“Outside” Takes Aim at Outdoor Cats

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

Read more ›

They Tried to Make Me Go to Rehab

In what I can only imagine was intended to be a dramatic headline, the Washington Post announced last week: “A wildlife rehab center confirms that cats are killers.” Did we really to confirm that domestic cats are, just like their wild relatives, predators?

Apparently so.

What’s next? A Sunday magazine feature investigating the presence of gravity, perhaps? Or a three-part series, complete with online photo gallery, on heliocentrism? We can only hope. In the meantime, what exactly did this wildlife rehab center learn about the hunting habits of outdoor cats? Read more

Conservation Biology, Outdoor Cats, and the Magic 8-Ball

For too many in Hawaii’s conservation community, the answer is always the same—regardless of the question being asked.

Examining the ongoing campaign to eradicate Hawaii’s outdoor cats, one soon discovers a familiar pattern: the rationale is often based on flawed science (often produced by government agencies). But, perhaps because of conservation concerns more desperate than those on the mainland, there’s an unsettling tendency to “interpret” scientific evidence in a way that will implicate cats regardless of a study’s actual results.

No matter what the research question, it seems the answer is invariably “cats.”

Witness, for example, a paper published earlier this year in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases, in which the authors suggest that outdoor cats pose a threat to Hawaii’s state bird, the Nene (or Hawaiian goose), by spreading the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. One problem: the island where the researchers found the greatest seroprevalence of T. gondii infection among the birds, Molokai, just so happens to be home to perhaps the most dramatic increase in their numbers in recent years. Read more

Let the Spin Begin!

The headline from a National Geographic story posted online earlier this week created immediate buzz: “Island’s Feral Cats Kill Surprisingly Few Birds, Video Shows.” Whether or not you were actually surprised, I suppose, depends largely on how much you’ve been paying attention to the issue.

The team of researchers whose work is described in the NatGeo piece, led by the University of Georgia’s Sonia Hernandez, could—more than most—have anticipated such results. Kerrie Anne Loyd—for whom Hernandez served as PhD advisor—pioneered “KittyCam” research during her doctoral studies at UGA. And in April 2012, Loyd, discussing the results of “KittyCam 1.0” with Atlanta’s CBS affiliate, conceded, “Cats aren’t as bad as biologists thought.”

Perhaps we’re expected to be surprised again? Read more

Callous Cat Owners? Don’t Believe the Hype!

The mainstream media is having a field day with a new U.K. study—but it’s a celebration that’s largely uncalled for.

Let me set the scene:

It’s Spring 2010. You’re a cat owner in the small English village of Mawnan Smith, population about 1,500. And like most* of your fellow cat owners in the UK, you allow your cat(s) to go outdoors. You and 30 of your neighbors have just taken part in a four-month sudy comprised of the following three phases: Read more

Research Brief: “Fearing the Feline”

Despite its dramatic-sounding conclusions, UK research into the “sub-lethal effects” of cats reveals very little about real-world predator-prey dynamics or their potential impact on bird populations.

Common blackbird. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Andreas Trepte.

“A new study from British scientists has documented for the first time, significant new impacts to birds from outdoor cats,” announced an April 18 news release from the American Bird Conservancy, “reporting that even brief appearances of cats near avian nest sites leads to at least a doubling in lethal nest predation of eggs and young birds by third-party animals.” The study, by PhD student Colin Bonnington, Kevin J. Gaston, professor of biodiversity and conservation at the University of Exeter, and Karl L. Evans, conservation biology lecturer at the University of Sheffield (and Bonnington’s PhD advisor), was published earlier this year in the Journal of Applied Ecology as “Fearing the feline: domestic cats reduce avian fecundity through trait-mediated indirect effects that increase nest predation by other species.” Read more

The Greater Threat Is Junk Science: An Open Letter to the AVMA

An open letter to the American Veterinary Medical Association, in response to the publication of “Cats may be greater threat to wildlife than first thought,” in the April issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association:

As an advocate of trap-neuter-return working for one of that nation’s leading animal welfare organizations, Best Friends Animal Society—and somebody quite familiar with the science surrounding TNR and free-roaming cats in general—I feel compelled to respond to R. Scott Nolen’s recent article (“Cats may be greater threat to wildlife than first thought,” JAVMA News, April 1, 2013) about the paper published earlier this year by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Careful scrutiny reveals a number of flaws in the work, and challenges Nolen’s suggestion that that the researchers involved “took a rigorous and conservative approach” when developing their headline-grabbing predation estimates. Although a detailed critique is beyond the scope of this letter, a brief overview of the more glaring weaknesses will, I think, make the point.

The 1.4–3.7 billion annual bird mortalities reported by Scott Loss, Tom Will, and Peter Marra (which they describe throughout their paper as a conservative estimate [1]) represent an astonishing 29–76 percent of the estimated 4.7 billion land birds in all of North America, [2] a “contribution” that would very likely have led to the extinction of numerous bird species long ago. Even if, as some have suggested, “the total [population of land birds] could be 2 to 3 times higher in some regions,” [3] the implied impact due to predation by cats is simply not supported by existing data. Indeed, 57 of the 58 native bird species Loss et al. claim are targeted by cats have been given a “Least Concern” conservation status by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). [4] The one exception, the Northern Bobwhite, is considered “Near Threatened” due largely to “widespread habitat fragmentation” and extensive hunting. [5] Moreover, the populations of at least 23 of those 58 species are, as indicated by nearly 45 years of North America Breeding Bird Survey data, [6] stable or increasing.

Among the factors contributing to the authors’ inflated estimates is their assumption that 40–70 percent of owned cats are not only allowed to go outdoors, but are, as far as their model is concerned, outside 24/7. [1] In fact, surveys suggest that approximately 60 percent of these cats are indoor-only, and that those allowed outdoors are outside for no more than three hours each day. [7, 8].

This error is, in turn, compounded by the “correction factor to account for owned cats not returning all prey to owners” [1] used by Loss et al. The low-end of the range they used in their model (2.0–3.3) can be traced to a misreading of a 1974 paper published in The Wilson Bulletin, [9] while the upper-end was derived from observations of 12 cats successfully capturing “small mammals” rather than birds (which were observed to avoid capture). [10] The two errors alone inflate the predation rate attributed to pet cats by a factor of 10–20.

The claim made by Loss et al that about 69 percent of cat-killed birds and 89 percent of cat-killed mammals in the U.S. are killed by unowned cats is similarly flawed. Five of the eight studies the authors included in their analysis were conducted in the 1930s and 1950s, when it wasn’t unusual for researchers studying the diet of cats to simply shoot whatever cats could be found hunting along roadsides (or picked up dead, having been killed by a passing vehicle). [11] Setting aside the obvious ethical objections, such methods are, at best, useful for determining what the cats were hunting, but tell us very little about the frequency of their hunting efforts—and nothing whatsoever about any impact on prey populations.

And the estimate by Loss et al. that 80–100 percent of unowned cats kill wildlife relies exclusively on studies of rural cats. Research conducted in more densely populated areas, or areas where unowned cats aren’t entirely reliant on prey for their meals, reveals predation rates far lower than 80 percent, [12] especially for birds. [13] Again, one flaw is compounded by another, resulting in grossly inflated predation estimates.

Especially puzzling is the authors’ assertion that “projects to manage free-ranging cats, such as Trap-Neuter-Return colonies, are potentially harmful to wildlife populations.” [1] Not only do Loss et al. provide no evidence to support such a claim, they overlook an often-cited study that has documented predation by colony cats. Over the course of approximately 300 hours of observation (this, in addition to what the researchers describe as “several months identifying, describing, and photographing each of the cats living in the colonies” prior to beginning their research) in two Miami-Dade County (FL) parks, 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… [and the researchers] found the carcasses of a gray catbird and a juvenile opossum in the feeding area.” [14] There were, at any one time, 85–95 cats across the two study sites—more than enough opportunity for documenting the kind of extensive predation suggested by Loss et al.

While it’s true, as Nolen suggests, that the IUCN “lists the domestic cat among the world’s 100 worst invasive alien species,” it’s important to point out that this designation has mostly to do with their impact on wildlife native to oceanic islands. [15] And as researchers Dennis Turner and Mike Fitzgerald explained 13 years ago, “there are few, if any studies apart from island ones, that actually demonstrate that cats have reduced bird populations.” [16] As Louise Holton, president and founder of Alley Cat Rescue, points out in the article, cats—like all predators—tend to prey on the young, the old, the weak and unhealthy. At least two studies have investigated this in great detail, revealing that birds killed by cats are, on average, significantly less healthy than birds killed through non-predatory events (e.g., collisions with windows or cars). [17, 18] “Despite the large numbers of birds killed, there is no scientific evidence that predation by cats in gardens is having any impact on bird populations UK-wide,” notes the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds on its website. “It is likely that most of the birds killed by cats would have died anyway from other causes before the next breeding season, so cats are unlikely to have a major impact on populations.” [19]

Last year, Loss et al. published a paper in which they pointed out that “national mortality estimates are often based on extrapolation from a limited sample of small-scale studies, and estimates of uncertainty are ignored or only superficially assessed.” [20] Ironically, the authors include some of these very studies in their more recent analysis. And by pooling studies from various contexts, attempting to “correct” for different methods, and so forth, they actually add to the uncertainty they lamented previously.

Also ironic is the fact that two of the three authors have advocated publicly for restrictions or outright bans on TNR, [21, 22] despite compelling evidence demonstrating its effectiveness. [23–30] Such policies would, it’s virtually guaranteed, actually increase the risk to the wildlife we all want to protect.

The real story here has little to do with conservation; it’s about how such shoddy science is funded by U.S. taxpayers, published, sold to the public, and used as rationale for policy decisions [31, 32] that would likely result in the deaths of millions of domestic cats. It’s disappointing and troubling to see the AVMA—whose mission is “to advance the science and art of veterinary medicine”—effectively endorse the Smithsonian/USFWS paper, giving it undeserved credibility.

Peter J. Wolf
Cat Initiatives Analyst
Community Programs and Services
National Programs
Best Friends Animal Society

Literature Cited

1. Loss, S.R., Will, T., and Marra, P.P., “The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States.” Nature Communications. 2013. 4. http://www.nature.com/ncomms/journal/v4/n1/full/ncomms2380.html

2. Rich, T.D., et al., Partners in Flight North American Landbird Conservation Plan. 2004, Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Ithaca, NY. www.partnersinflight.org/cont_plan/

3. Blancher, P.J., K. V. Rosenberg, A. O. Panjabi, B. Altman, J. Bart, C. J. Beardmore, G. S. Butcher, D. Demarest, R. Dettmers, E. H. Dunn, W. Easton, W. C. Hunter, E. E. Iñigo-Elias, D. N. Pashley, C. J. Ralph, T. D. Rich, C. M. Rustay, J. M. Ruth, T. C. Will, Guide to the Partners in Flight Population Estimates Database. Version: North American Landbird Conservation Plan 2004, in Partners in Flight Technical Series No 5. 2007. http://www.partnersinflight.org/

4. IUCN. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2012 [cited 2013 May 5]. 2012.2:[http://www.iucnredlist.org/.

5. n.a. (2012) Northern Bobwhite Colinus virginianus. IUCN 2012. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=30131 Accessed May 5, 2013.

6. Sauer, J.R., et al. (2012) The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2011. Version 12.13.2011

7. 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

8. 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

9. George, W., “Domestic cats as predators and factors in winter shortages of raptor prey.” The Wilson Bulletin. 1974. 86(4): p. 384–396. http://elibrary.unm.edu/sora/Wilson/v086n04/p0384-p0396.pdf

10. Kays, R.W. and DeWan, A.A., “Ecological impact of inside/outside house cats around a suburban nature preserve.” Animal Conservation. 2004. 7(3): p. 273–283. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1367943004001489

www.nysm.nysed.gov/staffpubs/docs/15128.pdf

11. 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

12. 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

13. 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.

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. n.a. (2010) Felis catus (mammal). The Global Invasive Species Database http://www.issg.org/database/species/ecology.asp?si=24&fr=1&sts=&lang=EN

16. 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.

17. 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/

18. 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

19. RSPB (2011) Are cats causing bird declines? http://www.rspb.org.uk/advice/gardening/unwantedvisitors/cats/birddeclines.aspx Accessed October 26, 2011.

20. Loss, S.R., Will, T., and Marra, P.P., “Direct human-caused mortality of birds: improving quantification of magnitude and assessment of population impact.” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 2012. 10(7): p. 357–364. http://www.esajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1890/110251

21. Marra, P. (2011, March 18). No good for the birds, but also no good for the cats (Opinion). The Washington Post, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/no-good-for-the-birds-but-also-no-good-for-the-cats/2011/03/17/ABLGkvr_story.html

22. Will, T., What Can Federal Agencies Do? Policy Options to Address Cat Impacts to Birds and Their Habitats, in Bird Conservation Alliance Teleconference. 2010. http://www.animalliberationfront.com/Practical/Pets/PetCare/Cats/ABC%20Cats-TNR-Policy%20Will%2028Jan10.pdf

23. 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

24. 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

25. 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

www.kiccc.org.au/pics/FeralCatsRome2006.pdf

26. 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

27. Mendes-de-Almeida, F., et al., “The Impact of Hysterectomy in an Urban Colony of Domestic Cats (Felis catus Linnaeus, 1758).” International Journal of Applied Research in Veterinary Medicine. 2006. 4(2): p. 134–141. www.jarvm.com/articles/Vol4Iss2/Mendes.pdf

28. Mendes-de-Almeida, F., et al., “Reduction of feral cat (Felis catus Linnaeus 1758) colony size following hysterectomy of adult female cats.” Journal of Feline Medicine & Surgery. 2011.

29. Robertson, S.A., “A review of feral cat control.” Journal of Feline Medicine & Surgery. 2008. 10(4): p. 366–375.

30. Donlan, A.E. (1996, June 30). North Shore cat-lovers go… Where the wild things are. Boston Herald,

31. Fenwick, G.H. (2013, February 25). House cats: The destructive invasive species purring on your lap. The Baltimore Sun, from http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bs-ed-cats-20130225,0,6415585.story

32. Lynes, M. (2013, February 4). No. 1 bird killer is outdoor cats. San Francisco Chronicle, from http://www.sfgate.com/default/article/No-1-bird-killer-is-outdoor-cats-4250692.php

Audubon Editor Suggests Poisoning Feral Cats

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

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

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

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

Key Lie Kitties

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

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

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

Stanley Temple Endorses Smithsonian/USFWS Paper

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

Issues of Consumption, Production, and Surplus

As I continue to drill down into the “The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States”—tracking down and reading journal articles, compiling the data therein, etc.—I’m finding (not surprisingly) additional holes in the various claims made by Scott Loss, Tom Will, and Peter Marra. For example:

“Native species make up the majority of the birds preyed upon by cats. On average, only 33 percent of bird prey items identified to species were non-native species in 10 studies with 438 specimens of 58 species.” [1]

That’s quite a statement to make on the basis of just 10 studies (spanning 63 years*) and an average of fewer than eight specimens per species. And actually, one of the studies cited by Loss et al. was no study at all, but rather the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s two-page brochure Impacts of Feral and Free-ranging Domestic Cats on Wildlife in Florida (PDF). Not only are there no “bird prey items identified to species,” the document relies heavily on claims made by the American Bird Conservancy (thus raising serious doubts about the agency’s assertion that “scientific data drives management decisions for fish and wildlife populations and their habitats”).

How nobody—neither the three authors nor the multiple reviewers—caught this is a bit of a mystery. Just a glance at the brochure’s title ought to raise eyebrows in light of the way it’s cited by Loss et al. On the other hand, mistakes like this do happen. And in this case, I’m willing to give the authors the benefit of the doubt—largely because there are so many other, far more substantive, problems with their paper. Read more

Garbage In, Garbage Out

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

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

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

Kitty Cams and PR Scams

In a joint media release, the American Bird Conservancy and The Wildlife Society team up to misrepresent the results of a recent predation study, decrying the “ongoing slaughter of wildlife by outdoor cats.” Meanwhile the University of Georgia researcher contradicts her previous position that “cats aren’t as bad as biologists thought.”

“To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; credible we must be truthful.”Edward R. Murrow

“‘KittyCam’ Reveals High Levels of Wildlife Being Killed by Outdoor Cats,” declares a media release issued today—a joint effort of the American Bird Conservancy and The Wildlife Society, and, to my knowledge, the first of its kind.

It’s difficult not to see this as an act of desperation—the PR-equivalent of an all-caps e-mail. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened sooner, though, given all that ABC and TWS have in common. Their shared disdain for TNR, obviously, but also their utter disregard for science, scientific literacy, and the truth about the impacts of free-roaming cats. Two peas in a pod, as it were. (Irony: peas are, alas, not native to North America.)

And so, their joint media release is exactly what one would expect: heavy on errors, misrepresentations, and glaring omissions, and light on defensible claims. Read more

Endangered In the Florida Keys: Journalism

The witch-hunt against free-roaming cats—promoted by USFWS and others—is doing nothing to protect the threatened and endangered species in the Keys (and elsewhere). Neither is the sloppy reporting that allows the agency to mislead policymakers and the general public.


Monday’s Tampa Bay Times reported that a captive breeding program aimed at saving the endangered Key Largo woodrat from extinction has been shut down.

“At first the breeding program seemed to be a big success. At Lowry Park and, later, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the endangered rats bred like, well, rats. But then the project ran into big problems, demonstrating why captive breeding is a tricky strategy that’s used only as a last resort, said Larry Williams, South Florida field supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service.” [1]

In fact, reporter Craig Pittman provides no evidence that the Key Largo woodrats were ever “breeding like rats.” Not even in the wild. Indeed, as he points out, “they… tend to be solitary. The males and females only get together when the female is ready to breed.” [1]

In any case, the population in the Keys—now limited to Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge and Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammocks Botanical State Park—continued, by all accounts, to decline. “Wildlife biologists,” writes Pittman, “didn’t have to look far for the reason.”

“Next to the parks is the Ocean Reef Club, a gated community that boasts some of South Florida’s wealthiest residents—as well as the state’s largest feral cat population. Ocean Reef’s homeowners spend thousands of dollars a year on a program that feeds and cares for the stray cats that wander the back alleys—and, according to biologists—occasionally gobble up endangered rats.” [1]

It’s true that biologists didn’t have to look far. “The primary threat to the Key Largo woodrat,” explains a 1999 USFWS report (which, admittedly, includes feral cats among the “other threats associated with human encroachment”), “is habitat loss and fragmentation caused by increasing urbanization.” [2]

But Pittman’s so busy trying to pin the Key Largo woodrat’s fate on the one-percenters that he fails (conveniently!) to mention that the Ocean Reef cats are also sterilized. Read more

In Search of Common Ground

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.’” [1]

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.

Beyond Hawaii
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.)

Common Ground(?)
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,” [4] (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.

Literature Cited
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

TWS + USFWS = WTF


After cancelling its public webinar in June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service takes its tax-funded witch-hunt against free-roaming cats on the road—and behind closed doors.

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cancelled its Impacts of Free Roaming Cats on Native Wildlife webinar at the last minute, it was, we were told, due to “an overwhelming response” resulting in “logistical barriers.” Three months later, those logistical barriers have been overcome, and the show has actually been expanded into a full-day workshop.

The only catch: it’s in Hawaii, part of The Wildlife Society’s annual conference.

Buying Influence
TWS describes the workshop, Influencing Local Scale Feral Cat Trap-Neuter-Release Decisions, this way:

Feral and unrestrained domestic cats kill an estimated 1.4 million birds a day, every day—and at least as many small mammals and herps. This direct mortality is similar in scale to mortality caused by building collisions and far exceeds that caused by collisions with wind or communications towers, oil spills, or other sources on which conservation agencies invest time and money. Municipalities across the U.S. are being pressured by cat advocacy groups to adopt Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) programs in which voluntary caretakers feed cats 24/7 at feral/stray cat colonies, establishing populations of subsidized invasive predators that continue to depredate wildlife.

This workshop is designed to train biologists and conservation activists to advocate for wildlife in the decision making process by providing the best available scientific evidence in an effective manner. We will review the latest science on feral cats, TNR, and human and cat health issues. We will review the array of useful tools available, including FAQ sheets, photos, videos, education literature, responsible pet ownership guidelines, training tools for bringing domestic pets indoors, and model, wildlife friendly, municipal ordinances. Finally, we will provide a public meeting role playing activity and opportunity for participants to debrief and design local strategies.

The workshop is being organized by Tom Will and Mike Green, both of USFWS. Will, of course, was the one scheduled to present the webinar in June. And he’s the one responsible for presenting “What Can Federal Agencies Do? Policy Options to Address Cat Impacts to Birds and Their Habitats”—a train wreck science-wise—to the Bird Conservation Alliance last year.

And there’s no reason to think Will’s going to stray from the script this time, considering his host’s position on the subject. Indeed, it’s safe to say there will be precious little time devoted to the “best available scientific evidence.”

Instead, I would expect Will to employ the three-point strategy we’ve come to expect from USFWS and TWS:

  • Lie about the various threats (e.g., rabies, T. gondii, etc.) posed by free-roaming cats, and their impact on wildlife populations.
  • Deny the benefits of TNR.
  • Imply that lethal control methods present a feasible alternative to TNR.

Action Alert
Best Friends Animal Society has created an Action Alert, which provides a user-friendly tool for contacting federal officials, and—just as important—outlining “what likely won’t be provided at this workshop”:

Attendees will not be exposed to statistics gathered by towns and municipalities around the nation that prove TNR is an effective tool in saving lives and taxpayer dollars. Attendees will not be given any feasible alternatives to TNR, but rather indoctrinated into continuing the expensive, ineffective method of trap and kill to control free-roaming cat populations.

Undoubtedly, there will be little talk of how TNR programs sterilize the cats, thus curtailing future free-roaming cat population growth, and how fewer cats logically equals less predation. Equally offensive, the organizers will fail to pinpoint a funding source for their recommended solution, while completely ignoring that this blatant rejection of humane alternatives to wildlife conflicts flies in the face of public opinion and decency. Furthermore, attendees won’t be hearing about how a full-day workshop declaring war on cats is an unwise use of taxpayer funds.

Hawaii-bound?
Despite my misgivings, I have to admit a certain degree of temptation here. Ordinarily, I’d steer clear of any workshop that promised a role-playing activity, but I’d pay good money to see TWS Executive Director/CEO Michael Hutchins (who, just last week, put the kibosh on comments by non-members, complaining that “the TWS blog site has been recently targeted by feral cat and horse activists”) play the role of colony caregiver.

Or, if that’s asking too much, then what about Hutchins and Will portraying actual experts on the impacts of free-roaming cats? It’s a role they’ve been working at for some time now, of course, but their performances have been rather unconvincing truly abysmal.

On Wisdom

Serengeti Elephant Herd
Three African Bush Elephants (Loxodonta africana) on the Serengeti plains. Photo courtesy of Ikiwaner and Wikimedia Commons.

In the latest issue of Orion, journalist and author J.B. MacKinnon makes good on the magazine’s commitment to “inform, inspire, and engage individuals and grassroots organizations in becoming a significant cultural force for healing nature and community.”

In his essay, “Wisdom in the Wild: A case for elderly animals,” MacKinnon does a brilliant job of (re)connecting the reader with the natural world by making the connection unusually personal:

I have stopped eating groundfish, not because the fishery is unsustainable, which was the biologist’s actual point, but because any one of the fish might be as old as my grandmother. The decision is easy to deride as a most-embarrassing anthropomorphism, I know, but my spouse, at least, offered unhesitating support. “Who knows what wisdom they’ve developed in that time?” she said. And who wants to risk consuming the planet’s store of wisdom?

But, as MacKinnon points out, our regard for such wisdom often develops only in hindsight. Among the examples he cites, two involve African elephants.

Tarangire
In 1993, Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park suffered the worst drought in 35 years. “By the time the rains came again,” writes MacKinnon, “the Tarangire herd had lost sixteen out of eighty-one calves, a level of juvenile mortality ten times above normal.”

Herds with females old enough to remember the previous drought left the park in search of water while demographically younger herds stayed behind—ultimately suffering the greatest mortality rates.

Pilanesberg National Park
As MacKinnon’s second example illustrates, an elephant herd’s “institutional memory” is only part of the story; elders also provide “parental supervision.”

In the early 1980s, the elephant population was swelling in Kruger National Park, and wildlife managers decided to dart numbers of adult elephants from the air and then shoot them to death on the ground, often in plain view of the juveniles. The youngsters were then rounded up and sent to other parks and reserves, with about forty ending up in Pilanesberg National Park, several hundred miles to the southwest. It must have seemed like a logical if gruesome act of conservation: reduce overpopulation in one place and spread the wealth of the species to others.

About ten years later, relocated males were—much to the shock of biologists—responsible for killing dozens of white rhinoceroses. In most cases, the social structure of elephant herds limits such “teenage” aggression. “After standing down to a dominant male,” writes MacKinnon, “the rush of hormones stops, in some cases in a matter of minutes.”

In the absence of dominant males, however, the young elephants suffered from a chemical imbalance that turned them into killers.

It’s Complicated
MacKinnon’s piece got me thinking about how eager we are to “manage” wildlife despite our limited understanding. And the consequences of a what-do-we-kill-next? approach fueled, it seems, more by economic and political considerations (not the least of which is job security) than by any noble concern for conservation.

Among the most glaring examples is Macquarie Island, where, in 2000—after 15 years—cats were finally eradicated. Forty-plus years of rabbit control was “reversed in only six years,” devastating the island’s vegetation. In addition, “a pulse of at least 103,000 mice and 36,600 rats have also entered the ecosystem since cat eradication.” [1]

What’s next for this United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site?

Tony Eastley, host of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s AM radio show, explained it this way recently: “The project aimed at eradicating rabbits and rodents is no overnight quick fix. It’s expected to take five years and cost at least $25 million.” (Incredibly, the story makes no mention of cats at all.)

If scientists could be so wrong in their understanding of the ecology of this 50-square-mile, uninhabited island, what makes us think they’ll get it right when tackling larger, more complex ecosystems—say, the Florida Keys, for example?

•     •     •

“It is tempting,” warned Abraham Maslow, “if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” The same is true, all too often, of wildlife management—the hammer being lethal control (see, for example, New York magazine’s “field guide to what the Feds are hunting”).

But an effective, humane approach to feral cat management requires a more expansive set of tools. Of course, a little wisdom wouldn’t hurt, either.

Literature Cited
1. Bergstrom, D.M., et al., “Indirect effects of invasive species removal devastate World Heritage Island.” Journal of Applied Ecology. 2009. 46(1): p. 73–81. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2664.2008.01601.x/abstract

http://eprints.utas.edu.au/8384/4/JAppEcol_Bergstrom_etal_journal.pdf

Spoiled

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Webinar, “Impacts of Free Roaming Cats on Native Wildlife,” originally scheduled for today, has been postponed.

It’s still not entirely clear whether or not the Webinar, put on by the USFWS’s National Conservation Training Center, is/was open to the public. What is clear is that people are interested; indeed, it was “an overwhelming response” and the resulting “logistical barriers” that forced NCTC to put the show on hold.

Stay tuned.

Spoiler Alert

Coming up this Wednesday: “Impacts of Free Roaming Cats on Native Wildlife,” a Webinar sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Registration, from what I can tell, appears to be open to the public—though I’m still awaiting a confirmation e-mail (which will include, I hope, some clarification re: time zone for this “2:00–3:00 pm” event).

The USFWS Website lists the agency’s own Tom Will as the scheduled speaker, and includes the following description:

A rapidly growing feral and unrestrained domestic cat population kills an average of at least 1.5 million birds in the U.S. every day—and even greater numbers of small mammals and herptiles. Every small songbird species is vulnerable at some stage of its life cycle. Despite ample peer-reviewed science documenting the failure of trap-neuter-release (TNR) programs to reduce cat populations or address wildlife depredation, TNR and outdoor cat feeding colonies continue to be marketed to city councils, county boards, and state legislatures as a viable option. As a result, TNR feeding colonies are proliferating across the landscape at such an alarming rate that wildlife conservation programs intended to create source habitat are being rendered ineffectual in many areas. In this presentation, I briefly review the science on the effects of outdoor cats on wildlife and the ineffectiveness of TNR programs. Then, examples of the decision making process leading to community endorsement of TNR provide some insight into the roadblocks to effective conservation action. Finally, I offer a suite of strategic conservation actions at national agency, community, and home scales whereby the Service and its partners might work effectively to reduce the negative effects of irresponsible civic TNR decisions on wildlife trust resources.

I expect, given Will’s apparent interest in the science surrounding this issue, that he’ll shed some light on the origins of that 1.5 million birds/day predation rate—which, translated to an annual figure, is pretty close to what the American Bird Conservancy uses in The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation: “532 million birds killed annually by outdoor cats.” [1]

This Webinar, then, could be our chance to see the science behind the number. Or not—if this week’s presentation is anything like the one Will gave in 2010 to the Bird Conservation Alliance (which, according to its Website, is “facilitated by” ABC). Last year’s show, “What Can Federal Agencies Do? Policy Options to Address Cat Impacts to Birds and Their Habitats,” available (downloadable PDF) via the Animal Liberation Front Website, was short on science and long on rhetoric (and plenty of misinformation, too).

Now, I’ve no way of knowing what Will is going to present this week. So, although these things tend to be remarkably predictable, I’ll reserve judgment.

That said, it seems like a good time for a quick look at his 2010 material.

Birds of a Feather
As it happens, Tom Will is among those Nico Dauphine thanks “for helpful information, advice, ideas, and discussion in researching this subject” in her 2009 Partners In Flight conference paper. [2] And much of the material Will used last year was shown a year earlier by Dauphine, in her infamous “Apocalypse Meow” presentation. (The similarities are uncanny, actually: identical background color, many of the same images, etc.)

Death by (Faulty) Statistics
Like Dauphine, Will includes the graph (shown below) from the second edition of Frank Gill’s Ornithology, suggesting, apparently, that predation by cats far exceeds all other sources of mortality combined (a claim Dauphine made in her 2008 letter to the editor of the St. Petersburg Times).

But, as I’ve explained previously, Gill’s cat “data” aren’t data at all, but the indefensible (in terms of its lack of scientific merit, but also its almost palpable bias) guesswork of Rich Stallcup, co-founder of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory.

All of which raises serious doubts about USFWS’s commitment “to using sound science in its decision-making and to providing the American public with information of the highest quality possible.”

Counting Cats
The more intriguing visual, though, in Will’s 2010 presentation (shown below) is meant (it seems) to illustrate the relationship between the increasing population of cats and the decreasing populations of bird species over the past 40 years or so.

But, of course, correlation is not the same as causation. I’ll bet that, like cat ownership, membership in the National Audubon Society has risen steadily over the past 40 years—but somehow, I don’t imagine anybody suggesting that bird populations decline as NAS membership climbs.

What first caught my eye was not the the implied relationship between cat numbers and bird numbers, however, but the red dots themselves. The same data were plotted (as shown below) in “What Conservation Biologists Can Do to Counter Trap-Neuter-Return: Response to Longcore et al.,” [3] published last year in Conservation Biology, (among the paper’s 10 co-authors, by the way: Nico Dauphine and Peter Marra).

Look closely at the two graphs, and you’ll see that Will has gotten creative here. His data points (which, I believe, come primarily from the U.S. Census and APPA) are identical to those used in the letter to Conservation Biology, but the vertical scale’s been changed. In Will’s version, the upper right portion of the graph has jumped from 90 million to 150 million cats! (His horizontal axis is shifted slightly, but the impact is nothing by comparison.)

Apparently, Will is combining population data for pet cats with data for feral cats. Trouble is, his “data” for feral cats doesn’t exist. It looks as if Will simply borrowed from Dauphine, who borrowed from David Jessup—whose “estimate” is unattributed.

So much for “using sound science” and “providing the American public with information of the highest quality possible.”

Roaming Charges May Apply
What if Will stuck to what the data actually show? It seems the message is pretty clear: since 1971, the number of pet cats in the U.S. has nearly tripled.

OK, but what does that mean for the nation’s wildlife? Keep in mind: the country’s human population swelled by 43 percent over the same period, taking an enormous toll on wildlife—either directly (e.g., loss of habitat via development, birds colliding with buildings, etc.) or indirectly (e.g.,  increased pollution and pesticide use).

Let’s set all that aside for the moment, though, and get back to pet cats. Even if the graphs accurately reflect the upward trend of cat ownership in the U.S. (and I’m not sure they do), they grossly misrepresent the threat to wildlife—which, presumably, is the point.

Simply put, there are not three times as many pet cats outdoors today.

The data I have, from the American Pet Products Association, [4] go back only to 1998. At that time, 56 percent of cat owners responding to APPA’s National Pet Owners Survey indicated that their cats were indoors-only; in 2008, that figured had climbed to 64 percent.

With an estimated 89.6 million pets cats in the U.S. in 2010, then, that means that about 32.4 million cats are outdoors for at least some part of the day (and approximately half of those are outside for less than three hours each day [5, 6]).

What was the proportion in 1971? Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find any survey results from the 1970s or 1980s. All we can do it guess.

Let’s say that in 1971 just one-third of pet cats were kept indoors exclusively (the very situation Dauphine would have us believe we’re facing today). That means 21.5 million cats were free-roaming for at least some part of the day.

Again, this is a guess—not an unreasonable one, but a guess anyhow. Still, the implications are significant. While it’s true that the number of pet cats has tripled over the past 40 years, the number that are free-roaming has probably increased by only 50 percent or so.

Prosecution or Persecution?
Finally, I’m curious to see if Will’s “suite of strategic conservation actions” will include, as his 2010 presentation suggests, threatening those who conduct or officially endorse TNR with prosecution under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA).

This has become a common tactic in recent years (see, for example, the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex Integrated Predator Management Plan/Draft Environmental Assessment, released earlier this year), though it goes back to at least 2003, when Pamela Jo Hatley, then a law student, suggested the possibility.

(One wonders if USFWS, the agency responsible for drafting the Keys Predator Management Plan, could be prosecuted under the ESA and MBTA in the event—not unlikely—that a large-scale round-up of feral cats resulted in a population explosion of rats, which in turn decimate the very species the Plan claims to protect.)

•     •     •

As a say, I’m not going to critique Will’s presentation until he’s had the chance to give it. Indeed, he may very well deliver on the science review, policy insights, conservation actions, etc. If what he provided the BCA is any indication, though, the man’s got his work cut out for him.

Literature Cited
1. Lebbin, D.J., Parr, M.J., and Fenwick, G.H., The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation. 2010, London: University of Chicago Press.

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. 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

4. APPA, 2009–2010 APPA National Pet Owners Survey. 2009, American Pet Products Association: Greenwich, CT. http://www.americanpetproducts.org/pubs_survey.asp

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. 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

The Feral Feeding Movement

SF Weekly Cover (30-Mar-11)

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.” [4]

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.” [5]

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” [6] 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.

California Quail
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.” [7]

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.” [7]), 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.” [8] 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,” [9] 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).” [9]

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. [10])

Toxoplasmosis
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 [11] were infected with a strain of T. gondii that hasn’t been traced to domestic cats. [12]

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.

Feral Feeding

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, [13] (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” [14] 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.” [14]

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.” [15]

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.” [16]

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.

Literature Cited
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

http://nationalzoo.si.edu/scbi/migratorybirds/science_article/pdfs/55.pdf

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

http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/javma_225_9_1377.pdf

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.

http://www.ceru.up.ac.za/downloads/A_review_successful_eradication_feralcats.pdf

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