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 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.

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?

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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:

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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.

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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.

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Vox Felina’s Five-Year Anniversary

It’s difficult for me to believe now, but when I first created Vox Felina five years ago, I worried that I would one day run out of material to blog about. Today, 314 blog posts, 850 subscribers, 4,028 likes on Facebook, and 1,028 Twitter followers later, I can see my concerns were completely unwarranted. Which, of course, is a shame. Like just about everybody else involved in animal welfare, I would like very much to put myself out of business.

As I explained in my first blog post, I see the hijacking of science by TNR opponents as a significant barrier to developing sound public policy. I’ve spent a great deal of energy over the past five years trying to set the record straight, and remain committed to that mission. There is, as regular readers will surely recognize, much work to be done.

There’s also work to be done on the blog itself. Five years on, the layout is looking rather dated; a new look with additional functionality (e.g., responsive theme for easy reading on phones and tablets) is long overdue. And, maybe it’s time to allow comments on each post, too—something I’ve been reluctant to do from the start.

So, stay tuned—and thank you all for your ongoing support.

L.A. Audubon President Puts Wildlife at Risk

Below is a letter I wrote in response to a recent L.A. Weekly story. Unfortunately—especially since I learned this only after compiling and submitting my comments—the paper doesn’t seem to publish any letters, despite providing an online form for precisely this purpose.

Seems a shame to let it go to waste…

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Prank Culls

Recent research from Australia finds that lethal methods might actually backfire, increasing an area’s population of free-roaming cats.

While evidence of TNR’s effectiveness continues to mount, the case for the “traditional” approach to community cat management (i.e., complaint-driven impoundment typically resulting in death) grows increasingly indefensible. Of course, the very fact that the debate over “the feral cat problem” persists illustrates the point: if trap-and-kill worked, the evidence would be plentiful by now, and the debate would have ended.

Nevertheless, there are those who cling desperately and inexplicably to the perverse hope that we might be able to kill our way to a day when there are simply no more outdoor cats (including pets). A recently published Australian study, however, challenges such wishful thinking with unusually compelling findings.

Indeed, the researchers involved found that the “low-level culling of feral cats” [1] led not to a population decrease, but an increase in their numbers. And, because the number of cats being trapped decreased over time, it appeared the lethal efforts were actually effective.

Don’t expect a press release from the American Bird Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, PETA, or any of the other organizations that continue to promote the senseless killing of outdoor cats.

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Operation Catnip Launches National Training Program

Although no TNR effort can be successful without the ongoing commitment of veterinary professionals, this is especially true of high-volume clinics, where 100 surgeries per day is not unusual. This specialized work requires training well beyond what’s taught in a typical veterinary medicine program.

Soon, however, such training will be more accessible than ever before—as Operation Catnip, one of the most respected TNR programs in the country, makes their training program and materials available to veterinarians, veterinary students, and veterinary technicians nationwide.

According to a press release issued Tuesday, all of this was made possible because of an educational grant from PetSmart Charities, Inc.

“Our vision is to train an army of veterinarians to spay and neuter America’s community cats,” said Julie Levy, Operation Catnip founder and director of the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine.

“This approach, along with vaccination, will allow us to reduce cat population, control infectious diseases, and improve the lives of the cats.”

Since the project was launched in 1998, the Operation Catnip staff and volunteers have cared for more than 45,000 cats (nearly 2,700 last year alone), and established themselves as leaders—not just as practitioners, but as teachers and mentors (and game-changers).

In other words, just the sort of team we need to scale up TNR efforts across the country.

To learn more about Operation Catnip, or to sign up for one of their upcoming training sessions, visit their website.

Recent Research Demonstrates the Effectiveness of TNR

Sophisticated population modeling provides theory to explain a wealth of empirical evidence.

For those of us who have watched colonies of sterilized cats decrease in size over time, the findings of recent population modeling work will hardly come as a surprise. Still, the publication of “Simulating Free-Roaming Cat Population Management Options in Open Demographic Environments” must be recognized as an enormously important contribution to the body of literature concerned with the management of unowned free-roaming cats in general, and TNR in particular.

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The (Ig)Noble Pursuit of Public (Dis)Service

Two new public service campaigns from the American Bird Conservancy fly in the face of science, public opinion, and common sense.

For nearly 20 years now, it seems the people at the American Bird Conservancy have been willing to say whatever they thought they could get away with to promote the lethal roundup of “feral” cats. Unburdened by the constraints of integrity, PR ought to be easy for ABC. Two recent public service announcements, however, suggest otherwise.

Indeed, ABC’s latest salvo in their war on cats suggests that the organization’s grasp of effective messaging is no better than their grasp of science. (And this, as every regular reader will understand immediately, is saying something.)

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One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?

Just two days after the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources’ Office of Oversight and Investigations released a damning review of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (mis)use of science in determining whether or not various plant and animal species should be protected under the Endangered Species Act, the Department of the Interior announced a new policy likely to make matters worse.

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Investigation Reveals Failures at U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Among the numerous eleventh-hour actions taken by the 113th Congress was the publication of a report, released Monday, by the House Committee on Natural Resources’ Office of Oversight and Investigations. Under The Microscope: An examination of the questionable science and lack of independent peer review in Endangered Species Act listing decisions (PDF) is, as the name suggests, a rather damning review of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service practices where ESA listings are concerned.

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Thanks a Million (Cat Challenge)!

Maybe I’m being naïve, but yesterday’s launch of the Million Cat Challenge 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.

As I say, maybe I’m being naïve,* but there’s good reason to think the Million Cat Challenge will fulfill its promise. To begin with, just consider the people behind it: Dr. Julie Levy, director of Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida, and Dr. Kate Hurley, program director of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at the University of California, Davis.

These two women are, simply put, rock stars in their field. Which helps explain the funding and other support** the campaign attracted even before yesterday’s big announcement.

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Rabies in Cats Continues to Decline

Well, this must be awkward—for some, anyhow. In particular, the people who continue to overstate the threat of rabies, leveraging whatever fear they can muster in their ongoing campaign to undermine community cat programs and TNR efforts.

Awkward or not, though, it’s a fact: the number of cats testing positive for rabies in the U.S. declined for the second year in a row.

The 2013 data, compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published November 15th in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association, show a decline of 10 cases (3.9 percent) from the 257 cases reported in 2012—which represented a rather dramatic decline of 15.2 percent from 2011’s total of 303 cases.

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11 Signs of the American Bird Conservancy’s Desperate Struggle for Relevance

As most readers are undoubtedly aware, today is National Feral Cat Day. And at the risk of stating the obvious: NFCD has clearly become, to borrow a trendy phrase from social media, “a thing.” Now in its 14th year, there are hundreds of events going on around the country to mark the occasion.

All of which must be terribly frustrating for TNR-deniers. Thus, their increasingly desperate attempts to oppose, any way they can, TNR and community cat programs.

Witness, for example, Cats, Birds, and People: The Consequences of Outdoor Cats and the Need for Effective Management (PDF), a presentation by Grant Sizemore—who may or may not be the American Bird Conservancy’s Director of Invasive Species Programs. (As we’ll see shortly, it’s surprisingly complicated.)

It’s not clear exactly who these 33 slides are intended to help. After all, to anybody even remotely familiar with the issue, it’s immediately apparent that Sizemore’s claims—the “consequences” mentioned in the presentation’s title—are flimsy at best.

Equally apparent: Sizemore and ABC are not—though ABC’s been on this witch-hunt for 17 years now—about to provide any solutions.

Not only is the presentation available on ABC’s website, Sizemore’s now taking the show on the road. Last month, for example, he was in Ellenton, Florida, as part of a Coyotes and Feral Cats forum, hosted by the Suncoast Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area.

No doubt, most readers will miss such opportunities. Here, then, are 11 of the presentation’s “highlights”—my humble gift on National Feral Cat Day 2014.

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