a connection that’s not actually supported by her research findings.

That said, she’s is hardly the first to imply causation where nothing more than correlation has been demonstrated (and, again, even that is dicey). In “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats,” a special section of the Spring Issue of The Wildlife Professional, for example, David Jessup and Melissa Miller argue that “the science points to cats,” but provide little more than “proximity” and “sheer numbers” to support their claim that “outdoor pet and feral domestic cats may be the most important source of T. gondii oocysts in near-shore marine waters.” [4]

(No?) Other Options
The fact that the researchers are so certain of their conclusions—that the only explanation for T. gondii in Robert Allerton Park is the presence of cats—is telling. I can’t help but think that they knew going in what they would find (a perception reinforced by what’s included in, and omitted from, Fredebaugh’s literature review, as described below).

In fact, Mateus-Pinilla’s comment—“There’s no other option.”—is challenged by several recent studies.

“Among white-footed mice,” writes Fredebaugh, “I found a 6 percent seroprevalence of T. gondii antibodies, which was high, compared to other studies… Mice have a short life span, thus the findings that mice, including some juveniles, were seropositive implies an active infection and recent T. gondii contamination in RAP.” [1]

Actually, researchers at the University of Salford’s Centre for Parasitology and Disease Research found an overall prevalence of 59 percent among the “200 mice… trapped from within houses in the Cheetham Hill area of Manchester.” [5] More important, they observed “high levels of congenital transmission… with 75 percent of female mice transmitting parasites to foetuses prior to birth” (emphasis added), leading them to conclude:

“These high levels of congenital transmission in this wild population of mice, taken together with other recent data on congenital transmission in sheep, suggests that this phenomenon might be more widespread than previously thought.” [5]

Fredebaugh, by contrast, mentions congenital transmission only in passing.

In another paper, researchers from the Centre for Parasitology and Disease Research challenge the conventional wisdom surrounding the transmission of T. gondii (note: I’ve removed several in-text citations for the sake of readability):

“The life cycle is well understood and three principal routes are recognised: ingestion of infective oocysts shed by the cat, consumption of undercooked meat containing Toxoplasma cysts and congenital transmission. Traditionally, the main route of infection is considered to be infection by oocysts deposited in faeces by the definitive host, the cat. This would imply that a high degree of contact with cats would be required to explain the very high prevalences found in many animal and human populations. Toxoplasma gondii has been reported in a very wide range of species. However, this also includes some species that would not normally come into contact with cats.” [6]

“Congenital transmission,” suggest Hide et al., “offers another possible mode of parasite transmission in the absence of cats.” [6]

“One way of determining the importance of transmission routes is to investigate transmission in a system where one of the routes of transmission is absent or minimal. For example, the carnivorous route could be excluded as a source of transmission in a herbivorous species such as sheep.” [6]

On the basis of multiple studies (see [7] and [8] for details of the study with sheep), Hide and his colleagues make a compelling argument that congenital transmission “may be more important than previously considered.” [6]

Researchers working in “the remote, virtually cat-free, high arctic islands of Svalbard” (the northern-most part of Norway) [9] came to similar conclusions. Among the “arctic foxes (n  = 594), Svalbard reindeer (n  = 390), sibling voles (n  = 361), walruses (n  = 17), kittiwakes (n  = 58), barnacle geese (n  = 149), and glaucous gulls (n  = 27),” tested, Prestrud et al. found T. gondii only in the arctic foxes (257, or 43 percent), geese (11, or 7 percent), and walruses (1, or 6 percent). [10]

“The finding of no seropositive reindeer or sibling voles,” they argue, “indicates that infection by oocysts is not an important mode of transmission on Svalbard.” [10] (Also of interest is their suggestion that the seropositive walrus demonstrates “that T. gondii is present in the marine food chain.” [10])

So where does the T. gondii come from?

“…we suggest that T. gondii most likely is brought to Svalbard by migratory birds that become infected in temperate agricultural areas in the winter. However, marine sources of infection may exist. The high seroprevalence of T. gondii in the arctic fox population on Svalbard may be due to: (1) infection from migratory bird species through predation; (2) vertical transmission; and (3) tissue cyst transmission within the Svalbard ecosystem through scavenging and cannibalism. Together, these transmission routes cause a surprisingly high seroprevalence of T. gondii in a top predator living in an ecosystem with very few cats.” [10]

A study of polar bears is further evidence that “other options” do indeed exist:

“In Svalbard cats are banned by the Norwegian authorities; however, a few cats may exist in Russian mining communities. Thus, the possibility of cats as a source of infection for polar bears cannot totally be excluded. Nonetheless, the existing cat population is very limited and local, and the proportion of seropositive polar bears is rather high, indicating that polar bears are commonly infected with T. gondii. It would, therefore, be inconceivable to assume that the few cats would play a major role in the epidemiology of T. gondii in the vast high Arctic. This is apparently the case in East Greenland as well.” [11]

As with the single seropositive walrus discussed above, the results of the polar bear study indicates “that there might be marine sources of T. gondii in the region.” [9]

And finally, in a paper published in 2009, Polish researchers proposed yet another possibility. The “high incidence of T. gondii found, among others, in free-living ruminants,” write Sroka et al., “suggests a possibility of other, so far unknown, paths of transmission of this protozoan.”

“Due to the fact that they are widespread, and tick-bites occur frequently both in humans and in animals, ticks might play an important role in toxoplasmosis transmission.” [12] (Note: the authors acknowledge both support for, and differing opinions about, the possibility of such a pathway.)

Fredebaugh mentions none of this work in her thesis; none of the author’s names appear in her lengthy list of references (which, to most people, probably appears comprehensive). And still, both she and Mateus-Pinilla (who chaired Fredebaugh’s thesis advisory committee) are committed to the proposition that, as Jessup and Miller suggest, “the science points to cats.”

Greater (Mis)Understanding
Fredebaugh concludes her thesis by suggesting that her results:

“provide a greater understanding of how feral cats and wildlife utilize natural areas in a highly fragmented landscape and how feral cat land use may impact wildlife parasite prevalence both directly and indirectly. With this information, I more clearly understand the association between wildlife and feral cats and can suggest better control strategies for feral cat populations. Using wildlife with small spatial scale habitat use as sentinels of parasite presence in the environment, I can gain a better understanding of the epidemiologic impact of T. gondii in different urban and rural settings to prevent human and wildlife infection. Further collaborative research is needed to determine the most effective management strategy for feral cat populations in natural areas and to evaluate the direct relationship between feral cats and their impacts on wildlife.” [1]

At the risk of being overly critical, I’m suggesting that Fredebaugh’s work has not only failed to clarify our understanding of feral cats, wildlife, and the transmission of T. gondii, but has—due to its problematic methodology and incomplete literature review—actually made matters worse (especially with regard to possible “control strategies”).

•     •     •

Not surprisingly, The Wildlife Society’s CEO/Executive Director Michael Hutchins immediately endorsed the study (his summary conveniently omits the small sample size involved, the inverse relationship between “infected” cats and “infected” SHR mammals, and several other important aspects of the research) and its misguided conclusions, pleading:

“How many more peer reviewed studies do we need to convince leaders to change the way that we are currently dealing with the feral cat population explosion in this country?”

I don’t want to suggest that Hutchins and I are on the same page here, but omit the word explosion, and that’s pretty much the same question I’ve been asking for a while now.

Literature Cited
1. Fredebaugh, S.L., Habitat Overlap and Seroprevalence of Toxoplasma Gondii in Wildlife and Feral Cats in a Natural Area. 2010, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: Urbana-Champaign, IL. p. 88. http://www.ideals.illinois.edu/bitstream/handle/2142/16185/1_Fredebaugh_Shannon.pdf?sequence=6

2. Dubey, J.P. and Jones, J.L., “Toxoplasma gondii infection in humans and animals in the United States.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2008. 38(11): p. 1257–1278. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6T7F-4S85DPK-1/2/2a1f9e590e7c7ec35d1072e06b2fa99d

3. Liberg, O., “Home range and territoriality in free-ranging house cats.” Acta Zoologica Fennica. 1984. 171: p. 283–285.

4. Jessup, D.A. and Miller, M.A., “The Trickle-Down Effect.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 62–64.

5. Marshall, P.A., et al., “Detection of high levels of congenital transmission of Toxoplasma gondii in natural urban populations of Mus domesticus.” Parasitology. 2004. 128(01): p. 39–42. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0031182003004189

6. Hide, G., et al., “Evidence for high levels of vertical transmission in Toxoplasma gondii.” Parasitology. 2009. 136(Special Issue 14): p. 1877-1885. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0031182009990941

7. Morley, E.K., et al., “Significant familial differences in the frequency of abortion and Toxoplasma gondii infection within a flock of Charollais sheep.” Parasitology. 2005. 131(02): p. 181–185. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0031182005007614

8. Morley, E.K., et al., “Evidence that primary infection of Charollais sheep with Toxoplasma gondii may not prevent foetal infection and abortion in subsequent lambings.” Parasitology. 2008. 135(02): p. 169–173. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0031182007003721

9. Prestrud, K.W., et al., “Direct high-resolution genotyping of Toxoplasma gondii in arctic foxes (Vulpes lagopus) in the remote arctic Svalbard archipelago reveals widespread clonal Type II lineage.” Veterinary Parasitology. 2008. 158(1-2): p. 121–128. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6TD7-4TDK6Y8-2/2/1e5b02861f7a0c81f2277f65f42e6be9

10. Prestrud, K.W., et al., “Serosurvey for Toxoplasma gondii in arctic foxes and possible sources of infection in the high Arctic of Svalbard.” Veterinary Parasitology. 2007. 150(1-2): p. 6–12. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6TD7-4PYR4P2-2/2/fcc91fcf1d1426cd1b750bd3840bdb31

11. Oksanen, A., et al., “Prevalence of Antibodies Against Toxoplasma gondii in Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus) From Svalbard and East Greenland.” Journal of Parasitology. 2009. 95(1): p. 89–94. http://dx.doi.org/10.1645/GE-1590.1

12. Sroka, J., Szymańska, J., and Wójcik-Fatla, A., “The occurrence of Toxoplasma gondii and Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato in Ixodes ricinus ticks from eastern Poland with the use of PCR.” Annals of Agricultural and Environmental Medicine. 2009. 16(2): p. 313–319.

Monessen, PA

Given her 15 years’ experience writing the paper’s Pet Tales column, one might expect the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Linda Wilson Fuoco to know something about free-roaming cats and TNR. Or, failing that, leverage her 30+ years as a newspaper reporter and find out.

If her latest column is any indication, though, she’s simply not interested.

The Roundup
Late last month, about 35 people attended a rally in Monessen, PA, protesting the roundup of 34 free-roaming cats earlier this year. Among the cats was Chloe, a spayed pet Lorrie Cheroki had owned for 12 years.

According to Cheroki and Charlotte Luko (who lost Stripe to the trapping), co-founders of the Coalition for a Humane Monessen, the roundup came without warning. “The city circumvented state law,” notes their April 5 letter to the editor, “and gave an independently contracted, self-proclaimed ‘animal control officer’ carte blanche to trap and kill the feral cat colonies or any cat that was running ‘at large.’”

“…there had never been any attempt to locate any of the owners of the cats, that no messages were returned to anybody concerning the cats, despite days of calling, and that the shelter—at the direction of their ‘animal control officer’—abandoned its policy to hold the cats for 48 hours before killing them.”

Meanwhile, Monessen Mayor Mary Jo Smith continues to defend her actions, winning the admiration of The Wildlife Society’s CEO/Executive Director Michael Hutchins.

In any case, it seems the project’s on hold, now that the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society has stopped accepting cats from Monessen.

So, who’s responsible? According to Fuoco, the answer’s clear:

“The deaths of the Monessen cats were caused by people who claim they love cats. The blame lies with people who allow un-spayed females and un-neutered males to roam freely so that they can fight and breed and contribute to the unending supply of unwanted kittens.”

What this has to do with managed colonies of sterilized cats—and sterilized pet cats—isn’t clear at all, however.

Stranger still is Fuoco’s assertion that “people who love birds and other wildlife really hate free-ranging cats.” As Carl Sagan said rather famously, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Fuoco provides none. Instead, she turns to Pete Marra:

“A study recently published in the Journal of Ornithology says such cats were the No. 1 killer ‘by a large margin’ of baby gray catbirds in three Washington, D.C., suburbs.”

Not surprisingly, Fuoco doesn’t get into any of the details—which, as I’ve pointed out repeatedly, only undermine Marra’s own extraordinary claims.

Misinformed Electorate
Of course, the more important question is not who’s to blame—or whether or not people who appreciate wildlife do indeed hate cats—but: How do we solve the problem?

According to Fuoco, 41 percent of people responding to a Post-Gazette online poll (the results of which I’ve been unable to find) prefer the “traditional” trap-and-kill approach to feral cat management (compared to 53 percent who prefer TNR).

No doubt these people believe that additional roundups are all that’s needed to eliminate the area’s feral cats—largely because they’ve never been told otherwise. Not by Marra or Hutchins, of course, but also not by Fuoco and her colleagues in the media—who, collectively, have an abysmal record where feral cats and TNR are concerned.

Would Fuoco’s readers “vote” differently if they knew that Mark Kumpf, former president of the National Animal Control Association, compared trap-and-kill to “bailing the ocean with a thimble”? Or if they knew the brutality—and expense—involved in “successful” eradication efforts, even on small, uninhabited islands?

Or if they knew that communities across the country (e.g., Peoria, AZ, Inverness, FL, etc.)—fed up with the expense and ineffectiveness of “traditional” methods—are turning to TNR.

In fact, the Volusia County (Florida) Animal Control Advisory Board recently reported that taxpayers had shelled out $2.8 million for feral cat roundups—or $87 per cat—between 2008 and 2010. With no end in sight. Hence, the board’s recommendation to adopt TNR.

Meanwhile, in Monessen, PA, city officials declined the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society’s offer to put on a TNR seminar.

South Jersey Feral Cat Relocation Project

South Jersey Feral Cats

Save the Animals Foundation, Inc. and the Animal Protection League of New Jersey—working closely with other cat rescue and wildlife groups—are relocating a colony of feral cats from their current South Jersey location to nearby farms, horse stables, wineries, and the like. (Both STAF and APLNJ support TNR as the most effective means to reduce the feral cat population, and use relocation only in very rare circumstances.)

These cats are currently being cared for by a community of fisherman and their families, but their proximity to a wildlife preserve requires that we move the cats onto private property. And soon! The preserve is home to several species of birds threatened or endangered in New Jersey, and the breeding/nesting season is almost here! Any cats not relocated in time (the exact deadline remains unknown) will be trapped and put down.

Most of the cats are already sterilized and vaccinated, and have had a general health check—but there are a few “hold-outs” still to be trapped. (ALL cats will be sterilized, vaccinated, and given a clean bill of health prior to relocation.)

Anticipated expenses include:

  • Any necessary spay/neutering and vaccinations
  • Fencing and other materials for enclosures
  • Special cat fencing (e.g., Cat Fence-In, Purrfect Fence, etc.)
  • Food

How You Can Help
We are searching for anyone in the area (southern NJ, eastern PA, northern DE, and northeastern MD) who’s able to provide a “home” (e.g., yard, stable, barn, etc.) for some of these cats.

Tax-deductable donations can be made via FirstGiving. All donations are greatly appreciated!

NOTE: Any funds raised in excess of our goal will be used for future TNR efforts in the area.

Not in a position to make a donation at the moment? No problem—you can still help by sharing with your network of friends, family, co-workers, etc. Sharing via Facebook and Twitter is especially easy: just use the buttons under the “Donate” button on the FirstGiving page.

Thank you for your interest in these cats, and for your generosity.