I don’t imagine USA Today has ever been accused of producing substantive journalism. And, judging from a worthless he-said/she-said-we-report-you-decide story in yesterday’s edition, that’s not likely to change anytime soon.
OK, not worthless, exactly. After all, American Bird Conservancy president George Fenwick finally went on record calling for the killing of free-roaming cats: “I detest the killing of cats and dogs or anything else. But this is out of control, and there may be no other answer.” 
How many cats are we talking about? Fenwick’s not saying. And reporter Chuck Raasch does readers no favors when he confuses free-roaming cats and feral cats (“Estimates of the U.S. feral cat population range from a few million to 125 million, with the Humane Society saying 50 million.”)
And in a move that’s become popular among TNR opponents,* Fenwick plays the “powerful cat lobby” card: “he worries his side is ‘out-emotioned’ and out-organized.”  It would, I think, be more accurate to say that “his side” has neither the science nor public opinion working in their favor.
Though, of course, they certainly try to make the case. Among the story’s other “highlights”:
• “The Interior Department’s 2009 State of the Birds report concluded that domestic and feral cats annually kill ‘hundreds of millions of birds,’ one reason why a third of the 800 bird species in the USA are endangered, threatened or in significant decline.” 
In fact, this report does nothing more than imply a causal link between predation by cats and declining bird species—providing nothing in the way of evidence. As I pointed out earlier this year, even very high levels of mortality do not necessarily lead to population-level impacts. In a study published late last year, for example, conservation biologists Todd Arnold and Robert Zink found that, “although millions of North American birds are killed annually by collisions with manmade structures, this source of mortality has no discernible effect on populations.” 
• “Smithsonian scientist [Peter] Marra says feral cats are ‘a major threat to birds,’ responsible for the extinction of 30–35 island bird species around the globe.” 
Well, at least Marra acknowledged the context here: islands—which is more than we can say of Fenwick & Co. On the other hand, the figure typically cited is exactly 33. But what’s a couple extinctions either when the claim simply isn’t true. As I revealed in an August 2011 post, only eight of the 33 “extinctions” were attributed to cats exclusively; and of those, just two species are actually extinct.
• “Teresa Chagrin, PETA’s animal care and control specialist, says that ‘it is mystifying that anybody would say that a painless, quick end is cruelty when the other option is slow, lingering, painful, horrible deaths by cruelty from people, from attacks by dogs, or being hit by a car, or dying slowly of disease or… gangrene in a ditch somewhere.’” 
I was under the impression that PETA was opposed to zoos, but maybe not. After all, Chagrin’s argument can easily be applied to any animal living outdoors (including all those birds, of course, some of which are “dying slowly” of West Nile Virus). What’s truly “mystifying” here is Chagrin’s bottom line: the most responsible—indeed, if we really take the E in PETA seriously, ethical—way to prevent (potential) suffering is with preemptive, wholesale killing.
• “Those opposing TNR got boosts from two recent scientific studies, one concluding that even house cats let outdoors were prolific killers, the other calling feral cats a public health threat and more likely than dogs to carry rabies.” 
“Prolific killers”? Kerrie Anne Loyd, whose PhD work Raasch is referring to, told CBS Atlanta in April: “Cats aren’t as bad as biologists thought.”  I’m surprised he didn’t link back to his paper’s reinterpretation of ABC’s misrepresentation of the study.
And the study about cats being a public health threat? I’m still working on that post (which was supposed to be this post). For now, let’s just consider (again) rabies.
Of the 49 rabies cases reported in humans since 1995, 10 were the result of dog bites that occurred outside of the U.S.; the remainder were traced either to wildlife or were of unknown origins.  Since 1960, only two cases of human rabies have been attributed to cats. 
Also: a study of “11 geographically diverse university-affiliated, urban emergency departments,” which found that of 2,030 patients enrolled, 1,635 exposures (81 percent) were attributed to dogs, and 268 (13 percent) to cats.  This same study found that post-exposure prophylaxis was applied unnecessarily in about 40 percent of the cases documented. Other research has documented similar instances of PEP overuse [7–10], and suggested that such costly policy failures can be exacerbated by “media hysteria.” 
I wonder why Raasch didn’t mention that.
* In “Follow the Money: The Economics of TNR Advocacy,” published last year in The Wildlife Professional’s special issue on free-roaming cats, former Smithsonian researcher Nico Dauphiné complained that 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.”  (Her “evidence” might have been more convincing had it been accurate.)
1. Raasch, C. (2012, October 3). Free-roaming cats stir emotional debate on bird safety. USA Today, from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2012/10/03/free-roaming-cats-at-center-of-renewed-health-bird-threat-debate/1600569/
2. Arnold, T.W. and Zink, R.M., “Collision Mortality Has No Discernible Effect on Population Trends of North American Birds.” PLoS ONE. 2011. 6(9): p. e24708. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0024708
3. Paluska, M. (2012) Kitty cameras show Athens cats on the prowl. http://www.cbsatlanta.com/story/17711012/kitty-cameras-show-athens-cats-on-the-prowl
4. CDC, Human Rabies. 2012, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Atlanta (GA). http://www.cdc.gov/rabies/location/usa/surveillance/human_rabies.html
5. CDC, “Recovery of a Patient from Clinical Rabies—California, 2011.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2012. 61(4): p. 61–64. http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6104a1.htm
6. Moran, G.J., et al., “Appropriateness of rabies postexposure prophylaxis treatment for animal exposures. Emergency ID Net Study Group.” Journal of the American Medical Association. 2000. 284(8): p. 1001–1007. http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=193015
7. Noah, D.L., et al., “Mass human exposure to rabies in New Hampshire: exposures, treatment, and cost.” American Journal of Public Health. 1996. 86(8): p. 1149–51. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8712277
8. Krebs, J.W., Long-Marin, S.C., and Childs, J.E., “Causes, costs, and estimates of rabies postexposure prophylaxis treatments in the United States.” Journal of Public Health Management and Practice. 1998. 4(5): p. 56–62. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10187067
9. Wyatt, J.D., et al., “Human rabies postexposure prophylaxis during a raccoon rabies epizootic in New York, 1993 and 1994.” Emerging Infectious Diseases. 1999. 5(3): p. 415–423. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10341178
10. Recuenco, S., Cherry, B., and Eidson, M., “Potential cost savings with terrestrial rabies control.” BMC Public Health. 2007. 7(1). http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2458/7/47
11. Dauphiné, N., “Follow the Money: The Economics of TNR Advocacy.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 54.