Exceptional Predator

Photo of cat leaping after birdUsing Google to translate the page’s contents, it seems this bird—despite “mock[ing] the cat and with loud cries of diving at him from the branches of acacia”—was yet another one that got away.

In the third edition of his massive book Ornithology—“the classic text for the undergraduate ornithology course,” according to the description on Amazon.com—Frank Gill writes:

“Natural predators are a major source of annual mortality among birds, especially nestlings, incubating females, and young birds in their first year. Relentless predation is a driving force of natural selection for escape behaviors, camouflage plumage, and social behavior. With some conspicuous exceptions, however, predators don’t limit or regulate the bird populations on which they prey [1]. Instead, they take weak, sick, and young birds, many of which are part of the surplus that exceeds locally limiting food supplies.” [2, p 545]

For Gill, it seems, it’s all very straightforward; this, after all, is how Nature works. (It should be noted that, just one paragraph later, the author makes a clear distinction between islands and other habitats: “The endangerment and extinction of island birds by introduced predators is a conspicuous exception to the statement that predators don’t limit bird populations.”)

Unequal Treatment Under the (Natural) Law
Nobody opposed to TNR would deny that cats are predators—so why won’t they admit that the birds and other wildlife killed by cats are generally among, as Gill puts it, the “weak, sick, and young”?

The Carolina Raptor Center, for example, describes the role of predatory birds targeting bird feeders this way:

“Songbirds are part of the food chain just like other animals and their predators are going to look for the easiest targets. The birds that hawks are usually able to catch at feeders are the slow and sick ones. The strong and healthy ones escape, allowing their survival to produce more healthy babies.”

Cats, however, are a different matter altogether. According to the Carolina Raptor Center, they “kill a lot more birds then hawks do because hawks only kill for food, where cats kill for the sport of it.” I’ve never seen any scientific evidence to support such a claim, which may explain why so many have instead argued—again, without any support—that cats compete with raptors for food.

Who’s Crazed Now?
It wasn’t Gill’s book that got me thinking about this, though, but a comment posted last month on the Bountiful Films blog, following the release of their documentary Cat Crazed.

After listening to a CBC interview with director Maureen Palmer, whose “science” was clearly coming straight from the American Bird Conservancy, I posted a comment, stating in part:

“What you won’t find [from organizations opposing TNR] is any mention of the studies that show rather convincingly that birds killed by cats tend to be unhealthy compared to those killed by building collisions, say. Even high predation rates do not equate to population declines—as many scientists have noted.”

I also included a link to my “Predatory Blending” post. Which promptly drew fire from somebody calling him/herself “Catbird”:

“Where cats cause documented extinctions and extirpations, cat predation is additive (e.g., Hawkins 1998, Crooks and Soule 1999, Nogales et al. 2004). Researchers are interested in knowing if some cat predation is compensatory (that is, killing animals that would die anyway) (Beckerman et al. 2007, Baker et al. 2008, van Heezik et al. 2010). The purported evidence of compensatory predation is a study showing that cat-killed birds have larger spleens (indicating that they are less healthy) than birds killed by other sources (e.g., windows) (Moller and Erritzoe 2000). Other researchers found that birds killed by cats had less fat reserves and lower muscle mass than those killed in collisions (Baker et al. 2008), but warned against assuming that this corresponded with lower fitness of these individuals. In neither instance is it possible to conclude that individuals killed by cats would have died otherwise.”

Actually, Møller & Erritzoe don’t suggest that the birds captured by cats “would have died otherwise.” But, they are quite clear about the implications of their research:

“The present study has suggested that predators like the domestic cat may select against individuals with a weak immune system, leaving a disproportionate fraction of immunocompetent individuals as survivors.” [3]

What Møller & Erritzoe observed is very much in line with what Gill describes as typical predatory behavior.

Still, though, I’m not necessarily surprised with Catbird’s “interpretation” of the science, given his/her comments and tone elsewhere in the discussion. What’s far more troubling is that so few studies on the predatory habits of cats address the topic in any meaningful way.

Sins of Omission
Take that 2008 study by Baker et al., for example. The authors are, just as Catbird suggests, quite cautious about their findings:

“The distinction between compensatory and additive mortality does, however, become increasingly redundant as the number of birds killed in a given area increases: where large numbers of prey are killed, predators would probably be killing a combination of individuals with poor and good long-term survival chances. The predation rates estimated in this study would suggest that this was likely to have been the case for some species on some sites.” [4]

But, as I’ve pointed out previously, the authors’ predation rates are inflated—in part due to their unquestioning application of the dubious multiplier proposed by Kays and DeWan. [5] Baker et al. also use low estimates of breeding density—all of which combines to diminish the apparent level of compensatory predation. Were these estimates adjusted to better reflect the conditions at the site, the “redundancy” the authors refer to would be reduced considerably.

(Frankly, Baker and his colleagues seemed quite eager to demonstrate that Bristol’s cats were negatively affecting bird populations; in an earlier study, they suggested—based, I would argue, on insufficient information—that the area might be a “dispersal sink for more productive neighboring areas.” [6])

On the other hand, at least Baker et al. acknowledge Møller and Erritzoe’s work. Many other studies don’t even go that far.

Coleman and Temple, [7] for example, failed to consider the role of compensatory predation—despite the fact that they cite sources/studies that do. [8–10] And Temple himself addresses this very topic in his 1987 paper Do Predators Always Capture Substandard Individuals Disproportionately From Prey Populations?

Using a trained Red-tailed hawk to prey on eastern chipmunks, cottontail rabbits, and gray squirrels, Temple developed the “proposition that substandard individuals are captured disproportionately when the type of prey is relatively difficult to capture but not when it is relatively easy to capture.” [11]

Which seems a very fitting description for the general case of a cat attempting to capture an adult bird. (Ground-nesting and ground-feeding birds would likely be easier prey, though Hawkins’ PhD dissertation work [12] suggests that even this assumption deserves careful scrutiny.)

Longcore et al. never mention Møller and Erritzoe (one of many shortcomings I address in “Reassessment”); neither do Dauphine and Cooper. [13]

And ABC doesn’t go near the topic of compensatory predation. (Ironic since, unlike cats, most of the “threats to birds” listed by ABC (e.g., pesticides, pollution, oil spills, collisions with towers, buildings, wind turbines, and power lines, etc.) are clearly nondiscriminatory in terms of bird mortality.)

•     •     •

Is it any wonder that a reasonable discussion about the impacts of free-roaming cats on wildlife is so elusive? The same stakeholders that condemn these cats for their predatory nature too often refuse to acknowledge the nature of predation itself.

Literature Cited
1. Newton, I., Population limitation in birds. 1998, San Diego: Academic.

2. Gill, F.B., Ornithology. 3rd ed. 2007, New York: W.H. Freeman.

3.  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/

4. 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

5. 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

6. Baker, P.J., et al., “Impact of predation by domestic cats Felis catus in an urban area.” Mammal Review. 2005. 35(3/4): p. 302-312. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2907.2005.00071.x/abstract

7. Coleman, J.S. and Temple, S.A., How Many Birds Do Cats Kill?, in Wildlife Control Technology. 1995. p. 44. http://www.wctech.com/WCT/index99.htm

8. Fitzgerald, B.M., Diet of domestic cats and their impact on prey populations, in The Domestic cat: The biology of its behaviour, D.C. Turner and P.P.G. Bateson, Editors. 1988, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge; New York. p. 123–147.

9. Churcher, P.B. and Lawton, J.H., “Predation by domestic cats in an English village.” Journal of Zoology. 1987. 212(3): p. 439-455. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7998.1987.tb02915.x

10. 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

11. Temple, S.A., “Do Predators Always Capture Substandard Individuals Disproportionately From Prey Populations? Ecology. 1987. 68(3): p. 669–674. http://www.esajournals.org/doi/abs/10.2307/1938472

12. 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

13. 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

Revisiting “Reassessment”

“Reassessment: A Closer Look at ‘Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return’” has been revised and expanded!

Image of "Reassessment" Document

This paper, a brief review and critique of the essay “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” by Travis Longcore, Catherine Rich, and Lauren M. Sullivan, now includes sections on Toxoplasma gondii, the mesopredator release phenomenon, and more. In addition, links and downloadable PDFs have been added to the list of references.

Over the past year, “Critical Assessment” has gotten a great deal of traction among TNR opponents, despite its glaring omissions, blatant misrepresenta­tions, and obvious bias. “Reassessment”—intended to be a resource for a broad audience, including, wildlife and animal control professionals, policymakers, and the general public—shines a bright spotlight on these shortcomings, thereby bringing the key issues back into focus.

Act Locally
Politics is, as they say, local. This is certainly true of the debate surrounding TNR. Policies endorsing TNR, the feeding of feral cats, etc. typically begin with “Town Hall” meetings, or even meetings of neighborhood associations. “Reassessment” provides interested parties with a rigorous, science-based counter-argument to those using “Critical Assessment” as a weapon against feral cats/TNR.

So, once you’ve had a look for yourself, please share generously! Together, we can—in keeping with the mission of Vox Felina—improve the lives of feral cats through a more informed, conscientious discussion of feral cat issues in general, and TNR in particular.

Download PDF

Conversation Killer

Over the weekend, a comment (criticizing, once again, the recently released University of Nebraska-Lincoln “report”) I posted on Audubon magazine’s blog, The Perch, drew fire from Travis Longcore.

Longcore, of course, is the lead author of the widely circulated paper, “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” and Science Director for the Urban Wildlands Group, the lead plaintiff in the case that led to the TNR-related injunction in Los Angeles earlier this year (under which City-funded spay/neuter vouchers for feral cats and shelter-based TNR promotions have been halted; TNR, however, continues), a decision currently making its way through the appeal process (I heard just this afternoon that “Round 2” was decided in favor of the plaintiffs).

After a weekend of back-and-forth debate about the science surrounding the UNL report and, more broadly, feral cats and TNR, I posed the following question to Longcore:

You’ve been very straightforward about your desire to see TNR and the feeding of feral cats outlawed. But then what?

I’ve yet to hear from you—or anybody on your side of the issue—spell it out. We all know the cats won’t disappear in the absence of TNR/feeding. We can argue about rates of population growth, carrying capacity, etc.—but let’s keep it simple here. Under your plan, there are these feral cats—an awful lot of them—that no longer have access to the assistance of humans (other than scavenging trash, say). OK, now what?

Will it be like what was done on Marion Island, where—despite being only 115-square-miles in size, barren, and uninhabited—it took something like 16 years to eradicate 2,500 cats? Using disease (feline distemper), poisoning, intensive hunting and trapping, and—if I’m not mistaken—dogs.

And, while we’re at it, who will pay for this unprecedented nightmare?

These are not rhetorical questions. As I say, I’ve heard plenty of arguments against TNR over the past year or so. I’ve yet to hear a single counter-proposal. Not one.

Trap-and-remove? That’s not a proposal—that’s a bromide. I want to hear about how all this would play out. And this seems like an appropriate venue, given the original topic and your role in the L.A. injunction.

So, Travis, what would you do?

Two days later, no word from Longcore. a well-considered reply, but still no answer to the question posed.

Repeat After Me

Listening to NPR’s On the Media this weekend, I was struck by a story (first broadcast in 2006) about how certain “sticky” numbers—however dubious—find their way into the media landscape and beyond, as On the Media co-host Brooke Gladstone noted:

“Four years ago, we delved into the mysterious number, said to be 50,000, of child predators online at any given time. It was cited by the NBC Dateline program “To Catch a Predator” and also by then Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

But spokespersons for the FBI, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and the Crimes against Children Research Center said it was not based on any research they were aware of. The A.G.’s office at the time, well, they said it came from Dateline.”

Wall Street Journal columnist Carl Bialik, who spoke to Gladstone for the story, described the process whereby such slippery figures gain traction:

“An interesting phenomenon of these numbers is that they’ll often be cited to an agency or some government body, and then a study will pick it up, and then the press will repeat it from that study. And then once it appears in the press, public officials will repeat it again, and now it’s become an official number.”

All of which sounds very familiar—Bialik could easily be describing the “official numbers” put out by so many TNR opponents. Among those that have gained the most currency are the predation estimates from the Wisconsin Study, the American Bird Conservancy’s figure for the proportion of birds in the diets of free-roaming cats, and Dauphiné and Cooper’s estimate of free-roaming cats in the U.S.

The Wisconsin Study
Despite its having been discredited long ago (see, for example, “Addressing the Wisconsin Study”), the Wisconsin Study continues to be cited as if its estimate of 8–219 million birds killed by the state’s rural cats [1] was credible. As recently as last year, Longcore et al. cited the work in their essay “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap–Neuter–Return.” [2]

This, despite the fact that—15 years earlier—co-author Stanley Temple told the press:

“The media has had a field day with this since we started. Those figures were from our proposal. They aren’t actual data; that was just our projection to show how bad it might be.” [3]

It’s true: the media has had a field day. Among the major newspapers to cite the Wisconsin Study are the Wall Street Journal [4], the New York Times [5], and the Los Angeles Times [6]. However, as I’ve described previously, it’s been the wildlife conservationists and bird advocates who’ve really had a field day with the Wisconsin Study:

  • The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) refers to the study, in its brochure Domestic Cat Predation on Birds and Other Wildlife. And the ABC goes one step further, pointing out that Coleman and Temple’s estimate was for rural cats, and that “suburban and urban cats add to that toll.” [7]
  • A 2009 article in Audubon Magazine suggests “cats were annually knocking off somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 million birds just in rural Wisconsin.” [9] To the magazine’s credit, they used Coleman and Temple’s low estimate—but none of the numbers from the Wisconsin Study are scientifically sound.

Birds Represent 20–30% of the Diet of Free-roaming Cats
According to an ABC report (downloadable from their website), “extensive studies of the feeding habits of domestic, free-roaming cats… show that approximately… 20 to 30 percent [of their diet] are birds.”

This, apparently, is the same report that Ellen Perry Berkeley debunked in her book, TNR Past Present and Future: A history of the trap-neuter-return movement, noting that the ABC’s 20–30% figure was not based on “extensive studies” at all. [10] In fact, just three sources were used: the now-classic “English Village” study by Churcher and Lawton [11], the Wisconsin Study (described above), and Mike Fitzgerald’s contribution to “The Domestic Cat: The Biology of Its Behaviour.” [12]

This gets a little complicated, so bear with me.

When Churcher and Lawton reported, “overall, birds comprised 35% of the total catch,” [11] they were referring to prey tallies recorded by study participants—not to the overall diets of the cats involved. Figures obtained through similar methods for the Wisconsin Study were 20–23%, [1, 13, 14] which the authors suggest—citing Fitzgerald’s comprehensive review of predation and dietary studies—are in line with other work:

“Extensive studies of the feeding habits of free-ranging domestic cats over 50 years and four continents [12] indicate that small mammals make up approximately 70% of these cats’ prey while birds make up about 20%.” [14]

But they’re comparing apples and oranges. Both the English Village and Wisconsin Studies report the percentage of birds returned as a portion of the “total catch,” whereas Fitzgerald reports percentage by frequency (i.e., the occurrence of birds in the stomach contents or scats of free-roaming cats), a point apparently lost on Coleman and Craven. The 21% figure [12] they refer to, then, is simply not comparable to their own (or that of the English Village study, a fact Churcher and Lawton acknowledge in their paper). As Berkeley notes, “this would put birds, as a portion of the diet of cats, at roughly 7 to 10.5 percent—nowhere near the ‘20 to 30 percent’ figures unleashed on the unscientific public by ABC!”

To put all of this into more familiar terms, it’s a bit like saying that coffee makes up 20–30% of the American diet versus saying that 20–30% of Americans drink coffee each day.

Nevertheless, 13 years after the ABC first published its report, the myth persists. The report—including the mistaken dietary figures—is still available. And the National Audubon Society has helped perpetuate the error, noting in its Resolution Regarding Control and Management of Feral and Free-Ranging Domestic Cats:

“…it has been estimated that birds represent 20–30% of the prey of feral and free-ranging domestic cats.”

Estimates of Free-roaming Cats
In January, Steve Holmer, the ABC’s Senior Policy Advisor, told the Los Angeles Times, “The latest estimates are that there are about . . . 160 million feral cats [nationwide].” Sounds like an awful lot of cats—nearly one for every two humans in the country. So where does this figure come from?

The source is a paper by Nico Dauphiné and Robert Cooper (which can be downloaded via the ABC website), presented at the Fourth International Partners in Flight conference. In it, Dauphiné and Cooper use some remarkably creative accounting, beginning with an unsubstantiated estimate of unowned cats, to which they add an inflated number of owned cats that spend time outdoors. In the end, they conclude that there are “117–157 million free-ranging cats in the United States.” [15] (For a more thorough explanation, see my previous post on the subject.)

Estimating the number of free-roaming cats wasn’t even the point of their paper. As the title—“Impacts of Free-ranging Domestic Cats (Felis catus) On Birds In the United States: A Review of Recent Research with Conservation and Management Recommendations”—suggests, the primary purpose was to describe the cats’ impact on birds. The authors’ exaggerated figure was merely a convenient route to their estimate of birds killed annually by cats: “a minimum of one billion birds” [15] (which, it should be clear, has the potential to become a very sticky number).

Holmer goes a step further, using only the upper limit of the range published by Dauphiné and Cooper, and making the subtle—but important—shift from free-ranging to feral cats.

When I asked him about this, he explained that those figures were “based on an earlier version of Nico’s latest paper and are now being updated in our materials.” I don’t know that any such changes were made; and in any event, the bogus estimate has already been published in the L.A. Times—as if it were true.

*     *     *

TNR opponents will often point to the vast collection of research studies, government reports, news accounts, and the like, that support their assertions. Drill down a bit into that collection, though, and they all start to look alike: the same familiar sources, the same flawed studies—and the same bogus figures. These figures have become the kind of “official numbers” Bialik refers to: quantitative poseurs owing their popularity to tireless—and irresponsible—repetition more than anything else.

Literature Cited
1. Coleman, J.S. and Temple, S.A., On the Prowl, in Wisconsin Natural Resources. 1996, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: Madison, WI. p. 4–8. http://dnr.wi.gov/wnrmag/html/stories/1996/dec96/cats.htm

2. 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.

3. Elliott, J., The Accused, in The Sonoma County Independent. 1994. p. 1, 10.

4. Sterba, J.P., Tooth and Claw: Kill Kitty?, in Wall Street Journal. 2002: New York. p. A.1

5. Barcott, B., Kill the Cat That Kills the Bird?, in New York Times. 2007: New York. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/02/magazine/02cats-v–birds-t.html

6. Kennedy, J.M., Killer Among Us, in Los Angeles Times. 2003: Los Angeles. http://articles.latimes.com/2003/dec/23/news/os-cat23

7. ABC, Domestic Cat Predation on Birds and Other Wildlife. n.d., American Bird Conservancy: The Plains, VA. www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/materials/predation.pdf

8. FWS, Migratory Bird Mortality. 2002, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Arlington, VA. www.fws.gov/birds/mortality-fact-sheet.pdf

9. Williams, T., Felines Fatale, in Audubon Magazine. 2009, National Audubon Society: New York, NY. http://www.audubonmagazine.org/incite/incite0909.html

10. Berkeley, E.P., TNR Past present and future: A history of the trap-neuter-return movement. 2004, Bethesda, MD: Alley Cat Allies.

11. Churcher, P.B. and Lawton, J.H., “Predation by domestic cats in an English village.” Journal of Zoology. 1987. 212(3): p. 439-455.

12. Fitzgerald, B.M., Diet of domestic cats and their impact on prey populations, in The Domestic cat: The biology of its behaviour, D.C. Turner and P.P.G. Bateson, Editors. 1988, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge; New York. p. 123–147.

13. Coleman, J.S. and Temple, S.A., Effects of Free-Ranging Cats on Wildlife: A Progress Report, in Fourth Eastern Wildlife Damaage Control Conference. 1989: University of Nebraska—Lincoln. p. 8–12. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/ewdcc4/7

14. Coleman, J.S., Temple, S.A., and Craven, S.R., Cats and Wildlife: A Conservation Dilemma. 1997, University of Wisconsin, Wildlife Extension. http://forestandwildlifeecology.wisc.edu/wl_extension/catfly3.htm

15. Dauphiné, 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.

Parasite Lost

Until now, my posts have focused almost exclusively on wildlife impacts (real and otherwise) related to predation by cats, a topic I’ll be returning to soon enough. Over the past week or so, however, I’ve been researching the Toxoplasma gondii parasite (another subject that will keep me busy well into the future). As it turns out, there’s big news on the T. gondii front—though in this case, the “news” is actually two years old.

Toxoplasma gondii
Toxoplasma gondii
is found in many mammals and birds, but its definitive host—the animal in which the parasite reproduces—is the cat, both domestic and wild species. Cats pass the mature, infective form of the parasite in their feces—a process called “shedding oocysts.” T. gondii infection, or toxoplasmosis, in humans can be traced to “ingestion of oocyst-contaminated soil and water, from tissue cysts in undercooked meat, by transplantation, blood transfusion, laboratory accidents, or congenitally.” [1]

How often cats shed oocysts, and to what extent, is a complex issue—one I’ll save for later. For now, I will simply note that, in general, it is thought that most cats build up immunity to re-shedding oocysts (though exceptions have been documented in laboratory testing). [2] (For a concise overview of T. gondii’s prevalence in, and risks to, humans, download Toxoplasma gondii: Epidemiology, feline clinical aspects, and prevention.”)

T. Gondii, Cats, and Sea Otters
In recent years, T. gondii has been linked to the illness and death of marine life, primarily sea otters [2], thereby prompting investigation into the possible role of free-roaming (both owned and feral) cats. [3, 4] It’s generally thought that oocysts are transferred from soil contaminated with infected feces to coastal waterways by way of freshwater run-off. [4] And it’s also generally thought that domestic cats are the culprits—or at least it was.

As I was sifting through my growing pile of T. gondii studies, I was rather shocked to find this:

“Three of the Type X-infected carnivores were wild felids (two mountain lions and a bobcat), but no domestic cats were Type X-positive. Examination of larger samples of wild and domestic felids will help clarify these initial findings. If Type X strains are detected more commonly from wild felids in subsequent studies, this could suggest that these animals are more important land-based sources of T. gondii for marine wildlife than are domestic cats.” [4] (italics mine)

Let me explain. There are multiple strains of T. Gondii. Studies of southern sea otters from coastal California found that 36 of 50 otters were infected with the Type X strain. [5] In other words, 72% of the otters were infected with a strain of T. gondii that has yet to be traced to domestic cats.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that these results are to be treated with caution—as Miller et al. note, “subsequent studies” are in order. For one thing, their sample size was quite small: three bobcats, 26 mountain lions, and seven domestic cats (although the authors suggest at one point that only five domestic cats were included). In addition, this area of research is quite active—and, as this study illustrates, the results can be surprising. Future research intended to confirm or refute this work could just as easily take us off in another direction altogether.

That said, this is still big news. Nearly two years old now, however, it’s not exactly breaking news. So why is this the first I’ve heard about these important findings?

What’s the Story?
For some reason, Miller et al. downplay their findings. Worse, they confuse matters by going into detail about the estimated mass of “feline fecal deposition” created by domestic cats in the communities adjacent to their study site. Suddenly, the focus is back on domestic cats. Given the authors’ findings, I’m not sure how this is relevant, other than as background—previous assumptions being called into question by their results. Perhaps it’s merely the inevitable result of 14 co-authors (one of whom, it should be noted, is David Jessup, of whose work I have been critical in the past) collaborating on a single paper.

But I’m unwilling to give Longcore et al. the same benefit of the doubt. In their essay, Longcore et al. [6] dissemble to such an extent that readers are likely to come away missing the point entirely:

“The large quantity of waste from feral and free-roaming cats containing Toxoplasma oocysts [3, 7] and the correlation between freshwater runoff and toxoplasmosis in marine mammals [8] has led researchers to suspect domestic cats as the source of the infections, although further research is needed to determine the relative importance of native versus exotic felids as sources of this parasite [4].”

While technically correct, Longcore et al. gloss over the fact that, based on the very study they cite, “the relative importance of native versus exotic felids as sources of this parasite” might be something like three-to-one.

And it’s not as if these authors are unwilling to consider speculative findings—such as those by Baker et al. [9] and Hawkins [10]. Longcore et al. even take seriously the Wisconsin Study [11] and its findings that “aren’t actual data.” [12] And they leave out plenty, too—which in the case of the Miller et al. work, might have been a more honorable approach.

Something else they should have omitted:

“Felids, including feral and free-roaming cats, shed Toxoplasma oocysts that infect southern sea otters [8, 5], Pacific harbor seals, and California sea lions.” [6]

In fact, Conrad et al. examined just one harbor seal and one sea lion—and in both cases found the Type X strain of T. gondii. [5] Which, when combined with the results from Miller et al., suggests wild felids as the more likely source, rather than domestic cats.

These two studies not only contradict the specific claims made by Longcore et al., they also challenge the native-good/non-native-bad dichotomy that seems to be at the root of so many feral cat/TNR complaints.

*     *     *

I sent an e-mail to Melissa Miller, lead author of “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,” asking her to comment on my reading of the study. I have not yet received a response.

Literature Cited
1. Elmore, S.A., et al., “Toxoplasma gondii: epidemiology, feline clinical aspects, and prevention.” Trends in Parasitology. 26(4): p. 190-196.

2. Jones, J.L. and Dubey, J.P., “Waterborne toxoplasmosis—Recent developments.” Experimental Parasitology. 124(1): p. 10-25.

3. Dabritz, H.A., et al., “Outdoor fecal deposition by free-roaming cats and attitudes of cat owners and nonowners toward stray pets, wildlife, and water pollution.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2006. 229(1): p. 74-81.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. Dabritz, H.A., et al., “Detection of Toxoplasma gondii-like oocysts in cat feces and estimates of the environmental oocyst burden.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2007. 231(11): p. 1676-1684.

8. Miller, M.A., et al., “Coastal freshwater runoff is a risk factor for Toxoplasma gondii infection of southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis).” International Journal for Parasitology. 2002. 32(8): p. 997-1006.

9. Baker, P.J., et al., “Impact of predation by domestic cats Felis catus in an urban area.” Mammal Review. 2005. 35(3/4): p. 302-312.

10. 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

11. Coleman, J.S. and Temple, S.A., On the Prowl, in Wisconsin Natural Resources. 1996, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: Madison, WI. p. 4–8. http://dnr.wi.gov/wnrmag/html/stories/1996/dec96/cats.htm

12. Elliott, J., The Accused, in The Sonoma County Independent. 1994. p. 1, 10.

Out-Sciencing the Scientists

Although it’s taken me two months to respond, it took less than two weeks for Vox Felina to come under attack by feral cat/TNR opponent Michael Hutchins, CEO and Executive Director of The Wildlife Society. In his post, Hutchins accuses me of trying to “out-science the scientists,” and refers to my critique of the essay “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” as “a flawed analysis, which could have been written by a high school biology student, and not a very good one at that.”

Hutchins goes on to write:

“Unless the author, who is obviously not a trained scientist himself, can publish a strong and verifiable critique of the Longcore et al. paper in the peer-reviewed wildlife biology/ecology literature, all of his arguments must be taken with a gigantic grain of salt.”

In the weeks since Hutchins’ post, I’ve gone to some length to point out some of the more blatant instances of errors, misrepresentations, and bias in the wildlife biology/ecology literature he defends. As this seven-part series, called “The Work Speaks,” (beginning with this post) makes clear, Hutchins’ had better have plenty more salt on hand as he reviews the work of his colleagues.

In the interest of transparency, then, here is my response—as an open letter—to Hutchins’ May 3rd post:

Dear Michael,

Let me begin by introducing myself. My name is Peter J. Wolf, and I’m the writer behind the Vox Felina blog. I’d like to address some of the points you made in your May 3rd critique of my work. (In the interest of transparency, this letter will be posted in its entirety on my blog.)

By way of clarification, you referred to me in your post as “the author, who is obviously not a trained scientist himself.” In fact, my training is in mechanical engineering and qualitative research methods. That said, does it require a trained scientist to point out the numerous flaws in the anti-feral cat/TNR literature—to, if I might borrow from the title of your post, out-science the scientists? I don’t think so. Indeed, some of your colleagues—including those you defend—have set an astonishingly low bar. Consider, for example, some of the issues I’ve addressed in my recent posts:

  • When did it become acceptable to cite work one hasn’t actually read? As I pointed out in “Lost in Translation,” this seems to be surprisingly common. Nico Dauphiné and Robert Cooper, for example, are just the latest to get William George’s classic 1974 study [1] wrong. George never “found that only about half of animals killed by cats were provided to their owners,” [2] as these two authors suggest. This is an error—and an all-too-tempting-shortcut to the doubling of predation rates—that, as Fitzgerald noted 10 years ago, “has been reported widely, though it is unfounded.” [3] (Of course, if Dauphiné and Cooper aren’t reading George’s work—which they cite—I don’t imagine they’d bother with Fitzgerald’s—which they don’t even mention.)
  • Are scientists no longer expected to recognize and deal appropriately with non-normal data sets, such as the positively skewed distributions that describe prey catches, cat ownership, time spent outdoors by pet cats, and more? As I describe in “Mean Spirited,” this seems to be the exception, not the rule. Using simple averages overestimates the factor in question, and in turn, the impact of free-roaming cats on wildlife. Such errors increase rapidly when one is multiplied by another, as Christopher Lepczyk demonstrated in his PhD work. [4]
  • While we’re on the subject of statistics, what about appropriate sample sizes? This was the focus of my 27-May post, “Sample-Minded Research.” Among the examples I discussed was Kays and DeWan’s misguided conclusion that the actual “kill rate” of pet cats allowed access to the outdoors is “3.3 times greater than the rate estimated from prey brought home.” [5] This “correction” factor has been used by many [2, 6–8] as another easy multiplier, despite the fact that it’s based on the behavior of just 24 cats—12 that returned prey home, and another 12 that were observed hunting for a total of 181 hours.Even setting aside the size of the samples, their dissimilarities are striking: the cat observed the most (46.5 hours) was only a year old—the youngest of the 12 observed, and therefore likely to be the most active hunter. In addition, larger, more comparable samples would probably have revealed a profile of time spent outdoors more similar to those found in other studies [9] and [10] (thereby reducing the magnitude of Kays and DeWan’s error).
  • And finally, there’s the issue of how some of these studies are designed. Take Cole Hawkins’ PhD work, for example. Hawkins compares rodent and bird numbers between two areas, and draws conclusions—infers important causal relationships—without (1) taking into account various factors (e.g., the many differences between the two study areas) that likely affected the differences he observed, and (2) any evidence of what “pre-treatment” conditions were like. Although he concludes, “the differences observed in this study were the results of the cat’s predatory behavior,” [11] he offers no explanation for the numerous exceptions—for example, the five (of nine) species of ground-feeding birds that showed no preference for the “no-cat area” over the area with cats. Lepcyzk, too, started off his PhD work on shaky ground, asking owners of cats to recall the number and species of birds killed or injured by their cats over the previous six-month period. Five years earlier, David Barratt demonstrated that such guesswork tends to overestimate predation rates—perhaps by a factor of two or more. [12]

In your post, you write:

“One goal of the peer review process is to assess an author’s command of the existing literature and whether or not it is being cited selectively to support the author’s views, without critical evaluation of contradictory evidence.”

But the essay you defend is plagued by such “selective support.” For example, Longcore et al. trot out figures from the long-discredited (and non-peer-reviewed, by the way) Wisconsin Study. In 1994, co-author Stanley Temple told the press that their estimates “aren’t actual data; that was just our projection to show how bad it might be.” [13] But 16 years later, Longcore et al. seem to be suggesting otherwise—that these figures are actual data. By publishing these deeply flawed estimates, the authors—and, by extension, Conservation Biology—give them undeserved credibility.

Longcore et al. also give too much weight to the claim made by Baker et al. that cat predation may produce a habitat sink, [6] ignoring strong evidence that the predation observed was compensatory rather than additive [7, 14] (as well as the significant flaws in their estimates of predation rates/levels). In this case, the contradictory evidence you refer to was provided by the authors of the original study, and still, Longcore et al. fail to acknowledge it—never mind offer any critical evaluation. Indeed, they fail to acknowledge any distinction between the two types of predation—a critical point in the discussion of cat predation and its impact on wildlife.

And what about the authors’ reference to the 2003 paper by Lepczyk et al. as evidence that “cats can play an important role in fluctuations of bird populations”? [15] One might get that impression from the paper’s abstract. However, the study’s focus was—as Lepczyk et al. note themselves—on cat predation, not bird populations:

“Although our research highlights a number of important findings regarding outdoor cats, there remains many aspects that are in need of further research… conservation biologists lack data on how specific levels of cat predation depress wildlife populations and if there are thresholds at which cat densities become a biologically significant source of mortality.” [4]

Somehow, all of this (and much more) survived the peer-review process you so revere—a system whose failures have been made quite public over the past eight months or so, first, when climate scientists’ e-mail messages were hacked at a British university, and later, when the Lancet retracted a 1998 paper incorrectly linking vaccinations to autism in children.

Obviously, these are spectacular cases. But if such high-profile work can be published and circulated widely, then how much easier is it for other papers—facing far less scrutiny—to do so as well?

Scientific Publications and the Peer-Review Process
I find your criticism ironic—even hypocritical—in light of the Scientific Societies’ Statement on the Endangered Species Act you co-authored in 2006. There, you acknowledged the value of the peer-review process, but also cautioned that “proposed limitations on the use of non-peer-reviewed technical reports and other studies will weaken, not strengthen, the science employed in endangered species decisions by limiting the data available to scientists and decision-makers.” Can we not make a similar argument for critiques and reviews such as those I’ve carefully composed and compiled via Vox Felina?

It’s curious that neither you nor the editors at Conservation Biology actually dispute any of the claims I’ve made regarding the flaws in “Critical Assessment.” Instead, you call my work “vaguely scientific” and “editorializing,” ultimately dismissing it because of its lowly status as a blog (“clearly not the place that the debate should occur”).

This is quite a departure from the position you took just four years ago. Rather than advocating for rigorous scientific discourse—regardless of a particular work’s origin—you’re now putting publication above all else. Would you suggest, for example, that using means to describe highly skewed populations—because such practice has been published in peer-reviewed journals—is appropriate and acceptable? And, further, that my calling these researchers on the carpet for it—because I’ve done it via a blog—is somehow invalid? Or that the predation rates proposed in the Wisconsin Study have merit?

The same can be said for the numerous issues I’ve covered in the past several weeks (many of which I’ve outlined above): if I’m right, then I’m right; if I’m wrong, then I’m wrong. In the end, it shouldn’t matter whether these critiques are published in a peer-reviewed journal, posted at Vox Felina, or scribbled on the back of a cocktail napkin. What matters is simply whether the points I’ve made are valid or not.

It’s difficult not to see a certain irony in your immediate and wholesale dismissal of my work—based only on the first of a four-part series (and clearly “advertised” as such). You’re quick to criticize, for example, my apparent failure to “address any of the more recent work that Longcore et al. relied on, or that have subsequently been published.” I wonder: did you bother to read any of my subsequent posts, in which I addressed these points at some length? As a trained scientist, wouldn’t you want to see all the “data” before drawing your conclusions? Your post has done far more to highlight the need for Vox Felina than to discredit it.

Don’t get me wrong—I’ve nothing against criticism; indeed, that’s the very premise of Vox Felina. But, before rendering judgment, you owe it to your readers, your colleagues, and yourself to at least have all the relevant information in front of you. This, it seems to me, is a necessary first step not only for scientific discourse, but for any civil discourse.

Los Angeles Court Case
With regard to the injunction against publicly supported TNR in Los Angeles, you’re correct in noting that the case was not about the efficacy of TNR. However, there’s far more science in the administrative record than you suggest. Though the majority of the record is made up of e-mail communications, trapping permits, and the like, it is peppered throughout with various papers, reports, and numerous references to scientific literature.

To take just one example, there’s this excerpt from a letter dated March 27, 2006 by Babak Naficy, the attorney representing the Urban Wildlands Group and the American Bird Conservancy:

“A decision by the Commission to implement the TNR policy will likely result in an increase in the population of feral cats in the City by returning feral cats to the environment that otherwise would be taken into shelters, and by issuing permits to maintain feral cat colonies. Notwithstanding the goal of the project to reduce feral cat numbers, TNR programs are less effective than removal in controlling feral cat populations, [16] and consequently this shift in policy would increase the number of feral cats in the environment. As has been communicated to the Commission by my clients in the past, it is well settled that feral and domestic cats adversely affect the population of songbirds and other small animals, such as small mammals and lizards. [11] Furthermore, the scientific literature shows that TNR is not effective in decreasing the number of feral cats on a regional basis. [17] An intensive TNR program combined with cat adoption at a Florida university took 11 years to reduce a county by two-thirds (6% per year), and even then animals continued to be abandoned and added to the colony.” [18]

“Additionally, City-endorsed feral cat colonies present a severe public health risk, [19] especially to vulnerable human populations such as the homeless. Maternal exposure to toxoplasmosis, often carried by feral cats, increases risk of schizophrenia in humans. [20] Therefore, any decision that mandates return of unowned cats to the environment may increase the number of free-roaming cats in the City and will likely result in a concomitant adverse impact on the environment.”

That said, perhaps I was not clear in my post. I was not implying any direct connection between the Longcore et al. paper and the Los Angeles TNR case (e.g., that the paper itself was part of the administrative record). The point I was trying to make was that the Urban Wildlands Group—lead petitioner in the case—was not a disinterested party concerned with science for its own sake. Longcore et al. were key stakeholders—focused, it seems, more on their “message” (the timing of which was itself uncanny) than the validity of any scientific claims.

And in any event, I don’t see how the case can be so easily divorced from science. This is not about property rights or tax code. Its status as a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) case presupposes the possibility of “either a direct physical change in the environment or a reasonably foreseeable indirect change in the environment.” The evidence of such changes, of course, would rely on scientific research. As I say, the administrative record contains numerous claims regarding potential impacts and the studies supporting or refuting them. Whether the judge in the case allowed this material to influence his eventual decision is unknown; but it’s clear from court transcripts that he considered it quite relevant:

“Look, you put feral cats in the wild, they endanger wildlife. That is an environmental concern…”

“It doesn’t affect birds? It doesn’t affect other wildlife? A fair argument has been made that it does. A fair argument… a fair argument has been made that when you take them out of the wild—not all of them are taken out of wild—but you take 50,000 cats out of the wild and do not consider other alternatives such as euthanizing them and return them back to the wild, I would be embarrassed to stand there and argue that there is no environmental effect… so you bring them in, you neuter the them and you put them out, and they endanger other wildlife and perhaps health and a lot of other issues that come to bear, and that’s the only consideration made and that’s not a project. Please, spare me.”

“And who is to go out and if the feral cats are running wild, does the Animal Services have a program to round up a herd of cats, if that’s possible—that’s an old expression—and bring them in a neuter them and let these little kitties out to kill birds and other wildlife?”

Whether or not Los Angeles had an official TNR program in place may have been at the center of the case, but it was certainly not the whole case.

Compromise, Courage, and Leadership
As I’ve noted on Vox Felina’s About page, there are legitimate issues to be debated regarding the efficacy, environmental impact, and morality of TNR. But attempts at an honest, productive debate are hampered—if not derailed entirely—by the dubious claims so often put forward by TNR opponents. Exactly the sort of claims I’ve attempted to untangle over the past several weeks.

But from what I’ve read of your work, you don’t seem interested in such a debate, and even less interested in finding common ground:

“Cooperation and compromise, no matter what the cost, is not courageous leadership.” [21]

Perhaps it’s impressive as rhetoric, but your comments strike me as somewhat hypocritical (your attempt to make a virtue of the same ideological inflexibility you dismiss in the animal rights community), misguided, and, in the end, simply unhelpful. More worrisome, however, is your willingness to let your ideology blind you to the numerous errors in the work you so vigorously defend.

Michael, how can you expect so much courage and leadership from your colleagues when you demand so little honesty and integrity?

Peter J. Wolf
www.voxfelina.com

Literature Cited
1. George, W., “Domestic cats as predators and factors in winter shortages of raptor prey.” The Wilson Bulletin. 1974. 86(4): p. 384–396.

2. Dauphiné, 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.

3. 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.

4. Lepczyk, C.A., Mertig, A.G., and Liu, J., “Landowners and cat predation across rural-to-urban landscapes.” Biological Conservation. 2003. 115(2): p. 191-201.

5. 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.

6. Baker, P.J., et al., “Impact of predation by domestic cats Felis catus in an urban area.” Mammal Review. 2005. 35(3/4): p. 302-312.

7. 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.

8. van Heezik, Y., et al., “Do domestic cats impose an unsustainable harvest on urban bird populations? Biological Conservation. 143(1): p. 121-130.

9. ABC, Human Attitudes and Behavior Regarding Cats. 1997, American Bird Conservancy: Washington, DC. http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/materials/attitude.pdf

10. 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.

11. 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

12. Barratt, D.G., “Predation by house cats, Felis catus (L.), in Canberra, Australia. II. Factors affecting the amount of prey caught and estimates of the impact on wildlife.” Wildlife Research. 1998. 25(5): p. 475–487.

13. Elliott, J., The Accused, in The Sonoma County Independent. 1994. p. 1, 10

14. Møller, A.P. and Erritzøe, J., “Predation against birds with low immunocompetence.” Oecologia. 2000. 122(4): p. 500-504.

15. 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.

16. Andersen, M.C., Martin, B.J., and Roemer, G.W., “Use of matrix population models to estimate the efficacy of euthanasia versus trap-neuter-return for management of free-roaming cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(12): p. 1871-1876.

17. Foley, P., et al., “Analysis of the impact of trap-neuter-return programs on populations of feral cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2005. 227(11): p. 1775-1781.

18. 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.

19. Patronek, G.J., “Free-roaming and feral cats—their impact on wildlife and human beings.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 1998. 212(2): p. 218–226.

20. Brown, A.S., et al., “Maternal Exposure to Toxoplasmosis and Risk of Schizophrenia in Adult Offspring.” Am J Psychiatry. 2005. 162(4): p. 767-773.

21. Hutchins, M., “Animal Rights and Conservation.” Conservation Biology. 2008. 22(4): p. 815–816.

The Work Speaks—Part 7: Leaky Sink

In April, Conservation Biology published a comment authored by Christopher A. Lepczyk, Nico Dauphiné, David M. Bird, Sheila Conant, Robert J. Cooper, David C. Duffy, Pamela Jo Hatley, Peter P. Marra, Elizabeth Stone, and Stanley A. Temple. In it, the authors “applaud the recent essay by Longcore et al. (2009) in raising the awareness about trap-neuter-return (TNR) to the conservation community,” [1] and puzzle at the lack of TNR opposition among the larger scientific community:

“…it may be that conservation biologists and wildlife ecologists believe the issue of feral cats has already been studied enough and that the work speaks for itself, suggesting that no further research is needed.”

In fact, “the work”—taken as a whole—is neither as rigorous nor as conclusive as Lepczyk et al. suggest. And far too much of it is plagued by exaggeration, misrepresentations, errors, and obvious bias. In Part 6 of this series, I critiqued Christopher Lepczyk’s paper Landowners and cat predation across rural-to-urban landscapes, published in 2003. Here, I’m going to examine two studies conducted by Philip J. Baker and various collaborators.

The Studies
In the first study, Baker et al. distributed questionnaires to 3,494 households across a 4.2 km2 area of northwest Bristol (UK), and used responses to estimate cat ownership and predation levels (via prey returned home). [2] This work served as a pilot study for the subsequent study.

The second study, conducted August 2005–July 2006, was also conducted in Bristol. Added to the original 4.2 km2 site were nine 1 km2 sites. The researchers used very similar sampling methods, but, based on results of their pilot study, had somewhat more specific objectives:

  1. To quantify cat density
  2. To quantify the various species of birds killed by cats.
  3. To estimate the impact of cat predation by species and site.
  4. To determine whether the predation observed was compensatory or additive. [3]

Sources and Sinks
Among the authors’ conclusions from the pilot study was that, at least for three of the ten bird species surveyed:

“…it is possible that cat predation was significantly affecting levels of recruitment and creating a dispersal sink for more productive neighboring areas.” [2]

Dispersal sinks or habitat sinks, are patches of low-quality habitat that are unable to sustain a population of a particular species were it not for immigration from higher quality habitat patches—called sources—nearby. So, what Baker et al. are suggesting is that predation by cats may be extensive enough to deplete populations of certain bird species at their study site, such that at least some of the birds observed there were immigrants from nearby habitat.

But the authors also point out that, “despite occurring at very high densities, the summed effects on prey populations appeared unlikely to affect population size for the majority of prey species.” [2] And even for House sparrows, which were among the three species of concern (and, apparently, in decline throughout the UK’s urban areas), Baker et al. note that their “numbers appear to be stable in Bristol as a whole.”

So, is the area a habitat sink or not?

A cursory look at the theory and empirical measurement of source-sink dynamics reveals great complexity. Variations across time and geography must be taken into account—the ebb and flow of local populations might easily be overlooked or misunderstood by applying a short time horizon (i.e., 12 months) and arbitrary boundaries (i.e., those that define the study site). Annual rainfall, for example, can dramatically influence yearly population levels on a local scale. And it’s been shown that source-sink dynamics can occur over distances of 60–80 km. [4] In fact, the determination of sinks and sources in the field can be problematic enough that sources sometimes appear to be sinks and vice-versa. [5]

Given the complex nature of source-sink dynamics, the suggestion by Baker et al. that cat predation may be creating a habitat sink seems rather premature. Such assertions—despite the requisite disclaimers (the authors note only that “it is possible”)—tend to attract attention and gain traction. Longcore et al., for example, cited the pilot study in their 2009 essay, “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return.” [6]

Of greater interest to me, though, are the assumptions Baker et al. used to estimate the impact of cat predation.

Counting Cats and Counting Birds
In both studies, the authors quantified the impact of cat predation on bird populations by comparing different levels of predation with different bird densities. Their maximum impacts, for example, assumed that all cats were hunters—despite the fact that 51–74% of the cats included in the two studies brought home no prey at all—and that bird productivity was zero (i.e., no young birds survive to adulthood). As the authors admit:

“This was clearly not realistic, as the estimated maximum numbers of birds killed typically exceeded breeding density and productivity combined, such that the prey populations studied would probably have gone extinct rapidly at a local level or acted as a major sink for birds immigrating from neighbouring areas.” [3]

But how realistic are their other estimates?

A detailed examination of a single species at a one site (taken from the second study, for which such information is available) illustrates some flaws. I looked at House sparrows for the 1 km2 site designated as ST5277. Here, 18 participants reported that their 22 cats returned a total of 30 prey items, nine of which were birds (two of them “unidentified”). Of the birds returned home, two were House sparrows.

When it comes to estimating impacts, though, Baker et al. use figures of 332–1,245 House sparrows killed by the cats of ST5277. The maximum, we already know, is “not realistic,” but even the minimum seems awfully high. So, where are these birds coming from?

To start with, two adjustments have to be made to the original predation figure. First, the two unidentified birds are “distributed” across the categories of bird species that were identified. Then, we have to account for participant drop-out; not all of the 22 cats were surveyed for the entire year of the study. Now we’re up to an average of 8.7 House sparrows brought home annually by the cats at this site.

But of course there are more than 22 cats at ST5277. Baker et al. estimate that there are 314 of them (although we know very little about the factors that affect their hunting ability and success—for example, their access to the outdoors, age, etc.). We also know that only seven of the 22 cats included in the study brought home prey. In other words, 32% of the cats surveyed were documented hunters. Based on these numbers, then, we can estimate the yearly predation rate of House sparrows at ST5277 to be roughly 125—well short of the minimum proposed by Baker et al. (and just a quarter of their intermediate rate).

There are some minor differences between their method for estimating predation rates and mine. For the most part, though, the “missing” sparrows can be found in the authors’ use of a correction factor (3.3) proposed by Kays and DeWan to account for prey killed but not returned home. [7] Undoubtedly, cats fail to bring home all the prey they catch (though they also undoubtedly bring home prey they didn’t kill), but there is good reason to doubt Kays and DeWan’s “correction.” Among the flaws in their analysis were small, dissimilar samples of cats, and a failure to account for highly skewed data sets.

So, even setting aside the complexities of source-sink dynamics, these inflated predation rates, combined with the fact that “the estimates of breeding density presented in this manuscript should be regarded as minima,” [3] raise serious doubts about whether the site is in fact a habitat sink (or, if so, to what extent).

Compensatory and Additive Predation
As I’ve discussed previously, even accurately predicted levels of predation can be deceptive. There’s compensatory predation (in which prey would have died even in the absence of a particular predator, due to illness, starvation, other predators, etc.) and additive predation (in which healthy prey are killed). It’s the difference between, as Beckerman et al. put it, the “doomed surplus hypothesis” and the “hapless survivor hypothesis.” [8]

When it comes to relating predation to population levels, it’s critical to understand the difference, and know the extent to which each type is occurring.

To get at this critical issue, Baker et al. compared the physical attributes (e.g., muscle mass score, mean fat score, etc.) of 86 birds killed by collisions (e.g., with cars, windows, etc.) to those of 48 birds killed by cats. Although the authors point out, “the relationship between body mass and quality (i.e., likelihood of long-term survival and therefore reproductive potential) in passerines is complex,” they nevertheless conclude that the birds killed by cats “were likely to have had poor long-term survival prospects.” [3] (An earlier study comparing spleen mass arrived at essentially the same conclusion: that birds killed by cats “often have a poor health status.” [9])

Still, Baker et al. express caution about their findings:

“The distinction between compensatory and additive mortality does, however, become increasingly redundant as the number of birds killed in a given area increases: where large numbers of prey are killed, predators would probably be killing a combination of individuals with poor and good long-term survival chances. The predation rates estimated in this study would suggest that this was likely to have been the case for some species on some sites.”

But their inflated predation rates and low estimates of breeding density combine to diminish the apparent level of compensatory predation. Were these estimates adjusted to better reflect the conditions at the site, the “redundancy” the authors refer to would be reduced considerably.

*     *     *

It’s not clear why Longcore et al. cited the pilot study their essay, but left out any mention of the much larger subsequent study. Perhaps it was just a matter of timing—“Cats About Town” was published in August of 2008, while “Critical Assessment” was published in August of 2009. A year is not much time in the world of scientific journals, and it’s possible that the two manuscripts more or less crossed in the mail. On the other hand, the pilot study fits more neatly into the argument put forward by Longcore et al.—an argument that doesn’t even recognize the distinction between compensatory and additive predation.

Of course, Baker et al. did themselves no favors, either. By using inflated predation rates—the result of some peculiar, unjustified assumptions—they virtually buried the most important findings of their study.

References
1. Lepczyk, C.A., Mertig, A.G., and Liu, J., “Landowners and cat predation across rural-to-urban landscapes.” Biological Conservation. 2003. 115(2): p. 191-201.

2. Baker, P.J., et al., “Impact of predation by domestic cats Felis catus in an urban area.” Mammal Review. 2005. 35(3/4): p. 302-312.

3. 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.

4. Tittler, R., Fahrig, L., and Villard, M.-A., “Evidence of Large-Scale Source-Sink Dynamics and Long-Distance Dispersal among Wood Thrush Populations.” Ecology. 2006. 87(12): p. 3029-3036.

5. Runge, J.P., Runge, M.C., and Nichols, J.D., “The Role of Local Populations within a Landscape Context: Defining and Classifying Sources and Sinks.” The American Naturalist. 2006. 167(6): p. 925-938.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. Beckerman, A.P., Boots, M., and Gaston, K.J., “Urban bird declines and the fear of cats.” Animal Conservation. 2007. 10(3): p. 320-325.

9. Møller, A.P. and Erritzøe, J., “Predation against birds with low immunocompetence.” Oecologia. 2000. 122(4): p. 500-504.

Available: Resources

As some of you may have noticed, I’ve added a new tab to the Vox Felina site. Resources is where you’ll find printer-friendly documents adapted from Vox Felina content.

The first, “Reassessment: A Closer Look at ‘Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return,’” is a brief review of the essay “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” by Travis Longcore, Catherine Rich, and Lauren M. Sullivan. It’s based on a four-part series of posts from May. Download PDF

Feeding Bans: Policy Hungry for Science

A recent news item from Alley Cat Allies reports “a disturbing and increasing trend of feeding ban proposals as a way to ‘eradicate’ cats from their outdoor homes.” Among the reasons cited for opposing such bans:

  • Cats don’t magically disappear when you stop feeding them—there’s an abundance of garbage available (from households, restaurants, supermarkets, etc.) as an alternative food source. Wherever you find people—and their trash—you’ll also find cats.
  • TNR requires regular feeding schedules. No feeding means no TNR—and no sterilization means more cats, not fewer.
  • Punishing concerned citizens is bad policy, and bad for communities.

I’d like to add one more: The concerns that prompt such proposals are, more than likely, based on erroneous, exaggerated, and/or misleading claims—all made in the name of science.

I’ll bet if I contacted officials in Brookhaven, NY, Wheaton, IL, and Benzie County, MI (communities listed in the Alley Cat Allies story), they’d tell me all about the numerous “threats” posed by free-roaming cats—wildlife killed and injured, rabies, toxoplasmosis, etc. And if pressed, they would almost certainly produce the Travis Longcore/Urban Wildlands Group article from Conservation Biology, some reference to the Wisconsin Study, a clipping of the L.A. Times story from January, or some comparable (read: dubious) bit of “evidence.”

Which is precisely what Longcore et al. are pushing for:

Conservation scientists and advocates must properly identify the environmental implications of feral cat management and actively engage this issue to bring scientific information to the attention of policy makers. [1]

I’ve got nothing against scientists getting involved with policy making—on the contrary, I think we need more of it. But from what I’ve seen, too many scientists involved in feral cat/TNR research are putting the cart before the horse. They’re shaping public policy before properly identifying any environmental implications. Too much interest in active engagement, not enough interest in active science.

References
1. 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.

The Work Speaks—Part 2: Sample-Minded Research

In April, Conservation Biology published a comment authored by Christopher A. Lepczyk, Nico Dauphiné, David M. Bird, Sheila Conant, Robert J. Cooper, David C. Duffy, Pamela Jo Hatley, Peter P. Marra, Elizabeth Stone, and Stanley A. Temple. In it, the authors “applaud the recent essay by Longcore et al. (2009) in raising the awareness about trap-neuter-return (TNR) to the conservation community,” [1] and puzzle at the lack of TNR opposition among the larger scientific community:

“…it may be that conservation biologists and wildlife ecologists believe the issue of feral cats has already been studied enough and that the work speaks for itself, suggesting that no further research is needed.”

In fact, “the work”—taken as a whole—is neither as rigorous nor as conclusive as Lepczyk et al. suggest. And far too much of it is plagued by exaggeration, misrepresentations, errors, and obvious bias. In my previous post, I presented examples of researchers “reinterpreting” the work of others to better fit their own arguments. For the next few posts, I’ll focus on some of the major flaws in the feral cat/TNR research itself—beginning with the reliance, by some, on small sample sizes.

Size Does Matter
There are all kinds of reasons for small sample sizes, perhaps the most common being limited resources (e.g., time, funding, etc.). And they are often a fact of life in real-world research, where investigators have less control over conditions than they might in a laboratory environment. Studies employing small sample sizes are not without value; indeed, they often serve as useful pilot studies for future, more comprehensive, work. They do become problematic, though, when broad conclusions are drawn from their results. Below are three (among many!) examples of such studies.

Impressive Estimates
In “Free-Ranging Domestic Cat Predation on Native Vertebrates in Rural and Urban Virginia,” [2] published in 1992, the authors estimated that the state’s 1,048,704 cats were killing between 3,146,112 and 26,217,600 songbirds each year. “This number,” they note, “is certainly inaccurate to some degree, although the estimates are impressive.” [2] Impressive? I suppose. Maybe incredible is more fitting—since the study from which they were derived included exactly five cats, four “urban” and one “rural.”

Mitchell and Beck acknowledged “the limitations of extrapolation to large areas from relatively small data sets such as ours,” suggesting that their work was intended to provoke future “careful and detailed studies that can reveal truer estimates of the impact of this introduced species.” Hawkins [3] and Dauphiné and Cooper [4], however, seem to take them at their word, regardless of any disclaimers.

Many Cats, Multiple Seasons
In a recent study on Catalina Island, the researchers “examined the home-range behavior and movements of sterilized and intact radiocollared feral cats living in the interior” [5] of the island. Although Guttilla and Stapp concede that “sample sizes, especially for males, were relatively low” despite having “tracked many cats across multiple seasons,” they nevertheless come to some rather dramatic conclusions. Among them: “sterilization likely would not reduce the impact of feral cats on native prey.” [5]

So what do the authors mean by many and multiple? Actually, there were just 27 cats in the study (of an estimated 614–732 on the island). “Four cats were tracked during all four seasons, 9 cats were tracked for three consecutive seasons, 4 cats were tracked for 2 consecutive seasons, and the remaining cats were tracked for 1 season.” [5] And these numbers were effectively cut in half, because the researchers were comparing sterilized and non-sterilized cats. At best, this is a pilot study—though it’s already morphed into something more substantial in the mainstream media.

Myth vs. Math
In their 2004 study, “Ecological Impact of Inside/Outside House Cats Around a Suburban Nature Preserve,” Kays and DeWan observed hunting cats, concluding that their kill rate (13%) is “3.3 times greater than the rate estimated from prey brought home.” [6] Not surprisingly, this figure has been used as an instant multiplier (much in the same way William George’s work has been misused) for researchers interested in “correcting” (inflating?) prey numbers. [4, 7-11]

But this ratio, 3.3, hinges on the hunting behaviors of just 24 cats—12 that returned prey home, and another 12 (11 pets and 1 feral) that were observed hunting for a total of 181 hours (anywhere from 4.8–46.5 hours per cat). It’s interesting to note that the cat observed the most (46.5 hours) was only a year old—the youngest of the 12 observed, and likely the most active hunter. This factor alone could have had a significant influence on the outcome of the study.

Also, as several studies have shown [7,8,12,13], the distribution of prey catches tends to be highly skewed (many cats catch few/no prey, while a few catch a lot). In other words, the distribution is not the familiar bell curve at all—making it inappropriate to use a simple average for calculating estimations (a topic I’ll address in detail later). What’s more, with only 12 cats being monitored, how can we be sure their behaviors accurately represent any real distribution at all?

But the key to their calculation is the average time spent outdoors. This, too, tends to be a highly skewed distribution [14, 15], although—curiously—Kays and DeWan’s data suggest otherwise. By way of example, a 2003 survey conducted by Clancy, Moore, and Bertone [15] revealed that nearly half of the cats with outdoor access were outside for two or fewer hours a day. And 29% were outdoors for less than an hour each day. A survey conducted by the American Bird Conservancy revealed similar behavior, reporting that “35% keep their cats indoors all of the time” and “31% keep them indoors mostly with some outside access.” [14]

Kays and DeWan’s average of 8.35 hours/day, then, seems rather out of line with other studies. This, in addition to a number of unknowns (e.g., influence of time of day/night on hunting success, actual time spent hunting by each cat, etc.) raises serious questions about their conclusions.

By way of comparison, using an average of 2.5 hours/day (which is not out of line with the surveys described above) would yield a ratio of 1:1. In other words, no difference between predation rates predicted by actual hunting observation and those predicted by way of prey returned home. Which is not to say that I agree with Kays and DeWan’s underlying methods—we don’t know the possible effects of seasonal variation, for example, or differences in habitat. I’m only pointing out how sensitive this one factor—with its enormous consequences—is to the amount of time cats actually spend outdoors (and, just to introduce one more complication: I’d be very surprised if the amount of outdoor time cats spend hunting is normally distributed; it, too, is probably skewed).

Ironically, while the authors express disappointment that “biologists have rarely sampled both cat and prey populations in such a way that direct effects on prey populations can be shown,” [6] they seem to have had no misgivings about how their work—suffering from its own sampling issues—might be used to misrepresent those same effects.

*     *     *

Next, I’ll discuss the difference between compensatory and additive predation, and how that affects predictions of feral cat impacts on wildlife.

References
1. Lepczyk, C.A., et al., “What Conservation Biologists Can Do to Counter Trap-Neuter-Return: Response to Longcore et al.” Conservation Biology. 2010. 24(2): p. 627-629.

2. Mitchell, J.C. and Beck, R.A., “Free-Ranging Domestic Cat Predation on Native Vertebrates in Rural and Urban Virginia.” Virginia Journal of Science. 1992. 43(1B): p. 197–207.

3. Hawkins, C.C., Impact of a subsidized exotic predator on native biota: Effect of house cats (Felis catus) on California birds and rodents. 1998. PhD Dissertation, Texas A&M University.

4. Dauphiné, 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. 2010. p. 205–219

5. Guttilla, D.A. and Stapp, P., “Effects of sterilization on movements of feral cats at a wildland-urban interface.” Journal of Mammalogy. 2010. 91(2): p. 482-489.

6. 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.

7. Baker, P.J., et al., “Impact of predation by domestic cats Felis catus in an urban area.” Mammal Review. 2005. 35(3/4): p. 302-312.

8. 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.

9. van Heezik, Y., et al., “Do domestic cats impose an unsustainable harvest on urban bird populations? Biological Conservation. 143(1): p. 121-130.

10. Nelson, S.H., Evans, A.D., and Bradbury, R.B., “The efficacy of collar-mounted devices in reducing the rate of predation of wildlife by domestic cats.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 2005. 94(3-4): p. 273-285.

11. MacLean, M.M., et al., “The usefulness of sensitivity analysis for predicting the effects of cat predation on the population dynamics of their avian prey.” Ibis. 2008. 150(Suppl. 1): p. 100-113.

12. Churcher, P.B. and Lawton, J.H., “Predation by domestic cats in an English village.” Journal of Zoology. 1987. 212(3): p. 439-455.

13. Woods, M., McDonald, R.A., and Harris, S., “Predation of wildlife by domestic cats Felis catus in Great Britain.” Mammal Review. 2003. 33(2): p. 174-188.

14.  ABC, Human Attitudes and Behavior Regarding Cats. 1997, American Bird Conservancy: Washington, DC. http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/materials/attitude.pdf

15. 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.

Hold Your Applause

Three months after my letter to Conservation Biology was rejected, it’s become apparent what they were really looking for: applause, not criticism.

Of course it probably doesn’t help that I’m not a member of the club; I don’t even know the secret handshake. (Michael Hutchins, writing for the Wildlife Society Blog, “Making Tracks,” has accused me—an outsider—of trying to “out-science the scientists.”)

In April, Conservation Biology published a comment authored by Christopher A. Lepczyk, Nico Dauphiné, David M. Bird, Sheila Conant, Robert J. Cooper, David C. Duffy, Pamela Jo Hatley, Peter P. Marra, Elizabeth Stone, and Stanley A. Temple. The authors “applaud the recent essay by Longcore et al. (2009) in raising the awareness about trap-neuter-return (TNR) to the conservation community,” [1] and puzzle at the lack of TNR opposition among the larger scientific community.

The reasons behind this lack of opposition are unclear, but it may be that conservation biologists and wildlife ecologists believe the issue of feral cats has already been studied enough and that the work speaks for itself, suggesting that no further research is needed. Or, they simply do not want to devote time and energy to the issue and are unaware of policy actions.

I’d like to offer an alternative explanation. Yes, the work speaks for itself, but there are plenty of observers—surely, there are conservation biologists and wildlife ecologists among them—who don’t particularly like what it’s saying.

For the next few posts, then, I’m going to present a sampling of the more serious flaws—including exaggerated and misleading claims, botched analyses, questionable research and review methods, and widespread bias—all too common in the feral cat/TNR literature. Let’s see what Lepczyk at al. are cheering about

References
1. Lepczyk, C.A., et al., “What Conservation Biologists Can Do to Counter Trap-Neuter-Return: Response to Longcore et al.” Conservation Biology. 2010. 24(2): p. 627-629.

A Critical Assessment of “Critical Assessment”—Part 4

The fourth in a series of posts that breaks down my critique of the essay “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” (Conservation Biology, Volume 23, No. 4, 887–894) by Travis Longcore, Catherine Rich, and Lauren M. Sullivan.

In the past few posts, I’ve addressed their claims regarding the numbers of birds killed by cats, and alleged wildlife impacts. Now I’d like to focus on some of their claims regarding TNR. While I agree with the authors that there is a need for additional research into the effectiveness and impact (environmental and otherwise) of TNR, I’m not sure any subsequent findings would satisfy the standards—some of which border on the absurd—suggested by Longcore et al.

Adoptions
To begin with, the authors challenge the efficacy of TNR, noting—correctly—for example, that where TNR has proven effective at reducing the size of colonies, success has been “derive[d] in part from intensive efforts to remove cats for adoption as part of the TNR program.” [1] Shouldn’t this appeal to Longcore and the Urban Wildlands Group? Adoptions lead to fewer free-roaming cats, right?

It’s unclear how a successful adoption program lessens the efficacy of TNR; indeed, such efforts are integral to any TNR program. For Longcore et al., however, it’s as if adoptions constitute cheating.

Researchers vs. Volunteers
Another of their assertions, that “programs implemented by researchers are likely to be much more thorough than programs implemented exclusively by volunteers,” [1] could be applied to virtually any conservation effort. Of course the results will be better when the experts are involved directly!

Indeed, while compiling data for the Atlas of Breeding Birds of Maryland and the District of Columbia, researchers found Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) in 46% of the areas surveyed, while volunteers reported only a 14% occurrence of this “secretive species that requires special effort.” [2] Here, the experts “performed” more than three times better than well-meaning volunteers with less experience and/or training. Should we discontinue all efforts that include volunteers, then? Or shut down these programs until the volunteers perform as well as experts? Obviously not.

Anecdotes of Success
Longcore et al. criticize supporters of TNR for their “anecdotes of success” and “assertions of colony declines often… supported only by reference to Web sites.” [1] By calling the data “anecdotal,” the authors dismiss it out of hand. So, what measures of success would be acceptable?

In general, caretakers of feral colonies—as providers of food, water, shelter, and, often, healthcare—know their cats quite well. Yet, Longcore et al. suggest that their reports are not to be trusted—trusted to a lesser degree, in fact, than the reports generated by members of the public recruited to watch and listen for birds. Breeding Bird Surveys “annually engage tens of thousands of participants,” and these efforts are now beginning to leverage the power of the Internet via Web-based programs such as eBird. [3] All of which sounds very anecdotal. So, do the authors question the validity of this work as well?

Prevailing Conditions
Citing a 2006 study from Rome, [4] Longcore et al. chose to focus not on TNR’s rather remarkable success, but on its greatest challenge: “Ten years of TNR in Rome showed a 16–32% decrease in population size across 103 colonies but concluded that TNR was ‘a waste of time, energy, and money’ if abandonment of owned cats could not be stopped.” [1] It must be recognized that TNR is part of a larger mission that includes adoptions (as mentioned above), sterilization of owned cats, and the burgeoning no-kill movement (which may reduce the number of abandoned cats).

In any case, what rescue/conservation work isn’t “a waste of time, energy, and money” when considered in the harsh light of what the authors call “prevailing conditions”? We could, for example, say the same about efforts to save songbirds faced with the elimination and fragmentation of habitat, increased levels of pollution, and the like (indeed, endangered and threatened species are, by definition, the victims of prevailing conditions). Or, to take a very timely example, the work being done to save the wildlife affected by millions of gallons of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico even as I write this.

The fact that such efforts are uphill battles may say something about their underlying moral imperative—but very little about their efficacy.

*     *     *

Common Ground
Essentially, the argument put forth by Longcore et al. in this part of their essay boils down to these three points:

  • TNR can and does work, though not always as well as one would like.
  • Adoptions are critical, as is training and rigorous tracking.
  • Abandonment of pet cats—which is, in any case, illegal—should be stopped.

So, how is this any different than what TNR advocates are promoting? Here at least, we would seem to have some common ground. Apparently, what’s really at issue is not how success is defined, but by whom:

For many TNR advocates, success is not defined by elimination of feral cats in an area, but rather by the welfare of the cats… conservation scientists and wildlife veterinarians measure success of a feral cat management program by the decline and elimination of free-roaming cats. [1]

All of which leaves me wondering: How much time have the authors spent with people who practice TNR? Of course practitioners are interested in the welfare of the cats—just as any animal lover is interested in the welfare of the animals they enjoy. But they’re also thrilled when “kitten season” comes and goes without any new arrivals in their colonies.

More common ground? It would seem so—but if that’s the case, one is left to wonder why the Urban Wildlands Group sued the City of Los Angeles to put an end to publicly supported TNR. (Or at least I am left to wonder, as Longcore has not responded to my inquiries.) One thing that does seem certain: more cats are reproducing as a result of the injunction. And no doubt more are dying, too. Hard to imagine the wildlife and environment being any better off, either. There are lots of losers here—where are the winners?

References
1. 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.

2. Robbins, C.S. and Blom, E.A.T., Atlas of the breeding birds of Maryland and the District of Columbia. Pitt series in nature and natural history. 1996.

3. Sullivan, B.L., et al., “eBird: A citizen-based bird observation network in the biological sciences.” Biological Conservation. 2009. 142(10): p. 2282-2292.

4. 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.

A Critical Assessment of “Critical Assessment”—Part 3

The third in a series of posts that breaks down my critique of the essay “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” (Conservation Biology, Volume 23, No. 4, 887–894) by Travis Longcore, Catherine Rich, and Lauren M. Sullivan.

As I’ve suggested previously, much of the “evidence” that Longcore et al. cite regarding cat predation is rather weak. The links between predation and declining wildlife populations (especially birds) are, not surprisingly, no better. According to Longcore et al., “Comparative field studies and population measurements illustrate the adverse effects of feral and free roaming cats on birds and other wildlife.” Let’s take a closer look at some of these studies…

In canyons in San Diego native bird diversity declined significantly with density of domestic cats (Crooks & Soulé 1999). —Longcore et al.

  • Longcore fail to mention the density of people here—the study site was a “moderately sized fragment (~20 ha) [approximately 49 acres] bordered by 100 residences.” [1]
  • It’s also not clear how sites such as this one, which the authors describe as, “undeveloped steep-sided canyons… habitat islands in an urban sea,” correspond to the environment overall. Don’t forget: when Longcore and the Urban Wildlands Group sued the City of Los Angeles last year, it was to put a stop to publicly supported TNR throughout the city.

In a comparative study in Alameda County, California, a site with a colony of feral cats had significantly fewer resident birds, fewer migrant birds, and fewer breeding birds than a control site without cats (Hawkins 1998). Ground-foraging species, notably California Quail (Calipepla californica) and California Thrashers (Toxostoma redivivum), were present at the control site but never observed at the site with cats. Native rodent density was drastically reduced at the site with cats, whereas exotic house mice (Mus musculus) were more common (Hawkins 1998). —Longcore et al.

Hawkins’ dissertation [2] is so problematic—and cited frequently enough as “evidence” of the impact of cats on wildlife—that it warrants a post of its own. Here, I’ll touch on just a few issues.

  • Hawkins describes the “cat” and “no-cat” sites as being similar enough that a valid A-B comparison is appropriate. But a closer look at the study suggests otherwise. Much of the cat site bordered the park’s lake and marina, not far from a number of picnic sites. Hawkins notes that there were more people in the cat area, but doesn’t even admit to the possibility that their presence may have influenced the numbers of birds and rodents he observed there.
  • In addition, the presence of pesticides may have played a role. According to a 2002 report (the earliest I was able to find) from the East Bay Regional Park District, “The focus of Lake Chabot’s weed control efforts are vegetation reduction within the two-acre overflow parking lot, picnic sites and firebreaks around park buildings, corp. yard, service yard, and the Lake Chabot classroom.” [3] Now, Hawkins’ fieldwork was done in 1995 and 1996, but if there was any pesticide use going on during the study period, it may have affected the results—especially if the pesticide was distributed differently across the two sites.
  • Hawkins writes, “The preference of ground feeding birds for the no-cat treatment was striking; for example, California quail were seen almost daily in the no-cat area, whereas they were never seen in the cat area.” What’s more striking to me, though, is the fact that five of the nine ground-feeding species included in the study showed no preference for the cat or no-cat area—a point Hawkins downplays, and Longcore et al. ignore entirely.
  • Finally, it’s not clear how this study constitutes an experiment at all. Hawkins chose two sites, one where cats were being fed, and another (approximately two miles away) where cats were not being fed. We have no idea what the cat area was actually like prior to the cats being fed there—Hawkins merely assumes the populations of birds and rodents would have been identical to those found at the no-cat site. We also have no idea what effect the feeding had—what if the cats were present but had to fend for themselves? And we don’t know if the cats were sterilized, or what impact that might have had on the study. In other words, Hawkins doesn’t actually know enough about what’s going on at the two sites to conclude, as he does, that “it is not prudent to manage for wildlife and allow cat feeding in the same parks.”

In Bristol, United Kingdom Baker et al. (2005) calculated that the predation rates by cats on 3 bird species in an urban area is high relative to annual productivity, which led the authors to suggest that the area under study may be a habitat sink. —Longcore et al.

  • Also, Longcore et al. fail to mention that Baker et al. concede an important point: “collectively, despite [cats] occurring at very high densities, the summed effects on prey populations appeared unlikely to affect population size for the majority of prey species.”
  • In addition, a subsequent study (also conducted in Bristol) involving two of the authors, suggests that much of the predation observed was compensatory rather than additive. That is, many of these birds would have, for one reason or another, died anyhow, whether the cats were present or not. Specifically, the authors found that “birds killed by cats in this study had significantly lower fat and pectoral muscle mass scores than those killed by collisions.” [6] Baker at al. are cautious about these findings, suggesting, “the distinction between compensatory and additive mortality does… become increasingly redundant as the number of birds killed in a given area increases: where large numbers of prey are killed, predators would probably be killing a combination of individuals with poor and good long-term survival chances.” But once again, their estimates of birds killed by cats are inflated by a factor of 3.3, as described above—thereby raising doubts about any level of “redundancy.”
  • Another study to investigate compensatory vs. additive predation was more conclusive. Møller and Erritzøe compared the average spleen mass of birds killed by cats to that of birds killed in collisions with windows found that, “small passerine birds falling prey to cats had spleens that were significantly smaller than those of conspecifics that died for other reasons,” concluding that the birds killed by cats “often have a poor health status.” [7] In other words, the birds killed by cats were among the population least likely to survive anyhow.

Clearly, this is a complex—not to mention contentious—issue. But Longcore et al. make it out to be remarkably straightforward. The “adverse effects of feral and free roaming cats on birds and other wildlife,” they seem to suggest, are widely accepted common knowledge.

*     *     *

Then, too, there are those—and there are many—who have disputed the broad-brush claims about the impact of cat predation on wildlife. Consider, for example, the following studies:

  • Biologist C.J. Mead, reviewing the deaths of “ringed” (banded) birds reported by the public, suggests that cats may be responsible for 6.2–31.3% of bird deaths. “Overall,” writes Mead, “it is clear that cat predation is a significant cause of death for most of the species examined.” But the relationship between bird deaths and population declines is complex. In fact, Mead concludes that “there is no clear evidence of cats threatening to harm the overall population level of any particular species… Indeed, cats have been kept as pets for many years and hundreds of generations of birds breeding in suburban and rural areas have had to contend with their predatory intentions.” [8]
  • Mike Fitzgerald and Dennis Turner come to essentially the same conclusion. (Their contribution to The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour is a must-read for anybody interested in the subject.) “We consider that we do not have enough information yet to attempt to estimate on average how many birds a cat kills each year,” write Fitzgerald and Turner. “And there are few, if any studies apart from island ones that actually demonstrate that cats have reduced bird populations.” [9]
  • Martin, Twigg, and Robinson conclude more broadly, “it is not possible to make any inferences concerning the real impact of feral cats on prey populations from dietary studies.” [10]

Given the scope of their essay, perhaps it’s understandable that Longcore et al. were unable to cover each aspect of this rather broad topic in a comprehensive manner. Nevertheless, the amount of research into cat predation and declining bird populations—a critical piece of the puzzle, to be sure—that was omitted, glossed over, and/or misrepresented suggests a clear agenda. Read carefully, their essay comes across as not as scientific discourse, but as fodder for a marketing campaign. (And, given the number of wildlife conservation/bird advocacy groups that have posted it on their websites—not to mention the L.A. Superior court decision—it’s been effective.)

*     *     *

Many proponents of TNR will acknowledge that the practice is not appropriate for all environments. Crooks and Soulé’s work in San Diego’s canyon country (cited previously), writes Ellen Perry Berkeley, “suggests to even the most ardent TNR advocate that such a landscape might not be the best place for TNR… The world is a complicated place.” [11] Gary J. Patronek, the former Director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, and one of the founders of the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, goes further: “the release of cats into an environment where they would impact endangered or threatened species, or even into wildlife preserves or refuges, is inexcusable.” [12]

This, I worry, is a slippery slope. Given the current nature of the cat debate, how long would it be before every alley, Dumpster, and abandoned property is deemed a wildlife preserve? And, given the number of endangered and threatened species—and their wide range—would there be any environment left for cats? Nevertheless, Patronek’s larger point is an important one:

I do not believe that this is being advocated by cat protectors who see urban, managed colonies as an imperfect but still preferable alternative to the euthanasia of healthy animals. Abandoned pet cats whose own habitat has been reduced to colonies, and the wild species endangered by clear-cutting or beachfront development, are casualties of the same callous disregard for the lives of animals. I see little justification for shifting the role of cats to that of scapegoat.

For Longcore and the Urban Wildlands Group (and others, too, of course), though, there’s simply no place for TNR anywhere. But there’s something even more troubling with their argument: they’re asking the wrong questions. As Patronek puts it so eloquently:

If the real objection to managed colonies is that it is unethical to put cats in a situation where they could potentially kill any wild creature, then the ethical issue should be debated on its own merits without burdening the discussion with highly speculative numerical estimates for either wildlife mortality or cat predation. Whittling down guesses or extrapolations from limited observations by a factor of 10 or even 100 does not make these estimates any more credible, and the fact that they are the best available data is not sufficient to justify their use when the consequence may be extermination for cats… What I find inconsistent in an otherwise scientific debate about biodiversity is how indictment of cats has been pursued almost in spite of the evidence, and without regard to the differential effects of cats in carefully selected, managed colonies, versus that of free-roaming pets, owned farm cats, or truly feral animals. Assessment of well-being for any is an imprecise and contentious process at best. Additional research is clearly needed concerning the welfare of these cats.

In a future post, I’ll get into the ways Longcore et al. would have us measure the success of TNR.

References
1. Crooks, K.R. and Soule, M.E., “Mesopredator release and avifaunal extinctions in a fragmented system.” Nature. 1999. 400(6744): p. 563.

2. 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.

3. Brownfield, N.T., 2002 Annual Analysis of Pesticide Use East Bay Regional Park District. 2003, East Bay Regional Park District.

4. Baker, P.J., et al., “Impact of predation by domestic cats Felis catus in an urban area.” Mammal Review. 2005. 35(3/4): p. 302-312.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. Møller, A.P. and Erritzøe, J., “Predation against birds with low immunocompetence.” Oecologia. 2000. 122(4): p. 500-504.

8. Mead, C.J., “Ringed birds killed by cats.” Mammal Review. 1982. 12(4): p. 183-186.

9. 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. p. 151–175.

10. Martin, G.R., Twigg, L.E., and Robinson, D.J., “Comparison of the Diet of Feral Cats From Rural and Pastoral Western Australia.” Wildlife Research. 1996. 23(4): p. 475-484.

11. Berkeley, E.P., TNR Past present and future: A history of the trap-neuter-return movement. 2004, Bethesda, MD: Alley Cat Allies.

12. Patronek, G.J., “Letter to Editor.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 1996. 209(10): p. 1686–1687.

A Critical Assessment of “Critical Assessment”—Part 2

The second in a series of posts that breaks down my critique of the essay “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” (Conservation Biology, Volume 23, No. 4, 887–894) by Travis Longcore, Catherine Rich, and Lauren M. Sullivan.

Like so many others interested in blaming cats for declining bird populations, Longcore et al. refer to a 1996 article in Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine [1], in which the authors estimate that 8–219 million birds are killed annually by “free-ranging rural cats” in the state. More than any other work, the “Wisconsin Study” (which is actually a series of articles, the first being published in 1993 [2]) has been used as “evidence” against advocates for free-roaming cats in general, and TNR in particular.

In my previous post, I referred only briefly to Coleman and Temple’s work; in fact, careful scrutiny is in order. Among the study’s more notable flaws:

  • Its “estimate that 23 percent of [cats’] diet consists of birds” is well above the 7–10.5% figure suggested by Fitzgerald, [3] one of the world’s foremost experts on the subject (for a detailed account, see Ellen Perry Berkeley’s 2004 book, TNR Past present and future: A history of the trap-neuter-return movement [4]). In fact, Coleman and Temple cite Fitzgerald’s work, making the error all the more egregious.
  • Coleman and Temple assume that all cats hunt; in fact, it has been suggested that only 35–56% of cats are hunters. [5,6]
  • Their figures for cat density, too, have been challenged. [7]

For a more complete critique of the Wisconsin Study, download the 2003 report by Laurie D. Goldstein, Christine L. O’Keefe, and Heidi L. Bickel at Stray Pet Advocacy.

Now 14 years old, the Wisconsin Study has achieved mythical status—but not in a good way. I suppose it’s because the numbers are so impressive. Forget the fact that they’re essentially fictitious—they’re simply too tempting for people who see cats as the primary reason for declining bird populations. James Tantillo, a Lecturer in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is right on the money when he refers to Coleman and Temple’s estimate as an example of a “‘mutant statistic’ whose origins and genesis have been greatly lost to the people who cite it.” [8]

*     *     *

Among those who cite it are, of course, Longcore et al. But they failed to cite an important follow-up comment by one of the authors of the Wisconsin Study. In a 1994 interview, an “exasperated” Temple told The Sonoma County Independent:

The media has had a field day with this since we started. Those figures were from our proposal. They aren’t actual data; that was just our projection to show how bad it might be. [9]

More than the media, however, it’s been the wildlife conservationists and bird advocates who have had a field day with the Wisconsin Study. Here are just a few examples:

  • The American Bird Conservancy refers to the study in its brochure Domestic Cat Predation on Birds and Other Wildlife. But ABC goes one step further, pointing out that Coleman and Temple’s estimate was for rural cats, and that “suburban and urban cats add to that toll.” [10]
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cites the study’s “intermediate” estimate of 39 million birds in its Migratory Bird Mortality Fact Sheet.
  • A recent article in Audubon Magazine suggests “cats were annually knocking off somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 million birds just in rural Wisconsin.” [11] To the magazine’s credit, they used Coleman and Temple’s low estimate (a surprise given the overall tone of the piece). Still, none of the numbers from the Wisconsin Study are scientifically sound (indeed, one can make a strong argument that none of the work constitutes actual research).

For Longcore et al. to cite the Wisconsin Study without even a mention of its numerous flaws, or the rather public admission by one of its authors that their estimates “aren’t actual data,” casts serious doubt on the entire paper. Either they didn’t know how flimsy Coleman and Temple’s work was, or they knew and ignored the facts. Neither approach makes for good science, of course.

*     *     *

Estimating the number of birds killed by cats is difficult enough; demonstrating that their predation is the cause of declining bird populations is an even greater challenge. Nevertheless, Longcore et al. suggest the evidence is both plentiful and compelling. I’ll lay out an argument to the contrary in my next post

References
1. Coleman, J. S., & Temple, S. A. (1996). On the Prowl. Wisconsin Natural Resources, 20, 4–8. http://www.dnr.state.wi.us/wnrmag/html/stories/1996/dec96/cats.htm

2. Coleman, J. S., & Temple, S. A. (1993). Rural Residents’ Free-Ranging Domestic Cats: A Survey. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 21(4), 381–390.

3. Fitzgerald, B. M. (1988). Diet of domestic cats and their impact on prey populations. In D. C. Turner & P. P. G. Bateson (Eds.), The Domestic cat: The biology of its behaviour (1st ed., pp. 123–147). Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

4. Berkeley, E. P. (2004). TNR Past present and future: A history of the trap-neuter-return movement. Bethesda, MD: Alley Cat Allies.

5. Baker, P. J., Molony, S. E., Stone, E., Cuthill, I. C., & Harris, S. (2008). Cats about town: is predation by free-ranging pet cats Felis catus likely to affect urban bird populations? Ibis, 150, 86-99.

6. Goldstein, L. D., O’Keefe, C. L., & Bickel, H. L. (2003). Addressing “The Wisconsin Study.” http://www.straypetadvocacy.org/html/wisconsin_study.html

7. Clifton, M. (2003). Where cats belong—and where they don’t. Animal People http://www.animalpeoplenews.org/03/6/wherecatsBelong6.03.html

8. Tantillo, J. A. (2006). Killing Cats and Killing Birds: Philosophical issues pertaining to feral cats. In J. R. August (Ed.), Consultations in Feline Internal Medicine Volume 5 (5th ed., pp. 701–708). St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Saunders.

9. Elliott, J. (1994, March 3–16). The Accused. The Sonoma County Independent, pp. 1, 10.

10. American Bird Conservancy (undated). Domestic Cat Predation on Birds and Other Wildlife. The Plains, VA. www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/materials/predation.pdf

11. Williams, T. (2009). Felines Fatale. Audubon Magazine. http://www.audubonmagazine.org/incite/incite0909.html

Nibbling at the Margins—Part 2

In December 2009, my critique of “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” (Conservation Biology, Volume 23, No. 4, 887–894) was rejected by outgoing editor Gary Meffe. Frustrated that Meffe was willing to publish something he considered “nibbling at the margins” topic-wise, but then reject a thoughtful critique of it, I appealed—noting, among other things:

  1. Longcore et al. were very “careful” about the studies they selected, and even the particular claims within the studies cited (this despite the fact that they criticize TNR advocates for their “reference to selected peer reviewed studies”). The authors make no attempt to explain their rationale for this obvious cherry picking.
  2. Although I was, as Meffe suggests, “critiquing the overall literature in the area and pointing out its complexities, problems, and uncertainties,” it was only to put the original essay into context. Meffe’s comment ignores the larger issue: Longcore et al. were essentially breathing new life into flawed studies by citing them uncritically. And here, Conservation Biology is also implicated (which might help explain Meffe’s decision to reject my commentary), a point I made to Meffe:

Conservation Biology is, according to the journal’s website, “the most influential and frequently cited journal in its field.” I’m afraid that by publishing the essay submitted by Longcore et al., Conservation Biology has effectively given its “stamp of approval,” thereby burying more deeply the complexities of the subject and its body of literature. No wonder bird advocacy groups have embraced the paper, including PDFs on their websites—here, it would seem, is additional “proof” of the damage cats are doing to bird populations!

In the end, Meffe didn’t budge. And neither did current editor Erica Fleishman, who seemed to have little patience for the subject. What Meffe found to be too broad, Fleishman read as a “fairly personal critique,” adding, “…we aim for objective presentation of facts that may provide evidence contrary to a previous publication rather than (what comes across as) a more pointed rejoinder to authors and the journal.”

At this point, it seemed clear that I was getting nowhere. Nevertheless, I appealed, explaining what I intended to include in my paper:

… regarding “a more comprehensive piece,” what I’m proposing is a detailed review of the literature regarding cat predation on birds, the scope of which includes—but also goes well beyond—the material covered in the essay by Longcore et al.

Once again, my appeal fell on deaf ears, eliciting this response—obviously intended to put an end to the discussion—from Fleishman:

Thanks for the detailed explanation. I think it would be best to pursue publication of your review in a different journal. Good luck and again thank you for considering Conservation Biology.

Perhaps I will follow her advice and submit a similar proposal to another journal. For now, though, it’s all going right here. Indeed, many of the next several posts will draw on the main points I made in my first letter to Conservation Biology.

Nibbling at the Margins—Part 1

Since I first became involved with the Great Kitty Rescue, I’d begun slowly compiling journal articles and news stories related to feral cat management, and in particular, TNR. As a newcomer to the world of cat rescue, I was struggling to sift through the many claims made—on both sides of this highly controversial issue—regarding its efficacy and potential impact.

When I came across the essay “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” (Conservation Biology, Volume 23, No. 4, 887–894). I thought I’d struck gold. Here, I naively assumed, was what I’d been looking for, all neatly complied in a single document (complete with an extensive list of references, allowing me to chase down all of the original research as well). As it turned out, the discovery of this essay proved to be a turning point—but not in the way that I expected. Instead of answering my questions, this paper (the details of which will be the focus of many future posts) raised many more. This “critical assessment,” authored by Travis Longcore, Catherine Rich, and Lauren M. Sullivan—with its glaring omissions, numerous misrepresentations, and obvious bias—revealed for me the ugly side of the feral cat/TNR debate.

So I did what any writer in my position would do: I wrote a letter to the editor.

I was then invited by outgoing editor Gary Meffe (who had been at the helm when the original essay was published) to submit a letter for possible publication in the journal. The letter, suggested Meffe, was “to be substantive and shed more light than heat. In other words, if it is simply a difference of opinion it will not be suitable. I always look for letters to be substantive critiques of a paper.”

Which, I maintain, is precisely what I delivered. Meffe, however, disagreed, and—to his credit—explained in detail his reasoning:

I am not saying it is unimportant to conservation, but it is a fairly narrow and specialized topic. Publication of the Longcore et al. paper was nibbling at the margins to begin with, but I and the reviewers felt that it had enough relevance and interest for us to publish it. I am reluctant to further engage the topic in the journal in great detail, so any responses to it need to be very focused and address specific errors in the paper. Your critique gets into assessment of the broader literature on the subject and its use by Longcore et al. I don’t think this is the format to do that. You are really critiquing the overall literature in the area and pointing out its complexities, problems, and uncertainties; one could do that for almost any topic in conservation and probably for many papers that are published. If this cat TNR literature really is problematic then it calls for a much more comprehensive critical assessment in a thorough review paper. Thus, if you would like to prepare a comprehensive review paper on cat TNR that thoroughly examines the literature and its complexities and problems, then perhaps that could be of interest to this journal.

Not the response I was hoping for, obviously—but I’d already invested too much to give up so easily. Perhaps my next letter would be more successful…