Peter Marra: Energizing the Base

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

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

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

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

96.5% of Australia’s Birds Safe from Cats!

Photo courtesy of Hugh McGregor and Arid Recovery

Perhaps the most alarming headline announcing the findings of an Australian study last week was from Newsweek: “Cats Kill One Million Birds Per Day Pushing Many Species to the Point of Extinction.” In fact, the research itself makes no mention of extinctions. Indeed, as the researchers themselves explain in the paper’s abstract, “it remains challenging to interpret this mortality tally in terms of population viability or conservation concern for Australian birds.” [1]

Challenging, in part, because the mortalities attributed to cats* account for only “about 3.5% of Australia’s terrestrial bird population.”1 Funny, there was no mention of this little detail in Newsweek piece—or in the phys.org article upon which it was apparently based.

Far more troubling, though, was its omission from the media release announcing the publication of the research. Read more

An Exterminator by Any Other Name…

What do you call an organization, staffed by (at most) three individuals, responsible for the deaths of at least 1,789 cats between January 2011 and September 2016? Well, if you’re Gail Mihocko, director and founder of Project Cat, you call it an “animal welfare organization dedicated to assisting felines in need in our local community.”

“Assistance” is an interesting way to put it, since, in this case, Mihocko’s involvement is almost always fatal. In fact, according to a news story published last month, Project Cat killed more than 11 times as many cats as the organization adopted out over the past year.

The fact that Mihocko is unapologetic about her “work” is unsettling enough, but the fact that she’s able to do it—for several years now—without running afoul of the law is truly puzzling. How can this be legal?

At this point, there are far more questions than answers. Read more

TNR Meets Graphic Design History

In 2001, the Amsterdam design studio Experimental Jetset created a T-shirt that soon made its way into design history books. Even more surprising, according to its creators: the T-shirt’s “dry, minimal design… has become a format, a standard, for other people to work with.” Intrigued—and probably more than a little flattered—the team at Experimental Jetset even compiled an online collection of the wide-ranging designs inspired by their project.

A key reason for the design’s success is its ability to act as a stylish, machine-washable secret handshake. “If you get the reference,” explained How magazine in 2012, “you and the T-shirt wearer are automatically cool with each other.”

So how many people will get the reference in this particular case? I have no idea.

One way to find out: get a T-shirt (or tank top, tote bag, or any number of other products now available in Vox Felina’s Society6 online shop) for yourself and see how people respond. Then, leave me a comment on this post.

Cat Tests Positive for Rabies, Unleashing a Clown Car of Crazies

If you’re reading this from Hillsborough County, Florida, I hope it’s from the safety of an underground bunker—while you await the movers’ arrival. You need to get out while you still can because—well, you know… rabid cats.

As local “investigative reporter” Steve Andrews put it in one of three melodramatic pieces on the subject, “It’s rabies roulette in Hillsborough County.” Actually, journalistic Jenga is more like it. But that’s Andrews in a nutshell: half used-car salesman, half ambulance-chaser. And, as he’s made clear through his previous “reporting,” also hell-bent on shutting down TNR efforts in the area.

Unfortunately, the local news media isn’t the only source of misinformation and scaremongering. Read more

New Research Challenges Alleged Links Between Cat Ownership and Mental Illness

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

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

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

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

Photo: Wikipedia/Michael L. Baird

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

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

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

They don’t, of course.

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

Live by the Alternative Facts, Die by the Alternative Facts

Photo: Josh Henderson, Galveston Police Department

Sadly, it wasn’t terribly difficult to see where this story would lead. According to a May 4 post on Houston Audubon’s Facebook page, 395 birds were killed when they collided with the American National Building (Galveston’s tallest) in a storm the night before. “This is the largest event like this I have ever been a part of in over 10 years,” explained Josh Henderson, the Galveston Police supervisor who had the grim job of tallying the fatalities, in a Houston Chronicle story the next day.

And yet, it was only a matter of time (and not much of it) before the conversation shifted to… you guessed it: cats. Read more

When Public Relations Compromises Public Health

If you missed the Orange County Vector Control District’s press release, announcing last year’s dramatic decrease in flea-borne typhus cases, you’re not alone. Apparently, the agency’s commitment to “inform and educate the public about the shared responsibility of vector control” is no match for their commitment to link the area’s typhus cases to outdoor cats almost exclusively.

So, while some of us think the most recent statistics are newsworthy, OCVCD probably sees them largely as a most inconvenient truth. How, for example, does the agency explain the significant decline in typhus cases over the same period Orange County Animal Care implemented its return-to-field program? OCVCD has alleged repeatedly that this program increases the risk to the public—but the evidence suggests otherwise.

Well, I suppose that’s why there’s no press release. Read more

“Cat Wars” Roadshow, Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Marra: Post-Truth Pioneer

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Outside” Takes Aim at Outdoor Cats

“Hawaii’s Crazy War” is a shameful, inexcusable rehash of the same tired framing we’ve been seeing for at least 20 years now.

Read more ›

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? Read more

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. Read more

The “Need” for More Killing?

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

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


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

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

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

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

“By Any Means Necessary”: War is Declared on U.S. Cats

Cat Wars is, to anybody familiar with the topic, an obviously desperate attempt to fuel the ongoing witch-hunt against outdoor cats “by any means necessary,” including the endorsement of discredited junk science, an oceanful of red herrings, and B-movie-style scaremongering. The book’s central thesis—that outdoor cats must be eradicated in the name of biodiversity and public health—is, like the authors’ credibility, undermined to the point of collapse by weak—often contradictory—evidence, and a reckless arrogance that will be hard to ignore even for their fellow fring-ervationsists.

In early 2010, Peter Marra co-authored a desperate appeal to the conservation community, calling for greater opposition to trap-neuter-return (TNR). “The issue of feral cats is not going away any time soon,” he and his colleagues warned, “and no matter what options are taken, it may well be a generation or more before we can expect broad-scale changes in human behavior regarding outdoor cats.” [1] Since then, Marra, who’s been with the Smithsonian Institution’s Conservation Biology Institute since 1999 and now runs its Migratory Bird Center, has only become more desperate. Read more

“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. Read more

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. Read more

“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: Read more