More Cats, Less Brain Cancer

“Evidence continues to pile up,” writes Michael Hutchins, Executive Director and CEO of The Wildlife Society, in yesterday’s blog post, “that Toxoplasmosis, a disease caused by a parasite (Toxoplasma gondii) that lives in the guts of cats, may be responsible for serious human health problems.”

Hutchins was referring to a recent study in which researchers found “Infection with T. gondii was associated with a 1.8-fold increase in the risk of brain cancers across the range of T. gondii prevalence in our dataset (4–67 percent).” [1]

True to form, Hutchins used the opportunity to call for “doing away with managed cat colonies and TNR (trap-neuter-release) management practices for feral cats,” making a public plea to “public health officials, including the CDC.”

But what exactly does this latest study contribute to Hutchins’ “pile of evidence”?

The Study
According to a news release from the U.S. Geological Survey, “the study analyzed 37 countries for several population factors” and “showed that countries where Toxoplasma gondii is common also had higher incidences of adult brain cancers than in those countries where the organism is not common.”

“The study does not prove that Toxoplasma gondii directly causes cancer in humans, and the study does not imply that an infected person automatically has high cancer risk,” says [Kevin] Lafferty, who is based at the USGS Western Ecological Research Center. “However, we do know that Toxoplasma gondii behaves in ways that could stimulate cells towards cancerous states, so the discovery of this correlation offers a new hypothesis for an infectious link to cancer.”

According to the study’s abstract (I’ve been unable to access the paper), the authors took into account several factors:

“We corrected reports of incidence for national gross domestic product because wealth probably increases the ability to detect cancer. We also included gender, cell phone use and latitude as variables in our initial models. Prevalence of T. gondii explained 19 per cent of the residual variance in brain cancer incidence after controlling for the positive effects of gross domestic product and latitude among nations.” [1]

It will be interesting to compare—once I’m able to review the study in detail—these findings with those published earlier this year in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (a collaborative effort involving several agencies, including, as it happens, the CDC):

“The relatively low variation in incidence and death rates for cancer of the brain and [other nervous system] nationally and internationally suggests that environmental risk factors do not play a major role in this disease. In fact, other than hereditary tumor syndromes and increased familial risk without a known syndrome, the only known modifiable causal risk factor for brain tumors is exposure to ionizing radiation.” [2, in-line citations removed for readability]

Correlation ≠ Causation
To illustrate the critical difference between correlation and causation, author Charles Seife uses the dramatic example of the mid-1990s NutraSweet scare—which, incredibly, was also linked brain cancer (falsely, as it turns out).

“Lots of people… don’t eat foods that contain the artificial sweetener NutraSweet for fear of developing brain cancer,” writes Seife, tracing the mythical connection to “a bunch of psychiatrists led by Washington University’s John Olney.”

“These scientists noticed that there was an alarming rise in brain tumor rates about three or four years after NutraSweet was introduced in the market.

Aha! The psychiatrists quickly came to the obvious conclusion: NutraSweet is causing brain cancer! They published their findings in a peer-reviewed journal, the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology, and their paper immediately grabbed headlines around the world.

But a closer look at the data shows how unconvincing the link really is. Sure, NutraSweet consumption was going up at the same time brain tumor rates were, but a lot of other things were on the rise, too, such as cable TV, Sony Walkmen, Tom Cruise’s career. When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, government spending increased just as dramatically as brain tumor rates… The correlation between government overspending and brain cancer is just as solid as the link between NutraSweet and brain cancer.” [3]

Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it?

Given the numerous factors and interrelationships involved in developing brain cancer—some of which, of course, we don’t even know—Hutchins’ eager indictment of cats is, at the very least, premature. In fact, Hutchins is going to have a difficult time connecting the dots in light of recent research.

More Cats, Less Brain Cancer
If brain cancer is more common where T. gondii is more common, then one might expect rates of brain cancer to increase over time as the prevalence of T. gondii increases. Which would seem to be the case here in the U.S., if cats are indeed the culprit.

According to data compiled last year in Conservation Biology, the population of pet cats tripled over the past 40 years, from approximately 31 million in 1971 to more than 90 million today. [4]

So what about brain cancer?

In 2006, researchers using data from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program for 1973–2001 were surprised to find incident rates decreasing. Following an increase of 1.68 percent between 1973 and 1987, the incident rate began to drop off by 0.44 percent annually (as indicated in the chart below; EAPC = estimated annual percentage of change).

“The cause for this decline,” suggest the study’s authors, “is unclear because of the paucity of definitive knowledge on the risk factors of brain cancer, but solace can be taken from the fact that brain cancers are not rising in this era of increasing environmental toxic exposures.” [5]

More recently, a report published by the Central Brain Tumor Registry of the United States (PDF) found “no statistically significant trend in incidence rates of all primary brain tumors from 2004 through 2007.” [6]

•     •     •

Lafferty and his colleagues concede that their work is “correlational,” a jumping-off point for further investigation. Again, I haven’t been able to read the paper yet, but I’m skeptical that their line of inquiry is headed anywhere productive. Cast a net as wide as they did—surveying the prevalence of T. gondii and incidence of brain cancer across 37 countries—and you’re bound to catch something.

Of course, something is all Michael Hutchins needs for his witch-hunt.

Hutchins refers to piles of evidence without taking the trouble to examine any of it, simply ignoring what doesn’t fit neatly into his narrative—declining brain cancer rates in the U.S., for example. Or, some rather interesting comments from Lafferty himself (which, strangely, were omitted from USGS’s news release, but were mentioned by several other news outlets, including LiveScience and Fox News):

“…one shouldn’t be panicking about owning cats… The risk factors for getting Toxoplasma are really hygiene and eating undercooked meat. One should be more concerned about those than pets.”

That sounds familiar, too. It’s the same advice the CDC provides on its Website.

Literature Cited
1. Thomas, F., et al., “Incidence of adult brain cancers is higher in countries where the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii is common.” Biology Letters. 2011.

2. Kohler, B.A., et al., “Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, 1975, Featuring Tumors of the Brain and Other Nervous System.” Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 2011.

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

4. 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.

5. Deorah, S., et al., “Trends in brain cancer incidence and survival in the United States: Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program, 1973 to 2001.” Neurological Focus. 2006. 20(April): p. E1.

6. n.a., CBTRUS Statistical Report: Primary Brain and Central Nervous System Tumors Diagnosed in the United States in 2004-2007. 2011, Central Brain Tumor Registry of the United States: Hinsdale, IL.

Video Games

Northern mockingbirdNorthern mockingbird. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Ken Thomas.

“I thought the cats probably really hammered them when they were fledglings,” said former University of Florida doctoral student Christine Stracey in a press release about her study of Northern mockingbirds, “but when they were in the nests, I didn’t really expect the cats to be a huge problem. But I was really wrong about that.”

So, how big a problem are “the cats,” exactly?

No doubt it depends who you ask. But even Stracey, now an assistant professor of biology at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, seems to have rather different opinions on the matter.

In a paper documenting her research, to be published in Biological Conservation, Stracey readily acknowledges the limitations of her work:

“Before we can fully understand the role of nest predation in shaping urban bird communities, we need studies of a suite of species that do and do not thrive in urban environments and we need to study how predator diets change on a rural-urban gradient.” [1]

In the press release, however, Stracey’s not nearly so reserved: “We don’t see any reason why cats wouldn’t also eat cardinal nestlings, brown thrashers, towhees—anything else that is nesting in similar locations.” Noting that some of the cats caught on camera were wearing collars, she warns:

“People should not let their cats roam outdoors at all, but at the very least, keeping them inside at night will cut down on nest predation. Beyond that, we need to think hard about the feral cat problem.”

No wonder the story was picked up so enthusiastically by science sites (e.g., “To Kill a Mockingbird, Just Get a Cat” and “Cats No. 1 Predator to Urban Mockingbird Nests”).

While I agree completely that “we need to think hard about the feral cat problem,” I’m not convinced by Stracey’s work that cats are having any appreciable impact on the population of Gainesville’s Northern mockingbirds—never mind “anything else that is nesting in similar locations.” Indeed, Stracey herself describes the Northern mockingbird as an “urban winner,” and a “native species that is able to not only live with us, but do really well living with us.”

Well, which is it?

The Study
Stracey’s Biological Conservation paper combines the results of her work videotaping nest predators with data from 2005 and 2006, when she and her advisor, Scott Robinson, “documented [without the use of cameras] reduced nest predation in urban habitats at many of the same study sites.” [1]

The later work, conducted for her PhD thesis, involved collecting “data on nest predation rates at seven study sites (two parking lots, three residential neighborhoods, two pastures, and one wildlife preserve) in areas in and around Gainesville, FL between February and August of 2007–2008.” [1] In 2009, “one of the residential neighborhoods, one of the parking lots, and one of the pastures” were not included. [1]

Over this same period, Stracey used video cameras (clips are available at her Website) mounted at several nest locations (eight in 2007, 52 in 2008, and 84 in 2009) “to compare the identity of nest predators at nests in the urban matrix and non-urban habitats.” [1] Which, presumably, will shed light on the generally accepted urban nest predator paradox, which Stracey describes as the “mismatch between predation rates, which are often lower in urban areas, and predator abundance, which is often higher in urban areas.” [1]

In other words: if there are so many more predators is urban areas, why do predation levels tend to be lower?

Nest Survival
Using the logistic exposure method, Stracey calculated daily survival rates for Northern mockingbird nests for each habitat and each year of her study.

Here, the daily survival rate (DSR) is a measure of the odds that the eggs or nestlings will remain in the nest from one day to the next. A DSR of 90 percent, for example, means there’s a 90 percent chance—or nine-to-one odds—of a nest surviving from day to day. Or, to put it another way, there’s a 10 percent chance that the nest’s contents will be destroyed by a predator. (More generally, DSR includes any nest “failure,” but because Stracey was interested in predation, she “only considered nests that failed due to predation as ‘unsuccessful,’ thus her “daily survival rates… are not a measure of overall nest survival, but rather the probability of a nest escaping predation.’’ [1])

Nine-to-one odds sound great if you’re in Las Vegas, but no winning streak lasts forever. Over the course of the entire nest cycle, even a DSR of 96 or 97 percent takes its toll.

In the case of the Northern mockingbird, it takes about 13 days for the eggs to hatch and another 12 for the subsequent nestling stage. [2] (At least this is what Fischer found working in south Texas; Stracey doesn’t go into such details in her paper.) A DSR of 97 yields a 46.7 percent nest survival rate; a DSR of 96, only 36 percent (and this doesn’t take into account the additional “3 to 5 days for nest construction [and] 3 to 5 days for egg laying” observed by Fischer, who found that “a successful nest was used for an average of 33 days.” [2])

Assuming (conservatively) that there was essentially no risk of predation prior to the eggs being hatched, I used Stracey’s DSR data and a nest cycle of 25 days to estimate nest survival rates. (I also reordered the data to better compare habitats year-to-year.)

The result illustrates three important points:

  1. The residential neighborhoods—the only sites where cats were observed predating nests (more on that shortly)—are safer than either of the non-urban sites (the two pastures and the wildlife preserve) during 2005 and 2006, when cameras weren’t in use. (While I’m not suggesting that this difference is the result of the cameras, I’m not convinced that the cameras were as impartial as Stracey would have us believe—this, too, will be addressed shortly.) Indeed, even during 2007–2009, the results are, at best, mixed.
  2. The wildlife preserve, contrary to what its name suggests, fails to “outperform” the other habitats’ nest survival rates across all five years—sometimes (as in 2005, when the rate was just over 14 percent) spectacularly.
  3. Perhaps the most striking result, though, is the nest survival rates of Stracey’s two parking lot sites, which, in every year but 2008, top those of the other habitats—two to four times the rates documented at the wildlife preserve in some years. “Urban winner” is right. With apologies to Joni Mitchell, then, perhaps the best thing for the mockingbirds is to pave paradise and put up a parking lot.

Strong Nest Predators
My interest in Stracey’s work has less to do with nest survival itself, and much more to do with the role of cats in nest failure. Of the 24 predation events caught on tape in the residential neighborhoods, 17 (71 percent) were attributed to cats. By contrast, no cats were observed predating nests in the pastures or at the nature preserve. There, Cooper’s hawks were responsible for 15 of 33 (45 percent) predation events taking place at occupied nests. (One abandoned nest was raided by a blue jay.)

“I found no evidence,” writes Stracey, “that urban areas provide a refuge from strong nest predators.” [1]

“The strongest predator, cats, were essentially only found in urban areas, and Cooper’s hawks, the dominant predator in rural habitats, were found at roughly the same abundance in the two habitats (pers. obs.)… These results suggest that simple considerations of predator abundance do not explain habitat-specific patterns of nest predation.” [1]

Dig into the details of Stracey’s study, though, and it becomes clear that she’s probably overestimating the strength of cats as urban predators. In fact, her camera placement (intentionally or not) almost certainly biased her data.

Stracey didn’t use nest cameras in the parking lots “for fear of theft,” [1] a perfectly reasonable concession, but that means excluding approximately 36 percent (according to my calculations) of “urban” nest predation from her “whodunit” data set. And it’s easy to imagine that predation at these sites was skewed heavily toward predators other than cats (probably birds).

In terms of identifying individual predators, then, “urban” habitats include only residential neighborhoods.

Stracey also eliminated as candidates for video cameras 21 (7 percent) nests located more than 4 meters (approximately 13 feet) off the ground. These nests would seem to be largely inaccessible to cats. Similarly, she eliminated 18 of 124 (14.5 percent) of nests “located in trees that were right on the edge of a sidewalk or street that did not afford a place to hide the set-up.” [1] Again, perfectly understandable, but this almost certainly biased her results.

In short, it seems Stracey observed predation by cats largely because she placed the cameras where the cats were.

In addition to the 58 events caught on camera, “22 predation events were missed due to problems with the camera set-up, including drained batteries and damaged wires.” [1] Whether or not these incidents were evenly distributed across the three different habitats isn’t clear, and the implications could be significant.

As it is, the majority (58.6 percent) of videotaped predation occurred at non-urban sites; had the bulk of the technical problems (which accounted for 27.5 percent of the 80 predation events Stracey had the opportunity to videotape) also occurred at those sites, Stracey would have a more difficult time concluding, as she does, that “urban areas clearly do not provide a generalized refuge from nest predators.” [1]

Or maybe not. Even if Cooper’s hawks accounted for twice the nest predation as cats, I suspect the focus would merely shift from absolute predation rates to predation by non-native predators.

And finally there’s the question of whether the nest cameras had any effect on predation levels. Stracey says they didn’t, but it appears that she simply compared failure rates for nests with and without cameras for each year the cameras were in use.

Richardson et al. (whose work Stracey cites) point out that “expression of neophobia and wariness among larger mammals, corvids, and raptors is likely to differ according to the extent to which those predators have been persecuted [inline citations omitted]. Such variation should be considered when interpreting the results of camera studies from different habitats and among different groups of nest predators.” [3, emphasis mine]

“Although camera equipment at nests likely does attract the attention of generalist predators, we propose that many predators may not respond positively to these potentially novel objects. Some small rodents, in particular, can be highly neophobic, reacting to novel stimuli with extreme caution and often avoidance (Barnett and Cowan 1976, Innes 1978). Though seemingly fearless and inquisitive, wild corvids likewise can be highly neophobic, particularly toward objects that do not resemble natural food items (Coppinger 1969, Heinrich et al. 1995), which may explain why Thompson et al. (1999), expecting to document nest predation by American crows and blue jays based on their abundance at the study site and their reputation as nest predators, did not record predation by any corvids. Raptors may exhibit a degree of neophobia as well (Ruggiero et al. 1979). Both canids and corvids have demonstrated aversion toward remote camera equipment, possibly driven more by wariness of human activity than generalized neophobia (Hernandez et al. 1997, Harris and Knowlton 2001, Herranz et al. 2002, Sequin et al. 2003). For nest studies using remote cameras, neophobia may be reinforced by the fact that camera equipment is seldom left in place for >2 weeks. As nests fail or fledge, camera equipment is relocated to active nests at new locations.” [3]

To illustrate what they mean by persecution, Richardson et al. cite the work of Herranz et al. (one of those in-line citations omitted above): “In our study area, Black-billed Magpies are shot and trapped by hunters, and this may increase their awareness of strange objects in the environment.” [4]

It seems reasonable, then, to expect that cats—the most “welcome” (especially those kept as pets) of the predators in Stracey’s study—would also be the least neophobic. (Though, of course, from a historical perspective, cats are arguably the most persecuted of the lot.)

It may well be, then, that Stracey caught more cats on camera largely because (1) the cameras were located—literally—in the cats’ backyards, and (2) the cats weren’t put off by the equipment.

•     •     •

I asked Stracey about all of this by way of e-mail, but received no response. My follow-up e-mail also went unanswered, but I did notice some Website traffic from the Salt Lake City area that same day. Of course, it could be nothing more than coincidence.

The same can be said for the traffic I saw from Columbus, OH, late last week on the same day I contacted Dr. Amanda Rodewald, professor of wildlife ecology at Ohio State University. From what I can tell, Rodewald had nothing to do with Stracey’s mockingbird study; nevertheless, she was quoted in the UF press release:

“There are a lot of loud voices that deny cats are important predators of birds in our cities… But this study shows clearly that cats were the dominant predator in this Florida system—and that wasn’t presumed, it was recorded on video, so it was fact.”

So, I sent Rodewald an e-mail—identifying myself as one of those “loud voices.” I explained that I wasn’t asking her to speak for Stracey, nor to defend the research. But, given her own research interest—and her obvious concern with Stracey’s work—perhaps she might be able to answer one question for me: What impact might we expect on the area’s Northern mockingbird populations if the cats were removed from the environment?

No response yet—though it’s only been a few days. Still, I’m not holding my breath.

Literature Cited
1.  Stracey, C.M., “Resolving the urban nest predator paradox: The role of alternative foods for nest predators.” Biological Conservation. 2011. In Press, Corrected Proof.

2. Fischer, D.H., “Factors Affecting the Reproductive Success of the Northern Mockingbird in South Texas.” The Southwestern Naturalist. 1981. 26(3): p. 289–293.

3. Richardson, T.W., Gardali, T., and Jenkins, S.H., “Review and Meta-Analysis of Camera Effects on Avian Nest Success.” Journal of Wildlife Management. 2009. 73(2): p. 287–293.

4. Herranz, J., Yanes, M., and Suárez, F., “Does photo-monitoring affect nest predation? Journal of Field Ornithology. 2002. 73(1): p. 97–101.[0097:DPMANP]2.0.CO;2

Hoarding: Mendota, Illinois

On Tuesday, Illinois Valley Cat Taxi, Inc., located in Mendota (about 100 miles southwest of Chicago) put out a plea for help.

“Last week we were called to assist the cats living in and outside of a home where a lady with a serious hoarding illness resides. Neighbors were concerned about sick cats, dead cats, foul smells coming from the home, filth. In cooperation with Social Services and with rescue help from Spay It Forward, we went to the scene Saturday evening and began removing the most urgent cats.”

As the photos (some of the them on the graphic side) demonstrate the neighbors had good reason to be concerned. (Photos are posted on Cat Taxi’s blog and their Facebook page.)

Not surprisingly, this rescue is far from over.

“…our work continues removing cats even as we tend to the wounded we’ve already taken in. Many of the cats are friendly—these each deserve a new, loving home where they will be cherished and we will ensure that each cat receives a wonderful new home once they are healthy, neutered, vaccinated, and microchipped [adoption applications]. Many of the cats are feral—these will each enter our Barn Cat Program and be relocated in groups to farm adopters where they will have haylofts to sleep in, field mice to chase, and full bowls of chow every day.”

Last I checked, the group is $595 toward their goal of $2,500 (the estimated cost of veterinary care). If you can help, please do so.

Cat Taxi is making it quick and easy—see their blog for the ChipIn! donation link.

Not in a position to donate right now? It’s understandable. You can always show them your support by “Liking” their Facebook page (and while you’re at it, how about “Liking” the Spay It Forward (brilliant name!) page, too?).

My sincere thanks to the people at Illinois Valley Pet Taxi, Inc. and Spay It Forward for stepping in!

The Daily Show’s Take on the Cat-Bird Debate

Screenshot--The Daily Show

By now, many—perhaps most—readers have already seen the segment of Monday night’s episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in which correspondent Aasif Mandvi satirized the cat-bird debate (described all too accurately, I’m afraid, by Mandvi as an “intractable war”).

Interviewed for the piece were American Bird Conservancy president George Fenwick and Alley Cat Allies president Becky Robinson (the cats’ “moneyed lobbyist,” as Mandvi explained, tongue firmly in cheek), while Jackson Galaxy’s contribution was, sadly, reduced to little more than a cameo.

I can’t imagine Fenwick’s pleased with how he came off, but perhaps he should be counting his blessings.

Frankly, I’d like to have seen Fenwick in the hot seat—Jim Kramer-style—defending his talking points (e.g., “cats are super-predators, especially when it comes to birds,” “cats kill hundreds of millions of birds,” etc.) to an unsympathetic Stewart.

Answering the Wrong Questions in Columbia, MO

Just three days after the Columbia Heart Beat reported that Nathan Voris may have had a financial stake in Columbia, Missouri’s new animal control ordinance, Voris is denying any conflict of interest.

Voris, the former chair of the Columbia-Boone County Board of Health—now an employee of Pfizer Animal Health—was instrumental in crafting the ordinance, which requires all colony cats to “be tested annually for feline leukemia and feline immune deficiency virus.” No such testing is required for pet cats.

Pfizer Animal Health manufactures vaccines and a variety of FeLV and FIV tests for cats.

According to a story in yesterday’s Columbia Daily Tribune, though, Voris’ relationship with Pfizer (which, the Heart Beat reported, actually began when Voris was in veterinary school, serving as the drug-maker’s student rep) had no impact on the ordinance.

“Voris said he did not begin his employment with Pfizer until after provisions regarding feral cats were written into the proposed legislation, and, as a member of the Equine Veterinary Operations team for Pfizer, he has no personal stake in products for cats.”

According to the Tribune, Voris testified at last week’s City Council meeting, where the ordinance was approved 4–2, “and he defended the effectiveness of tests for feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus.”

Was anybody disputing the effectiveness of the tests? The question is not whether or not they are effective, but whether they’re appropriate.

Research suggests that FeLV and FIV infection rates among colony cats are “similar to infection rates reported for owned cats,” [1] so the cats don’t benefit from annual testing. And the caretakers certainly don’t—in addition to the challenges of trapping and transporting cats for yearly vet visits, there’s the cost (easily $60 or more per cat, a local clinic tells me).

And there’s no benefit to local animal control officers, or to public health. So, what’s the provision in there for? According to Voris, the annual testing requirement has been in there for more than a year now—and still, nobody can explain its purpose.

I certainly can’t.

The news stories over the past week or so have done nothing to change my initial impression of Columbia’s new ordinance: this is the kind of legislation I’d craft if I were dead-set against TNR but lacked the integrity to take a stand publicly.

[Thank you, once again, to Alley Cat Rescue for the tip.]

Literature Cited
1. Lee, I.T., et al., “Prevalence of feline leukemia virus infection and serum antibodies against feline immunodeficiency virus in unowned free-roaming cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2002. 220(5): p. 620-622.

Pharma’s Market?

In my previous post, I criticized proposed revisions to Columbia, Missouri’s animal control ordinance, arguing that its onerous provisions “suggest either a lack of input from TNR practitioners, or a lack of good-faith negotiation on the part of those responsible for drafting the proposal. Or both.”

Later that same day, the Columbia City Council approved the ordinance 4–2. According to Ward 1 Councilman Fred Schmidt, who voted in favor of the proposal, the fact that the feral cat provisions are largely unenforceable played a key role in its approval.

Ward 4 Councilman Daryl Dudley, the only other official to respond to my inquiries, had a decidedly different take: “I believe that feral cats should be treated the same as feral dogs.”

Conflict of Interest
Four days later, reporter Mike Martin, writing for the Columbia Heart Beat, shed some new light on the issue.

“One of the chief architects of a controversial new Columbia ordinance that mandates yearly testing and vaccinations for stray cats is employed by a pharmaceutical giant that makes and sells the newly-required vaccines and tests, the Columbia Heart Beat has learned.”

Nathan Voris, who chaired the Columbia-Boone County Board of Health during 2010, after being elected Vice Chair in 2009, has been an employee of Pfizer Animal Health for the past year. According to Martin’s story, Voris also served as a student rep for the pharmaceutical giant during his days in veterinary school.

“Voris’ employer, writes Martin, “is a leading maker of at least six feline leukemia tests including one for ‘difficult-to-sample cats’ called ASSURE FeLV; four feline immunodeficiency tests; and rabies tests and vaccines under the Pfizer and Synbiotics brand names.”

Columbia’s new ordinance is perhaps the first in the country to require all colony cats to “be tested annually for feline leukemia and feline immune deficiency virus.” No such testing is required for the city’s pet cats.

Christina McCullen, a board member of SNAP (Spay, Neuter & Protect), a local TNR group opposed to the ordinance, told Martin that Voris’ “position on the feral cat ordinance was so extreme that other Board of Health members were commenting about it and attempting to be more moderate.”

“I had no idea that Nathan Voris was an employee of Pfizer, and I am outraged to learn that he may have a financial conflict of interest in the contentious debate over including these tests and vaccinations in the ordinance.”

Very Mixed Feelings
Whatever Voris’ financial interests, his opposition to TNR is no surprise.

In his May 22, 2009 blog post, Voris portrays stray and feral cats (and, by association, their caretakers) as the very scourge of Boone County. Voris’ claim that he has “very mixed feelings on the issue of feeding stray cats or managing stray cat colonies” is contradicted by his litany of complaints.

Many of Voris’ objections to TNR mirror Dudley’s: cats should be treated no differently than dogs—in which case, one feral cat is too many. (Voris’ “concession” is straight out of the American Bird Conservancy playbook: “If the captured cats were released into an enclosure that protected neighbors, the ecosystem and the public, I would fully support the TNR program.”)

Voris’ apparent concern for rabies vaccinations is understandable—if overblown. His hand-wringing over personal property damage, on the other hand, seems little more than a red herring. Misguided, too, if Voris is implying that a (growing) population of unsterilized cats is likely to cause less damage and prompt fewer nuisance complaints than a community of managed colonies.

But it’s the “ecosystem” portion of his argument that I found most interesting.

As evidence of the “environmental impacts of stray cat colonies on local wildlife,” Voris cites the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Migratory Bird Mortality “fact sheet” [1] (PDF), which, in turn, cites as its single source the infamous  “Wisconsin Study.”

If he’s looking for a scientific argument for opposing TNR, Voris is off to a remarkably poor start.

“There are coastal locations,” Voris continues, “where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are rounding up stray cat colonies due to their predation on endangered birds.”

“We have similar shorebirds (least tern and piping plover) on the Missouri River that are protected under the Endangered Species Act. If there were an exception for stray cat colony caretakers, what would stop every cat owner from claiming they are a colony caretaker and exempt from responsibility for their pet?”

Voris is right about USFWS’s shoreline roundups (though their rationale remains questionable). But along the Missouri River? According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, “The majority of nesting on the Missouri River by both species occurs” outside of Missouri:

“…below Gavins Point [on the Nebraska-South Dakota border] and Garrison Dams [North Dakota]. Least terns can also be found in small numbers below Fort Peck [Montana] and Fort Randall Dams [South Dakota] and occasionally limited nesting occurs on reservoir segments. Piping plovers also nest heavily on Lake Sakakawea and Lake Oahe with limited nesting occurring on Fort Peck Lake, Lewis and Clark Lake, and the sections of the Missouri River below Fort Peck Dam [Montana] and Fort Randall Dam. [South Dakota]” [2]

Reports from USACE suggest that cats simply aren’t a significant threat in these areas.

“Species documented as taking least tern and/or piping plover eggs, chicks, and/or adults: coyote, domestic dog, mink, raccoon, the American crow, American kestrel, black-billed magpie, common raven, European starling, great blue heron, great horned owl, northern harrier, merlin, peregrine falcon, red-tailed hawk, ring-billed gull, and various snake species.” [3]

In fact, neither the Final Predation Management Plan for Least Tern and Piping Plover Habitat along the Missouri River, [2] nor the related Environmental Assessment [3] mentions cats even once (this, despite numerous comments from ABC included in the EA).

(According to USFWS, by the way, “The serious decline of these birds [sic] species is directly related to the current operation of the [river] system and the elimination of habitat necessary for their survival. The large reservoirs formed by the six dams on the river have greatly changed the character of the river and the fish and wildlife it supports.” And I rather suspect USACE had a hand in the river’s “current operation.”)

•     •     •

Whether or not Voris’ association with Pfizer Animal Health is responsible for the inexplicable yearly testing provision in Columbia’s new ordinance, it’s clear that the provision has nothing to do with his alleged concerns for “neighboring property, the ecosystem and public health.”

I ended my previous post this way: If Columbia is truly interested in addressing the issue of feral cat management, then, it’s back to the drawing board—with, one hopes, a team that will take the task more seriously. A week later, I don’t see that Nathan Voris has any role to play on that team.

[Note: Alley Cat Allies has posted an Action Alert as a convenient way for Missouri residents to contact Columbia officials about this issue.]

Literature Cited
1. n.a., Migratory Bird Mortality. 2002, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Arlington, VA.

2. n.a., Final Predation Management Plan for Least Tern and Piping Plover Habitat along the Missouri River. 2009, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Missouri River Recovery Integrated Science Program: Omaha, NE. p. 46.

3. n.a., Environmental Assessment Predation Management Plan for the Least Tern and Piping Plover Habitat Along the Missouri River. 2009, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District: Omaha, NE. p. 109.

Columbia, MO

When the Columbia, MO, city council meets July 5th, they’ll be voting on “Amending Chapter 5 of the City Code relating to animals and fowl.” Many of the proposed amendments are found in Article VI, which addresses issues related to feral cat colonies and the numerous requirements being proposed for their caretakers—including two-year permits and yearly FeLV/FIV testing.

While it’s encouraging to see city officials debating this important issue, Columbia’s proposed ordinance (PDF) is likely to do more harm than good—for the cats, their caretakers, and for the community as a whole.

* * * Readers interested in contacting city officials will find contact information here. * * *

Article VI reads as follows:

Sec. 5-111. Feeding a feral cat colony without a permit.

No person shall provide food, water or other forms of sustenance to a feral cat colony without a feral cat colony caretaker permit.

Sec. 5-112. Feral cat colony caretaker permit.

(a) Any organization or individual over the age of eighteen (18) may submit an application to the department for a feral cat colony caretaker permit. The application shall be on a form provided by the department and shall provide the following information:

  1. A detailed description of the cats in the colony;
  2. Proof that the feral cats in the colony have been ear tipped and microchipped, neutered or spayed and vaccinated against rabies or are spaying and vaccination against rabies;
  3. The address of the private property where the colony will be maintained;
  4. Written permission from the private property owner to maintain the colony at such address; and
  5. Contact information for the applicant and any other information that may be required by the department.

(b) Feral cat colony caretaker permits shall be issued for a period of two (2) years.
(c) A permit fee of twenty-five dollars ($25.00) shall be paid when the original application is submitted and biannually for permit renewals.
(d) An animal control officer may inspect the private property where the feral cat colony will be maintained.
(e) No feral cat colony caretaker permit shall be issued for a feral cat colony located on public property.

Sec. 5-113. Requirements for care of feral cat colonies.

Every person issued a feral cat colony caretaker permit shall comply with the following requirements:

  1. Regularly feed the cat colony, including weekends and holidays.
  2. Annually trap each cat over the age of eight (8) weeks in order to comply with requirements (3) through (6).
  3. All cats must be spayed or neutered.
  4. All cats must be tested annually for feline leukemia and feline immune deficiency virus. Those cats testing positive must be humanely euthanized or isolated indoors.
  5. Identify all trapped cats by tipping their ears and insertion of a microchip.
  6. Have all cats vaccinated for rabies in addition to any other vaccinations or immunization requirement imposed by the state.
  7. Maintain records on the location and size of the colonies as well as the vaccination, microchipping, ear tipping and spay and neuter records of the colony cats.
  8. Take all reasonable steps to a) remove kittens from the colony after they have been weaned; b) place the kittens in homes or foster care; and c) capture and spay the mother cat.
  9. Obtain medical attention for any colony cat that exhibits illness, signs of rabies or unusual behavior and remove the cat from the colony to prevent disease or injury to other cats in the colony.
  10. If possible, report number of cats that died or otherwise ceased to be a part of the colony and the number of cats placed in animal shelters or permanent homes as companion cats.

Sec. 5-114. Revocation of permit.

(a) The director may revoke the feral cat colony caretaker permit of any permit holder for any of the following reasons:

  1. Conviction of any violation of this chapter or any other animal statute or ordinance.
  2. Failure of the permit holder or property owner to permit an animal control officer to inspect the property at which the feral cat colony is located.
  3. Failure or inability of the permit holder to provide care for the feral cat colony as required by Sec. 5-113.
  4. The size of the feral cat colony has increased to such numbers that the colony is a health hazard or interferes with the peace or quiet of any Columbia resident.

(b) Within sixty (60) days of the revocation of permit, the former permit holder shall relocate the colony to the care of one or more feral cat colony permit holders.

•     •     •

Nancy Peterson, Cat Programs Manager, Companion Animals, Humane Society of the United States addresses several of the flaws in Columbia’s proposed ordinance in her letter to city officials. I share Peterson’s concerns—the expenses associated with permits and microchipping, for example, which would unnecessarily burden caretakers (and divert precious funding from sterilization efforts).

Among the issues I’d like to address in detail are Article VI’s overly broad language, its requirement for FeLV/FIV testing, and its restrictions on feeding feral and stray cats.

Vague Language
Although permit applicants would be required to provide “a detailed description of the cats in the colony,” there’s no mention of which details are to be included. (Presumably, the application will be more specific.)

Similarly, caretakers are required to “maintain records on the location and size of the colonies as well as the vaccination, microchipping, ear tipping and spay and neuter records of the colony cats.” But records from low-cost, high-volume vet clinics—upon which most TNR programs depend—often omit the kinds of detailed information routinely included for pet cats. (I’ve seen paperwork that includes nothing but trap number and sex, for example.)

And when it comes to the location and size of a colony, what sort of records will be sufficient? Considering the potential consequences involved—revocation of a caretaker’s permit—more precise language is in order.

Perhaps the most unsettling language, though, is Article VI’s provision for inspection of “the property at which the feral cat colony is located.”

It’s not clear what circumstances would justify such an inspection, or whether caretakers would be given notice (or, as far as that goes, even allowed to be present). Do animal control officers have such far-reaching authority when it comes to inspection of private property housing pet cats (or dogs)? As Peterson suggests, this provision may very well run up against search and seizure protections and privacy laws.

FeLV, FIV, and Rabies
Article VI requires all cats to “be tested annually for feline leukemia and feline immune deficiency virus. Those cats testing positive must be humanely euthanized or isolated indoors.”

Given the impracticalities involved with isolating a feral cat, of course, a “failed” test is essentially a death sentence.

And, of course, the testing poses significant challenges for caretakers, both logistically and financially (easily $60 or more per cat, a local clinic tells me). Indeed, the only TNR programs likely to satisfy this requirement are those participating in formal research studies—and therefore provided with additional resources.

What’s more, there’s no justification for such a provision in the first place—because there’s no reason to expect infection rates among colony cats to be any different from those of pet cats.

A study of 1,876 colony cats (733 cats from a Raleigh, NC, TNR program and 1,143 cats from a Gainesville, FL, program) revealed a 4.3 percent rate of FeLV prevalence, and a 3.5 percent rate of FIV seroprevalence—“similar to infection rates reported for owned cats.” [1]

So why single out feral cats? If city officials are truly concerned about FeLV and FIV infection among Columbia’s cat population, why aren’t the owners of all cats allowed outdoors required to have their pets tested annually?

In fact, sterilization—required of colony cats but not of pet cats—reduces the spread of FeLV and FIV—both directly (“kittens are much more susceptible to [FeLV] infection than are adult cats”) and indirectly (“aggressive male cats are the most frequently infected [with FIV]”).

Furthermore, Article VI addresses the issue of sick cats directly, requiring caretakers to “obtain medical attention for any colony cat that exhibits illness, signs of rabies or unusual behavior and remove the cat from the colony to prevent disease or injury to other cats in the colony.”

And while Article VI is clear that colony cats must either be “vaccinated against rabies or… actively being trapped” in order to be vaccinated, it’s not clear whether this is a one-time requirement or not.

It’s also not clear whether booster shots are beneficial. July Levy, Maddie’s Professor of Shelter Medicine at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine—and one of this country’s foremost experts on feral cats—suggests, “Even a single dose of rabies vaccination provides years of protection against rabies infection.”

Feeding Restrictions
Article VI prohibits residents from providing “food, water or other forms of sustenance to a feral cat colony without a feral cat colony caretaker permit.” Which, it seems to me, is just a step away from an outright feeding ban (which would effectively outlaw TNR altogether).

While I agree with the apparent intent here, the idea that the people feeding feral and stray cats are part of the problem is misguided. Indeed, these same people can be an integral part of the solution.

In a 2007 survey of 703 Ohio households, Linda Lord found that “only 42 of the 184 (22.8 percent) participants who reported feeding free-roaming cats had ever taken any of these cats to a veterinarian for any type of veterinary care.” [2] More intriguing than the figures, though, is the root cause.

“One reason,” suggests Lord, Associate Dean for Student Affairs at Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, “may be the lack of affordable resources, particularly low-cost spay-neuter services, for free-roaming cats.” [2]

“Only 79 (11.2 percent) participants in the present study reported that they were aware of a trap-neuter-return program in their community. Although 296 (42.1 percent) reported they did not know whether such a program existed in their community, it is likely that there is limited access to these types of programs in many parts of Ohio.” [2]

Rather than outlawing “feeding without a permit,” then, Columbia should be developing and promoting community-based services that better connect with residents concerned for the welfare of homeless cats—ultimately increasing sterilization rates.

Caretaker permits, and the bureaucracy that invariably goes with them, are likely to have just the opposite effect, deterring community participation—thus driving down overall sterilization rates.

And finally, the underlying premise here—essentially, that handouts from well-meaning residents increase the population of feral cats—warrants a few comments as well.

A review of 29 studies revealed that, although the population density of cats correlates fairly well with the population density of humans (i.e., a greater density of cats in urban areas), these high densities do not require provisions by “cat lovers.” Indeed, “garbage bins” and “market refuse” proved sufficient to support some of the highest population densities. [3]

Similarly, researchers in Brooklyn found that “supplemental feeding” had no “significant effect on population density,” because available food supplies—again, mostly garbage—already exceeded what the cats required. [4]

All of which confirms a point I made in my previous post: we’re not likely to starve our way out of the “feral cat problem” (Marion Island being a rather dramatic case study [5, 6]).

•     •     •

As I say, I’m pleased to see officials in Columbia tackling this important issue. But the city’s proposed ordinance (years in the making, I’m told) falls well short of what’s necessary to make a significant, positive impact. Indeed, its various provisions—which, taken together, are onerous enough to drive caretakers “underground”—suggest either a lack of input from TNR practitioners, or a lack of good-faith negotiation on the part of those responsible for drafting the proposal. Or both.

Whatever the case, this is not just a missed opportunity; the proposed ordinance actually reads as if it were drafted by people dead-set against TNR but unwilling to make their position known publicly. If Columbia is truly interested in addressing the issue of feral cat management, then, it’s back to the drawing board—with, one hopes, a team that will take the task more seriously.

Literature Cited
1. Lee, I.T., et al., “Prevalence of feline leukemia virus infection and serum antibodies against feline immunodeficiency virus in unowned free-roaming cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2002. 220(5): p. 620-622.

2. 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.

3. Liberg, O., et al., Density, spatial organisation and reproductive tactics in the domestic cat and other felids, in The Domestic Cat: The biology of its behaviour, D.C. Turner and P.P.G. Bateson, Editors. 2000, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

4. Calhoon, R.E. and Haspel, C., “Urban Cat Populations Compared by Season, Subhabitat and Supplemental Feeding.” Journal of Animal Ecology. 1989. 58(1): p. 321–328.

5. Bloomer, J.P. and Bester, M.N., “Control of feral cats on sub-Antarctic Marion Island, Indian Ocean.” Biological Conservation. 1992. 60(3): p. 211-219.

6. Bester, M.N., et al., “A review of the successful eradication of feral cats from sub-Antarctic Marion Island, Southern Indian Ocean.” South African Journal of Wildlife Research. 2002. 32(1): p. 65–73.

MoJo Losing Its Mojo

Mother Jones, according to its Website, “is a nonprofit news organization that specializes in investigative, political, and social justice reporting.”

“…smart, fearless journalism” keeps people informed—“informed” being pretty much indispensable to a democracy that actually works. Because we’ve been ahead of the curve time and again. Because this is journalism not funded by or beholden to corporations. Because we bust bullshit and get results. Because we’re expanding our investigative coverage while the rest of the media are contracting. Because you can count on us to take no prisoners, cleave to no dogma, and tell it like it is. Plus we’re pretty damn fun.

Right up my alley. Until now.

With “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!,” published in the July/August issue, articles editor Kiera Butler fails rather magnificently all the way around.

(The article isn’t available directly from yet, but you can read it (print it, too) simply by signing up for the magazine’s e-mail updates. Enter your e-mail address and click “Sign Up.” In the next window, click on “ACCESS THE ISSUE NOW”—the full issue will then open automatically in Zinio, a digital magazine reader. “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” begins on p. 72.)

Cover Art: "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!"

The title, by the way, comes from a 1965 cult classic in which “Three strippers seeking thrills encounter a young couple in the desert.” Sadly, the film is a better reflection of reality than the information in Butler’s article is.

Population of Cats
The most obvious blunder: Citing what seems to be the same data set (“the US feline population has tripled over the last four decades”) I referred to in my “Spoiler Alert” post, Butler arrives not at 90 million or so, as indicated in the original source [1], or even the bogus 150 million figure the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Tom Will tried to sell last year to the Bird Conservation Alliance.

No—according to Butler, there were 600 million cats in this country in 2007.

At that time, the human population was 301.3 million. For the sake of easy math, then, let’s call it two cats for every human (talk about “hip-deep in cats”!). This, I believe, sets a new record for absurd population claims—far surpassing the previous record held by Steve Holmer, senior policy advisor for the American Bird Conservancy.

And from here, it only gets worse. While her grossly inflated population figure might be attributed a simple mistake. These things happen (though, of course, one expects such things to be caught by somebody on the editorial staff). However, the misinformation, misrepresentations, and missteps that make up the bulk of “Faster, Pussycat!” betray either willful ignorance or glaring bias. Or both.

Smart, fearless journalism it is not.

One Billion Birds
Butler’s litany of complaints against feral cats is all too familiar: wildlife impacts (birds, in particular), public health threats, the “failures” of TNR, the powerful feral cat lobby, and the emotional/irrational nature of feral cat advocates (i.e., the classic “crazy cat lady” label). Her sources, too, include all the usual suspects; though few are cited, many others are obvious.

Sources of Mortality
Butler claims that domestic cats (“officially considered an invasive species”) top the list of mortality sources, killing perhaps one billion birds annually in the U.S. (Her tabulated comparison of seven mortality sources bears the familiar title “Apocalypse Meow.”)

The source of Butler’s “highest reliable estimates” is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, though the one-billion-birds claim has been made by others, including Nico Dauphine and Robert Cooper, [2, 3] and Rich Stallcup. [4] (In fact, Dauphine refers specifically to Stallcup’s wild-ass guess back-of-the-envelope calculation in her infamous “Apocalypse Meow” presentation.)

Yet even ABC, never one to go easy on cats—or to let science get in the way of their message—ranks building collisions ahead of cats. (Interestingly, neither USFWS nor ABC mentions the most direct human-caused source of bird mortality—hunting—which may account for 120 million avian deaths annually in the U.S. [5])

The one-billion-birds claim hinges upon an inflated estimate of outdoor cats (Dauphine and Cooper, for example, ignore published survey results [6–8], in effect doubling the number of pet cats allowed outdoors) and inflated predation rates (typically extrapolated from small, flawed studies). Multiplying one by the other, the result is impressive (hence, it’s “stickiness”).

Unfortunately, it’s also meaningless.

Still, such aggregate figures are useful for providing a scientific veneer to what is, at its core, little more than a witch-hunt. All of which makes it an easier sell to the media and the general public.

But sound bites ignore the importance of context. Aggregate predation rates, for example, fail to differentiate across vastly different habitats (e.g., islands, forests, coastlines, etc.), species (e.g., songbirds, seabirds, etc.), conditions (e.g., sick and healthy, young and old, etc.), and levels of vulnerability (e.g., ground-nesting and cavity-nesting species, rare and common species, etc.).

Predators—cats included—catch what’s easy. Indeed, at least two studies [9, 10] have found that cat-killed birds tend to be less healthy than those killed in non-predatory events (e.g., the other six mortality sources shown in Butler’s table).

Island Extinctions
In asserting that cats are “responsible for at least 33 avian extinctions worldwide,” Butler overlooks or ignores a critical detail: those extinctions involve primarily—perhaps exclusively—island species, with “insular endemic landbirds [being] most frequently driven to extinction” [11] And even this point is a matter of some debate. “Birds (both landbirds and seabirds) have been affected most by the introduction of cats to islands,” writes Mike Fitzgerald, one of the world’s foremost experts on the subject, “but the impact is rarely well documented.” [12]

“In many cases the bird populations were not well described before the cats were established and the possible role of other factors in changes in the bird populations are treated inadequately.” [12]

So what’s the impact of cats on continents?

In 2000, Fitzgerald and co-author Dennis Turner published a review of 61 predation studies, concluding unambiguously: “there are few, if any studies apart from island ones that actually demonstrate that cats have reduced bird populations.” [13]

Catbird Mortalities
Referring to research conducted by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Peter Marra, Butler contends that “cats caused 79 percent of deaths of juvenile catbirds in the suburbs of Washington, DC.” In fact, Marra and his colleagues documented just six deaths attributable to cats, of 42 overall (then justified another three on dubious grounds). [14]

That 79 percent figure comes from dividing the number of deaths attributed to all sources of predation (33) by the total number of deaths documented over the course of the study (42). Butler’s misreading overstates predation by cats by more than 500 percent.

Public Health Threats
“Feral cats,” writes Butler, “can carry some heinous people diseases, including rabies, hookworm, and toxoplasmosis, and infection known to cause miscarriages and birth defects.” Her omission of infection rates—remarkably low in light of the frequent contact between humans and cats—suggests an interest more in fear-mongering than anything else.

A hookworm outbreak in the Miami Beach area in late 2010 made headlines, prompting officials to create a “cat poop map” (cats can pass hookworm eggs in their feces).

Meanwhile, Floridians were dying of influenza or pneumonia by the hundreds. In fact, according to the Florida Department of Health, 100–140 or so die each week during the winter months. (Actually, that figure accounts for only 24 of the state’s 67 counties, so the total is likely much higher.)

My point is not to dismiss the risk of “heinous people diseases” (or the suffering of those who become infected) but to put that risk into perspective. (In terms of public health, we’re better off focusing on frequent hand washing, sneezing into our sleeves, and, in the case of hookworms on the beach, wearing flip-flops—as opposed to, say, exterminating this country’s most popular companion animal by the millions.)

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Website, “Although cats can carry diseases and pass them to people, you are not likely to get sick from touching or owning a cat.” And, notes the CDC, “People are probably more likely to get toxoplasmosis from gardening or eating raw meat than from having a pet cat.”

(The same is true of feeding feral cats, by the way. While it’s true that their infection rates tend to be higher, [15] our frequent, close contact with pet cats more than offsets these differences.)

“In theory,” writes Butler, “TNR sounds great. If cats can’t reproduce, their population will decline gradually. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. To put a dent in the total number of cats, at least 71 percent of them must be fixed, and they are notoriously hard to catch.”

In Los Angeles, adds Butler, “it failed miserably in the past.”

Contrary to Butler’s claims, however, there are numerous well-documented examples of TNR programs reducing colony size.

Perhaps the best-known TNR success story in this country is ORCAT. As of 2004, ORCAT, run by the Ocean Reef Community Association, had reduced its “overall population from approximately 2,000 cats to 500 cats.” [16] According to the ORCAT Website, the population today is approximately 350, of which only about 250 are free-roaming.

Other examples include a TNR program on the campus of the University of Florida University of Central Florida,
Orlando, in which caretakers found homes for more than 47 percent of the campus’ socialized cats and kittens, helping them reduce the campus cat population more than 66 percent, from 68 to 23. [17]

In North Carolina, researchers observed a 36 percent average decrease among six sterilized colonies in the first two years (even in the absence of adoptions), while three unsterilized colonies experienced an average 47 percent increase. [18] Four- and seven-year follow-up censuses revealed further reductions among sterilized colonies. [19]

A survey of caretakers in Rome revealed a 22 percent decrease overall in the number of cats through TNR, despite a 21 percent rate of “cat immigration.” [20]

And in South Africa, researchers recommended that “a suitable and ongoing sterilization programme, which is run in conjunction with a feral cat feeding programme, needs to be implemented” [21] on the campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Howard College—despite its proximity to “conservation-sensitive natural bush habitat and a nature reserve on the northern border.” [22]

The Cost of TNR
“Cash-strapped cities,” argues Butler, “can’t afford to chase down, trap, and sterilize every stray—a process that costs $100 per kitty.” So, can these cities afford to round up and kill the cats?

Mark Kumpf, past president of the National Animal Control Association doesn’t think so. “There’s no department that I’m aware of,” says Kumpf, “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, he says, are akin to “bailing the ocean with a thimble.” [23]

The Cat Lobby
If TNR is so ineffective, why is it becoming the feral cat management approach of choice across the country (adopted in “at least 10 major cities,” according to Butler)? It must be the powerful cat lobby.

Alley Cat Allies, “whose budget was $5.3 million last year,” writes Butler, “has enjoyed generous grants from cat-food venders like PetSmart and Petco.”

It’s a play straight out of Dauphine’s playbook: paint the avian-industrial complex TNR opponents as victims of the powerful cat lobby. (In The Wildlife Professional’s recent special issue, “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats,” Dauphine complains: “The promotion of TNR is big business, with such large amounts of money in play that conservation scientists opposing TNR can’t begin to compete.” [24])

Alley Cat Allies
How generous were these grants, exactly? According to ACA’s 2010 Annual Report (PDF):

“Alley Cat Allies received more than $5.2 million in support between August 1, 2009 and July 31, 2010: more than 69,000 individuals contributed $4.8 million, including over $1 million in bequests. An additional $245,000 came from Workplace Campaigns, and over $14,000 came from foundation grants.”

Roughly 0.2 percent of their “total public support” came from all foundations combined. In 2009, grants and foundations accounted for 1.7 percent; in 2008, 1.0 percent.  (Maybe Butler never got the memo re: MoJo’s commitment to bullshit-busting.)

New Jersey Audubon
Another of Dauphine’s complaints that found its way into “Faster, Pussycat!”:

“Pro-feral groups—there are 250 or so in the United States—have used their financial might to woo wildlife groups. Audubon’s New Jersey chapter backed off on its opposition to TNR in 2005, around the same time major foundations gave the chapter grants to partner with pro-TNR groups.”

What Butler (like Dauphine before her) fails to acknowledge is the important role NJAS plays in the New Jersey Feral Cat & Wildlife Coalition, which has developed a set of model protocols and ordinances designed to help municipal TNR programs in ensuring the protection of any vulnerable native wildlife (DOC).

This is exactly the kind of collaborative effort that should be supported.

For what it’s worth: it’s not clear that NJAS was easily wooed with grant funding. A quick visit to reveals that NJAS brought in $6.8 million in 2008, and had $25.6 million in “net assets or fund balances” on its books. (I’ve been unable to determine the amount of grant funding NJAS received for “this important initiative,” as CEO and VP of Conservation and Stewardship Eric Stiles described it in a 2008 newsletter. [25])

Mental Health
Butler frames the TNR debate using what’s come to be standard form: rationale scientists on one side; on the other, cat advocates fueled by emotion. And mental illness, too, apparently: “There’s also speculation that [toxoplasmosis] can trigger schizophrenia and even the desire to be around cats—some researchers blame the crazy-cat-lady phenomenon on toxo.”

A Heated Debate
It’s a dangerous combination, according to Butler.

“Many of the biologists I spoke with say they’ve been harassed and even physically threatened when they’ve presented research about the effect cats have on wildlife.”

Is it really so one-sided?

Why didn’t Butler mention the case of Jim Stevenson, the Galveston birder who, in 2006, shot and killed (though not immediately) a feral cat within earshot of the cat’s caretaker? [26]

Or, more recently, the charges of attempted animal cruelty filed by the Washington Humane Society against Dauphine? (Or, for that matter, the stream of toxic comments almost guaranteed to accompany nearly any online story about feral cats or TNR.)

Clearly, the “cat people” don’t have a monopoly on emotional—even violent—responses to the issue.

Sustaining a Killer
When Butler tells an ecologist she knows that she’s feeding a feral cat, she’s told: “Basically, you’re sustaining a killer.” Which is essentially Butler’s intended take-away:

“Until they do [invent a single-dose sterilization drug], biologists recommend a combination of strategies. For starters, quit feeding ferals: Beyond sustaining strays, the practice often leads to delinquent pet owners to abandon their cats outdoors, assuming they will be well cared for.”

Are we to believe that abandonment is reduced or eliminated where the feeding of feral cats is prohibited? Owners (delinquent, I agree) interested in dumping their cats can, unfortunately, do so easily.

The far greater incentive for dumping comes from local shelters, most of which euthanize kill the majority of cats brought in. Many require a surrender fee.

I’m just about the last person to defend the dumping of cats, but shouldn’t we acknowledge the aspects of “animal control” policy that contribute to it?

But back to this idea that “no food” means “no ferals.” It sounds reasonable enough, but doesn’t hold up very well to scrutiny. For one thing, where there are humans, there’s food to be found. In fact, even where there are no people, cats don’t starve.

On Marion Island—barren and uninhabited—it took 19 years to eradicate approximately 2,200 cats. Their only human provision: “the carcasses of 12,000 day-old chickens” each injected with the poison sodium monofluoroacetate. [27] (The rest—the vast majority—were killed through the introduction of feline distemper, intensive hunting and trapping, and dogs. [28, 27])

Is Butler suggesting that the cats in her neighborhood would have it tougher than the Marion Island cats? Even setting aside the cruelty involved, we’re not likely to starve our way out of the “feral cat problem.” Unlike TNR, such an approach only drives the cats (and their caretakers) underground.

This, of course, is roughly the same approach that’s proved ineffective failed so spectacularly at addressing so many other complex issues, including drug enforcement, immigration policy, gays in the military, and so forth.

•     •     •

Since I launched Vox Felina last year, I’ve been critical of articles appearing in any number of publications: scientific journals (e.g., Conservation Biology), major newspapers (e.g., The Washington Post and The New York Times), an alt-weekly, and more.

None of which bothered me in the least, as I feel no particular connection to any of them. This is not to say that I don’t value, admire, and respect much of the work found, for instance, in the Times—only that I’ve no affinity for, or loyalty to, the paper itself.

But Mother Jones is different. Maybe it’s that whole bullshit-busting, take-no-prisoners, tell-it-like-it-is business—I’d like to think that’s something we share in common.

This time around, though, the magazine served up bullshit by the shovelful, swallowed in one gulp the misinformation churned out by ABC, The Wildlife Society, and other TNR opponents, and… well, told it like it isn’t.

With the publication of “Faster, Pussycat!,” Mother Jones failed miserably in its promise to readers. Which, I have to think, isn’t a lot of fun.

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.

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