“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 ›
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.”  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
As most readers are undoubtedly aware, today is National Feral Cat Day. And at the risk of stating the obvious: NFCD has clearly become, to borrow a trendy phrase from social media, “a thing.” Now in its 14th year, there are hundreds of events going on around the country to mark the occasion.
All of which must be terribly frustrating for TNR-deniers. Thus, their increasingly desperate attempts to oppose, any way they can, TNR and community cat programs.
Witness, for example, Cats, Birds, and People: The Consequences of Outdoor Cats and the Need for Effective Management (PDF), a presentation by Grant Sizemore—who may or may not be the American Bird Conservancy’s Director of Invasive Species Programs. (As we’ll see shortly, it’s surprisingly complicated.)
It’s not clear exactly who these 33 slides are intended to help. After all, to anybody even remotely familiar with the issue, it’s immediately apparent that Sizemore’s claims—the “consequences” mentioned in the presentation’s title—are flimsy at best.
Equally apparent: Sizemore and ABC are not—though ABC’s been on this witch-hunt for 17 years now—about to provide any solutions.
Not only is the presentation available on ABC’s website, Sizemore’s now taking the show on the road. Last month, for example, he was in Ellenton, Florida, as part of a Coyotes and Feral Cats forum, hosted by the Suncoast Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area.
No doubt, most readers will miss such opportunities. Here, then, are 11 of the presentation’s “highlights”—my humble gift on National Feral Cat Day 2014. Read more
“I’m pretty sure both sides are going to hate it,” warned New York magazine writer Jessica Pressler, referring to her feature for this week’s issue, “Must Cats Die So Birds Can Live?” When I first spoke to Pressler in March, she’d indicated that she knew the subject was complex. Her most recent e-mail, however, sent just a few days before the story was published, made it clear that the piece had taken an unfortunate turn: “In the end there were so many different bits that needed to be covered,” Pressler explained. “A lot of it ended up being about the argument between the two sides.”
Still, hate is a strong word. How about enormously disappointed? Read more
It came as some surprise, a couple weeks ago, to learn that Stanley Temple was a guest on WHYY’s Radio Times, discussing the Smithsonian’s “killer cat study.” (Full disclosure: I’ve yet to listen to the episode.) Temple was, as I’m sure most readers know, the man behind the infamous Wisconsin Study (from which, not surprisingly, Scott Loss, Tom Will, and Peter Marra borrow for their own “estimate”), so his position on the issue is no surprise.
What surprised me (as I’ll explain below) was that he wanted to weigh in publicly.
And then, a week-and-a-half later, Temple was doing it again, with an opinion piece in Friday’s Orlando Sentinel (where, on that same day, Alley Cat Allies co-founder and president Becky Robinson, called the Smithsonian/USFWS paper “wildly speculative” in an op-ed of her own). Read more
The National Geographic Society is, according to its website, “one of the largest nonprofit scientific and educational institutions in the world.” I’m not going to dispute the relative size of the organization, but an article posted Tuesday on its News Watch blog raises doubts about their commitment to science and education.
The piece, which is billed as “an interview with Dr. Michael Hutchins,” is not much of an interview at all, but an easy platform for Hutchins, former executive director and CEO of The Wildlife Society, to vilify invasive species in general and—not surprisingly—free-roaming cats in particular. As I pointed out in my online comment (still awaiting moderation), one would expect some insightful follow-up questions on a topic that, as contributing editor Jordan Carlton Schaul acknowledges, “has generated contentious debate among a number of factions, including conservation scientists and activist communities.”
For starters: How would restrictions or outright bans on TNR, such as those proposed by Hutchins, benefit the wildlife he claims to want to protect? Read more
A recent study finds important differences between cat caretakers and bird conservationists when it comes to their attitudes and beliefs about the impacts of free-roaming cats and how to best manage them. In the end, however, the methods employed lead to far more questions than answers.
“Because western society’s orientations toward wildlife is becoming more moralistic and less utilitarian,” explain the authors of a study recently published online in PLoS ONE, “conservation biologists must develop innovative and collaborative ways to address the threats posed by feral cats rather than assuming wholesale removal of feral cats through euthanasia is a universally viable solution.”  Not surprisingly, the authors fail to acknowledge that “euthanasia” hasn’t proven to be a viable [see Note 1] solution anywhere but on small oceanic islands. Still, given the sort of recommendations typically generated by the conservation biology community on this subject, I suppose we have to recognize this as some kind of progress. Read more
Putting on any conference is a tremendous undertaking. But the challenges involved in pulling together The Outdoor Cat: Science and Policy from a Global Perspective went far beyond the logistics of wrangling 20-some speakers and 150 or so attendees. For starters, there was deciding who should (and should not) be invited to present. (More on that shortly.) And then there’s the fact that, no matter what happens, you’re bound to be criticized.
There’s simply no way to get something like this completely right, no matter who’s in charge or how much planning goes into it.
And so, I give a lot of credit to the people involved—who knew all of this, and did it anyhow. Those I know of (and I’m sure to be leaving out many others, for which I apologize) include John Hadidian, Andrew Rowan, Nancy Peterson, Katie Lisnik, and Carol England from the Humane Society of the United States; and Aimee Gilbreath and Estelle Weber of FoundAnimals. Many of you told me, very modestly, that this conference was “a start.”
Fair enough, but it’s a very important one. Five or 10 years from now, we might look back and call it a milestone.
Here, then, are some snapshots of the various presentations (in the order in which the they were given). Read more
Coming up December 3rd and 4th: The Outdoor Cat: Science and Policy from a Global Perspective, a conference with an ambitious—and admirable—goal:
“To bring together scientists, technical experts, and others with an interest in the constellation of issues tied to the presence of free-roaming, abandoned, and outdoor cat populations in our world, and to take the measure of contemporary scholarship with the goal of forging a stronger union between knowledge, evidence, insight and policy.”
Although I won’t be presenting, I’ll be in attendance—with plenty of questions and comments, of course. And I’m encouraging anybody with an interest in the science and policy issues surrounding free-roaming cats to attend as well. It’s an excellent—and all too rare—opportunity to hear a broad range of perspectives, with speakers from the fields of conservation biology, wildlife rehabilitation, veterinary medicine, municipal animal services, animal law, and more.
I’ll be posting more about the conference in the near future, but wanted to get this out there so that anybody interested can make plans. Registration is just $135.
“Bird lovers have just derailed a plan to save some alley cats from death at the hands of animal control,” writes Bruce Leshan in a WUSA-9 TV story that aired Tuesday. “When Prince George’s County Council woman Mary Lehman proposed to order animal control to release” TNR cats, “she ran into a storm of criticism at a council public hearing.” 
As Lehman pointed out, “This is not trail-blazing legislation. Fairfax County, Baltimore City, and Washington, DC, all have programs.”
So what’s the hold-up in Prince George’s County? Mostly the American Bird Conservancy, it seems.
“The American Bird Conservancy, which opposes ‘trap, neuter, and return,’ says what you are really doing is releasing predatory, ownerless cats back into the wild to kill again.” 
Presumably, ABC will be leading the charge when Lehman brings her bill up again in the fall, which she’s promised to do. Perhaps they can then explain to the Prince George’s County Council—and everybody else—the rationale for their position. Where’s the science to support the numerous claims they make to the media? Read more
“Cat Fight,” which appears in the latest issue of Conservation magazine, does little to cut through the rhetoric or clear up the numerous misrepresentations that plague the debate over free-roaming cats.
There is, it’s often said, no such thing as bad PR. Even so, I’m not thrilled with the way I’m portrayed in an article appearing in the current issue of Conservation. It’s only a couple of quotes, but still, I worry that I come off as more of a bomb-thrower than anything else.
“Wolf writes a blog, Vox Felina,” explains writer John Carey, in “Cat Fight,” “which regularly excoriates wildlife biologists for what Wolf calls their ‘sloppy pseudo-science.’ He charges that ‘the science in Dauphine’s paper about cats was so horrific that she should have never made it out of graduate school’ and that ‘Peter Marra is taking six bird deaths and predicting the Apocalypse.’”
As I told Carey via e-mail, just after the piece was published online, I don’t believe the quotes are accurate. Carey, on the other hand, assures me (in a cordial, professional manner typical of our exchanges) that “the quotes are exactly what [I] said.” (Neither of us recorded our conversation.)
“I know I realized immediately when you said those things that they were precisely the type of colorful statements that illustrate the nature of the debate, so I did appreciate you using such colorful language.”
Fair enough. Perhaps it’s not all the important if the content isn’t precisely correct—the tone is certainly accurate.
If I am a bomb-thrower, though, I am at least a well-informed bomb-thrower. And the “targets”—to extend the metaphor—have, simply put, got it coming to them. Carey acknowledges that I “do an excellent job scrutinizing the scientific evidence, and have clearly thought deeply about both sides of the issue.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t come across to Conservation readers.
That said, I want to make it clear: I’m grateful to have been included in the piece, and grateful, too, for my conversations with Carey. And whatever quibbles I have about my portrayal pale in comparison to various other aspects of “Cat Fight.”
Stuffing the Ballot Box
Referring to Peter Marra’s well-publicized catbird study, Carey writes: “Predators nabbed nearly half the birds, and cats were the number one predator.” 
Number one predator?
Certainly, this was the message Marra emphasized to the press—but I thought I’d straightened this out with Carey on the phone, and with a follow-up e-mail.
Here’s what Marra and his colleagues report in their paper:
A total of 69 fledglings were monitored, of which 42 (61 percent) died over the course of the study. Of those mortalities, 33 (79 percent) were due to predation of some kind. Eight of the 33 predatory events were observed directly: six involved domestic cats, one a black rat snake, and one a red-shouldered hawk.
That leaves 25 predation events (76 percent) for which direct attributions could not be made—which, in and of itself, raises serious questions about Carey’s “number one predator” claim.
About those other 25: Marra and his co-authors concede that “not all mortalities could be clearly assigned.” Seven were attributed to rats or chipmunks because they were “found cached underground,” while another one was attributed to birds because the remains were found in a tree.
In addition, 14 mortalities “could not be assigned to a specific predator.” Which leaves three: “fledglings found with body damage or missing heads were considered symptomatic of cat kills.” 
In fact, it’s rather well known that such predatory behavior is symptomatic not of cats, but of owls, grackles, jays, magpies, and even raccoons [3–5]—something I addressed in an October 2010 post (and discussed with Carey).
All of which is difficult to reconcile with Marra’s claim, in “Cat Fight,” that he and his colleagues “were very conservative assigning mortality to cats,”  and with his apparent confidence (shared by Carey) in putting cats at the top of the list.
Curious, too, that, although Carey opens his article with Nico Dauphine’s December 2011 sentencing hearing, he never mentions the fact that Marra was Dauphine’s advisor at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. (I suppose the connection isn’t something Marra brags about these days.)
The Cats Came Back
Carey argues that “moving cat colonies away from areas that harbor threatened species is a no-brainer” but points out that “it doesn’t always work.”
“In Fortescue, New Jersey, a colony of feral cats was moved away from the shore of Delaware Bay in 2011 to help protect red knots, which stop there in huge numbers to gorge on horseshoe-crab eggs to fuel their long migration from the tip of South America to the Arctic. But after only a few months, cats were back.” 
Here, I’ll defer to Animal Protection League of New Jersey attorney Michelle Lerner, whose comment was the first posted after “Cat Fight” was available online:
“The details about the Fortescue cats, with which I was involved, are incorrect. The colony was not ‘moved,’ it was removed completely. 40 cats were moved to a fence enclosure on a farm several counties away, 7 went to a sanctuary in another state, others went to barns or were friendly enough to be adopted. Removal was used, which is what the anti-TNR people always want. The only difference is the cats were not killed—something that was possible because of limited numbers. It is true that, due to the vacuum effect, different cats then showed up. The nonprofit doing the removal keeps trapping there in coordination with animal control to try to get them all. A few per month show up. But this is why TNR advocates warn removal never really works without intensive management and repeat trapping, and why statistical studies have shown it takes 10 times the effort to control a colony through removal as through TNR. Because there is a reason the cats were there in the first place and more will just move in—more who are unneutered—if the cats are removed.”
It’s worth pointing out, too, that, unlike the current relocation effort, taxpayers would be footing the bill for an ongoing lethal roundup.
And I wish Carey had included a bit of additional context here. The greatest threat to those red knots, from what I can tell (admittedly, doing nothing more than a quick Google search), has little to do with cats being fed nearby. According to The Wetlands Institute:
“…overharvesting of female horseshoe crabs by commercial fishermen, coupled with loss of spawning habitat resulting from beach erosion associated with sea level rise, has resulted in a precipitous decline in the Delaware Bay horseshoe crab population, and therefore the number of eggs available to feed migratory birds. This, in turn, has led to a dramatic decrease in the size of annual red knot migrating populations, to the point that red knots have been proposed for federally endangered status.”
Indeed, the Delaware Nature Society reports: “In 2008, New Jersey placed a moratorium on horseshoe crab harvests until the red knot numbers rebound.”
The Scientific Community v. The People of the District of Columbia
If Marra hasn’t come to Dauphine’s defense, Chris Lepczyk has—with the kind of confidence he (and Marra) usually reserve for vilifying free-roaming cats.
“‘I am 100 percent confident she was not poisoning cats,’ says University of Hawaii wildlife ecologist Christopher Lepczyk, who fears that she was convicted in part because of her articles about the cat-predation problem. ‘I don’t think anyone in the scientific community agrees that she is guilty.’” 
That’s quite an endorsement—especially in light of… you know, the facts.
On December 14th, the day Dauphine was sentenced, CNN reported that Superior Court Judge A. Truman Morrison III “said he had received a number of letters from people who know Dauphine.”
“He said such letters usually try to make a case that the verdict was in error, but in this case, the judge said, no one quarreled with the guilty verdict… Morrison said it was clear from letters written by Dauphine’s colleagues that ‘her career, if not over, it’s in grave jeopardy.’ The judge said that was already partial punishment for her actions.”
But Lepczyk’s right when he says the verdict was, in part, the result of Dauphine’s writings—just not in the way he suggests. Indeed, the day Dauphine was found guilty, The Washington Post reported: “Senior Judge Truman A. Morrison III said it was the video, along with Dauphine’s testimony, that led him to believe she had ‘motive and opportunity.’”
“He specifically pointed to her repeated denials of her writings. ‘Her inability and unwillingness to own up to her own professional writings as her own undermined her credibility,’ Morrison said.”
All of which—not to put too fine a point on it—was included in my numerous posts following the case. Perhaps Lepczyk ought to subscribe to Vox Felina.
I’ve been saying for nearly two years now that Dauphine’s professional work on the subject of free-roaming cats—cited and promoted with great enthusiasm before all this nasty press attention—is as indefensible as the actions that landed her in DC Superior Court. It’s a shame Carey didn’t pin down Lepczyk (and others) on that point.
Numb and Numb-er
If Carey included me in “Cat Fight” because of my colorful language, I have to imagine Stephen Vantassel, project coordinator of distance education for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s School of Natural Resources, was included for his unintended irony.
Referring to the toll cats take on wildlife, Vantassel told Carey, “The numbers are mind-numbing.” 
Actually, “mind-numbing” is a fitting description for the content of, and motivation behind, Feral Cats and Their Management, the well-publicized paper Vantassel co-authored in late 2010. Not only do the authors fail to get a handle on the predation numbers, they reveal a significant lack of understanding of the key issues surrounding cats and predation in general. Indeed, they misread, misinterpret, and/or misrepresent nearly every bit of research they reference. And, some of what the authors include isn’t valid research to begin with.
Two years later, it seems he’s still got nothing to contribute to the discussion.
OK, maybe that’s being too harsh. Consider what Vantassel has to say, in the sidebar that accompanies “Cat Fight,” about the uncertainty surrounding the legal status of free-roaming cats: it “has essentially turned outdoor cats into protected predators.” 
Now, here’s a subject Vantassel knows well. After all, his PhD (theology) dissertation was dedicated to: “…fur trappers who, every winter, brave the harsh weather in continuance of America’s oldest industry. Regrettably, they must also endure the ravages of urban sprawl and the derision of an ungrateful and ignorant public.” 
Wisconsin: Landmarks and Mirages
My greatest disappointment with “Cat Fight”—one shared by others I’ve spoken with—is Carey’s inclusion of the infamous “Wisconsin Study.”
“In a landmark study in Wisconsin, Stanley Temple, now professor emeritus of forest and wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin, and his colleagues radio-collared free-ranging rural cats, watched the animals’ hunting behavior, and examined their stomach contents. (An inflammatory and inaccurate press report that implied that the researchers had killed the cats for the stomach contents—in fact, they used an emetic—led to death threats against Temple.) The study showed that each cat killed an average of 5.6 birds a year. With an estimated 1.4 million free-ranging rural cats just in Wisconsin, that’s nearly 8 million birds.” 
When I spoke with Carey, he’d already talked to Temple. And when he referred to a predation study Temple had done, I stopped him in his tracks: If Temple conducted any such work, it was never published.
What has been published involved combining cat density numbers Temple and graduate student John Coleman had gathered by surveying “farmers and other rural residents in Wisconsin for information about their free-ranging (not house-bound) cats”  with predation numbers from studies conducted in the 1930s and 1950s. All of which is explained in a 1992 article the two wrote for Wildlife Control Technology:
“…our four year study of cat predation in Wisconsin, completed in1992, coupled with data from other studies, allows us to make a reasonable estimate of birds killed annually in this state… At the high end, are estimates from diet studies of rural cats that indicate at least one kill per cat per day, resulting in over 365 kills per cat per year [9–11]. Other studies report 28 kills per cat per year for urban cats, and 91 kills per cat per year for rural cats .” 
“Using low values,” then, Temple and Coleman multiplied their estimated 1.4 million rural free-roaming cats in the state by 28 (“twice urban kill rate”), and then multiply that by 20 percent (the “low dietary percent,” as they call it, though it’s actually a gross misinterpretation of Mike Fitzgerald’s work, as Ellen Perry Berkeley points out in her 2004 book TNR Past Present and Future: A history of the trap-neuter-return movement ). The resulting “estimate” is “7.8 million birds killed annually.”
Twenty years later, though, the story seems to have changed dramatically.
Now, we’re to believe that Temple and Coleman’s study (funded, by the way, with “about $100,000 … from the [University of Wisconsin], U.S. Agriculture Department and the state Department of Natural Resources” ) revealed an average predation rate of 5.6 birds/year/cat. And that the 7.8 million figure comes not from “coupling” Temple and Coleman’s density work with others’ predation studies, but from their work alone.
Or perhaps the two methods resulted in exactly the same estimate.
Which, as I told Carey after reading the article, would be one hell of a coincidence. In fact, the very sources he cites call into question—if not discredit entirely—Temple’s claim.
Simply put: Carey failed to dig into this deeply enough. Instead of further perpetuating the myth of the Wisconsin Study, he might have exposed it for what it is: little more than a few misguided (and overpriced) back-of-the-envelope calculations—which Temple himself backed away from during a 1994 interview with The Sonoma County Independent: “They aren’t actual data; that was just our projection to show how bad it might be.” 
Or, failing that, then at least ignore the thing entirely.
Landmark study? Only insofar as it was instrumental in launching what’s become a witch-hunt against free-roaming cats in this country.
• • •
According to the magazine’s website, “Conservation stories capture the imagination and jump-start discussion.” Unfortunately, I don’t see “Cat Fight” adding much to the discussion—a missed opportunity in a debate where such opportunities are few and far between.
I agree with Carey that, as he notes in the article’s closing paragraph, “these great societal debates … are contested on a battleground of conflicting emotions, moral values, and ideologies. Facts alone rarely break up the fight.”
On the other hand, I don’t see how we’re going to break it up if we don’t first get the facts straight.
1. Carey, J., “Cat Fight.” Conservation. 2012. March. http://www.conservationmagazine.org/2012/03/cat-fight/
2. Balogh, A., Ryder, T., and Marra, P., “Population demography of Gray Catbirds in the suburban matrix: sources, sinks and domestic cats.” Journal of Ornithology. 2011: p. 1-10. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10336-011-0648-7
3. Thompson, B., The Backyard Bird Watcher’s Answer Guide. 2008: Bird Watcher’s Digest.
4. Bird, D.M., “Crouching Raptor, Hidden Danger.” The Backyard Birds Newsletter. 2010. No 5 (Fall/October).
5. Anderson, T.E., Identifying, evaluating and controlling wildlife damage, in Wildlife Management Techniques. 1969, Wildlife Society: Washington. p. 497–520.
6. Carey, J., “The Uncertain Legal Status of Cats.” Conservation. 2012. March. http://www.conservationmagazine.org/2012/03/legal-status-of-cats/
7. Vantassel, S.M., Dominion over Wildlife?: An Environmental Theology of Human-Wildlife Relations. 2009: Resource Publications.
8. Coleman, J.S. and Temple, S.A., “Rural Residents’ Free-Ranging Domestic Cats: A Survey.” Wildlife Society Bulletin. 1993. 21(4): p. 381–390. http://www.jstor.org/pss/3783408
9. Errington, P.L., “Notes on Food Habits of Southwestern Wisconsin House Cats.” Journal of Mammalogy. 1936. 17(1): p. 64–65. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1374554
10. Parmalee, P.W., “Food Habits of the Feral House Cat in East-Central Texas.” The Journal of Wildlife Management. 1953. 17(3): p. 375-376. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3797127
11. Eberhard, T., “Food Habits of Pennsylvania House Cats.” The Journal of Wildlife Management. 1954. 18(2): p. 284–286. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3797736
12. Mitchell, J.C. and Beck, R.A., “Free-Ranging Domestic Cat Predation on Native Vertebrates in Rural and Urban Virginia.” Virginia Journal of Science. 1992. 43(1B): p. 197–207. www.vacadsci.org/vjsArchives/v43/43-1B/43-197.pdf
13. Coleman, J.S. and Temple, S.A., “How Many Birds Do Cats Kill?” Wildlife Control Technology. 1995. July–August. p. 44. http://www.wctech.com/WCT/index99.htm
14. Berkeley, E.P., TNR Past present and future: A history of the trap-neuter-return movement. 2004, Bethesda, MD: Alley Cat Allies.
15. Imrie, R. (1997). Professor Says Predatory Cats Are Taking Toll on Ecosystem. St. Paul Pioneer Press, p. 1B,
16. Elliott, J. (1994, March 3–16). The Accused. The Sonoma County Independent, pp. 1, 10,
I’ve been a big fan of FixNation since contacting them, nearly a year ago, to clear up bogus allegations made in the Toronto Star by documentary filmmaker Maureen Palmer, who’d visited the clinic while filming Cat Crazed. The response I received was prompt and professional. And, it turns out, the beginning of an ongoing conversation.
Last month, while on a business trip to Los Angeles, I had the pleasure—finally—of seeing the FixNation operation for myself, beginning with their bimonthly Catnippers clinic, an all-volunteer community outreach/spay-neuter program now in its 12th year. A few days later, I toured the facility under “normal” conditions—meaning two veterinarians and seven staff sterilizing and vaccinating (and addressing a host of other health issues) 80–90 cats each day (with an ease and efficiency that would put many manufacturing facilities to shame, to say nothing of our healthcare providers).
Since opening its doors in July 2007, FixNation has sterilized and vaccinated more than 60,000 cats (not including the 16,000 or so brought in through Catnippers), more than 85 percent of which were feral, stray, or abandoned—receiving services at no charge to their caretakers (owners of pet cats are charged a modest fee).
All of which would be impressive enough. But in L.A.—which has more or less become ground zero for the TNR debate since a January 2010 injunction put an end to City support of trap-neuter-return—what FixNation has accomplished is nothing short of heroic.
The original complaint—filed by the Urban Wildlands Group, Endangered Habitats League, Los Angeles Audubon Society, Palos Verdes/South Bay Audubon Society, Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society, and the American Bird Conservancy—was brought under the California Environmental Quality Act, with the plaintiffs arguing, for instance, that TNR “can cause significant adverse environmental impacts by causing proliferation of rats and raccoons and creating water pollution problems.”
(As for how the restriction—or elimination, as ABC has proposed—of TNR would benefit the wildlife these groups claim to protect is anybody’s guess, and a topic for another post.)
Under the provisions of the injunction (in its revised version, filed with the court in March 2010), the City, its Board of Animal Services Commissioners, and its Department of Animal Services are prohibited from “promoting TNR for feral cats and encouraging or assisting third parties to carry out a TNR program.”
City agencies are no longer allowed to:
Nevertheless, TNR continues in L.A.—with many supporters more determined than ever. And I understand the City of Los Angeles is working (albeit far too slowly) to get the injunction lifted. Still, the loss of City-funded vouchers—which provided a substantial portion of overall revenue for many TNR programs—is taking its toll. According to founders Mark Dodge and Karn Myers, FixNation lost about $300,000 in annual revenue, more than 20 percent of its yearly budget.
The fact that they’ve been able to continue their community outreach and provide no-/low-cost spay/neuter services for the past couple of years is, as I say, truly heroic. But now, as Myers explains in a video released late last week, FixNation needs our help.
Today, We Are All Angelenos
Charity, it’s often said, begins at home. And I do what I can to support local TNR and low-cost spay/neuter programs. But the stakes are extraordinarily high in L.A.—in terms of lives saved or lost, but also in terms of the city’s symbolic value as a community committed to trap-neuter-return despite both the injunction and the faltering economy. Which is why I also support the organizations doing the heavy lifting there—among them, FixNation.
If you’re able to make a (tax-deductible) donation, I encourage you to do so. If not, please pass the word along to other TNR supporters.
Need a little more incentive? For the rest of the month, PetSmart Charities will match every “new donor” dollar up to $51,000. You can even turn your holiday shopping into a contribution: FixNation will receive 5 percent of December sales from Moderncat Studio, makers of beautifully designed cat toys, scratchers, and more.
1. Urban Wildlands Group et al. vs. City of Los Angeles et al. (Case No. BS 115483). Stipulated Order Modifying Injunction. March 10, 2010. Los Angeles Superior Court.
It’s always good to see the Humane Society of the United States supporting and promoting TNR. After all, it wasn’t all that long ago when HSUS was on the other side of the issue. In 1997, when the American Bird Conservancy launched its Cats Indoors! campaign, the organization was “singled out as its ‘principal partner in this endeavor.’” 
On Monday, President and CEO Wayne Pacelle, waded into the feral cat/wildlife debate on his blog (brought to my attention by a helpful reader), noting that HSUS “work[s] for the protection of both feral cats and wildlife.”
HSUS is, says Pacelle, “working to find innovative, effective, and lasting solutions to this conflict.” In Hawaii, for example (“an ideal environment for free-roaming cats and a global hotspot for threatened and endangered wildlife”) HSUS is “meeting with local humane societies, state and federal wildlife officials, non-governmental organizations, and university staff to find solutions to humanely manage outdoor cat populations and ensure the protection of Hawaii’s unique wildlife.” (HSUS may want to add Hawaii’s various Invasive Species Committees to that list. If recent efforts are any indication, they’re contributing to the environment impact.)
I can certainly understand HSUS’s current focus on Hawaii, and I look forward to seeing the results of their efforts. It’s not difficult to imagine such results being adopted more broadly. (Tackle the really tough job first, and the others will be easy by comparison, right?)
Still, it’s important to remember that TNR opponents aren’t limiting their attention to such hotspots.
The Wildlife Society, for example, in its position statement (issued in August) on Feral and Free-Ranging Domestic Cats (PDF), calls for “the humane elimination of feral cat populations,” as well as “the passage and enforcement of local and state ordinances prohibiting the feeding of feral cats.”
Earlier this month, TWS hosted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s workshop, Influencing Local Scale Feral Cat Trap-Neuter-Release Decisions, at its annual conference.
And in October, ABC sent a letter to mayors of the 50 largest cities in the country “urg[ing them] to oppose Trap-Neuter-Re-abandon (TNR) programs and the outdoor feeding of cats as a feral cat management option.” (This, ABC claims, will “stop spread of feral cats.” I e-mailed Darin Schroeder, ABC’s Vice President for Conservation Advocacy, asking that he explain the biology and/or logic behind this miracle cure, but he never replied.)
But we’re all after the same thing, right—no more “homeless” cats? The key difference being how we approach the problem?
I used to think so. Now, I’m not so sure.
TWS, ABC, and other TNR opponents are calling for the extermination—on the order of tens of millions—of this country’s most popular pet. Without, it must be recognized, a plan of any kind, or, given our decades of experience with lethal control methods, any hope of success. Nevertheless, they persist—grossly misrepresenting the impacts of cats on wildlife and public health in order to drum up support.
Common ground has proven remarkably elusive, and collaboration risky.
In the Spring issue of The Wildlife Professional (published by TWS) Nico Dauphine portrayed the New Jersey Audubon Society as sellouts for participating in the New Jersey Feral Cat & Wildlife Coalition (which included several supporters of TNR, including HSUS), a collaborative effort funded by the Regina R. Frankenberg and Geraldine R. Dodge foundations. [2, 3] The group’s commendable work, culminating in a pilot program based on their “ordinance and protocols for the management of feral cat colonies in wildlife-sensitive areas in Burlington County, New Jersey,”  (available here) has, from what I can tell, received little attention.
All of which suggests that we’re actually talking not only about very different means, but also very different ends.
• • •
How does one find common ground in the midst of a witch-hunt?
Earlier this month, Alley Cat Allies co-founder and president Becky Robinson proposed a crucial first step: “stop pitting species against species.”
“Today, I call on the leaders of the American Bird Conservancy, The Wildlife Society, and the leadership of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who persist in using flawed science and vicious rhetoric like Dauphine’s to blame cats for species decline, to stop.”
After which, there’s plenty of “real work” (some of which may, ironically, prove rather straightforward and uncontroversial) to be done, of course. Still, perhaps the situation in Hawaii is urgent enough, and the stakes high enough, to focus the mind—to get us that far.
1. Berkeley, E.P., TNR Past present and future: A history of the trap-neuter-return movement. 2004, Bethesda, MD: Alley Cat Allies.
2. Dauphine, N., “Follow the Money: The Economics of TNR Advocacy.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 54.
3. Stiles, E., NJAS Works with Coalition to Reduce Bird Mortality from Outdoor Cats. 2008, New Jersey Audubon Society. http://www.njaudubon.org/Portals/10/Conservation/PDF/ConsReportSpring08.pdf
4. n.a., Pilot Program: Ordinance & Protocols for the Management of Feral Cat Colonies in Wildlife-Sensitive Areas in Burlington County, New Jersey. 2007, New Jersey Feral Cat & Wildlife Coalition. p. 17. http://www.neighborhoodcats.org/uploads/File/Resources/Ordinances/NJ%20FeralCat&Wildlife%20Ordinance&Protocols_Pilot_7_07.doc
For more than 20 years now, Gill’s classic text has been required reading for ornithology students. While the book’s attention to conservation issues has expanded over its three editions, its treatment of the impact of cats on bird populations reflects an unsettling shift away from science.
The hoards of students descending upon college campuses this fall will—despite the rise of the eco-friendly PDF and a great variety of online content—more often than not find their arms and backpacks stuffed with old-school printed-and-bound books. Among them will be Frank Gill’s Ornithology, a regular offering on campus bookstore shelves for 21 years now.
Gill’s Ornithology is, I’m told by one Vox Felina reader, “considered (at least in these parts) the text regarding ornithology.” From what I can tell, it’s popularity as required reading for third- and fourth-year undergraduates isn’t limited to any one region of the country. Indeed, according to Amazon.com, the book is “the classic text for the undergraduate ornithology course.” Its third edition, published in 2007, “maintains the scope and expertise that made the book so popular while incorporating a tremendous amount of new research.”
Unfortunately, none of this new research made it into the section—a single paragraph—meant to address the “threat” of cats. Indeed, students interested in this topic are better off with the first edition, published 17 years earlier.
“The numbers of deaths attributable directly or indirectly to human actions each year during the 1970s are staggering,” writes Gill in the 1990 edition of Ornithology, “but are apparently minor in relation to the population level.”  Citing a 1979 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report by Richard C. Banks, Gill continues:
“Human activities are responsible for roughly 270 million bird deaths every year in the continental United States. This seemingly huge number is less than two percent of the 10 to 20 billion birds that inhabit the continental United States and appears to have no serious effect on the viability of any of the populations themselves, unlike human destruction of breeding habitat and interference with reproduction… Miscellaneous accidents such as impact with golf balls, electrocution by transmission lines, and cat predation, may amount to 3.5 million deaths a year.” 
Predation by cats (included under “All Other Indirect”), then, according to Banks, represents about 1.3 percent of overall human-caused mortality—a loss of, at most, 0.04 percent of the U.S. bird population annually. By contrast, hunting and “collision with man-made objects” combine to make up “about 90 percent of the avian mortality documented” in Banks’ report. 
Five years later, in the second edition, the story changes dramatically. Gill discards Banks’ reference to cats and uses his 270 million figure purely for dramatic effect—the set-up for a punch line in the form of Rich Stallcup’s back-of-the-envelope guesswork (which Stallcup himself considered “probably a low estimate” ). Gill even includes a bar chart to drive the point home. (Apparently, he didn’t find Banks’ pie chart compelling enough to include in the his first edition of Ornithology.)
“Human activities are directly responsible for roughly 270 million bird deaths every year in the continental United States, about 2 percent of the 10 to 20 billion birds that inhabit the continental United States (Banks 1979)… Dwarfing these losses are those attributable to predation by pets. Domesticated cats in North America may kill 4 million songbirds every day, or perhaps over a billion birds each year (Stallcup 1991). Millions of hungrier, feral (wild) cats add to this toll, which is not included in the estimate of 270 million bird deaths each year.” 
But Stallcup’s “estimate”—published in the Observer, a publication of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory (which Stallcup co-founded)—lacks even the slightest scientific justification. In fact, “A Reversible Catastrophe” is little more than Stallcup’s advice—at once both folksy and sinister—about defending one’s garden from neighborhood cats (“…try a B-B or pellet gun. There is no need to kill or shoot toward the head, but a good sting on the rump seems memorable for most felines, and they seldom return for a third experience.” ).
“Let’s do a quick calculation, starting with numbers of pet cats. Population estimates of domestic house cats in the contiguous United States vary somewhat, but most agree the figure is between 50 and 60 million. On 3 March 1990, the San Francisco Chronicle gave the number as 57.9 million, ‘up 19 percent since 1984.’ For this assessment, let’s use 55 million.
“Some of these (maybe 10 percent) never go outside, and maybe another 10 percent are too old or too slow to catch anything. That leaves 44 million domestic cats hunting in gardens, marshes, fields, thickets, empty lots, and forests.
“It is impossible to know how many of those actively hunting animals catch how many birds, but the numbers are high. To be very conservative, say that only one in ten of those cats kills only one bird a day. This would yield a daily toll of 4.4 million songbirds!! Shocking, but true—and probably a low estimate (e.g., many cats get multiple birds a day).” 
It’s hardly surprising that Stallcup’s “estimate” grossly exaggerates predation rates since his research never went any further than the Chronicle’s mention of the U.S. pet cat population. His assumptions about how many of these cats go outdoors and their success as hunters stand in stark contrast to the trend suggested by pet owner survey results and various predation studies (some of which suggest that just 36–56 percent of cats are hunters. [5, 6])
(It was, no doubt, the “shocking” aspect of Stallcup’s numbers that appealed to Nico Dauphine, who, in her “Apocalypse Meow” presentation, acknowledges that Stallcup “didn’t do a study” but nevertheless concludes, inexplicably, that his “is a conservative estimate.”)
So, how did Stallcup’s indefensible “estimate” make it into the standard ornithology textbook? It was, Gill told me recently by e-mail, “one of the few refs [he] could find.”
Referring to what he calls “the great cat debates,” Gill writes: “I claim no great expertise or authority… now or in the ancient histories of early textbook editions.”
Fair enough. Writing, editing, and revising multiple editions of Ornithology was an enormous undertaking—one for which Gill deserves much credit. But there was, available at the time, work by scientists who, unlike Stallcup actually studied predation. Indeed, even before the first edition of Ornithology was published, a great deal of work had been done—and compiled in the first edition (published in 1988) of The Domestic Cat: The Biology of Its Behaviour. In it, Mike Fitzgerald, one of the world’s foremost experts on the subject, reviewed 61 predation studies, concluding:
“Predation on songbirds by domestic cats is noticed because it takes place during the day, whereas much predation on mammals takes place at night. People generally enjoy having songbirds in their gardens, and providing food in winter may increase the numbers of birds. When cats kill some of these birds, people assume that cats are reducing the bird populations. However, although this predation is so visible, and unpopular, remarkably little attempt has been made to assess its impact on populations of songbirds.” 
Two years later, Fitzgerald had a brief letter on the subject published in Environmental Conservation. His comments are as relevant today as they were some 21 years ago:
“Before embarking… on programmes to educate the public so that they will pressure elected officials to act on ‘cat delinquency,’ we must discover what effect domestic cats really have on the wildlife populations in various urban localities—not merely what effect we assume they have on the basis of prey brought home by cats in one English village. Although we know what prey cats bring home in a few urban localities, we do not know what effect this predation has on the prey populations, or how the wildlife populations might differ if cat populations were reduced. Until we have this information we cannot ensure sound educational programmes. We should perhaps also try to discover what values urban people place on their wildlife and their pets—it seems likely that many of the people who love their pets also treasure the wildlife.” 
Surely, Fitzgerald’s work would have been more appropriate for, and useful to, Ornithology’s audience. Instead, unsuspecting undergraduates were treated to biased editorializing dressed up as science.
Gill tells me I wasn’t the first to “react… to the Stallcup paper,” and that the push-back was sufficient to prompt its removal from the third edition. Gone, too, is Banks’ report. Instead, Gill employs the now-common kitchen-sink approach, rattling off a litany of sins—borrowed, it seems, from the American Bird Conservancy.
“Domestic house cats in North America, for example, may kill hundreds of millions of songbirds each year. Farmland and barnyard cats kill roughly 39 million birds (and lots of mice, too) each year. Millions of hungrier, feral (wild) cats add to this toll. There is a common-sense solution. Letting cats roam outside the house shortens their expected life span from 12.5 years to 2.5 years and increases their risk of rabies, distemper, toxoplasmosis, and parasites. Evidence is mounting that cats help to spread diseases such as Asian bird flu. The message is clear: Keep pet cats inside for their own well being and for the future of backyard birds (http://www.abcbirds.org/cats/).” 
That 39 million birds figure, of course, comes from the infamous “Wisconsin Study,” the authors of which claim: “The most reasonable estimates indicate that 39 million birds are killed in the state each year.”  (The “reason” is, in fact, notably absent from Coleman and Temple’s figure—which can be traced to “a single free-ranging Siamese cat” that frequented a rural residential property in New Kent County, Virginia. )
Its implied use as a nationwide estimate, Gill says, was “a lapse.” The more serious lapse by far, though—not in copyediting but in judgment—is Gill’s endorsement of ABC.
A Constructive Approach
While he readily admits that he’s “not tracked nor verified [ABC’s] stats (and have paid precious little attention to the issue for almost 10 years),” Gill’s support is unwavering.
“ABC has taken a lead role on the cat-bird issues, generally with a constructive approach, which I applaud, given how polarized the debates can be.”
Constructive? As I’ve pointed out repeatedly, no organization has been more effective at working the anti-TNR pseudoscience into a message neatly packaged for the mainstream media, and eventual consumption by the general public. (The Wildlife Society, though, which shares ABC’s penchant for bumper-sticker science and public discourse via sound-bites, is at least as eager to participate in the witch-hunt.)
Among the more glaring examples: senior policy advisor, Steve Holmer’s claim, quoted in the Los Angeles Times, that “there are about… 160 million feral cats [nationwide]” ; ABC’s promotion of “Feral Cats and Their Management,” with its absurd $17B economic impact “estimate,” published last year by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; and the numerous errors, exaggerations, and misrepresentations that persist in their brochure Domestic Cat Predation On Birds and Other Wildlife (PDF)—including a rather significant blunder that Ellen Perry Berkeley brought to light seven years ago in her book TNR Past, Present and Future. 
A constructive approach begins, by necessity, with sound science. But when it comes to the issue of free-roaming cats, at least, ABC has demonstrated neither an interest nor an aptitude.
So how does such an organization end up as the sole resource listed in a widely-used undergraduate textbook? (One written by the same man who served as the National Audubon Society’s chief scientist from 1996 to 2005, no less.) What’s next—physiology and nutrition books directing students to the PepsiCo Website for their hydration lesson? Psychology texts deferring to Pfizer (makers of Zoloft) on selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors?
Frank Gill’s View
Gill never responded to my follow-up questions for this post. Still, his comments during our first exchange shed some light on his general attitude toward cats. “I have owned some wonderful (Siamese) cats in my life,” Gill explained, “so I do view them positively in many ways. But when they are dumped near a research station by returning vacationers and then eat the ringed birds I have been studying for many years, I take a different view.”
He followed this last sentence with a smiley-face emoticon, though the joke was clearly wasted on me.
“My informal view now is that managed feral cat colonies are potentially a serious threat to local bird populations, including both migrants that stopover in urban parks and endangered shorebird colonies. Sustaining those colonies should be prohibited generally. The return of coyotes to suburban landscapes is most welcome both to add a top predator to these ecosystems and to counter the numbers of feral cats as well as other midsized predators that impact breeding productivity. Just their presence in a neighborhood should persuade cat owners to keep their cats safely inside!”
• • •
It would be a mistake to suggest that the sloppy, flawed research I spend so much time critiquing can be traced directly to the second or third editions of Frank Gill’s textbook. Still, for many students, the path to a degree in ornithology (and onto related graduate degrees) leads through the book of the same name. As such, Ornithology may well be their first exposure to issues of population dynamics, conservation, and the like.
First impressions tend to be lasting ones. If, as a wide-eyed undergraduate, you “learned” that cats kill up to four million songbirds every day, how might that shape your future studies? Your career? What if you “learned” that such predation takes a $17B toll on the country annually?
Considering the tremendous burden we’re placing on future generations, why would we hobble them—before they even get started, really—with such misinformation and bias? They’ve got more than enough on their plate without having to fact-check their textbooks, too.
1. Gill, F.B., Ornithology. 1st ed. 1990, New York: W.H. Freeman and Company. 660.
2. Banks, R.C., Special Scientific Report—Wildlife No. 215. 1979, United States Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service: Washington, DC. p. 16.
3. Stallcup, R., “A reversible catastrophe.” Observer 91. 1991(Spring/Summer): p. 8–9. http://www.prbo.org/cms/print.php?mid=530
4. Gill, F.B., Ornithology. 2nd ed. 1995, New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.
5. Perry, G. Cats—perceptions and misconceptions: Two recent studies about cats and how people see them. in Urban Animal Management Conference. 1999.
6. Millwood, J. and Heaton, T. The metropolitan domestic cat. in Urban Animal Management Conference. 1994.
7. Fitzgerald, B.M., Diet of domestic cats and their impact on prey populations, in The Domestic cat: The biology of its behaviour, D.C. Turner and P.P.G. Bateson, Editors. 1988, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge; New York. p. 123–147.
8. Fitzgerald, B.M., “Is Cat Control Needed to Protect Urban Wildlife?“ Environmental Conservation. 1990. 17(02): p. 168-169. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0376892900031970
9. Gill, F.B., Ornithology. 3rd ed. 2007, New York: W.H. Freeman. xxvi, 758 p.
10. Coleman, J.S., Temple, S.A., and Craven, S.R., “Cats and Wildlife: A Conservation Dilemma.” 1997. http://forestandwildlifeecology.wisc.edu/wl_extension/catfly3.htm
11. Mitchell, J.C. and Beck, R.A., “Free-Ranging Domestic Cat Predation on Native Vertebrates in Rural and Urban Virginia.” Virginia Journal of Science. 1992. 43(1B): p. 197–207. www.vacadsci.org/vjsArchives/v43/43-1B/43-197.pdf
12. Yoshino, K. (2010, January 17). A catfight over neutering program. Los Angeles Times, from http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-feral-cats17-2010jan17,0,1225635.story
13. Berkeley, E.P., TNR Past present and future: A history of the trap-neuter-return movement. 2004, Bethesda, MD: Alley Cat Allies.
Mother Jones, according to its Website, “is a nonprofit news organization that specializes in investigative, political, and social justice reporting.”
“…smart, fearless journalism” keeps people informed—“informed” being pretty much indispensable to a democracy that actually works. Because we’ve been ahead of the curve time and again. Because this is journalism not funded by or beholden to corporations. Because we bust bullshit and get results. Because we’re expanding our investigative coverage while the rest of the media are contracting. Because you can count on us to take no prisoners, cleave to no dogma, and tell it like it is. Plus we’re pretty damn fun.
Right up my alley. Until now.
With “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!,” published in the July/August issue, articles editor Kiera Butler fails rather magnificently all the way around.
(The article isn’t available directly from MotherJones.com yet, but you can read it (print it, too) simply by signing up for the magazine’s e-mail updates. Enter your e-mail address and click “Sign Up.” In the next window, click on “ACCESS THE ISSUE NOW”—the full issue will then open automatically in Zinio, a digital magazine reader. “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” begins on p. 72.)
The title, by the way, comes from a 1965 cult classic in which “Three strippers seeking thrills encounter a young couple in the desert.” Sadly, the film is a better reflection of reality than the information in Butler’s article is.
Population of Cats
The most obvious blunder: Citing what seems to be the same data set (“the US feline population has tripled over the last four decades”) I referred to in my “Spoiler Alert” post, Butler arrives not at 90 million or so, as indicated in the original source , or even the bogus 150 million figure the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Tom Will tried to sell last year to the Bird Conservation Alliance.
No—according to Butler, there were 600 million cats in this country in 2007.
At that time, the human population was 301.3 million. For the sake of easy math, then, let’s call it two cats for every human (talk about “hip-deep in cats”!). This, I believe, sets a new record for absurd population claims—far surpassing the previous record held by Steve Holmer, senior policy advisor for the American Bird Conservancy.
And from here, it only gets worse. While her grossly inflated population figure might be attributed a simple mistake. These things happen (though, of course, one expects such things to be caught by somebody on the editorial staff). However, the misinformation, misrepresentations, and missteps that make up the bulk of “Faster, Pussycat!” betray either willful ignorance or glaring bias. Or both.
Smart, fearless journalism it is not.
One Billion Birds
Butler’s litany of complaints against feral cats is all too familiar: wildlife impacts (birds, in particular), public health threats, the “failures” of TNR, the powerful feral cat lobby, and the emotional/irrational nature of feral cat advocates (i.e., the classic “crazy cat lady” label). Her sources, too, include all the usual suspects; though few are cited, many others are obvious.
Sources of Mortality
Butler claims that domestic cats (“officially considered an invasive species”) top the list of mortality sources, killing perhaps one billion birds annually in the U.S. (Her tabulated comparison of seven mortality sources bears the familiar title “Apocalypse Meow.”)
The source of Butler’s “highest reliable estimates” is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, though the one-billion-birds claim has been made by others, including Nico Dauphine and Robert Cooper, [2, 3] and Rich Stallcup.  (In fact, Dauphine refers specifically to Stallcup’s wild-ass guess back-of-the-envelope calculation in her infamous “Apocalypse Meow” presentation.)
Yet even ABC, never one to go easy on cats—or to let science get in the way of their message—ranks building collisions ahead of cats. (Interestingly, neither USFWS nor ABC mentions the most direct human-caused source of bird mortality—hunting—which may account for 120 million avian deaths annually in the U.S. )
The one-billion-birds claim hinges upon an inflated estimate of outdoor cats (Dauphine and Cooper, for example, ignore published survey results [6–8], in effect doubling the number of pet cats allowed outdoors) and inflated predation rates (typically extrapolated from small, flawed studies). Multiplying one by the other, the result is impressive (hence, it’s “stickiness”).
Unfortunately, it’s also meaningless.
Still, such aggregate figures are useful for providing a scientific veneer to what is, at its core, little more than a witch-hunt. All of which makes it an easier sell to the media and the general public.
But sound bites ignore the importance of context. Aggregate predation rates, for example, fail to differentiate across vastly different habitats (e.g., islands, forests, coastlines, etc.), species (e.g., songbirds, seabirds, etc.), conditions (e.g., sick and healthy, young and old, etc.), and levels of vulnerability (e.g., ground-nesting and cavity-nesting species, rare and common species, etc.).
Predators—cats included—catch what’s easy. Indeed, at least two studies [9, 10] have found that cat-killed birds tend to be less healthy than those killed in non-predatory events (e.g., the other six mortality sources shown in Butler’s table).
In asserting that cats are “responsible for at least 33 avian extinctions worldwide,” Butler overlooks or ignores a critical detail: those extinctions involve primarily—perhaps exclusively—island species, with “insular endemic landbirds [being] most frequently driven to extinction”  And even this point is a matter of some debate. “Birds (both landbirds and seabirds) have been affected most by the introduction of cats to islands,” writes Mike Fitzgerald, one of the world’s foremost experts on the subject, “but the impact is rarely well documented.” 
“In many cases the bird populations were not well described before the cats were established and the possible role of other factors in changes in the bird populations are treated inadequately.” 
So what’s the impact of cats on continents?
In 2000, Fitzgerald and co-author Dennis Turner published a review of 61 predation studies, concluding unambiguously: “there are few, if any studies apart from island ones that actually demonstrate that cats have reduced bird populations.” 
Referring to research conducted by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Peter Marra, Butler contends that “cats caused 79 percent of deaths of juvenile catbirds in the suburbs of Washington, DC.” In fact, Marra and his colleagues documented just six deaths attributable to cats, of 42 overall (then justified another three on dubious grounds). 
That 79 percent figure comes from dividing the number of deaths attributed to all sources of predation (33) by the total number of deaths documented over the course of the study (42). Butler’s misreading overstates predation by cats by more than 500 percent.
Public Health Threats
“Feral cats,” writes Butler, “can carry some heinous people diseases, including rabies, hookworm, and toxoplasmosis, and infection known to cause miscarriages and birth defects.” Her omission of infection rates—remarkably low in light of the frequent contact between humans and cats—suggests an interest more in fear-mongering than anything else.
A hookworm outbreak in the Miami Beach area in late 2010 made headlines, prompting officials to create a “cat poop map” (cats can pass hookworm eggs in their feces).
Meanwhile, Floridians were dying of influenza or pneumonia by the hundreds. In fact, according to the Florida Department of Health, 100–140 or so die each week during the winter months. (Actually, that figure accounts for only 24 of the state’s 67 counties, so the total is likely much higher.)
My point is not to dismiss the risk of “heinous people diseases” (or the suffering of those who become infected) but to put that risk into perspective. (In terms of public health, we’re better off focusing on frequent hand washing, sneezing into our sleeves, and, in the case of hookworms on the beach, wearing flip-flops—as opposed to, say, exterminating this country’s most popular companion animal by the millions.)
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Website, “Although cats can carry diseases and pass them to people, you are not likely to get sick from touching or owning a cat.” And, notes the CDC, “People are probably more likely to get toxoplasmosis from gardening or eating raw meat than from having a pet cat.”
(The same is true of feeding feral cats, by the way. While it’s true that their infection rates tend to be higher,  our frequent, close contact with pet cats more than offsets these differences.)
“In theory,” writes Butler, “TNR sounds great. If cats can’t reproduce, their population will decline gradually. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. To put a dent in the total number of cats, at least 71 percent of them must be fixed, and they are notoriously hard to catch.”
In Los Angeles, adds Butler, “it failed miserably in the past.”
Contrary to Butler’s claims, however, there are numerous well-documented examples of TNR programs reducing colony size.
Perhaps the best-known TNR success story in this country is ORCAT. As of 2004, ORCAT, run by the Ocean Reef Community Association, had reduced its “overall population from approximately 2,000 cats to 500 cats.”  According to the ORCAT Website, the population today is approximately 350, of which only about 250 are free-roaming.
Other examples include a TNR program on the campus of the University of Florida University of Central Florida,
Orlando, in which caretakers found homes for more than 47 percent of the campus’ socialized cats and kittens, helping them reduce the campus cat population more than 66 percent, from 68 to 23. 
In North Carolina, researchers observed a 36 percent average decrease among six sterilized colonies in the first two years (even in the absence of adoptions), while three unsterilized colonies experienced an average 47 percent increase.  Four- and seven-year follow-up censuses revealed further reductions among sterilized colonies. 
A survey of caretakers in Rome revealed a 22 percent decrease overall in the number of cats through TNR, despite a 21 percent rate of “cat immigration.” 
And in South Africa, researchers recommended that “a suitable and ongoing sterilization programme, which is run in conjunction with a feral cat feeding programme, needs to be implemented”  on the campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Howard College—despite its proximity to “conservation-sensitive natural bush habitat and a nature reserve on the northern border.” 
The Cost of TNR
“Cash-strapped cities,” argues Butler, “can’t afford to chase down, trap, and sterilize every stray—a process that costs $100 per kitty.” So, can these cities afford to round up and kill the cats?
Mark Kumpf, past president of the National Animal Control Association doesn’t think so. “There’s no department that I’m aware of,” says Kumpf, “that has enough money in their budget to simply practice the old capture-and-euthanize policy; nature just keeps having more kittens.” Traditional control methods, he says, are akin to “bailing the ocean with a thimble.” 
The Cat Lobby
If TNR is so ineffective, why is it becoming the feral cat management approach of choice across the country (adopted in “at least 10 major cities,” according to Butler)? It must be the powerful cat lobby.
Alley Cat Allies, “whose budget was $5.3 million last year,” writes Butler, “has enjoyed generous grants from cat-food venders like PetSmart and Petco.”
It’s a play straight out of Dauphine’s playbook: paint the avian-industrial complex TNR opponents as victims of the powerful cat lobby. (In The Wildlife Professional’s recent special issue, “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats,” Dauphine complains: “The promotion of TNR is big business, with such large amounts of money in play that conservation scientists opposing TNR can’t begin to compete.” )
Alley Cat Allies
How generous were these grants, exactly? According to ACA’s 2010 Annual Report (PDF):
“Alley Cat Allies received more than $5.2 million in support between August 1, 2009 and July 31, 2010: more than 69,000 individuals contributed $4.8 million, including over $1 million in bequests. An additional $245,000 came from Workplace Campaigns, and over $14,000 came from foundation grants.”
Roughly 0.2 percent of their “total public support” came from all foundations combined. In 2009, grants and foundations accounted for 1.7 percent; in 2008, 1.0 percent. (Maybe Butler never got the memo re: MoJo’s commitment to bullshit-busting.)
New Jersey Audubon
Another of Dauphine’s complaints that found its way into “Faster, Pussycat!”:
“Pro-feral groups—there are 250 or so in the United States—have used their financial might to woo wildlife groups. Audubon’s New Jersey chapter backed off on its opposition to TNR in 2005, around the same time major foundations gave the chapter grants to partner with pro-TNR groups.”
What Butler (like Dauphine before her) fails to acknowledge is the important role NJAS plays in the New Jersey Feral Cat & Wildlife Coalition, which has developed a set of model protocols and ordinances designed to help municipal TNR programs in ensuring the protection of any vulnerable native wildlife (DOC).
This is exactly the kind of collaborative effort that should be supported.
For what it’s worth: it’s not clear that NJAS was easily wooed with grant funding. A quick visit to Guidestar.com reveals that NJAS brought in $6.8 million in 2008, and had $25.6 million in “net assets or fund balances” on its books. (I’ve been unable to determine the amount of grant funding NJAS received for “this important initiative,” as CEO and VP of Conservation and Stewardship Eric Stiles described it in a 2008 newsletter. )
Butler frames the TNR debate using what’s come to be standard form: rationale scientists on one side; on the other, cat advocates fueled by emotion. And mental illness, too, apparently: “There’s also speculation that [toxoplasmosis] can trigger schizophrenia and even the desire to be around cats—some researchers blame the crazy-cat-lady phenomenon on toxo.”
A Heated Debate
It’s a dangerous combination, according to Butler.
“Many of the biologists I spoke with say they’ve been harassed and even physically threatened when they’ve presented research about the effect cats have on wildlife.”
Is it really so one-sided?
Why didn’t Butler mention the case of Jim Stevenson, the Galveston birder who, in 2006, shot and killed (though not immediately) a feral cat within earshot of the cat’s caretaker? 
Or, more recently, the charges of attempted animal cruelty filed by the Washington Humane Society against Dauphine? (Or, for that matter, the stream of toxic comments almost guaranteed to accompany nearly any online story about feral cats or TNR.)
Clearly, the “cat people” don’t have a monopoly on emotional—even violent—responses to the issue.
Sustaining a Killer
When Butler tells an ecologist she knows that she’s feeding a feral cat, she’s told: “Basically, you’re sustaining a killer.” Which is essentially Butler’s intended take-away:
“Until they do [invent a single-dose sterilization drug], biologists recommend a combination of strategies. For starters, quit feeding ferals: Beyond sustaining strays, the practice often leads to delinquent pet owners to abandon their cats outdoors, assuming they will be well cared for.”
Are we to believe that abandonment is reduced or eliminated where the feeding of feral cats is prohibited? Owners (delinquent, I agree) interested in dumping their cats can, unfortunately, do so easily.
The far greater incentive for dumping comes from local shelters, most of which euthanize kill the majority of cats brought in. Many require a surrender fee.
I’m just about the last person to defend the dumping of cats, but shouldn’t we acknowledge the aspects of “animal control” policy that contribute to it?
But back to this idea that “no food” means “no ferals.” It sounds reasonable enough, but doesn’t hold up very well to scrutiny. For one thing, where there are humans, there’s food to be found. In fact, even where there are no people, cats don’t starve.
On Marion Island—barren and uninhabited—it took 19 years to eradicate approximately 2,200 cats. Their only human provision: “the carcasses of 12,000 day-old chickens” each injected with the poison sodium monofluoroacetate.  (The rest—the vast majority—were killed through the introduction of feline distemper, intensive hunting and trapping, and dogs. [28, 27])
Is Butler suggesting that the cats in her neighborhood would have it tougher than the Marion Island cats? Even setting aside the cruelty involved, we’re not likely to starve our way out of the “feral cat problem.” Unlike TNR, such an approach only drives the cats (and their caretakers) underground.
This, of course, is roughly the same approach that’s proved ineffective failed so spectacularly at addressing so many other complex issues, including drug enforcement, immigration policy, gays in the military, and so forth.
• • •
Since I launched Vox Felina last year, I’ve been critical of articles appearing in any number of publications: scientific journals (e.g., Conservation Biology), major newspapers (e.g., The Washington Post and The New York Times), an alt-weekly, and more.
None of which bothered me in the least, as I feel no particular connection to any of them. This is not to say that I don’t value, admire, and respect much of the work found, for instance, in the Times—only that I’ve no affinity for, or loyalty to, the paper itself.
But Mother Jones is different. Maybe it’s that whole bullshit-busting, take-no-prisoners, tell-it-like-it-is business—I’d like to think that’s something we share in common.
This time around, though, the magazine served up bullshit by the shovelful, swallowed in one gulp the misinformation churned out by ABC, The Wildlife Society, and other TNR opponents, and… well, told it like it isn’t.
With the publication of “Faster, Pussycat!,” Mother Jones failed miserably in its promise to readers. Which, I have to think, isn’t a lot of fun.
1. Lepczyk, C.A., et al., “What Conservation Biologists Can Do to Counter Trap-Neuter-Return: Response to Longcore et al.” Conservation Biology. 2010. 24(2): p. 627–629. www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/pdf/Lepczyk-2010-Conservation%2520Biology.pdf
2. Dauphine, N. and Cooper, R.J., 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 Tropics. 2009. p. 205–219. http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/pif/pubs/McAllenProc/articles/PIF09_Anthropogenic%20Impacts/Dauphine_1_PIF09.pdf
3. Dauphine, N. and Cooper, R.J., “Pick One: Outdoor Cats or Conservation.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 50–56.
4. Stallcup, R., “A reversible catastrophe.” Observer 91. 1991(Spring/Summer): p. 8–9. http://www.prbo.org/cms/print.php?mid=530
5. Klem, D., “Glass: A Deadly Conservation Issue for Birds.” Bird Observer. 2006. 2. p. 73–81. http://www.massbird.org/BirdObserver/index.htm
6. Clancy, E.A., Moore, A.S., and Bertone, E.R., “Evaluation of cat and owner characteristics and their relationships to outdoor access of owned cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2003. 222(11): p. 1541-1545. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2003.222.1541
7. Lord, L.K., “Attitudes toward and perceptions of free-roaming cats among individuals living in Ohio.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2008. 232(8): p. 1159-1167. http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/javma_232_8_1159.pdf
8. APPA, 2009–2010 APPA National Pet Owners Survey. 2009, American Pet Products Association: Greenwich, CT. http://www.americanpetproducts.org/pubs_survey.asp
9. Møller, A.P. and Erritzøe, J., “Predation against birds with low immunocompetence.” Oecologia. 2000. 122(4): p. 500–504. http://www.springerlink.com/content/ghnny9mcv016ljd8/
10. Baker, P.J., et al., “Cats about town: Is predation by free-ranging pet cats Felis catus likely to affect urban bird populations?“ Ibis. 2008. 150: p. 86–99. http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/bsc/ibi/2008/00000150/A00101s1/art00008
11. Nogales, M., et al., “A Review of Feral Cat Eradication on Islands.” Conservation Biology. 2004. 18(2): p. 310–319. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2004.00442.x/abstract
12. Fitzgerald, B.M., Diet of domestic cats and their impact on prey populations, in The Domestic cat: The biology of its behaviour, D.C. Turner and P.P.G. Bateson, Editors. 1988, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge; New York. p. 123–147.
13. Fitzgerald, B.M. and Turner, D.C., Hunting Behaviour of domestic cats and their impact on prey populations, in The Domestic Cat: The biology of its behaviour, D.C. Turner and P.P.G. Bateson, Editors. 2000, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, U.K.; New York. p. 151–175.
14. Balogh, A., Ryder, T., and Marra, P., “Population demography of Gray Catbirds in the suburban matrix: sources, sinks and domestic cats.” Journal of Ornithology. 2011: p. 1-10. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10336-011-0648-7
15. Dubey, J.P. and Jones, J.L., “Toxoplasma gondii infection in humans and animals in the United States.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2008. 38(11): p. 1257–1278. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6T7F-4S85DPK-1/2/2a1f9e590e7c7ec35d1072e06b2fa99d
16. Levy, J.K. and Crawford, P.C., “Humane strategies for controlling feral cat populations.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1354–1360. http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/default.asp
17. Levy, J.K., Gale, D.W., and Gale, L.A., “Evaluation of the effect of a long-term trap-neuter-return and adoption program on a free-roaming cat population.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2003. 222(1): p. 42-46. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2003.222.42
18. Stoskopf, M.K. and Nutter, F.B., “Analyzing approaches to feral cat management—one size does not fit all.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1361–1364. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15552309
19. Nutter, F.B., Evaluation of a Trap-Neuter-Return Management Program for Feral Cat Colonies: Population Dynamics, Home Ranges, and Potentially Zoonotic Diseases, in Comparative Biomedical Department. 2005, North Carolina State University: Raleigh, NC. p. 224. http://www.carnivoreconservation.org/files/thesis/nutter_2005_phd.pdf
20. Natoli, E., et al., “Management of feral domestic cats in the urban environment of Rome (Italy).” Preventive Veterinary Medicine. 2006. 77(3-4): p. 180–185. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6TBK-4M33VSW-1/2/0abfc80f245ab50e602f93060f88e6f9
21. Tennent, J., Downs, C.T., and Bodasing, M., “Management Recommendations for Feral Cat (Felis catus) Populations Within an Urban Conservancy in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.” South African Journal of Wildlife Research. 2009. 39(2): p. 137–142. http://dx.doi.org/10.3957/056.039.0211
22. Tennent, J. and Downs, C.T., “Abundance and home ranges of feral cats in an urban conservancy where there is supplemental feeding: A case study from South Africa.” African Zoology. 2008. 2: p. 218–229. http://login.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eih&AN=47391224&site=ehost-live
23. Hettinger, J., “Taking a Broader View of Cats in the Community.” Animal Sheltering. 2008. September/October. p. 8–9. http://www.animalsheltering.org/resource_library/magazine_articles/sep_oct_2008/taking_a_broader_view_of_cats.html
24. Dauphine, N., “Follow the Money: The Economics of TNR Advocacy.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 54.
25. Stiles, E., NJAS Works with Coalition to Reduce Bird Mortality from Outdoor Cats. 2008, New Jersey Audubon Society. http://www.njaudubon.org/Portals/10/Conservation/PDF/ConsReportSpring08.pdf
26. Barcott, B. (2007, December 2, 2007). Kill the Cat That Kills the Bird? New York Times, from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/02/magazine/02cats-v–birds-t.html
27. Bester, M.N., et al., “A review of the successful eradication of feral cats from sub-Antarctic Marion Island, Southern Indian Ocean.” South African Journal of Wildlife Research. 2002. 32(1): p. 65–73.
28. Bloomer, J.P. and Bester, M.N., “Control of feral cats on sub-Antarctic Marion Island, Indian Ocean.” Biological Conservation. 1992. 60(3): p. 211-219. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6V5X-48XKBM6-T0/2/06492dd3a022e4a4f9e437a943dd1d8b
Given her 15 years’ experience writing the paper’s Pet Tales column, one might expect the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Linda Wilson Fuoco to know something about free-roaming cats and TNR. Or, failing that, leverage her 30+ years as a newspaper reporter and find out.
If her latest column is any indication, though, she’s simply not interested.
Late last month, about 35 people attended a rally in Monessen, PA, protesting the roundup of 34 free-roaming cats earlier this year. Among the cats was Chloe, a spayed pet Lorrie Cheroki had owned for 12 years.
According to Cheroki and Charlotte Luko (who lost Stripe to the trapping), co-founders of the Coalition for a Humane Monessen, the roundup came without warning. “The city circumvented state law,” notes their April 5 letter to the editor, “and gave an independently contracted, self-proclaimed ‘animal control officer’ carte blanche to trap and kill the feral cat colonies or any cat that was running ‘at large.’”
“…there had never been any attempt to locate any of the owners of the cats, that no messages were returned to anybody concerning the cats, despite days of calling, and that the shelter—at the direction of their ‘animal control officer’—abandoned its policy to hold the cats for 48 hours before killing them.”
So, who’s responsible? According to Fuoco, the answer’s clear:
“The deaths of the Monessen cats were caused by people who claim they love cats. The blame lies with people who allow un-spayed females and un-neutered males to roam freely so that they can fight and breed and contribute to the unending supply of unwanted kittens.”
What this has to do with managed colonies of sterilized cats—and sterilized pet cats—isn’t clear at all, however.
Stranger still is Fuoco’s assertion that “people who love birds and other wildlife really hate free-ranging cats.” As Carl Sagan said rather famously, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Fuoco provides none. Instead, she turns to Pete Marra:
“A study recently published in the Journal of Ornithology says such cats were the No. 1 killer ‘by a large margin’ of baby gray catbirds in three Washington, D.C., suburbs.”
Not surprisingly, Fuoco doesn’t get into any of the details—which, as I’ve pointed out repeatedly, only undermine Marra’s own extraordinary claims.
Of course, the more important question is not who’s to blame—or whether or not people who appreciate wildlife do indeed hate cats—but: How do we solve the problem?
According to Fuoco, 41 percent of people responding to a Post-Gazette online poll (the results of which I’ve been unable to find) prefer the “traditional” trap-and-kill approach to feral cat management (compared to 53 percent who prefer TNR).
No doubt these people believe that additional roundups are all that’s needed to eliminate the area’s feral cats—largely because they’ve never been told otherwise. Not by Marra or Hutchins, of course, but also not by Fuoco and her colleagues in the media—who, collectively, have an abysmal record where feral cats and TNR are concerned.
Would Fuoco’s readers “vote” differently if they knew that Mark Kumpf, former president of the National Animal Control Association, compared trap-and-kill to “bailing the ocean with a thimble”? Or if they knew the brutality—and expense—involved in “successful” eradication efforts, even on small, uninhabited islands?
In fact, the Volusia County (Florida) Animal Control Advisory Board recently reported that taxpayers had shelled out $2.8 million for feral cat roundups—or $87 per cat—between 2008 and 2010. With no end in sight. Hence, the board’s recommendation to adopt TNR.
Meanwhile, in Monessen, PA, city officials declined the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society’s offer to put on a TNR seminar.
“SF Weekly is San Francisco’s smartest publication. That’s because we take journalism seriously, but not so seriously that we let ourselves be guided by an agenda.”
At least that’s what the paper’s Website says.
Now, as somebody who reads SF Weekly only rarely, I want to be careful not to generalize. But if last week’s feature story is typical, then it’s time for the paper to update either its About page or its editorial standards.
“Live and Let Kill” isn’t particularly smart. And, as journalism, it falls well short of the “serious” category.
Reporter Matt Smith argues that “greater scrutiny may be just what the feral feeding movement needs,” while he swallows in one gulp the numerous unsubstantiated claims made by TNR opponents.
Indeed, Smith pays more attention to colony caretaker Paula Kotakis’ “cat-hunting outfit” (“green nylon jacket, slacks, and muddied black athletic shoes”) and her mental health (“For Kotakis, strong emotions and felines go together like a cat and a lap.”) than he does the scientific papers he references (never mind those he overlooks).
His reference to “the feral feeding movement” reflects Smith’s fundamental misunderstanding of TNR, and his dogged efforts to steer the conversation away from sterilization, population control, reduced shelter killing, and the like—to focus on the alleged environmental consequences of subsidizing these “efficient bird killers and disease spreaders.”
Here, too, Smith misses the mark—failing to dig into the topic deeply enough to get beyond press releases, superficial observations, rhetorical questions, and his own bias.
Make no mistake: there’s an agenda here.
Science: The Usual Suspects
“Environmentalists,” writes Smith, “point out that outdoor cats are a greater problem to the natural ecological balance than most people realize.” Actually, what most people (including Smith, perhaps) don’t realize is that Smith’s sources can only rarely defend their dramatic claims with solid science.
Populations and Predation
Smith’s reference to the American Bird Conservancy, which, we’re told, “estimates that America’s 150 million outdoor cats kill 500 million birds a year,” brings to mind the 2010 L.A. Times story in which Steve Holmer, ABC’s Senior Policy Advisor, told the paper there were 160 million feral cats in the country.
Smith got a better answer out of ABC—but ABC’s better answers are only slightly closer to the truth.
Surveys indicate that about two-thirds of pet cats are kept indoors, which means about 31 million are allowed outside (though about half of those are outdoors for less than two or three hours a day). [1–3]. So where do the other 120 million “outdoor cats” come from? And if there are really 150 million of them in the U.S.—roughly one outdoor cat for every two humans—why don’t we see more of them?
Reasonable questions, but Smith is no more interested in asking than ABC is in answering.
The closest Smith comes to supporting ABC’s predation numbers is a reference to Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom, a book “about a birder who declares war on ‘feline death squads’ and calls cats the ‘sociopaths of the pet world,’ responsible for killing millions of American songbirds.” (The fact that Franzen sits on ABC’s board of directors seems to have escaped Smith’s notice.)
In Smith’s defense, chasing down ABC’s predation numbers is a fool’s errand. Such figures—like the rest of ABC’s message regarding free-roaming cats—have more to do with marketing and politics than with science.
No 1. Killer?
For additional evidence, Smith turns to Pete Marra’s study of gray catbirds in and around Bethesda, MD.
“In urban and suburban areas, outdoor cats are the No. 1 killer of birds, by a long shot, according to a new study in the Journal of Ornithology. Researchers from the Smithsonian Institution put radio transmitters on young catbirds and found that 79 percent of deaths were caused by predators, nearly half of which were cats.”
Let’s see now… half of 79 percent… That’s nearly 40 percent of bird deaths caused by cats, right? Well, no.
Although SF Weekly included a link to the Ornithology article on its Website, it seems Smith never read the paper. Like so many others (e.g., The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, etc.), he went with the story being served up by Pete Marra and the Smithsonian.
The real story, it turns out, is far less dramatic than headlines would suggest. In fact, neighborhood cats were observed killing just six birds.
What’s more, even if Marra and his colleagues are correct about the three additional kills they attribute to cats, the title of “No. 1 killer of birds” goes not to the cats, but to unidentified predators, as detailed in the Ornithology paper:
“During our study of post-fledging survival, 61% (42/69) of individuals died before reaching independence. Predation on juveniles accounted for 79% (33/42) of all mortalities (Bethesda 75% (6/8), Spring Park 75% (12/16), and Opal Daniels 83% (15/18) with the vast majority (70%) occurring in the first week post-fledging. Directly observed predation events involved domestic cats (n = 6; 18%), a black rat snake (n = 1; 3%), and a red-shouldered hawk (n = 1; 3%). Although not all mortalities could be clearly assigned, fledglings found with body damage or missing heads were considered symptomatic of cat kills (n = 3; 9%), those found cached underground of rat or chipmunk predation (n = 7; 21%) and those found in trees of avian predation (n = 1; 3%). The remaining mortalities (n = 14; 43%) could not be assigned to a specific predator. Mortality due to reasons other than predation (21%) included unknown cause (n = 2; 22%), weather related (n = 2; 22%), window strikes (n = 2; 22%) and individuals found close to the potential nest with no body damage (n = 3; 34%), suggesting premature fledging, disease or starvation.” 
Taken together, the detailed mortality figures and the study’s small sample size make a mockery of Smith’s claim, and—more important—its implications for feral cat management. Which might explain why he didn’t bother to share this information with readers.
The Power of One
“If trappers miss a single cat,” warns Smith, “populations can rebound if they’re continuously fed, because a fertile female can produce 100 kittens in her lifetime. Miss too many, and the practice of leaving cat food in wild areas will actually increase their numbers by helping them to survive in the wild.”
As Michael Hutchins, Travis Longcore, and others have pointed out, I don’t have a degree in biology. Still, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that “a single cat” isn’t likely to reproduce on its own.
Nor is a female cat—even with help—going to produce 100 kittens over the course of her lifetime. A study of “71 sexually intact female cats in nine managed feral cat colonies” found that:
“Cats produced a mean of 1.4 litters/y, with a median of 3 kittens/litter (range, 1 to 6). Overall, 127 of 169 (75%) kittens died or disappeared before 6 months of age. Trauma was the most common cause of death.” 
To produce 100 kittens, then, an unsterilized female would have to live at least 25 years. Smith fails to reconcile—or even acknowledge—the obvious discrepancy between claims of of-the-charts fecundity and—to use David Jessup’s phrase—the “short, brutal lives”  of feral cats.
Do these cats breed well into their golden years, or, are they “sickened by bad weather, run over by cars, killed by coyotes, or simply starved because feeders weren’t able to attend to a cat colony for the several years or more that are called for,” as Smith suggests?
Clearly, the two scenarios are mutually exclusive.
The closest we get to the “demise of native birds” promised on the cover is Smith’s observation that “wildlife advocates blame the city’s forgiving attitude toward feral cats for helping to almost wipe out native quail, which used to be commonplace.”
This is not a new complaint, as a 1992 story in the San Francisco Chronicle illustrates:
“A decade ago, the hedges and thickets of Golden Gate Park teemed with native songbirds and California Valley quail. Now the park is generally empty of avian life, save for naturalized species such as pigeons, English sparrows and starlings.” 
But the Chronicle, despite its dire proclamation (“One thing seems certain: San Francisco can have a healthy songbird population or lots of feral cats, but not both.” ), did no better than SF Weekly at demonstrating anything more than correlation. This, despite interviews with scientists from the California Academy of Sciences, Point Reyes Bird Observatory, and Golden Gate Chapter of the Audubon Society.
A few years later, Cole Hawkins thought he found the answer. Conducting his PhD work at Lake Chabot Regional Park, Hawkins reported that where there were cats, there were no California Quail—the result, he argued, “of the cat’s predatory behavior.”  In fact, Hawkins found very little evidence of predation, and failed to explain why the majority of ground-nesting birds in his study were indifferent to the presence of cats—thus undermining his own dramatic conclusions.
A quick look at A. Starker Leopold’s 1977 book The California Quail (a classic, it would seem, given how often it’s cited) offers some interesting insights on the subject. (Full disclosure: this was a quick look—I turned immediately to the glossary, and then to the two sections corresponding to “Predators, cats and dogs.”)
In the “Quail Mortality” chapter, Leopold describes Cooper’s Hawk as “the most efficient and persistent predator of California Quail,”  in stark contrast to cats.
“The house cat harasses quail and may drive them from the vicinity of a yard or a feeding station (Sangler, 1931), but there is little evidence that they catch many quail in wild situations. Hubbs (1951) analyzed the stomach contents of 219 feral cats taken in the Sacramento Valley and recorded one California Quail. Feral cats, like bobcats, prey mostly on rodents.” [9, emphasis mine]
The picture changes somewhat, though, when we get to Leopold’s chapter on “Backyard Quail”:
“Cats… not only molest quail, but skillful individuals capture them frequently… Feline pets that are fed regularly are not dependent on catching birds for a living, but rather they hunt for pleasure and avocation. They can afford to spend many happy hours stalking quail and other birds around the yard, and hence they are much more dangerous predators than truly feral cats that must hunt for a living and therefore seek small mammals almost exclusively (wild-living cats rarely catch birds).” 
As to how many “skillful individuals” reside in Golden Gate Park, it’s anybody’s guess. (The idea that few cats catch many birds while many cats catch few if any, however, is well supported in the literature.) And, while they may be well fed, it’s not clear that their very public “yard” and skittish nature afford the park’s cats “many happy hours stalking.”
(A more recent source, The Birds of North America, provides an extensive list of California Quail predators—including several raptor species, coyotes, ground squirrels, and rattlesnakes. Cats are mentioned only as minor players. )
Another complaint from the area’s wildlife advocates, writes Smith, is “Toxoplasma gondii, “shed in cat feces, that threatens endangered sea otters and other marine mammals.” But not all T. gondii is the same. In fact, nearly three-quarters of the sea otters examined as part of one well-known study  were infected with a strain of T. gondii that hasn’t been traced to domestic cats. 
Once again, domestic cats have become an easy target—but, as with their alleged impact on California Quail, there’s plenty we simply don’t know.
For Smith, the trouble with TNR is its long-term maintenance of outdoor cat populations. “Its years of regular feeding,” he argues, citing Travis Longcore’s selective review of the TNR literature,  (which Smith mischaracterizes as “a study”), “causes ‘hyperpredation,’ in which well-fed cats continue to prey on bird, mammal, reptile, and amphibian populations, even after these animals become so scarce they can no longer sustain natural predators.”
But that’s not what happened in Hawkins’ study (though he did his best to suggest as much). And it’s not what happened in the two Florida parks Castillo and Clarke used to study the impact of TNR.
Over the course of approximately 300 hours of observation (this, in addition to “several months identifying, describing, and photographing each of the cats living in the colonies”  prior to beginning their research), the researchers “saw cats kill a juvenile common yellowthroat and a blue jay. Cats also caught and ate green anoles, bark anoles, and brown anoles. In addition, we found the carcasses of a gray catbird and a juvenile opossum in the feeding area.” 
That’s it—from nearly 100 cats (about 26 at one site, and 65 at another).
Calhoon and Haspel, too, found little predation among the free-roaming cats they studied in Brooklyn: “Although birds and small rodents are plentiful in the study area, only once in more than 180 [hours] of observations did we observe predation.” 
Feeding and Population Control
Smith’s description of the vacuum effect reflects his misunderstanding of the phenomenon and the role feeding play in TNR more broadly:
“Feral cat advocates believe removing cats from the wild creates a natural phenomenon known as the ‘vacuum effect,’ in which new cats will replace absent ones. (Key to the ‘vacuum’ are the tons of cat food TNR supporters place twice a day, every day, at secret feeding stations nationwide.)”
Smith would have readers believe that TNR practitioners bait cats the way hunters bait deer. In fact, the food comes after the cat(s), not the other way around.
Cats are remarkably resourceful; where there are humans, there is generally food and shelter to be found. Indeed, even where no such support is provided, cats persist. On Marion Island—barren, uninhabited, and only 115 square miles in total area—it took 19 years to eradicate about 2,200 cats, using disease (feline distemper), poisoning, intensive hunting and trapping, and dogs. [16, 17]
As Bester et al. observe, the island’s cats didn’t require “tons of cat food” as an incentive to move into “vacuums”:
“The recolonization of preferred habitats, cleared of cats, from neighbouring suboptimal areas served to continually concentrate surviving cats in smaller areas.” 
Still, those “tons of cat food TNR supporters place twice a day, every day, at secret feeding stations nationwide” are key to the success of TNR—just not in the way Smith suggested. Feeding allows caretakers to monitor the cats in their care, “enrolling” new arrivals as soon as possible.
By bringing these cats out into the open—via managed colonies—they’re much more likely to be sterilized and, in some cases, vaccinated. Many will also find their way into permanent homes. Take away the food, and these cats will merely slip back into the surroundings, go “underground.”
And in no time at all, the ones that weren’t sterilized will be breeding.
• • •
By framing TNR (the “feral feeding movement,” as he insists on calling it) as “animal welfare ethics on one side, and classic environmental ethics on the other,” Smith overlooks some critical common ground: all parties are interested in reducing the population of feral cats. He also allows himself to give in to an easy—and rather tired—narrative: the crazy cat ladies v. the respected scientists.
At the same time Smith recognizes Kotakis’ dedication and accomplishment (“In her tiny bit of territory in the eastern parts of the park, her method and dedication might just have created a tipping point that has produced a humane ideal of fewer feral cats.”), he can’t resist commenting on her OCD (including a quote from a clinical psychologist who, we can safely assume, has never even met Kotakis).
Meanwhile, Smith couldn’t care less about looking into the science.
I suppose “Live and Let Kill” is balanced in the sense that Smith gives “equal time” to both sides of the issue, but that’s not good enough. Serious journalism demands that readers are provided the truest account possible.
1. APPA, 2009–2010 APPA National Pet Owners Survey. 2009, American Pet Products Association: Greenwich, CT. http://www.americanpetproducts.org/pubs_survey.asp
2. Clancy, E.A., Moore, A.S., and Bertone, E.R., “Evaluation of cat and owner characteristics and their relationships to outdoor access of owned cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2003. 222(11): p. 1541-1545. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2003.222.1541
3. Lord, L.K., “Attitudes toward and perceptions of free-roaming cats among individuals living in Ohio.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2008. 232(8): p. 1159-1167. http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/javma_232_8_1159.pdf
4. Balogh, A., Ryder, T., and Marra, P., “Population demography of Gray Catbirds in the suburban matrix: sources, sinks and domestic cats.” Journal of Ornithology. 2011: p. 1-10. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10336-011-0648-7
5. Nutter, F.B., Levine, J.F., and Stoskopf, M.K., “Reproductive capacity of free-roaming domestic cats and kitten survival rate.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1399–1402. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2004.225.1399
6. Jessup, D.A., “The welfare of feral cats and wildlife.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1377-1383. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15552312
7. Martin, G. (1992, January 13). Feral Cats Blamed for Decline In Golden Gate Park Songbirds. The San Francisco Chronicle, p. A1,
8. Hawkins, C.C., Impact of a subsidized exotic predator on native biota: Effect of house cats (Felis catus) on California birds and rodents. 1998, Texas A&M University
9. Leopold, A.S., The California Quail. 1977, Berkeley: University of California Press.
10. Calkins, J.D., Hagelin, J.C., and Lott, D.F., California quail. The Birds of North America: Life Histories for the 21st Century. 1999, Philadelphia, PA: Birds of North America, Inc. 1–32.
11. Conrad, P.A., et al., “Transmission of Toxoplasma: Clues from the study of sea otters as sentinels of Toxoplasma gondii flow into the marine environment.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2005. 35(11-12): p. 1155-1168. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6T7F-4GWC8KV-2/2/2845abdbb0fd82c37b952f18ce9d0a5f
12. Miller, M.A., et al., “Type X Toxoplasma gondii in a wild mussel and terrestrial carnivores from coastal California: New linkages between terrestrial mammals, runoff and toxoplasmosis of sea otters.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2008. 38(11): p. 1319-1328. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6T7F-4RXJYTT-2/2/32d387fa3048882d7bd91083e7566117
13. Longcore, T., Rich, C., and Sullivan, L.M., “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return.” Conservation Biology. 2009. 23(4): p. 887–894. http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/pdf/Management_claims_feral_cats.pdf
14. Castillo, D. and Clarke, A.L., “Trap/Neuter/Release Methods Ineffective in Controlling Domestic Cat “Colonies” on Public Lands.” Natural Areas Journal. 2003. 23: p. 247–253.
15. Calhoon, R.E. and Haspel, C., “Urban Cat Populations Compared by Season, Subhabitat and Supplemental Feeding.” Journal of Animal Ecology. 1989. 58(1): p. 321–328. http://www.jstor.org/pss/5003
16. Bester, M.N., et al., “A review of the successful eradication of feral cats from sub-Antarctic Marion Island, Southern Indian Ocean.” South African Journal of Wildlife Research. 2002. 32(1): p. 65–73.
17. Bloomer, J.P. and Bester, M.N., “Control of feral cats on sub-Antarctic Marion Island, Indian Ocean.” Biological Conservation. 1992. 60(3): p. 211-219. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6V5X-48XKBM6-T0/2/06492dd3a022e4a4f9e437a943dd1d8b
To hear The Wildlife Society’s staunch opponents of TNR tell it, the media’s just not interested in stories about “the impacts of free-ranging and feral cats on wildlife.”
“This January when thousands of blackbirds fell from the sky in Arkansas, articles about mass extinctions and bird conservation were a dime-a-dozen. When the Deepwater Horizon oil spill killed 6,000 birds between April to October 2010, news organizations ran ‘Breaking News’ about the negative impacts on the environment. Meanwhile it is estimated that one million birds are killed everyday by cats, and the only news organizations covering it are small, local branches. The bigger problem is being shuffled to the backburner for more sensational news.”
According to The Wildlife Society (TWS), however, “the bigger problem” is “greater than almost any other single-issue.”
In their effort to get the issue on the front burner, TWS has “gathered the facts about these cats, and published them in the Spring Issue of The Wildlife Professional in a special section called ‘The Impact of Free Ranging Cats.’” (available free via issuu.com)
Thus armed, readers are expected to, as it says on the cover, “Pick One: Outdoor Cats or Conservation”
Back Burner or Hot Topic?
Before we get to the “facts,” it’s worth looking back over the past 15 months to see just how neglectful the media have been re: “the bigger problem.”
“Palmer said one of the most ‘heartbreaking’ scenes during filming was at a volunteer spay-neuter clinic in Los Angeles that sterilized 80 ferals a day. She said most of the cats had infections that never healed, as well as broken bones, large abscesses around their teeth and mange.” (A claim easily discredited, if only the reporters had bothered to check.)
Yet, the folks at TWS would have us believe that “the only news organizations covering [the cat-bird issue] are small, local branches.” As is often the case, their story doesn’t hold up well alongside the facts.
Indeed, other than when Higgins got Executive Director/CEO Michael Hutchins’ name wrong, it’s hard to see what TWS has to complain about.
The Art of Selling Science
“After years of arguments,” laments Nico Dauphine and Robert Cooper, recalling last year’s decision by Athens, GA, to adopt TNR, “the vote was cast: 9–1 in favor of the ordinance, with an additional 7–3 vote establishing a $10,000 annual budget to support the TNR program.”
“How could this happen in a progressive community like Athens, Georgia, home to one of the nation’s finest university programs in wildlife science? The answer is a complex mix of money, politics, intense emotions, and deeply divergent perspectives on animal welfare… If we’re going to win the battle to save wildlife from cats, then we’ll need to be smarter about how we communicate the science.” 
Something tells me this “smarter” communication doesn’t allow for much in the way of honesty and transparency—attributes already in short supply.
“The Impact of Free Ranging Cats” has given its contributors the opportunity to revive and reinforce a range of dubious claims, including the ever-popular exaggerations about the number of free-roaming cats in the environment.
According to Dauphine and Cooper, “The number of outdoor pet cats, strays, and feral cats in the U.S. alone now totals approximately 117 to 157 million,”  an estimate rooted in their earlier creative accounting. Colin Gillin, president of the American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians, who penned this issue’s “Leadership Letter” (more on that later), follows suit, claiming “60 million or more pet cats are allowed outdoors to roam free.” 
The American Pet Products Association 2008 National Pet Owners Survey, though, indicates that 64 percent of pet cats are indoor-only during the daytime, and 69 percent are kept in at night . Of those that are allowed outdoors, approximately half are outside for less than three hours each day. [4, 5]
This information is widely available—and has been for years—yet many TNR opponents continue to inflate by a factor of two the number of free-roaming pet cats.
And it only gets worse from here.
Dense and Denser
Not content to inflate absolute cat numbers, Dauphine and Cooper go on to misrepresent research into population demographics as well. “Local densities can be extremely high,” they write, “reaching up to 1,580 cats per square kilometer in urban areas.”  In fact, the very paper they cite paints a rather different picture. For one thing, there’s quite a range involved: 132–1,579 cats per square kilometer (a point recognized by Yolanda van Heezik, another contributor to the special issue .)
Also, this is a highly skewed distribution—there are lots of instances of low/medium density, while high densities are far less common. As a result, the median (417) is used “as a measure of central tendency”  rather than the mean (856). So, although densities “reaching up to 1,580 cats per square kilometer in urban areas” were observed, more than half fell between 132 and 417 cats per square kilometer (or 51–161 cats per square mile).
Even more interesting, however, are what Sims et al. learned when they compared bird density and cat density: in many cases, there were more birds in the very areas where there were more cats—even species considered especially vulnerable to predation by cats. It may be, suggest Sims et al., that, because high cat density corresponds closely to high housing density, this measure is also an indication of those areas “where humans provide more supplementary food for birds.” 
Another explanation: “consistently high cat densities in our study areas… and thus uniformly high impacts of cat populations on urban avian assemblages.”  (Interestingly, the authors never consider that they might be observing uniformly low impacts.)
The bottom line? It’s difficult enough to show a direct link between observed predation and population impacts; suggesting a causal connection between high cat densities and declining bird populations is misleading and irresponsible. (Not that Dauphine and Cooper are the only ones to attempt it; recall that no predation data from Coleman and Temple’s “Wisconsin Study” were ever published, despite numerous news stories in which Temple referred to their existence in some detail [8–10].)
Dauphine and Cooper make a similar leap when, to buttress their claim that “TNR does not reduce predation pressure on native wildlife,”  they cite a study not about predation, but about the home ranges of 27 feral cats on Catalina Island.
While it’s true that the researchers found “no significant differences… in home-range areas or overlap between sterilized and intact cats,”  this has as much due to their tiny sample size as anything else. And the difference in range size between the four intact males and the four sterilized males was—while not statistically significant—revealing.
The range of intact males was 33–116 percent larger during the non-breeding season, and 68–80 percent larger during the breeding season. In his study of “house-bound” cats, Liberg, too, found differences: “breeding males had ranges of 350–380 hectares; ranges of subordinate, non-breeding males were around 80 hectares, or not much larger than those of females.” 
All of which suggests smaller ranges for males that are part of TNR programs. What any of this has to do with “predation pressure on native wildlife,” however, remains an open question.
On the other hand, Castillo and Clarke (whose paper Dauphine and Cooper cite) actually documented remarkably little predation among the TNR colonies they studied. In fact, over the course of approximately 300 hours of observation (this, in addition to “several months identifying, describing, and photographing each of the cats living in the colonies”  prior to beginning their research), Castillo and Clarke “saw cats kill a juvenile common yellowthroat and a blue jay. Cats also caught and ate green anoles, bark anoles, and brown anoles. In addition, we found the carcasses of a gray catbird and a juvenile opossum in the feeding area” .
Another of Dauphine and Cooper’s “facts”—that “TNR does not typically reduce feral cat populations”—is contradicted by another one of the studies they cite. Contrary to what the authors suggest, Felicia Nutter’s PhD thesis work showed that “colonies managed by trap-neuter-return were stable in composition and declining in size throughout the seven year follow-up period.” 
Indeed, Nutter observed a mean decrease of 36 percent (range: 30–89 percent) in the six TNR colonies they studied over two years. By contrast, the three control colonies increased in size an average of 47 percent. 
Additional TNR success stories Dauphine and Cooper fail to acknowledge:
In recent years, Toxoplasma gondii has been linked to the illness and death of marine life, primarily sea otters , prompting investigation into the possible role of free-roaming (both owned and feral) cats. [19, 20] But if, as the authors claim, “the science points to cats,” then it does so rather obliquely, an acknowledgement Jessup and Miller make begrudgingly:
“Based on proximity and sheer numbers, outdoor pet and feral domestic cats may be the most important source of T. gondii oocysts in near-shore marine waters. Mountain lions and bobcats rarely dwell near the ocean or in areas of high human population density, where sea otter infections are more common.” [21, emphasis mine]
Correlation, however, is not the same as causation. And not all T. gondii is the same.
In a study of southern sea otters from coastal California, conducted between 1998 and 2004, a team of researches—including Jessup and Miller—found that 36 of 50 otters were infected with the Type X strain of T. gondii, one of at least four known strains.  Jessup and Miller were also among 14 co-authors of a 2008 paper (referenced in their contribution to “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats”) in which the Type X strain was linked not to domestic cats, but to wild felids:
“Three of the Type X-infected carnivores were wild felids (two mountain lions and a bobcat), but no domestic cats were Type X-positive. Examination of larger samples of wild and domestic felids will help clarify these initial findings. If Type X strains are detected more commonly from wild felids in subsequent studies, this could suggest that these animals are more important land-based sources of T. gondii for marine wildlife than are domestic cats.” [20, emphasis mine]
Combining the results of the two studies, then, nearly three-quarters of the sea otters examined as part of the 1998–2004 study were infected with a strain of T. gondii that hasn’t been traced to domestic cats. (I found this to be such surprising news that, months ago, I tried to contact Miller about it. Was I missing something? What studies were being conducted that might confirm or refute these finings? Etc. I never received a reply.)
As Miller et al. note, “subsequent studies” are in order. And it’s important to keep in mind their sample size was quite small: three bobcats, 26 mountain lions, and seven domestic cats (although the authors suggest at one point that only five domestic cats were included).
Still, a recently published study from Germany seems to support the hypothesis that the Type X strain isn’t found in domestic cats. Herrmann et al. analyzed 68 T. gondii-positive fecal samples (all from pet cats) and found no Type X strain.  (It’s interesting to note, too, that only 0.25 percent of the 18,259 samples tested positive for T. gondii.)
This is not to say that there’s no connection between domestic cats and Toxoplasmosis in sea otters, but that any “trickle-down effect,” as Jessup and Miller describe it, is not nearly as well understood as they imply. There’s too much we simply don’t know.
Money and Politics
I agree with Dauphine and Cooper that science is only part of the TNR debate—that it also involves “a complex mix of money, politics, intense emotions, and deeply divergent perspectives on animal welfare.” And I agree with their assessment of the progress being made by TNR supporters:
“Advocates of TNR have gained tremendous political strength in the U.S. in recent years. With millions of dollars in donor funding, they are influencing legislation and the policies of major animal-oriented nonprofit organizations.” 
What I find puzzling is Dauphine’s rather David-and-Goliath portrayal of the “cat lobby” (my term, not hers) they’re up against—in particular, her complaint, “promotion of TNR is big business, with such large amounts of money in play that conservation scientists opposing TNR can’t begin to compete.” 
The Cat Lobby
In “Follow the Money: The Economics of TNR Advocacy,” she notes that Best Friends Animal Society, “one of the largest organizations promoting TNR, took in over $40 million in revenue in 2009.”  Fair enough, but this needs to be weighed against expenses of $35.6 million—of which $15.5 million was spent on “animal care activities.”
But Dauphine’s got it wrong when she claims that Best Friends “spent more than $11 million on cat advocacy campaigns that year.”  Their financials—spelled out in the same document Dauphine cites—are unambiguous: $11.7 million in expenditures went to all “campaigns and other national outreach.” Indeed, there is no breakdown for “cat advocacy campaigns.”
Dauphine does a better job describing Alley Cat Allies’ 2010 financials: of the $5.2 million they took in, $3.3 million was spent in public outreach. But she’s overreaching in suggesting that their “Every Kitty, Every City” campaign is nationwide. For now, at least, it’s up and running in just “five major U.S. cities.”
Echoing Dauphine’s concerns, Florida attorney Pamela Jo Hatley decries ORCAT’s resources: “At a meeting hosted by the Ocean Reef Resort in June 2004,” recalls Hatley, “I learned that the ORCAT colony then had about 500 free-ranging cats, several paid employees, and an annual operating budget of some $100,000.” 
What Hatley fails to mention is how those resources have been used to make ORCAT a model for the rest of the country—using private donations. Hatley doesn’t seem to object to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shelling out $50,000—of tax dollars—in 2007 to round up fewer than 20 cats (some of which were clearly not feral) along with 81 raccoons (53 of which were released alive) in the Florida Keys. [26, 27]
Following the Money
According to their 2008 Form 990, ORCAT took in about $278,000 in revenue, compared to $310,000 in expenses. How does that compare to some of the organizations opposing TNR? A quick visit to Guidestar.com helps put things in perspective.
These numbers clearly don’t reflect the funding each organization dedicates to opposing TNR—but neither do they offer any evidence that, as Dauphine argues, “conservation scientists opposing TNR can’t begin to compete.”
Nobody familiar with the TNR debate would suggest that it’s not highly emotional. How can it be otherwise? Indeed, the very idea of decoupling our emotions from such important discourse is rather absurd.
Having an emotional investment in the debate does not, however, make one irrational or stupid.
“On the surface,” suggest Dauphine and Cooper, their tone unmistakably condescending, “TNR may sound reasonable, even logical.”  Gillin, for his part, bemoans the way the TNR debate “quickly shifts from statistics to politics to emotional arguments.” 
What’s particularly fascinating about all of this—the way TNR supporters are made out to be irrational (if not mentally ill—as in a letter to Conservation Biology last year, when several TNR opponents, including four contributors to “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats,” compared TNR to hoarding )—is just how emotionally charged the appeal of TNR opponents is.
Witness the “gruesome gallery of images,” for example, in which “one cat lies dead with a broken leg, one lies dying in a coat of maggots, and another suffers as ticks and ear mites plague its face.”  The idea, of course, is that these cats would have been better off if they’d been rounded up and killed “humanely.” A preemptive strike against the inevitability of “short, brutal lives.” (This phrase, which I first saw used by Jessup,  has become remarkably popular among TNR opponents.)
But is it that simple? Applying the same logic (if that’s what it is) to pelicans covered in oil, for instance, would we suggest that these birds should either be in captivity or “humanely euthanized”? Obviously not.
Divergent Perspectives on Animal Welfare
While I disagree that “the debate is predominately about whether cats should be allowed to run wild across the landscape and, if not, how to effectively and humanely manage them,”  I tend to agree with Lepczyk et al. when they write:
“It’s much more about human views and perceptions than science—a classic case where understanding the human dimensions of an issue is the key to mitigating the problem.” 
But, like Dauphine and Cooper, Lepczyk et al. seem more interested in broadcasting their message—loudly, ad nauseam—than in listening. “We need to understand whether people are even aware,” they write, “of the cumulative impact that their actions—choosing to let cats outdoors—can have on wildlife populations.” 
Although it’s packaged somewhat “softly,” we’re back to the same old speculative connections between predation and population impacts (familiar terrain for Lepczyk, who tried to connect these same dots in his PhD research). But how much of a connection is there, really? In their review of 61 predation studies, Mike Fitzgerald and Dennis Turner are unambiguous:
“We consider that we do not have enough information yet to attempt to estimate on average how many birds a cat kills each year. And there are few, if any studies apart from island ones that actually demonstrate that cats have reduced bird populations.” 
While the tone used by Lepczyk et al. is very much “we’re all in this together,” their prescription for “moving forward” suggests little common ground. (They actually cite that 2010 letter to Conservation Biology —not much of an olive branch.)
“One approach is exemplified in Hawaii,” explain the authors, “where we’ve become part of a large coalition of stakeholders working together with the shared goal of reducing and eventually removing feral cats from the landscape.”  So, who’s involved?
“Our diverse group includes individuals from the Humane Society of the United States, the Hawaiian Humane Society, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, and the University of Hawaii. Our team also regularly interacts with other groups around the nation such as regional Audubon Societies and the American Bird Conservancy. Several stakeholders in the group have differing views, such as on whether or not euthanasia or culling is appropriate, or whether people should feed feral cats.” 
Other than the Humane Society organizations (whose position on TNR I don’t take for granted, considering they were early supporters of ABC’s Cats Indoors! campaign ), I don’t see a real diversity of views in this coalition.
I suppose it’s easy to make room at the table when you’re offering so few seats.
For Dauphine, though, any such collaboration approaches treason. Or selling out, at least.
“In some cases,” she explains, “conservation groups accept funding to join in efforts promoting TNR. The New Jersey Audubon Society, for example, had previously rejected TNR but began supporting it in 2005, acknowledging funding from the Frankenberg and Dodge Foundations for collaboration with TNR groups.” 
Dauphine doesn’t go into detail about the amount of funding, and it’s not clear what, if any, role it played in the decision by NJAS (which took in $6.8 million in 2008) to participate in the New Jersey Feral Cat-Wildlife Coalition—the kind of collaborative effort that should be encouraged, not derided:
“From 2002 to 2005, NJAS had actively opposed the practice of TNR in New Jersey. Despite this opposition, municipalities continued to adopt TNR ordinances. In 2005, NJAS, American Bird Conservancy, Neighborhood Cats and Burlington Feral Cat Initiative began exploratory dialogue about implementing standards to protect rare wildlife vulnerable to cat predation in towns which have already adopted TNR programs.” 
Message Received, Loud and Clear
Rather than wringing their hands over how to “better communicate the science”  or how to better facilitate “legal or policy changes, incentives, and increased education,”  TNR opponents might want to reconsider the message itself.
What they are proposing is the killing—on an unprecedented scale—of this country’s most popular pet.
I don’t imagine this tests well with focus groups and donors, of course, but there it is.
These people seem perplexed by a community’s willingness to adopt TNR (“In the end,” lament Lepczyk et al., referring to the decision in Athens, GA, “the professional opinion of wildlife biologists counted no more than that of any other citizen, a major reason for the defeat.” ) but fail to recognize how profoundly unpalatable their alternative is.
And, unworkable, too.
Which may explain why it’s virtually impossible to get them to discuss their “plan” in any detail. (I was unsuccessful, for example, in pinning down Travis Longcore during our back-and-forth on the Audubon magazine’s blog and couldn’t get Jessup or Hutchins to bite when I asked the same question during an online discussion of public health risks.)
In light of what’s involved with “successful” eradication programs, I’m not surprised by their eagerness to change the subject.
These examples represent, in many ways, low-hanging fruit. By contrast, “the presence of non-target species and the need to safely mitigate for possible harmful effects, along with substantial environmental compliance requirements raised the cost of the eradication.”  Eradicating rodents from Anacapa Island, “a small [1.2-square-mile] island just 80 miles from Los Angeles International Airport, cost about $2 million.” 
Now—setting aside the horrors involved—how exactly do TNR opponents propose to rid the U.S. of it’s millions of feral cats? [cue the sound track of crickets chirping]
I think the general public is starting to catch on. Even if they fall for the outlandish claims about predation, wildlife impacts, and all the rest—they don’t see anything in the way of a real solution. As Mark Kumpf, former president of the National Animal Control Association, put it in an interview with Animal Sheltering magazine, “the traditional methods that many communities use… are not necessarily the ones that communities are looking for today.” 
“Traditional” approaches to feral cat management (i.e., trap-and-kill) are, says Kumpf, akin to “bailing the ocean with a thimble.” 
For all their apparent interest—22 pages in the current issue of The Wildlife Professional alone—TWS might as well be handing out thimbles to its members. Although Gillin’s “Leadership Letter” invites “dialogue among all stakeholders,” it offers nothing substantive to advance the discussion:
“If removal and euthanasia of unadoptable feral cats is not acceptable to TNR proponents, then they need to offer the conservation community a logical, science-based proposal that will solve the problem of this invasive species and its effect on wildlife and the environment.” 
So much for leadership.
1. Dauphine, N. and Cooper, R.J., “Pick One: Outdoor Cats or Conservation.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 50–56.
2. Gillin, C., “The Cat Conundrum.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 10, 12.
3. APPA, 2009–2010 APPA National Pet Owners Survey. 2009, American Pet Products Association: Greenwich, CT. http://www.americanpetproducts.org/pubs_survey.asp
4. Lord, L.K., “Attitudes toward and perceptions of free-roaming cats among individuals living in Ohio.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2008. 232(8): p. 1159-1167. http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/javma_232_8_1159.pdf
5. Clancy, E.A., Moore, A.S., and Bertone, E.R., “Evaluation of cat and owner characteristics and their relationships to outdoor access of owned cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2003. 222(11): p. 1541-1545. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2003.222.1541
6. van Heezik, Y., “A New Zealand Perspective.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 70.
7. Sims, V., et al., “Avian assemblage structure and domestic cat densities in urban environments.” Diversity and Distributions. 2008. 14(2): p. 387–399. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1472-4642.2007.00444.x
8. Wilson, M. (1997). Cats Roaming Free Take a Toll on Songbirds. Boston Globe, p. 11.
9. Seppa, N. (1993, July 22). Millions of Songbirds, Rabbits Disappearing. Wisconsin State Journal, p. 1A.
10. Wozniak, M.D. (1993, August 3). Feline felons: Barn cats are just murder on songbirds. The Milwaukee Journal, p. A1.
11. Guttilla, D.A. and Stapp, P., “Effects of sterilization on movements of feral cats at a wildland-urban interface.”Journal of Mammalogy. 2010. 91(2): p. 482–489. http://dx.doi.org/10.1644/09-MAMM-A-111.1
12. Liberg, O. and Sandell, M., Spatial organisation and reproductive tactics in the domestic cat and other felids, in The Domestic cat: The biology of its behaviour, D.C. Turner and P.P.G. Bateson, Editors. 1988, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge; New York. p. 83–98.
13. Castillo, D. and Clarke, A.L., “Trap/Neuter/Release Methods Ineffective in Controlling Domestic Cat “Colonies” on Public Lands.” Natural Areas Journal. 2003. 23: p. 247–253.
14. Nutter, F.B., Evaluation of a Trap-Neuter-Return Management Program for Feral Cat Colonies: Population Dynamics, Home Ranges, and Potentially Zoonotic Diseases, in Comparative Biomedical Department. 2005, North Carolina State University: Raleigh, NC. p. 224.
15. Stoskopf, M.K. and Nutter, F.B., “Analyzing approaches to feral cat management—one size does not fit all.”Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1361–1364. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15552309
16. Natoli, E., et al., “Management of feral domestic cats in the urban environment of Rome (Italy).” Preventive Veterinary Medicine. 2006. 77(3-4): p. 180-185. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6TBK-4M33VSW-1/2/0abfc80f245ab50e602f93060f88e6f9
17. Levy, J.K. and Crawford, P.C., “Humane strategies for controlling feral cat populations.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1354–1360. http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/default.asp
18. Jones, J.L. and Dubey, J.P., “Waterborne toxoplasmosis – Recent developments.” Experimental Parasitology. 124(1): p. 10-25. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6WFH-4VXB8YT-2/2/8f9562f64497fe1a30513ba3f000c8dc
19. Dabritz, H.A., et al., “Outdoor fecal deposition by free-roaming cats and attitudes of cat owners and nonowners toward stray pets, wildlife, and water pollution.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2006. 229(1): p. 74-81. http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/javma_229_1_74.pdf
20. Miller, M.A., et al., “Type X Toxoplasma gondii in a wild mussel and terrestrial carnivores from coastal California: New linkages between terrestrial mammals, runoff and toxoplasmosis of sea otters.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2008. 38(11): p. 1319-1328. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6T7F-4RXJYTT-2/2/32d387fa3048882d7bd91083e7566117
21. Jessup, D.A. and Miller, M.A., “The Trickle-Down Effect.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 62–64.
22. Conrad, P.A., et al., “Transmission of Toxoplasma: Clues from the study of sea otters as sentinels of Toxoplasma gondii flow into the marine environment.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2005. 35(11-12): p. 1155-1168. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6T7F-4GWC8KV-2/2/2845abdbb0fd82c37b952f18ce9d0a5f
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24. Dauphine, N., “Follow the Money: The Economics of TNR Advocacy.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 54.
25. Hatley, P.J., “Incompatible Neighbors in the Florida Keys.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 52–53.
26. O’Hara, T. (2007, April 3). Fish & Wildlife Service to begin removing cats from Keys refuges. The Key West Citizen, from http://keysnews.com/archives
27. n.a., Lower Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Comprehensive Conservation Plan. 2009, U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service: Atlanta, GA. http://www.fws.gov/nationalkeydeer/
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30. Fitzgerald, B.M. and Turner, D.C., Hunting Behaviour of domestic cats and their impact on prey populations, in The Domestic Cat: The biology of its behaviour, D.C. Turner and P.P.G. Bateson, Editors. 2000, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, U.K.; New York. p. 151–175.
31. Berkeley, E.P., TNR Past present and future: A history of the trap-neuter-return movement. 2004, Bethesda, MD: Alley Cat Allies.
32. Stiles, E., NJAS Works with Coalition to Reduce Bird Mortality from Outdoor Cats. 2008, New Jersey Audubon Society. http://www.njaudubon.org/Portals/10/Conservation/PDF/ConsReportSpring08.pdf
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39. Hettinger, J., Taking a Broader View of Cats in the Community, in Animal Sheltering. 2008. p. 8–9. http://www.animalsheltering.org/resource_library/magazine_articles/sep_oct_2008/taking_a_broader_view_of_cats.html
“The cat, of all animals, is in some respects the most intimate companion of man… Nevertheless, it leads a dual existence. ‘The fireside sphinx,’ the pet of the children, the admired habitué of the drawing-room or the salon by day, may become at night a wild animal, pursuing, striking down and torturing its prey, frequently making night hideous with its cries, sneaking into dark, filthy, noisome retreats, or taking to the woods and fields, where it perpetrates untold mischief. Now it ravages the dovecote; now it steals on the mother bird asleep on her nest, striking bird, nest and young to the ground. In the darkness of night it turns poacher. No animal that it can reach and master is safe from its ravenous clutches.” —Edward Howe Forbush, The Domestic Cat: Bird Killer, Mouser and Destroyer of Wild Life; Means of Utilizing and Controlling It (1916)
Among the numerous criticisms of “Feral Cats and Their Management,” we can now add lack of originality.
In the January/February issue of Animal People, editor Merritt Clifton confirms his “hunch that ‘Feral Cats and Their Management’ is little more than a paraphrased and condensed update of the 1916 tract The Domestic Cat: Bird Killer, Mouser and Destroyer of Wild Life; Means of Utilizing and Controlling It, authored by then-Massachusetts state ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush.”
“…the University of Nebraska paper and the Forbush work follow almost identical outlines from beginning to end, making similar allegations, arriving at the same recommendations in closely parallel language.” 
“The major structural difference,” writes Clifton, has to do with the sources involved. Whereas Forbush relied largely on “anecdotal testimony from more than 200 individual correspondents” (much of it from hunters who were after the same birds the cats were pursuing), Hildreth, Vantassel, and Hygnstrom provide “no firsthand testimony.” 
Instead, notes Clifton, they “plugged in references to more recent studies… in support of essentially the same claims, including that cats devastate populations of birds who would otherwise be hunted.” 
Among the similarities described in Clifton’s article:
Like Forbush, the authors of “Feral Cats and Their Management” use “outlandishly high claims about feline fecundity”  to drum up support for their eradication (“Hence the necessity for checking such increase promptly by killing all superfluous kittens soon after birth,” [2, p. 19] as Forbush put it).
For their reprise of Bird Killer, Mouser and Destroyer of Wild Life, Hildreth, Vantassel, and Hygnstrom turn to a frequently cited—but bogus—figure:
“The Humane Society of the United States estimates that a pair of breeding cats and their offspring can produce over 400,000 cats in seven years under ideal conditions, assuming none die.” 
But of course, feral cats—like all animals, and especially those living outdoors—don’t live “under ideal conditions.” And kittens do die. (The fact that Hildreth, Vantassel, and Hygnstrom leave it that is telling: their intent has nothing whatsoever to do with science, or research of any kind.)
In fact, the Wall Street Journal’s “Numbers Guy,” Carl Bialik, discredited this myth four years earlier in his column. What’s more, John Snyder, Vice President, Companion Animals, told Bialik then that HSUS wasn’t the source, adding, “that number is flawed.” (I’ve searched the HSUS website and can find no mention of it.)
Predation and Impact
Clifton points out that Forbush ignored reliable information indicating that free-roaming cats kill, on average 10 or 11 birds annually, and instead “dwelt on the claims of 15 people that their cats killed 20.4 birds per month, and the claims of six people that their cats killed about 50 birds per year.”
It’s not clear what information Hildreth, Vantassel, and Hygnstrom relied on, as they didn’t bother with in-text citations. Whatever the source, the authors settled on a surprisingly conservative annual predation rate of eight birds per year, and used 60 million as the estimated number of feral cats in the U.S. This, too, might be considered conservative in light of other “estimates,” (the American Bird Conservancy, for example, claims—without citing any source—that the population is 120 million) though Clifton himself estimated, in 2003, that “the winter feral cat population may now be as low as 13 million and the summer peak is probably no more than 24 million.” 
Rather than relying on inflated predation rates to justify the eradication of feral cats, Hildreth, Vantassel, and Hygnstrom misrepresent well-known scientific studies of their impact on wildlife. Their “interpretation” of Olof Liberg’s 1984 paper, for example, and convenient omission of sample size (26 rodents, 21 birds, and 11 lizards) in their reference to Crooks and Soulé’s 1999 paper. 
And, not surprisingly, “Feral Cats and Their Management” makes no mention of compensatory predation.
Public Health Threats
“As a carrier of disease,” argued Forbush, “especially to children, no animal has greater opportunities [than the domestic cat].”
Among the threats suggested by Hildreth, Vantassel, and Hygnstrom are cat scratch fever, plague, rabies, ringworm, salmonellosis, fleas, and ticks. And toxoplasmosis—of particular concern, apparently, because “in 3 separate studies, most feral cats (62 percent to 80 percent) tested positive for toxoplasmosis.” 
But the rate of cats testing positive—or seroprevalence—is not a useful measure of their ability to infect other animals or people. Indeed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
“Although cats can carry diseases and pass them to people, you are not likely to get sick from touching or owning a cat… People are probably more likely to get toxoplasmosis from gardening or eating raw meat than from having a pet cat.”
• • •
“Much of Forbush’s antipathy toward cats,” suggests Clifton, “might be ascribed to the context of the times.”
“His life coincided with the era in which New England wildlife was more depleted than at any time since. Logging, ploughing, damming, and unrestrained development depleted the forest cover, the grasslands, and the rivers. Precocious as Forbush was in his birding, which then was done chiefly with a shotgun, predatory mammals, fur-bearers, and most wild species considered edible had already been extirpated from most of Massachusetts before he had much chance to see or kill them.” 
That was 1916. How to explain “Feral Cats and Their Management,” written 94 years later—in, presumably, a very different context? The answer—part of it, anyhow—may lie with one of the paper’s co-authors, Stephen Vantassel, whose PhD dissertation was dedicated to:
“…fur trappers who, every winter, brave the harsh weather in continuance of America’s oldest industry. Regrettably, they must also endure the ravages of urban sprawl and the derision of an ungrateful and ignorant public.” 
Vantassel, it seems, would be more at home in the early twentieth century than in the twenty-first. (Though, by 1916, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was already 50 years old, and the burgeoning animal welfare/right movement would surely have Vantassel longing for “the good old days.”)
1. Clifton, M. (2011, January/February). The Domestic Cat: Bird Killer, Mouser and Destroyer of Wild Life; Means of Utilizing and Controlling It, by Edward Howe Forbush. Animal People, p. 17, from http://www.animalpeoplenews.org/11/1/Jan-Feb2011.zip%20Folder/Ho8j3PWe.html
2. Forbush, E.H., The Domestic Cat: Bird Killer, Mouser and Destroyer of Wild Life; Means of Utilizing and Controlling It 1916, Boston: Wright and Potter Printing Company.
3. Hildreth, A.M., Vantassel, S.M., and Hygnstrom, S.E., Feral Cats and Their Managment. 2010, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension: Lincoln, NE. http://elkhorn.unl.edu/epublic/live/ec1781/build/ec1781.pdf
4. Clifton, M. Where cats belong—and where they don’t. Animal People, 2003. http://www.animalpeoplenews.org/03/6/wherecatsBelong6.03.html.
5. Crooks, K.R. and Soulé, M.E., “Mesopredator release and avifaunal extinctions in a fragmented system.” Nature. 1999. 400(6744): p. 563–566. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v400/n6744/abs/400563a0.html
6. Vantassel, S.M., Dominion over Wildlife?: An Environmental Theology of Human-Wildlife Relations. 2009: Resource Publications.