CAPE FEAR(MONGERING)

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

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

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

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

Read more

 “Ecological impact” and other baseless proclamations

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

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

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

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

Schrödinger’s… Birds?

It’s difficult to imagine now—after a banner week of revelations, accusation, and obfuscations—but headlines earlier this month were dominated by dire warnings of a different kind: a looming ecological collapse as demonstrated by dramatic declines in North America’s birds. Coverage included stories in the New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, National Geographic, Vox, Scientific American, and many other publications.

According to the reports, North American bird populations have declined by about 29 percent since 1970, a loss of roughly 3 billion birds.

Which leaves only about 7 billion birds. But just six years ago, researchers (some of which were also involved in this most recent study) published a paper estimating that outdoor cats kill 1.3–4.0 billion birds annually in the contiguous U.S. alone.

Are we really expected to believe that this one source of mortality (estimated only for the Lower 48 states, remember) is responsible for killing more than half of the continent’s bird population, year in and year out? Although numerous news accounts have referred to cats as contributors to the declines in bird abundance, I’ve yet to see one questioning this basic arithmetic (see Footnote 1).

Read more

“Outside” Takes Aim at Outdoor Cats

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

Read more ›

They Tried to Make Me Go to Rehab

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

Apparently so.

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

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