In late 2009, Sharon George was struggling to recruit participants for her master’s thesis. A student in the University of Cape Town’s conservation biology program at the time, George was studying the hunting habits of suburban Cape Town’s pet cats. Although she’d distributed 600 questionnaires, only 32 had been completed—a response rate George describes as “very poor” in her thesis [1].

“The project in general was very challenging because of the way many cat owners perceived it. The majority of cat owners were unwilling to participate in the study because they felt it was ‘against’ cats and would lead to extreme measures being taken to control cat numbers” [1].

It turns out, the majority of cat owners were not wrong about that.

George’s results were published online in July as part of a larger study, accompanied by a media release (PDF) warning that “the research highlights the need to address the impact of cat predation on Cape Town’s wildlife, particularly near protected areas such as the Table Mountain National Park.” This led (not surprisingly) to sensational headlines proclaiming “‘200,000-plus’ wild animals slaughtered in Table Mountain National Park by Cape Town cats each year” and “Apocalypse Miaow II: ‘Keep cats inside property’, SANParks urges Capetonians.”

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 “Ecological impact” and other baseless proclamations

It’s difficult to imagine now but when I started this blog—10 years ago Monday—I worried that I’d soon run out of material to write about. Not only is there no shortage of material, but these days—when facts are up for grabs and media accounts are prone to false equivalencies cultivated in the name of “balance”—Vox Felina’s mission seems more urgent than ever.

Something else that hasn’t changed over the past 10 years: the protectionist practices of editors green-lighting the publication of badly flawed research.

Perhaps it’s oddly appropriate, then, that the impetus for this post is the same one that prompted the blog’s inaugural post—and, indeed, the blog itself. Once again, my response to an article was quickly rejected by a journal.

Authors of the article, which was published recently in Animal Conservation, boldly claim that “pet cats around the world have an ecological impact greater than native predators but concentrated within ~100 m of their homes.”  Read more

USDA’s Treatment of Laboratory Cats: Breed, Infect, Kill, Repeat

Photos from inside USDA Agricultural Research Service laboratory, courtesy of White Coat Waste Project.

Picture in your mind a Venn diagram: one circle labeled “animal cruelty,” the other “wasted tax dollars.” The intersection, where the two circles overlap, is labeled “USDA Toxoplasmosis in Cats project.” That’s the visual takeaway from an exposé published earlier this week by the White Coat Waste Project, a non-profit whose mission is to “cut federal spending that hurts animals and Americans.” Read more

The Ends Justify the Means?

In a 2011 paper published in the Journal of Wildlife Management, Jeff Horn and his co-authors estimate the home range of owned and unowned cats, arguing that “greater activity levels and ranging behavior suggest unowned cats have a greater potential impact on wildlife than do owned cats.”

“Our results indicate that feeding and owner care modifies the space use and activity of free-roaming cats, information that is important for making decisions on controlling cat populations and the potential spread of disease.” [1]

Although the authors don’t specify which method(s) of control they consider preferable, it’s safe to assume TNR is probably off the table. Consider, for example, Horn’s description of cats as “invasive” and his recommendation that “management steps need to be taken in regards to this species, despite the social and political controversies that surround it.” [2] For Horn and his co-authors (and many of their colleagues in the conservation community), the “management” category seems to include almost exclusively lethal methods.

Of course, anybody proposing the killing of this country’s most common companion animal on an unprecedented scale,* ought to provide some solid evidence—and, while we’re at it, at least one feasible funding mechanism—to advance the necessary public policies. But a review of Horn’s data reveals a number of problems, raising serious questions about the validity of his conclusions and justification for his recommendations. Read more

Is the CDC Ignoring Science When it Interferes with a Cozy Relationship?

When does collaboration cross the line into research misconduct? And why is it bad for public policy, cats, and people care about both of them?

Back in August of 2013, I wrote a post asking whether the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was doing the American Bird Conservancy’s bidding. As should be obvious, the question was intended to be provocative. As it turns out, though, it was also more than a little prescient.

Documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests reveal a pattern of questionable behavior from CDC epidemiologist Jesse Blanton, whose cozy relationship with various ABC staff resulted in the publication—and extensive promotion—of a paper that’s become one of the go-to tools in TNR opponents’ arsenal (see Note 1).

And yet, despite its glaring flaws and dubious origins—which together raise serious questions about research misconduct—both the CDC and John Wiley & Sons (publisher of Zoonoses and Public Health, the journal in which the paper appeared) have been eager to dismiss concerns over this poster-child for publicly funded junk science. Read more