10 Most Important Community Cat News Stories of 2013

It’s that time of year again—time to take stock of the year’s milestones. Check out Rolling Stone’s 50 Best Albums of 2013, for example, or Fresh Air’s book, TV, movie, and music picks.

Not to be outdone, I’ve compiled a list of what I see as the year’s 10 most important community cat news stories—a number of which even the most avid readers may have missed. (Indeed, I’ve blogged about only a handful.)

Suffice it to say, others will disagree with my choices. In fact, I’d be very surprised if anybody agreed with the entire list.

That’s fine. Better than fine, actually—if it means my selections will spark a conversation, or even a debate. Maybe even inspire others to set to work on their own list for 2014.

Without further ado, then, my picks for the 10 most important community cat news stories of 2013…

10. TNR opponents’ desperate struggle for relevance

I don’t know that it’s entirely fair to lump together a number of news stories like this. On the other hand, though, I’ve already given this nonsense more attention than it deserves. So, although some will likely argue that this one ought to be ranked higher, let’s get it over with. A few “highlights”:

Among the most obvious signs of desperation this year were the Smithsonian/USFWS paper (authored by some of the same people who brought us Nico Dauphiné) published in late January—a collection of fictitious “estimates” generated in a blatant attempt to undermine TNR efforts.

And we can’t forget the incident in March, when Ted Williams, long-time editor-at-large for Audubon magazine, publicly recommended the use of an over-the-counter pain reliever—toxic to cats—as one of “two effective, humane alternatives to the cat hell of TNR.” Following a brief suspension, Williams was back on the job, thus revealing the true colors of an organization that tends to play more of a low-key role in the witch-hunt against free-roaming cats. (The incident had a silver lining, however: Williams’ complaints of being victimized by the “feral-cat mafia” inspired a line of t-shirts, hoodies, and other gear, the profits ($511.20) from which are—as my own modest thumb in the eye to Williams—being donated to FixNation.)

And finally, the American Bird Conservancy’s announcement in late October that the organization had hired “renowned international wildlife expert” (as he was described in the corresponding media release) and long-time TNR opponent Michael Hutchins to “oversee the organization’s Bird-Smart wind energy campaign.” As I’ve pointed out more times than I care to recall, Hutchins has a truly miserable track record when it comes to accurately portraying both the impacts of free-roaming cats and the relevant science. And if he’s got any experience with wind energy issues, it wasn’t evident from his days blogging for The Wildlife Society, where he served as executive director and CEO. Nevertheless, he found work at ABC—as if that organization had any credibility to spare.

9. TNR advocates respond to Hillsborough County rabies case

It takes a certain kind of courage to hold an outdoor event in Florida during late August.

But that’s exactly what the Animal Coalition of Tampa and Humane Society of Tampa Bay did after a toddler in a Tampa suburb was bitten by a rabid cat, holding a mobile vaccination clinic in the neighborhood where the incident took place. While some were calling for the lethal roundup of the area’s free-roaming cats—using the incident to ramp up their anti-TNR rhetoric—the folks at ACT and HSTB (who, last year alone, administered more than 43,000 rabies vaccines and provided more than 22,000 sterilization surgeries) rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

“We were scheduled to be open from 9:00 to 11:00,” explains ACT president Frank Hamilton. “The first person in line got there at 5:45 am. By 9:15, we already had 600 pets in line, so we closed.” More than 1,100 rabies and distemper vaccines were administered, all at no cost to taxpayers.

Once again, it was the TNR groups taking action to protect not only the health of a community’s companion animals, but the community itself. Let’s hope public health officials—in Hillsborough County and across the country—were paying attention.

8. USFWS loosens wind farm regulations

As BloombergBusinessweek reported earlier this month, the Department of the Interior has “loosened restrictions designed to reduce the threat [to eagles] from wind farms.” [1] There’s no way to tell if all the junk science produced and promoted by TNR opponents had anything to do with DOI’s decision, but it wouldn’t be the first time the argument’s been made: seen against the alleged impacts of cats, wind turbines seem utterly benign.

The revised regulations are undoubtedly bad news for eagles, but perhaps they’ll serve as a wake-up call for those in the conservation community who continue to co-opt science as a tool for advancing their own agenda rather than a means by which to better understand the world around us.

7. Cats and island extinctions: it’s complicated

While it’s often acknowledged that free-roaming cats can have a devastating impact on an island’s native wildlife, the findings of a recent Australian study are challenging this conventional wisdom. “Native mammals fared only slightly worse on islands with cats than on islands without them,” explains a ScienceNOW story from August. And, as the researchers themselves explain in Global Ecology and Biogeography, the “eradication of introduced apex predators (cats, foxes or dingoes) from islands could precipitate the expansion of black rat populations, potentially leading to extinction of native mammal species whose remaining populations are confined to islands.” [2]

6. Managed colonies show lower frequency of T. gondii infection

“Unmanaged feral cats, bobcats, and mountain lions in our study had higher prevalences of T. gondii infection and shedding than managed feral cats,” [3] reported the authors of a paper published in the September issue of EcoHealth. While these findings should come as no surprise—managed colonies are, by definition, less reliant upon wild prey for food—it’s good to see this kind of work getting published. (Less welcome is the authors’ portrayal of colony cats and indoor/outdoor pet cats as a serious health threat to marine mammals and humans—something I’ll address in a future post.)

5. Sheltering recommendations from “California Stakeholder Group”

Charting a Path Forward: Achieving California’s policy to save all adoptable and treatable animals, a draft report authored by a diverse group of stakeholders, lays out 23 recommendations “that California agencies and communities can and should utilize to help animals, advance the work of animal sheltering, and move California closer toward its goal of saving every adoptable and treatable animal.” Not surprisingly, given the state’s role as a trendsetter, the report has started a national conversation about shelter reform—much of it having to do with how cats are treated.

Among the report’s few controversial recommendations is the proposal that “cats without identification may be immediately moved through the process toward a positive outcome (i.e., adoption, transfer, return to origin).” While the benefits to such a policy are readily apparent, the tradeoffs (e.g., the potential for adopting cats whose owners have not yet contacted the shelter) are not insignificant. And as Best Friends Animal Society* co-founder Francis Battista noted in his October 23 blog post, “it will be easy to portray such measures as punitive to the public who are not breaking any laws in not chipping a pet.” (Best Friends’ comments on the complete report can be found here.)

This recommendation about cats lacking identification has touched off a larger debate, too, about holding periods for cats (a topic KC Dog Blog’s Brent Toellner tackled thoughtfully in his December 8 post). This is one we’re going to be wrestling with for some time, but the fact that so many of us are engaged in this difficult conversation is, I believe, a very good sign.

4. First step taken to lift anti-TNR injunction in L.A.

For four years now, an injunction has prevented the City of Los Angeles and L.A. Animal Services from supporting TNR. The October announcement of the City’s plans to institute a “Citywide Cat Program,” therefore, came as welcome news among TNR advocates.

Although many of us—myself included—object to some of the provisions outlined in the proposal, this is nevertheless a critical first step in getting the injunction lifted. Stay tuned as the proposal makes its way through the approval process.

3. Florida’s “shelter reporting bill” includes TNR provisions

Despite the defeat of two TNR-friendly bills in Florida (both of which were opposed by the state’s veterinary medical association), the state’s lawmakers did approve legislation requiring shelters (private and public alike) to compile and make available to the public data regarding intake and outcomes. And among the possible outcomes for cats is “Released in field/Trapped, Neutered, Released (TNR),” an important step in establishing legal protections for cats and caretakers.

“Best Friends worked with the bill’s sponsors to get this TNR language into the final draft,” explained Battista in his May 2 blog post, “along with having Feral Cats stricken from the books as a separate category of animal. That’s good news for community cats and the people who love them.”

2. “Return to field” included in the Basic Matrix for shelter reporting

According to the National Federation of Humane Societies, the Basic Matrix was “designed to both define the least amount of data an animal sheltering organization should collect, and to serve as a common language for data collection across a wide spectrum of agencies.” Among the options listed in the “Other Live Outcome” category is “returning cats to the field.”

Just as Florida’s Shelter Reporting Bill provides a degree of official sanction to TNR across the state, the Basic Matrix is codifying the practice nationally. Some TNR advocates—myself included—see this move as a kind of tipping point.

And the top community cat news story of 2013 was…

1. TNR far less costly than lethal methods

Research conducted as part of a population modeling project for the Alliance for Contraception in Cats and Dogs, and presented at the National Council on Pet Population’s research symposium Cats: The Ins and Outs: Improving their Future Through Research, revealed that the cost of lethal roundups are 4.5–9 times greater costs associated with than TNR. [4] (For a snapshot, check out my December 5 post.)

This is big news—but not entirely surprising. Mark Kumpf, former president of the National Animal Control Association, made the point five years ago: “There’s no department that I’m aware of that has enough money in their budget to simply practice the old capture-and-euthanize policy. Nature just keeps having more kittens.” [5]

Still, the stark comparison so clearly demonstrated in the ACC&D research will make it much more difficult for policymakers to ignore Kumpf’s observation.

* Full disclosure (for those who may not know): in late May, I accepted a full-time position with Best Friends as the organization’s Cat Initiatives Analyst.

Literature Cited

1. Doom, J. U.S. Eases Turbine Bird-Death Rule as Cats Kill Millions. BloombergBusinessweek, 2013.  http://www.businessweek.com/news/2013-12-06/u-dot-s-dot-eases-turbine-bird-death-rule-as-cats-kill-millions

2. Hanna, E. and M. Cardillo, Island mammal extinctions are determined by interactive effects of life history, island biogeography and mesopredator suppression. Global Ecology and Biogeography, 2013: p. n/a-n/a. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/geb.12103

3. VanWormer, E., et al., Toxoplasma gondii, Source to Sea: Higher Contribution of Domestic Felids to Terrestrial Parasite Loading Despite Lower Infection Prevalence. EcoHealth, 2013: p. 1–13. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10393-013-0859-x

4. Zawistowski, S., Simulating different approaches for managing free-roaming cat populations, in 2013 National Council on Pet Population Research Symposium Presentations: CATS: The Ins and Outs: Improving their Future Through Research2013, Society of Animal Welfare Administrators Tempe, AZ.

5. Hettinger, J., Taking a Broader View of Cats in the Community, in Animal Sheltering2008. p. 8–9.

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