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?

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“Outside” Takes Aim at Outdoor Cats

In his 2007 TED Talk, author and social critic James Howard Kunstler decries the “immersive ugliness of our everyday environments in America,” arguing that the inevitable result of such failures is a bleak landscape of “places that are not worth caring about.” Taking aim at the civic center in Saratoga Springs, New York—somehow both imposing and soul-crushingly banal—Kunstler paints a picture of that pivotal moment when the whole project came undone:

“You can see exactly what went on at three o’clock in the morning—the design meeting. You know, eight hours before deadline, four architects trying to get this building in on time, right? And they’re sitting there at the long boardroom table with all the drawings, and the renderings, and all the Chinese food caskets are lying on the table, and—I mean, what was the conversation that was going on there? Because you know what the last word was—what the last sentence was, of that meeting. It was: Fuck it.”

I imagine the scene is somewhat different for the staff of Outside magazine—conference calls as opposed to conference tables, for example, and more flannel and fleece than exists in all the architecture firms combined. Still, it was Kunstler’s image of that fateful moment when all hope for a project is lost that immediately came to mind when I read “Hawaii’s Crazy War Over Zombie Cats,” published late last month on the magazine’s website.

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They Tried to Make Me Go to Rehab

In what I can only imagine was intended to be a dramatic headline, the Washington Post announced last week: “A wildlife rehab center confirms that cats are killers.” Did we really to confirm that domestic cats are, just like their wild relatives, predators?

Apparently so.

What’s next? A Sunday magazine feature investigating the presence of gravity, perhaps? Or a three-part series, complete with online photo gallery, on heliocentrism? We can only hope. In the meantime, what exactly did this wildlife rehab center learn about the hunting habits of outdoor cats?

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Hawaiian Monk Seals: The Latest Excuse for Toxo Hysteria?

Hawaiian monk seal at Five Fathom Pinnacle, Hawaii. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and N3kt0n.

The latest “black mark against domestic cats,” explained a headline in yesterday’s Washington Post: “They’re killing Hawaii’s rare monk seals.” As is so often the case, though, in the age of click-bait journalism, the story is considerably more complicated than the misleading headline suggests.

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Conservation Biology, Outdoor Cats, and the Magic 8-Ball

For too many in Hawaii’s conservation community, the answer is always the same—regardless of the question being asked.

Examining the ongoing campaign to eradicate Hawaii’s outdoor cats, one soon discovers a familiar pattern: the rationale is often based on flawed science (often produced by government agencies). But, perhaps because of conservation concerns more desperate than those on the mainland, there’s an unsettling tendency to “interpret” scientific evidence in a way that will implicate cats regardless of a study’s actual results.

No matter what the research question, it seems the answer is invariably “cats.”

Witness, for example, a paper published earlier this year in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases, in which the authors suggest that outdoor cats pose a threat to Hawaii’s state bird, the Nene (or Hawaiian goose), by spreading the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. One problem: the island where the researchers found the greatest seroprevalence of T. gondii infection among the birds, Molokai, just so happens to be home to perhaps the most dramatic increase in their numbers in recent years.

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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?

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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.

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Is the CDC Ignoring Science When it Interferes with a Cozy Relationship?

When does collaboration cross the line into research misconduct? And why is it bad for public policy, cats, and people care about both of them?

Back in August of 2013, I wrote a post asking whether the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was doing the American Bird Conservancy’s bidding. As should be obvious, the question was intended to be provocative. As it turns out, though, it was also more than a little prescient.

Documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests reveal a pattern of questionable behavior from CDC epidemiologist Jesse Blanton, whose cozy relationship with various ABC staff resulted in the publication—and extensive promotion—of a paper that’s become one of the go-to tools in TNR opponents’ arsenal (see Note 1).

And yet, despite its glaring flaws and dubious origins—which together raise serious questions about research misconduct—both the CDC and John Wiley & Sons (publisher of Zoonoses and Public Health, the journal in which the paper appeared) have been eager to dismiss concerns over this poster-child for publicly funded junk science.

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“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.

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“Investigative Report” Targets TNR Efforts

In their second report in a recent series investigating the two-year TNR pilot program in Hillsborough County, Florida, television station WFLA revealed evidence of “gruesome feral cat deaths.” Apparently, some of the cats are being returned to their trapping location too soon, and dying tragic deaths as a result of post-surgery complications.

Or at least that’s what the headline implied. The story changes pretty quickly after that, though.

“How are [the cats] adjusting after surgery?” asks 8 On Your Side’s senior investigative reporter Steve Andrews, rhetorically. “No one knows for sure.”

Wait—no one knows for sure? Aren’t these people supposed to answer questions?

Not to be deterred by his team’s admitted lack of knowledge, Andrews persists, referring vaguely to “pictures of what’s happened to some” cats that have been released. “The pictures are so disturbing, News Channel 8 managers won’t allow them on television.”

But they are—of course—on the WFLA website. Such is the state of “investigative reporting” in the click-bait era.

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Appealing to Our Better Nature

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

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

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

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Million Cat Challenge: History In the Making

When I wrote about the launch of the Million Cat Challenge, in December 2014, I suggested that it “felt like something historic.”

“As if we’ve entered into a new era of animal sheltering where cats are concerned. This ambitious campaign promises to be a game-changer not just for the million cats it aims to save (over the next five years), but for sheltering itself.”

Well, here we are just 17 months later, and the Challenge is already surpassing the 500,000-cat milestone. Apparently, the future is now.

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“Cats Indoors” Campaigns: A Grave Threat to Outdoor Cats?

In the interest of full disclosure: I keep my cats indoors 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s an uncompromising policy I’ve adopted for their safety — and my sanity. I encourage others to keep their cats indoors, too. Why, then, do I object so strenuously to “cats indoors” efforts, such as Nature Canada’s recently launched Keep Cats Safe and Save Bird Lives campaign?

It’s a question to which I’ve given a great deal of thought since I first began blogging about the ongoing witch-hunt against outdoor cats nearly six years ago, and it mostly comes down to the following:

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Biosecurity: Declaring War on Hawaii’s Cats

Imagine, if you will, the following scenario:

The small colony of cats for whom you’ve been caring for years (sterilization and vaccination was just the beginning) lives quietly on your property. Thanks to the “cat fencing,” they’re safe from outside threats, and they’re no threat to nearby wildlife or to any neighbors who might consider them a nuisance.

And yet, they’ve been targeted for seizure and removal—or worse, eradication.

Vigilante fringe-rvationist (think Galveston’s Jim Stevenson)? No.

Online troll escaped his mother’s basement to make good on his tedious, typo-plagued, threats? No.

The party responsible, in this case, is the Hawaii Invasive Species Authority—or any party with whom the Authority might choose to contract (which, I suppose, might actually include the likes of Stevenson and the trolls).

Orwellian, sure—but maybe not all that far-fetched.

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Cats and Caregivers Targeted in Hawaii

A pair of bills winding their way through Hawaii’s legislature threaten community cats, their caregivers—and the very wildlife some supporters claim they’re trying to protect.

On barren, uninhabited Marion Island, it took 19 years to exterminate approximately 2,200 cats — using feline distemper, poisoning, hunting and trapping, and dogs. [1, 2] The only “handouts” these cats received were “the carcasses of 12,000 day-old chickens” [2] injected with poison. If there was any evidence of starvation, I’ve not read about it.

In Antioch, California, a 2014 feeding ban proved futile. “Opponents of the ban have simply ignored it without much consequence,” reported the San José Mercury News, “while city officials admit they don’t have the resources to enforce the law.”

Why, then, does anybody even remotely familiar with this topic think a feeding ban would reduce the number of unowned, free-roaming cats? Where’s the evidence?

And yet, this magical thinking is exactly what TNR opponents are using to sell Senate Bill 2450 to residents of Hawaii (including the state’s legislators).

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Toxo “Hype Train” Running Out of Steam?

Recent research is challenging the “conventional wisdom” that infection with the Toxoplasma gondii parasite can alter human behavior, lead to mental illness (especially schizophrenia). As a recent post on Discover magazine’s Neuroskeptic blog notes, “The idea of ‘behavioral’ toxoplasmosis has driven a huge amount of research and media interest.”

Of course, it’s also driven the witch-hunt against outdoor cats—used by the American Bird Conservancy and others in their ongoing campaign of misinformation and scaremongering.

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D.C.’s Department of Energy and Environment Ignores Advocates, Science, and Common Sense

In my inaugural blog post for The Huffington Post, I take on Washington, D.C.’s Department of Energy & Environment and the agency’s demand that TNR programs in the District “will be revisited and reassessed.” Check it out for yourself here.

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.

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“The Science Points to Cats”? Not so Fast!

Mother sea otter with pup, photographed at Morro Rock, CA. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and “Mike” Michael L. Baird.

“The science points to cats,” proclaimed David Jessup (long-time opponent of TNR) and Melissa Miller in their contribution to the Spring 2011 Issue of The Wildlife Professional, in a special section called “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats” (available free via issuu.com). As I explained at the time, it wasn’t science so much as certain scientists pointing to cats as the primary cause of California sea otter mortalities associated with Toxoplasma gondii infection.

And now, a study recently published in the International Journal for Parasitology: Parasites and Wildlife goes much further in challenging the scapegoating.

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Who Benefits from NY Gov. Cuomo’s Veto of “TNR Bill”?

When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo vetoed Assembly Bill 2778 earlier this week, he adopted the “kitchen sink” approach so often used by TNR opponents, explaining himself this way:

“Although the goal of this bill is laudable, it is problematic for several reasons. First, I cannot support diverting [the State’s Animal Population Control Program Fund] funds from existing programs that have already proven effective for humanely controlling feral cat populations. Second, a central tenant of TNR programs is the release of feral cats into the wild. However, that conflicts directly with Agriculture and Markets Law section 374(5), which makes the release of such animals a misdemeanor offense, and would create uncertainty as to the legality of releasing trapped animals. Third, the prevailing science suggests that TNR programs are not guaranteed to reduce feral cat populations, and, even if they do, may take many more years to do so than existing programs. Finally, the return of feral cats to the wild must be balanced against the impacts these cats can have on wildlife, including on threatened and endangered species, habitats, and food sources for native predators.”

Setting aside for the moment Cuomo’s (apparently) poor grasp of the relevant science, one wonders: if, as he suggests, spay/neuter services aimed at low-income residents are sufficient to control “feral cat” populations, then why is this issue even a topic of conversation—much less the focus of a controversial piece of legislation?

In fact, the purpose of New York’s Animal Population Control Program Fund, as written into law, is to “reduce the population of unwanted and stray dogs and cats thereby reducing incidence of euthanasia and potential threats to public health and safety posed by the large population of these animals.” And when it comes to reducing the “population of unwanted and stray cats,” the best return on investment is, of course, targeted TNR.

This bill would have allowed up to 20 percent of the Fund (approximately $1M in total, I’m told) to be used for TNR efforts. That’s the kind of funding that could make a significant difference.

No doubt Audubon New York, the New York Sportsmen’s Advisory Council, and PETA—all of whom opposed the bill—are celebrating Cuomo’s veto as a victory. But it’s difficult to see any winners here.

Making it more difficult to sterilize and vaccinate community cats doesn’t serve anybody’s best interest. (Even low-income pet owners, who presumably would have had to share a smaller slice of the Animal Population Control Program Fund pie, benefit from targeted TNR efforts: their neighborhoods are typically where the most community cats can be found.*)

As a policy decision, Cuomo’s veto runs counter to science, public opinion and common sense. And his convoluted, contradictory rationale is laughable—or it would be if the stakes weren’t so high.

*In a move that’s disgraceful even for PETA, the organization portrayed Assembly Bill 2778 (“a dangerous piece of legislation”) as TNR’s war on the poor, suggesting that TNR funding would hurt low-income pet owners.