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

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. Read more

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). Read more

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. Read more

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. Read more

“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. Read more