In Search of Answers

Image courtesy of Best Friends Animal Society

I suppose I was looking for a sign of some kind, lingering as I was at Angels Rest on Friday afternoon, the final day of All Staff Week. Just a glimpse of a bobcat, say, or, if that’s asking too much, then maybe one of the blue-black crows I sometimes see here could drop out of the sky onto the hand-wrought gates. Or even an “unexplainable” rush of activity from the hundreds of wind chimes that provide the meditative sound track to this magical place that made such a big impression on me five years ago.

If any such sign was present, I missed it entirely.

Perhaps I was simply lacking the cognitive bandwidth to recognize (never mind process) the paranormal after an intense week—my first as Best Friends’ cat initiatives analyst—of equal parts business and pleasure (the two being, more often than not, seamlessly integrated). I’d spent the previous four days meeting new colleagues, catching up with old friends—surrounded by some of the most welcoming, inspiring people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. At the same time, I was also made acutely aware of the numerous challenges that lie ahead.

As I say, it was a pretty intense week.

Still, I’d like to think I was present enough to have noticed if some mystical force had answered the most pressing question on my mind: Was this what I was put here* for?

I might still be there had I waited for the canyon to answer. But as it turns out, I already knew the answer. I just needed to slow down and listen—not to the wind chimes, but to that quiet but persistent voice inside. The same one that prompted me to write about the Great Kitty Rescue, and, two years later, to launch this blog. And, most recently, to join Best Friends.

Lucky for me, Angels Rest is the perfect setting for slowing down, for listening—for rediscovering what we’ve known all along. Is it any wonder I’m already looking forward to my next trip?

* I’m not terribly comfortable with the idea of being “put here,” but am, at the moment, unable to come up with an expression that better describes a natural alignment with one’s deep sense of purpose.

The Greater Threat Is Junk Science: An Open Letter to the AVMA

An open letter to the American Veterinary Medical Association, in response to the publication of “Cats may be greater threat to wildlife than first thought,” in the April issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association:

As an advocate of trap-neuter-return working for one of that nation’s leading animal welfare organizations, Best Friends Animal Society—and somebody quite familiar with the science surrounding TNR and free-roaming cats in general—I feel compelled to respond to R. Scott Nolen’s recent article (“Cats may be greater threat to wildlife than first thought,” JAVMA News, April 1, 2013) about the paper published earlier this year by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Careful scrutiny reveals a number of flaws in the work, and challenges Nolen’s suggestion that that the researchers involved “took a rigorous and conservative approach” when developing their headline-grabbing predation estimates. Although a detailed critique is beyond the scope of this letter, a brief overview of the more glaring weaknesses will, I think, make the point.

The 1.4–3.7 billion annual bird mortalities reported by Scott Loss, Tom Will, and Peter Marra (which they describe throughout their paper as a conservative estimate [1]) represent an astonishing 29–76 percent of the estimated 4.7 billion land birds in all of North America, [2] a “contribution” that would very likely have led to the extinction of numerous bird species long ago. Even if, as some have suggested, “the total [population of land birds] could be 2 to 3 times higher in some regions,” [3] the implied impact due to predation by cats is simply not supported by existing data. Indeed, 57 of the 58 native bird species Loss et al. claim are targeted by cats have been given a “Least Concern” conservation status by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). [4] The one exception, the Northern Bobwhite, is considered “Near Threatened” due largely to “widespread habitat fragmentation” and extensive hunting. [5] Moreover, the populations of at least 23 of those 58 species are, as indicated by nearly 45 years of North America Breeding Bird Survey data, [6] stable or increasing.

Among the factors contributing to the authors’ inflated estimates is their assumption that 40–70 percent of owned cats are not only allowed to go outdoors, but are, as far as their model is concerned, outside 24/7. [1] In fact, surveys suggest that approximately 60 percent of these cats are indoor-only, and that those allowed outdoors are outside for no more than three hours each day. [7, 8].

This error is, in turn, compounded by the “correction factor to account for owned cats not returning all prey to owners” [1] used by Loss et al. The low-end of the range they used in their model (2.0–3.3) can be traced to a misreading of a 1974 paper published in The Wilson Bulletin, [9] while the upper-end was derived from observations of 12 cats successfully capturing “small mammals” rather than birds (which were observed to avoid capture). [10] The two errors alone inflate the predation rate attributed to pet cats by a factor of 10–20.

The claim made by Loss et al that about 69 percent of cat-killed birds and 89 percent of cat-killed mammals in the U.S. are killed by unowned cats is similarly flawed. Five of the eight studies the authors included in their analysis were conducted in the 1930s and 1950s, when it wasn’t unusual for researchers studying the diet of cats to simply shoot whatever cats could be found hunting along roadsides (or picked up dead, having been killed by a passing vehicle). [11] Setting aside the obvious ethical objections, such methods are, at best, useful for determining what the cats were hunting, but tell us very little about the frequency of their hunting efforts—and nothing whatsoever about any impact on prey populations.

And the estimate by Loss et al. that 80–100 percent of unowned cats kill wildlife relies exclusively on studies of rural cats. Research conducted in more densely populated areas, or areas where unowned cats aren’t entirely reliant on prey for their meals, reveals predation rates far lower than 80 percent, [12] especially for birds. [13] Again, one flaw is compounded by another, resulting in grossly inflated predation estimates.

Especially puzzling is the authors’ assertion that “projects to manage free-ranging cats, such as Trap-Neuter-Return colonies, are potentially harmful to wildlife populations.” [1] Not only do Loss et al. provide no evidence to support such a claim, they overlook an often-cited study that has documented predation by colony cats. Over the course of approximately 300 hours of observation (this, in addition to what the researchers describe as “several months identifying, describing, and photographing each of the cats living in the colonies” prior to beginning their research) in two Miami-Dade County (FL) parks, Castillo and Clarke “saw cats kill a juvenile common yellowthroat and a blue jay. Cats also caught and ate green anoles, bark anoles, and brown anoles… [and the researchers] found the carcasses of a gray catbird and a juvenile opossum in the feeding area.” [14] There were, at any one time, 85–95 cats across the two study sites—more than enough opportunity for documenting the kind of extensive predation suggested by Loss et al.

While it’s true, as Nolen suggests, that the IUCN “lists the domestic cat among the world’s 100 worst invasive alien species,” it’s important to point out that this designation has mostly to do with their impact on wildlife native to oceanic islands. [15] And as researchers Dennis Turner and Mike Fitzgerald explained 13 years ago, “there are few, if any studies apart from island ones, that actually demonstrate that cats have reduced bird populations.” [16] As Louise Holton, president and founder of Alley Cat Rescue, points out in the article, cats—like all predators—tend to prey on the young, the old, the weak and unhealthy. At least two studies have investigated this in great detail, revealing that birds killed by cats are, on average, significantly less healthy than birds killed through non-predatory events (e.g., collisions with windows or cars). [17, 18] “Despite the large numbers of birds killed, there is no scientific evidence that predation by cats in gardens is having any impact on bird populations UK-wide,” notes the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds on its website. “It is likely that most of the birds killed by cats would have died anyway from other causes before the next breeding season, so cats are unlikely to have a major impact on populations.” [19]

Last year, Loss et al. published a paper in which they pointed out that “national mortality estimates are often based on extrapolation from a limited sample of small-scale studies, and estimates of uncertainty are ignored or only superficially assessed.” [20] Ironically, the authors include some of these very studies in their more recent analysis. And by pooling studies from various contexts, attempting to “correct” for different methods, and so forth, they actually add to the uncertainty they lamented previously.

Also ironic is the fact that two of the three authors have advocated publicly for restrictions or outright bans on TNR, [21, 22] despite compelling evidence demonstrating its effectiveness. [23–30] Such policies would, it’s virtually guaranteed, actually increase the risk to the wildlife we all want to protect.

The real story here has little to do with conservation; it’s about how such shoddy science is funded by U.S. taxpayers, published, sold to the public, and used as rationale for policy decisions [31, 32] that would likely result in the deaths of millions of domestic cats. It’s disappointing and troubling to see the AVMA—whose mission is “to advance the science and art of veterinary medicine”—effectively endorse the Smithsonian/USFWS paper, giving it undeserved credibility.

Peter J. Wolf
Cat Initiatives Analyst
Community Programs and Services
National Programs
Best Friends Animal Society

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.

2. Rich, T.D., et al., Partners in Flight North American Landbird Conservation Plan. 2004, Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Ithaca, NY.

3. Blancher, P.J., K. V. Rosenberg, A. O. Panjabi, B. Altman, J. Bart, C. J. Beardmore, G. S. Butcher, D. Demarest, R. Dettmers, E. H. Dunn, W. Easton, W. C. Hunter, E. E. Iñigo-Elias, D. N. Pashley, C. J. Ralph, T. D. Rich, C. M. Rustay, J. M. Ruth, T. C. Will, Guide to the Partners in Flight Population Estimates Database. Version: North American Landbird Conservation Plan 2004, in Partners in Flight Technical Series No 5. 2007.

4. IUCN. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2012 [cited 2013 May 5]. 2012.2:[

5. n.a. (2012) Northern Bobwhite Colinus virginianus. IUCN 2012. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species Accessed May 5, 2013.

6. Sauer, J.R., et al. (2012) The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2011. Version 12.13.2011

7. Clancy, E.A., Moore, A.S., and Bertone, E.R., “Evaluation of cat and owner characteristics and their relationships to outdoor access of owned cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2003. 222(11): p. 1541–1545.

8. 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.

9. George, W., “Domestic cats as predators and factors in winter shortages of raptor prey.” The Wilson Bulletin. 1974. 86(4): p. 384–396.

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

11. Errington, P.L., “Notes on Food Habits of Southwestern Wisconsin House Cats.” Journal of Mammalogy. 1936. 17(1): p. 64–65.

12. 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.

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

14. Castillo, D. and Clarke, A.L., “Trap/Neuter/Release Methods Ineffective in Controlling Domestic Cat “Colonies” on Public Lands.” Natural Areas Journal. 2003. 23: p. 247–253.

15. n.a. (2010) Felis catus (mammal). The Global Invasive Species Database

16. Fitzgerald, B.M. and Turner, D.C., Hunting Behaviour of domestic cats and their impact on prey populations, in The Domestic Cat: The biology of its behaviour, D.C. Turner and P.P.G. Bateson, Editors. 2000, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, U.K.; New York. p. 151–175.

17. Møller, A.P. and Erritzøe, J., “Predation against birds with low immunocompetence.” Oecologia. 2000. 122(4): p. 500–504.

18. 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.

19. RSPB (2011) Are cats causing bird declines? Accessed October 26, 2011.

20. Loss, S.R., Will, T., and Marra, P.P., “Direct human-caused mortality of birds: improving quantification of magnitude and assessment of population impact.” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 2012. 10(7): p. 357–364.

21. Marra, P. (2011, March 18). No good for the birds, but also no good for the cats (Opinion). The Washington Post, from

22. Will, T., What Can Federal Agencies Do? Policy Options to Address Cat Impacts to Birds and Their Habitats, in Bird Conservation Alliance Teleconference. 2010.

23. Levy, J.K., Gale, D.W., and Gale, L.A., “Evaluation of the effect of a long-term trap-neuter-return and adoption program on a free-roaming cat population.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2003. 222(1): p. 42–46.

24. Nutter, F.B., Evaluation of a Trap-Neuter-Return Management Program for Feral Cat Colonies: Population Dynamics, Home Ranges, and Potentially Zoonotic Diseases, in Comparative Biomedical Department. 2005, North Carolina State University: Raleigh, NC. p. 224.

25. Natoli, E., et al., “Management of feral domestic cats in the urban environment of Rome (Italy).” Preventive Veterinary Medicine. 2006. 77(3-4): p. 180–185.

26. Tennent, J., Downs, C.T., and Bodasing, M., “Management Recommendations for Feral Cat (Felis catus) Populations Within an Urban Conservancy in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.” South African Journal of Wildlife Research. 2009. 39(2): p. 137–142.

27. Mendes-de-Almeida, F., et al., “The Impact of Hysterectomy in an Urban Colony of Domestic Cats (Felis catus Linnaeus, 1758).” International Journal of Applied Research in Veterinary Medicine. 2006. 4(2): p. 134–141.

28. Mendes-de-Almeida, F., et al., “Reduction of feral cat (Felis catus Linnaeus 1758) colony size following hysterectomy of adult female cats.” Journal of Feline Medicine & Surgery. 2011.

29. Robertson, S.A., “A review of feral cat control.” Journal of Feline Medicine & Surgery. 2008. 10(4): p. 366–375.

30. Donlan, A.E. (1996, June 30). North Shore cat-lovers go… Where the wild things are. Boston Herald,

31. Fenwick, G.H. (2013, February 25). House cats: The destructive invasive species purring on your lap. The Baltimore Sun, from,0,6415585.story

32. Lynes, M. (2013, February 4). No. 1 bird killer is outdoor cats. San Francisco Chronicle, from

Twenty-Three Years and Counting

The definition of insanity, it’s often said, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. As it happens, this isn’t actually the definition of insanity. And it’s unlikely that the pithy quote actually originates with Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, or Mark Twain, though it’s often attributed to one of the three.

Legal and historical quibbles aside, the central point is a valid one: repeating a behavior or action that’s yielded one result in the hopes of achieving a different result… well, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

And yet, this is exactly what’s going on in Hernando County, Florida, where county commissioners recently voted 4-to-1 “to retain the 23-year policy of loaning out cat traps to catch feral felines.” [1] This is no TNR program; cats caught—especially those that aren’t socialized—will, more than likely, be killed by Hernando County Animal Services.*

And, according to Commissioner Diane Rowden, who cast the sole dissenting vote, the policy isn’t working out well for the community, either. “We’ve been doing this over, and over and over for years and years and years and it doesn’t seem to be really accomplishing anything,” she told Hernando Today. “They just keep multiplying out there.”

“Lisa Centonze, managing veterinarian of animal services, has called the process of lending out traps ‘inefficient, costly and inhumane.’” [1]

Twenty-three years. Let that sink in for a moment.

The changes to animal sheltering—and companion animal welfare in general—in this country over the past 23 years have been nothing short of revolutionary. Attitudes about stray, abandoned, and feral cats have undergone a radical shift as well. Indeed, it was 1990 when, as an article in the January/February issue of Best Friends magazine (from which the illustration above is borrowed) explains, Alley Cat Allies “[gave] voice to feral cats on a national stage and introduces trap/neuter/return as the most humane and practical method for relating to community cats.” [2] (Just one year earlier, reports Nathan Winograd in Redemption: The myth of pet overpopulation and the no kill revolution in America, “the first battle flag of the No Kill revolution was symbolically being raised” at the San Francisco SPCA. [3])

Meanwhile, in Hernando County, the budget for Animal Services has been slashed 45 percent over the past three years, and the number full-time employees cut nearly in half since 2011. [4] None of which bodes well for the cats in its shelter system—“some 280” of them last year, according to the story in Hernando Today, the majority of which never made it out alive. [1]

In fact, the statistics are probably far worse. In nearby Hillsborough County, for example, Animal Services impounded 10,635 cats in 2012; only about 20 percent made it out the front door. Granted, the human population of Hillsborough is about seven times that of Hernando County, but that doesn’t explain intake numbers 38 times greater. Perhaps “some 280 cats” were brought in via loaned traps. Unfortunately, Hernando County Animal Services doesn’t post such data online (another sign of an agency in need of reform).

Whether we’re talking about 280 cats—or, as I suspect, maybe 10 times that many—it’s troubling to see Hernando County continue, for 23 years now, its endorsement of lethal (non) control methods. As Rowden points out, they don’t seem to be accomplishing anything.

Maybe it’s not insanity, exactly—but it still doesn’t make any sense.

* As stated in Article III Section 6-41 of Hernando County Code of Ordinances: “The animal shelter may adopt out or release impounded cats after three (3) days and may euthanize impounded cats after five (5) days, measured from the date of impoundment. Notwithstanding the foregoing, the county veterinarian or his/her designee may euthanize an impounded cat if such animal is in imminent danger of death from disease or trauma or is determined to be feral. Euthanasia of cats to prevent overcrowding will be conducted using the following priorities, to be determined by the county veterinarian or his/her designee: (1) Sick, diseased, or injured; (2) Feral; (3) Unadoptable.”

Literature Cited

1. Bates, M.D. (2013, May 7). Cat traps here to stay. Hernando Today, from

2. n.a., “A brief history of the no-kill movement.” Best Friends 2013. January/February. p. 16–17.

3. Winograd, N.J., Redemption: The myth of pet overpopulation and the no kill revolution in America. 2007: Almaden Books.

4. n.a., Hernando County, Florida, Fiscal 2013 Approved Budget. 2012, Office of Management and Budget: Brooksville.

Meet Best Friends’ Cat Initiatives Analyst!


In the end, my decision to join Best Friends Animal Society (which became official last week) came down to that one factor: impact. As a member of their National Programs team, I’ll have the opportunity to improve the lives of stray, abandoned, and feral cats on a scale I could only dream of three years ago when I launched Vox Felina.

My position—Cat Initiatives Analyst—includes a broad range of responsibilities, but most of my attention will be focused on the intersection of science, policy, and communications. In other words, using the relevant science to strengthen Best Friends’ legislative and outreach efforts on behalf of the country’s community cats.

Clearly, this is a job made for the “feral cat nerd.”

And, in a way, it’s also the culmination of a journey that began with Best Friends. As regular readers will recall, it was my involvement five-and-a-half years ago with the Great Kitty Rescue that introduced me to feral cat management and TNR. And set in motion a series of events that led to the creation of this blog.

Speaking of which: What happens to Vox Felina now?

From our very first conversation about joining the team, the people at Best Friends have made it clear that they admire, and see a need for, what I’m doing with Vox Felina—and that they want me to continue that work. I, therefore, don’t envision any substantive changes at all.

As I say, it’s all about impact.

I’m incredibly excited to begin this next chapter, and enormously grateful to Best Friends for the opportunity. Grateful, too, for the community of Vox Felina supporters; without your encouragement and engagement, the opportunity may never have come my way.

Thank you.

May 2013
Phoenix, AZ

Common Sense for Cats

Have you seen the just-launched Common Sense for Cats website yet? It’s an Alley Cat Allies initiative that the organization describes as “an online resource to educate about outdoor cats and Trap-Neuter-Return, the only humane and effective program to stabilize—and reduce—outdoor cat populations.”

The site serves as a useful primer—courtesy of some very nice visuals—for those not already familiar with TNR and the larger “cat debate.” It’s easy to share via Facebook and Twitter, and there’s even a petition you can sign “to help ensure that humane policies for cats are a major take-home message for local policymakers across the country.” Signatures will be presented “at the upcoming meetings for the National Association of Counties, National League of Cities, and the United States Conference of Mayors to let them know that Americans want humane policies for cats in their communities.” (Just last week, Alley Cat Allies delivered more than 55,000 signatures to the Smithsonian Institution in response to the publication earlier this year of agenda-driven junk science produced by researchers at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.)

Thank you, Alley Cat Allies!

Hillsborough County Commissioners Approve TNR Plan

It doesn’t happen often enough—but every now and then, common sense, reason, and compassion win the day. Today is such a day.

This morning Hillsborough County commissioners voted 6-to-1 in favor of Hillsborough County Animal Services’ recently announced TNR pilot program—part of director Ian Hallett’s proposal for reducing shelter killing (PDF).

This is a huge victory for TNR supporters (who, as I understand it, packed today’s meeting), especially in light of the no-holds-barred campaign waged by opponents from the Hillsborough County Veterinary Medical Society and Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation. In the end, it seems, all the misinformation and scare-mongering—and their lack of a feasible alternative to TNR—failed to impress county commissioners. (One wonders what sort of impression the campaign made on their clients.)

As I understand it, HCAS’s program would be modeled on the successful Feral Freedom programs underway in Jacksonville, FL, or San José, CA. However, it’s clear from people already involved with TNR in Hillsborough County that some key aspects of the program still need to be worked out.

•     •     •

To my friends and colleagues in Hillsborough County, whose tireless efforts made this victory possible, congratulations! And thank you for all you’re doing on behalf of your community’s stray, abandoned, and feral cats!