More from Michael Hutchins

In his most recent post, Michael Hutchins (CEO/Executive Director of The Wildlife Society) once again misses the point…


As you might imagine, I was disappointed with your response to my post. It was really just more of the same—a vague defense of the peer-review process, scientific publications, and so forth. Meanwhile, you have yet to dispute a single claim I’ve made in my extensive criticism of the feral cat/TNR literature.

But, like you, I have more important things to do. So, just two brief points:

  1. While I generally agree with your claim that “science is among the most self-correcting of all human endeavors,” I would suggest that this is often in spite of, not because of, its peer-review process.As to the “most severe” consequences for “scientific misbehavior,” I will refer you to Daniel Carlat’s book, Unhinged: The Trouble with Psychiatry—A Doctor’s Revelations about a Profession in Crisis. In it, Carlat reveals that about half the articles written about the antidepressant Zoloft where, at one time, actually ghostwritten by non-physicians working for a marketing firm, and funded by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer (the maker of Zoloft). Prominent psychiatrists were then paid to put their names on the bogus work. These articles were published in prominent peer-reviewed journals, such as the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and the American Journal of Psychiatry.

    So, what happened when all of this came to light? “You would think that there would be repercussions,” Carlat told Dave Davies, guest host of NPR’s Fresh Air, during an interview week. “However, there have not been any such repercussions.”

  2. Regarding my alleged portrayal of professional biologists, ecologists and conservationists as cat haters, I have neither stated nor implied anything of the kind. On the contrary, I took you at your word when you wrote, “I have also kept many pets during my lifetime and have bonded with individual animals as diverse as fruit bats, dogs, cats, turtles, frogs, snakes, lizards, and tropical fish.” [1]I’m struck once again by the ease with which you—the trained scientist, as you’re quick to point out—arrive at conclusions with so little consideration of the facts. While I hardly expect you to read my blog regularly, you at least ought to familiarize yourself with the material you’re disputing. If you don’t want to read what I’ve written, that’s fine—but please don’t put words in my mouth.

I suppose I owe you a debt of gratitude, Michael. When, as the CEO/Executive Director of a 9,000-member science organization, you use your bully pulpit to publish a response plagued by exaggerations, misrepresentations, and errors—not to mention its arrogant, dismissive tone—you do a far better job of supporting my position than challenging it.

Literature Cited

1. Hutchins, M., “The Limits of Compassion.” Wildlife Professional (Allen Press). 2007. 1(2): p. 42-44.

Hutchins & Co.

The Wildlife Society’s final position statement on Animal Rights Philosophy and Wildlife Conservation pits wildlife conservationists against animal rights advocates, further hampering an already difficult debate about free-roaming cats and TNR.

Last week, The Wildlife Society released its final position statement on Animal Rights Philosophy and Wildlife Conservation (PDF), declaring “that the philosophy of animal rights is largely incompatible with science-based conservation and management of wildlife.”

“The Wildlife Society recognizes the intrinsic value of wildlife and its importance to humanity,” says Michael Hutchins, Executive Director/CEO of TWS. “We also view wildlife and people as interrelated parts of an ecological-cultural-economic whole. But we’re concerned that core beliefs underlying the animal rights philosophy contradict the principles of successful wildlife management and conservation in North America and worldwide.” Those beliefs (listed below) “promote false choices regarding potential human-wildlife relationships and false expectations for wildlife population management,” says Hutchins. “They also undermine decades of knowledge gained through scientific research on wildlife and their habitats.”

At its core, the animal rights philosophy hinges on beliefs that: (1) each individual animal should be afforded the same basic rights as humans, (2) every animal should live free from human-induced pain and suffering, (3) animals should not be used for any human purpose, and (4) every individual animal has equal status regardless of commonality or rarity, or whether the species is native, exotic, invasive, or feral.

Strict adherence to these beliefs would preclude many of the science-based management techniques that professional wildlife biologists use, such as aversive conditioning, the capture and marking of animals for research, or lethal control of over-abundant, invasive, or diseased animals. For example, a recent TWS position statement advocates for control of non-native feral swine to protect and conserve native plants and animals and their habitats and to protect human and domestic animal health, yet this goal would be jeopardized by animal rights philosophy.

Instead of focusing exclusively on the “rights” of individual animals, TWS supports a more holistic philosophy of animal welfare and conservation that focuses on the quality of life and sustainability of entire populations or species of animals and their habitats. This approach allows for the management of animal populations and the use of animals for food or other cultural purposes, as long as any loss of life is justified, sustainable, and achieved through humane methods.

In sum, TWS’ policy regarding animal rights philosophy is to:

1. Recognize that the philosophy of animal rights is largely incompatible with science-based conservation and management of wildlife.

2. Educate organizations and individuals about the need for scientific management of wildlife and habitats for the benefit of conservation and other purposes, and inform people about the problems that animal rights philosophy creates for the conservation of wildlife and habitats and for society as a whole.

3. Support an animal welfare philosophy, which holds that animals can be studied and managed through science-based methods and that human use of wildlife—including regulated, sustainable hunting, trapping, and lethal control for the benefit of populations, threatened or endangered species, habitats, and human society—is acceptable, provided that individual animals are treated ethically and humanely.

“There is a profound conflict between many tenets of animal rights philosophy and the animal welfare philosophy required for effective management and conservation,” says TWS President Tom Ryder. “Established principles and techniques of wildlife population management are deemed unacceptable by the animal rights viewpoint, but are absolutely essential for the management and conservation of healthy wildlife populations and ecosystems in a world dominated by human influences.”

Superior Ideas
Etienne Benson, a research scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, provided a remarkably detailed, thoughtful critique of TWS’s statement on his blog, calling TWS’s final position “no surprise,” but “a shame nonetheless.”

“The statement caricatures the animal rights movement and will make it harder for wildlife conservationists and animal protectionists, even many of those who are skeptical of rights-based reasoning, to find common ground.”

“When the leadership of the Wildlife Society asked its members to comment on a draft position statement on animal rights early this year,” writes Benson, “I had some hope that calmer and better-informed minds might improve what then seemed like an intemperate and ill-thought-out attack.”

(Benson, whose “research focuses on the intersection of science and politics in the practice of conservation,” provides readers with an informative, very readable introduction to the subject.)

While I lack Benson’s familiarity with the topic in general, and TWS’s position in particular, I, too, wasn’t surprised at last week’s news. Indeed, the language of the official TWS statement is nearly identical to what’s found in Hutchins’ own writings. In “The Limits of Compassion,” published in the Summer 2007 issue of TWS’s The Wildlife Professional, Hutchins warned of “serious and legitimate concerns regarding the use of compassion, sentimentalism, and animal rights to generate public concern for wildlife and, more specifically, about the possible implications for wildlife management and conservation policy.” [1]

In his 2008 letter to Conservation Biology, Hutchins argues, “Animal rights and conservation ethics are, in fact, incompatible, at the most fundamental level.” [2]

“It would be wonderful if we could all get along, but it is time to recognize that some ideas are superior to others because they clearly result in the ‘greatest good.’ As a conservationist, I reject animal rights philosophy. This unrealistic and highly reductionist view, which focuses exclusively on individual sentient animals, is not a good foundation for the future of life on our planet and does not recognize the interrelationships that exist among various species in functioning ecosystems. It is time to face up to the fact that animal rights and conservation are inherently incompatible and that one cannot be an animal rights proponent and a conservationist simultaneously. To suggest otherwise only feeds into the growing public confusion over animal rights, welfare, and conservation and their vastly different implications for wildlife management and conservation policy (Hutchins 2007a, 2007b, 2008a, 2008b).” [2]

So, where’s TWS’s “superior idea” for feral cat management?

I’ve asked Hutchins directly and gotten nothing but his usual boilerplate response:

“Our position on TNR and feral cat management is based on valid science, established law (the ESA and MBTA), and has high moral ground (both based on animal welfare and conservation principles). We welcome a chance to educate the public about this growing environmental problem.”

And I’m not the only one who’s tried to pin down Hutchins on this point. In July, when Hutchins was (again, to the surprise of no one) singing the praises of a recent Mother Jones article that misrepresented both the threats posed by feral cats and the effectiveness of TNR, he twisted himself into a knot avoiding the real issue. (Instead, Hutchins scolds commenter Walter Lamb, using what’s become a familiar refrain: “I’m afraid that I don’t find you credible to lecture the community of highly trained wildlife professionals about what does or does not have basis in science.”)

More recently, Hutchins’ put an end to any such discourse in the future. Complaining that “the TWS blog site has been recently targeted by feral cat and horse activists,” he announced that TWS would “no longer post comments from non-member individuals who are clearly biased in their thinking, and are arguing in favor of ecologically destructive feral animals based solely on their emotional attachment to these particular animals.”

Inferior Facts
Hutchins and TWS (and here I’m referring only to the organization’s leadership; I doubt very much whether these few truly speak for, as they would have us believe, “over 10,000 professional wildlife biologists and managers”) like to portray their opposition to TNR as science-based (the term is used no less than four times in their recent release alone), despite their abysmal track record when it comes to gathering and presenting the relevant facts.

If TWS was really interested in science-based discourse and action, they would have done a better job pulling together their “facts” for the Spring Issue of The Wildlife Professional’s special section, “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats.”

TWS’s “fact sheets” are no better. “Problems with Trap-Neuter-Release” (PDF), for example, suggests—despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary—that the trap-and-kill approach adopted by Akron, OH, costs taxpayers about $10 per cat. And in their rabies “fact sheet,” TWS misrepresents CDC rabies data, overstating the cost of post-exposure treatment by a factor of seven.

Yet, TWS members—and the general public, of course—are told that it’s the core beliefs underlying the animal rights philosophy that are “undermin[ing] decades of knowledge gained through scientific research on wildlife and their habitats.”

If Hutchins’—and, by extension, TWS’s—ideas are, indeed, superior, why all the dishonesty?

•     •     •

I’m convinced that there’s more common ground between wildlife conservationists and animal rights advocates—including, as Benson points out, “those who believe… both that endangered species deserve special protection and that being a member of a so-called ‘invasive’ species does not automatically make one eligible for carefree extermination”—than Hutchins and TWS are willing to admit. And, therefore, more hope that philosophical differences can be overcome or set aside in order to move the TNR discussion forward.

“If The Wildlife Society wants to continue arguing that all we owe individual animals is efficient use and a pain-free death,” argues Benson, “it’s free to do so. But the rest of us will move on to a version of conservation that is more positive, more open, more humble—more about strengthening connections than building walls.”

While I agree, my hunch is that “the rest of us” actually includes a number of TWS members who are fed up with Hutchins’ witch-hunt against free-roaming cats, and the indefensible tactics he employs in its promotion. What if the greatest threat of “philosophical incompatibility” isn’t from outsiders, but from within his own organization?

Literature Cited

1. Hutchins, M., “The Limits of Compassion.” Wildlife Professional (Allen Press). 2007. 1(2): p. 42–44.

2. Hutchins, M., “Animal Rights and Conservation.” Conservation Biology. 2008. 22(4): p. 815–816.

The (Willfully) Blind Leading the (Willfully) Blind

If the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative truly aims to “develop management strategies that are guided by sound science,” then its recently released White Paper on Feral and Free-ranging Domestic Cats (PDF) represents a glaring and inexcusable failure. Just two sentences into the three-page paper, the self-described “coalition of 102 non-governmental organizations, governmental agencies, and businesses” [1] resorts to the familiar “kitchen sink approach,” a laundry list of (presumably) damning claims meant to substitute for a well-reasoned argument and appeal to the broadest audience possible:

“A number of peer-reviewed studies strongly suggest that large numbers of small mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians are killed each year by domestic cats. Additionally, cats act as reservoirs for several diseases that can sicken humans, native wildlife, and other domestic animals, such as rabies, toxoplasmosis, bartonellosis, typhus, and feline immunodeficiency virus.” [1]

One wonders what rabies, toxoplasmosis, bartonellosis, typhus, and FIV have to do with OBCI’s stated mission: “Ensuring the conservation and effective management of birds in Ohio by fostering partnerships among governmental agencies, conservation organizations, businesses, and the public”?

Nothing, really. Perhaps OBCI is expecting that nobody will notice. Read more

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… Read more

On Wind Farms and Witch-hunts

Here’s a tip for those in the bird conservation community who persist in their witch-hunt against free-roaming cats: be careful what you wish for.

For several years now, the National Audubon Society and American Bird Conservancy have co-opted, twisted, and misrepresented any scrap of published science they could find—however indefensible—suggesting that such cats might have an impact on bird populations. And, as I’ve demonstrated time and time again, there’s an audience out there for such propaganda.

But what if their campaign has been too effective—with the wrong audience?

Read more

2012 Trap Liner Award

“Like so many others of my tenure and temperament—stubborn ancients, I suppose—web reporting is anathema to everything I love about newspapering: getting a tip, developing leads, fleshing-out the details, then telling the story.”

“Now,” laments former Times-Picayune reporter Chris Rose in the August issue of the Oxford American (excerpted in the current issue of Utne), “it stops with the tip. Just verify (hopefully!) and post it. I didn’t write stories anymore; I ‘produced content.’”

Perhaps this emphasis on “web reporting” explains the largely pathetic coverage surrounding the free-roaming cat/TNR issue. There’s probably not even a tip in many cases, just a press release.

Whatever the cause, the effect (in addition to a misinformed public, misguided policy, etc.) is a very competitive field for the 2012 Trap Liner Award. Read more

Open-Mic Night at NatGeo

The National Geographic Society is, according to its website, “one of the largest nonprofit scientific and educational institutions in the world.” I’m not going to dispute the relative size of the organization, but an article posted Tuesday on its News Watch blog raises doubts about their commitment to science and education.

The piece, which is billed as “an interview with Dr. Michael Hutchins,” is not much of an interview at all, but an easy platform for Hutchins, former executive director and CEO of The Wildlife Society, to vilify invasive species in general and—not surprisingly—free-roaming cats in particular. As I pointed out in my online comment (still awaiting moderation), one would expect some insightful follow-up questions on a topic that, as contributing editor Jordan Carlton Schaul acknowledges, “has generated contentious debate among a number of factions, including conservation scientists and activist communities.”

For starters: How would restrictions or outright bans on TNR, such as those proposed by Hutchins, benefit the wildlife he claims to want to protect? Read more

National Feral Cat Day 2012

It’s National Feral Cat Day—what better occasion to recognize some of the positive developments in feral cat/TNR advocacy I’ve observed over the past two-and-a-half years since launching Vox Felina?

Alley Cat Allies

National Feral Cat Day debuted in 2001, created by Alley Cat Allies “to raise awareness about feral cats, promote Trap-Neuter-Return, and recognize the millions of compassionate Americans who care for them.” As of yesterday, ACA had registered 368 events for this year’s celebration, and they were still hearing from activists eager to get on board. All 50 states are represented, and events are going on in other countries as well.

Nearly 300 groups applied for National Feral Cat Day Community Impact Awards; 22 winners received $1,000 each, while 16 runner-ups received $500 each. For additional details, check out the ACA website.

Best Friends Animal Society

It was just about two years ago that Best Friends (wisely!) hired Laura Nirenberg as legislative attorney for their Focus on Felines campaign. I’m honored to be joining Laura, along with Lisa Tudor, Director of Development and Outreach for the Foundation Against Companion-Animal Euthanasia (FACE), at the upcoming No More Homeless Pets Conference as we present Taking It to the Street (Cats): Grassroots Advocacy for Community Cats.

The Humane Society of the United States

Another reason I’m looking forward to this year’s conference: meeting Katie Lisnik, director of cat protection and policy for HSUS. This, of course, was the position that Michael Hutchins, former executive director/CEO of The Wildlife Society, referred to as “wild bird executioner” in his August 16, 2011 blog post. While Katie and I have yet to officially meet, it’s difficult not to like—automatically—anybody whose hiring got Hutchins so agitated.

National Animal Control Association

Although TNR is still not endorsed by the entire animal control community, there seems to be a significant shift in that direction at the National Animal Control Association. The September/October 2011 issue of NACA News, for example, featured an article by Lynne Achterberg, founding board member of Santa Cruz, California’s Project Purr, highlighting the benefits of TNR. In “Paradigm Shift: Return to Field,” Achterberg explained that for communities interested in increasing their shelters’ live release rates, “TNR and inclusion of feral cats is key.”

In the January/February 2012 issue, NACA president Todd Stosuy cited TNR as one “proactive animal program” that “can help reduce the number of animals coming into the shelter, and thus reduce euthanasia in the long-run.”

TNR Going Mainstream

It’s no surprise, really, that people support TNR over lethal control methods—we are, after all, a nation of animal lovers. But it’s another thing for TNR to become a more integrated part of the culture. Here, too, there’s good news to report.

Witness, for example, two recent books on the subject: Taming Me: Memoir of a Clever Island Cat (released today to correspond with NFCD, and which I reviewed for Moderncat) and Fairminded Fran and the Three Small Black Community Cats.

And it seems the rest of the world has figured out what some of us have known for a while now: it’s hip to be tipped. Check out the specially-designed pillowcases and tote bags by Xenotees (whose founder is donating all related profits to Four The Paws, a Philadelphia area rescue). Additional “ear-tipped” items are being featured today at Moderncat (where, by the way, you can get in on an NFCD giveaway).

Vox Felina Supporters

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge my many readers. I know from the e-mail I receive, and comments posted on the Vox Felina Facebook page, of your tireless support for TNR, and feral cats in general. “Regular folks” concerned for the welfare of feral, stray, and abandoned cats who are engaging their government officials and neighbors; “freelance” colony caregivers sharing their hard-won knowledge with others; and various well-established organizations shaping policy at the state and national level—I am humbled by your commitment and compassion.

Thank you for your support, and for all that you do on behalf of the cats!

Kitty Cams and PR Scams

In a joint media release, the American Bird Conservancy and The Wildlife Society team up to misrepresent the results of a recent predation study, decrying the “ongoing slaughter of wildlife by outdoor cats.” Meanwhile the University of Georgia researcher contradicts her previous position that “cats aren’t as bad as biologists thought.”

“To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; credible we must be truthful.”Edward R. Murrow

“‘KittyCam’ Reveals High Levels of Wildlife Being Killed by Outdoor Cats,” declares a media release issued today—a joint effort of the American Bird Conservancy and The Wildlife Society, and, to my knowledge, the first of its kind.

It’s difficult not to see this as an act of desperation—the PR-equivalent of an all-caps e-mail. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened sooner, though, given all that ABC and TWS have in common. Their shared disdain for TNR, obviously, but also their utter disregard for science, scientific literacy, and the truth about the impacts of free-roaming cats. Two peas in a pod, as it were. (Irony: peas are, alas, not native to North America.)

And so, their joint media release is exactly what one would expect: heavy on errors, misrepresentations, and glaring omissions, and light on defensible claims. Read more

Rabies: Some Much-Needed Perspective

Seven minutes and 35 seconds. That’s how long Robert Siegel, co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered, spoke with Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy about their new book, Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus.

Cats weren’t mentioned even once.

Was this a massive oversight? A coup perpetrated by the Powerful Cat Lobby, perhaps?

Hardly. “Veterinarians spend a lot of time thinking about rabies, even though in this country, we hardly ever see it,” explained Murphy, a veterinarian. (Wasik, her husband, is a journalist.)

The scaremongerers over at the American Bird Conservancy and The Wildlife Society must be downright distraught at the thought of the American public being better informed on the subject. Indeed, an excerpt from Rabid describes some of the underlying myths and cultural baggage these folks routinely attempt to leverage in their witch-hunt against free-roaming cats.

“As the lone visible instance of animal-to-human infection, rabies has always shaded into something more supernatural: into bestial metamorphoses, into monstrous hybridities. Even during the twentieth century, after Pasteur’s invention of a rabies vaccine provided a near-foolproof means of preventing its fatality in humans, our dark fascination with rabies seemed only to swell. The vaccine itself became as mythologized as the bug, such that even today many Americans believe that treatment requires some twenty (or is it thirty?) shots, delivered with a foot-long syringe into the stomach. (In fact, today’s vaccine entails four shots, and not particularly deep in the arm.)

It’s almost as if the very anachronism of rabies, to the Western mind, has rendered it even more intriguing to us. Like the vampire, rabies carries with it the musty whiff of a centuries-old terror—even as it still terrifies us in the present day.”

Not exactly your typical summertime reading, maybe, but this one’s going on my list. I wonder if I can get signed copies for ABC’s Darin Schroeder and TWS’s Michael Hutchins

Arkansas Game and Fish Declines Offers of Assistance with Feral Cats

When I wrote recently about the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s decision to begin trapping cats at the Barnett Access on the Little Red River, I suggested that AGFC fisheries biologist Tom Bly had “been drinking TNR opponents’ Kool-Aid.”


That same day, I sent an e-mail to the AGFC director/deputy directors and commissioners asking for an explanation for the roundup. AGFC Director Loren Hitchcock responded promptly, forwarding my e-mail to Bly, who in turn wrote:

“My information came from the Spring 2011 issue of The Wildlife Professional. This is the magazine of the “The Wildlife Society” and includes peer reviewed and published articles on wildlife management and dealing with feral cat issues. The link to the publication is

As you will notice nearly one third of the publication is concerned with wildlife depredation by feral cats and public health related issues.”

Kool-Aid? Check. Read more

Oregon Man Diagnosed with Plague

According to last Friday’s USA Today, “Health officials have confirmed that an Oregon man has the plague after he was bitten while trying to take a dead rodent from the mouth of a stray cat.”

“State public health veterinarian Dr. Emilio DeBess said the man was infected when he was bitten by the stray his family befriended. The cat died and its body is being sent to the CDC for testing.”

Other news reports suggest that the source of the bacteria—which might have been the rodent—remains uncertain. (Indeed, the fact that the cat’s body was submitted for testing suggests, that there is some question about this. The cat’s death—also unexplained—raises additional questions.)

“Humans usually get plague,” explains the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on its website, “after being bitten by a rodent flea that is carrying the plague bacterium or by handling an animal infected with plague.” Read more

Many Loose and Ill-considered Statements

Does the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have an official policy on free-roaming cats and TNR? The official word from the agency is no. But that hasn’t stopped Service employees around the country from suggesting otherwise.

Had you attended the Southeast Partners in Flight conference in February, you would, more than likely, have come away with the impression that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has—despite statements to the contrary—an official, science-based position on free-roaming cats and TNR.

In his presentation Feral and Free-ranging Cats and Urban Birds, Steve Holzman, South Atlantic Geographic Area Data Manager for USFWS, argued that if the goal of PIF is to “keep common birds common,” predation by cats simply can’t be ignored. Among the “next steps” Holman proposed: “Continued work on USFWS position statement on feral and free-ranging cats, and zero tolerance on all federal lands, especially parks and refuges,” and “State policies that advocate trap and remove for all state lands.”

Hinting at what an uphill battle such policies face, Holzman pointed out that cats “are very popular,” and “currently represent 87.3 percent of all Internet content.”

This last bit was delivered as a humorous aside,” notes Holzman in the endnotes of his revised presentation. “No one really knows what percentage of Internet content is related to cats.”

I’ll have to take Holzman at his word about this being a joke, as I wasn’t there.

But what about those very official-sounding policy proposals? Surely, the audience took that stuff seriously. And yet, those bullet points were purged in his recent round of edits—prompted by a lengthy e-mail I sent to Holzman. (“Your questions have led me to understand the need to revise the PowerPoint presented on the SEPIF website,” Holzman wrote.)

What’s going on here? Read more

Santa Ana Typhus Scare

“In an effort to combat a potential typhus outbreak,” reports today’s Los Angeles Times, “city officials zeroed in on two schools in [a] densely packed [Santa Ana] neighborhood and set a dozen traps to catch feral cats and other animals that might carry disease-bearing fleas.” [1]

“The hope is that by trapping and testing animals caught at Willard Intermediate School and El Sol Science and Arts Academy, officials will be able to determine if a recent case of typhus—the first in Santa Ana this year—originated in the community. In late April, a child was hospitalized as a result of the virus, which is caused by bacteria found in infected fleas and their feces. The child was later released.”

Read more

The Annotated Apocalypse Meow

In the current issue of The Washingtonian, senior writer Luke Mullins provides the most comprehensive profile yet of former Smithsonian researcher Nico Dauphiné, convicted last October of attempted animal cruelty. Most telling are his conversations with her unwavering supporters, who—in spite of the evidence, her well-documented history, and her miserable performance on the stand—continue to make excuses for her.

In the five months since she was convicted of attempted animal cruelty, former Smithsonian researcher Nico Dauphiné has enjoyed a respite from the largely unflattering media spotlight. All that changed in the past few weeks, though—first with Conservation magazine’s “Cat Fight,” and now with a 6,100-word feature in the April issue of The Washingtonian.

In “Apocalypse Now,” senior writer Luke Mullins digs into Dauphiné’s DC court case, as well as her previous “community service” in Athens, GA. The Nico Dauphiné that emerges is a far cry from the sympathetic character portrayed in “Cat Fight”—where, for example, writer John Carey laments: “Unfortunately, the strange case of the accused cat poisoner didn’t end well.” [1]

Although Mullins was unable to speak with Dauphiné for the piece, his conversations with people close to Dauphiné—as well as many who observed her mistreatment of cats—are illuminating. Read more

Less Toxo, More Hype

“As human populations continue to expand farther out into natural areas,” warns The Wildlife Society in a February 17 blog post, “domesticated animals will continue to be at risk for exposure to diseases carried by their wild relatives.” Considering the domesticated animals in question are cats, the organization’s apparent concern is almost touching. Almost.

Actually, TWS is, not surprisingly, much more concerned about cats transferring disease from “their wild relatives” to humans. Results of a recent study, published a month ago in the online, open-access journal PLoS ONE, suggests TWS blogger “policyintern,” illustrate “the importance of keeping domesticated cats close to home to prevent disease transmission among cats and to humans.”

Among those diseases is one that’s been getting lots of attention recently in the mainstream media: toxoplasmosis.

And just how likely is it that your cat will give you toxoplasmosis?

Not very—at least according to this latest research. (The study also looked at bartonellosis and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, but I’ll save those for another post.) To begin with, “feral, free ranging domestic cats were targeted in this study” [1, emphasis mine], not pets. And, despite what TWS and others would have us believe, contact with these cats is relatively uncommon.

Then there’s the unexpectedly low infection rate reported by the authors of the study: just 1 percent for domestic cats, as compared to 75 percent for pumas and 43 percent for bobcats. Based on previous studies, one would expect seroprevalence rates of 62–80 percent for feral cats. [2] (Even “owned” cats* were found to have rates of 34–36 percent. Interestingly, the highest rate of seroprevalence was found among cats living on farms: 41.9–100 percent.)

Seroprevalence, with bars representing 95 percent confidence intervals, of T. gondii IgG,** for domestic cats, bobcats, and pumas at all study locations (FR = Front Range, CO; WS = Western Slope, CO; OC = Orange County, CA; SDRC = San Diego/Riverside Counties, CA; VC = Ventura County, CA). Sample sizes are listed above columns.

This should be big news for TWS.

At the very least, the low infection rates found in feral cats—combined with the much higher rates in bobcats and pumas—raise serious questions about domestic cats’ role in environmental contamination of T. gondii. Just a year ago, an article published in a special section of The Wildlife Professional called “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats,” was unambiguous: “the science points to [domestic] cats.” [3]

“Based on proximity and sheer numbers, outdoor pet and feral domestic cats may be the most important source of T. gondii oocysts in near-shore marine waters. Mountain lions and bobcats rarely dwell near the ocean or in areas of high human population density, where sea otter infections are more common.” [3]

And, over the past several months, TWS Executive Director/CEO Michael Hutchins has used the TWS blog to hammer the point home, arguing (and twisting the facts along the way), for example, that a 2011 NIH study provided “further evidence that feral cats are a menace to our native wildlife and should be controlled.

In July, it was the grave threat to humans:

T. gondii infection has recently been correlated with the incidence of Parkinson’s disease, autism, and schizophrenia in humans, and it has long been known to cause fetal deformities and spontaneous abortions in pregnant women… Let’s hope that public health officials, including the CDC, begin to take note of these growing concerns about cats and their implications for human health.”

In fact, this latest study suggests that such concerns may not be growing at all, at least where toxoplasmosis is concerned. On the other hand, the simpler, scarier story—cats as a menace to both wildlife and humans—is certainly an easier sell for TWS.

* I assume this refers to indoor/outdoor cats, but have not chased down the individual studies to confirm this.

** Refers to immunoglobulin, or antibody, G (IgG), “which is detectable for ≥52 weeks after infection,” as compared to immunoglobulin M (IgM), “which indicates recent infections and is usually detectable ≤16 weeks after initial exposure.” [1]

Literature Cited
1. Bevins, S.N., et al., “Three Pathogens in Sympatric Populations of Pumas, Bobcats, and Domestic Cats: Implications for Infectious Disease Transmission.” PLoS ONE. 2012. 7(2): p. e31403.

2. Dubey, J.P. and Jones, J.L., “Toxoplasma gondii infection in humans and animals in the United States.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2008. 38(11): p. 1257–1278.

3. Jessup, D.A. and Miller, M.A., “The Trickle-Down Effect.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 62–64.

Impaired Vision

Opponents of trap-neuter-return are long on rhetoric, but short on alternatives—at least ones they’ll discuss openly.

We just want the cats gone.

Yeah, well, I want a pony.

I don’t actually say that, of course. Not usually, anyhow—in part, because the two wishes are hardly comparable. If I really wanted a pony, I’d simply go buy one (a rescue, of course; or, as an alternative, contact the Bureau of Land Management, which began its most recent brutal roundup of wild horses and burros in Nevada last year). End of story.

“Removing” cats—a euphemistic reference to an often-fatal course of action—on the other hand, is not the end of the story at all (except, as I say, for the particular cats involved). Where there is adequate food and shelter—and island eradication efforts have demonstrated rather dramatically just how little human assistance the domestic cat requires in this regard—there will very likely be cats. If not today, then it’s very likely only a matter of time.

And still, the call for their “removal”—accompanied by this naive wish that such a move will be a one-time occurrence—is, it seems, continuous.

Last week, Loews Hotels in Orlando, FL, made headlines nationally when the self-described “pet-friendly hotel brand” reversed its position on TNR and on-site managed colonies. Among the news stories brought to my attention this week: the Waco, TX, Lions Club is demanding that Heart of Texas Feral Friends, whose volunteers have been sterilizing and caring for cats in a park owned by the Lions Club, discontinue feeding. According to KXXV News, the cat food “could attract bigger animals that could bite children playing at the park.”

In Harvey Cedars, NJ, 51-year-old Mark Rist has been, according to the Asbury Park Press, “charged with feeding feral cats,” the result of a two-month investigation. According to the paper, Rist was feeding 63 cats in one area—despite what Police Chief Thomas Preiser describes as the community’s “ongoing effort to control feral cats.’’ “It has cost the borough over $5,800 in fees to have cats trapped and taken to the animal hospital,” said Preiser. “This is on top of the over $3,000 the borough pays just for animal-control services.’’ (An online petition advocating that the charges be dropped has been started, and has more than 1,650 signatures already.)

And, less than 60 miles away, in Manalapan, NJ, health department officials have announced that they’ll begin trapping a managed colony of cats located at the Bridge Plaza office complex on February 1. As Michael Volovnik, president of the property association, explained to the Asbury Park Press, the cats are using a playground sandbox as a litter box, and could also cause a traffic accident in the complex parking lot. (I thought I’d heard all the “reasons” for killing outdoor cats, but this one’s new to me.)

Take away their food—or the cats themselves—and the problem’s solved, right? End of story.

Um, no. Not even if you click together the heels of your ruby slippers three times, repeating as you do: “We just want the cats gone.”

And yet, this is precisely what TNR opponents would have us believe. In fact, they often go much further. When, for example, the American Bird Conservancy sent a letter (PDF) to the mayors of the 50 largest U.S. cities last October, urging them “to oppose Trap-Neuter-Re-abandon (TNR) programs and the outdoor feeding of cats as a feral cat management option,” their stated objective was to “stop the spread of feral cats.”

How’s that supposed to work, exactly?

Darin Schroeder, ABC’s Vice President for Conservation Advocacy, and author of the letter, hasn’t bothered—either in his original, well-publicized mass-mailing, or in response to my inquiries—to explain the mysterious cause-and-effect relationship underlying the claim. (Or, while we’re at it, ABC’s projections regarding the number of recipients who would surely be alienated by a letter that so grossly insults their intelligence.)

As I’ve pointed out previously, common sense—and science, which ABC claims to have firmly in its camp on this issue—tells us that such policies (assuming they could be enforced, of course) would only drive population numbers upward. (Indeed, there is plenty of evidence from island eradication efforts. On Marion Island, to take one of the more spectacular examples, the population of cats was estimated to be about 2,200 in 1975, just 26 years after they were introduced to the 115-square-mile, barren, uninhabited South Indian Ocean island. [1] If there were any efforts to sterilize these cats, I’ve not read about it. And the only “handouts” they received were “the carcasses of 12,000 day-old chickens” [1] injected with poison, as part of the 19-year eradication program.)

Now, if, as Schroeder claims, there are “well-documented impacts of cat predation on wildlife,” how could the inevitable increase in the free-roaming cat population possibly be a benefit? Or—again, if Schroeder is right about the impacts—be aligned with ABC’s vision of “an Americas-wide landscape where diverse interests collaborate to ensure that native bird species and their habitats are protected, where their protection is valued by society, and they are routinely considered in all land-use and policy decision-making”?

Such contradictions are, as anybody who’s been paying attention has surely noticed, hardly uncommon in ABC’s anti-cat messaging.

ABC didn’t do any better with their letter (this one, more of a low-key affair) to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, sent last summer. (DOI oversees the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which, as I’ve pointed out repeatedly, has been an eager, taxpayer-funded participant in the witch-hunt against free-roaming cats.) In that letter, ABC, along with several signatories, aimed to “call [Salazar’s] attention to the threat being posed to wildlife by feral cats.” (Once again, ABC referred to “the well-documented impacts of cat predation on wildlife,” this time citing the work of, among others, former Smithsonian researcher Nico Dauphine, convicted in October of attempted animal cruelty for trying to poison neighborhood cats. It’s not entirely clear, but I have to think the letter was sent just prior to her arrest, after which ABC hasn’t, to my knowledge, expressed the slightest support for Dauphine.)

Signatories to the letter “urge[d] the development of a Department-wide policy opposing Trap-Neuter-Release and the outdoor feeding of cats as a feral cat management option, coupled with a plan of action to address existing infestations affecting lands managed by the Department of the Interior.” (This would include much of the Florida Keys, of course. Regular readers will recall that ABC enthusiastically endorsed the deeply flawed Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex Integrated Predator Management Plan/Draft Environmental Assessment, issued a year ago.)

This “plan of action” is something I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to for some time now. And not just as it relates to “existing infestations” on DOI-controlled land; I’m interested in the big picture here. These folks are hell-bent on a future in which the feeding of outdoor cats is prohibited, one in which TNR is banned.

What I want to know is this: What happens if they get their way?

Alternatives to TNR?
One might expect that ABC, promoters for 15 years now of Cats Indoors!, would have an answer. Indeed, I brought up the subject during a December 2010 webinar celebrating the launch of their book The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation. “What we recommend,” offered Michael Parr, Vice President of ABC, “as an alternative to [TNR], is not abandoning cats in the first place.”

“Other options would be to house those cats in shelters, or outdoor sanctuaries which could be managed. Clearly, it’s a huge problem, and the solutions to this are going be things we going to have to work together on for a long period of time, but certainly that would be my first reaction to that question.”

After 14 years (at that time) of staunch opposition to TNR, this is the best ABC can do? Well, yes. (One wonders if ABC officials are truly so out-of-touch and/or flat-out delusional that they really think nobody’s noticed.)

The Wildlife Society
ABC is not alone, of course. The Wildlife Society, which signed onto the DOI letter, in its position statement (issued in August 2011) on Feral and Free-Ranging Domestic Cats (PDF), calls for “the humane elimination of feral cat populations,” as well as “the passage and enforcement of local and state ordinances prohibiting the feeding of feral cats.”

And in November, TWS sponsored the USFWS workshop, Influencing Local Scale Feral Cat Trap-Neuter-Release Decisions , at its annual conference. According to TWS, the “workshop [was] designed to train biologists and conservation activists to advocate for wildlife in the decision making process by providing the best available scientific evidence in an effective manner.” (Ah, yes: “best available scientific evidence.” It’s the same expression ABC and USFWS like to throw around. The critical term here is available. It seems all the science contradicting their steady stream of bogus claims is locked in the same filing cabinet, and the key’s been “lost.”)

But TWS hasn’t done any better than ABC when it comes to connecting the dots between our current situation and a future free of feral cats.

When, in his November 14 blog post, TWS Executive Director/CEO Michael Hutchins drifted off-message, conceding that “TNR alone is not the ultimate solution,” (emphasis mine) I used the opportunity to press him on the issue. Referring to the recently issued TWS position statement, I told Hutchins, “it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect a well-established and influential organization such as TWS to propose a plan to accompany such a vision.”

“On the contrary, it’s exactly what your membership should expect from their leadership—and what those of us who care for the cats you’re targeting demand.”

And Hutchins’ response? Cue the crickets (native species only, of course).

(Hutchins did, however, spend a good deal of time backpedaling: “I haven’t changed my position at all, and neither has The Wildlife Society, an organization now representing more than 10,600 wildlife professionals.” It now appears that the post itself has been modified to reflect his “corrected” position on the subject.)

Urban Wildlands Group
In January 2010, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge handed down an injunction prohibiting the City of Los Angeles from supporting TNR. Under the provisions of the injunction (in its revised version, filed with the court in March 2010), the City, its Board of Animal Services Commissioners, and its Department of Animal Services are prohibited from “promoting TNR for feral cats and encouraging or assisting third parties to carry out a TNR program.” [2]

According to the original petition—filed by the Urban Wildlands Group, Endangered Habitats League, Los Angeles Audubon Society, Palos Verdes/South Bay Audubon Society, Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society, and ABC—implementation of TNR in L.A. “can cause significant adverse environmental impacts by causing proliferation of rats and raccoons and creating water pollution problems.”

It’s important to recognize that the very premise of the petition—brought under the California Environmental Quality Act—is a red herring, nothing more than a roundabout way to go after TNR (in part, by restricting the funding to key organizations integral to L.A.’s various TNR programs). Setting that aside for the moment, though, the question remains: If TNR isn’t the answer, then how are we to reduce the population of stray, abandoned, and feral cats?

Travis Longcore ought to have an answer. Indeed, as head of the Urban Wildlands Group, current president of the Los Angeles Audubon Society, and author of the well-circulated “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” (a compilation of cherry-picked “facts,” misrepresentations, and glaring omissions, which I’ve critiqued in some detail), Longcore (who, I suspect, is the same “Travis” whose comment brought Hutchins back from the brink in November) would seem to be the go-to guy on this topic.

In fact, he doesn’t seem to have any plan, either.

In a December 2010 exchange on the Audubon magazine blog, The Perch (in which senior editor Alisa Opar blindly endorsed the infamous University of Nebraska-Lincoln paper as if it were actual research), Longcore twisted himself in a knot avoiding the question.

“You’ve been very straightforward about your desire to see TNR and the feeding of feral cats outlawed.” I wrote. “But then what?”

“I’ve yet to hear from you—or anybody on your side of the issue—spell it out. We all know the cats won’t disappear in the absence of TNR/feeding. We can argue about rates of population growth, carrying capacity, etc.—but let’s keep it simple here. Under your plan, there are these feral cats—an awful lot of them—that no longer have access to the assistance of humans (other than scavenging trash, say). OK, now what?”

Longcore’s response, in a nutshell, advocated for mandatory spay/neuter, and “cat licensing so that cats are no longer treated as second class, disposable pets.” (It’s difficult to see how their wide-scale killing will get them bumped up to first-class, but such illogical leaps have long been the norm among TNR opponents.)

Whatever his misgivings about disclosing a feasible alternative to TNR, Longcore was more than willing to diagnose the mental health of TNR supporters:

“TNR advocates… aren’t actually interested in reducing feral cat numbers. TNR is something that they ‘sell’ to their jurisdiction so that they are allowed to keep feeding ‘their’ cats. They appear to prefer that the problem persist so that they can validate their sense of self worth by being rescuers.”

There’s an irony to Longcore’s allegation, of course. If, as he implies, he and his fellow petitioners are “actually interested in reducing feral cat numbers,” then why not lay out the way forward?

“You failed to answer the question posed,” I pressed.

“Let me rephrase it, then: Throw in mandatory spay/neuter (if and only if adequate low/no-cost S/N is provided to the community—a rarity, as I’m sure you know), as you suggest. And let’s say there are—again, just to simplify matters—no roaming pet cats. The problem remains: many, many feral cats. And even if Animal Control had the resources to round up every one of them that triggers a complaint, it’s a drop in the bucket. And once you’ve outlawed TNR, there’s no way even one of these cats is going to be sterilized. So, the next step here is what, exactly?”

Longcore’s reply, not surprisingly, was a laundry list of “policies needed to control feral cats,” the majority of which—either directly or indirectly—simply lead to more killing: mandatory spay/neuter, pet limits, prohibitions on roaming, and prohibitions of “feral cat feeding unless on feeder’s property, or with permission of property owner and nearby owners/residents.” Oh, and “euthanasia” (not to be confused with euthanasia). Among the non-lethal solutions: “adoption or other nonlethal removal (e.g. the few sanctuary spaces),” and “outdoor enclosures for ferals where property owners are willing.”

“If you want to go out and sterilize and release feral cats in your back yard under this scenario, go ahead, but recognize that doesn’t then mean your neighbor can’t then trap and remove them. If you want feral cats to have a good life, adopt them and treat them like real pets. If you aren’t going to, then it is my strong belief the appropriate thing to do is to euthanize them.”

As for how this mass “euthanasia” would play out—you know: budget, time line, population projections, examples of successful models, etc.—Longcore had no more to say than did Schroeder or Hutchins.

Visions of the Future
Is it really so unreasonable to expect TNR opponents—especially those individuals and organizations pushing so hard for policy changes—to present a feasible alternative to TNR? Or even, as a start, to address directly comments made by Mark Kumpf, former president of the National Animal Control Association, who compares the traditional trap-and-kill approach to “bailing the ocean with a thimble”?

“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,” explains Kumpf in a 2008 interview with Animal Sheltering magazine. “Nature just keeps having more kittens.” [3]

Those budgets are very likely even tighter today. Now, take away TNR—along with all the “free” resources that come with it—and you’re wishing you had a thimble with which to bail the ocean.

As I explained to Hutchins, those of us advocating and caring for our communities’ stray, abandoned, and feral cats demand better answers than they’ve provided. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that supporters of various organizations opposing TNR are beginning to feel the same way. In part, because—and this, too, is becoming increasingly clear—a position opposed to TNR and the feeding of outdoor cats often, in fact, runs counter to an organization’s stated vision.

Either that, or their “concerns” about outdoor cats are really little more than fear-mongering (a tried-and-true fundraising technique, of course).

The way I see it, there are really only four possible scenarios in play here:

1. No TNR + No Feeding = Fewer Cats
As I’ve pointed out, this one simply doesn’t add up. And heaven knows, if there were evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of such policies, ABC, TWS, the Urban Wildlands Group, et al. wouldn’t be shy about it. That’s not to say they don’t try to suggest as much, of course.

In its TNR “fact sheet” (PDF), TWS, for example, holds up Akron’s 2002 ordinance—which requires the city’s animal control wardens to “apprehend” and “impound” any cats “running at large”—as both humane and cost-effective. Last summer, I took an in-depth look at the impact of Akron’s “cat ordinance,” and found that it’s been far more costly than TWS suggests. And if it’s done anything to reduce the population of the city’s stray, abandoned, and feral cats, nobody’s documented it. (Again, this would seem to be a “success story” in the making for TNR opponents.)

2. No TNR + No Feeding = More Cats—Oops!
What if all this rabid campaigning against outdoor cats has blinded participants to the inevitable consequences of their actions? You know, a careful-what-you-wish-for scenario.

Again, there’s no evidence to suggest that the “plan” will work. And yet, the drumbeat only grows louder. I tend to think that, generally speaking, the leadership at ABC, TWS, the Urban Wildlands Group, et al. is—despite various failures, of which I’ve been highly critical—smart enough to realize this simple fact. On the other hand, I have colleagues—people with far more experience and a much broader perspective—stop me cold when I say so.

3. No TNR + No Feeding = More Cats—But That’s OK
In the 22 months since launching this blog, I’ve been at pains to expose the flimsy nature of most complaints regarding the alleged impacts of free-roaming cats on wildlife and the environment. Much of that effort has involved the untangling of predation estimates based on indefensible sampling and extrapolation, and—more important—decoupling the implied relationship between predation and population-level impacts. Among the evidence I’ve presented (which would seem to be locked tightly inside the aforementioned filing cabinet, thus rendering it “unavailable” to TNR opponents):

Mike Fitzgerald and Dennis Turner’s thorough review of 61 predation studies, in which the authors conclude rather unambiguously: “We consider that we do not have enough information yet to attempt to estimate on average how many birds a cat kills each year. And there are few, if any studies apart from island ones that actually demonstrate that cats have reduced bird populations.” [4]

Also: two very detailed studies supporting a widely understood (though only rarely acknowledged among TNR opponents) pattern of predators: cats tend to prey on the young, the old, the weak and unhealthy. [5, 6] Or, as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds makes puts it: “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.” [7]

It may be that leaders of the TNR opposition do, in fact, recognize the implications of the well-documented science on the subject (though never publicly, of course), whether that concerns predation, rabies, toxoplasmosis, or any number of other aspects of the debate. Such an understanding would allow them to continue pushing for policies that would, despite their claims to the contrary, actually increase the number of free-roaming cats—but still have little or no significant consequences for the wildlife these organizations claim to protect.

Donors are happy, wildlife’s happy—what’s not to like, right? (Actually, all this unwarranted attention on cats is, I’m sure, diverting scarce resources from the real issues—so maybe the wildlife will, in the end, lose anyway.)

4. No TNR + No Feeding = More Cats. Exactly.
File this one under “A” for Apocalyptic. Or Armageddon, maybe.

What if more cats—lots of them—is not only OK, but the goal? At some point, their numbers become so great that popular opinion undergoes a tidal shift, favoring lethal control methods. The bigger the problem becomes, the more drastic the measures considered.

If some wildlife suffers for the cause, well, it’s a small price to pay. If you want to make an omelet, you have to be willing to break a few eggs, right? No free lunches here. Collateral damage. Etc.

Wild conspiracy-theory talk? Maybe so. I mean, it’s a bit like suggesting that our esteemed Smithsonian Institution hired a cat-killer to conduct research on pet cats. As I often tell my colleagues: you can’t make this stuff up. So.

•     •     •

TNR opponents have, for years, misled policymakers and the public—not only about the “threats” posed by free-roaming cats, but about their plan going forward (again, assuming they actually have a plan). They’re advocating for the extermination—in the tens of millions—of this country’s most popular companion animal, without ever proposing any feasible alternative to TNR. (Ironic, isn’t it? These same people claim to have the “best available science” on their side, but either cannot or will not describe or discuss what exactly they’ve got in mind for a solution to the “feral cat problem.”)

Once again, I’m reminded of that famous quote from Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants, electric light the most efficient policeman.” Public scrutiny and a demand for transparency, Brandeis recognized, can bring about significant social change.

We need to start asking better questions—and demanding better answers—of TNR opponents. And we must do so repeatedly and publicly—in town halls, letters to the editor, and any number of online venues; and by contacting local, state, and federal representatives and government agencies.

No TNR? No feeding of outdoor cats? What’s your plan, then?

As the sunlight Brandies spoke of reveals the fatal flaws underlying the anti-TNR rhetoric, it helps light the way forward.

Literature Cited
1. Bester, M.N., et al., “A review of the successful eradication of feral cats from sub-Antarctic Marion Island, Southern Indian Ocean.” South African Journal of Wildlife Research. 2002. 32(1): p. 65–73.

2. Urban Wildlands Group et al. vs. City of Los Angeles et al. (Case No. BS 115483). Stipulated Order Modifying Injunction. March 10, 2010. Los Angeles Superior Court.

3. Hettinger, J., “Taking a Broader View of Cats in the Community.” Animal Sheltering. 2008. September/October. p. 8–9.

4. 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.

5. 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.

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

7. n.a. (2011) Are cats causing bird declines? Accessed October 26, 2011.

12 Sparrows Stressing

Song Sparrow, Whitby, Ontario. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons and Mdf.

New study attempts to demonstrate how the presence of predators alone can reduce songbird reproduction by bombarding birds with round-the-clock audio recordings of predator noises. One co-author of the study goes further, attempting to implicate cats.

The purpose of scientific inquiry (am I wrong about this?) is to reveal some truth about our world. Or the universe, in the case of astrophysics, say. Or, if we want to zoom out (and in, simultaneously) further still, the multiverse. Regardless of the particular phenomena under investigation, it’s essential that the methods employed replicate—to the extent possible—real-world conditions as closely as possible.

Easier said than done—especially when the work is set in the messy, often uncooperative, real world, where researchers struggle to balance the desire for laboratory-like control (necessary for valid analysis) with the vérité-like need for authenticity (necessary for valid conclusions). Or not, as a study published last week in Science demonstrates.

According to a story on the publication’s website, the research “shows that the mere sound of predators reduces both the number and survival rate of songbird offspring, regardless of the true threat.”

In fact, the songbirds in question were subject—Waco- or Guantánamo-style—to a round-the-clock barrage of menacing sounds over the entire four-month breeding season. Little wonder, then, their productivity was affected; what’s surprising is that these birds and their offspring survived at all (and didn’t decamp to quieter—even inviting (more on that shortly) terrain nearby).

What’s this got to do with cats? As Michael Clinchy, Adjunct Assistant Professor in the University of Victoria’s Department of Biology, and co-author of the study, explains in the ScienceNOW story, “our results show that the mere presence of this introduced predator is enough to negatively impact native wildlife.”

Perhaps Clinchy was expecting readers to overlook the bizarre methods he and his colleagues used. Or read their paper, “Perceived Predation Risk Reduces the Number of Offspring Songbirds Produce per Year” (PDF), in which there is no mention of cats at all.

But for those of us who are paying attention, it’s clear: Clinchy is simply in no position to comment on the possible impact of cats—or, for that matter, any predator that doesn’t routinely participate, together with a host of other predators, both avian and mammalian, in a maniacal chorus incessantly tormenting the song sparrows breeding on British Columbia’s Gulf Islands (culminating, by the way, in no physical attack—which, no doubt, only further unsettles and disorients the targeted birds).

The Study
Joining Clinchy in the research was frequent collaborator Liana Zanette, Associate Professor in the University of Western Ontario’s Department of Biology (lead author of the paper), along with Aija F. White and Marek C. Allen, both of UWO. The objective, they explain, “was to test whether perceived predation risk per se affected offspring production.” [1]

To do so, the researchers exposed song sparrows on five of BC’s Gulf Islands to “playlists” of various “calls and sounds” either of predators known to frequent the area, or of the area’s non-predators. Among the predators were the common raven, northwestern crow, Cooper’s hawk, brown-headed cowbird, raccoon, and three species of owls. (The closest we get to a cat is a “brush disturbance sound.”) Non-predators included the Canada goose, mallard duck, northern flicker, Rufous hummingbird, belted kingfisher, downy woodpecker, common loon, harbor seal, and two species of frog (along with “surf sound,” a benign match to the aforementioned brush disturbance sound).

“To compose our playlist of non-predator calls and sounds,” write Zanette et al., “we:

“(i) excluded any associated with either obvious competitors (other songbirds), or potential food sources (invertebrates, e.g. crickets chirping); (ii) included only calls and sounds known to be heard at our study locations; (iii) matched our diurnal predator list with a diurnal non-predator list, and our nocturnal predator list with a nocturnal non-predator list; and then (iv) matched each predator with a non-predator call or sound that had acoustic properties that were as similar as possible.” [1]

Twelve nesting females were exposed to the predator playlist; while 12 others, located nearby, were exposed to the non-predator playlist. “Playbacks were broadcast every few minutes, 24 hours per day on a 4-day-on-4-day-off cycle, throughout the 130-day breeding season.” [2] (Average daytime interval: 2 minutes 20 seconds of playback followed by 3 minutes 30 seconds of silence; average nighttime interval: 2 minutes 20 seconds/5 minutes 22 seconds. [1])

Nest predation was prevented by “protecting every nest in the experiment with both electric fencing and seine netting.” [2]

To evaluate the effect of the predator playback broadcasts, the researchers compared several metrics between the two groups of sparrows. Among them:

“the number of offspring produced per year… egg and brood mass, nestling susceptibility to thermoregulatory stress (skin temperature 10 min after mother flushed from nest), and four measures of behavior reflective of effects on habitat use: nest site selection, vigilance (flight initiation distance, i.e., distance of experimenter from nest when mother flushed from nest), nest attendance (incubation bout duration), and foraging (parental feeding visits per hour during brood-rearing).” [2]

(Note: A detailed description of the methods and analysis employed, as well as photos of the site and equipment used, can be found in the paper’s “Supporting Online Material” (PDF))

The data show that predator-playback females produced, on average, few eggs, nestlings, and fledglings than their non-predator-playback counterparts, for a 40 percent reduction in offspring overall. In addition:

“predator-playback females built their nests in denser, thornier vegetation, were more skittish… and spent shorter times on and longer times off the nest during incubation, and predator-playback parents made fewer feeding visits per hour during brood-rearing. Effects on all four behaviors were associated with effects on offspring number and condition.” [2]

The Researchers
Zanette and Clinchy have been studying the Gulf Island’s song sparrows for 12 years or more now, their work focused largely on the demographic impacts of predatory pressures and food supply (as well as the interaction of the two: “We conclude that annual reproductive success in song sparrows is a function of both food-restricted production and predator-induced loss and indirect food and predator effects on both clutch and brood loss.” [3]). Predation by cats plays only a minor role in their published work, yet both Zanette and Clinchy seem quite eager to talk up that role for more mainstream audiences.

In an interview on CBC’s The Current about her participation in the documentary Cat Crazed, for example, Zanette describes research in which she and Clinchy used video cameras to “capture predators in the act of preying upon songbird nests” in Rithet’s Bog, 10–15 miles south the Gulf Islands.

“What we’ve found over the years is that, of all predation events that we recorded, cats are responsible for 22 percent of those. OK, so that’s cats going in and taking songbird eggs, and chewing on songbird nestlings—completely wiping out the reproductive effort of those parent birds… They chomp, and sometimes they look at the camera and they lick their lips afterwards.”

Although Zanette does acknowledge some other culprits—rats and brown-headed cowbirds, mostly—it’s with far less enthusiasm. Granted, the interview wasn’t about rats or cowbirds, but the context doesn’t explain the outsized impact Zanette ascribes the bog’s cats.

Clinchy’s also interviewed for the film—which, I need to point out, I’ve yet to see, as it’s unavailable for online streaming outside of Canada (and, for reasons that will become clear momentarily, I refuse to purchase the DVD). However, in a story appearing in the online version of Vancouver’s Georgia Straight, which the publication describes as “Canada’s largest urban weekly,” Judith Webster (author of the highly recommended 2007 paper “Missing Cats, Stray Coyotes: One Citizen’s Perspective”) notes: “it’s clear Clinchy was directed by the Cat Crazed interviewer to focus on his lack of fondness for cats.”

And then there’s his comment last week about “this introduced predator.” All in all, it’s difficult to take these two seriously when they start talking about the impact of cats on the song sparrows they study.

(None of which explains, however, why I haven’t bought the Cat Crazed DVD. That’s because of my dislike for the film’s director, Maureen Palmer, who, in addition to the obvious bias she brought to Cat Crazed, apparently lied to the Toronto Star about the conditions of the cats treated by FixNation, a top-notch high-volume spay-neuter clinic north of Los Angeles. I’d hate to see even a dime of my money—10.2 cents Canadian—used to support her agenda.)

The Sparrows
“Our results suggest that the perception of predation risk is itself powerful enough to affect wildlife population dynamics,” write Zanette et al., “and should thus be given greater consideration in vertebrate conservation and management.” [2] Even setting aside for the moment the unrealistic methods employed, the fact that these sparrows produced 40 percent fewer offspring doesn’t necessarily demonstrate population-level impacts; a single breeding season’s observations are hardly sufficient to make such projections.

And, more to the point, the authors don’t actually mention anything about the population dynamics of song sparrows in the real world. The Song Sparrow is, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, a species of Least Concern. That said, Breeding Bird Survey data indicate a 0.6 percent annual decrease, on average, from 1966 through 2009. (Among the most credible BBS data, the steepest decline, 2.1 percent, was seen in Alberta, while the greatest annual increase, 5.0 percent, comes from Missouri.)

So, is the decline suggested by BBS data the result of song sparrows subject to the “calls and sounds” of cats (or any number of “brush disturbance sounds”)? I suspect it has much more to do with the calls and sounds of humans—whose numbers in the U.S. soared 55 percent, from 197 to 307 million, between 1966 and 2009.

In fact, the interaction of cats and song sparrows has been studied in some detail when Cole Hawkins conducted his PhD work during the mid-1990s in two Alameda County, CA, parks. As I’ve mentioned previously, Hawkins’ conclusions are largely indefensible, but I take him at his word when it comes to his bird counts. And song sparrows were among five (of nine total) ground-feeding species that demonstrated “no clear preference for the no-cat or cat area [where up to 26 cats were being fed regularly].” [4] (In fact, in nine of the 14 surveys conducted over the course of Hawkins’ research, the number of song sparrows seen in the cat area exceeded the number seen in the no-cat area—in some cases by a factor of two or three.)

Yet, for all Zanette and Clinchy’s apparent concern for cats predating song sparrows, they never once cite Hawkins’ work.

The Take-away
I’ve no doubt that this study was, as the researchers themselves describe it, “logistically very challenging.” [1] Managing the technology involved (which doesn’t always cooperate in the field) and the constant monitoring of nests and nestlings would, alone, keep a team of bright, ambitious researchers on their toes. But hard work, in and of itself, does not necessarily produce meaningful results.

As Julie Levy, Maddie’s Professor of Shelter Medicine in the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine, mentioned in a comment on the ScienceNOW website, the study would have benefited from a “baseline control group” not subjected to the same “high degree of investigator interference.”

Levy goes on to speculate (admitting “it may be far-fetched”) that the non-predator-playback sparrows may have been “so relaxed and comfortable that their fledgling rate increased by 40 percent.”

Maybe it’s not so far-fetched.

Australian National University biologists Tonya Haff and Robert Magrath, whose work is cited by Zanette et al., argue that nestlings are “finely tuned to their acoustic world, and responded appropriately to sounds of danger nearby.” [5] So why couldn’t adult birds pick up on cues—broadcast continuously every 96 hours—suggesting that (1) there is no danger, and (2) food supplies are plentiful?

The predator-playback group, by contrast, would be picking up cues unlike anything they’d ever experienced: round-the-clock danger, in the air and on the ground.

One wonders, too, what impact a single-predator playback—say, Cooper’s hawks—might have had, used in intervals that mimic real-world conditions. Although Zanette et al. “have yet to observe them attacking a nest, they have been recorded doing so elsewhere and are known to represent a significant threat to adult sparrows.” [1] And, as Zanette and Clinchy point out in a previous paper, their research site has “the highest density of Cooper’s hawks in Canada.” [6]

In fact, Zanette et al. have already set the stage for such investigations—and funding: “it will be fruitful to evaluate the effects of cues from specific predators in future studies.” [1]

The Reaction
Not surprisingly, “Perceived Predation Risk” made UWO’s homepage, the proud university overstating the (already-overstated) implications of the work (even the authors must wince at the word prove): “New findings from Western prove fear of predation risk is powerful enough to affect wildlife populations even when predators are prevented from directly killing any prey.”

And it took The Wildlife Society’s Michael Hutchins less than 24 hours to endorse the paper, calling it “devastating to feral cat TNR advocates.” Misquoting Clinchy, Hutchins goes on to say the paper “is just another example of the growing peer-reviewed literature on this topic, which are providing strong evidence for the negative impact of feral cats on our native wildlife.” Demonstrating once again (as if we needed any more evidence) his commitment not to sound science, but to any headline that might drum up support for his witch-hunt (and year-end donations). (My comment, by the way, is awaiting approval.)

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In the end, I’m left to wonder how studies such as this one—with its deeply flawed design—receive funding in the first place (in this case, by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Natural Sciences) and then warrant publication in Science (“the world’s leading outlet for scientific news, commentary, and cutting-edge research”).

Instead of increasing our understanding of the world, this research only adds to our misunderstanding.

I attempted to contact both Zanette and Clinchy by e-mail on Friday, but have yet to receive a reply (though there have been multiple visits to the Vox Felina site from in and around London, Ontario, where Zanette is based). Zanette never replied to my previous inquiry, either, related to her comments in the CBC interview.

Literature Cited
1. Zanette, L.Y., et al., “Perceived Predation Risk Reduces the Number of Offspring Songbirds Produce per Year (Supporting Online Material).” Science. 2011. 334(1398).

2. Zanette, L.Y., et al., “Perceived Predation Risk Reduces the Number of Offspring Songbirds Produce per Year.” Science. 2011. 334(6061): p. 1398–1401.

3. Zanette, L., Clinchy, M., and Smith, J.N.M., “Combined food and predator effects on songbird nest survival and annual reproductive success: results from a bi-factorial experiment.” Oecologia. 2006. 147: p. 632–640.

4. 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.

5. Haff, T.M. and Magrath, R.D., “Vulnerable but not helpless: Nestlings are fine-tuned to cues of approaching danger.” Animal Behaviour. 2010. 79(2): p. 487–496.

6. Zanette, L., et al., “Synergistic effects of food and predators on annual reproductive success in song sparrows.” Proceedings of The Royal Society B. 2003. 270: p. 799–803.

Nico Dauphine Found Guilty of Attempted Animal Cruelty

The H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse, where the Superior Court of the District of Columbia is located. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and AgnosticPreachersKid.

After more than five months of delays, Nico Dauphine was, this afternoon in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, found guilty of attempted animal cruelty. (Sentencing hearing is scheduled for November 21st.)

Apparently, even “super lawyer” Billy Martin—brought in at the last minute—couldn’t save Dauphine. While the security camera footage (at least the portions released to the public via Fox 5 News) didn’t prove to be the smoking gun many expected, it was, it seems, sufficiently damning.

That, and Dauphine’s own testimony—which, I’m told, the judge simply didn’t buy. (Perhaps she was no more convincing in court—as, I’m told, she tried repeatedly to distance herself from her own very public statements opposing TNR—than she was during her infamous “Apocalypse Meow” presentation.)

According to a story in the Washington Post (published shortly after I had this post online), “Senior Judge Truman A. Morrison III said it was the video, along with Dauphine’s testimony, that led him to believe she had ‘motive and opportunity.’”

He specifically pointed to her repeated denials of her writings. “Her inability and unwillingness to own up to her own professional writings as her own undermined her credibility,” Morrison said.

Back in the News
While I’m pleased with the verdict, I think the fact that she’s been found guilty is actually less important than the fact that she didn’t get off the hook, if that makes any sense. This was a story that barely made the news when it first broke, and has been all but forgotten in the intervening months. A guilty verdict—regardless of the particulars—will, I hope, get the media interested again.

And, with any luck, asking some hard questions for a change.

Starting with: How in the hell was Nico Dauphine hired by the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center in the first place? They had to know her reputation for both misreading and misrepresenting the science in her efforts to vilify free-roaming cats. Yet, her supervisors—including Peter Marra, of course—had Dauphine studying the hunting habits of pet cats.

As I understand it, hers is a highly competitive fellowship—surely there were other candidates who would have been a better fit. (Or maybe not—again, her reputation preceded her. If Dauphine was in fact the best fit, though, what does that say about the Migratory Bird Center and the National Zoo?)

It’s going to be interesting to see how others react to today’s verdict.

Last I checked, The Wildlife Society’s Michael Hutchins hasn’t even mentioned Dauphine’s arrest on his blog—this, despite her extensive contribution to The Wildlife Professional (published by TWS) this past spring, when the magazine was devoted to “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats.” Nor have I seen ABC make any kind of statement. Will they remove Dauphine’s Impacts of Free-ranging Domestic Cats (Felis catus) on birds in the United States from the ABC website now that she’s been convicted, or does ABC still stand by her so-called research?

More interesting will be the reaction from those whose cats were lost—or nearly lost—as a result of Dauphine’s “community service” during her days in Athens. I don’t know that today’s decision will feel much like justice for them, though perhaps it’s a start.

National Feral Cat Day 2011

National Feral Cat Day 2011 posterAs many of you are no doubt aware, Sunday is National Feral Cat Day, a holiday created 10 years ago by Alley Cat Allies “to raise awareness about feral cats, promote Trap-Neuter-Return, and recognize the millions of compassionate Americans who care for them.” This year, there are more than 320 events planned across all 50 states.

Even so, I’ll bet there are a number of scientists, journalists, and others who—despite devoting a great deal of attention to the topic the rest of the year—have allowed the holiday to sneak up on them, and therefore haven’t made plans. Here, then, are some suggestions for how some of these folks (listed in no particular order) might mark the 10th annual National Feral Cat Day.

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Thank you to all those who—whether one day a year or year-round—raise awareness about, and care for, abandoned, stray, and feral cats, and promote TNR.