Appealing to Our Better Nature

It’s not every day that I hear from somebody whose work I’ve criticized. (In fact, I rarely receive a response from those I reach out to for comments or clarification.) Imagine my surprise, then, when I received an e-mail from somebody involved with Nature Canada’s “cats indoors” campaign who was interested in better understanding my objections. Even more surprising was my subsequent telephone conversation with Sarah Cooper: exactly the sort of thoughtful, open exchange I’d hoped for when I launched Vox Felina six years ago today.

It doesn’t hurt that Cooper, who’s largely responsible for Nature Canada’s communication strategy for the campaign, is curious, witty, and charming.

Over the course of our conversation (nearly two hours, if I recall correctly), she gave me plenty to think about. So, to mark Vox Felina’s six-year anniversary, I want to reflect on that previous post a little bit and ask readers to weigh in as well.

That “Environment Canada Paper”

While it’s true that Environment Canada paid to publish the 2013 paper featured on the Research page of the Cats and Birds website, Cooper noted—correctly—that everybody pays to publish in Avian Conservation and Ecology. And that some—perhaps many—readers likely concluded, from my post, that there had been some kind of backroom deal between the government agency and the publisher.

To be clear: there are certainly advantages to the “pay-to-publish” model, not least of which is their open-access nature—especially appropriate, it seems to me, for publicly funded research. (Some, such as PLoS ONE, allow for commenting free of charge; ACE charges a fee to become part of the online discussion.) In any case, there are, as I’ve demonstrated over the years, numerous journals out there willing to publish badly flawed work—and then hide everything but the paper’s abstract behind a pay wall.

Given the choice, I’ll take open-access anytime.

In my April 4 post, I complained that the Cats and Birds website mentions nothing at all about “the assumptions involved in estimating [the] figures” reported in the paper published by Environment Canada’s Peter Blancher. In fact, as Cooper pointed out to me, the site does provide some useful context. Still, all the disclaimers in the world can’t undo the damage caused by claiming—on the basis of junk science*—that “predation by house cats is probably the largest human-related source of bird mortality in Canada.” [1] (Nature Canada refers to this claim specifically in their downloadable letter urging elected officials, “to act to keep cats safe and save bird lives.”)

As I wrote when I first commented on the paper, I agree with Blancher [1] that “studies are needed to assess impacts on bird populations and effectiveness of mitigative measures.” [1] But such work requires rigor well beyond what was demonstrated in that 2013 Environment Canada paper.

Sometimes I Just Plain Get It Wrong

Another complaint from my original Cats and Birds post: that any reference to feline aids “betrays either a profound ignorance of the subject or a decidedly anti-cat agenda.” As Cooper explained, there’s at least one other option: the general public has a better understanding of the term feline aids than FIV or feline immunodeficiency virus. (Nature Canada tested all three with focus groups.)

Fair enough.

I also reported that the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies is not part of the “coalition of individuals and organizations concerned about the well-being of cats and birds” supporting Nature Canada’s campaign. Although the CFHS isn’t listed among the campaign’s partners, Cooper explained that the organization has provided extensive feedback to the campaign.

No Trojan Horse After All?

Cooper was adamant that the Cats and Birds campaign is—unlike the American Bird Conservancy’s Cats Indoors! campaign—not endorsing lethal methods of population control. Indeed, her initial e-mail had suggested such goodwill: “we want to work with cat-care organizations and people, so it’s important for us to take feedback from people such as yourself.”

This, of course, is a great relief—not just because it means fewer threats to cats, but because it suggests a degree of cooperation we see all too rarely.

Still, it’s puzzling that there’s no mention of Nature Canada’s position on this critical issue on the Cats and Birds website, especially in light of their emphasis on predation and apparent concern for public health threats posed by cats. If, as Cooper says, Nature Canada wants to work with the people and organizations sterilizing and caring for community cats, then why not let them know you’re not interested in rounding up the cats in their care?

This omission strikes me as, at best, a missed opportunity. Some will no doubt see it as reason for mistrust and suspicion. (But, good news: Cooper tells me something is in the works.)

My Kind of “Cats Indoors” Campaign?

As I mentioned previously, the whole “cats indoors” philosophy is a topic to which I’ve devoted considerable thought over the years—but not as deeply as I have since that call from Cooper. One question keeps running through my mind: If it were up to me, what would I do?

Let me start by saying that I think there’s actually a lot of common ground here—far more than is generally acknowledged. We all share a common goal, for example: reducing—and one day, even eliminating—the population of unowned free-roaming cats. And I appreciate that Nature Canada—whose mission is to “to protect and conserve wildlife and habitats in Canada by engaging people and advocating on behalf of nature”—is not going to undertake a campaign solely for the purpose of protecting pet cats. What’s in it for them?

I also appreciate the fact that some cats do kill some wildlife, and that birds in particular are under threat from a whole host of factors. (I don’t recall encountering anybody who denies either point.) Even if outdoor cats—owned and unowned alike—are, as the U.K.’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds notes, “unlikely to have a major impact on [bird] populations,” outdoor access to pet cats is one factor over which human control is rather straightforward—certainly compared to, say, habitat loss or climate change. But where does that leave unowned cats?

As I say, I’ve been giving this a great deal of thought lately. No epiphanies to report—but, as a start, allow me to suggest that we seriously consider the following four factors in the development of a more inclusive “cats indoors” campaign:

1. Lethal roundups are off the table

Again, Cooper made it clear that Nature Canada isn’t interested in using shelter impoundment/lethal injection as a means of population control. It’s an enormous relief, but why not make this a highly visible part of the messaging?

2. Do away with the flawed predation estimates

No matter how much context Nature Canada provides, no matter how much the organization tries to finesse the messaging—endorsing the badly flawed Environment Canada paper provides others with fuel for the ongoing witch-hunt against outdoor cats. Once it’s out there, with Nature Canada’s stamp of approval on it, there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. Besides, as I’ve gone to some lengths to point out, it’s just not the sort of work a respectable science-oriented organization ought to be promoting.

3. Adopt a “do your part” approach

Rather than rely so heavily on exaggerated predation impacts, why not be honest? Birds face lots of threats, and keeping pet cats indoors can’t hurt? Consider recycling campaigns—they don’t rely on exaggerated claims so much as a “do your part” approach. (And where better than Canada for such an approach, right?)

4. TNR should be integrated and heavily promoted

Last, by certainly not least—make TNR a very prominent piece of the campaign. I’ve argued for several years now that, in most circumstances, TNR is simply the best option we’ve got to reduce the number of unowned free-roaming cats. Indeed, from a public policy perspective—which, of course, must take into account public opinion and available funding, among other factors—TNR is simply our only option.

For those who want to promote—and fund—lethal methods, go right ahead. But if you really think free-roaming cats have a negative impact on wildlife, then it’s only logical that opposition to TNR hurts wildlife too.

As I said, no epiphanies. But perhaps there are some conversation-starters in here somewhere. If I learned nothing else from Cooper’s call, it’s that we need more conversations—more attention paid to that common ground to which I referred previously. As I begin my seventh year blogging about this issue, I appreciate this more than ever. I look forward to my ongoing conversation with Cooper, her colleagues, and with all of you. Leave me a comment—let me know what you think.

* In drafting the current post, I revisited the April 2014 blog post in which I critiqued the Environment Canada paper in some detail, and my opinion about the work remains unchanged.

Literature Cited

1. Blancher, P., Estimated Number of Birds Killed by House Cats (Felis catus) in Canada. Avian Conservation and Ecology, 2013. 8(2) http://www.ace-eco.org/vol8/iss2/art3/

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4 Comments

  1. Sorry, but I still have an issue with “feline aids”. Does the public really understand the term better or do they THINK that they understand the term better because of the word “aids”?

    It’s a prejudicial (and inaccurate) term, bottom line, and it needs to be eliminated.

    Guess what other word the public generally doesn’t understand? Euthanize. They don’t know what it means. But I don’t see articles substituting the (more accurate) word “kill”.

  2. Robert Schmidt

    This seems to have been a very productive dialogue. I’m curious whether Sarah Cooper had any “epiphanies” or new insights.

  3. I really enjoyed our conversation, and I learned a lot. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your being open to talking to me. I totally agree that we need to have more of these kinds of conversations.

    Our campaign is committed to improving the data on cats and birds, and we hope eventually to be able to create accurate estimates of the number of unowned cats and predation of wild birds.

    In the meantime, we agree that the important thing is that we all need to act to keep cats safe and save bird lives.

    Thank you, Peter. Look forward to talking to you again.

  4. Hi Peter -
    As part of a Canadian organization that has done TNR for 9 years and one of the people who alerted you to the Nature Canada campaign as I saw it reported on the CBC the moment the program was announced. The media blew it up citing “the killer in your living-room” (or some such) and the millions and millions of birds killed by cats “statistic” was right up there. The viewer was left with the same old view of cat as evil killer…So that would be my first comment. I don’t know if all of that was in the Nature Canada press release, but certainly the numbers cited would have been. That sort of sensationalism has got to stop, b/c that is what viewers in our “reality TV world” remember.
    I agree with you totally that there needs to be far more communication – of the kind you and Ms. Cooper obviously had – between TNR advocates and conservationists. My group, Feline Friends Network started doing TNR in our small community in 2007 (illegally) and a few years later I made a presentation to our City council, not asking for money (which I knew we wouldn’t get), but asking for TNR to become City policy…(Since it meant no work for them, or for Animal Control, and no money, and since we had some figures to back up our claims, they thought it was a good idea(!)…Then the ABC info came out, and some local birders got really upset and made a presentation to the City, and we had to go back, do yet more research, and rebut their presentation. In the end, we “won the day”. Thank goodness we had data to prove that the colony numbers were clearly going down…(which we wouldn’t have had, if we’d waited for TNR to be “legal” !!) Anyway, at the time I suggested that surely it made sense for the angry naturalists and ourselves to work together and I was totally shut out. I can only hope that the conversation you started with Ms. Cooper trickles down…It would be so great to not constantly fear that we are going to come under attack yet again.
    I agree some cats kill some birds, but , the cat is such an easy scapegoat..(I find myself still collecting info in case I have to defend what we are doing yet again – the latest being an article in a London Ont. paper stating “Noise of city negatively affects songbirds and hinders hatchings”)…
    The good news is, we are finding fewer and fewer cats to TNR, and that program, along with our free spay/neuter for low income individuals I think is contributing to the good news…
    Thanks so much for all you do for the cats.

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