Peter Marra: Energizing the Base

It’s hunting season, a fitting time for Peter Marra to be reiterating his call for the killing of outdoor cats. Earlier this week he delivered the keynote address at the annual conference of the Ohio Community Wildlife Cooperative, and tonight he’ll be in Baraboo, Wisconsin, presenting “Cats, Birds and You: Keeping Cats Indoors.”

This latest stop on Marra’s Extermination Nation tour is a homecoming of sorts. It was at the nearby University of Wisconsin–Madison, in the early 1990s, that the modern witch-hunt against outdoor cats began with the infamous Wisconsin Study. Using little more than cocktail napkin guesswork, UWM professor Stanley Temple and graduate student John Coleman “estimated” that outdoor cats killed up to 219 million birds in rural Wisconsin alone. [1] Although Marra’s “estimates” are significantly higher, his (flawed) methods—and motive—are striking similar to Temple’s.

(Fun fact: The two were among 10 authors—including Nico Daphiné, Marra’s former post-doc, who was forced to resign after she was found guilty of trying to poison cats—of a 2010 letter calling for conservation biologists to “counter trap-neuter-return.” [2])

Nearly eight years later—and faced with more pushback than he’d apparently expected—Marra’s still reworking his message for mainstream audiences. Look past the media-friendly rhetoric* and cowardly back-pedaling, though, and his call to action (just like Temple’s) is unchanged: the killing of cats on an unprecedented level. Read more

Peter Marra: Post-Truth Pioneer

Nearly four years before the terms fake news and alternative facts made their way into common usage, there were Peter Marra’s mortality “estimates.” Developed at great expense to taxpayers, Marra’s computer-generated figures suggest that outdoor cats kill up to 4.0 billion birds annually in the 48 contiguous states. [1] Even without getting into the details, it should be obvious that the claim is simply nonsense—since the best estimates available indicate that there are only 3.2 billion birds in the continental U.S.

Nevertheless, with the publication of Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer late last year, Marra doubled down on his “estimates,” making this tidy bit of fiction the centerpiece of his campaign of misinformation, scaremongering, and magical thinking.

All of that seems like a lifetime ago now—before Donald Trump became President, and, together with his largely inexperienced and woefully unprepared staff of cronies, plunged us into a Bizarro World. Up is down, black is white, right is wrong. Foreign policy is made and unmade in 140-character outbursts.

Not to be outdone, Marra’s stepped up his game—misrepresenting his own work (which, again, was junk science to begin with) and proposing a new theory of urban ecology. Read more

“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. Read more

Monessen, PA

Given her 15 years’ experience writing the paper’s Pet Tales column, one might expect the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Linda Wilson Fuoco to know something about free-roaming cats and TNR. Or, failing that, leverage her 30+ years as a newspaper reporter and find out.

If her latest column is any indication, though, she’s simply not interested.

The Roundup
Late last month, about 35 people attended a rally in Monessen, PA, protesting the roundup of 34 free-roaming cats earlier this year. Among the cats was Chloe, a spayed pet Lorrie Cheroki had owned for 12 years.

According to Cheroki and Charlotte Luko (who lost Stripe to the trapping), co-founders of the Coalition for a Humane Monessen, the roundup came without warning. “The city circumvented state law,” notes their April 5 letter to the editor, “and gave an independently contracted, self-proclaimed ‘animal control officer’ carte blanche to trap and kill the feral cat colonies or any cat that was running ‘at large.’”

“…there had never been any attempt to locate any of the owners of the cats, that no messages were returned to anybody concerning the cats, despite days of calling, and that the shelter—at the direction of their ‘animal control officer’—abandoned its policy to hold the cats for 48 hours before killing them.”

Meanwhile, Monessen Mayor Mary Jo Smith continues to defend her actions, winning the admiration of The Wildlife Society’s CEO/Executive Director Michael Hutchins.

In any case, it seems the project’s on hold, now that the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society has stopped accepting cats from Monessen.

So, who’s responsible? According to Fuoco, the answer’s clear:

“The deaths of the Monessen cats were caused by people who claim they love cats. The blame lies with people who allow un-spayed females and un-neutered males to roam freely so that they can fight and breed and contribute to the unending supply of unwanted kittens.”

What this has to do with managed colonies of sterilized cats—and sterilized pet cats—isn’t clear at all, however.

Stranger still is Fuoco’s assertion that “people who love birds and other wildlife really hate free-ranging cats.” As Carl Sagan said rather famously, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Fuoco provides none. Instead, she turns to Pete Marra:

“A study recently published in the Journal of Ornithology says such cats were the No. 1 killer ‘by a large margin’ of baby gray catbirds in three Washington, D.C., suburbs.”

Not surprisingly, Fuoco doesn’t get into any of the details—which, as I’ve pointed out repeatedly, only undermine Marra’s own extraordinary claims.

Misinformed Electorate
Of course, the more important question is not who’s to blame—or whether or not people who appreciate wildlife do indeed hate cats—but: How do we solve the problem?

According to Fuoco, 41 percent of people responding to a Post-Gazette online poll (the results of which I’ve been unable to find) prefer the “traditional” trap-and-kill approach to feral cat management (compared to 53 percent who prefer TNR).

No doubt these people believe that additional roundups are all that’s needed to eliminate the area’s feral cats—largely because they’ve never been told otherwise. Not by Marra or Hutchins, of course, but also not by Fuoco and her colleagues in the media—who, collectively, have an abysmal record where feral cats and TNR are concerned.

Would Fuoco’s readers “vote” differently if they knew that Mark Kumpf, former president of the National Animal Control Association, compared trap-and-kill to “bailing the ocean with a thimble”? Or if they knew the brutality—and expense—involved in “successful” eradication efforts, even on small, uninhabited islands?

Or if they knew that communities across the country (e.g., Peoria, AZ, Inverness, FL, etc.)—fed up with the expense and ineffectiveness of “traditional” methods—are turning to TNR.

In fact, the Volusia County (Florida) Animal Control Advisory Board recently reported that taxpayers had shelled out $2.8 million for feral cat roundups—or $87 per cat—between 2008 and 2010. With no end in sight. Hence, the board’s recommendation to adopt TNR.

Meanwhile, in Monessen, PA, city officials declined the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society’s offer to put on a TNR seminar.

The Feral Feeding Movement

SF Weekly Cover (30-Mar-11)

SF Weekly is San Francisco’s smartest publication. That’s because we take journalism seriously, but not so seriously that we let ourselves be guided by an agenda.”

At least that’s what the paper’s Website says.

Now, as somebody who reads SF Weekly only rarely, I want to be careful not to generalize. But if last week’s feature story is typical, then it’s time for the paper to update either its About page or its editorial standards.

“Live and Let Kill” isn’t particularly smart. And, as journalism, it falls well short of the “serious” category.

Reporter Matt Smith argues that “greater scrutiny may be just what the feral feeding movement needs,” while he swallows in one gulp the numerous unsubstantiated claims made by TNR opponents.

Indeed, Smith pays more attention to colony caretaker Paula Kotakis’ “cat-hunting outfit” (“green nylon jacket, slacks, and muddied black athletic shoes”) and her mental health (“For Kotakis, strong emotions and felines go together like a cat and a lap.”) than he does the scientific papers he references (never mind those he overlooks).

His reference to “the feral feeding movement” reflects Smith’s fundamental misunderstanding of TNR, and his dogged efforts to steer the conversation away from sterilization, population control, reduced shelter killing, and the like—to focus on the alleged environmental consequences of subsidizing these “efficient bird killers and disease spreaders.”

Here, too, Smith misses the mark—failing to dig into the topic deeply enough to get beyond press releases, superficial observations, rhetorical questions, and his own bias.

Make no mistake: there’s an agenda here.

Science: The Usual Suspects
“Environmentalists,” writes Smith, “point out that outdoor cats are a greater problem to the natural ecological balance than most people realize.” Actually, what most people (including Smith, perhaps) don’t realize is that Smith’s sources can only rarely defend their dramatic claims with solid science.

Populations and Predation
Smith’s reference to the American Bird Conservancy, which, we’re told, “estimates that America’s 150 million outdoor cats kill 500 million birds a year,” brings to mind the 2010 L.A. Times story in which Steve Holmer, ABC’s Senior Policy Advisor, told the paper there were 160 million feral cats in the country.

Smith got a better answer out of ABC—but ABC’s better answers are only slightly closer to the truth.

Surveys indicate that about two-thirds of pet cats are kept indoors, which means about 31 million are allowed outside (though about half of those are outdoors for less than two or three hours a day). [1–3]. So where do the other 120 million “outdoor cats” come from? And if there are really 150 million of them in the U.S.—roughly one outdoor cat for every two humans—why don’t we see more of them?

Reasonable questions, but Smith is no more interested in asking than ABC is in answering.

The closest Smith comes to supporting ABC’s predation numbers is a reference to Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom, a book “about a birder who declares war on ‘feline death squads’ and calls cats the ‘sociopaths of the pet world,’ responsible for killing millions of American songbirds.” (The fact that Franzen sits on ABC’s board of directors seems to have escaped Smith’s notice.)

In Smith’s defense, chasing down ABC’s predation numbers is a fool’s errand. Such figures—like the rest of ABC’s message regarding free-roaming cats—have more to do with marketing and politics than with science.

No 1. Killer?
For additional evidence, Smith turns to Pete Marra’s study of gray catbirds in and around Bethesda, MD.

“In urban and suburban areas, outdoor cats are the No. 1 killer of birds, by a long shot, according to a new study in the Journal of Ornithology. Researchers from the Smithsonian Institution put radio transmitters on young catbirds and found that 79 percent of deaths were caused by predators, nearly half of which were cats.”

Let’s see now… half of 79 percent… That’s nearly 40 percent of bird deaths caused by cats, right? Well, no.

Although SF Weekly included a link to the Ornithology article on its Website, it seems Smith never read the paper. Like so many others (e.g., The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, etc.), he went with the story being served up by Pete Marra and the Smithsonian.

The real story, it turns out, is far less dramatic than headlines would suggest. In fact, neighborhood cats were observed killing just six birds.

What’s more, even if Marra and his colleagues are correct about the three additional kills they attribute to cats, the title of “No. 1 killer of birds” goes not to the cats, but to unidentified predators, as detailed in the Ornithology paper:

“During our study of post-fledging survival, 61% (42/69) of individuals died before reaching independence. Predation on juveniles accounted for 79% (33/42) of all mortalities (Bethesda 75% (6/8), Spring Park 75% (12/16), and Opal Daniels 83% (15/18) with the vast majority (70%) occurring in the first week post-fledging. Directly observed predation events involved domestic cats (n = 6; 18%), a black rat snake (n = 1; 3%), and a red-shouldered hawk (n = 1; 3%). Although not all mortalities could be clearly assigned, fledglings found with body damage or missing heads were considered symptomatic of cat kills (n = 3; 9%), those found cached underground of rat or chipmunk predation (n = 7; 21%) and those found in trees of avian predation (n = 1; 3%). The remaining mortalities (n = 14; 43%) could not be assigned to a specific predator. Mortality due to reasons other than predation (21%) included unknown cause (n = 2; 22%), weather related (n = 2; 22%), window strikes (n = 2; 22%) and individuals found close to the potential nest with no body damage (n = 3; 34%), suggesting premature fledging, disease or starvation.” [4]

Taken together, the detailed mortality figures and the study’s small sample size make a mockery of Smith’s claim, and—more important—its implications for feral cat management. Which might explain why he didn’t bother to share this information with readers.

The Power of One
“If trappers miss a single cat,” warns Smith, “populations can rebound if they’re continuously fed, because a fertile female can produce 100 kittens in her lifetime. Miss too many, and the practice of leaving cat food in wild areas will actually increase their numbers by helping them to survive in the wild.”

As Michael Hutchins, Travis Longcore, and others have pointed out, I don’t have a degree in biology. Still, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that “a single cat” isn’t likely to reproduce on its own.

Nor is a female cat—even with help—going to produce 100 kittens over the course of her lifetime. A study of “71 sexually intact female cats in nine managed feral cat colonies” found that:

“Cats produced a mean of 1.4 litters/y, with a median of 3 kittens/litter (range, 1 to 6). Overall, 127 of 169 (75%) kittens died or disappeared before 6 months of age. Trauma was the most common cause of death.” [5]

To produce 100 kittens, then, an unsterilized female would have to live at least 25 years. Smith fails to reconcile—or even acknowledge—the obvious discrepancy between claims of of-the-charts fecundity and—to use David Jessup’s phrase—the “short, brutal lives” [6] of feral cats.

Do these cats breed well into their golden years, or, are they “sickened by bad weather, run over by cars, killed by coyotes, or simply starved because feeders weren’t able to attend to a cat colony for the several years or more that are called for,” as Smith suggests?

Clearly, the two scenarios are mutually exclusive.

California Quail
The closest we get to the “demise of native birds” promised on the cover is Smith’s observation that “wildlife advocates blame the city’s forgiving attitude toward feral cats for helping to almost wipe out native quail, which used to be commonplace.”

This is not a new complaint, as a 1992 story in the San Francisco Chronicle illustrates:

“A decade ago, the hedges and thickets of Golden Gate Park teemed with native songbirds and California Valley quail. Now the park is generally empty of avian life, save for naturalized species such as pigeons, English sparrows and starlings.” [7]

But the Chronicle, despite its dire proclamation (“One thing seems certain: San Francisco can have a healthy songbird population or lots of feral cats, but not both.” [7]), did no better than SF Weekly at demonstrating anything more than correlation. This, despite interviews with scientists from the California Academy of Sciences, Point Reyes Bird Observatory, and Golden Gate Chapter of the Audubon Society.

A few years later, Cole Hawkins thought he found the answer. Conducting his PhD work at Lake Chabot Regional Park, Hawkins reported that where there were cats, there were no California Quail—the result, he argued, “of the cat’s predatory behavior.” [8] In fact, Hawkins found very little evidence of predation, and failed to explain why the majority of ground-nesting birds in his study were indifferent to the presence of cats—thus undermining his own dramatic conclusions.

A quick look at A. Starker Leopold’s 1977 book The California Quail (a classic, it would seem, given how often it’s cited) offers some interesting insights on the subject. (Full disclosure: this was a quick look—I turned immediately to the glossary, and then to the two sections corresponding to “Predators, cats and dogs.”)

In the “Quail Mortality” chapter, Leopold describes Cooper’s Hawk as “the most efficient and persistent predator of California Quail,” [9] in stark contrast to cats.

“The house cat harasses quail and may drive them from the vicinity of a yard or a feeding station (Sangler, 1931), but there is little evidence that they catch many quail in wild situations. Hubbs (1951) analyzed the stomach contents of 219 feral cats taken in the Sacramento Valley and recorded one California Quail. Feral cats, like bobcats, prey mostly on rodents.” [9, emphasis mine]

The picture changes somewhat, though, when we get to Leopold’s chapter on “Backyard Quail”:

“Cats… not only molest quail, but skillful individuals capture them frequently… Feline pets that are fed regularly are not dependent on catching birds for a living, but rather they hunt for pleasure and avocation. They can afford to spend many happy hours stalking quail and other birds around the yard, and hence they are much more dangerous predators than truly feral cats that must hunt for a living and therefore seek small mammals almost exclusively (wild-living cats rarely catch birds).” [9]

As to how many “skillful individuals” reside in Golden Gate Park, it’s anybody’s guess. (The idea that few cats catch many birds while many cats catch few if any, however, is well supported in the literature.) And, while they may be well fed, it’s not clear that their very public “yard” and skittish nature afford the park’s cats “many happy hours stalking.”

(A more recent source, The Birds of North America, provides an extensive list of California Quail predators—including several raptor species, coyotes, ground squirrels, and rattlesnakes. Cats are mentioned only as minor players. [10])

Toxoplasmosis
Another complaint from the area’s wildlife advocates, writes Smith, is “Toxoplasma gondii, “shed in cat feces, that threatens endangered sea otters and other marine mammals.” But not all T. gondii is the same. In fact, nearly three-quarters of the sea otters examined as part of one well-known study [11] were infected with a strain of T. gondii that hasn’t been traced to domestic cats. [12]

Once again, domestic cats have become an easy target—but, as with their alleged impact on California Quail, there’s plenty we simply don’t know.

Feral Feeding

For Smith, the trouble with TNR is its long-term maintenance of outdoor cat populations. “Its years of regular feeding,” he argues, citing Travis Longcore’s selective review of the TNR literature, [13] (which Smith mischaracterizes as “a study”), “causes ‘hyperpredation,’ in which well-fed cats continue to prey on bird, mammal, reptile, and amphibian populations, even after these animals become so scarce they can no longer sustain natural predators.”

But that’s not what happened in Hawkins’ study (though he did his best to suggest as much). And it’s not what happened in the two Florida parks Castillo and Clarke used to study the impact of TNR.

Over the course of approximately 300 hours of observation (this, in addition to “several months identifying, describing, and photographing each of the cats living in the colonies” [14] prior to beginning their research), the researchers “saw cats kill a juvenile common yellowthroat and a blue jay. Cats also caught and ate green anoles, bark anoles, and brown anoles. In addition, we found the carcasses of a gray catbird and a juvenile opossum in the feeding area.” [14]

That’s it—from nearly 100 cats (about 26 at one site, and 65 at another).

Calhoon and Haspel, too, found little predation among the free-roaming cats they studied in Brooklyn: “Although birds and small rodents are plentiful in the study area, only once in more than 180 [hours] of observations did we observe predation.” [15]

Feeding and Population Control
Smith’s description of the vacuum effect reflects his misunderstanding of the phenomenon and the role feeding play in TNR more broadly:

“Feral cat advocates believe removing cats from the wild creates a natural phenomenon known as the ‘vacuum effect,’ in which new cats will replace absent ones. (Key to the ‘vacuum’ are the tons of cat food TNR supporters place twice a day, every day, at secret feeding stations nationwide.)”

Smith would have readers believe that TNR practitioners bait cats the way hunters bait deer. In fact, the food comes after the cat(s), not the other way around.

Cats are remarkably resourceful; where there are humans, there is generally food and shelter to be found. Indeed, even where no such support is provided, cats persist. On Marion Island—barren, uninhabited, and only 115 square miles in total area—it took 19 years to eradicate about 2,200 cats, using disease (feline distemper), poisoning, intensive hunting and trapping, and dogs. [16, 17]

As Bester et al. observe, the island’s cats didn’t require “tons of cat food” as an incentive to move into “vacuums”:

“The recolonization of preferred habitats, cleared of cats, from neighbouring suboptimal areas served to continually concentrate surviving cats in smaller areas.” [16]

Still, those “tons of cat food TNR supporters place twice a day, every day, at secret feeding stations nationwide” are key to the success of TNR—just not in the way Smith suggested. Feeding allows caretakers to monitor the cats in their care, “enrolling” new arrivals as soon as possible.

By bringing these cats out into the open—via managed colonies—they’re much more likely to be sterilized and, in some cases, vaccinated. Many will also find their way into permanent homes. Take away the food, and these cats will merely slip back into the surroundings, go “underground.”

And in no time at all, the ones that weren’t sterilized will be breeding.

•     •     •

By framing TNR (the “feral feeding movement,” as he insists on calling it) as “animal welfare ethics on one side, and classic environmental ethics on the other,” Smith overlooks some critical common ground: all parties are interested in reducing the population of feral cats. He also allows himself to give in to an easy—and rather tired—narrative: the crazy cat ladies v. the respected scientists.

At the same time Smith recognizes Kotakis’ dedication and accomplishment (“In her tiny bit of territory in the eastern parts of the park, her method and dedication might just have created a tipping point that has produced a humane ideal of fewer feral cats.”), he can’t resist commenting on her OCD (including a quote from a clinical psychologist who, we can safely assume, has never even met Kotakis).

Meanwhile, Smith couldn’t care less about looking into the science.

I suppose “Live and Let Kill” is balanced in the sense that Smith gives “equal time” to both sides of the issue, but that’s not good enough. Serious journalism demands that readers are provided the truest account possible.

Literature Cited
1. APPA, 2009–2010 APPA National Pet Owners Survey. 2009, American Pet Products Association: Greenwich, CT. http://www.americanpetproducts.org/pubs_survey.asp

2. Clancy, E.A., Moore, A.S., and Bertone, E.R., “Evaluation of cat and owner characteristics and their relationships to outdoor access of owned cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2003. 222(11): p. 1541-1545. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2003.222.1541

3. Lord, L.K., “Attitudes toward and perceptions of free-roaming cats among individuals living in Ohio.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2008. 232(8): p. 1159-1167. http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/javma_232_8_1159.pdf

4. Balogh, A., Ryder, T., and Marra, P., “Population demography of Gray Catbirds in the suburban matrix: sources, sinks and domestic cats.” Journal of Ornithology. 2011: p. 1-10. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10336-011-0648-7

http://nationalzoo.si.edu/scbi/migratorybirds/science_article/pdfs/55.pdf

5. Nutter, F.B., Levine, J.F., and Stoskopf, M.K., “Reproductive capacity of free-roaming domestic cats and kitten survival rate.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1399–1402. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2004.225.1399

6. Jessup, D.A., “The welfare of feral cats and wildlife.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1377-1383. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15552312

http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/javma_225_9_1377.pdf

7. Martin, G. (1992, January 13). Feral Cats Blamed for Decline In Golden Gate Park Songbirds. The San Francisco Chronicle, p. A1,

8. 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

9. Leopold, A.S., The California Quail. 1977, Berkeley: University of California Press.

10. Calkins, J.D., Hagelin, J.C., and Lott, D.F., California quail. The Birds of North America: Life Histories for the 21st Century. 1999, Philadelphia, PA: Birds of North America, Inc. 1–32.

11. Conrad, P.A., et al., “Transmission of Toxoplasma: Clues from the study of sea otters as sentinels of Toxoplasma gondii flow into the marine environment.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2005. 35(11-12): p. 1155-1168. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6T7F-4GWC8KV-2/2/2845abdbb0fd82c37b952f18ce9d0a5f

12. Miller, M.A., et al., “Type X Toxoplasma gondii in a wild mussel and terrestrial carnivores from coastal California: New linkages between terrestrial mammals, runoff and toxoplasmosis of sea otters.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2008. 38(11): p. 1319-1328. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6T7F-4RXJYTT-2/2/32d387fa3048882d7bd91083e7566117

13. Longcore, T., Rich, C., and Sullivan, L.M., “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return.” Conservation Biology. 2009. 23(4): p. 887–894. http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/pdf/Management_claims_feral_cats.pdf

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

15. Calhoon, R.E. and Haspel, C., “Urban Cat Populations Compared by Season, Subhabitat and Supplemental Feeding.” Journal of Animal Ecology. 1989. 58(1): p. 321–328. http://www.jstor.org/pss/5003

16. 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.

http://www.ceru.up.ac.za/downloads/A_review_successful_eradication_feralcats.pdf

17. Bloomer, J.P. and Bester, M.N., “Control of feral cats on sub-Antarctic Marion Island, Indian Ocean.” Biological Conservation. 1992. 60(3): p. 211-219. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6V5X-48XKBM6-T0/2/06492dd3a022e4a4f9e437a943dd1d8b

Blowback

Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!
Sir Walter Scott

Wind turbine near Walnut, IowaWind turbine near Walnut, Iowa. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Bill Whittaker.

Two stories from New York Times writer Elisabeth Rosenthal caught my eye this past Monday. The first, “Tweety Was Right: Cats Are a Bird’s No. 1 Enemy”—the latest recounting of Pete Marra’s catbird research—reads more like a joint press release from ABC and the Smithsonian than it does a Times-worthy science story.

In the second piece, posted on the Green blog, Rosenthal weighs bird mortalities from wind turbines against the number of birds killed each year by cats: 440,000 compared to 500 million.

The figure for wind turbines comes, presumably, from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), while the estimate for annual cat kills comes from the American Bird Conservancy (ABC). Interestingly, I’ve been unable to locate anything on the USFWS Website to support the estimate attributed to that organization; in fact, the only place I’ve seen the connection made is on ABC’s Website.

Thanks to one of my devoted (and well-informed) readers, I need to correct this last point. In fact, the USFWS estimate comes from a 2009 paper (PDF available for download here) by Albert Manville, Senior Wildlife Biologist with USFWS.

Not that it makes a great deal of difference, I suppose—I don’t have much confidence in either ABC or USFWS.

Beyond the Numbers
Even setting aside for the moment the questionable accuracy of each mortality estimate, the comparison is still not as straightforward as it first appears. “If your interest is in protecting several iconic American bird species,” suggests Rosenthal, “the whooping crane, the golden eagle and the sage grouse—wind turbines are possibly the bigger problem.”

The greater sage-grouse, a species listed as Near-Threatened, and the whooping crane, officially Endangered, with perhaps fewer than 500 remaining in the wild, are of particular concern.

“In protecting America’s wildlife,” argues Robert Bryce in a 2009 Wall Street Journal opinion piece, “federal law-enforcement officials are turning a blind eye to the harm done by ‘green’ energy.” [1]

Bryce, who, according to his bio, “has been writing about the energy business since 1989,” says oil companies and electric utilities have often been sued under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. “Yet there is one group of energy producers that are not being prosecuted for killing birds: wind-power companies.” [1]

Like Bryce, Michael Fry, ABC’s Director for Conservation Advocacy, doesn’t care for this double standard. “Somebody has given the wind industry a get-out-of-jail-free card,” he told Bryce. “If there were even one prosecution, the wind industry would be forced to take the issue seriously.” [1]

But there’s a certain irony in Fry’s complaint.

If the wind industry’s been given a “pass,” it’s due in no small part to ABC and their relentless campaign against free-roaming cats. Since at least 1997, when their Cats Indoors! program was launched, ABC has been telling anybody who would listen that free-roaming cats kill an extraordinary number of birds each year.

In so doing, ABC has given the wind industry one of its strongest arguments against making the kinds of changes ABC is now demanding.

The Marketing of the Wisconsin Study
Their undated brochure Domestic Cat Predation on Birds and Other Wildlife, for example, still available on the ABC Website, cites, among other apparently damning evidence, the infamous “Wisconsin Study”: “Rural free-roaming cats kill at least 7.8 million and perhaps as many as 217 million birds a year in Wisconsin. Suburban and urban cats add to that toll.” [2]

Not that ABC hasn’t had help. USFWS, too, has tried its best to legitimize these back-of-the-envelope “estimates,” settling on the researchers’ “most reasonable estimate” [3] of 39 million birds killed each year in Wisconsin for its publications on the subject. [4, 5]

And these efforts have paid off. For years now, news stories of birds killed by wind turbines have referred—sometimes directly, and sometimes not—to predation rates that Stanley Temple himself admitted “aren’t actual data.” [6]

A 2005 U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service report cites Coleman and Temple’s work specifically, [7] suggesting that their own “estimate of 100 million birds killed by cats on an annual basis” is therefore “highly conservative” by comparison. [8] According to the report:

“…annual bird mortality from anthropogenic sources may easily approach 1 billion birds a year in the U.S. alone. Buildings, power lines and cats are estimated to comprise approximately 82 percent of the mortality, vehicles 8 percent, pesticides 7 percent, communication towers 0.5 percent, and wind turbines 0.003 percent.” [8]

In Wind Power: Impacts on Wildlife and Government Responsibilities for Regulating Development and Protecting Wildlife, also published in 2005, the Government Accountability Office offers no total for birds killed by wind turbines, but goes into detail regarding several other causes of mortality, including cats (“hundreds of millions of bird deaths”) using data from USFWS. [9]

Industry insiders, too, have been paying attention.

Wisconsin Focus on Energy, for example, uses Coleman and Temple’s figures to “put the situation in perspective”:

“Cats, both feral and domestic, also take their toll on birds. A Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources report [3] states, ‘recent research suggests that rural free-ranging domestic cats in Wisconsin may be killing between 8 million and 217 million birds each year. The most reasonable estimates indicate that 39 million birds are killed in the state [Wisconsin] each year.’” [10]

Laurie Jodziewicz, communications and policy specialist for the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) offered a similar perspective in a 2009 interview with Mother Earth News: “Even if we got 100 percent of our electricity from wind turbines, bird mortality wouldn’t be even close to that which is caused by communication towers, buildings, automobiles or even cats.” [11]

•     •     •

And the debate continues.

In a news release from earlier this month, ABC challenges AWEA’s estimates:

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has estimated that approximately 440,000 birds are already being killed each year by wind turbines, yet AWEA continues to assert that the death toll is less than one quarter of this. More importantly, the industry association ignores the fact that wind development is currently a tiny fraction of that proposed for 2030 when it is anticipated to kill a minimum of one million birds annually, and likely many more.”

Still, it’s a difficult argument to make on the basis of the numbers alone.

Perhaps the folks at ABC and USFWS might offer some perspective of their own—pointing out, for instance, that predators, cats included, tend to prey on unhealthy birds [12–15], whereas mortalities from non-predatory events—collisions with wind turbines, for example—tend to include healthy and unhealthy individuals alike. Or that cat owners are increasingly keeping their cats indoors—thus reducing their impact on wildlife. [16—18]

Or that the “Wisconsin Study” numbers are meaningless. Or that context matters.

It’s all true, of course, and it would bolster their case against the growing wind industry. On the other hand, ABC and USFWS would have to do the unthinkable: concede some of the very points TNR advocates have been making for years.

Literature Cited
1. Bryce, R. (2009, September 7). Windmills Are Killing Our Birds. The Wall Street Journal, from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203706604574376543308399048.html

2. ABC, Domestic Cat Predation on Birds and Other Wildlife. n.d., American Bird Conservancy: The Plains, VA. http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/materials/predation.pdf

3. Coleman, J.S., Temple, S.A., and Craven, S.R., Cats and Wildlife: A Conservation Dilemma. 1997, University of Wisconsin, Wildlife Extension. http://forestandwildlifeecology.wisc.edu/wl_extension/catfly3.htm

4. USFWS, Migratory Bird Mortality. 2002, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Arlington, VA. http://www.fws.gov/birds/mortality-fact-sheet.pdf

5. USFWS, Perils Past and Present : Major Threats to Birds Over Time. 2003, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Arlington, VA. http://www.fws.gov/birds/documents/PastandPresent.pdf

6. Elliott, J. (1994, March 3–16). The Accused. The Sonoma County Independent, pp. 1, 10.

7. Coleman, J.S. and Temple, S.A., On the Prowl, in Wisconsin Natural Resources. 1996, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: Madison, WI. p. 4–8. http://dnr.wi.gov/wnrmag/html/stories/1996/dec96/cats.htm

8. Erickson, W.P., Johnson, G.D., and Jr., D.P.Y., A Summary and Comparison of Bird Mortality from Anthropogenic Causes with an Emphasis on Collisions (USDA Forest Service Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-191). 2005, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. www.fs.fed.us/psw/publications/documents/psw_gtr191/Asilomar/pdfs/1029-1042.pdf

9. GAO, Wind Power: Impacts on Wildlife and Government Responsibilities for Regulating Development and Protecting Wildlife. 2005, U.S. Government Accountability Office: Washington, DC. www.gao.gov/new.items/d05906.pdf

10. Sagrillo, M., Wind turbines and birds: Putting the situation in perspective in Wisconsin. 2007, Wisconsin Focus on Energy. http://www.focusonenergy.com/Information-Center/Renewables/Fact-Sheets-Case-Studies/Wind.aspx

http://www.focusonenergy.com/files/document_management_system/renewables/windturbinesandbirds_factsheet.pdf

11. Rogers, A., Do Wind Turbines Really Kill Birds?, in Mother Earth News. 2009. http://www.motherearthnews.com/Renewable-Energy/Do-Wind-Turbines-Kill-Birds.aspx

12. 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. http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/bsc/ibi/2008/00000150/A00101s1/art00008

13. Møller, A.P. and Erritzøe, J., “Predation against birds with low immunocompetence.” Oecologia. 2000. 122(4): p. 500–504. http://www.springerlink.com/content/ghnny9mcv016ljd8/

14.  Gill, F.B., Ornithology. 3rd ed. 2007, New York: W.H. Freeman.

15. Klem, D., Glass: A Deadly Conservation Issue for Birds, in Bird Observer. 2006. p. 73–81. http://www.massbird.org/BirdObserver/index.htm

16. Clancy, E.A., Moore, A.S., and Bertone, E.R., “Evaluation of cat and owner characteristics and their relationships to outdoor access of owned cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2003. 222(11): p. 1541-1545. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2003.222.1541

17. Lord, L.K., “Attitudes toward and perceptions of free-roaming cats among individuals living in Ohio.”Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2008. 232(8): p. 1159-1167. http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/javma_232_8_1159.pdf

18. APPA, 2009–2010 APPA National Pet Owners Survey. 2009, American Pet Products Association: Greenwich, CT. http://www.americanpetproducts.org/pubs_survey.asp

Inside Job II

Another study demonstrates that the majority of pet cats spend their time indoors.

In my previous post on the subject, I somehow overlooked Linda Lord’s paper, “Attitudes toward and perceptions of free-roaming cats among individuals living in Ohio.” [1] In it, Lord, Assistant Professor in Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, presents the results of an extensive 2007 telephone survey.

Fifty-nine percent of the 217 cat owners participating in the study reported that their cats were indoor-only. Nearly 20% more allowed their cats outdoors no more than three hours each day.

Linda Lord Indoor-Outdoor Data

Lord’s results are very much in line with findings from the three studies I cited previously. [2–4] All of which contradict the bogus claims made recently by Washington Post columnist Adrian Higgins, and last year by Nico Dauphiné and Robert J. Cooper (download their Partners in Flight conference paper here). [5]

These findings also raise questions about a comment made by Pete Marra in the Post story. Referring to his recent investigation into the mortality of catbird fledglings, Marra suggests that the culprits “aren’t feral cats; they’re domestic cats allowed to go outside.” I’ll take a closer look at Marra’s study in my next post…

Literature Cited
1. Lord, L.K., “Attitudes toward and perceptions of free-roaming cats among individuals living in Ohio.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2008. 232(8): p. 1159-1167.

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

3. ABC, Human Attitudes and Behavior Regarding Cats. 1997, American Bird Conservancy: Washington, DC. http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/materials/attitudes.pdf

4. APPA, 2009–2010 APPA National Pet Owners Survey. 2009, American Pet Products Association: Greenwich, CT.

5. Dauphiné, N. and Cooper, R.J., Impacts of Free-ranging Domestic Cats (Felis catus) on birds in the United States: A review of recent research with conservation and management recommendations, in Fourth International Partners in Flight Conference: Tundra to Tropics. 2009. p. 205–219. www.pwrc.usgs.gov/pif/pubs/McAllenProc/articles/PIF09_Anthropogenic%20Impacts/Dauphine_1_PIF09.pdf

Garden Tool

The timing was uncanny. Four days after my post “Inside Job,” Washington Post columnist Adrian Higgins reported incorrectly that two-thirds of pet cats are allowed outdoors. Higgins doesn’t mention where he got that figure, but considering the sources he used for the piece—including the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), The Wildlife Society, and Dauphiné and Cooper’s 2009 Partners in Flight paper—it’s not hard to sort out.

Ditto for his matter-of-fact assertion that “the cumulative effect on birds is significant, according to experts.” Higgins relies on Dauphiné and Cooper for estimates of both the number of “stray and out-and-out feral cats” (“there may be as many as 100 million such cats in the country”) and birds killed by free-roaming cats (“at least one billion birds are killed by cats annually, ‘and the actual number is probably much higher.’”). [1]

Higgins’ column appeared exactly one week after the release of Charles Seife’s book Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception. Proofiness, writes Seife, is “the art of using bogus mathematical arguments to prove something that you know in your heart is true—even when it’s not.” [2]

Many—perhaps most—of the scientific claims made by opponents of free-roaming cats/TNR are textbook cases of proofiness. Nevertheless, they are often accepted at face value by the media, which—simply by passing them along for public consumption—gives these assertions unwarranted credibility.

Pete Marra
The central character in Higgins’ story is Pete Marra, a fellow gardener and a research associate at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Marra’s name rang a bell.

Sure enough, this is the same Peter P. Marra who, along with nine others (including Dauphiné and Cooper), authored a comment in Conservation Biology earlier this year, entitled “What Conservation Biologists Can Do to Counter Trap-Neuter-Return: Response to Longcore et al.” (the publication of which prompted a series of Vox Felina posts, beginning with this one).

What Marra and his co-authors penned is an unapologetic call to action:

Proponents of TNR are well organized and push for TNR-friendly policies in communities and shelters around the United States, often with little opposition from the conservation biology and wildlife ecology communities… Regardless of why the scientific and management communities have remained relatively silent, it is imperative that we now begin speaking out. [2]

As I have argued, the silence that so frustrates Marra and the others may simply reflect the fact that so much of the work he and his colleagues defend is largely indefensible. Indeed, “What Conservation Biologists Can Do” is, in its own way, representative. Consider the authors’ comparison of TNR with hoarding:

The animal welfare community opposes “cat hoarding,” whereby people care for more pets than they can adequately support, because it is considered inhumane. Trap-neuter-return is essentially cat hoarding without walls. Considering that most communities have laws banning animal hoarding, we should consider the same standard for outdoor cats as those that are in a person’s home. [3]

But their interest in using the law to put a stop to TNR doesn’t end there. Marra and his colleagues continue:

…it may become incumbent upon us to take legal action against colonies and colony managers, particularly in areas that provide habitat for migratory birds or endangered species. [3]

The authors quote a 2003 article written by Linda Winter, the former director of the ABC’s Cats Indoors! campaign, for the Hawaii Audubon Society newsletter:

“…releasing cats into the wild and supporting feral cat colonies is a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act, as well as laws prohibiting animal abandonment.” (her emphasis, not mine) [4]

As a frequent critic of Winter’s writing, I was eager to read the newsletter (which can be downloaded here). It turns out Winter was referring to a 2003 report submitted by Pamela Jo Hatley—then a student in the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law and part of its University of Florida Conservation Clinic—to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Winter—and by extension, Marra and his colleagues—are unambiguous on this point: TNR is a clear violation of both the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act. But, of course, law students don’t make legal decisions; that’s what we have courts for (which might explain why, years later, Travis Longcore and his Urban Wildlands Group took a rather different approach in their TNR-related lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles).

But back to Hatley—there’s another familiar name. In fact, I’d seen it right beside Marra’s earlier this year. See, Pamela Jo Hatley is one of the 10 co-authors of “What Conservation Biologists Can Do.”

So why didn’t the authors just cite Hatley’s work directly, rather than turning to Winter’s version of it? Simply put, Winter’s version is a better story—short and sweet, and brimming with certitude.

But if Marra and the others—Hatley included—wanted to distance themselves from the original, it’s understandable. Though her legal arguments are somewhat compelling, Hatley’s report is a minefield of misrepresentations, flawed estimates, and unsubstantiated claims where the science is concerned (e.g., extrapolating the Wisconsin Study to Florida, and then suggesting that “the actual number [of birds killed by cats in the state] may be much higher” [5]). In other words, more proofiness.

Its title, Feral Cat Colonies in Florida: The Fur and the Feathers Are Flying, is a good indication of how seriously the report—ostensibly a formal document submitted to a federal agency—should be taken.

Getting Dirty
To read Higgins’ column in the Post, one gets the idea that he and Marra are merely fellow gardeners, perhaps having bumped into each other at the local nursery or hardware store. And that’s where the story began. It could be.

But there’s a sentence in “What Conservation Biologists Can Do” that’s been bothering me ever since I read Higgins’ piece:

Conservation biologists have just as much opportunity to make their points at local meetings, through the news media, and at outreach events as do TNR proponents. (emphasis mine) [2]

I have no idea whether Higgins and Marra knew each other before Higgins began work on his column, or how Higgins feels about cats. And I’m not one to go in for conspiracy theories, either.

What I am sure of is that Higgins—as a journalist—should have done his homework. He did not. (To be fair, Higgins did speak with Alley Cat Allies; but “equal time” is a poor substitute for accuracy.) And the consequences of his carelessly scattering a few figures around a column devoted to gardening are considerable: the seeds of proofiness!

Maybe readers don’t expect Higgins to know (or care, even) how many free-roaming cats there are in the U.S. Or how much time pet cats spend outdoors. Still, though, Higgins is an avid gardener—he, of all people, should be able to recognize bullshit.

*     *     *

SPECIAL THANKS to Louise Holton, founder of Alley Cat Rescue, who brought the Washington Post article (along with countless other news items over the past few months!) to my attention. She and Maggie Funkhouser, ACR’s Director of Communications and Public Relations, have become invaluable resources.

Literature Cited
1. Higgins, A., Bird lovers see roaming cats as a major threat to many species, in The Washington Post. 2010: Washington, DC. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/28/AR2010092803999.html

2. Seife, C., Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception. 2010: Viking Adult.

3. 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.

4. Winter, L., “Popoki and Hawai’i’s Native Birds.” ‘Elepaio: Journal of the Hawaii Audubon Society. 2003. 63(6).

5. Hatley, P.J., Feral Cat Colonies in Florida: The Fur and the Feathers Are Flying. 2003, University of Florida Conservation Clinic: Gainsville, FL.

Counting Cats

Years ago, it was common for media accounts about community cats to remark—typically with a tone of some astonishment—that a caregiver had a name for every cat in their care. For caregivers, of course, and anybody familiar with TNR, this was no surprise at all. Indeed, it would be surprising not to have names for the cats you see on a regular basis.

For whatever reason, I don’t see this element included in news stories anymore. It’s not because caregivers have stopped naming cats, though—I’m sure of that much. Such frequent, close interactions also allow caregivers to track the regulars, identify newcomers, and note disappearances. As a caregiver myself, I find this ability—to provide a reasonably accurate count of the cats we see regularly, often on a daily basis—rather unremarkable.

For some TNR opponents, though, there is simply no way that such counts can be trusted. After all, they argue, most of us lack the training to provide accurate and reliable population estimates. This is apparently what it’s come to: faced with empirical evidence that poses a direct threat to their dogmatic belief that “TNR doesn’t work,” these people have begun to dispute our ability to count cats. Read more

Measures of fitness rejected by TNR opponents

Analysis of recent bird mortality event seems to confirm earlier research showing that birds killed by cats are generally in poor health.

Read more ›

CAPE FEAR(MONGERING)

In late 2009, Sharon George was struggling to recruit participants for her master’s thesis. A student in the University of Cape Town’s conservation biology program at the time, George was studying the hunting habits of suburban Cape Town’s pet cats. Although she’d distributed 600 questionnaires, only 32 had been completed—a response rate George describes as “very poor” in her thesis [1].

“The project in general was very challenging because of the way many cat owners perceived it. The majority of cat owners were unwilling to participate in the study because they felt it was ‘against’ cats and would lead to extreme measures being taken to control cat numbers” [1].

It turns out, the majority of cat owners were not wrong about that.

George’s results were published online in July as part of a larger study, accompanied by a media release (PDF) warning that “the research highlights the need to address the impact of cat predation on Cape Town’s wildlife, particularly near protected areas such as the Table Mountain National Park.” This led (not surprisingly) to sensational headlines proclaiming “‘200,000-plus’ wild animals slaughtered in Table Mountain National Park by Cape Town cats each year” and “Apocalypse Miaow II: ‘Keep cats inside property’, SANParks urges Capetonians.”

Read more

Schrödinger’s… Birds?

It’s difficult to imagine now—after a banner week of revelations, accusation, and obfuscations—but headlines earlier this month were dominated by dire warnings of a different kind: a looming ecological collapse as demonstrated by dramatic declines in North America’s birds. Coverage included stories in the New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, National Geographic, Vox, Scientific American, and many other publications.

According to the reports, North American bird populations have declined by about 29 percent since 1970, a loss of roughly 3 billion birds.

Which leaves only about 7 billion birds. But just six years ago, researchers (some of which were also involved in this most recent study) published a paper estimating that outdoor cats kill 1.3–4.0 billion birds annually in the contiguous U.S. alone.

Are we really expected to believe that this one source of mortality (estimated only for the Lower 48 states, remember) is responsible for killing more than half of the continent’s bird population, year in and year out? Although numerous news accounts have referred to cats as contributors to the declines in bird abundance, I’ve yet to see one questioning this basic arithmetic (see Footnote 1).

Read more

Bad Medicine

Between 1979 and 2015, more than 13,000 U.S. veterinarians died. At least 398 of them took their own lives. Which, according to recently published research, is 2.1 (for males) to 3.5 (for females) times higher than the suicide rate nationally. Those working with companion animals (as opposed to, say, “food animals”) were among veterinarians most likely to die by suicide [1].

Unfortunately, the study provides no breakdown for shelter medicine vets, who generally see more killing than any of their colleagues other than perhaps those working with the aforementioned “food animals.” It’s not difficult to imagine higher rates of suicides among these veterinarians, certainly—but let’s set that aside for the moment and assume it’s no different from the overall rate for companion animal vets.*

What would happen if TNR opponents had their way—and the killing of healthy cats increased by a factor of 10, 20, or more?  Read more

Interior Desecration

Referring to a recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Los Angeles Times describes the considerable damage (much of it likely to be irreversible) done by “Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his minions” as evidence of the profound ignorance and brazen corruption that have come to dominate public policy over the past two years.

“Among the up-is-down, night-is-day practices of the Trump administration, one of the most dangerous and disturbing is its habit of turning America’s leading science agencies into hives of anti-science policymaking.”

Reading the UCS report, one can only imagine the number of times the authors must have wanted, desperately, to use the term train-wreck. Or shit-show.

Alas, cooler heads prevailed. Still, the message comes through loud and clear, beginning with the report’s title: “Science under Siege at the Department of the Interior: America’s Health, Parks, and Wildlife at Risk.” Although government leaders should carefully consider the best available science in their policy making duties, argue the UCS authors, Zinke’s DOI:

“has instead stifled politically inconvenient research, put industry interests ahead of public health, and undermined science-based rules and regulations. The department has established a clear pattern of suppressing science and scientific evidence, particularly when they run counter to the interests and priorities of the coal, gas, and oil industries.” [1]

None of which is news to anybody paying attention. (For a painful refresher, check out the timeline provided in the UCS report, which documents no fewer than 40 “milestones” in the first 21 months of the Trump administration.) Still, in some corners of DOI, this “monumental disaster” would seem to be more a difference of degree than kind. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I’m looking at you.  Read more

New Research Challenges Alleged Links Between Cat Ownership and Mental Illness

Writing last week for Scientific American, Yale School of Medicine research fellow Jack Turban waded into the controversy surrounding cat ownership, Toxoplasma gondii, and the parasite’s alleged role in mental illness—asking (and answering) the question, “are cats really to blame for psychotic behavior?” As it turns out, not so much.*

“In the largest and best-controlled study to date, the researchers showed that those exposed to cats were at no increased risk of psychosis after controlling for a number of other variables (including ethnicity, social class, and dog ownership—to control for exposure to animal stool).”

But wait—what about all those scary headlines…? Read more

TNR Opponents’ Reaction(?) to the Recovery of the California Sea Otter

Photo: Wikipedia/Michael L. Baird

For several years now, TNR opponents have blamed Toxoplasma gondii infection in California sea otters on outdoor cats, the idea being that the parasite is spread from cat feces into the soil and then flushed into the Pacific by way of runoff. From the start, it’s been a dubious argument—requiring believers to focus narrowly on specific data while ignoring a great deal more.

And the argument has only grown increasingly weak in recent years, as additional research findings have further questioned the role of domestic cats in sea otter infection. Perhaps most compelling of all are the results of the 2016 sea otter census, which estimates that the population along the California coast might be greater than it’s been in more than 100 years.

So how do TNR opponents reconcile these findings with their claims that outdoor cats pose a grave threat to the sea otters?

They don’t, of course.

Instead, they simply ignore the research—all the while telling anybody who will listen that they have science on their side. Read more

“Cat Wars” Roadshow, Part 1

Somebody needs to explain to the folks at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University the importance of managing expectations. According to the institution’s Facebook page, Peter Marra, who’s speaking this evening as part of its Town Square series, “will outline the evidence he and co-author Chris Santella have presented in their new book Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer.”

“He will discuss the scientific evidence confirming that free-ranging cats are killing birds and other animals by the billions and the devastating public health consequences of rabies and parasitic Toxoplasma passing from cats to humans at rising rates.”

Spoiler alert! Marra and Santella provide no such “evidence” in their book.

That’s not to say that Marra won’t have plenty to talk about of, course. Earlier this month, he ramped up his campaign of misinformation, scaremongering, and magical thinking with an appearance on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight in which he further misrepresented his junk science.

So, who knows what he’ll come up with tonight.

It’s more than a little troubling to see the Academy promote Marra’s witch-hunt, hosting him as part of a program “designed to engage and provide relevant educational content to the public on environmental issues.”

“Town Squares focus on critical global issues in environmental science by featuring prominent thought leaders and their findings on biodiversity, freshwater issues, climate change, and evolution. Environmental advocates, scientists, and community members come together for an opportunity to further their knowledge about environmental and sustainability matters through accurate, real-time scientific information.”

I don’t know about other events in the series, but I think it’s safe to say that many attendees of tonight’s talk will leave the venue less knowledgeable, not more.* On the other hand, if they’re looking for “real-time information,” Marra’s shown he’s more than willing to make up his “facts” on the fly.

* Even so, I’m sure Marra will have his supporters. Indeed, somewhere in the audience might be his former colleague, Nico Dauphiné, who left her prestigious post-doc position at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center after she was found guilty of attempted animal cruelty. Now Nicole Arcilla, she’s a post-doc researcher in Drexel’s Biodiversity, Earth, and Environmental Sciences department.

Petition: Challenge Cornell University to Remain Neutral on “Cat Wars”

Given the junk science, red herrings, and desperate scaremongering that plague Cat Wars, why is Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology rolling out the red carpet for co-author Peter Marra? Read more

The “Need” for More Killing?

The press is making it out that I am like Josef Mengele, but shelters already do this now. Last year millions of animals were euthanized because we don’t have the resources to take care of them.”

—Peter Marra, co-author of Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer, in a recent interview with National Geographic


Even before Cat Wars was officially released (in print, anyhow), the pushback had begun. Among the more notable examples were Marc Bekoff’s blistering critique in Psychology Today and Gwen Cooper’s smackdown on the Hi Homer! blog (the likely source for that Mengele reference). More recently, Barbara J. King offered a much more tempered response on NPR’s Cosmos & Culture blog.

“It’s not a war against cats that we need. We should slow down, critically review the assumptions that underpin the science, and resist panicky, dire recommendations.”

All the while, Marra’s been trying to back away from his inflammatory rhetoric—witness the National Geographic piece, for example, followed by a Q&A with VICE.

One wonders: given the fact that he’s promoting the killing of this country’s most popular pet—on a scale that would dwarf anything this country’s seen—what did he expect? Read more

What’s Several Billion Birds, Among Friends?

Frequently cited estimates for birds killed by cats in the U.S. actually exceed the number of birds estimated to be in the country. Documents obtained via Freedom of Information Act raise as many questions as they answer.


As I pointed out recently, the annual mortality estimates proposed in the 2013 paper, “The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States,” don’t add up. Or, to be more precise, they do add up—and up and up. Indeed, the authors’ “conservative” estimate of birds killed by outdoor cats appear to exceed the total number of land birds estimated to be in the country.

According to the Partners In Flight Population Estimates Database—which, given its intended use for “bird-conservation planning,” would seem to be the go-to source for the best estimates available—that total is 3.2 billion. That’s only 33 percent greater than the median estimate (2.4 billion) developed by Scott Loss, Tom Will, and Peter Marra—leaving very little room for the many other sources of mortality, [1] including the 365–988 million birds they’ve estimated are killed annually as a result of building collisions. [2]

And the high-end of their “conservative” estimate of annual cat-caused mortalities (4.0 billion) actually exceeds the PIF estimate by a significant margin—raising serious questions about the validity of the work portrayed by Marra, in Cat Wars, as the culmination of a century’s worth of evidence implicating cats in the decline of birds and other wildlife. [3]

As documents obtained via Freedom of Information Act reveal, though, this isn’t the weirdest part of the story. Read more