On June 25, 2002—nine years ago tomorrow—Akron, Ohio’s Ordinance 332-2002 went into effect.

The “cat ordinance,” as it’s typically called in newspaper accounts, made it illegal for cats to be “off the premises of the owner and not under restraint by leash, cord, wire, strap, chain, or similar device or fence or secure enclosure adequate to contain the animal.” In addition, it became the duty of Akron’s Animal Control Wardens to “apprehend” and “impound” any cats “running at large.”

Enacting such a law in a city of around 215,000 people, spread out over 62 square miles, would seem to be a labor-intensive—and therefore costly—undertaking. But according to the latest TNR “Fact Sheet” (updated in February) from The Wildlife Society (PDF), Akron’s roundup was a real bargain:

“Managed cat colonies are often claimed to be the cheapest form of control for areas with feral cats. In Akron, Ohio, nearly 2,500 cats were trapped from public parks. Of these, approximately 500 were adopted while the remaining 2,000 feral, diseased, or injured cats were euthanized. The entire project cost less than $27,000. At the costs paid by Maddie’s Fund in California ($50/neuter, $70/spay), sterilizing just 500 cats would cost approximately $30,000, in addition to the costs of trapping, euthanasia for the sick or injured, and subsequent feeding of all the rest.” [1]

As its source, TWS cites a 2004 paper (presented as part of the American Veterinary Medical Association’s 2003 Animal Welfare Forum, “Management of Abandoned and Feral Cats”) by Linda Winter, founding director of the American Bird Conservancy’s Cats Indoors! campaign. But Winter makes no mention of public parks:

“Advocates of TNR believe that the general public does not support large-scale trap and remove programs and that they are cost-prohibitive. However, in response to complaints from citizens about numerous stray and feral cats, the Akron City Council passed an ordinance on March 25, 2002, prohibiting domestic cats from running at large. As of August 31, 2003, a total of 2,495 stray and feral cats had been trapped by citizens as well as by 4 wardens on an on-call basis and taken to Summit County Animal Control. Of those cats, 530 were redeemed or adopted and 1,965 were euthanatized because they were feral, injured, or diseased. The cost to the City of Akron was $26,546. If the public did not support this program, far fewer cats would have been trapped because private citizens did most of the trapping.” [2]

Whereas Winter emphasizes the apparent community support for Akron’s cat ordinance, TWS is more interested in playing the public-health-threat card—untroubled, it seems, with a bit of revisionist history in their “fact sheet.” I’ve pored over dozens of newspaper stories in the past weeks—spending what Michael Hutchins would likely consider an “inordinate amount of time”—and I’ve found no references to cats being trapped in public parks anywhere in Summit County.

Still, there’s an interesting story here—beginning with Winter’s source: “James G, Summit County Animal Control, Akron, Ohio: Personal communication, 2003.” [2]

At the time Winter spoke with Glenn James, he held the director’s job at SCAC. In January, 2004, James was fired for a host of problems at the shelter he oversaw. Among them: “widespread use of correction fluid to alter euthanasia logs,” and “a record-keeping system so poor that it’s impossible to determine what happened to dozens of animals.” [3]

It was, it turns out, also impossible to tell what happened to the shelter’s supply of Fatal-Plus, a drug used for euthanasia. (“James eventually pleaded guilty to a single felony charge of illegally processing drug documents after the prosecution determined that, while he did not steal any drugs from the shelter, he knew that they were being taken and did nothing about it.” [4])

All of which raises serious questions about the figures James reported to Winter. One also wonders about the extent to which initial support for the cat ordinance was dependent upon a blissful ignorance of the conditions at SCAC—especially those affecting animal care.

And yet, years later, TWS is suggesting that Akron’s cat ordinance is a model for budget-conscious municipalities across the country. In fact, Akron’s free-roaming cats policy was far more costly than TWS would have us believe, and far less popular than Winter suggests.

It also contributed significantly to the inhumane treatment of animals—cats and dogs alike—brought to the SCAC facility.

True Costs
Comparing the costs of traditional trap-and-kill programs to those associated with TNR is no trivial undertaking. And, as Cornell’s David Pimentel has clearly demonstrated, attempts to account for the environmental impact of feral cat management can quickly devolve into the absurd.

That said, we need to start someplace.

According to Winter/TWS, Akron taxpayers spent approximately $13.50 for each cat euthanized killed—the only ones guaranteed not to reproduce. (As recently as 2006, Summit County didn’t require sterilization of cats redeemed or adopted. [5]) That’s roughly one-fifth of what TWS claims Maddie’s Fund pays for spay/neuter services (described in David Jessup’s 2004 paper [6]).

It’s not clear how James arrived at $26,546, though a similar estimate was reported in a January 2003 story in the Akron Beacon Journal. [7] Comparing 2002 and 2003 Summit County budget documents, SCAC’s “Charges for Services” actually declined slightly from 2002 to 2003. Interestingly, the year-to-year difference in “Total Animal Control” numbers ($26,756) matches almost perfectly James’ figure—but that may be merely a coincidence.

In any event, if TNR were truly five times as costly as Akron’s roundup, one would expect communities all over the country to stick to “traditional” methods of feral cat management.

But, as Mark Kumpf, former president of the National Animal Control Association (NACA) points out, “there’s no department that I’m aware of that has enough money in their budget to simply practice the old capture-and-euthanize policy; nature just keeps having more kittens.” Traditional control methods, argues Kumpf, are akin to “bailing the ocean with a thimble.” [8]

And, contrary to what TWS suggests, bailing the ocean with a thimble isn’t cheap.

Shared Expenses
According to a 2005 report from the Ohio Auditor of State, 21 municipalities—including Akron—“save on overhead costs on employee salaries and benefits, maintaining a fleet of vehicles, and the boarding of animals” by contracting with SCAC. [9] Summit County was saving too, by contracting with the Humane Society of Greater Akron for veterinary and after-hours/emergency response services.

So, even if Akron did pay only $13.50 per cat, it was largely because of the extensive costs absorbed by the 540,000 or so residents of Summit County. But it didn’t take long for Akron to overwhelm County resources.

Summit County’s 2003 Budget report (PDF) includes what appears to be a request for four additional pound-keepers, which would have doubled the staff caring for animals at the shelter. Other information in the same report, however, indicates that SCAC staffing would remain at 2002 levels—suggesting that perhaps the request was more of a political statement than anything else.

Justification for the additional pound-keepers (“responsible for the daily care of all animals brought to the Animal Shelter” as well as “the care and maintenance of the Animal Control facility” [10]) includes what sounds like a perennial complaint: a growing population leading to more “animal problems.” [10] But did the population of Summit County double between 2002 and 2003? Hardly.

A quick check of Wikipedia suggests a 5.4 percent increase from 1990 to 2000, after which it remained flat or even declined slightly. (U.S. Census data: 1980: 524,472; 1990: 514,990; 2000: 542,899: 2010: 541,781.)

So what did change?

“…the City of Akron recently passed a new cat control ordinance, which has created more work for the pound keepers due to the substantial numbers of cats being impounded. To keep up with the escalating problems it will be necessary to hire more staff to maintain the same level of service that is currently being provided. Furthermore, additional supplies and equipment will be needed to accommodate the additional animals being impounded. More revenue will be needed to cover these expenses.” [10]

The Cattery
If the shelter didn’t receive additional help, it at least got a little larger.

In 2002, the facility’s lobby was partitioned to accommodate an 18-by-10 “cattery,” completed just in time for implementation of 332-2002. Cost of the renovation, which James called a “small project,” was $80,000. [11]

“Our decision to build the cattery,” James told the Beacon Journal, “came before plans for the ordinance.” [12] Fair enough—newspaper accounts indicate that James first floated the idea in 1998, a year after Akron considered licensing cats. “We want to be prepared when the time comes that we have to control cats more stringently. It’s just good common sense. Every animal control facility should have a cattery.” [13]

Still, it’s doubtful that Akron’s city council would have voted in favor of the cat ordinance had the cattery not been in the works. Indeed, they had scrapped the cat licensing proposal for this very reason (“the city decided not to because its animal shelters would have had to keep cats for three days before disposing of them, and they didn’t have the room”). [14]

The cattery increased Summit County’s capacity from four cages to 24, with 12 more in the “overflow room” [15] (though James told the Beacon Journal, “We could hold up to a maximum of 50 cats at one time”). [12]

A NACA study team, summoned by Summit County to review conditions and practices at SCAC, were unimpressed. Among the 132 recommendations included in their 2004 report: “Summit County should explore the possibility of constructing a new animal sheltering facility within the very near future” [15] (the emphasis is theirs, not mine). Indeed, the facility was awarded NACA’s lowest rating: 1 (“an immediate need”).

Cost of Living Dying Increase
As part of their deal with Akron, SCAC agreed to hold cats for five days: “three days to give the owners time [sic] retrieve them and another two days for adoption purposes.” [16] Akron was to pay $5 per day for the “mandatory three-day stay and the $10 disposal fee, if need be.” [16] (In fact, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that many cats and kittens were killed long before their time was up.)

But Akron’s cat ordinance quickly became a victim of its own “success,” with about 900 cats “plucked from city streets” [17] in the first three months alone.

Intake numbers for previous years vary considerably. In 1999, for example, James told the Beacon Journal “At least 200 stray cats each year are trapped by residents and brought to the Summit County Animal Shelter.” [18] In 2002, six weeks prior to the cat ordinance going into effect, the paper reported (again, citing James) that 400 cats “wind up at the county shelter each year.” [11] Then, in another story just seven months later, the figure was 3,500. [19]

Two years later, in a 2004 op-ed, the Beacon Journal suggested “100 or so had been the norm.” [20]

Whatever the numbers were, it’s clear that the increase overwhelmed available resources. So, in 2004, the County proposed rate increases for its animal services, “largely,” as Beacon Journal reporter Lisa A. Abraham put it, “because of the crush of stray cats the city has been depositing at the shelter.” [21] The cost to house a cat doubled, as did the fee for putting a cat down. (The increased “business” affected dogs, too: their housing fees also increased from $5 to $10 per day, while the cost to put a dog down tripled to $30.)

Additional Expenses
In addition, numerous ancillary expenses were incurred in response to 332-2002.

The NACA reviews, for instance—one in 2004, and a follow-up in 2006—were, it seems clear, a response to extensive criticism of shelter conditions, policies, and practices by local groups opposed to the cat ordinance. [22, 23] The cost: $8,000. [24]

In 2003, Summit County committed about $15,000 “to install cameras and other security equipment at the county animal shelter.” [25]

“The move is part of increased scrutiny of the shelter, which has come under fire from animal activists who allege that inhumane treatment of animals and criminal behavior have gone on at the North Street facility.” [25]

The following year, Akron’s city council approved $16,000 to microchip 1,000 cats, and “conduct some low-cost spaying and neutering clinics around the city.” [26]

“The move came in response to the furor that was created after the council passed a law two years ago, allowing free-roaming cats to be picked up if someone complained.” [26]

Akron had purchased five microchip scanners in 2002, but, as customer service administrator John Hoffman told the Beacon Journal two years later, “ha[d] yet to scan a chip.” [27] (Estimated cost: $1,500.)

It’s not clear how much sterilization was done (or how many residents took advantage of the microchip offer, for that matter). In fact, Hoffman was forced to defend what some saw as misplaced priorities (clearly, such efforts are aimed at pets and not feral cats):

“What I’ve heard is that some groups prefer us to spend our money doing neutering, and that’s something we’re considering that will come later… But I don’t follow the objections There’s no harm, no foul. And at $10, it’s affordable, so I cannot imagine a legitimate reason not to do this.” [26]

Eradication at Any Cost
Suddenly, Maddie’s sixty-bucks-a-cat is starting to look like the real bargain.

Not that I’m prepared to assign an exact number to the per-cat cost of Akron’s cat ordinance—sure to be a painful, unproductive exercise in “Pimentelian economics.” Still, though, it’s easy to imagine the true cost of 332-2002 being comparable to—or even exceeding—the costs of TNR.

When it comes right down to it, though, I think the real attraction for TWS is not the (fictitious) price tag of Akron’s cat ordinance, but its incompatibility with feral cats in general and TNR in particular. In the community, Akron’s unsocialized cats are at great risk; in the hands of SCAC, they’re sure to be killed.

Community Support
Winter’s measure of community support—the number cats trapped by Akron residents—is, given the vast discrepancies in reporting, likely to be inaccurate. Even at its most accurate, though, such a measure is remarkably incomplete.

Legal Opposition
Winter never mentions the controversy surrounding the City Council’s vote on 332-2002, for example. Just days before its implementation, the council—“faced with the looming threat of a lawsuit”—repealed the original ordinance. [16]

“Immediately afterward, the council unanimously passed a nearly identical version of the law as an emergency measure. It went into effect immediately as Mayor Don Plusquellic signed it following the meeting… City officials say this version should withstand legal scrutiny if a group of cat fanciers—Citizens for Humane Animal Practices, or CHAP—makes good on its threat of a lawsuit.” [16]

Earlier that evening, CHAP members held a candlelight vigil and protest.

“The group—sporting placards saying things like “Save our cats” and “I can’t speak at city council,” wearing shirts with the slogan, “No tax $ for cat killing” and carrying plush toy cats—has a lawsuit prepared and ready to file, according to… the group’s attorney. [16]

Although CHAP’s request for a preliminary injunction was denied in late 2002, the judge hearing the case acknowledged the risk of “irreparable harm” posed by Akron’s cat ordinance:

“‘Due to the lack of guidelines and/or policies, it is possible for cats to be euthanized’ without their owner or owners ever receiving proper notification, she wrote. If a cat owner never receives notification—and that individual’s pet is picked up and ultimately destroyed—the owners are indeed ‘irreparably injured/harmed,’ she said.” [28]

For “owners” of feral and stray cats, of course, there was never any proper notification.

General Opposition
Letters to the Beacon Journal’s editor seem to fall almost exclusively in the opposition camp (though, to be fair, I did not do a rigorous comparison).

Brenda Graham’s January 31, 2003, letter (one of at least two she had published in the Beacon Journal) compared the “the slaughter of healthy cats and kittens” brought on by 332-2002 to “the Salem witch hunts of the 17th century. Both are founded in ignorance and spite.” [29] Even so, Graham remained optimistic about her community: “We can turn this around and showcase Akron as compassionate and progressive, not barbaric.” [29]

“Why does the city use our tax dollars wastefully on a process that is both ineffective and cruel?” asked Patricia Shaw in her July 13, 2003, letter. “Why can’t Akron’s animal-control policies be brought into the 21st century?” [30]

“Many major cities have determined that euthanasia does not solve the problem of animal overpopulation. There is too much information out there for Akron City Council to be still operating in the Dark Ages. If others have found a better way, why can’t Akron do the same? I can’t imagine that these cities’ councils have a corner on intelligence.” [30]

Shaw’s vocal opposition to SCAC’s policies made her the subject of retaliation, resulting in the killing of dozen of cats and kittens for which she’d agreed to find homes (see below).

How closely these examples reflect opinions throughout the community is anybody’s guess. They may well represent a small minority—however vocal. On the other hand, I haven’t seen a single mention of a public discussion of 332-2002 among the dozens of Beacon Journal stories I’ve read on the topic—it seems there was very little public input on either side of the issue.

Finally, there’s the issue of effectiveness. No doubt supporters of the cat ordinance figured that killing 2,000 or so cats each year would make a difference in the number of stray and feral cats. If you’re determined to bail the ocean with a thimble, I don’t suppose it makes much difference that you’re 500 miles away.

Animal Services/Care
Economics and politics aside, it’s important to consider how cats were treated in the aftermath of 332-2002 (a factor TWS and Winter conveniently overlook). Akron’s cat ordinance, it’s clear, exacerbated a number of problems within SCAC, and created plenty of new ones. And, as is often the case, the animals suffered tremendously as a result.

A History of Abuses
I’ve been unable to determine precisely when Glenn James joined SCAC (the earliest newspaper story in which his name appears is dated June 1989), but it’s clear that he inherited a profoundly dysfunctional organization.

“For the most part—and especially in years past,” writes Beacon Journal reporter Charlene Nevada in her 1991 profile of James, “the people who chase dogs in Summit County have found themselves on the payroll because of political friends.” [31]

“James was hired and promoted because it became obvious to those around him that this was someone who walks on two feet but understands those who walk on four.” [31]

Maybe so, but it seems there wasn’t much competition, either.

Dog warden Joseph Kissel, who took over in the fall of 1988, had been on the job just two weeks when news that his wife had for years been selling cats—obtained free from the shelter—for $25 to $30 apiece to research facilities, including the Northeast Ohio Universities College of Medicine. [32]

“Kissel said his wife was treated like anyone else. Anyone can get as many cats as are available for free, he said. ‘Anybody who walks off the street. Can I have a cat? Yeah. Can I have 10 cats? Yeah. Can I have all of them? Yeah,’ Kissel said. He refused to discuss his wife’s business in detail, saying it was her business, not his. Kissel declined to estimate how many cats were released by the pound each year for sale to medical research organizations or how many his wife had received.” [32]

By 1991, with James in charge, SCAC had cut out the middleman, “illegally selling dogs from its animal shelter to research facilities for $27 over the state-imposed price,” bringing in perhaps as much as $16,000 in pound seizure fees. [33]

James defended the price gouging, citing “escalating animal-control expenses.” [33]

Akron’s Cats
The first four days under 332-2002 were a harbinger of grim days to come. Of the 53 cats brought into the shelter, “43 were too sickly to be kept and were euthanized.” [34]

“The sick cats were found to have ringworm, upper respiratory infections or were severely flea infested. Most were malnourished and appeared to be feral—wild cats that aren’t used to human contact… Some were kittens who hadn’t been weaned from their mother and wouldn’t survive…” [34]

For Akron’s cats, a runny nose had become fatal. Deadly, too, was a feral appearance—whatever that means.

And still, Hoffman told the Beacon Journal—presumably with a straight face—“We are not killing cats.”

“If there is any kind of ID tag, we’re calling that phone number and giving that cat a ride home,” Hoffman said. “If no cat goes to the animal shelter, that’s fine. We’re hoping to keep people’s pets safe and only deal with the true problem.” [34]

The “true problem,” though, was the number of cats being killed. In fact, the 81 percent kill rate demonstrated during the first four days was nothing new for Summit County; in 1988, Kissel told the Beacon Journal that 90–95 percent of the 3,000–4,000 cats brought into the shelter each year were killed. [32] (The fact that Kissel couldn’t narrow down the number of intakes any further is both alarming and indicative of conditions at the facility.)

During the first six months, the kill rate tapered off to 70 percent. [7] Six months later, the rate was up to 79 percent. [2] Imagine: four out of every five cats brought to SCAC were, as Winter suggests, “feral, injured, or diseased.” [2]

Three years later, the Beacon Journal reported to a 65 percent kill rate for cats brought into the shelter during 2005 (dogs fared slightly better, with a 49 percent kill rate). [35]

How credible any of these figures are—in light of SCAC’s record-keeping problems—is unclear, of course. Still, even their best numbers are nothing to be proud of.

Systemic Problems
The NACA reviews and related media coverage exposed a laundry list of failures at SCAC. Among them:

  • At the time of the original NACA review, Summit County’s shelter was open to the public only 28 hours each week (10:00–3:00 Monday–Friday; 12:00–3:00 on Saturdays), prompting the study team to comment: “current shelter hours do not favor today’s working households.” [15]
  • “During peak periods of the year,” notes the 2004 NACA report, “the facility generally operates at 100 percent capacity.” [15] Yet, on weekends, two assistant pound-keepers were allocated just 11 hours between them—to care for the shelter’s animals, clean the facility [with its 120 cages], and attend to any visitors during the three hours the shelter was open to the public on Saturdays. “The shelter could remain closed on Sundays,” suggests the report, “however the facility should be cleaned and all animals should receive food, water and care.” [15] That’s right: SCAC had to be told by NACA to take care of the animals in its care on weekends.
  • The drama surrounding the top job at SCAC didn’t end with James’ termination. James’ replacement, Jeffrey Wright, resigned under pressure after just a year on the job—during which time he used nearly three weeks of sick time. [36] Anthony Moore, who was appointed acting animal control manager following Wright’s departure, last only nine months, “demoted for using a diluted formula of the euthanasia drug on animals at the shelter.” (It didn’t help that Moore had drawn criticism for removing cats “from their cages with neck hooks during hours when visitors were in the facility.”) [37] Christine Congrove, who had been James’ secretary, took over in 2006, drawing fire for her lack of qualifications and experience, $61,000 starting salary, and family ties (she’s the daughter of then-councilman Dan Congrove). [37] Congrove—now Christine Fatheree—remains Animal Control Manager today.
  • Not only was Summit County’s kill rate incredibly high, their methods were often inhumane. Among the alarming results of a 2003 investigation by then-County Executive James McCarthy: “cats are euthanized with needles large enough for a cow.” [3] Even more controversial was the SCAC’s practice of intracardiac injection—or heart-stick—“a procedure for euthanizing animals by using a long needle to inject drugs directly into their hearts.” [38] And a 2006 lawsuit (more tax dollars wasted) alleged that shelter staff, having used insufficient doses of Fatal-Plus, were “throwing live animals in the freezer.” [39]
  • Despite apparent concerns for the number of stray and abandoned pets, sterilization was clearly not a priority for Summit County. Among NACA’s “immediate need” recommendations in 2004 was this: “any cat or dog adoption should include some form of required sterilization, preferably prior to adoption.” [15] Two years later, though, NACA reviewers reported “no progress,” using the reevaluation to emphasize once again, “The sterilization of adopted animals should be mandatory.” [5] At that time, Summit County also hadn’t implemented a low-cost spay/neuter program in the community. [40] (Today, all pets adopted from Summit County are sterilized, although it’s not clear that any community-based low-cost spay/neuter programs have been put in place.)
  • Criticism of shelter practices led to retaliation against local rescue groups. [3, 41] In “House of Horrors,” Cleveland Scene reporter Aina Hunter (now at CBS News), details the horrendous treatment Patricia Shaw received as, on two separate occasions, cats and kittens she’d agreed to find homes for were killed. (James “did it to teach us a lesson,” says Shaw. “He did it to show that he has the power of life and death—not people like me.” [41]) Hunter’s reporting reveals the abuses and deteriorating morale of an organization that had come entirely off the rails. (Interestingly, about the same time Hunter was uncovering the horrors inside Summit County’s shelter, Linda Winter was discussing the apparent success of Akron’s cat ordinance with the man in charge.)

(Detailed accounts of these incidents—and many more—can be found on the St. Francis Animal Sanctuary and The National Animal Cruelty Registry Websites.)

A Long Way to Go
SCAC has made some notable improvements in recent years—the most obvious its new $2.96 million shelter, which opened its doors last August. Those doors are open more often, too (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday: 10 am–5 pm; Wednesday: 10 am–7 pm; Saturday: 10 am–3 pm).

Adoptable animals are also showcased online. SCAC is, according to its Website, “a proud member of the Summit Animal Coalition,” made up of several local rescue groups and the Humane Society of Greater Akron.

There’s also a volunteer program. And earlier this year, the County nearly tripled its budget for veterinary care at the facility. [42]

Still, the there’s nothing listed under the Events and Programs tab, and the e-mail link for Fatheree won’t get you very far (her e-mail address is incomplete).

More worrisome, however, is the response I got when I did get through to Fatheree, asking for recent intake, redemption, adoption, and euthanasia figures:

“Good afternoon, Christine Fatheree has sent me your request for public records. These records were destroyed per our records retention schedule and no longer available.  Thank you.” —Jill Hinig Skapin, Director of Communications

Some problems just can’t be fixed with a three-million-dollar shelter.

•     •     •

Nine years later, it’s impossible to tell if 332-2002 is “working”—at least from the information I’ve been able to gather. But, given all that’s known about efforts to eradicate cats from oceanic islands, I doubt Akron’s cat ordinance has made much of a difference at all in terms of the number of stray and feral cats.

There’s no doubt at all, though, that the roundup has been far costlier than TWS suggests in its “fact sheet.”

Then again, TWS is about as interested in facts as the American Bird Conservancy is. (Recall, for example, how much space TWS allocated for Nico Dauphine and her “facts” in their recent special issue of The Wildlife Professional.)

I’m actually well past the point of being surprised by what TWS is trying to pull here. But I am a little surprised that they would expect anybody to fall for it. Executive Director/CEO Michael Hutchins likes to brag about TWS’s “10,000+ strong membership of wildlife professionals.” I wonder: How many of those 10,000+ does Hutchins take to be such fools?

Literature Cited
1. n.a., Problems with Trap-Neuter-Release. 2011, The Wildlife Society: Bethesda, MD. (http://joomla.wildlife.org/documents/cats_tnr.pdf)

2. Winter, L., “Trap-neuter-release programs: The reality and the impacts.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1369–1376. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2004.225.1369


3. Abraham, L.A. (2003, December 6). Shelter is “Sloppy”. Akron Beacon Journal.

4. Abraham, L.A. (2004, April 24). Summit-Hired Group Backs Building a New Animal Shelter. Akron Beacon Journal.

5. Mays, J.W., Summit County Animal Control: Reevaluation Report. 2006, National Animal Control Association: Kansas City, MO. p. 36. (http://www.co.summit.oh.us/pdfs/Animal%20Control%20Reevaluation%20Report%20-%20June,%202006.pdf)

6. 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


7. Wallace, J. (2003, January 6). Akron’s Stray Cat Effort Cheaper Than Expected. Akron Beacon Journal.

8. Hettinger, J., Taking a Broader View of Cats in the Community, in Animal Sheltering. 2008. p. 8–9. http://www.animalsheltering.org/resource_library/magazine_articles/sep_oct_2008/taking_a_broader_view_of_cats.html


9. n.a., Local Government Consolidation Reports. n.d., Ohio Auditor of State: Columbus. http://www.auditor.state.oh.us/conferences/fiscaldistress/handouts/files/LeadingPracticesLocalGovConsolidationReports.xlsx

10. n.a., Summit County: Building On a Solid Structure: 2003 Operating Budget. 2003, Office of Executive, Summit County: Akron, OH.

11.  Miller, M. (2002, May 6). Summit Cattery Opens Next Month. Akron Beacon Journal.

12. Chancellor, C. (2002, June 26). Kitty Lockup Is Ready for First Inmates. Akron Beacon Journal.

13. Biliczky, C. (1998, August 31). Stray Cats Could Get Den at Summit animal Shelter. Akron Beacon Journal.

14. Dorell, O. (1999, July 11). Rules For Cats Pose Problems In Barberton. Akron Beacon Journal.

15. Mays, J.W., Summit County Animal Control: Confidential Evaluation Report. 2004, National Animal Control Association: Kansas City, MO. p. 164. (www.co.summit.oh.us/executive/pdfs/NACA%20Report.pdf)

16. Wallace, J. (2002, June 25). No More Catting Around. Akron Beacon Journal.

17. Warsmith, S. (2002, September 25). Woman Lands In Court For Claiming Stray Cats. Akron Beacon Journal.

18. Dorell, O. (1999, June 15). Summit Looks to Rein Cats, Dogs. Akron Beacon Journal.

19. Miller, M. (2002, December 2). Shelter’s New Web Site Goes To the Dogs. Akron Beacon Journal.

20. n.a. (2004, April 26). Practical Advice—A Helpful Plan For Improving County Animal Shelter. Akron Beacon Journal, p. B3.

21. Abraham, L.A. (2004, March 21). County Seeks Hike in Animal Shelter Costs. Akron Beacon Journal.

22. Abraham, L.A. (2004, January 24). Animal Shelter Review Approved. Akron Beacon Journal.

23. Abraham, L.A. and Wallace, J. (2004, May 5). Akron Cat Law Lands On Its Feet. Akron Beacon Journal.

24. Hagelberg, K. (2006, September 19). Dog Pound Still has Problems. Akron Beacon Journal.

25. Abraham, L.A. (2003, December 11). Eye Kept On Shelter. Akron Beacon Journal.

26. Wallace, J. (2004, August 5). Microchip Gives Cats Instant ID. Akron Beacon Journal.

27. Bloom, C. (2004, July 17). Akron Chips Away at Lost-Cat Problem. Akron Beacon Journal.

28. Chancellor, C. (2002, December 10). Cat Law Injunction Is Denied. Akron Beacon Journal, p. B1.

29. Graham, B. (2003, January 31). A Better Way to Deal with Akron’s Cat Problem (Letter to the Editor). Akron Beacon Journal.

30. Shaw, P. (2003, July 13). Taxes Ought To Fund Compassion, Not Killing. Akron Beacon Journal, p. B2.

31. Nevada, C. (1991, December 26). Lion Tamer Turns Talents to Summit’s Stray Dogs. Akron Beacon Journal.

32. Oblander, T. (1988, September 25). Summit Dog Warden’s Wife Sold Cats to Labs. Akron Beacon Journal.

33. Rosenberg, A. (1994, October 5). State Says Summit Illegally Sells Dogs from Shelter. Akron Beacon Journal.

34. Wallace, J. (2002, June 29). 53 Cats Captured in 4 Days. Akron Beacon Journal.

35. Abraham, L.A. (2006, February 12). Second Look At Shelter. Akron Beacon Journal.

36. Abraham, L.A. (2005, July 13). Summit Animal Chief Resigns. Akron Beacon Journal.

37. Hagelberg, K. (2006, March 8). Animal Control Director Named. Akron Beacon Journal.

38. Abraham, L.A. (2003, December 9). Summit County Executive Stands Behind Animal Shelter. Akron Beacon Journal.

39. Hagelberg, K. (2006, November 19). Secret Deal Settles Suit With County. Akron Beacon Journal.

40. Hagelberg, K. (2006, March 9). Animal Control Director Under Fire. Akron Beacon Journal.

41. Hunter, A. (2003, October 22). House of Horrors. Cleveland Scene, from http://www.clevescene.com/cleveland/house-of-horrors/Content?oid=1484255

42. Armon, R. (2011, February 12). Veterinary Services Budget in Summit Could Nearly Triple. Akron Beacon Journal.

(Animal) Wise Guy II

My sincere thanks to Animal Wise Radio hosts Mike Fry and Beth Nelson for having me back on the show—this time to discuss the recent arrest of National Zoo researcher Nico Dauphine on charges of attempted animal cruelty and the Smithsonian’s subsequent reaction.

If you missed it, you can check out the complete show in podcast format at iTunes. Also, an MP3 file (22 MB) of our conversation about Nico Dauphine and the Smithsonian (approximately 22 minutes) is available here.

Loose Threads

OpossumNorth American Opossum with winter coat. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Cody Pope.

A study published last month in the online open-access journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases suggests a new twist in the relationship between free-roaming cats, Toxoplasma gondii, and toxoplasmosis infections in marine mammals.

“The most remarkable finding of our study,” notes co-author Dr. Michael E. Grigg in a press release from the National Institutes of Health “was the exacerbating role that [Sarcocystis] neurona appears to play in causing more severe disease symptoms in those animals that are also infected with T. gondii.” What I found most remarkable, though, was the straightforward relationship between infections in land mammals and infected marine mammals implied in Grigg’s comments:

“Identifying the threads that connect these parasites from wild and domestic land animals to marine mammals helps us to see ways that those threads might be cut… by, for example, managing feral cat and opossum populations, reducing run-off from urban areas near the coast, monitoring water quality and controlling erosion to prevent parasites from entering the marine food chain.”

The Wildlife Society’s Michael Hutchins used the opportunity to once again call for the “control” of feral cats, which, he argues are “a menace to our native wildlife.” According to Hutchins, the study by Grigg (who serves as Chief of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Molecular Parasitology Unit) and his colleagues “is yet another demonstration that Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) management of feral house cats must be stopped if we value our native wildlife.”

But, of course, the threads that make up the ecological “fabric” are interwoven with many others. Cut even one of them, as Grigg suggests, and the whole thing can begin to unravel.

Which is what surprised me about Grigg’s narrow focus on cats (considered the definitive host for T. gondii) and opossums (considered the definitive host of S. neurona), neither of which was mentioned in the paper itself.

Toxoplasma gondii
Cats pass the mature, infective form of T. gondii in their feces—a process called “shedding oocysts.” T. gondii infection, or toxoplasmosis, in humans can be traced to “ingestion of oocyst-contaminated soil and water, from tissue cysts in undercooked meat, by transplantation, blood transfusion, laboratory accidents, or congenitally.” [1]

Numerous studies have suggested a link between toxoplasmosis in marine life and freshwater run-off. In contrast to the “stress placed on the importance of the cat in the scientific literature,” [2] however, several studies have challenged the importance of environmental contamination in the transmission of T. gondii.

In the Absence of Cats
Researchers at the University of Salford’s Centre for Parasitology and Disease Research, for instance, observed high levels (e.g., 75 percent) of congenital transmission of T. gondii in a “wild population of mice,” leading them to conclude “that this phenomenon might be more widespread than previously thought.” [2] Another team of researchers from the same lab, citing studies of T. gondii infections in sheep, also make a compelling argument that congenital transmission “may be more important than previously considered.” [3]

And then there are the studies in the Arctic.

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). [4] The fact that these researchers found no T. gondii-infected reindeer or sibling voles “indicates that infection by oocysts is not an important mode of transmission on Svalbard.” [4] In the end, Prestrud et al. suggest:

“…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.” [4]

A study of polar bears provides further evidence: “It would… 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.” [5]

Ticks and Tick-bites
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.” [6]

Sarcocystis neurona and Opossums
The links between opossums and S. neurona infections, too, are not quite as straightforward as Grigg’s comment suggests. Researchers were surprised to find S. neurona in central Wyoming, for example—“outside the known range of the opossum.” [7]

“Finding antibodies to S. neurona… in at least 18 horses native to Wyoming is unexpected and unexplained. Opossums are not known to occur in central Wyoming, and there has not been any confirmed case of [equine protozoal myeloencephalitis] from horses native to Wyoming.” [7]

Their findings, write Dubey et al., “suggest that another definitive host may be involved or that the parasite shares antigens with another protozoan.” [7]

Conspicuously Absent
Grigg and his colleagues make no reference to these studies, nor do they acknowledge the alternative transmission routes suggested therein. To be clear, though, the paper focuses mostly on infection rates; it’s the press release that refers to cats and opossums as the ultimate source of infection.

(If all of this sounds familiar, it may be because I referred to many of the same studies in my response last month to a press release about a study of T. gondii-infected mammals in a “natural area in central Illinois” by Shannon Fredebaugh and Nohra Mateus-Pinilla.)

Stray Threads
Grigg and his colleagues found infection rates among mammals living in the inland waters of Washington, Oregon, and southern British Columbia were no greater than in those found along the outer coast, as illustrated in the figure below (blue dots indicating inland infection, red dots indicating infection among outer coast individuals).

But if environmental contamination plays such a critical role, shouldn’t that be reflected in higher infection rates inland (nearer, presumably, to greater concentrations of contaminated soil)?

Perhaps the most puzzling of their findings, though, is this: “T. gondii infections peaked in 2007 then declined relative to S. neurona” (as illustrated in the bar chart below).

Again, if environmental contamination is the culprit, does this mean that the population of free-roaming cats in the area also peaked around 2007? Could this, in fact, be empirical evidence of the positive impact of TNR? (At last, something for Hutchins to blog about!)

Obviously, there’s not enough evidence here to make that leap. Still, the data challenge assertions by the American Bird Conservancy that the feral cat population continues to rise—as well as the conventional wisdom about the presumed cause of T. Gondii-infected marine mammals, articulated most recently by David Jessup and Melissa Miller: “the science points to cats.” [8]

And finally, let’s say we were able to remove all of the cats and opossums from the environment. Setting aside for the moment the numerous hurdles (e.g., ethical, economic, etc.) involved, what impact could we expect in terms of T. gondii and/or S. neurona infections in marine mammals? Or in rodents, whose populations would surely skyrocket?

I’m skeptical that the benefits would be all that great. Skeptical, too, that we could predict with much accuracy the actual outcomes (to say nothing of the unintended consequences).

As for what Grigg thinks, he’s yet to respond to my e-mail inquiries on the subject.

Literature Cited
1. Elmore, S.A., et al., “Toxoplasma gondii: epidemiology, feline clinical aspects, and prevention.” Trends in Parasitology. 2010. 26(4): p. 190–196. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6W7G-4YHFWNM-1/2/2a468a936eb06649fde0463deae4e92f

2. 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

3. 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

4. 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

5. 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

6. 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.

7. Dubey, J.P., et al., “Prevalence of Antibodies to Neospora caninum, Sarcocystis neurona, and Toxoplasma gondii in Wild Horses from Central Wyoming.” Journal of Parasitology. 2003. 89(4): p. 716–720. http://dx.doi.org/10.1645/GE-66R

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

On Wisdom

Serengeti Elephant Herd
Three African Bush Elephants (Loxodonta africana) on the Serengeti plains. Photo courtesy of Ikiwaner and Wikimedia Commons.

In the latest issue of Orion, journalist and author J.B. MacKinnon makes good on the magazine’s commitment to “inform, inspire, and engage individuals and grassroots organizations in becoming a significant cultural force for healing nature and community.”

In his essay, “Wisdom in the Wild: A case for elderly animals,” MacKinnon does a brilliant job of (re)connecting the reader with the natural world by making the connection unusually personal:

I have stopped eating groundfish, not because the fishery is unsustainable, which was the biologist’s actual point, but because any one of the fish might be as old as my grandmother. The decision is easy to deride as a most-embarrassing anthropomorphism, I know, but my spouse, at least, offered unhesitating support. “Who knows what wisdom they’ve developed in that time?” she said. And who wants to risk consuming the planet’s store of wisdom?

But, as MacKinnon points out, our regard for such wisdom often develops only in hindsight. Among the examples he cites, two involve African elephants.

In 1993, Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park suffered the worst drought in 35 years. “By the time the rains came again,” writes MacKinnon, “the Tarangire herd had lost sixteen out of eighty-one calves, a level of juvenile mortality ten times above normal.”

Herds with females old enough to remember the previous drought left the park in search of water while demographically younger herds stayed behind—ultimately suffering the greatest mortality rates.

Pilanesberg National Park
As MacKinnon’s second example illustrates, an elephant herd’s “institutional memory” is only part of the story; elders also provide “parental supervision.”

In the early 1980s, the elephant population was swelling in Kruger National Park, and wildlife managers decided to dart numbers of adult elephants from the air and then shoot them to death on the ground, often in plain view of the juveniles. The youngsters were then rounded up and sent to other parks and reserves, with about forty ending up in Pilanesberg National Park, several hundred miles to the southwest. It must have seemed like a logical if gruesome act of conservation: reduce overpopulation in one place and spread the wealth of the species to others.

About ten years later, relocated males were—much to the shock of biologists—responsible for killing dozens of white rhinoceroses. In most cases, the social structure of elephant herds limits such “teenage” aggression. “After standing down to a dominant male,” writes MacKinnon, “the rush of hormones stops, in some cases in a matter of minutes.”

In the absence of dominant males, however, the young elephants suffered from a chemical imbalance that turned them into killers.

It’s Complicated
MacKinnon’s piece got me thinking about how eager we are to “manage” wildlife despite our limited understanding. And the consequences of a what-do-we-kill-next? approach fueled, it seems, more by economic and political considerations (not the least of which is job security) than by any noble concern for conservation.

Among the most glaring examples is Macquarie Island, where, in 2000—after 15 years—cats were finally eradicated. Forty-plus years of rabbit control was “reversed in only six years,” devastating the island’s vegetation. In addition, “a pulse of at least 103,000 mice and 36,600 rats have also entered the ecosystem since cat eradication.” [1]

What’s next for this United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site?

Tony Eastley, host of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s AM radio show, explained it this way recently: “The project aimed at eradicating rabbits and rodents is no overnight quick fix. It’s expected to take five years and cost at least $25 million.” (Incredibly, the story makes no mention of cats at all.)

If scientists could be so wrong in their understanding of the ecology of this 50-square-mile, uninhabited island, what makes us think they’ll get it right when tackling larger, more complex ecosystems—say, the Florida Keys, for example?

•     •     •

“It is tempting,” warned Abraham Maslow, “if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” The same is true, all too often, of wildlife management—the hammer being lethal control (see, for example, New York magazine’s “field guide to what the Feds are hunting”).

But an effective, humane approach to feral cat management requires a more expansive set of tools. Of course, a little wisdom wouldn’t hurt, either.

Literature Cited
1. Bergstrom, D.M., et al., “Indirect effects of invasive species removal devastate World Heritage Island.” Journal of Applied Ecology. 2009. 46(1): p. 73–81. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2664.2008.01601.x/abstract


Feral Cats: The Next Stimulus Package?

According to a recent story in Forbes, many of the expenses associated with caring for feral cats are tax-deductible.

A family lawyer who devoted most of her time outside of work to caring for feral cats, 70 to 80 at one time, in her Oakland, Calif. home is entitled to much of her claimed $12,068 in cat care expenses as a charitable deduction on her 2004 income taxes, according to a recent Tax Court case. Basically, the case says that unreimbursed volunteer expenses, to the extent they are incidental to charitable work for a qualified charity and are properly substantiated, are deductible.

Adjusting for inflation, that’s $13,810.94, or about $184 per cat. Multiply that by the 60–120 million feral cats the American Bird Conservancy claims are in the U.S. [1], and we’re talking real money: $11.0–22.1 billion annually.

Voodoo Economics
Suddenly, the $17 billion “economic impact” suggested by the authors of “Feral Cats and Their Management” [2] seems decidedly less impressive. Not that it was ever credible, of course—especially given the dubious quality of several underlying assumptions. The now-mythical “estimate,” which originated with David Pimentel, Professor Emeritus at Cornell, is a mix of proofiness and careless mistakes.

None of which prevented it from making headlines around the world beginning in December of last year. Endorsements from the National Audubon Society and American Bird Conservancy were immediate.

(For a thorough review of the $17B figure, please see Laurie Goldstein’s “17 Reasons the Economic Impact of the Domestic Cat as a Non-Native Species in the U.S. Does Not Cost $17 Billion.” Had Pimentel been half as careful as Goldstein, he might have had something worth publishing.)

Life Is Cheap(er)
Actually, $184 per cat is probably conservative.

No doubt Jan Van Dusen—because she used her home as a shelter—incurred expenses many of us do not. But she probably didn’t spend nearly as much on gasoline and other transportation-related items. And, she didn’t have to worry about cold-weather accommodations.

Then there’s the expense Van Dusen saved her community—let’s call it $6,500—for not having the cats impounded and euthanized killed. That’s based on a cost of $87 per cat, an estimate generated by the Volusia County (FL) Animal Control Advisory Board.

Combining Van Dusen’s per-cat expense with the $87 savings, and we’re up to $271 per cat. Multiply that by ABC’s 60­–120 million cats for a total of $16.3–32.5 billion annually. That’s a decent shot in the arm for an economy in trouble, and there’s no time like the present.

While we’re at it, why not a WPA-style program to put Americans to work caring for feral cats?

Absurd? Obviously.

The difference, of course, is that—unlike the authors of the UNL paper, Pimentel, ABC, and so many others—I’m not presenting my numbers as if they’re not absurd.

Literature Cited
1. Lebbin, D.J., Parr, M.J., and Fenwick, G.H., The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation. 2010, London: University of Chicago Press.

2. Hildreth, A.M., Vantassel, S.M., and Hygnstrom, S.E., Feral Cats and Their Managment. 2010, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension: Lincoln, NE. elkhorn.unl.edu/epublic/live/ec1781/build/ec1781.pdf


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Webinar, “Impacts of Free Roaming Cats on Native Wildlife,” originally scheduled for today, has been postponed.

It’s still not entirely clear whether or not the Webinar, put on by the USFWS’s National Conservation Training Center, is/was open to the public. What is clear is that people are interested; indeed, it was “an overwhelming response” and the resulting “logistical barriers” that forced NCTC to put the show on hold.

Stay tuned.

Spoiler Alert

Coming up this Wednesday: “Impacts of Free Roaming Cats on Native Wildlife,” a Webinar sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Registration, from what I can tell, appears to be open to the public—though I’m still awaiting a confirmation e-mail (which will include, I hope, some clarification re: time zone for this “2:00–3:00 pm” event).

The USFWS Website lists the agency’s own Tom Will as the scheduled speaker, and includes the following description:

A rapidly growing feral and unrestrained domestic cat population kills an average of at least 1.5 million birds in the U.S. every day—and even greater numbers of small mammals and herptiles. Every small songbird species is vulnerable at some stage of its life cycle. Despite ample peer-reviewed science documenting the failure of trap-neuter-release (TNR) programs to reduce cat populations or address wildlife depredation, TNR and outdoor cat feeding colonies continue to be marketed to city councils, county boards, and state legislatures as a viable option. As a result, TNR feeding colonies are proliferating across the landscape at such an alarming rate that wildlife conservation programs intended to create source habitat are being rendered ineffectual in many areas. In this presentation, I briefly review the science on the effects of outdoor cats on wildlife and the ineffectiveness of TNR programs. Then, examples of the decision making process leading to community endorsement of TNR provide some insight into the roadblocks to effective conservation action. Finally, I offer a suite of strategic conservation actions at national agency, community, and home scales whereby the Service and its partners might work effectively to reduce the negative effects of irresponsible civic TNR decisions on wildlife trust resources.

I expect, given Will’s apparent interest in the science surrounding this issue, that he’ll shed some light on the origins of that 1.5 million birds/day predation rate—which, translated to an annual figure, is pretty close to what the American Bird Conservancy uses in The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation: “532 million birds killed annually by outdoor cats.” [1]

This Webinar, then, could be our chance to see the science behind the number. Or not—if this week’s presentation is anything like the one Will gave in 2010 to the Bird Conservation Alliance (which, according to its Website, is “facilitated by” ABC). Last year’s show, “What Can Federal Agencies Do? Policy Options to Address Cat Impacts to Birds and Their Habitats,” available (downloadable PDF) via the Animal Liberation Front Website, was short on science and long on rhetoric (and plenty of misinformation, too).

Now, I’ve no way of knowing what Will is going to present this week. So, although these things tend to be remarkably predictable, I’ll reserve judgment.

That said, it seems like a good time for a quick look at his 2010 material.

Birds of a Feather
As it happens, Tom Will is among those Nico Dauphine thanks “for helpful information, advice, ideas, and discussion in researching this subject” in her 2009 Partners In Flight conference paper. [2] And much of the material Will used last year was shown a year earlier by Dauphine, in her infamous “Apocalypse Meow” presentation. (The similarities are uncanny, actually: identical background color, many of the same images, etc.)

Death by (Faulty) Statistics
Like Dauphine, Will includes the graph (shown below) from the second edition of Frank Gill’s Ornithology, suggesting, apparently, that predation by cats far exceeds all other sources of mortality combined (a claim Dauphine made in her 2008 letter to the editor of the St. Petersburg Times).

But, as I’ve explained previously, Gill’s cat “data” aren’t data at all, but the indefensible (in terms of its lack of scientific merit, but also its almost palpable bias) guesswork of Rich Stallcup, co-founder of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory.

All of which raises serious doubts about USFWS’s commitment “to using sound science in its decision-making and to providing the American public with information of the highest quality possible.”

Counting Cats
The more intriguing visual, though, in Will’s 2010 presentation (shown below) is meant (it seems) to illustrate the relationship between the increasing population of cats and the decreasing populations of bird species over the past 40 years or so.

But, of course, correlation is not the same as causation. I’ll bet that, like cat ownership, membership in the National Audubon Society has risen steadily over the past 40 years—but somehow, I don’t imagine anybody suggesting that bird populations decline as NAS membership climbs.

What first caught my eye was not the the implied relationship between cat numbers and bird numbers, however, but the red dots themselves. The same data were plotted (as shown below) in “What Conservation Biologists Can Do to Counter Trap-Neuter-Return: Response to Longcore et al.,” [3] published last year in Conservation Biology, (among the paper’s 10 co-authors, by the way: Nico Dauphine and Peter Marra).

Look closely at the two graphs, and you’ll see that Will has gotten creative here. His data points (which, I believe, come primarily from the U.S. Census and APPA) are identical to those used in the letter to Conservation Biology, but the vertical scale’s been changed. In Will’s version, the upper right portion of the graph has jumped from 90 million to 150 million cats! (His horizontal axis is shifted slightly, but the impact is nothing by comparison.)

Apparently, Will is combining population data for pet cats with data for feral cats. Trouble is, his “data” for feral cats doesn’t exist. It looks as if Will simply borrowed from Dauphine, who borrowed from David Jessup—whose “estimate” is unattributed.

So much for “using sound science” and “providing the American public with information of the highest quality possible.”

Roaming Charges May Apply
What if Will stuck to what the data actually show? It seems the message is pretty clear: since 1971, the number of pet cats in the U.S. has nearly tripled.

OK, but what does that mean for the nation’s wildlife? Keep in mind: the country’s human population swelled by 43 percent over the same period, taking an enormous toll on wildlife—either directly (e.g., loss of habitat via development, birds colliding with buildings, etc.) or indirectly (e.g.,  increased pollution and pesticide use).

Let’s set all that aside for the moment, though, and get back to pet cats. Even if the graphs accurately reflect the upward trend of cat ownership in the U.S. (and I’m not sure they do), they grossly misrepresent the threat to wildlife—which, presumably, is the point.

Simply put, there are not three times as many pet cats outdoors today.

The data I have, from the American Pet Products Association, [4] go back only to 1998. At that time, 56 percent of cat owners responding to APPA’s National Pet Owners Survey indicated that their cats were indoors-only; in 2008, that figured had climbed to 64 percent.

With an estimated 89.6 million pets cats in the U.S. in 2010, then, that means that about 32.4 million cats are outdoors for at least some part of the day (and approximately half of those are outside for less than three hours each day [5, 6]).

What was the proportion in 1971? Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find any survey results from the 1970s or 1980s. All we can do it guess.

Let’s say that in 1971 just one-third of pet cats were kept indoors exclusively (the very situation Dauphine would have us believe we’re facing today). That means 21.5 million cats were free-roaming for at least some part of the day.

Again, this is a guess—not an unreasonable one, but a guess anyhow. Still, the implications are significant. While it’s true that the number of pet cats has tripled over the past 40 years, the number that are free-roaming has probably increased by only 50 percent or so.

Prosecution or Persecution?
Finally, I’m curious to see if Will’s “suite of strategic conservation actions” will include, as his 2010 presentation suggests, threatening those who conduct or officially endorse TNR with prosecution under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA).

This has become a common tactic in recent years (see, for example, the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex Integrated Predator Management Plan/Draft Environmental Assessment, released earlier this year), though it goes back to at least 2003, when Pamela Jo Hatley, then a law student, suggested the possibility.

(One wonders if USFWS, the agency responsible for drafting the Keys Predator Management Plan, could be prosecuted under the ESA and MBTA in the event—not unlikely—that a large-scale round-up of feral cats resulted in a population explosion of rats, which in turn decimate the very species the Plan claims to protect.)

•     •     •

As a say, I’m not going to critique Will’s presentation until he’s had the chance to give it. Indeed, he may very well deliver on the science review, policy insights, conservation actions, etc. If what he provided the BCA is any indication, though, the man’s got his work cut out for him.

Literature Cited
1. Lebbin, D.J., Parr, M.J., and Fenwick, G.H., The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation. 2010, London: University of Chicago Press.

2. 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

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

4. APPA, 2009–2010 APPA National Pet Owners Survey. 2009, American Pet Products Association: Greenwich, CT. http://www.americanpetproducts.org/pubs_survey.asp

5. Clancy, E.A., Moore, A.S., and Bertone, E.R., “Evaluation of cat and owner characteristics and their relationships to outdoor access of owned cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2003. 222(11): p. 1541-1545. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2003.222.1541

6. Lord, L.K., “Attitudes toward and perceptions of free-roaming cats among individuals living in Ohio.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2008. 232(8): p. 1159-1167. http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/javma_232_8_1159.pdf

Apocalypse Meow: A Brief Review

Although Nico Dauphine has yet to be suspended from her duties at the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center, it seems all the attention she’s received over the past week-and-a-half is making life rather uncomfortable for her supporters.

Last week, the National Zoo removed Dauphine’s online application for recruiting field assistants from its Website; this week, the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources pulled her infamous “Apocalypse Meow” presentation from its site.

Which is understandable, given the circumstances. Far more puzzling is what it was doing there in the first place. The content is, not surprisingly, remarkably “selective” in terms of the science. What is surprising, though, is Dauphine’s delivery: she looks and sounds like a person without the least bit of conviction in the material she’s presenting. (Actually, she’s mostly reading to the audience—for 41 minutes.)

Dauphine (whose status hearing, originally scheduled for June 1, has been postponed until the 15th) presented “Apocalypse Meow: Free-ranging Cats and the Destruction of American Wildlife” in March of 2009, at Warnell (where she earned her PhD). Although she tells the audience that her goal “is to review and present the best available science that we have,” what she delivers is essentially no different from what she presented in her Partners In Flight conference paper [1]  (much of which is recycled in the current issue of The Wildlife Professional in a special section called “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats” [2]).

In other words: lots of exaggerated and misleading claims—and plenty of glaring omissions (i.e., the distinction between compensatory and additive predation).

Included in the section on predation are all the usual suspects: Longcore et al., [3] Coleman and Temple, [4] Crooks and Soulé, [5] PhD dissertations by both Christopher Lepczyk [6] and Cole Hawkins, [7] along with references to Linda Winter, David Jessup, [8] Pamela Jo Hatley, and others.

Among the highlights:

Invasive Species (of All Kinds)
Referring to island extinctions, Dauphine references a 2008 paper by Dov Sax and Steven Gaines—the same one the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cite (again, as “evidence” of island extinctions caused by cats) in their Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex Integrated Predator Management Plan/Draft Environmental Assessment, released earlier this year. As I point out in my response to the Keys plan, though, the Sax & Gaines paper isn’t about cats at all, but invasive plants. [9]

Magic Multipliers
For Dauphine, Lepczyk’s estimated 52 birds/cat/year predation rate simply isn’t enough. Studies using “prey returns,” she argues, underestimate the real damage. “Some studies using radio-collars and other techniques have shown that, typically, cats will return maybe one in three kills that they make, and sometimes not at all—so this is, again, a very conservative estimate of the actual number of kills.”

But Lepczyk’s PhD work wasn’t based on “prey returns” at all. He used a survey (one of many flaws), asking landowners, “how many dead or injured birds a week do all the cats bring in during the spring and summer months?” [6]

And the idea that cats return only one in every three kills? That’s based on some wonky analysis by Kays and DeWan, who studied the hunting behaviors of just 24 cats: 12 that returned prey home, and another 12 (11 pets and 1 feral) that were observed hunting for a total of 181 hours (anywhere from 4.8–46.5 hours per cat). [10]

The Selective Generalist
Dauphine stretches Hawkins’ conclusions (which Hawkins himself had already stretched past the point of being defensible) to suggest “a sort of preferential prey take for native species in some cases, by cats.” In other words, the cats might target native species.

Or not. Less than two minutes later, Dauphine’s making the case for hyperpredation—the devastating impact on native prey species (e.g., seabirds) brought about by a large population of cats supported largely by predation on an introduced prey species (e.g., rabbits).

From Millions to Billions
It’s difficult not to see Dauphine’s assertion that “it’s not productive to argue about the numbers”—which comes fairly early in her presentation—as disingenuous when she tries repeatedly to quantify predation levels (each of which is then qualified as “conservative”). Her use of a graph included in the second edition of Frank Gill’s Ornithology (shown below) is particularly interesting.

Now, the original source of Gill’s cat “data,” as Dauphine acknowledges, is Rich Stallcup’s 1991 article, “A reversible catastrophe”—inexplicably, the only source Gill cites when he refers to predation by cats: “Domesticated cats in North America may kill 4 million songbirds every day, or perhaps over a billion birds each year (Stallcup 1991). Millions of hungrier, feral (wild) cats add to this toll…” [11]

And where does Stallcup’s “data” come from?

“He simply argued—he didn’t do a study—he just argued that if one in ten of those cats kills one bird per day, already then we have 1.6 billion cat-killed birds per year,” explains Dauphine. “We actually know that the numbers are much larger. For instance, he’s starting out with 55 million pet cats; we know there are over 100 million outdoor cats in this country, and possibly far more. We also know from some studies that 80 percent of cats hunt, and the number of birds killed per year are probably much higher. So again, just to emphasize: this is a conservative estimate.”

In fact, Stallcup’s “estimate” is even flimsier than Dauphine suggests:

“Let’s do a quick calculation, starting with numbers of pet cats. Population estimates of domestic house cats in the contiguous United States vary somewhat, but most agree the figure is between 50 and 60 million. On 3 March 1990, the San Francisco Chronicle gave the number as 57.9 million, ‘up 19 percent since 1984.’ For this assessment, let’s use 55 million.

Some of these (maybe 10 percent) never go outside, and maybe another 10 percent are too old or too slow to catch anything. That leaves 44 million domestic cats hunting in gardens, marshes, fields, thickets, empty lots, and forests.

It is impossible to know how many of those actively hunting animals catch how many birds, but the numbers are high. To be very conservative, say that only one in ten of those cats kills only one bird a day. This would yield a daily toll of 4.4 million songbirds!! Shocking, but true—and probably a low estimate (e.g., many cats get multiple birds a day).” [12]

Shocking, yes. True? Why would anybody think so? (I can see the appeal for Dauphine, though: like her, Stallcup grossly overestimates the number of pet cats allowed outdoors.)

(The fact that this absurdity made it—however well disguised—into a standard ornithology textbook may explain a great deal about the positions frequently taken by today’s wildlife managers and conservation biologists regarding feral cats/TNR.)

Apocalypse Now
Perhaps the strangest—almost surreal—part of “Apocalypse Meow” comes when, to illustrate her point that the (over)heated TNR debate can “result in a lot of misunderstandings, misinformation, and hard feelings,” Dauphine refers to an e-mail sent out to the university’s CATSONCAMPUS listserv during the fierce TNR debate in Athens, which read in part:

“There are some folks in the area (and all over) who are not only Anti-TNR, they also hate felines so much that some of them want to round up the cats in the area and kill them.”

Two years later, this is pretty much what Nico Dauphine stands accused of.

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. Dauphine, N. and Cooper, R.J., “Pick One: Outdoor Cats or Conservation.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 50–56.

3. Longcore, T., Rich, C., and Sullivan, L.M., “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return.” Conservation Biology. 2009. 23(4): p. 887–894. http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/pdf/Management_claims_feral_cats.pdf

4. Coleman, J.S. and Temple, S.A., “Rural Residents’ Free-Ranging Domestic Cats: A Survey.” Wildlife Society Bulletin. 1993. 21(4): p. 381–390. http://www.jstor.org/pss/3783408

5. Crooks, K.R. and Soulé, M.E., “Mesopredator release and avifaunal extinctions in a fragmented system.” Nature. 1999. 400(6744): p. 563–566. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v400/n6744/abs/400563a0.html

6. Lepczyk, C.A., Mertig, A.G., and Liu, J., “Landowners and cat predation across rural-to-urban landscapes.” Biological Conservation. 2003. 115(2): p. 191–201. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6V5X-48D39DN-5/2/d27bfff8454a44161f8dc1ad7cc585ea

7. Hawkins, C.C., Impact of a subsidized exotic predator on native biota: Effect of house cats (Felis catus) on California birds and rodents. 1998, Texas A&M University

8. 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


9. Sax, D.F. and Gaines, S.D., Species invasions and extinction: The future of native biodiversity on islands, in In the Light of Evolution II: Biodiversity and Extinction,. 2008: Irvine, CA. p. 11490–11497. www.pnas.org/content/105/suppl.1/11490.full


10. Kays, R.W. and DeWan, A.A., “Ecological impact of inside/outside house cats around a suburban nature preserve.” Animal Conservation. 2004. 7(3): p. 273-283. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1367943004001489


11. Gill, F.B., Ornithology. 2nd ed. 1995, New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

12. Stallcup, R., “A reversible catastrophe.” Observer 91. 1991(Spring/Summer): p. 8–9. http://www.prbo.org/cms/print.php?mid=530


Friends with Benefits

According to their 2009 Annual Report (the most recent available), Friends Of the National Zoo raised $17.5M in “total support and revenue” during 2009. Of that, $1.4M went to the National Zoo and Smithsonian Institution. But FONZ support doesn’t end there.

Consider the response I received from a FONZ spokesperson when I inquired about their position on the Zoo’s decision to keep Nico Dauphine on board:

Thank you for contacting the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and FONZ regarding the allegations against Dr. Nico Dauphine, a postdoctoral research fellow based within the Migratory Bird Center. We take our role as the nation’s zoo very seriously and work hard to provide leadership in animal care, conservation science, education, and sustainability.

Animal care is one of the Zoo’s top priorities, and we appreciate when visitors share our passion and concern for our animals’ well-being. Please be assured that Dr. Dauphine’s research in no way jeopardizes animals, and the Smithsonian has taken appropriate temporary precautions with respect to her postdoctoral appointment. These restrictions will allow this matter to be fairly resolved within the judicial system.

Our leadership team thanks you for sharing our passion for the Zoo, and your continued support is greatly appreciated.

Now, compare that to the response a colleague received about the same time from the National Zoo (this shouldn’t take long):

Thank you for contacting the Smithsonian’s National Zoo regarding the allegations against Dr. Nico Dauphine, a postdoctoral research fellow based within the Migratory Bird Center. We take our role as the nation’s zoo very seriously and work hard to provide leadership in animal care, conservation science, education, and sustainability.

Animal care is one of the Zoo’s top priorities, and we appreciate when visitors share our passion and concern for our animals’ well-being. Please be assured that Dr. Dauphine’s research in no way jeopardizes animals, and the Smithsonian has taken appropriate temporary precautions with respect to her postdoctoral appointment. These restrictions will allow this matter to be fairly resolved within the judicial system.

Our leadership team thanks you for sharing our passion for the Zoo, and your continued support is greatly appreciated.

All this talk of leadership and animal care seems like a mix of wishful thinking and damage control more than anything else. Would the reaction—from either the Zoo or FONZ—be the same if the animals involved weren’t neighborhood cats, but animals in the Zoo’s collection? I rather doubt it.

(Oh, and for the record: the Zoo does not have my continued support.)

•     •     •

“A friend will help you move,” goes the old joke. “A good friend will help you move a body.”

When FONZ says they’re “the dedicated partner of the National Zoological Park,” they mean it. Indeed, FONZ seems just as interested as the National Zoo in sweeping this whole “attempted animal cruelty” business under the rug. (Imagine: bad press the week before the busy Memorial Day weekend!)

Earlier this week, I sent my comments to National Zoo director Dennis Kelly via the Zoo’s incredibly opaque contact form. It turns out the same form is used to contact FONZ—bringing to mind the image of a series of individual recycling bins that, in fact, all lead to the same destination: the trash. Rather than falling for the same trick once more, then, I’m posting my message to FONZ right here:

Friends don’t let friends employ accused cat killers.