Taking the Loews Road

On Wednesday, the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel and Loews Royal Pacific Resort announced that the property’s managed colony of cats will be “relocated to the county animal services center.”

This, of course, was not entirely unanticipated. Loews first announced that it would be reversing its position on TNR and on-site managed colonies back in January. Nor was it a surprise—given how the self-proclaimed “pet-friendly” luxury chain has tried to downplay the issue from the outset—that the big announcement was buried in a Facebook comment to a post more than two months old now:

We have reviewed our practice involving feral, free-roaming cats and have talked with numerous agencies including Orange County Animal Services. The Florida Department of Health states that feral, free-roaming cats pose a continuous concern to communities due to the persistent threat of injury and disease.

The priority at our hotels is the health and safety of our guests and team members. As a result, the cats will be relocated to the county animal services center.

We appreciate all the feedback we have received on this important matter and are grateful for your understanding as we implement this policy.

Turns out, an awful lot of us don’t understand at all—beginning with their alleged public health concerns. Jennifer Hodges, Director of Public Relations for Loews Hotels at Universal Orlando, played the same card in January—but, to my knowledge, no details were ever offered. (I received a brief, generic e-mail reply when I inquired about the issue.)

The real problem for Loews, however, is that in their efforts to keep the whole thing low-profile, they apparently failed to inform their own marketing department. Which, in turn, failed to get the website updated accordingly. As a result, visitors to the site might easily come away with the impression that Loews actually is “the vacation choice of every pet lover.” Or that, as is indicated in the out-of-date copy, “Loews loves pets.”

Perhaps it’s true that “your VIP (Very Important Pet) will be waited on hand and paw, traveling in first-class comfort.” But for the cats outside—sterilized, vaccinated, and well cared for—their next trip won’t be comfortable at all.

And, more than likely, it’s one-way.

Fight or Flight?

“Cat Fight,” which appears in the latest issue of Conservation magazine, does little to cut through the rhetoric or clear up the numerous misrepresentations that plague the debate over free-roaming cats.

There is, it’s often said, no such thing as bad PR. Even so, I’m not thrilled with the way I’m portrayed in an article appearing in the current issue of Conservation. It’s only a couple of quotes, but still, I worry that I come off as more of a bomb-thrower than anything else.

“Wolf writes a blog, Vox Felina,” explains writer John Carey, in “Cat Fight,” “which regularly excoriates wildlife biologists for what Wolf calls their ‘sloppy pseudo-science.’ He charges that ‘the science in Dauphine’s paper about cats was so horrific that she should have never made it out of graduate school’ and that ‘Peter Marra is taking six bird deaths and predicting the Apocalypse.’”

As I told Carey via e-mail, just after the piece was published online, I don’t believe the quotes are accurate. Carey, on the other hand, assures me (in a cordial, professional manner typical of our exchanges) that “the quotes are exactly what [I] said.” (Neither of us recorded our conversation.)

“I know I realized immediately when you said those things that they were precisely the type of colorful statements that illustrate the nature of the debate, so I did appreciate you using such colorful language.”

Fair enough. Perhaps it’s not all the important if the content isn’t precisely correct—the tone is certainly accurate.

If I am a bomb-thrower, though, I am at least a well-informed bomb-thrower. And the “targets”—to extend the metaphor—have, simply put, got it coming to them. Carey acknowledges that I “do an excellent job scrutinizing the scientific evidence, and have clearly thought deeply about both sides of the issue.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t come across to Conservation readers.

That said, I want to make it clear: I’m grateful to have been included in the piece, and grateful, too, for my conversations with Carey. And whatever quibbles I have about my portrayal pale in comparison to various other aspects of “Cat Fight.”

Stuffing the Ballot Box
Referring to Peter Marra’s well-publicized catbird study, Carey writes: “Predators nabbed nearly half the birds, and cats were the number one predator.” [1]

Number one predator?

Certainly, this was the message Marra emphasized to the press—but I thought I’d straightened this out with Carey on the phone, and with a follow-up e-mail.

Here’s what Marra and his colleagues report in their paper:

A total of 69 fledglings were monitored, of which 42 (61 percent) died over the course of the study. Of those mortalities, 33 (79 percent) were due to predation of some kind. Eight of the 33 predatory events were observed directly: six involved domestic cats, one a black rat snake, and one a red-shouldered hawk.

That leaves 25 predation events (76 percent) for which direct attributions could not be made—which, in and of itself, raises serious questions about Carey’s “number one predator” claim.

About those other 25: Marra and his co-authors concede that “not all mortalities could be clearly assigned.” Seven were attributed to rats or chipmunks because they were “found cached underground,” while another one was attributed to birds because the remains were found in a tree.

In addition, 14 mortalities “could not be assigned to a specific predator.” Which leaves three: “fledglings found with body damage or missing heads were considered symptomatic of cat kills.” [2]

In fact, it’s rather well known that such predatory behavior is symptomatic not of cats, but of owls, grackles, jays, magpies, and even raccoons [3–5]—something I addressed in an October 2010 post (and discussed with Carey).

All of which is difficult to reconcile with Marra’s claim, in “Cat Fight,” that he and his colleagues “were very conservative assigning mortality to cats,” [1] and with his apparent confidence (shared by Carey) in putting cats at the top of the list.

Curious, too, that, although Carey opens his article with Nico Dauphine’s December 2011 sentencing hearing, he never mentions the fact that Marra was Dauphine’s advisor at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. (I suppose the connection isn’t something Marra brags about these days.)

The Cats Came Back
Carey argues that “moving cat colonies away from areas that harbor threatened species is a no-brainer” but points out that “it doesn’t always work.”

“In Fortescue, New Jersey, a colony of feral cats was moved away from the shore of Delaware Bay in 2011 to help protect red knots, which stop there in huge numbers to gorge on horseshoe-crab eggs to fuel their long migration from the tip of South America to the Arctic. But after only a few months, cats were back.” [1]

Here, I’ll defer to Animal Protection League of New Jersey attorney Michelle Lerner, whose comment was the first posted after “Cat Fight” was available online:

“The details about the Fortescue cats, with which I was involved, are incorrect. The colony was not ‘moved,’ it was removed completely. 40 cats were moved to a fence enclosure on a farm several counties away, 7 went to a sanctuary in another state, others went to barns or were friendly enough to be adopted. Removal was used, which is what the anti-TNR people always want. The only difference is the cats were not killed—something that was possible because of limited numbers. It is true that, due to the vacuum effect, different cats then showed up. The nonprofit doing the removal keeps trapping there in coordination with animal control to try to get them all. A few per month show up. But this is why TNR advocates warn removal never really works without intensive management and repeat trapping, and why statistical studies have shown it takes 10 times the effort to control a colony through removal as through TNR. Because there is a reason the cats were there in the first place and more will just move in—more who are unneutered—if the cats are removed.”

It’s worth pointing out, too, that, unlike the current relocation effort, taxpayers would be footing the bill for an ongoing lethal roundup.

And I wish Carey had included a bit of additional context here. The greatest threat to those red knots, from what I can tell (admittedly, doing nothing more than a quick Google search), has little to do with cats being fed nearby. According to The Wetlands Institute:

“…overharvesting of female horseshoe crabs by commercial fishermen, coupled with loss of spawning habitat resulting from beach erosion associated with sea level rise, has resulted in a precipitous decline in the Delaware Bay horseshoe crab population, and therefore the number of eggs available to feed migratory birds. This, in turn, has led to a dramatic decrease in the size of annual red knot migrating populations, to the point that red knots have been proposed for federally endangered status.”

Indeed, the Delaware Nature Society reports: “In 2008, New Jersey placed a moratorium on horseshoe crab harvests until the red knot numbers rebound.”

The Scientific Community v. The People of the District of Columbia
If Marra hasn’t come to Dauphine’s defense, Chris Lepczyk has—with the kind of confidence he (and Marra) usually reserve for vilifying free-roaming cats.

“‘I am 100 percent confident she was not poisoning cats,’ says University of Hawaii wildlife ecologist Christopher Lepczyk, who fears that she was convicted in part because of her articles about the cat-predation problem. ‘I don’t think anyone in the scientific community agrees that she is guilty.’” [1]

That’s quite an endorsement—especially in light of… you know, the facts.

On December 14th, the day Dauphine was sentenced, CNN reported that Superior Court Judge A. Truman Morrison III “said he had received a number of letters from people who know Dauphine.”

“He said such letters usually try to make a case that the verdict was in error, but in this case, the judge said, no one quarreled with the guilty verdict… Morrison said it was clear from letters written by Dauphine’s colleagues that ‘her career, if not over, it’s in grave jeopardy.’ The judge said that was already partial punishment for her actions.”

But Lepczyk’s right when he says the verdict was, in part, the result of Dauphine’s writings—just not in the way he suggests. Indeed, the day Dauphine was found guilty, The Washington Post reported: “Senior Judge Truman A. Morrison III said it was the video, along with Dauphine’s testimony, that led him to believe she had ‘motive and opportunity.’”

“He specifically pointed to her repeated denials of her writings. ‘Her inability and unwillingness to own up to her own professional writings as her own undermined her credibility,’ Morrison said.”

All of which—not to put too fine a point on it—was included in my numerous posts following the case. Perhaps Lepczyk ought to subscribe to Vox Felina.

I’ve been saying for nearly two years now that Dauphine’s professional work on the subject of free-roaming cats—cited and promoted with great enthusiasm before all this nasty press attention—is as indefensible as the actions that landed her in DC Superior Court. It’s a shame Carey didn’t pin down Lepczyk (and others) on that point.

Numb and Numb-er
If Carey included me in “Cat Fight” because of my colorful language, I have to imagine Stephen Vantassel, project coordinator of distance education for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s School of Natural Resources, was included for his unintended irony.

Referring to the toll cats take on wildlife, Vantassel told Carey, “The numbers are mind-numbing.” [1]

Actually, “mind-numbing” is a fitting description for the content of, and motivation behind, Feral Cats and Their Management, the well-publicized paper Vantassel co-authored in late 2010. Not only do the authors fail to get a handle on the predation numbers, they reveal a significant lack of understanding of the key issues surrounding cats and predation in general. Indeed, they misread, misinterpret, and/or misrepresent nearly every bit of research they reference. And, some of what the authors include isn’t valid research to begin with.

Two years later, it seems he’s still got nothing to contribute to the discussion.

OK, maybe that’s being too harsh. Consider what Vantassel has to say, in the sidebar that accompanies “Cat Fight,” about the uncertainty surrounding the legal status of free-roaming cats: it “has essentially turned outdoor cats into protected predators.” [6]

Protected predators?

Now, here’s a subject Vantassel knows well. After all, his PhD (theology) dissertation was dedicated to: “…fur trappers who, every winter, brave the harsh weather in continuance of America’s oldest industry. Regrettably, they must also endure the ravages of urban sprawl and the derision of an ungrateful and ignorant public.” [7]

Wisconsin: Landmarks and Mirages
My greatest disappointment with “Cat Fight”—one shared by others I’ve spoken with—is Carey’s inclusion of the infamous “Wisconsin Study.”

“In a landmark study in Wisconsin, Stanley Temple, now professor emeritus of forest and wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin, and his colleagues radio-collared free-ranging rural cats, watched the animals’ hunting behavior, and examined their stomach contents. (An inflammatory and inaccurate press report that implied that the researchers had killed the cats for the stomach contents—in fact, they used an emetic—led to death threats against Temple.) The study showed that each cat killed an average of 5.6 birds a year. With an estimated 1.4 million free-ranging rural cats just in Wisconsin, that’s nearly 8 million birds.” [1]

When I spoke with Carey, he’d already talked to Temple. And when he referred to a predation study Temple had done, I stopped him in his tracks: If Temple conducted any such work, it was never published.

What has been published involved combining cat density numbers Temple and graduate student John Coleman had gathered by surveying “farmers and other rural residents in Wisconsin for information about their free-ranging (not house-bound) cats” [8] with predation numbers from studies conducted in the 1930s and 1950s. All of which is explained in a 1992 article the two wrote for Wildlife Control Technology:

“…our four year study of cat predation in Wisconsin, completed in1992, coupled with data from other studies, allows us to make a reasonable estimate of birds killed annually in this state… At the high end, are estimates from diet studies of rural cats that indicate at least one kill per cat per day, resulting in over 365 kills per cat per year [9–11]. Other studies report 28 kills per cat per year for urban cats, and 91 kills per cat per year for rural cats [12].” [13]

“Using low values,” then, Temple and Coleman multiplied their estimated 1.4 million rural free-roaming cats in the state by 28 (“twice urban kill rate”), and then multiply that by 20 percent (the “low dietary percent,” as they call it, though it’s actually a gross misinterpretation of Mike Fitzgerald’s work, as Ellen Perry Berkeley points out in her 2004 book TNR Past Present and Future: A history of the trap-neuter-return movement [14]). The resulting “estimate” is “7.8 million birds killed annually.”

Twenty years later, though, the story seems to have changed dramatically.

Now, we’re to believe that Temple and Coleman’s study (funded, by the way, with “about $100,000 … from the [University of Wisconsin], U.S. Agriculture Department and the state Department of Natural Resources” [15]) revealed an average predation rate of 5.6 birds/year/cat. And that the 7.8 million figure comes not from “coupling” Temple and Coleman’s density work with others’ predation studies, but from their work alone.

Or perhaps the two methods resulted in exactly the same estimate.

Which, as I told Carey after reading the article, would be one hell of a coincidence. In fact, the very sources he cites call into question—if not discredit entirely—Temple’s claim.

Simply put: Carey failed to dig into this deeply enough. Instead of further perpetuating the myth of the Wisconsin Study, he might have exposed it for what it is: little more than a few misguided (and overpriced) back-of-the-envelope calculations—which Temple himself backed away from during a 1994 interview with The Sonoma County Independent: “They aren’t actual data; that was just our projection to show how bad it might be.” [16]

Or, failing that, then at least ignore the thing entirely.

Landmark study? Only insofar as it was instrumental in launching what’s become a witch-hunt against free-roaming cats in this country.

•     •     •

According to the magazine’s website, “Conservation stories capture the imagination and jump-start discussion.” Unfortunately, I don’t see “Cat Fight” adding much to the discussion—a missed opportunity in a debate where such opportunities are few and far between.

I agree with Carey that, as he notes in the article’s closing paragraph, “these great societal debates … are contested on a battleground of conflicting emotions, moral values, and ideologies. Facts alone rarely break up the fight.”

On the other hand, I don’t see how we’re going to break it up if we don’t first get the facts straight.

Literature Cited
1. Carey, J., “Cat Fight.” Conservation. 2012. March. http://www.conservationmagazine.org/2012/03/cat-fight/

2. Balogh, A., Ryder, T., and Marra, P., “Population demography of Gray Catbirds in the suburban matrix: sources, sinks and domestic cats.” Journal of Ornithology. 2011: p. 1-10. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10336-011-0648-7


3. Thompson, B., The Backyard Bird Watcher’s Answer Guide. 2008: Bird Watcher’s Digest.

4. Bird, D.M., “Crouching Raptor, Hidden Danger.” The Backyard Birds Newsletter. 2010. No 5 (Fall/October).

5. Anderson, T.E., Identifying, evaluating and controlling wildlife damage, in Wildlife Management Techniques. 1969, Wildlife Society: Washington. p. 497–520.

6. Carey, J., “The Uncertain Legal Status of Cats.” Conservation. 2012. March. http://www.conservationmagazine.org/2012/03/legal-status-of-cats/

7. Vantassel, S.M., Dominion over Wildlife?: An Environmental Theology of Human-Wildlife Relations. 2009: Resource Publications.

8. 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

9. Errington, P.L., “Notes on Food Habits of Southwestern Wisconsin House Cats.” Journal of Mammalogy. 1936. 17(1): p. 64–65. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1374554

10. Parmalee, P.W., “Food Habits of the Feral House Cat in East-Central Texas.” The Journal of Wildlife Management. 1953. 17(3): p. 375-376. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3797127

11. Eberhard, T., “Food Habits of Pennsylvania House Cats.” The Journal of Wildlife Management. 1954. 18(2): p. 284–286. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3797736

12. Mitchell, J.C. and Beck, R.A., “Free-Ranging Domestic Cat Predation on Native Vertebrates in Rural and Urban Virginia.” Virginia Journal of Science. 1992. 43(1B): p. 197–207. www.vacadsci.org/vjsArchives/v43/43-1B/43-197.pdf

13. Coleman, J.S. and Temple, S.A., “How Many Birds Do Cats Kill?” Wildlife Control Technology. 1995. July–August. p. 44. http://www.wctech.com/WCT/index99.htm

14. Berkeley, E.P., TNR Past present and future: A history of the trap-neuter-return movement. 2004, Bethesda, MD: Alley Cat Allies.

15. Imrie, R. (1997). Professor Says Predatory Cats Are Taking Toll on Ecosystem. St. Paul Pioneer Press, p. 1B,

16. Elliott, J. (1994, March 3–16). The Accused. The Sonoma County Independent, pp. 1, 10,

Seeds of Doubt

Last week, the Environment News Service reported: “Ohio lawn and garden care company Scotts Miracle-Gro has pleaded guilty to breaching federal pesticide laws by using an unapproved insecticide on bird seed sold nationwide for two years.”

“Scotts is proposing to pay a $4 million fine and give $500,000 to help support wildlife conservation and study. Judge Graham said he will issue his decision on the plea agreement at sentencing, which has not yet been scheduled. The government alleges that beginning in 2005, Scotts produced a line of wild bird food products under names including Morning Song and Country Pride that contained insecticides.

The government says the insecticides, which are toxic to birds and other wildlife, were not approved for use on bird food.

According to court records, in 2008, Scotts distributed 73 million packages of bird seed coated with the insecticides Storcide II containing the active ingredient chlorpyrifos, and Actellic 5E, containing the active ingredient pirimiphos-methyl, intended to keep insects from destroying the seed.

The company continued to produce and market the insecticide-coated seeds despite being alerted to toxicity dangers by a Scotts staff chemist and ornithologist.

Storcide II is labeled as ‘Toxic to birds. Toxic to wildlife,’ and that ‘Exposed treated seed may be hazardous to birds.’ No such warning exists on the Actellic 5E label.”

Reaction to the decision has been interesting

The SafeLawns blog, for example, referred to the timing as “suspicious.”

“The company, many folks believe, must have known this ruling in federal court was coming down for several months. The timing of the sponsorship with the National Wildlife Federation, announced by NWF on Jan. 18, was clearly designed to draw attention away from what is believed to be the largest fine ever levied on a pesticide company.”

It may very well be the largest fine of its kind—but let’s put this into context. Scotts’ net sales for fiscal 2011 were $2.84 billion, one billion of which was profit.

The American Bird Conservancy announced the decision in a February 7 media release in which ABC referred to results of its own recent independent testing of bird seed bought at Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Lowes, and Target. The analysis, conducted at the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System, part of the University of California, Davis, “specifically looked for harmful pesticides, such as organophosphate and carbamate insecticides.”

“We found that all of the tested bird seed was either free from pesticides or that pesticides occurred at only trace levels that would not threaten bird health,” said ABC president George Fenwick.

Now, the chlorpyrifos found in Storcide II is an organophosphate insecticide, but it seems likely that ABC’s testing was conducted long after the Scotts products were on the shelf. (And, it should be made clear, it’s not known if the various products tested at UC Davis included Scotts’ Morning Song and Country Pride.)

Statements made in the 2011 media release announcing the test results now have, in light of the Scotts case, an irony to them: “The potential for birds to be unwittingly poisoned by the very people who feed them was something we felt it important to know, so we could either raise the alarm bell or put people’s mind at rest,” said Dr. Moira McKernan, director of ABC’s Pesticides and Birds Program… We wanted to make sure that the isolated problem cases in the past, were indeed behind us, and as far as we can tell, that is the case. The bird seed producers seem to be doing a good job of producing a safe product.”

“This testing produced very positive findings,” McKernan continues, “but I think it is probably in the best interests of birds that if we identify funding sources, we perform some form of periodic analysis to make sure that we can all continue to buy bird food products with peace of mind, and to ensure that people’s hard earned money is spent helping birds, and not unintentionally harming them.”

In the February 7 release, Fenwick echoes McKernan’s comments: “in the light of this recent case against Scotts, this is clearly an issue that requires greater public attention. ABC seeks additional funding for continuing, needed testing.”

•     •     •

What I find rather unsettling about ABC’s response (in addition to its use as a fundraising opportunity) is its… restraint. Compared to, in particular, their various claims made about the impacts of free-roaming cats.

Speaking of which…

It’s been demonstrated that, on average, birds caught by cats are significantly less healthy than birds killed through non-predatory events (e.g., collisions with windows or cars) [1, 2]. One wonders what role tainted bird seed might play in such findings.

Note: I asked ABC’s director of public relations, Robert Johns, by e-mail, whether ABC expects to receive any of that $500,000 Scotts is promising “to help support wildlife conservation and study.” So far, no reply.

Update: According to The Columbus Dispatch, the $500,000 “will be evenly split among five groups and agencies to fund efforts to protect birds. They are Audubon Ohio, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Urban Forestry Program, Columbus Metro Parks, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and the Ohio Nature Conservancy.”

Literature Cited
1. Møller, A.P. and Erritzøe, J., “Predation against birds with low immunocompetence.” Oecologia. 2000. 122(4): p. 500–504. http://www.springerlink.com/content/ghnny9mcv016ljd8/

2. Baker, P.J., et al., “Cats about town: Is predation by free-ranging pet cats Felis catus likely to affect urban bird populations? Ibis. 2008. 150: p. 86–99. http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/bsc/ibi/2008/00000150/A00101s1/art00008

San Francisco SPCA

As I mentioned in my previous post, I spent March 4th at the Vertebrate Pest Conference, attending its half-day Feral Cats session. Having made the trip to Monterey, I wasn’t about to return home without a visit to the San Francisco SPCA—to, at last, meet in person some diehard Vox Felina supporters I knew, for the most part, only via e-mail and Facebook.

More than a week later, my head is still spinning—inspired by the dedication of their staff and volunteers, and filled with creative ideas for possible future collaborations.

Community Cats Program and Resources
Last year alone, SF SPCA’s Community Cats Program provided sterilization, vaccination, and flea treatment for 1,325 of the city’s stray, abandoned, and feral cats—all at no cost to the caretakers. (Their efforts are beautifully documented in this video, created for National Feral Cat Day 2010.)

In addition, the SF SPCA has compiled a wealth of useful information on the organization’s website, including, for example, tips on humane trapping and resolving cat-related conflicts with neighbors.

(This, by the way, is in addition to the extensive collection of cat behavior resources available on the SF SPCA website, and their Cat Behavior Email Hotline, available to their adopters who “need help with cat-to-cat aggression, litter box usage, rough play or socialization.” SF SPCA even offers a Cat Claw Clipping Clinic.)

Community Outreach
Much of SF SPCA’s most important work actually takes place beyond its Mission District campus, in various forms of community outreach. This includes “investing in the next generation of pet guardians and animal advocates,” as education is integral to the organization’s Vision 2020 initiative.

And it’s an investment that’s already paying dividends, as evidenced by the Feral Cat Haiku project, the colorful, charming creations of local school kids following a recent SF SPCA visit.

My photos (the poor quality of which I blame on a burrito-induced food coma) obviously don’t do the work justice. I’ll do better on my next visit—which I’m already looking forward to.

Exploring Other Dimensions

Imagine yourself responding to a survey, and one of the questions posed is this:

How much do you enjoy seeing feral cats in the environment?

Optional responses include: very much, somewhat, no opinion, very little, and none at all.

If your experience is anything like mine, the question isn’t nearly as straightforward as it first appears. If we’re talking about the feral cat that I’ve been feeding for more than two years now—who rolls around in the grass to show me how happy he is to see me, and then becomes bashful when I try to pet him—the answer is very much. The pleasure centers in my brain are, I’m sure, lighting up like the Fourth of July.

If, on the other hand, I spot a pair of eyes peering out from behind a dumpster just a few minutes later, my heart sinks. No enjoyment in that at all.

It’s a trick question, but in the usual sense. It’s not so much that the question trips up the respondent up—though, clearly, that’s a strong possibility. What’s more problematic is the fact that the researcher posing the question doesn’t actually know what a particular answer means.

Which encounter am I thinking of when I answer? It makes all the difference in the world, but that critical bit of context is lost due to the blunt nature of the research instrument. That’s the trouble with surveys: to borrow a phrase from former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, we don’t know what we don’t know.

And yet, such surveys are the foundation of human dimensions research, the investigation of attitudes, beliefs, and values—along with their underlying drivers—surrounding a particular issue.

Human dimensions research is fascinating stuff, especially as it relates to animal welfare—and, in particular, free-roaming cats and TNR. But what happens when we jump in thinking we know what we don’t know—and then use the results to shape policy? (Here’s a hint: it can’t be good.)

Worse, what happens when the respondents are misinformed—perhaps even (knowingly or not) by the very people asking the questions?

These are some of the questions I posed during presentations at the Vertebrate Pest Conference’s Feral Cats session last week. The responses were, I’m afraid, disappointing. As was the fact that I was the only one asking.

Most unsettling, though, was the conviction with which both researchers presenting human dimensions work* responded—utterly unconcerned, it seemed, with the suggestion that the results of their hard work may not, in the end, be terribly meaningful. It’s hardly what one expects from bright, ambitious PhD candidates.

Not knowing what you don’t know is one thing; not wanting to know is something else altogether.

*I may not have the wording exactly right, but the question I refer to at the beginning of this post is “real,” in that it’s among those being used by one of the presenters.

Less Toxo, More Hype

“As human populations continue to expand farther out into natural areas,” warns The Wildlife Society in a February 17 blog post, “domesticated animals will continue to be at risk for exposure to diseases carried by their wild relatives.” Considering the domesticated animals in question are cats, the organization’s apparent concern is almost touching. Almost.

Actually, TWS is, not surprisingly, much more concerned about cats transferring disease from “their wild relatives” to humans. Results of a recent study, published a month ago in the online, open-access journal PLoS ONE, suggests TWS blogger “policyintern,” illustrate “the importance of keeping domesticated cats close to home to prevent disease transmission among cats and to humans.”

Among those diseases is one that’s been getting lots of attention recently in the mainstream media: toxoplasmosis.

And just how likely is it that your cat will give you toxoplasmosis?

Not very—at least according to this latest research. (The study also looked at bartonellosis and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, but I’ll save those for another post.) To begin with, “feral, free ranging domestic cats were targeted in this study” [1, emphasis mine], not pets. And, despite what TWS and others would have us believe, contact with these cats is relatively uncommon.

Then there’s the unexpectedly low infection rate reported by the authors of the study: just 1 percent for domestic cats, as compared to 75 percent for pumas and 43 percent for bobcats. Based on previous studies, one would expect seroprevalence rates of 62–80 percent for feral cats. [2] (Even “owned” cats* were found to have rates of 34–36 percent. Interestingly, the highest rate of seroprevalence was found among cats living on farms: 41.9–100 percent.)

Seroprevalence, with bars representing 95 percent confidence intervals, of T. gondii IgG,** for domestic cats, bobcats, and pumas at all study locations (FR = Front Range, CO; WS = Western Slope, CO; OC = Orange County, CA; SDRC = San Diego/Riverside Counties, CA; VC = Ventura County, CA). Sample sizes are listed above columns.

This should be big news for TWS.

At the very least, the low infection rates found in feral cats—combined with the much higher rates in bobcats and pumas—raise serious questions about domestic cats’ role in environmental contamination of T. gondii. Just a year ago, an article published in a special section of The Wildlife Professional called “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats,” was unambiguous: “the science points to [domestic] cats.” [3]

“Based on proximity and sheer numbers, outdoor pet and feral domestic cats may be the most important source of T. gondii oocysts in near-shore marine waters. Mountain lions and bobcats rarely dwell near the ocean or in areas of high human population density, where sea otter infections are more common.” [3]

And, over the past several months, TWS Executive Director/CEO Michael Hutchins has used the TWS blog to hammer the point home, arguing (and twisting the facts along the way), for example, that a 2011 NIH study provided “further evidence that feral cats are a menace to our native wildlife and should be controlled.

In July, it was the grave threat to humans:

T. gondii infection has recently been correlated with the incidence of Parkinson’s disease, autism, and schizophrenia in humans, and it has long been known to cause fetal deformities and spontaneous abortions in pregnant women… Let’s hope that public health officials, including the CDC, begin to take note of these growing concerns about cats and their implications for human health.”

In fact, this latest study suggests that such concerns may not be growing at all, at least where toxoplasmosis is concerned. On the other hand, the simpler, scarier story—cats as a menace to both wildlife and humans—is certainly an easier sell for TWS.

* I assume this refers to indoor/outdoor cats, but have not chased down the individual studies to confirm this.

** Refers to immunoglobulin, or antibody, G (IgG), “which is detectable for ≥52 weeks after infection,” as compared to immunoglobulin M (IgM), “which indicates recent infections and is usually detectable ≤16 weeks after initial exposure.” [1]

Literature Cited
1. Bevins, S.N., et al., “Three Pathogens in Sympatric Populations of Pumas, Bobcats, and Domestic Cats: Implications for Infectious Disease Transmission.” PLoS ONE. 2012. 7(2): p. e31403. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0031403

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

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

A Great Leap Forward?

Just four years after Beijing’s brutal roundup of the city’s cats—feral, stray, and pets alike—in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games, the number of cats on the streets is once again raising concerns. “Somewhere between 500,000 and 5 million feral cats are skulking through its courtyard houses, construction sites, and gated apartment complexes, braving the city’s bitter cold winters and raging traffic,” writes Debra Bruno on The Atlantic’s Cities blog. “Their lives are nasty, brutish, and short.”

“And in a densely populated city like Beijing, the rise in the number of feral cat colonies is not especially welcome. The cats’ nighttime howls keep people awake. They smell. They prey on the Asian magpie and the Siberian weasel, sometimes known as the ‘hutong weasel,’ a ferret-like creature that looks a little like a cute red panda. The cats tend to prefer a perch on the BMWs of the city’s nouveau riche.”

Bruno’s population “estimate” strikes me as little more than a misinformed guess—about as credible as her observation that these cats prefer Beemers. (Commenter Jessica Rapp, who lives in Beijing, isn’t buying the numbers either.) In a February, 2008 story, The Times suggested there were “at least 200,000” unowned cats in the city, citing as its source the Capital Animal Welfare Association, a Beijing-based partner of Humane Society International. [1] Bruno’s credibility is further eroded when she refers to Mother Jones’ “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” as if it lived up to the magazine’s commitment to “smart, fearless journalism.”

On the other hand, Bruno’s exactly right when she writes: “groups like the Audubon Society claim that TNR has not proven to be effective in eliminating the population of feral cats anywhere.” (The claim itself, of course, is both factually incorrect and highly misleading.)

The timing here is interesting, though. In January, Bob Sallinger, conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland—who attracted national attention when he began working with local TNR groups—told the Portland Tribune: “I don’t think rounding up feral cats and killing them is going to solve it better.”

But, back to Beijing’s cats…

Actual Nasty, Brutal, Short Lives
According to CNN.com, Beijing’s animal welfare activists had hoped the Olympic Games would be “a perfect catalyst in expanding animal rights.” Instead, “the authorities… stepped up their campaigns against animals—pets and strays alike—aimed at ‘cleaning up’ the city for the Games.” [2] Among the numerous horrific reports was an instance of 30 cats—90 percent of which were sterilized—being sealed in a “basement with cement because of health and safety concerns during the Games.” [2]

In its investigation of Beijing’s pre-Olympics “clean-up,” the UK’s Daily Mail reported:

“Thousands of pet cats in Beijing are being abandoned by their owners and sent to die in secretive government pounds as China mounts an aggressive drive to clean up the capital in preparation for the Olympic Games. Hundreds of cats a day are being rounded and crammed into cages so small they cannot even turn around. Then they are trucked to what animal welfare groups describe as death camps on the edges of the city. The cull comes in the wake of a government campaign warning of the diseases cats carry and ordering residents to help clear the streets of them.”

When the Daily Mail tried to visit two of the holding facilities, they were refused entry.

“‘No one can come in without official papers,’ staff shouted from behind padlocked steel gates. At another, larger compound in Da Niu Fang village, the sound of cats wailing could be clearly heard coming from a cluster of tin-roofed sheds, but workers denied they were holding any cats. ‘There are no cats here, go away. No one is allowed inside unless you have official permission,’ a security guard said.”

Apparently, the fear among the public bordered on—indeed, in some cases, turned into—hysteria. “The most striking illustration of the city-wide fear of cats,” reports the Daily Mail’s Simon Perry, took place at a kindergarten, where six strays, including two pregnant females, “were beaten to death with sticks by teachers.”

“We did it out of love for the children,” explained one teacher. “We were worried the cats might harm them. These six cats had been hanging around the kindergarten looking for food.” [3]

TNR Comes to Beijing
These days, however, some in Beijing are adopting TNR—and pushing for others to do the same. “Peng, a Chinese-American native New Yorker who has lived in Beijing for the last 20 years,” writes Bruno, “has taken on the mission of convincing Beijing’s residents that [TNR is] the best solution to the feral cat population.”

“‘What are my alternatives?’ asks Peng. As Beijing itself learned in the recent past, she argues, cities that try to exterminate cats often just find that a new cat colony eventually moves into an area where an old one had been taken away. Not to mention, the mass killing of adorable kittens is a tough sell in any society.”

While Bruno suggests that Peng’s efforts are “a drop in the bucket,” I see things rather differently. Indeed, given the recent population increase, Beijing may be the best argument yet for TNR. After all, the alternative has been shown to be remarkably ineffective. Costly, too, I’m sure.

One wonders how the lessons learned in Beijing will be “interpreted” here in the U.S.—where The Wildlife Society, American Bird Conservancy, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, among others, continue to oppose TNR, in favor of the roundup of stray, abandoned, and feral cats.

Too much will, I fear, be lost in translation.

Literature Cited
1. Macartney, J. (2008). Cats are out as Beijing starts to preen itself. The Times, p. 4.

2. Jiang, S. (2008, August 4). An animal lover’s Olympic nightmare. CNN.com, from http://edition.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/asiapcf/08/03/oly.beijjingcats/

3. Perry, S. (2008, March 12). Olympics clean-up Chinese style: Inside Beijings shocking death camp for cats. Daily Mail, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-528694/Olympics-clean-Chinese-style-Inside-Beijings-shocking-death-camp-cats.html