“By Any Means Necessary”: War is Declared on U.S. Cats

Cat Wars is, to anybody familiar with the topic, an obviously desperate attempt to fuel the ongoing witch-hunt against outdoor cats “by any means necessary,” including the endorsement of discredited junk science, an oceanful of red herrings, and B-movie-style scaremongering. The book’s central thesis—that outdoor cats must be eradicated in the name of biodiversity and public health—is, like the authors’ credibility, undermined to the point of collapse by weak—often contradictory—evidence, and a reckless arrogance that will be hard to ignore even for their fellow fring-ervationsists.

In early 2010, Peter Marra co-authored a desperate appeal to the conservation community, calling for greater opposition to trap-neuter-return (TNR). “The issue of feral cats is not going away any time soon,” he and his colleagues warned, “and no matter what options are taken, it may well be a generation or more before we can expect broad-scale changes in human behavior regarding outdoor cats.” [1] Since then, Marra, who’s been with the Smithsonian Institution’s Conservation Biology Institute since 1999 and now runs its Migratory Bird Center, has only become more desperate.

The following year, for example, Marra published research suggesting outdoor cats are a threat to Maryland’s population gray catbirds (despite considerable evidence to the contrary) and argued in an op-ed for The Washington Post that, “Allowing cats to roam outdoors is no good for people, cats, or native wildlife.”

Later in 2011, though, Marra’s post-doc student, Nico Dauphiné, resigned in disgrace after being found guilty for attempted animal cruelty, a case brought as a result of security camera footage showing her slipping rat poison into bowls of cat food outside her apartment building. (Incredibly, Dauphiné’s research agenda—under Marra’s supervision—involved the use of video cameras on pet cats to investigate “predator-prey dynamics in an urban matrix.”)

But together with Dauphiné’s successor, Scott Loss, Marra continued to produce work apparently intended to fuel the witch-hunt against outdoor cats, culminating in “The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States,” published in January 2013. With its “estimate that free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.3–4.0 billion birds annually in the contiguous U.S.”—which the authors describe more than once as “conservative”—the paper attracted immediate media attention. Unfortunately, the underlying science was only rarely called into question.

The fact is, the best estimates available suggest there are only 3.2 billion land birds in the entire country. Were the authors’ estimates even remotely accurate, birds would have vanished from the U.S. long ago. This was, in other words, classic junk science.

Seen in the context of his previous work on the subject, Marra’s latest, Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer, is, for the most part, just more of the same—but aimed at a mainstream audience unlikely to question his claims or motivations. This time, though, he and co-author Chris Santella are calling for nothing less than the eradication of this country’s outdoor cats.

“From a conservation ecology perspective, the most desirable solution seems clear—remove all free-ranging cats from the landscape by any means necessary.” [2]

And, although the authors acknowledge the obvious objections to such a policy (e.g., public opinion, lack of political will, significant costs, etc.), Marra and Santella quickly sweep them aside: “Given the devastating consequences of free-ranging cats, this needs to change.” [2]

Islands of the Mind

The fact that Cat Wars opens with “The Obituary of the Stephens Island Wren” has, I think, less to do with chronology and more to do with the authors’ attempt to frame the debate over outdoor cats as nothing less than an urgent battle against the Sixth Extinction. While it’s true, as Marra and Santella write, that the Stephens Island Wren was rendered extinct in a matter of just a few years following the arrival of a single cat (apparently pregnant) in 1894. There is, however, considerable dispute over the small, flightless bird’s original population and distribution.

“Fossils of the bird were later to be found all over mainland New Zealand,” explains William Stolzenburg, author of Rat Island: Predators in Paradise and the World’s Greatest Wildlife Rescue.

“Stephens Island, it turned out, was not the birthplace of the evolutionary oddity but the final refuge of a once widespread bird driven to the very edge and, through the paradoxical misfortune of its discovery, witnessed at the moment it finally teetered off into eternity.” [3]

In any case, the tale of the Stephens Island Wren is compelling largely because of just how unusual it is. Yet, Marra and Santella imply something quite different, frequently blurring the lines between island and mainland environments, for example—all the while suggesting (without the troublesome burden of evidence) that cats are driving birds to extinction. (The authors use the various forms of the word extinct no fewer than 101 times in 178 pages.)

The (Bogus) Case for Going to War

Justifying the mass-killing of this country’s most popular companion animal (in absolute numbers, if not per-household ownership rates) on an unprecedented scale is no trivial undertaking. Even the most air-tight scientific arguments are likely to be met with considerable opposition. But Marra and Santella don’t have anything like an air-tight scientific argument. Indeed, what they portray as an accumulation of damning evidence spanning 100 years is little more than a cherry-picked (and poorly read) compilation of the worst agenda-driven pseudoscience on the topic.

A detailed critique could easily go on for thousands of words—but a brief review of the “highlights” is in order.

As evidence of the “clear message” that cats have a negative impact on bird populations, for example, Marra and Santella refer to a study done in Sheffield, England—ignoring the evidence that blackbirds, the species alleged to be under threat, are actually increasing in abundance across much of the U.K., with declines observed only in London, and due not to predation but “a lack of insects and other food.” Referring to another study from England, [4] the authors simply brush aside evidence that “nestling food limitation was the major limiting factor” in the breeding success of house sparrows so that they can implicate outdoor cats: “It is not too much of an intellectual stretch given Churcher and Lawton’s findings to see that predation by cats is also a significant contributing factor.” [2] (In fact, Peter Churcher himself suggested otherwise: “If the cats weren’t there, something else would be killing the sparrows or otherwise preventing them from breeding.” [5])

And Marra and Santella ignore entirely two additional contributing factors in England’s declining house sparrows: the lack of nest sites in an increasingly urbanized environment—and humans, who, as the BBC reported in 2012, “did everything we could to get rid of them.”

“We merrily trapped, shot, netted and even ate millions of sparrows. It was in the 1990s, long after the massacres ended, that scientist first noticed the populations declining, and urban areas were the worst hit.”

The authors suggest “The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States” is the culmination of a century’s worth of evidence implicating cats in the decline of birds and other wildlife—a “groundbreaking study” resulting from a careful review of “hundreds of studies.” [2] But again, their work fails to stand up to even moderate scrutiny. (Oddly, there’s no mention of Marra’s involvement at all, only “Scott Loss and his co-researchers.”)

But outdoor cats are, in the memorable words of Marra and Santella, not just “unrelenting killers,” but also “cauldrons of disease.” [2] It’s a rather a dubious line of attack in light of the risks associated with, for example, the West Nile Virus—and an obvious sign of the authors’ desperation.

Nevertheless, the authors assault readers with an entire chapter devoted to alleged public health threats (“The Zombie Maker: Cats as Agents of Disease”), most of which is “borrowed heavily” (and without acknowledgement) from two papers authored by long-time opponents of TNR who, like Marra and Santella, assemble their “science” around their conclusions rather than the other way around.

Again, just a few examples to make the point.

According to Marra and Santella, each post-exposure treatment for rabies “costs public-health departments and U.S. taxpayers somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,ooo to $8,ooo, amounting to at least $190 million across the United States each year.” [2] Had the authors read past that impressive-sounding $5–8K figure in “Zoonotic Diseases Associated with Free-Roaming Cats” to the original source, they would have learned that the “average terrestrial rabies-associated [post-exposure prophylaxis] cost” was, in fact, estimated to be much less: $941.06, based on three-year study of five upstate New York counties. [6]

The authors claim that “the vast majority” of post-exposure treatment is “the result of people interacting with a suspected rabid cat” [2] is also baseless. In this case, even the paper from which Marra and Santella “borrow” (which is itself a train wreck) does a better job of representing the evidence: “estimates indicate that 16 percent of PEP administration in the United States is likely due to cats and may account for the majority of PEP administration in some areas. [7] Go to the trouble of reading the source those authors cite, though, and the picture is very different: “Exposures to cats and dogs accounted for an estimated 16.5 percent (range: 2–31) and 33 percent (range: 8–82) of PEPs, respectively.” [8] And a national survey found that dog-related exposures were six times as likely to send people to the hospital compared to cat-related exposures. [9]

Here Marra and Santella are trying to convince us to eradicate outdoor cats in the name of public health and they can’t even convince us that they’ve read the very work they’re plagiarizing.

Sterilize as Many Cats as Possible—Just Not Those Cats

It’s hardly surprising that the authors of Cat Wars would oppose TNR, but the their contradictions and leaps of logic are nevertheless pretty astonishing even for those of us familiar with opponents’ arguments. “Though it has been stressed again and again,” write Marra and Santella, “we cannot overemphasize the importance of spaying and neutering as many cats as possible.” [2] Unless, of course, that means sterilizing as many community cats as possible, because, they explain, “TNR has repeatedly been shown to fail to reduce free-ranging cat populations.” [2]

Still, just 12 pages later, referring to Felicia Nutter’s PhD work, Marra and Santella concede “that TNR can work to reduce colony populations but only if nearly 100 percent sterilization rates are achieved and there is little or no immigration into the colony.” [2, emphasis in the original text] Actually, Nutter herself drew slightly different conclusions:

“The models of neutered colonies suggested that sterilization levels of at least 75–80 percent are necessary to cause population decline and eventual colony extinction, assuming that immigrant cats are also sterilized… Overall, the trap-neuter-return strategy is effective and provides a viable option for feral cat management.” [10]

Just when readers start to think there might actually be some common ground, though, the authors reverse course again, arguing that “the scientific data make it impossible to advocate for TNR.” [2]

Curiously, Marra and Santella don’t even acknowledge population modeling work, published nearly two years ago, demonstrating “successful population management” at much lower sterilization rates. [11] Instead, they go to some lengths to dismiss a frequently cited study in which a campus TNR program resulting in a 66 percent population reduction over 11 years, [12] arguing that “the study combined two different approaches—TNR and TNA (trap-neuter-adopt)—which blurred the researchers’ ability to carefully assess the efficacy of TNR alone.” [2] And they go further, taking the researchers to task because they “do not explain how or when the cats were counted, so it is not clear how reliable any of these figures actually are.” [2]

That’s right: they’re concerned about the reliability of figures documenting dozens of cats on a college campus—but don’t bat an eye when they cite mortality estimates exceeding the actual number of birds in the entire country.

Honestly, I can’t tell if these objections betray the authors’ ignorance or whether all of this is just petty bullshit. Since when is pulling cats and kitten for adoption cheating? I thought Marra and Santella were interested in removing cats “from the landscape by any means necessary.” (One wonders: are captive breeding programs considered cheating within the conservation community? Or reintroduction programs, maybe?)

This is perhaps one of the most puzzling aspects of Cat Wars—the promotion of junk science was a given, as was the authors’ steady drumbeat for killing. But the book doesn’t even hang together as a narrative, derailed time and time again by jarring contradictions and leaps of logic that border on magical thinking.

Things Left Unsaid

Careful readers of Cat Wars will no doubt notice a number of glaring omissions with the text. Marra and Santella note, for example: “The fact that cats kill small animals like birds and mammals is by itself not groundbreaking news.”

“The challenging issue, and the bar that has been set as to whether we tolerate outdoor cats on the landscape, has been to determine whether cats impact not just individuals of a given species but the broader populations within which individuals exist.” [2]

Well, where are those population impacts?

Not in Sheffield’s blackbirds or, at least where cats are concerned, England’s house sparrows, either. Or any of the other studies to which Marra and Santella refer. Reviewing more than 80 predation studies, other researchers have concluded, 16 years ago: “there are few, if any studies apart from island ones that actually demonstrate that cats have reduced bird populations.” [13] And there’s not one shred of evidence in Cat Wars’ 178 pages to suggest otherwise.

Marra and Santella complain that Royal Society for the Protection of Birds “not only takes no position on TNR, it goes so far as to dismiss the impact of cats on birds as largely irrelevant, and refuses to advocate for keeping cats inside.” [2] Instead of providing scientific evidence to challenge the group’s position on the issue (e.g., population impacts), the authors suggest that the “RSPB [as well as the Audubon Society, in this country] and other broad-based conservation organizations have avoided this issue for fear of alienating a portion of their member base.” [2] (Not surprisingly, the American Bird Conservancy is praised for its ongoing opposition to outdoor cats and commitment “to educate the public and policy makers” about the issue.)

Another of the more obvious omissions is the lack of evidence—indeed, the lack of an attempt to offer any evidence—that the population of community cats is increasing. Throughout the book, Marra and Santella refer, for example, to “the explosion in the number of free-ranging cats wandering America’s urban, suburban, and rural landscapes,” “the escalation of free-ranging cat populations,” and “their growing presence.” [2] Never once, though, do the authors—who, remember, represent themselves as having science on their side—even attempt to support these claims.

Such indefensible behavior is, of course, straight out of the ABC playbook. I suppose the idea is that if you toss such claims around matter-of-factly enough, it will simply be accepted without question. (All too often, unfortunately, the media is happy to oblige.)

War Heroes—Too Soon?

As expected, Marra and Santella fall back on the same tired framing that’s been used for years now—the respected scientists (often male) vs. the “well-meaning but misguided individuals” [2] involved with TNR (often female)—but don’t stop there. In Cat Wars, cat-killers are heroes. Ted Williams, for example, whose very public recommendation for poisoning cats got him suspended from his job as editor-at-large for Audubon in 2013 (though he was reinstated only a short time later, following a cowardly, non-apology).

And Jim Stevenson, founder of the Galveston Ornithological Society, who’s admitted unapologetically to killing many cats even before killing a cat right in front of her caregiver, an incident that drew national attention. In the eyes of Marra and Santella, Stevenson is an “eco-vigilante,” guilty of nothing more than neutralizing a cat who was “left unmolested to make a mockery of the efforts to restore” the area’s population of endangered piping plovers and, more generally, the Endangered Species Act. [2] (It’s suggested that Stevenson was protecting the birds, though I’ve yet to read of any evidence suggesting the cats in question actually posed a threat to the plovers.)

Stevenson “took aim with his .22,” write Marra and Santella, “and soon the cat lay dead.” [2] Soon? Not according to Paige Santell, who, as Assistant District Attorney, prosecuted the case.

“…this animal suffered a great deal. That was another part of this case. I mean, this animal did not die right away. It took, you know, 30 to 45 minutes before it died. It was in a terrible amount of pain.”

And John Newland, the caregiver who witnessed the whole episode? Marra and Santella portray him—and other caregivers, whom they see as misguided accomplices in the Sixth Extinction—as a hapless dupe. He’d “cared for the cat, providing food, bedding, and toys. He had even given the animal a name, Mama Cat.” [2, emphasis mine]

•     •     •

There’s a reckless arrogance that permeates Cat Wars, eroding the authors’ desperate appeal for mass-killing (and their credibility). Did Marra and Santella really expect that nobody would fact-check their dubious claims, spot their irreconcilable contradictions, or see through their sophomoric scaremongering?

Maybe.

After all, Marra’s been able to attract substantial grant funding (more than $300,000 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for “The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States,” as part of a three-paper series), get his junk science published, and, with the help of the Smithsonian’s PR department, reach a broad audience.

With Cat Wars, though, Marra might have overreached. Even before the book’s official release date, its message of removing cats “by any means necessary” was drawing harsh criticism from, among others, Marc Bekoff, author of more than 1,000 essays on the subject of human-animal interactions and animal protection, ethics researcher William Lynn, and bestselling author Gwen Cooper. And the book’s getting hammered by Amazon reviewers.

And earlier this week, in what I imagine is an unusual move, the book’s publisher, Princeton University Press, issued “Summary Points from Peter Marra and Chris Santella,” (PDF) with the following assurance for readers—and the general public, many of whom would never pick up Cat Wars, but feel strongly about animal welfare issues:

“The authors in no way condone or support the inhumane treatment of any animal. Pete Marra has devoted his life to the study and protection of all animals, including cats.”

I’m reminded of the quote, generally attributed to Senator Hiram Warren Johnson, “The first casualty, when war comes, is truth.”

Literature Cited

1. Lepczyk, C.A., et al., What Conservation Biologists Can Do to Counter Trap-Neuter-Return: Response to Longcore et al. Conservation Biology, 2010. 24(2): p. 627–629. http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/pdf/Lepczyk-2010-Conservation Biology.pdf

2. Marra, P.P. and C. Santella, Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer. 2016: Princeton University Press.

3. Stolzenburg, W., Rat Island: Predators in Paradise and the World’s Greatest Wildlife Rescue. 2011: Bloomsbury USA.

4. Churcher, P.B. and J.H. Lawton, Predation by domestic cats in an English village. Journal of Zoology, 1987. 212(3): p. 439-455. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7998.1987.tb02915.x

5. n.a., What the Cat Dragged In, in Catnip1995, Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine: Boston, MA. p. 4–6.

6. Recuenco, S., B. Cherry, and M. Eidson, Potential cost savings with terrestrial rabies control. BMC Public Health, 2007. 7(1) http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2458/7/47

7. Roebling, A.D., et al., Rabies Prevention and Management of Cats in the Context of Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Release Programmes. Zoonoses and Public Health, 2013. 61(4): p. 290–296. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/zph.12070/abstract

8. Christian, K.A., et al., Epidemiology of rabies post-exposure prophylaxis–United States of America, 2006-2008. Vaccine, 2009. 27(51): p. 7156–61.

9. 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

10. 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 Department2005, North Carolina State University: Raleigh, NC. p. 224.

11. Miller, P.S., et al., Simulating Free-Roaming Cat Population Management Options in Open Demographic Environments. PLoS ONE, 2014. 9(11): p. e113553. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0113553

12. Levy, J.K., D.W. Gale, and L.A. Gale, 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. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2003.222.42

13. Fitzgerald, B.M. and D.C. Turner, 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.

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6 Comments

  1. Pissing contest between bird lovers & cat lovers

    There is no winning of it

  2. It’s so damn weird, can’t someone love both, and do what can be done to protect both, why then also lie about data, distort data to ‘win?’ Who wins when folks toss their credibility and use lies to promote their ’side?’ So many animals die each day from extinction due to climate changes. Lotsa talk about CO2, but less mentioned is due to the effects of higher temps, migrations change, and even birds having offspring occurs to coincide with the insect population increase that happens earlier and is done, leaving food for the birds lacking somewhat the same numbers previously. Nature and its wildlife is opportunistic and migration of birds wildebeest caribou, is geared to when things occur that’s advantageous to their survival.

  3. that cat that stevenson killed and was charged over? it was pregnant.

    a more concrete example of tnr failure would be hard to come by.

  4. I don’t think I was using this as an example of TNR success. But just to clarify: you’re arguing that it’s OK to shoot pregnant cats?

  5. no, I’m pointing out that tnr does not work – because the tnr people are not responsible for the cats they encourage. they are almost always volunteers with good intentions.

    shooting the cats was exactly the wrong thing to do.

    in the case you linked to, the folks maintaining the feral playground adjacent to the nesting site should have been prosecuted for violating the endangered species act and all the animals they were responsible for should have been impounded as evidence.

    I am sorry that the fellow who was culling the cats didn’t think it through – there was an opportunity there to really ask about who is responsible for the behavior of animals in a tnr group.

  6. it’s difficult to respond to such broad generalizations. I can point to numerous cases in which volunteer-based TNR has been very effective.

    Why do you suppose the Galveston caregivers were not prosecuted under ESA, if the case were as straightforward as you suggest? Surely, there were people interested in pursuing it.

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