The Agenda Behind Agenda-driven “Science”

What do you get when public policy is based on agenda-driven junk science? If various TNR opponents have their way, we’ll find out the hard way.

As I pointed out shortly after the Smithsonian/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s “killer cat study” was published, the paper actually has very little to do with science or conservation. At its core, this was an agenda-driven effort to undermine TNR. (Note, for example, the emphasis on unowned cats—the cause of about 69 percent of mortalities, according to the paper’s authors—and native species—“the majority of the birds preyed upon by cats,” [1] a claim unsupported by the very evidence the authors provide.)

And, as we’ve seen in the past couple weeks, members of the media, wildlife advocacy organizations, and the scientific community are trying to use the Loss et al. paper as a lever to shape policy. There was, of course, witch-hunt pioneer Stan Temple’s op-ed in the Sun-Sentinel, referring to the paper as “a new study… provid[ing] a science-based estimate of the number of birds and mammals killed by cats nationwide.” And the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife is sounding the alarm, claiming that “cats may even restrict the statewide recovery of some rare birds.”

Among the other stories I’ve seen (and no doubt there are many I’ve missed):

Wake-up Call

Mike Lynes, executive director of Golden Gate Audubon Society, called the Smithsonian/USFWS paper “a wake-up call to people who care both about cats and about wildlife,” arguing that TNR “should be scientifically evaluated as a policy—something that has not been done.”

“If it is not shown in peer-reviewed studies to be effective, then it should be discontinued and replaced with other solutions…. The city should complete the Significant Natural Resource Areas Management Plan process and prohibit feral cat feeding and trap-neuter-return in our most important natural areas. At a minimum, these key areas should become urban refuges where wildlife can thrive without constant threat of feline decimation.”

Curious comments from somebody with Lynes’ background—he’s a biologist and an environmental attorney. Is he really not familiar with the peer-reviewed literature demonstrating the effectiveness of TNR (and, just as important, the ineffectiveness of “traditional” methods)?

As for those “other solutions,” Lynes isn’t saying. This, as we’ll, is a recurring theme with these folks.

Getting Serious about Protecting Wildlife

“If we want to get serious about protecting wildlife — and cats,” suggested Alisa Mullins senior editor for the PETA Foundation, in last Monday’s ABQ Journal, “we need to change the way that we view cats.”

“We need to start thinking of them as our best friends, our beloved companions, our lifelong responsibility. Like dogs, they should be licensed, included in ‘leash laws’ (i.e., required to be kept indoors unless accompanied) and, most importantly, spayed or neutered. This is the only way we will ever start to put a dent in the staggering homeless cat problem—and allow America’s wildlife to breathe a sigh of relief.”

Mullins, having, it seems, enjoyed a generous helping of the Smithsonian/USFWS Kool-Aid, cited only the maximum “estimates” from the Loss et al. paper (not the minimums are scientifically defensible either, of course) for greater effect. Like Lynes, Mullins offers nothing in the way of a solution for what she describes as “the estimated 80 million stray and feral cats eking out an existence in our nation’s alleys and barns.”

And for good reason. PETA has a habit of “showing up” wherever TNR is gaining traction, but—at least in my experience—doesn’t come right out and advocate for lethal control. Better, I suppose, to let the public go on thinking PETA is truly concerned for the welfare of these cats rather than expose the organization as what Nathan Winograd has called “a cult-ure of killing.”

Conservation in the Name of Killing

Charlie Potter, host of Chicago radio station WGN’s Great Outdoors program (“dedicated to bringing to WGN listeners outdoor information in an honest and entertaining format”) and president of the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation (whose mission involves “actively creating solutions through programs of management, education, research and communications that strongly enhance the conservation of fish, game, wildlife and their habitats”), is blaming declining Northern bobwhite numbers on feral cats.

For Potter, the Smithsonian/USFWS paper is just what the doctor ordered.

According to a recent story in The Courier News, Potter “hints that the study is concluding that the impact of these wild cats is far more malevolent than that of the Chicago area’s bigger and more malevolent-looking, but far less numerous, coyotes.”

“‘There is nothing worse for a bobwhite quail than a cat somebody dumped out of their car,’ Potter said. ‘Changing agricultural practices played a role. But mostly it has been predators. Bobwhite quail cannot thrive in an area without nesting cover, where they’re exposed to predators, especially raccoons and feral cats.’” [2]

That’s not how it’s explained on the BirdLife International website, where the “large and statistically significant decrease over the last 40 years in North America” is attributed to “widespread habitat fragmentation” and extensive hunting (“over 20,000,000 individuals were recently being killed annually by hunters in the USA”).

Setting aside Potter’s curious view of events for the moment, though, I find his core argument truly bizarre: the bobwhite need to be protected from cats so that they can be killed (preferably “25 in a day,” just like in the good old days Potter describes in the Courier News article) by hunters.

The Impact Can Be Huge

Perhaps the strangest reporting I’ve seen only touches on the Smithsonian/USFWS paper—using it as further justification for a hatchet job (the sort of irresponsible work that brings to mind, with almost a wistfulness—if only for a moment—Mitt Romney’s plan to cut PBS funding altogether) on cat advocates in general, and L.A.’s Stray Cat Alliance in particular—as Los Angeles pushes to become the country’s largest “no-kill” city.

The story’s surprising source? PBS affiliate KCET.

“Longcore is concerned the release of feral cats into communities is impacting the wildlife,” explains SoCal Connected reporter Judy Muller, referring to Travis Longcore, president of Los Angeles Audubon and lead plaintiff in the case that eventually led to an injunction prohibiting city-funded TNR.

“And the impact can be huge. According to a new study by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Fish and Wildlife Service, cats are killing some two and a half billion birds a year.” [3]

But, as Muller sees it, Longcore and his supporters haven’t got a chance against the Powerful Cat Lobby: “Some cat rescue groups have multi-million dollar piggy banks. They are well-funded, and well-mobilized. They even host feral cat conferences, like… one recently held in Marina Del Rey.” Among the conference’s attendees was Stray Cat Alliance founder and executive director Christi Metropole, who Muller interviews—and grossly mischaracterizes—in the piece.

“She donates to city councilmembers’ campaigns, hosts fundraisers and attends celebrity-studded galas. But despite her political access and the hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations she’s accumulated, she claims her group and others are the underdogs when it comes to fighting for cats’ rights.” [3]

Had Muller been more interested in informing her audience—and policymakers—she might have focused more of her attention on Longcore—asking him, for example, how restrictions (or outright bans) on TNR would help the wildlife he claims to want to protect. Or to elaborate on his alternative to TNR. “The truth of the matter is,” he told her, “and this is what is so difficult for people to understand, is that managing and controlling unowned, free-roaming cats will require euthanasia.”

“There are not enough shelter spaces, there is not enough sanctuary space. And we have to stand up and be honest. But the thing is something is going to die in this equation.” [3]

Well, we all know what that “something” is. But who will conduct—and pay for—the kind of unprecedented killing Longcore’s hinting at? And why will lethal control work this time, after generations of brutal and costly failure?

Apparently those issues weren’t of much interest to Muller.

•     •     •

Alley Cat Allies has created an online petition calling for “the Smithsonian to disavow this research, stop funding this junk science, and turn their attention to remediating the real threats to wildlife populations. Scapegoating cats may seem like the easy answer, but in reality, killing more cats will not save populations of birds or small mammals.”

Literature Cited

1. Loss, S.R., Will, T., and Marra, P.P., “The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States.” Nature Communications. 2013. 4. http://www.nature.com/ncomms/journal/v4/n1/full/ncomms2380.html

2. Gathman, D. (2013, February 19). Feral cats: Are they ruthless killers or down-on-their-luck homeless? The Courier News, from http://couriernews.suntimes.com/news/18314848-418/feral-cats-are-they-ruthless-killers-or-down-on-their-luck-homeless.html

3. n.a. (2013) L.A.’s Proposed No-Kill Policy Raises Hackles on Both Sides. SoCal Connected

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