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 annul 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.

Continue Reading »

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.

Continue Reading »

“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.

Continue Reading »

“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.

Continue Reading »

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.

Continue Reading »

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.

Continue Reading »

“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:

Continue Reading »

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.

Continue Reading »

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).

Continue Reading »

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.

Continue Reading »

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.

Continue Reading »

“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.

Continue Reading »

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.

Mythbusting Goes Prime Time!

When I launched Vox Felina in April, 2010, it was, I wrote, driven in part by “the flawed science promoted by many TNR opponents” and “the unbalanced—often dishonest—nature of the feral cat/TNR debate.” Five and a half years later, so-called scientists continue to churn out junk science (often a taxpayer expense) and the debate over community cats is, it seems to me, only rarely engaged in with sufficient rigor and integrity.

(That said, it also seems to me that elected officials are increasingly able to see through the empty rhetoric and fear-mongering that’s become boilerplate among TNR opponents—and choosing TNR as a result.)

In any case, it’s clear that there’s more work to be done. Thankfully, when it comes to lifesaving efforts, there’s also a great deal of support available. Witness, for example, the invitation I recently received from Maddie’s Institute, to host a webcast in which I challenge some of the most common myths surrounding community cats.

No arm-twisting was required.

And so, this Thursday evening: How to Bust Myths about Community Cats with Science. The webcast begins at 9:00 pm on the East Coast, and registration is free. For more information, check out the Maddie’s website.

I hope to “see” you all there!

National Feral Cat Day 2015

Today is, as I assume most readers know, National Feral Cat Day. And, as Alley Cat Allies (which launched the annual celebration 15 years ago) explains on the NFCD website (where you can find events in your area, by the way), this year’s theme is “The Evolution of the Cat Revolution.”

Among the most recent phases in that evolution are return-to-field (sometimes called shelter-neuter-return, or SNR) programs, in which healthy cats brought into shelters as strays are sterilized, vaccinated, and returned to where they were found. RTF programs can be very effective at reducing shelter deaths—for obvious reasons—but have also demonstrated dramatic reductions in intake, too.

And where these programs result in a lower intake of young kittens, there’s good reason to think they’re reducing the overall number of community cats.

Through its innovative public-private partnerships, Best Friends Animal Society (in partnership with PetSmart Charities™) operates more RTF programs than any other organization in the country. And today, in celebration of NFCD, Best Friends is unveiling our* Community Cat Programs Toolkit, a comprehensive online resource covering a broad range of relevant topics, from humanely trapping cats and caring for them during post-surgery recovery to marketing and public relations.

Have a look and please share the news with others—and happy National Feral Cat Day!

* Full disclosure: I’ve been employed full-time by Best Friends since May 2013.

Let the Spin Begin!

The headline from a National Geographic story posted online earlier this week created immediate buzz: “Island’s Feral Cats Kill Surprisingly Few Birds, Video Shows.” Whether or not you were actually surprised, I suppose, depends largely on how much you’ve been paying attention to the issue.

The team of researchers whose work is described in the NatGeo piece, led by the University of Georgia’s Sonia Hernandez, could—more than most—have anticipated such results. Kerrie Anne Loyd—for whom Hernandez served as PhD advisor—pioneered “KittyCam” research during her doctoral studies at UGA. And in April 2012, Loyd, discussing the results of “KittyCam 1.0” with Atlanta’s CBS affiliate, conceded, “Cats aren’t as bad as biologists thought.”

Perhaps we’re expected to be surprised again?

Continue Reading »

Callous Cat Owners? Don’t Believe the Hype!

The mainstream media is having a field day with a new U.K. study—but it’s a celebration that’s largely uncalled for.

Let me set the scene:

It’s Spring 2010. You’re a cat owner in the small English village of Mawnan Smith, population about 1,500. And like most* of your fellow cat owners in the UK, you allow your cat(s) to go outdoors. You and 30 of your neighbors have just taken part in a four-month sudy comprised of the following three phases:

Continue Reading »

The Whac-A-Mole Approach to Conservation

Marion Island, home to the greatest cat eradication “success story” is now apparently overrun with “killer mice.”

Hunting for cats on Marion Island. Source: unknown. (Indeed, it’s not even clear that this is truly Marion Island, although that’s certainly implied from the accompanying news story.)

It took 19 years to exterminate approximately 2,200 cats from barren, uninhabited Marion Island, which is roughly the size of Omaha, Nebraska, and located in the sub-Antarctic Indian Ocean. The methods employed included poisoning, hunting and trapping, dogs, and the panleukopenia virus (i.e., feline distemper). [1, 2]

In 1991, eradication of cats from Marion Island was complete. [2] Twenty-fours years later, it remains the largest island from which cats have been successfully eradicated.

But according to a news report published last weekend, “killer mice” have overrun the island, “which was declared a Special Nature Reserve in 1995,” and are “eating rare and endangered seabirds.”

As one of my colleagues often says, never bet against irony.

Continue Reading »

L.A. Audubon President Renews Commitment to Shelter Killing

Promoting the Culture of Killing can’t be easy, what with public opinion strongly opposed to the lethal roundups of community cats [1, 2] and, more generally, the use of lethal methods as a shelter’s means of population control. [3] Nevertheless, there are those who persist.

Witness, for example, Travis Longcore’s comment on the Vox Felina Facebook page, left in response to my April 14th blog post, in which I argued that the injunction prohibiting the City of Los Angeles from supporting TNR—the result of a lawsuit in which Longcore’s Urban Wildlands Group was lead petitioner—is increasing the risks to the very wildlife and environment he claims to protect.

Longcore’s bar chart and references to statistics, extrapolation, and property rights were, I can only assume, intended to give the impression of a well-reasoned, comprehensive rejoinder. It was, in fact, nothing of the sort. Indeed, even a cursory examination suggests that Longcore’s reasoning is no better than his arithmetic.

Continue Reading »