New York: Where’s Your Grit?

“I’m pretty sure both sides are going to hate it,” warned New York magazine writer Jessica Pressler, referring to her feature for this week’s issue, “Must Cats Die So Birds Can Live?” When I first spoke to Pressler in March, she’d indicated that she knew the subject was complex. Her most recent e-mail, however, sent just a few days before the story was published, made it clear that the piece had taken an unfortunate turn: “In the end there were so many different bits that needed to be covered,” Pressler explained. “A lot of it ended up being about the argument between the two sides.”

Still, hate is a strong word. How about enormously disappointed? Read more

Cat Management Plan Reads Like Fiction

In her recent attempt to “respond to recent comments and misinformation voiced by concerned citizens,” Anne Morkill, Refuge Manager for the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges, misrepresented both the rationale for, and implications of, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s indefensible Predator Management Plan. My response to Morkill’s opinion piece was published in today’s Upper Keys Free Press (download 15.4 MB PDF) (p. 43) under the headline “Cat management plan reads like fiction”:

I’d like to challenge some of the assertions made by Anne Morkill in her recent letter (“Refuges, animal advocates have common goal,” March 30), beginning with her suggestion that the impact of free-roaming cats on the Keys’ wildlife is well understood. In fact, the rationale presented by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in its Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex Integrated Predator Management Plan/Draft Environmental Assessment (download PDF) demonstrated quite clearly that the organization lacks the necessary understanding (e.g., estimates of population size, range, diet, etc.) to begin “managing” cats on or near the refuges.

Given the fact that the USFWS has been struggling with this issue for years (at taxpayer expense, of course), one might expect a better foundation of knowledge from which to proceed (again, at taxpayer expense).

Morkill is quick to brush aside allegations that wildlife impacts have “been overstated and the science is flawed,” but offers little in the way of details. She notes the obvious—that cats do kill birds, small mammals and so forth—but says nothing about the extent of such predation or its impact on those populations of greatest concern (e.g., the Lower Keys marsh rabbit and Key Largo woodrat, etc.). And her mention of “popular literature” as a legitimate source for such evidence—a reference, I assume, to Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom, in which the author (who sits on the board of the American Bird Conservancy) gives voice to his own opinions about cats and birds through one of his characters—is enough to erode any credibility she may have had on the subject.

On the other hand, much of the “justification for action” presented by USFWS in its Predator Management Plan is itself a kind of fiction. To support their claim that free-roaming cats have been a major cause of 33 extinctions around the world, for example, USFWS references studies of species that simply aren’t extinct. And, among the “evidence” of island extinctions are studies that—in addition to having nothing to do with extinctions—were not conducted on islands (e.g., rural Wisconsin, the small English village of Felmersham, etc.).

USFWS claims that free-roaming cats kill at least one billion birds every year in the U.S., but provides virtually nothing in the way of support. Indeed, one the three articles referenced—published in a birding magazine—is about defending one’s garden from neighborhood cats (“… try a B-B or pellet gun. There is no need to kill or shoot toward the head, but a good sting on the rump seems memorable for most felines, and they seldom return for a third experience.”). Another article cited by USFWS isn’t about cats at all. Or even invasive animals. It’s about invasive plants.

For USFWS to include such egregious errors in its Predator Management Plan (and there are plenty more, as I’ve documented in my comments to USFWS) suggests carelessness, clearly, but also a disregard for the public they are supposed to serve.

Had USFWS been more diligent in its review of the science, its plan would have addressed the risk of removing free-roaming cats from the Keys. If the agency were successful in removing the cats (unlikely, given their poor track record), the population of black rats would likely skyrocket—and decimate the very populations of native birds, mice and rats USFWS is trying to protect. As would the use of rodenticides that they would use ordinarily to control the population of rats. This phenomenon is well documented in the scientific literature, yet USFWS fails to acknowledge even the possibility in the Keys.

And they fail to acknowledge what’s involved in “successful” removal efforts. On Marion Island, located in the sub-Antarctic Indian Ocean, it took 19 years to eradicate something like 2,200 cats—using disease, poisoning, intensive hunting and trapping, and dogs. This, on an island that’s only 115 square miles in total area (slightly smaller than the combined area of the Keys), barren and uninhabited. The cost, I’m sure, was astronomical.

USFWS has a much more difficult task on its hands, obviously, though one would never guess this was the case reading through its Predator Management Plan.

And finally, a few comments about Morkill’s claim that “the service will not kill any cats.” Does she really think readers won’t pick up on the game she’s playing? If USFWS goes through with its plan, as proposed, it’s quite likely that many cats will end up dead. Does it matter that the dirty work will be done by Monroe County animal control shelters, rather than USFWS? As Morkill points out, the shelters “will be responsible for choosing the best future for the cats,” which, she adds, “may be adopted by individuals or groups that can provide long-term care.”

I asked Connie Christian, executive director of the Florida Keys SPCA, about this issue earlier this year, and she told me, “We do not have an outlet for feral cats that are brought to us without a request for return.” In other words, that “best future” Morkill refers to is—almost certainly—no future at all.

Like Morkill, I “agree that this is a people problem.” Unfortunately, she missed the irony in her comment: some of the people at the heart of the problem are right there at USFWS.

The Feral Feeding Movement

SF Weekly Cover (30-Mar-11)

SF Weekly is San Francisco’s smartest publication. That’s because we take journalism seriously, but not so seriously that we let ourselves be guided by an agenda.”

At least that’s what the paper’s Website says.

Now, as somebody who reads SF Weekly only rarely, I want to be careful not to generalize. But if last week’s feature story is typical, then it’s time for the paper to update either its About page or its editorial standards.

“Live and Let Kill” isn’t particularly smart. And, as journalism, it falls well short of the “serious” category.

Reporter Matt Smith argues that “greater scrutiny may be just what the feral feeding movement needs,” while he swallows in one gulp the numerous unsubstantiated claims made by TNR opponents.

Indeed, Smith pays more attention to colony caretaker Paula Kotakis’ “cat-hunting outfit” (“green nylon jacket, slacks, and muddied black athletic shoes”) and her mental health (“For Kotakis, strong emotions and felines go together like a cat and a lap.”) than he does the scientific papers he references (never mind those he overlooks).

His reference to “the feral feeding movement” reflects Smith’s fundamental misunderstanding of TNR, and his dogged efforts to steer the conversation away from sterilization, population control, reduced shelter killing, and the like—to focus on the alleged environmental consequences of subsidizing these “efficient bird killers and disease spreaders.”

Here, too, Smith misses the mark—failing to dig into the topic deeply enough to get beyond press releases, superficial observations, rhetorical questions, and his own bias.

Make no mistake: there’s an agenda here.

Science: The Usual Suspects
“Environmentalists,” writes Smith, “point out that outdoor cats are a greater problem to the natural ecological balance than most people realize.” Actually, what most people (including Smith, perhaps) don’t realize is that Smith’s sources can only rarely defend their dramatic claims with solid science.

Populations and Predation
Smith’s reference to the American Bird Conservancy, which, we’re told, “estimates that America’s 150 million outdoor cats kill 500 million birds a year,” brings to mind the 2010 L.A. Times story in which Steve Holmer, ABC’s Senior Policy Advisor, told the paper there were 160 million feral cats in the country.

Smith got a better answer out of ABC—but ABC’s better answers are only slightly closer to the truth.

Surveys indicate that about two-thirds of pet cats are kept indoors, which means about 31 million are allowed outside (though about half of those are outdoors for less than two or three hours a day). [1–3]. So where do the other 120 million “outdoor cats” come from? And if there are really 150 million of them in the U.S.—roughly one outdoor cat for every two humans—why don’t we see more of them?

Reasonable questions, but Smith is no more interested in asking than ABC is in answering.

The closest Smith comes to supporting ABC’s predation numbers is a reference to Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom, a book “about a birder who declares war on ‘feline death squads’ and calls cats the ‘sociopaths of the pet world,’ responsible for killing millions of American songbirds.” (The fact that Franzen sits on ABC’s board of directors seems to have escaped Smith’s notice.)

In Smith’s defense, chasing down ABC’s predation numbers is a fool’s errand. Such figures—like the rest of ABC’s message regarding free-roaming cats—have more to do with marketing and politics than with science.

No 1. Killer?
For additional evidence, Smith turns to Pete Marra’s study of gray catbirds in and around Bethesda, MD.

“In urban and suburban areas, outdoor cats are the No. 1 killer of birds, by a long shot, according to a new study in the Journal of Ornithology. Researchers from the Smithsonian Institution put radio transmitters on young catbirds and found that 79 percent of deaths were caused by predators, nearly half of which were cats.”

Let’s see now… half of 79 percent… That’s nearly 40 percent of bird deaths caused by cats, right? Well, no.

Although SF Weekly included a link to the Ornithology article on its Website, it seems Smith never read the paper. Like so many others (e.g., The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, etc.), he went with the story being served up by Pete Marra and the Smithsonian.

The real story, it turns out, is far less dramatic than headlines would suggest. In fact, neighborhood cats were observed killing just six birds.

What’s more, even if Marra and his colleagues are correct about the three additional kills they attribute to cats, the title of “No. 1 killer of birds” goes not to the cats, but to unidentified predators, as detailed in the Ornithology paper:

“During our study of post-fledging survival, 61% (42/69) of individuals died before reaching independence. Predation on juveniles accounted for 79% (33/42) of all mortalities (Bethesda 75% (6/8), Spring Park 75% (12/16), and Opal Daniels 83% (15/18) with the vast majority (70%) occurring in the first week post-fledging. Directly observed predation events involved domestic cats (n = 6; 18%), a black rat snake (n = 1; 3%), and a red-shouldered hawk (n = 1; 3%). Although not all mortalities could be clearly assigned, fledglings found with body damage or missing heads were considered symptomatic of cat kills (n = 3; 9%), those found cached underground of rat or chipmunk predation (n = 7; 21%) and those found in trees of avian predation (n = 1; 3%). The remaining mortalities (n = 14; 43%) could not be assigned to a specific predator. Mortality due to reasons other than predation (21%) included unknown cause (n = 2; 22%), weather related (n = 2; 22%), window strikes (n = 2; 22%) and individuals found close to the potential nest with no body damage (n = 3; 34%), suggesting premature fledging, disease or starvation.” [4]

Taken together, the detailed mortality figures and the study’s small sample size make a mockery of Smith’s claim, and—more important—its implications for feral cat management. Which might explain why he didn’t bother to share this information with readers.

The Power of One
“If trappers miss a single cat,” warns Smith, “populations can rebound if they’re continuously fed, because a fertile female can produce 100 kittens in her lifetime. Miss too many, and the practice of leaving cat food in wild areas will actually increase their numbers by helping them to survive in the wild.”

As Michael Hutchins, Travis Longcore, and others have pointed out, I don’t have a degree in biology. Still, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that “a single cat” isn’t likely to reproduce on its own.

Nor is a female cat—even with help—going to produce 100 kittens over the course of her lifetime. A study of “71 sexually intact female cats in nine managed feral cat colonies” found that:

“Cats produced a mean of 1.4 litters/y, with a median of 3 kittens/litter (range, 1 to 6). Overall, 127 of 169 (75%) kittens died or disappeared before 6 months of age. Trauma was the most common cause of death.” [5]

To produce 100 kittens, then, an unsterilized female would have to live at least 25 years. Smith fails to reconcile—or even acknowledge—the obvious discrepancy between claims of of-the-charts fecundity and—to use David Jessup’s phrase—the “short, brutal lives” [6] of feral cats.

Do these cats breed well into their golden years, or, are they “sickened by bad weather, run over by cars, killed by coyotes, or simply starved because feeders weren’t able to attend to a cat colony for the several years or more that are called for,” as Smith suggests?

Clearly, the two scenarios are mutually exclusive.

California Quail
The closest we get to the “demise of native birds” promised on the cover is Smith’s observation that “wildlife advocates blame the city’s forgiving attitude toward feral cats for helping to almost wipe out native quail, which used to be commonplace.”

This is not a new complaint, as a 1992 story in the San Francisco Chronicle illustrates:

“A decade ago, the hedges and thickets of Golden Gate Park teemed with native songbirds and California Valley quail. Now the park is generally empty of avian life, save for naturalized species such as pigeons, English sparrows and starlings.” [7]

But the Chronicle, despite its dire proclamation (“One thing seems certain: San Francisco can have a healthy songbird population or lots of feral cats, but not both.” [7]), did no better than SF Weekly at demonstrating anything more than correlation. This, despite interviews with scientists from the California Academy of Sciences, Point Reyes Bird Observatory, and Golden Gate Chapter of the Audubon Society.

A few years later, Cole Hawkins thought he found the answer. Conducting his PhD work at Lake Chabot Regional Park, Hawkins reported that where there were cats, there were no California Quail—the result, he argued, “of the cat’s predatory behavior.” [8] In fact, Hawkins found very little evidence of predation, and failed to explain why the majority of ground-nesting birds in his study were indifferent to the presence of cats—thus undermining his own dramatic conclusions.

A quick look at A. Starker Leopold’s 1977 book The California Quail (a classic, it would seem, given how often it’s cited) offers some interesting insights on the subject. (Full disclosure: this was a quick look—I turned immediately to the glossary, and then to the two sections corresponding to “Predators, cats and dogs.”)

In the “Quail Mortality” chapter, Leopold describes Cooper’s Hawk as “the most efficient and persistent predator of California Quail,” [9] in stark contrast to cats.

“The house cat harasses quail and may drive them from the vicinity of a yard or a feeding station (Sangler, 1931), but there is little evidence that they catch many quail in wild situations. Hubbs (1951) analyzed the stomach contents of 219 feral cats taken in the Sacramento Valley and recorded one California Quail. Feral cats, like bobcats, prey mostly on rodents.” [9, emphasis mine]

The picture changes somewhat, though, when we get to Leopold’s chapter on “Backyard Quail”:

“Cats… not only molest quail, but skillful individuals capture them frequently… Feline pets that are fed regularly are not dependent on catching birds for a living, but rather they hunt for pleasure and avocation. They can afford to spend many happy hours stalking quail and other birds around the yard, and hence they are much more dangerous predators than truly feral cats that must hunt for a living and therefore seek small mammals almost exclusively (wild-living cats rarely catch birds).” [9]

As to how many “skillful individuals” reside in Golden Gate Park, it’s anybody’s guess. (The idea that few cats catch many birds while many cats catch few if any, however, is well supported in the literature.) And, while they may be well fed, it’s not clear that their very public “yard” and skittish nature afford the park’s cats “many happy hours stalking.”

(A more recent source, The Birds of North America, provides an extensive list of California Quail predators—including several raptor species, coyotes, ground squirrels, and rattlesnakes. Cats are mentioned only as minor players. [10])

Another complaint from the area’s wildlife advocates, writes Smith, is “Toxoplasma gondii, “shed in cat feces, that threatens endangered sea otters and other marine mammals.” But not all T. gondii is the same. In fact, nearly three-quarters of the sea otters examined as part of one well-known study [11] were infected with a strain of T. gondii that hasn’t been traced to domestic cats. [12]

Once again, domestic cats have become an easy target—but, as with their alleged impact on California Quail, there’s plenty we simply don’t know.

Feral Feeding

For Smith, the trouble with TNR is its long-term maintenance of outdoor cat populations. “Its years of regular feeding,” he argues, citing Travis Longcore’s selective review of the TNR literature, [13] (which Smith mischaracterizes as “a study”), “causes ‘hyperpredation,’ in which well-fed cats continue to prey on bird, mammal, reptile, and amphibian populations, even after these animals become so scarce they can no longer sustain natural predators.”

But that’s not what happened in Hawkins’ study (though he did his best to suggest as much). And it’s not what happened in the two Florida parks Castillo and Clarke used to study the impact of TNR.

Over the course of approximately 300 hours of observation (this, in addition to “several months identifying, describing, and photographing each of the cats living in the colonies” [14] prior to beginning their research), the researchers “saw cats kill a juvenile common yellowthroat and a blue jay. Cats also caught and ate green anoles, bark anoles, and brown anoles. In addition, we found the carcasses of a gray catbird and a juvenile opossum in the feeding area.” [14]

That’s it—from nearly 100 cats (about 26 at one site, and 65 at another).

Calhoon and Haspel, too, found little predation among the free-roaming cats they studied in Brooklyn: “Although birds and small rodents are plentiful in the study area, only once in more than 180 [hours] of observations did we observe predation.” [15]

Feeding and Population Control
Smith’s description of the vacuum effect reflects his misunderstanding of the phenomenon and the role feeding play in TNR more broadly:

“Feral cat advocates believe removing cats from the wild creates a natural phenomenon known as the ‘vacuum effect,’ in which new cats will replace absent ones. (Key to the ‘vacuum’ are the tons of cat food TNR supporters place twice a day, every day, at secret feeding stations nationwide.)”

Smith would have readers believe that TNR practitioners bait cats the way hunters bait deer. In fact, the food comes after the cat(s), not the other way around.

Cats are remarkably resourceful; where there are humans, there is generally food and shelter to be found. Indeed, even where no such support is provided, cats persist. On Marion Island—barren, uninhabited, and only 115 square miles in total area—it took 19 years to eradicate about 2,200 cats, using disease (feline distemper), poisoning, intensive hunting and trapping, and dogs. [16, 17]

As Bester et al. observe, the island’s cats didn’t require “tons of cat food” as an incentive to move into “vacuums”:

“The recolonization of preferred habitats, cleared of cats, from neighbouring suboptimal areas served to continually concentrate surviving cats in smaller areas.” [16]

Still, those “tons of cat food TNR supporters place twice a day, every day, at secret feeding stations nationwide” are key to the success of TNR—just not in the way Smith suggested. Feeding allows caretakers to monitor the cats in their care, “enrolling” new arrivals as soon as possible.

By bringing these cats out into the open—via managed colonies—they’re much more likely to be sterilized and, in some cases, vaccinated. Many will also find their way into permanent homes. Take away the food, and these cats will merely slip back into the surroundings, go “underground.”

And in no time at all, the ones that weren’t sterilized will be breeding.

•     •     •

By framing TNR (the “feral feeding movement,” as he insists on calling it) as “animal welfare ethics on one side, and classic environmental ethics on the other,” Smith overlooks some critical common ground: all parties are interested in reducing the population of feral cats. He also allows himself to give in to an easy—and rather tired—narrative: the crazy cat ladies v. the respected scientists.

At the same time Smith recognizes Kotakis’ dedication and accomplishment (“In her tiny bit of territory in the eastern parts of the park, her method and dedication might just have created a tipping point that has produced a humane ideal of fewer feral cats.”), he can’t resist commenting on her OCD (including a quote from a clinical psychologist who, we can safely assume, has never even met Kotakis).

Meanwhile, Smith couldn’t care less about looking into the science.

I suppose “Live and Let Kill” is balanced in the sense that Smith gives “equal time” to both sides of the issue, but that’s not good enough. Serious journalism demands that readers are provided the truest account possible.

Literature Cited
1. APPA, 2009–2010 APPA National Pet Owners Survey. 2009, American Pet Products Association: Greenwich, CT.

2. Clancy, E.A., Moore, A.S., and Bertone, E.R., “Evaluation of cat and owner characteristics and their relationships to outdoor access of owned cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2003. 222(11): p. 1541-1545.

3. Lord, L.K., “Attitudes toward and perceptions of free-roaming cats among individuals living in Ohio.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2008. 232(8): p. 1159-1167.

4. Balogh, A., Ryder, T., and Marra, P., “Population demography of Gray Catbirds in the suburban matrix: sources, sinks and domestic cats.” Journal of Ornithology. 2011: p. 1-10.

5. Nutter, F.B., Levine, J.F., and Stoskopf, M.K., “Reproductive capacity of free-roaming domestic cats and kitten survival rate.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1399–1402.

6. Jessup, D.A., “The welfare of feral cats and wildlife.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1377-1383.

7. Martin, G. (1992, January 13). Feral Cats Blamed for Decline In Golden Gate Park Songbirds. The San Francisco Chronicle, p. A1,

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

9. Leopold, A.S., The California Quail. 1977, Berkeley: University of California Press.

10. Calkins, J.D., Hagelin, J.C., and Lott, D.F., California quail. The Birds of North America: Life Histories for the 21st Century. 1999, Philadelphia, PA: Birds of North America, Inc. 1–32.

11. Conrad, P.A., et al., “Transmission of Toxoplasma: Clues from the study of sea otters as sentinels of Toxoplasma gondii flow into the marine environment.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2005. 35(11-12): p. 1155-1168.

12. Miller, M.A., et al., “Type X Toxoplasma gondii in a wild mussel and terrestrial carnivores from coastal California: New linkages between terrestrial mammals, runoff and toxoplasmosis of sea otters.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2008. 38(11): p. 1319-1328.

13. Longcore, T., Rich, C., and Sullivan, L.M., “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return.” Conservation Biology. 2009. 23(4): p. 887–894.

14. Castillo, D. and Clarke, A.L., “Trap/Neuter/Release Methods Ineffective in Controlling Domestic Cat “Colonies” on Public Lands.” Natural Areas Journal. 2003. 23: p. 247–253.

15. Calhoon, R.E. and Haspel, C., “Urban Cat Populations Compared by Season, Subhabitat and Supplemental Feeding.” Journal of Animal Ecology. 1989. 58(1): p. 321–328.

16. Bester, M.N., et al., “A review of the successful eradication of feral cats from sub-Antarctic Marion Island, Southern Indian Ocean.” South African Journal of Wildlife Research. 2002. 32(1): p. 65–73.

17. Bloomer, J.P. and Bester, M.N., “Control of feral cats on sub-Antarctic Marion Island, Indian Ocean.” Biological Conservation. 1992. 60(3): p. 211-219.

Freedom of the Press (Release)

Among the many news stories, research studies, and government reports brought to my attention last week was an article in Monday’s Toronto Star (thanks, once again, to the good folks at Alley Cat Rescue, who routinely put Google Alerts to shame!). What I find compelling about the article is not its central story (another community struggles with their “feral cat problem”), but the way it illustrates so much of what’s wrong with the free-roaming/feral cat/TNR debate.

In a nutshell, the story is about the town of Oakville changing its bylaws so that cats are no longer allowed to roam free. Wrong-headed policy, in my opinion—but more problematic is the case being made for this policy: what’s being said, how it’s being said, and by whom.

Déjà Vu
One doesn’t have to read further than the first line—“Sylvester and Tweety almost got it right”—to know that this is one of those stories. The kind of story that uses corny references to downplay the implications of a large-scale witch hunt. The kind of story that, frankly, makes it tough to feel much sympathy for a newspaper industry struggling for survival.

“In their cartoon world, the brainy yellow bird always outsmarts the puddy tat. In the real world, the cat kills the canary—and as many as one million birds daily in North America. This is causing a growing, sometimes violent, rift between animal lovers.”

Where that one-million-birds-per-day rate comes from is anybody’s guess, though it sounds awfully familiar—more than likely, one of American Bird Conservancy’s talking points. As for the “violent rift” reporters Mary Ormsby and Jim Wilkes refer to, that comes later.

“The crucial question: Should cats, which are natural hunters, be allowed to freely to roam the streets?”

It’s a fair question, but it’s not as if cats are the only natural hunters found in urban areas. In Chicago, for example, more than 60 coyotes are “roaming parks, alleys, yards and thoroughfares.” (The NPR story claims that coyotes kill area dogs and cats only “every so often,” but in light of Judith Webster’s 2007 paper “Missing Cats, Stray Coyotes: One Citizen’s Perspective,” I’m quite skeptical of such assertions.)

And then, of course, there are the raptors—birds of prey (which are attracted by, among other things, bird feeders—but I’ll get to that shortly).

All Sticks, No Carrots
Progressive animal service organizations have figured out that charging people to house their stray animals (i.e., the “traditional” approach) only hurts the animals and the community at large. Like mandatory spay-neuter laws, it’s great on paper but disastrous in practice.

Yet, this is precisely the direction (read: backwards) Oakville is taking.

“Owners whose loose cats repeatedly end up at the Oakville shelter can be fined $105, plus a $30 town surcharge, a return fee of $25 and $15 for each day the cat stays at the shelter.”

Such a policy virtually guarantees a dramatic increase in intakes—and killing.

“Johanne Golder, executive director of the Oakville and Milton Humane Society, which is contracted by Oakville to provide animal control services… said the mentality that cats are “disposable” pets (unwanted kittens are often abandoned or dumped at shelters) is to blame for the huge feline populations in urban centres.”

Again, a fair point—but I fail to see how the proposed “solution” will improve the situation. And it’s very likely to be a death sentence for the area’s feral cats.

Witch Hunt
Readers who might have similar misgivings are (presumably) set straight when Ormsby and Wilkes explain the threats posed by free-roaming cats:

“The more cats, the fewer birds, said McGill University avian expert David Bird. He said house pets are just as bloodthirsty as untamed ferals—homeless offspring of stray or abandoned cats raised without human contact. Bird (his surname and passion are coincidental, he chirped) estimated well-fed pets alone destroy upwards of a billion birds annually around the world. The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) estimates hundreds of millions are killed in the United States by cats each year but says an exact figure is unclear.”

“Unclear” is right! Anybody even vaguely familiar with the subject would agree that “an exact figure is unclear.” But for Bird to suggest that it’s even possible—or meaningful—is ridiculous. And highly irresponsible. Are we talking about islands or continents? Which part of the world? Rare or common species? Healthy or unhealthy birds? Etc.

And what’s the impact of this predation?

This is ABC’s kind of science: one that strives not for an increased degree of certainty, but greater ambiguity—while at the same time painting a decidedly grim picture. There’s a name for this, of course: propaganda.

Which is precisely what Bird advocates for in “What Conservation Biologists Can Do to Counter Trap-Neuter-Return: Response to Longcore et al.” Along with his nine co-authors, Bird calls on conservation biologists to “begin speaking out” against TNR “at local meetings, through the news media, and at outreach events.” [1]

(Late last year, co-author Peter Marra earned his Propaganda Badge via a Washington Post article, though the research findings he cited there have since been removed from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s website.)

Just as important as Bird’s absurd claim, though, is the language used. Indeed, it was the word bloodthirsty that rankled Alley Cat Rescue founder Louise Holton. And there’s plenty more where that came from:

“Bird, the author of The Bird Almanac and Birds of Canada, said the cat-on-bird carnage is as common in quiet residential cul-de-sacs as it is in the countryside.

I’d created a killing field in my own backyard,” recalled the wildlife biology professor, who once spotted four neighbourhood cats stalking finches, woodpeckers, nuthatches, juncos, jays and cardinals nibbling at feeders around his west Montreal home.”

Really, a killing field? Somehow, I don’t think any birds were killed at all. Had any harm come to his birds, I have no doubt Bird would have let readers know in no uncertain terms. This sounds like a Winterism: the careful arrangement of true statements for the purpose of creating a false impression.

Then, too, stalking is not catching or killing, as Fitzgerald and Turner point out:

“Hunting for birds requires stalking, since many species of birds have an up to 360˚ field of view and can detect a cat approaching them from behind [2]… The ‘wait’ just before the pounce is a characteristic element of the cat’s hunting behaviour and many birds also fly away during this ‘wait’ without ever having noticed the cat. Because of these failures, many cats soon give up bird hunting altogether.” [3]

Us and Them
When Bird complains, “I didn’t think it was right for other people’s hobby interest, i.e., owning a pet cat, to impinge upon my interests on my own property,” he betrays his profoundly myopic world view as much as any property rights concern he might have. Cat ownership a hobby interest? Tell that to the 38.2 million U.S. households owning, collectively, something like 94 million cats (my apologies—I don’t have statistics for Canada), which are, increasingly, treated like members of the family.

Is it any wonder “bird people” and “cat people” (classifications I use with some hesitation) have such difficulties communicating?

Bird seems to imply that his bird feeders are inherently benign—but again, that’s from his point of view. “Feeding birds is,” according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website, “a wonderful way to get to know your birds better! But, bird feeders can also be deadly.”

“Predators (cats, hawks, even dogs) can easily find birds at feeders, dirty feeders can spread disease, feeders can attract non-native, invasive species (house sparrows, brown-headed cow birds, and starlings for instance) which can be detrimental to native birds, and birds might fly away quickly and crash into nearby windows.”

How different is this from the “rationale” typically used to ban the feeding of feral cats? If feeding feral cats is in imposition on the community at large, then so are bird feeders. Should communities require people feeding birds to apply for permits, just as city officials in Yuma, AZ, want to require permits for those conducting TNR?

The way Ormsby and Wilkes tell it, though, birders are up against some kind of powerful cat lobby:

“Bird advocates like him are up against a multi-million-dollar cat-care industry in an animal rights fight that has been tested in U.S. courts, written about in a best-selling novel and spawned an outdoor furniture business to erect enclosed “catios” to give kitty a breath of fresh air.”

Had the reporters followed the money, they would have found a very different story on the advocacy front. According to the most recent data available from Charity Navigator, Alley Cat Allies’ net assets (as of July 2009) were about $2.8 million, compared to $3.7 million for ABC (December 2009). And the National Audubon Society holds in excess of $255 million (June 2009).

All of the sudden, that “multi-million-dollar” characterization doesn’t mean so much.

Cat Crazed
To further their case, Ormsby and Wilkes turn to Maureen Palmer, director of the recently released documentary Cat Crazed (currently unavailable for online streaming outside of Canada, though an audio interview with Palmer is available via the CBC).

“Palmer said one of the most ‘heartbreaking’ scenes during filming was at a volunteer spay-neuter clinic in Los Angeles that sterilized 80 ferals a day. She said most of the cats had infections that never healed, as well as broken bones, large abscesses around their teeth and mange.”

That does sound heartbreaking. But is it true?

I contacted Kim Senn, VP of Operations at FixNation, the clinic Palmer visited for the film. “We are fixing between 70–80 cats a day at FixNation,” she told me via e-mail, “and the overwhelming majority of them are healthy.”

“Less than 5 percent have any medical issues that prevent us from sterilizing them. The common, non-life-threatening issues we do see—like fleas, mange or an occasional abscess—are easily treatable while the cat is here at our clinic, and the cat is left better off than before TNR. And no longer reproducing, which is the best part.”

Immigration Status
Ormsby and Wilkes also touch on one of the most threadbare complaints against free-roaming and feral cats: their “status” as non-native. (Stay tuned for a follow-up story detailing (1) the exact date and time when North America was “pristine,” and (2) precisely how we might return to that mythical Eden.)

“Cats actually never roamed freely in North America until they were introduced by humans. The animals—rodent hunters in the wild—were first domesticated 7,000 years ago in the Middle East and Africa, according to researchers at the University of Nebraska. Those ancient cats evolved into a separate species called the domestic or house cat.”

Of all the possible sources the Toronto Star could consult about the history of the domestic cat, they turned to the authors of “Feral Cats and Their Management”? Isn’t that a bit like consulting Michael Vick about the history of the American Pit Bull Terrier?

“Since cats are not native predators in this part of the world, nesting North American birds have no natural defences against the agile tree climbers. Birds are already under stresses from habitat destruction, pollution, climate change and other animals, such as squirrels, who eat unattended eggs.”

Here, it seems, Ormsby and Wilkes have gone off the deep end, taking an argument used to explain the significant impact cats can have on island populations of birds and other animals—literally—to another level. As Fitzgerald and Turner write:

“Any bird populations on the continents that could not withstand these levels of predation from cats and other predators would have disappeared long ago, but populations of birds on oceanic islands have evolved in circumstances in which predation from mammalian predators was negligible and they, and other island vertebrates, are therefore particularly vulnerable to predation when cats have been introduced.” [3]

At the risk of stating the obvious: birds can fly—at least the ones found in trees can. That’s quite a defense against cats—less so against raptors, of course. Or buildings, pesticides, power lines, wind farms, etc.

Life Imitates Art
Ormsby and Wilkes quote Jonathan Franzen, whose latest novel, Freedom, touches rather directly on, as they put it, “the tension between cat people and bird people.”

There are many ways for a house cat to die outdoors, including dismemberment by coyote and flattening by a car but when the Hoffbauer family’s beloved pet Bobby failed to come home one early-June evening, and no amount of calling Bobby’s name or searching the perimeter of Canterbridge Estates or walking up and down the county road or stapling Bobby’s Xeroxed image to local trees turned up any trace of him, it was widely assumed on Canterbridge Court that Bobby had been killed by Walter Berglund.”

Actually, Franzen is more of an insider than the reporters let on; Franzen, winner of the 2001 National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize finalist the following year, sits on ABC’s board of directors, and he wrote the foreword to their recently released book, The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation (brilliant move: ABC has been publishing fiction for years now; at last, they have somebody on board who does it well). Franzen is also a fervent believer.

Ormsby and Wilkes end their article with a brief summary of a 2007 animal cruelty case that made headlines across the U.S. and beyond.

“In Texas five years ago, Jim Stevenson killed a cat. The Galveston ornithologist fatally shot a feral with a .22-calibre rifle, claiming the creature was killing piping plovers, an endangered shorebird species. Stevenson was charged with animal cruelty but walked free in 2007 when jurors failed to come to a decision and a mistrial was declared.”

Rather a dry telling of it, if you ask me. After hearing of bloodthirsty cats, backyard killing fields, and all the rest, aren’t readers entitled to a little more drama? Here, after all, is the only evidence of that “violent rift” Ormsby and Wilkes referred to early on—though, of course, it’s far more one-sided than the reporters suggested with their ominous foreshadowing.

That “feral,” by the way, was part of a colony cared for by John Newland, who, according to Assistant District Attorney Paige Santell, “had fed them, watered them, provided shelter for them, provided toys for them, provided vet care for some of them.”

“This animal suffered a great deal,” says Santell, during an interview with Alley Cat Allies. “That was another part of this case. I mean, this animal did not die right away. It took, you know, 30 to 45 minutes before it died. It was in a terrible amount of pain.”

It must be that Ormsby and Wilkes had hit their word limit already—it’s not as if they don’t like a good story.

The High Cost of a Free Press
Whether Ormsby and Wilkes were unable or unwilling to do this story justice I can’t say, but, as a piece of journalism, their finished product is astonishingly bad.

Not that they’re alone. On the contrary, they have plenty of company.

Last year around this time, when the Los Angeles Times ran a story about the injunction against city-funded TNR, reporter Kimi Yoshino invoked Sylvester and Tweety. And swallowed in one gulp the ridiculous claim by ABC’s Steve Holmer that “there are about . . . 160 million feral cats [nationwide].”

In December, several newspapers treated “Feral Cats and Their Management” as if it were legitimate research. Among the worst were Dale Bowman’s column in the Chicago Sun-Times (December 6), Scott Shalaway’s column (December 12) in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and an editorial (unsigned for good reason) in Lincoln’s Journal-Star (December 7).

And, it just keeps on coming.

Even as I was working on this post, somebody alerted me, via the Vox Felina Facebook page, to an opinion piece in the London Free Press (in which “expert” Theo Hofmann comes up short on both facts and logic: “Cats don’t eat the birds, they just kill them… So they really are causing a great deal of damage…”).

Do news accounts of cats killing a million birds a day turn ordinary citizens into Jim Stevensons? Or reports of 160 million feral cats (one for every two humans in this country!) provoke the kinds of horrors chronicled on the Cat Defender blog? Of course not.

On the other hand, the cumulative effect of such news coverage surely contributes to a misinformed public/electorate. Which, in turn, paves the way for misguided policy. (See, for example, Utah’s House Bill 210, sponsored by Republican Curtis Oda, which proposed to relax “provisions of the Utah Criminal Code relating to animal cruelty and animal torture,” in order to allow, among other things, “the humane shooting or killing of an animal if the person doing the shooting or killing has a reasonable belief that the animal is a feral animal.”)

Journalists have an obligation to approach any story with some healthy skepticism. They owe it to their readers to set aside, as much as possible, their own biases—and challenge those of their sources. To bring to the table some critical thinking and professional integrity.

When it comes to the subject of free-roaming/feral cats/TNR, however, the public rarely gets anything more substantive than a one-sided collection of talking points, sprinkled with cartoon references.

Literature Cited
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. Tabor, R., The Wild Life of the Domestic Cat. 1983, London: Arrow Books.

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.