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

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.

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.

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. Read more

Canine Citizens and Community Cats

You know what they say about judging a book by its cover. Well, don’t be fooled by the title of Citizen Canine—as its subtitle indicates, this book is about “our evolving relationship” with both dogs and cats. Using a combination of rigorous research and on-the-ground reporting, author (and online news editor of Science) David Grimm traces the journey of cats and dogs from domestication (such as it is, in the case of cats) through beloved family pet and into the present-day movement toward personhood.

All of which makes for very compelling reading, even for those of us who work in animal welfare and are therefore familiar with most of the material. For other readers—and I hope there are many—Citizen Canine will likely be their introduction to contemporary hot-button animal welfare issues such as breed-discriminatory laws and TNR. And even the “insiders” among us might be surprised to learn, for example, of dogs with attorneys and the details of the Uniform Trust Code, which allows people (in some states) to include their pets (and perhaps their colony cats, too—I don’t know) in their wills.

Plenty of good stuff for all of us, in other words.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like David’s book tour will make it to Phoenix (and I missed him in L.A. last month!). I was, however, lucky enough to get a few minutes with him recently via e-mail, and asked him a few questions about his book. Read more

American Bird Conservancy “Encouraged By” Government Overreach

From a member message sent last week by the American Bird Conservancy:

We were encouraged by [the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s] recent statement from an FWS field office on free-roaming cats, a thoughtful and science-based letter to Escambia County, Florida. The letter expressed strong opposition to free-roaming cats within the U.S. ‘due to the adverse impacts of these non-native predators on federally listed threatened and endangered species, migratory birds, and other vulnerable native wildlife.’ It also opposed trap-neuter-release (TNR) programs that maintain feral cats in outdoor colonies.

Trouble is, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has no official position on free-roaming cats. Yet here’s this letter (PDF) written by USFWS staff, on official letterhead, explaining that the “agency strongly opposes free-roaming, domestic or feral cats in the U.S.,” and hinting that there may be legal repercussions if the county were to implement a TNR program. Which is why Best Friends Animal Society (my employer since May 2013) called out USFWS publicly, first with a national action alert and then with a blog post.

As I’ve pointed out previously, USFWS has been back and forth on this for some time now, acting (when it suits their purposes) as if they do have a policy regarding free-roaming cats, and then backpedaling when they’re called on the carpet.

So why not just issue an official policy and proceed accordingly?

Because these things typically require a degree of transparency with which USFWS is apparently uncomfortable, as well as considerable public input (e.g., notification and a commenting period). This, then, is what ABC is endorsing: inappropriate action from a federal agency clearly contradicting its own official statements and violating the public’s trust.

Not that this is anything new, of course. It was just a year ago that ABC was publicly endorsing similar behavior from—and a similarly too-cozy relationship with—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dare we ask—which government agency will ne next?

A Commitment to Lethal (Non) Control

The reason the American Bird Conservancy, National Audubon Society, The Wildlife Society, and others oppose TNR is, explained chief Animal Control Officer for Pompano Beach, Florida, David Aycock, during a barn-burner of a City Commission meeting Tuesday night, “that these animals are not safe out there—on their own, by themselves.

I was reminded of that famous line from Forrest Gump: “My momma always said, ‘Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.’” Read more

Twenty-Three Years and Counting

The definition of insanity, it’s often said, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. As it happens, this isn’t actually the definition of insanity. And it’s unlikely that the pithy quote actually originates with Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, or Mark Twain, though it’s often attributed to one of the three.

Legal and historical quibbles aside, the central point is a valid one: repeating a behavior or action that’s yielded one result in the hopes of achieving a different result… well, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

And yet, this is exactly what’s going on in Hernando County, Florida, where county commissioners recently voted 4-to-1 “to retain the 23-year policy of loaning out cat traps to catch feral felines.” [1] This is no TNR program; cats caught—especially those that aren’t socialized—will, more than likely, be killed by Hernando County Animal Services.*

And, according to Commissioner Diane Rowden, who cast the sole dissenting vote, the policy isn’t working out well for the community, either. “We’ve been doing this over, and over and over for years and years and years and it doesn’t seem to be really accomplishing anything,” she told Hernando Today. “They just keep multiplying out there.”

“Lisa Centonze, managing veterinarian of animal services, has called the process of lending out traps ‘inefficient, costly and inhumane.’” [1]

Twenty-three years. Let that sink in for a moment.

The changes to animal sheltering—and companion animal welfare in general—in this country over the past 23 years have been nothing short of revolutionary. Attitudes about stray, abandoned, and feral cats have undergone a radical shift as well. Indeed, it was 1990 when, as an article in the January/February issue of Best Friends magazine (from which the illustration above is borrowed) explains, Alley Cat Allies “[gave] voice to feral cats on a national stage and introduces trap/neuter/return as the most humane and practical method for relating to community cats.” [2] (Just one year earlier, reports Nathan Winograd in Redemption: The myth of pet overpopulation and the no kill revolution in America, “the first battle flag of the No Kill revolution was symbolically being raised” at the San Francisco SPCA. [3])

Meanwhile, in Hernando County, the budget for Animal Services has been slashed 45 percent over the past three years, and the number full-time employees cut nearly in half since 2011. [4] None of which bodes well for the cats in its shelter system—“some 280” of them last year, according to the story in Hernando Today, the majority of which never made it out alive. [1]

In fact, the statistics are probably far worse. In nearby Hillsborough County, for example, Animal Services impounded 10,635 cats in 2012; only about 20 percent made it out the front door. Granted, the human population of Hillsborough is about seven times that of Hernando County, but that doesn’t explain intake numbers 38 times greater. Perhaps “some 280 cats” were brought in via loaned traps. Unfortunately, Hernando County Animal Services doesn’t post such data online (another sign of an agency in need of reform).

Whether we’re talking about 280 cats—or, as I suspect, maybe 10 times that many—it’s troubling to see Hernando County continue, for 23 years now, its endorsement of lethal (non) control methods. As Rowden points out, they don’t seem to be accomplishing anything.

Maybe it’s not insanity, exactly—but it still doesn’t make any sense.

* As stated in Article III Section 6-41 of Hernando County Code of Ordinances: “The animal shelter may adopt out or release impounded cats after three (3) days and may euthanize impounded cats after five (5) days, measured from the date of impoundment. Notwithstanding the foregoing, the county veterinarian or his/her designee may euthanize an impounded cat if such animal is in imminent danger of death from disease or trauma or is determined to be feral. Euthanasia of cats to prevent overcrowding will be conducted using the following priorities, to be determined by the county veterinarian or his/her designee: (1) Sick, diseased, or injured; (2) Feral; (3) Unadoptable.”

Literature Cited

1. Bates, M.D. (2013, May 7). Cat traps here to stay. Hernando Today, from http://www.hernandotoday.com/he/list/news/cat-traps-here-to-stay-b82488676z1

2. n.a., “A brief history of the no-kill movement.” Best Friends 2013. January/February. p. 16–17.

3. Winograd, N.J., Redemption: The myth of pet overpopulation and the no kill revolution in America. 2007: Almaden Books.

4. n.a., Hernando County, Florida, Fiscal 2013 Approved Budget. 2012, Office of Management and Budget: Brooksville. http://www.co.hernando.fl.us/bocc/budget/budget2013/Approved%202013%20Budget%20Book.pdf

Hillsborough County Commissioners Approve TNR Plan

It doesn’t happen often enough—but every now and then, common sense, reason, and compassion win the day. Today is such a day.

This morning Hillsborough County commissioners voted 6-to-1 in favor of Hillsborough County Animal Services’ recently announced TNR pilot program—part of director Ian Hallett’s proposal for reducing shelter killing (PDF).

This is a huge victory for TNR supporters (who, as I understand it, packed today’s meeting), especially in light of the no-holds-barred campaign waged by opponents from the Hillsborough County Veterinary Medical Society and Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation. In the end, it seems, all the misinformation and scare-mongering—and their lack of a feasible alternative to TNR—failed to impress county commissioners. (One wonders what sort of impression the campaign made on their clients.)

As I understand it, HCAS’s program would be modeled on the successful Feral Freedom programs underway in Jacksonville, FL, or San José, CA. However, it’s clear from people already involved with TNR in Hillsborough County that some key aspects of the program still need to be worked out.

•     •     •

To my friends and colleagues in Hillsborough County, whose tireless efforts made this victory possible, congratulations! And thank you for all you’re doing on behalf of your community’s stray, abandoned, and feral cats!

Hillsborough County Veterinary Medical Society Joins Witch-Hunt

Hillsborough County (Florida) Animal Services’ modest step in adopting TNR is met with fierce resistance by some in the veterinary community. Their alternative plan? Uninformed, unfunded, and unworkable.

Among the agenda items to be addressed when the Hillsborough County (FL) Board of Commissioners meets Wednesday morning: “approve the Animal Services Department’s Plan to Increase Live Outcomes in order to lower the euthanasia rate at the County’s animal shelter.” A no-brainer, right? I mean, who could object to something like that?

Although regular readers undoubtedly know where this is going, I’ll bet there are plenty of Hillsborough County residents who are puzzled by the opposition from the Hillsborough County Veterinary Medical Society and Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation. Earlier this month, Don Thompson and his wife, Dr. Katie Thompson, owners of the Veterinary Center at Fishhawk, issued an e-blast warning of “Thousands of cats dumped on our streets.” “Sound [sic] impossible,” the e-mail continued, “but that is exactly what our new Animal Services Director is planning.” (Katie Thompson is an HCVMS member and sits on the county’s Animal Advisory Committee; Don Thompson is the executive director of HAHF, and recently spoke on behalf of the Florida Veterinary Medical Association in opposition to HB 1127.) Read more

PETA Threatens Florida’s Community Cat Act

Less than two weeks after the “Community Cat Act” received unanimous approval from Florida’s House Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee, the bill (SB 1320) is scheduled to be heard and voted on by the Senate’s Agriculture Committee Monday afternoon.

As I reported in my previous post, the Florida Veterinary Medical Association came out in opposition to the proposed legislation last week, their “concerns” (PDF) a mix of misinformation and scaremongering (similar to the various complaints made by Audubon Florida when HB 1121 was before the Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee).

On Friday, I received word of another longtime TNR opponent stepping into the fray—and this one might surprise some readers: PETA. Read more

Florida Veterinary Medical Association Opposes TNR-Friendly Bill

Among the “values and objectives that are still revered” by the 85-year-old Florida Veterinary Medical Association is “to further the education of its members.” So why is the organization going out of its way to misinform them about House Bill 1121, “The Community Cat Act”?

The bill, authored by Best Friends Animal Society and supported by Alley Cat Allies and the Humane Society of the United States, made it through the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee with unanimous approval last week—despite opposition from, among others, Audubon Florida (which was trying to make the most of the Smithsonian/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service paper before too many people start asking questions).

Then came the FVMA with their “concerns.” Read more

Brighter Days Ahead for the Sunshine State’s Cats?

Feral cat advocates were more than ready for some good news when, last Wednesday afternoon, we got some. Florida House Bill 1121, supported by Best Friends Animal Society, Alley Cat Allies, and the Humane Society of the United States, made it through the 11-member House Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee with unanimous approval. Among the key provisions of “The Community Cat Act,” as it’s come to be known, are protections for community cat caregivers (“release of a community cat by a community cat program is not abandonment or unlawful release”) and veterinarians participating in community cat programs (who would be “immune from criminal and civil liability for any decisions made or services rendered… except for willful and wanton misconduct.”)

As the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Holly Raschein (R-Key Largo), explained to Keynoter reporter Ryan McCarthy: “The basis for the bill is it’s not mandatory. It gives local governments an option if they want to deal with feral cat colonies.” [1]

The message didn’t seem to get through to opponents of HB 1121, however, who, as expected, brought to Tallahassee their usual misinformation and scaremongering. Read more

Audubon Editor Suggests Poisoning Feral Cats

Armed with the recently published “killer cat study” from the Smithsonian Biological Conservation Institute and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, TNR opponents are calling for increasingly extreme measures.

Travis Longcore was among the first, telling KCET reporter Judy Muller that “managing and controlling unowned, free-roaming cats will require euthanasia. There are not enough shelter spaces, there is not enough sanctuary space. And we have to stand up and be honest. But the thing is something is going to die in this equation.” Witch-hunt pioneer Stanley Temple chimed in a few days later with an op-ed piece in the Orlando Sentinel in which he referred to the work of Scott Loss, Tom Will, and Peter Marra as “a new study [that] for the first time provides a science-based estimate of the number of birds and mammals killed by cats nationwide.”

A week-and-a-half later came another op-ed, this one in the Baltimore Sun and penned by American Bird Conservancy president George Fenwick, who, like Temple, endorsed the Smithsonian/USFWS paper as valid science rather than the PR scam it truly is. “Local governments need to act swiftly and decisively to gather the 30 million to 80 million unowned cats,” argued Fenwick, “aggressively seek adoptions, and establish sanctuaries for or euthanize those cats that are not adoptable.”

All of which pales in comparison to the rhetoric unleashed by Audubon magazine’s editor-at-large, Ted Williams, in his own op-ed, published in today’s Orlando Sentinel. Read more

Key Lie Kitties

It was easy to miss,* what with all the media attention devoted to the Smithsonian/USFWS’s “killer cat study,” published less than 24 hours later, but on January 28th, the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex (managed by USFWS) released the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex Integrated Pest Management Plan. Regular readers will recall that the draft version, released two years earlier, proposed the roundup of any free-roaming cats found on Refuge lands, but failed to offer any evidence whatsoever in terms of their estimated numbers, location, or diet.

In other words, evidence that the cats are the threat USFWS claims they are.

Two years later, that hasn’t changed. Indeed, there’s actually more to object to, not less. Read more

The American Bird Conservancy’s Campaign of Killing

“The only sure way to protect wildlife, cats and people is for domestic cats to be permanently removed from the outdoor environment,” argues American Bird Conservancy president George Fenwick in a Baltimore Sun op-ed published earlier this week.

“Trap-neuter-release programs that perpetuate the slaughter of wildlife and encourage the dumping of unwanted cats is [sic] a failed strategy being implemented across the United States without any consideration for environmental, human health, or animal welfare effects. It can no longer be tolerated.”

“Evidence” of the slaughter, Fenwick suggests, can be found “in a long line of scientific studies”—among them the Smithsonian/USFWS “killer cat study,” Rick Gerhold and David Jessup’s “Zoonotic Diseases” paper, Peter Marra’s gray catbird study, and Kerry Anne Loyd’s “KittyCam” research. The trouble, of course, is with the quality of Fenwick’s evidence—or in the case of Loyd’s work, how badly it’s been misrepresented by Fenwick and ABC.

But let’s face it: a witch-hunt is a much easier sell when you can put some “science” behind it. And, although too few Sun readers probably realize it, that’s exactly what Fenwick’s up to: Read more

The Agenda Behind Agenda-driven “Science”

What do you get when public policy is based on agenda-driven junk science? If various TNR opponents have their way, we’ll find out the hard way.

As I pointed out shortly after the Smithsonian/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s “killer cat study” was published, the paper actually has very little to do with science or conservation. At its core, this was an agenda-driven effort to undermine TNR. (Note, for example, the emphasis on unowned cats—the cause of about 69 percent of mortalities, according to the paper’s authors—and native species—“the majority of the birds preyed upon by cats,” [1] a claim unsupported by the very evidence the authors provide.)

And, as we’ve seen in the past couple weeks, members of the media, wildlife advocacy organizations, and the scientific community are trying to use the Loss et al. paper as a lever to shape policy. There was, of course, witch-hunt pioneer Stan Temple’s op-ed in the Sun-Sentinel, referring to the paper as “a new study… provid[ing] a science-based estimate of the number of birds and mammals killed by cats nationwide.” And the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife is sounding the alarm, claiming that “cats may even restrict the statewide recovery of some rare birds.”

Among the other stories I’ve seen (and no doubt there are many I’ve missed): Read more

Garbage In, Garbage Out

By now—just about 72 hours after the story broke—it’s probably more difficult to find people who haven’t heard about the Smithsonian study claiming “that free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.4–3.7 billion birds and 6.9–20.7 billion mammals annually” [1] than it is to find people who’ve heard the news somewhere—the New York Times, the BBC, NPR’s All Things Considered, or any number of other media outlets.

Very few scientific papers receive the kind of press coverage that’s been given “The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States,” published in the online journal Nature Communications. Then again, very few studies make the kinds of claims made by the paper’s authors—claims the media has accepted without the slightest bit of scrutiny. Which is, unfortunately, to be expected.

And, I suspect, exactly what these researchers intended. Though they describe their work as a “data-driven systematic review,” [1] it’s difficult not to see it as part of a concerted effort to undermine TNR. Read more

A Ban on Cats in New Zealand?

I swear, I really didn’t want to put any energy in to the Gareth Morgan story—didn’t want to give the thing any more oxygen. As a former co-worker used to say, “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, and the pig likes it.”

But, as if often the case with such PR stunts, the media is having a field day with Morgan’s just-launched campaign to rid New Zealand of cats. All of them. “The fact is,” he explains on his Cats to Go website, “that cats have to go if we really care about our environment.” For Morgan, “a New Zealand businessman, economist, investment manager, motor cycle adventurer, public commentator and philanthropist,” according to Wikipedia, “that little ball of fluff you own is a natural born killer.”

Which, I suppose, would have been easy enough to ignore. Not so easily ignored, however, if the way Morgan and others have co-opted various scientific studies in an effort to justify his proposal. Read more