Thinking Inside the Box

It’s difficult to determine how these things get started—how the results of a well-documented experiment conducted nearly 40 years ago become twisted into the frequently made—and widely-accepted—claim that “even well-fed cats hunt.”

This would appear to be a case of validity through repetition: repeat a claim often enough and, eventually, people will come to believe it’s true—never bothering to check the original source. (Pro Tip: For added efficacy, click the heels of your ruby-red slippers together while repeating the claim.)

This, it should go without saying, is not how science is supposed to work.

The latest “sighting” was in a June 30 letter from Grant Sizemore, Cats Indoors program officer for the American Bird Conservancy, to the Kaua‘i County Council. In it, “ABC encourages the Council to follow the [Feral Cat] Task Force’s Final Recommendations and to enact a ‘comprehensive animal control ordinance that sets a goal of zero feral, abandoned, and stray cats on the island by the year 2025.’”

It’s not clear if Sizemore included with his letter a check for the several million dollars necessary to eradicate outdoor cats from the island, but I suspect not.

It’s also not clear if Sizemore actually read the paper he cites in support of his claim. Again, I suspect not. His predecessor, Linda Winter, didn’t even get the author’s name right when she cited the work 10 years ago: “Adamac [sic] showed that hunger and hunting behavior are controlled by different portions of a cat’s brain.” [1]

Well-fed cats, blah, blah, blah…

In Domestic Cat Predation on Birds and Other Wildlife, ABC makes the claim—under the heading The Truth About Cats and Birds—that “well-fed cats do kill birds.”

“Well-fed cats kill birds and other wildlife because the hunting instinct is independent of the urge to eat. In one study, six cats were presented with a live, small rat while eat­ing their preferred food. All six cats stopped eating the food, killed the rat, and then resumed eating the food [2].” [3]

Did you catch the part where the dead rats are used as evidence that “well-fed cats do kill birds”? It’s a move straight out of ABC’s communication manual—but this, as we’ll see shortly, isn’t even the worst of it.

Also from Domestic Cat Predation on Birds and Other Wildlife: “One well-fed cat that roamed a wildlife experiment station was recorded to have killed more than 1,600 animals (mostly small mammals) over 18 months.” [3] The paper to which this claim refers, published in 1949, makes no mention of the cat’s diet, per se. We—and ABC—have no way of knowing if he was well-fed or not. What G.W. Bradt tells us is that the cat—“one of a litter of kittens at our residence on the station area … has a little swinging door which allows him to enter and leave the house as he pleases at all times. He roams at will over the adjacent farm lands.” [4] And this:

“The cat is remarkably gentle with his prey, and most of his captures, even the small birds, are apparently uninjured. In fact, many of these have been released by us, and have flown away at once.”

And finally, Bradt leaves the reader (quite an act of faith, that—the assumption that his work will actually be read) with this important bit of context: “While the record of this cat may not be characteristic of cats in general, it is a positive statistical record, and when considered with the few authentic food records available, does cast a doubt upon the traditional idea that cats are vicious predators on song birds and game.” [4]

All of which was, not surprisingly, lost on ABC.

Dishonorable Mentions

Among the other TNR/community cat program opponents who have cited Adamec’s 1976 paper:

Travis Longcore, science director of the Urban Wildlands Group (lead plaintiff in the case that led to the injunction against city-supported TNR in Los Angeles) and president of Los Angeles Audubon (2009): “Contrary to claims that well-fed cats pose little threat to wildlife, hunting and hunger are not linked in domestic cats (Adamec 1976).” [5]

Disgraced former Smithsonian researcher Nico Dauphiné (2009): “Experimental evidence has shown a lack of connection between hunger and hunting in cats (Adamec 1976), such that well-fed cats may be no less likely to kill.” [6]

David Jessup, wildlife veterinarian for the California Department of Fish and Game, now retired, included Adamec among four sources he cited in a 2004 paper to support his claim that “it is in cats’ nature to hunt.” [7]

Attorney Pamela Jo Hatley (2003): “…feeding does not suppress the cat’s instinct to hunt and kill.” [8]

The oldest example I was able to find during a cursory review of my own files was from 1997, in which John Coleman and Stanley Temple, authors of the infamous “Wisconsin Study,” write: “Even when fed regularly by people, a cat’s motivation to hunt remains strong, so it continues hunting.” [9] (Judith Webster got it right in her 2007 well-researched paper Missing Cats, Stray Coyotes: One Citizen’s Perspective—calling out Coleman and Temple for their particularly egregious “interpretation” of Adamec’s work.)

Finally, the… you know… actual paper

Anybody who’s hung in there this long deserves at least to find about what Adamec actually reported in that 1976 paper. A brief summary, then:

The cats involved were deprived of any food for 47 hours before being fed, one at a time, their favorite food (determined in earlier testing) in a 35-square-foot enclosure (as shown in the figure below). After the cat began to eat, a rat was placed in the enclosure. In 35 of 36 instances, the cat left its food to attack and kill the rat—which was, at the time, just four feet away. [2]

It’s quite clear that the cats were neither well-fed nor hunting. Equally clear: the experimental conditions simply do not reflect conditions “in the wild.” Indeed, Adamec himself acknowledges as much:

“Generalizations to wild predators may seem inappropriate since this experiment was conducted in ‘contrived’ laboratory conditions creating a situation of prey-predator proximity with elimination of the opportunity of prey flight as an antipredatory response.”* [2]

Moreover, in related work published just four years later, Adamec reported that “none of the satiated [feline] adults killed prey.” [10] Rather, “the likelihood of lethal attacks was found to vary with the degree of decrease of defensiveness [in cats] shown in response to hunger.” [11] And: “Hunger facilitates pawing attack and intensifies biting.” [11]

•     •     •

It’s not clear if Sizemore and ABC are ignorant of the research underlying their long-standing claim, or whether their misrepresentation is deliberate. I suspect it’s both, though I don’t know how much that matters, really. Whatever the case, it’s clear that they simply have no credibility whatsoever on this issue.

*Adamec continues, explaining that “just such conditions of proximity and elimination of antipredator protection have been reported in the wild, associated with ‘excessive killing’ in a variety of mammalian predators,” but also concedes that “the conditions for its occurrence rarely arise.’ [2] And Kruuk, whose work Adamec cites, goes further: “From the ecological point of view, the rarity of the coincidence of the various factors necessary to produce a large mass-kill indicates that generally the consequences of surplus killing on the population level are small. Even when mass-killings do occur, it is not certain that this immediately deprives the carnivore of part of its resources—the individual prey animals involved are not necessarily the ones that are vulnerable to normal ‘regular’ predation of the particular species of carnivore.” [12]

Literature Cited

1. Winter, L., Trap-neuter-release programs: The reality and the impacts. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 2004. 225(9): p. 1369–1376.

2. Adamec, R.E., The interaction of hunger and preying in the domestic cat (Felis catus). Behavioral Biology, 1976. 18: p. 263–272.

3. ABC, Domestic Cat Predation on Birds and Other Wildlife, 2011, American Bird Conservancy: The Plains, VA.

4. Bradt, G.W., Farm Cat as Predator. Michigan Conservation, 1949. 18(4): p. 23–25.

5. Longcore, T., C. Rich, and L.M. Sullivan, Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return. Conservation Biology, 2009. 23(4): p. 887–894.

6. Dauphiné, N. and R.J. Cooper, 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 Tropics2009. p. 205–219.

7. Jessup, D.A., The welfare of feral cats and wildlife. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 2004. 225(9): p. 1377–1383.

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

9. Coleman, J.S., S.A. Temple, and S.R. Craven, Cats and Wildlife: A Conservation Dilemma, 1997, University of Wisconsin, Wildlife Extension.

10. Adamec, R.E., C. Stark-Adamec, and K.E. Livingston, The development of predatory aggression and defense in the domestic cat (Felis catus): I. Effects of early experience on adult patterns of aggression and defense. Behavioral and Neural Biology, 1980. 30(4): p. 389-409.

11. Adamec, R.E., C. Stark-Adamec, and K.E. Livingston, The development of predatory aggression and defense in the domestic cat (Felis catus): III. Effects on development of hunger between 180 and 365 days of age. Behavioral and Neural Biology, 1980. 30(4): p. 435-447.

12. Kruuk, H., Surplus killing by carnivores. Journal of Zoology, 1972. 166(2): p. 233–244.

Killer App

A couple months ago, I heard about a slick browser plugin (sadly, available only for Chrome) that replaces the word literally with figuratively for websites, articles, etc. I (literally?) cannot describe just how appealing this is to my inner (and sometimes outer) language bully. Indeed, the thought of the enormous satisfaction sure to follow was almost (but not quite) enough to get me to switch browsers.

More than anything else, though, the story got me thinking of a plugin not yet (so far as I know) developed: Euthanasia.

Functionally similar to the Literally plugin, Euthanasia would replace the word euthanasia with killing (and, by extension: euthanize with kill, euthanized with killed, etc.) while browsing online.

So, for example, when American Bird Conservancy president George Fenwick calls on local governments “to act swiftly and decisively to gather the 30 million to 80 million unowned cats, aggressively seek adoptions, and establish sanctuaries for or euthanize those cats that are not adoptable,” you’d see this:

“Local governments need to act swiftly and decisively to gather the 30 million to 80 million unowned cats, aggressively seek adoptions, and establish sanctuaries for or KILL those cats that are not adoptable.”

Or this, from PETA’s website (from a page that would, appropriately, be retitled KILLING: The Compassionate Option):

“Until dog and cat overpopulation is brought under control through spaying and neutering, we must prevent the suffering of unwanted animals in the most responsible and humane way possible. KILLING, performed properly, is often the most compassionate option.”

To be clear, I don’t avoid the term euthanasia entirely, but only when referring to those instances when it’s done to relieve an animal’s irremediable suffering. Or out of respect for the intention of shelter staff who are, all too often, put in an untenable position—asked to protect some lives and take others.*

What I object to—and what the Euthanasia plugin would help remedy—is the word’s frequent use as a cowardly euphemism, an easy way to let ourselves off the hook. It’s disingenuous at best; at worst, it’s despicable—promoting the Culture of Killing while at the same time refusing responsibility.

Imagine what this clever bit of technology could do for the way policymakers, the mainstream media, and the general public see the issue. It could be revolutionary. (Literally.)

* I have Kate Hurley, program director of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at the University of California, Davis, to thank for this perspective. It was a point she made during her presentation at the 2012 Outdoor Cats Conference.

It Takes a Village

After spending nearly all of Saturday “on standby,” it had become clear by late afternoon: the mother cat, though she’d carefully relocated two siblings, wasn’t coming back for this little one. So, after a quick trip to PetSmart to stock up on supplies, I drove to the home of a former colleague who’d been keeping watch over the family for the previous few days, and, just like that: I had my first bottle baby.

Here’s this tiny kitten, three weeks old at most, in the hands of a complete novice. What could possibly go wrong? I didn’t even want to consider the possibilities.

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Three Cats Lost in Fire at Animal Coalition of Tampa Clinic

I should have been working on a blog post to mark the four-year anniversary of Vox Felina—something light and, more likely than not, a little bit snarky. Instead, I found myself staring in disbelief at my laptop screen late Saturday evening, as the news slowly registered: three cats were killed in an early-morning fire at the Animal Coalition of Tampa clinic.

While a dog had apparently managed to escape, a post on ACT’s Facebook page explained that the fire took the lives of “our beloved Jazz, Boy, and Mama.”

Arson is suspected.

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O (Environment) Canada!

In “Estimated Number of Birds Killed by House Cats (Felis catus) in Canada,” published late last year in Avian Conservation and Ecology, Environment Canada research scientist Peter Blancher estimates that cats—owned and unowned—“kill between 100 and 350 million birds per year in Canada,” and suggests that this level of predation “is probably the largest human-related source of bird mortality in Canada.” [1]

I submitted the following comments to the journal in response to Blancher’s article, but retracted my submission upon learning that (1) the length is nearly twice as long as what is permitted, and (2) that I would be required to pay an “author fee” of about $340.

I’m not naïve enough to think that posting my comments here is comparable to having them published in ACE, but, given the considerable work involved—and, more important, the obvious policy implications of Blancher’s paper—I think it’s important that they be available.

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Faith Misplaced?

Old news: Richard Conniff’s March 23rd op-ed in the New York Times, in which he used his experience of losing a cat he cared for as an opportunity to misrepresent TNR, and vilify animal welfare organizations that support it. Although Conniff’s piece lacks the kind of focus one expects from an op-ed in the Times, it’s clear to anybody familiar with the issue: he’s using all the familiar “science” and scaremongering to justify lethal roundups.

And like so many others who have taken the same position, Conniff is happy to talk about anything except the evidence that lethal methods can do the trick.

The reason, of course, is because such evidence doesn’t exist.

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Lapse of Memory or Lapse of Reason?

Less than two weeks after American Bird Conservancy president George Fenwick explained in the Washington Post Magazine his organization’s position that killing cats is a moral imperative, ABC is giving a nudge to those who might be reluctant to get on board. “‘Remarkable’ deterioration in memory functions of seniors infected by common parasite found in free-roaming cats,” declared a press release issued yesterday.

Interestingly, the headline is far more accurate than ABC probably intended. Far more accurate than the rest of the release, to be sure—and more accurate than what the authors of the study suggest at times (and then contradict at other times), too. The findings reveal an association between Toxoplasma gondii infection in seniors subject to a “test battery for measuring memory functions” [1] and certain of those memory functions.

However, no causal relationship was found.

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Tough Sell, But a Good Bet

“We’re kind of a tough sell, but we’re a good bet.”

That’s the way Father Greg Boyle described Homeboy Industries, the organization he founded 26 years ago in Los Angeles, to NPR’s Arun Rath on All Things Considered Sunday. According to their website, Homeboy Industries “is the largest gang intervention program in the nation and has become a model for other organizations and cities.”

Through Homeboy Industries, where the motto is “Nothing stops a bullet like a job,” “Father G” works with15,000 former gang members each year. And, explained Rath, “his success rate is astounding. Seventy percent of people who walk through these doors don’t return to prison.”

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Book Buddies

No doubt some of you have already seen this photo—an adorable shot of young boy reading to a shelter cat nearly as big as he is—that lit up the Interwebs last weekend and into the early part of this week. It wasn’t until yesterday, though, that I learned of the story behind the picture.

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The Call for More Killing

By the time readers had the print version of last week’s Washington Post Magazine in their ink-stained hands, the online version of its cover story, “Is it more humane to kill stray cats, or let them fend alone?,” had already been revised.

Julie Levy, director of Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida,” reads the original, “estimates between 71 percent and 94 percent of the cat population must be neutered to bring the birth rate below replacement level.”

“In addition to TNR, she says, caregivers need to stop feeding free-roaming cats and keep pet cats inside for there to be ‘a humane, gradual reduction in cat numbers.’ At one university campus she studied, the feral cat population was reduced from 155 in 1991 to 23 in 2002 through a combination of adoption, euthanizing sick cats, natural attrition and neutering ‘virtually all resident cats.’” [1]

Sometime between Thursday, when the online version was posted, and Sunday, the second sentence disappeared from the Post website.

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Haters Gonna… Love?

Earlier this week the American Bird Conservancy launched a series of short public service announcements created in collaboration with the Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation, “calling on cat owners to care for their pets using ‘Cats Indoors’ approaches that are demonstrably better for cats, better for birds, and better for people.”

That same day, on the organization’s Facebook page, ABC declared, “We love cats! That’s why we want to keep them inside.”


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10 Most Important Community Cat News Stories of 2013

It’s that time of year again—time to take stock of the year’s milestones. Check out Rolling Stone’s 50 Best Albums of 2013, for example, or Fresh Air’s book, TV, movie, and music picks.

Not to be outdone, I’ve compiled a list of what I see as the year’s 10 most important community cat news stories—a number of which even the most avid readers may have missed. (Indeed, I’ve blogged about only a handful.)

Suffice it to say, others will disagree with my choices. In fact, I’d be very surprised if anybody agreed with the entire list.

That’s fine. Better than fine, actually—if it means my selections will spark a conversation, or even a debate. Maybe even inspire others to set to work on their own list for 2014.

Without further ado, then, my picks for the 10 most important community cat news stories of 2013…

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On Wind Farms and Witch-hunts

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

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

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

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JAVMA Letter: A Trojan Horse

TNR opponents’ recent letter to the editors to JAVMA was just an excuse for promoting their witch-hunt agenda—supported, as has become their habit, with the kind of bogus “research” that fails to stand up to even moderate scrutiny. (And, I would bet, probably hasn’t actually been read by most of the letter’s co-authors.)

A recent letter to the editor, published last month in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (PDF available here), reminds me of one of the reasons I’ve never enabled comments on this blog: the likelihood that some commenters would surely hijack the conversation—pretty much any conversation, however marginally relevant—to take up their own agenda. Although I’m a proponent of open dialogue (the name of this blog is no accident), I have neither the time nor the patience for people intent on making my platform their platform.

Luckily, the JAVMA editors—dealing, as I’m sure they do, only with the most conscientious professionals—aren’t subject to such hijack attempts. Right?

Guess again.

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Tune in Sunday to Animal Wise Radio!

Tune in Sunday to Animal Wise Radio, when I’ll be on with hosts Mike Fry and Beth Nelson discussing a recently published paper declaring that “predation by house cats is probably the largest human-related source of bird mortality in Canada.”

For schedule, a list of local stations, or to listen online, check out the Animal Wise Radio website.

National Feral Cat Day 2013

I had this year’s National Feral Cat Day post all worked out—which is to say, I’d given myself something like 24 hours to round up the various materials needed (the easy part), assemble what I think we can all agree is a brilliant prop (also easy), and then photograph my cats with the aforementioned prop (what was I thinking?).

As the photos below illustrate, the concept was rock-solid. It was the execution that suffered from (1) a rushed schedule, (2) poor-quality photography, and (3) a lack of assistants.

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Montgomery County, VA: Then and Now

In answering one question, other more interesting questions sometimes emerge. That’s exactly what happened when I followed up on a claim made in “Rabies Prevention and Management of Cats in the Context of Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Release Programmes,” recently published in Zoonoses and Public Health (and critiqued in some detail in my August 3rd post).

As evidence of both the threat of free-roaming cats and the need for lethal roundups, the authors—five from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the other, George Fenwick, president of the American Bird Conservancy*—cite a 1992–1996 study of Montgomery County, VA, rabies exposure reports.

“Most striking, a study in Montgomery County, VA, attributed 63 percent of [post-exposure prophylaxis] recommendations to stray cat exposures compared with only 8 percent for wild animal contact. In this community, the high rate of PEP due to cats resulted in part from the lack of a county animal shelter facility for cats, illustrating the need for removal of feral and stray cats as a means of rabies control and PEP reduction.” [1]

A review of the work cited confirms that, indeed, 24 of 38 exposures requiring PEP (63 percent) over the course of the 55-month study period were related to stray and feral cats. [2] So far, so good.

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National Feral Cat Day Awards Program

National Feral Cat Day is still a month away, but the celebration is already well underway with Alley Cat Allies’ announcement of their National Feral Cat Day Awards Program. As the organization explains on the NFCD website, this year the awards are being used to recognize shelters that commit to implementing innovative policies for protecting community cats.

This year, our National Feral Cat Day® Challenge focuses on partnering with shelters to take strides to protect even more cats. And our National Feral Cat Day® Awards Program will support five shelters that commit to an official Feral Cat Protection Policy (FCPP), which means that they stop impounding feral cats, and support Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR). There are many “blueprints” for saving cats’ lives, but the Feral Cat Protection Policy is the number one lifesaving program for cats. When shelters stop impounding feral cats, cat intake decreases, community buy-in increases, and lives are protected. Instead of impounding feral cats, also known as community cats, shelters can re-route them to TNR programs where they are neutered and returned to their colony.

Each of the five NFCD Awards Program winners will receive:

  • $5,000 in seed money to support your Feral Cat Protection Policy initiative.
  • Written protocol and standard operating procedures for implementing new programs and procedures.
  • Staff support and guidance from Alley Cat Allies as you launch this and other initiatives to save cats’ lives.
  • Increased visibility for your shelter through local promotional support and placement in Alley Cat Allies’ high-traffic news vehicles.

Know a shelter that’s doing right by community cats? Encourage them to apply—so that they can do even more! Applications can be found at the NFCD website. The deadline is right around the corner—midnight, Friday, September 20th.

When Feeding Community Cats Is Outlawed…

The timing could hardly have been better. Less than 12 hours after I uploaded the artwork for the latest Vox Felina gear, I learned that the Virginia Supreme Court had, just last Friday, decided in favor of caretaker Susan Mills, who’d been cited in 2011 for feeding community cats. As a story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch explained, the Court ruled that the zoning ordinance violation “is unenforceable because it was overly broad.”

While it remains unclear whether Henrico County will pursue the matter further (e.g., revising their zoning ordinance), the area’s community cat advocates are celebrating.

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Reductio ad absurdum

Results of a new computer model suggest that sterilization via vasectomy and hysterectomy is more effective than traditional spay/neuter at reducing the population of community cats. But the work raises several questions about the model’s validity—and more troubling ones about its implications for animal welfare.

Since starting this blog a little more than three years ago, I’ve been describing TNR as a compromise—but the best option we’ve got in most circumstances. But what if there’s a better option, a non-lethal method for managing the population of stray, abandoned, and feral cats that reduces their numbers more quickly?

Intriguing, right?

According to a team of researchers at Tufts University, the answer is trap-vasectomy-hysterectomy-release, or TVHR. By eliminating the possibility for reproduction while leaving the cats “hormonally intact,” this method takes advantage of biological and behavioral characteristics not found in cats subject to traditional spay/neuter surgery,* thereby outperforming TNR in reducing colony size.

Or at least that’s what their computer model predicts.

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