The (Willfully) Blind Leading the (Willfully) Blind

If the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative truly aims to “develop management strategies that are guided by sound science,” then its recently released White Paper on Feral and Free-ranging Domestic Cats (PDF) represents a glaring and inexcusable failure. Just two sentences into the three-page paper, the self-described “coalition of 102 non-governmental organizations, governmental agencies, and businesses” [1] resorts to the familiar “kitchen sink approach,” a laundry list of (presumably) damning claims meant to substitute for a well-reasoned argument and appeal to the broadest audience possible:

“A number of peer-reviewed studies strongly suggest that large numbers of small mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians are killed each year by domestic cats. Additionally, cats act as reservoirs for several diseases that can sicken humans, native wildlife, and other domestic animals, such as rabies, toxoplasmosis, bartonellosis, typhus, and feline immunodeficiency virus.” [1]

One wonders what rabies, toxoplasmosis, bartonellosis, typhus, and FIV have to do with OBCI’s stated mission: “Ensuring the conservation and effective management of birds in Ohio by fostering partnerships among governmental agencies, conservation organizations, businesses, and the public”?

Nothing, really. Perhaps OBCI is expecting that nobody will notice. Read more

10 Most Important Community Cat News Stories of 2013

It’s that time of year again—time to take stock of the year’s milestones. Check out Rolling Stone’s 50 Best Albums of 2013, for example, or Fresh Air’s book, TV, movie, and music picks.

Not to be outdone, I’ve compiled a list of what I see as the year’s 10 most important community cat news stories—a number of which even the most avid readers may have missed. (Indeed, I’ve blogged about only a handful.)

Suffice it to say, others will disagree with my choices. In fact, I’d be very surprised if anybody agreed with the entire list.

That’s fine. Better than fine, actually—if it means my selections will spark a conversation, or even a debate. Maybe even inspire others to set to work on their own list for 2014.

Without further ado, then, my picks for the 10 most important community cat news stories of 2013… Read more

On Wind Farms and Witch-hunts

Here’s a tip for those in the bird conservation community who persist in their witch-hunt against free-roaming cats: be careful what you wish for.

For several years now, the National Audubon Society and American Bird Conservancy have co-opted, twisted, and misrepresented any scrap of published science they could find—however indefensible—suggesting that such cats might have an impact on bird populations. And, as I’ve demonstrated time and time again, there’s an audience out there for such propaganda.

But what if their campaign has been too effective—with the wrong audience?

Read more

JAVMA Letter: A Trojan Horse

TNR opponents’ recent letter to the editors to JAVMA was just an excuse for promoting their witch-hunt agenda—supported, as has become their habit, with the kind of bogus “research” that fails to stand up to even moderate scrutiny. (And, I would bet, probably hasn’t actually been read by most of the letter’s co-authors.)

A recent letter to the editor, published last month in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (PDF available here), reminds me of one of the reasons I’ve never enabled comments on this blog: the likelihood that some commenters would surely hijack the conversation—pretty much any conversation, however marginally relevant—to take up their own agenda. Although I’m a proponent of open dialogue (the name of this blog is no accident), I have neither the time nor the patience for people intent on making my platform their platform.

Luckily, the JAVMA editors—dealing, as I’m sure they do, only with the most conscientious professionals—aren’t subject to such hijack attempts. Right?

Guess again. Read more

Open-Mic Night at NatGeo

The National Geographic Society is, according to its website, “one of the largest nonprofit scientific and educational institutions in the world.” I’m not going to dispute the relative size of the organization, but an article posted Tuesday on its News Watch blog raises doubts about their commitment to science and education.

The piece, which is billed as “an interview with Dr. Michael Hutchins,” is not much of an interview at all, but an easy platform for Hutchins, former executive director and CEO of The Wildlife Society, to vilify invasive species in general and—not surprisingly—free-roaming cats in particular. As I pointed out in my online comment (still awaiting moderation), one would expect some insightful follow-up questions on a topic that, as contributing editor Jordan Carlton Schaul acknowledges, “has generated contentious debate among a number of factions, including conservation scientists and activist communities.”

For starters: How would restrictions or outright bans on TNR, such as those proposed by Hutchins, benefit the wildlife he claims to want to protect? Read more

Kitty Cams and PR Scams

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

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

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

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

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

Rabies: Some Much-Needed Perspective

Seven minutes and 35 seconds. That’s how long Robert Siegel, co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered, spoke with Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy about their new book, Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus.

Cats weren’t mentioned even once.

Was this a massive oversight? A coup perpetrated by the Powerful Cat Lobby, perhaps?

Hardly. “Veterinarians spend a lot of time thinking about rabies, even though in this country, we hardly ever see it,” explained Murphy, a veterinarian. (Wasik, her husband, is a journalist.)

The scaremongerers over at the American Bird Conservancy and The Wildlife Society must be downright distraught at the thought of the American public being better informed on the subject. Indeed, an excerpt from Rabid describes some of the underlying myths and cultural baggage these folks routinely attempt to leverage in their witch-hunt against free-roaming cats.

“As the lone visible instance of animal-to-human infection, rabies has always shaded into something more supernatural: into bestial metamorphoses, into monstrous hybridities. Even during the twentieth century, after Pasteur’s invention of a rabies vaccine provided a near-foolproof means of preventing its fatality in humans, our dark fascination with rabies seemed only to swell. The vaccine itself became as mythologized as the bug, such that even today many Americans believe that treatment requires some twenty (or is it thirty?) shots, delivered with a foot-long syringe into the stomach. (In fact, today’s vaccine entails four shots, and not particularly deep in the arm.)

It’s almost as if the very anachronism of rabies, to the Western mind, has rendered it even more intriguing to us. Like the vampire, rabies carries with it the musty whiff of a centuries-old terror—even as it still terrifies us in the present day.”

Not exactly your typical summertime reading, maybe, but this one’s going on my list. I wonder if I can get signed copies for ABC’s Darin Schroeder and TWS’s Michael Hutchins

Oregon Man Diagnosed with Plague

According to last Friday’s USA Today, “Health officials have confirmed that an Oregon man has the plague after he was bitten while trying to take a dead rodent from the mouth of a stray cat.”

“State public health veterinarian Dr. Emilio DeBess said the man was infected when he was bitten by the stray his family befriended. The cat died and its body is being sent to the CDC for testing.”

Other news reports suggest that the source of the bacteria—which might have been the rodent—remains uncertain. (Indeed, the fact that the cat’s body was submitted for testing suggests, that there is some question about this. The cat’s death—also unexplained—raises additional questions.)

“Humans usually get plague,” explains the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on its website, “after being bitten by a rodent flea that is carrying the plague bacterium or by handling an animal infected with plague.” Read more

Santa Ana Typhus Scare

“In an effort to combat a potential typhus outbreak,” reports today’s Los Angeles Times, “city officials zeroed in on two schools in [a] densely packed [Santa Ana] neighborhood and set a dozen traps to catch feral cats and other animals that might carry disease-bearing fleas.” [1]

“The hope is that by trapping and testing animals caught at Willard Intermediate School and El Sol Science and Arts Academy, officials will be able to determine if a recent case of typhus—the first in Santa Ana this year—originated in the community. In late April, a child was hospitalized as a result of the virus, which is caused by bacteria found in infected fleas and their feces. The child was later released.”

Read more

The Annotated Apocalypse Meow

In the current issue of The Washingtonian, senior writer Luke Mullins provides the most comprehensive profile yet of former Smithsonian researcher Nico Dauphiné, convicted last October of attempted animal cruelty. Most telling are his conversations with her unwavering supporters, who—in spite of the evidence, her well-documented history, and her miserable performance on the stand—continue to make excuses for her.

In the five months since she was convicted of attempted animal cruelty, former Smithsonian researcher Nico Dauphiné has enjoyed a respite from the largely unflattering media spotlight. All that changed in the past few weeks, though—first with Conservation magazine’s “Cat Fight,” and now with a 6,100-word feature in the April issue of The Washingtonian.

In “Apocalypse Now,” senior writer Luke Mullins digs into Dauphiné’s DC court case, as well as her previous “community service” in Athens, GA. The Nico Dauphiné that emerges is a far cry from the sympathetic character portrayed in “Cat Fight”—where, for example, writer John Carey laments: “Unfortunately, the strange case of the accused cat poisoner didn’t end well.” [1]

Although Mullins was unable to speak with Dauphiné for the piece, his conversations with people close to Dauphiné—as well as many who observed her mistreatment of cats—are illuminating. Read more

12 Sparrows Stressing

Song Sparrow, Whitby, Ontario. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons and Mdf.

New study attempts to demonstrate how the presence of predators alone can reduce songbird reproduction by bombarding birds with round-the-clock audio recordings of predator noises. One co-author of the study goes further, attempting to implicate cats.

The purpose of scientific inquiry (am I wrong about this?) is to reveal some truth about our world. Or the universe, in the case of astrophysics, say. Or, if we want to zoom out (and in, simultaneously) further still, the multiverse. Regardless of the particular phenomena under investigation, it’s essential that the methods employed replicate—to the extent possible—real-world conditions as closely as possible.

Easier said than done—especially when the work is set in the messy, often uncooperative, real world, where researchers struggle to balance the desire for laboratory-like control (necessary for valid analysis) with the vérité-like need for authenticity (necessary for valid conclusions). Or not, as a study published last week in Science demonstrates.

According to a story on the publication’s website, the research “shows that the mere sound of predators reduces both the number and survival rate of songbird offspring, regardless of the true threat.”

In fact, the songbirds in question were subject—Waco- or Guantánamo-style—to a round-the-clock barrage of menacing sounds over the entire four-month breeding season. Little wonder, then, their productivity was affected; what’s surprising is that these birds and their offspring survived at all (and didn’t decamp to quieter—even inviting (more on that shortly) terrain nearby).

What’s this got to do with cats? As Michael Clinchy, Adjunct Assistant Professor in the University of Victoria’s Department of Biology, and co-author of the study, explains in the ScienceNOW story, “our results show that the mere presence of this introduced predator is enough to negatively impact native wildlife.”

Perhaps Clinchy was expecting readers to overlook the bizarre methods he and his colleagues used. Or read their paper, “Perceived Predation Risk Reduces the Number of Offspring Songbirds Produce per Year” (PDF), in which there is no mention of cats at all.

But for those of us who are paying attention, it’s clear: Clinchy is simply in no position to comment on the possible impact of cats—or, for that matter, any predator that doesn’t routinely participate, together with a host of other predators, both avian and mammalian, in a maniacal chorus incessantly tormenting the song sparrows breeding on British Columbia’s Gulf Islands (culminating, by the way, in no physical attack—which, no doubt, only further unsettles and disorients the targeted birds).

The Study
Joining Clinchy in the research was frequent collaborator Liana Zanette, Associate Professor in the University of Western Ontario’s Department of Biology (lead author of the paper), along with Aija F. White and Marek C. Allen, both of UWO. The objective, they explain, “was to test whether perceived predation risk per se affected offspring production.” [1]

To do so, the researchers exposed song sparrows on five of BC’s Gulf Islands to “playlists” of various “calls and sounds” either of predators known to frequent the area, or of the area’s non-predators. Among the predators were the common raven, northwestern crow, Cooper’s hawk, brown-headed cowbird, raccoon, and three species of owls. (The closest we get to a cat is a “brush disturbance sound.”) Non-predators included the Canada goose, mallard duck, northern flicker, Rufous hummingbird, belted kingfisher, downy woodpecker, common loon, harbor seal, and two species of frog (along with “surf sound,” a benign match to the aforementioned brush disturbance sound).

“To compose our playlist of non-predator calls and sounds,” write Zanette et al., “we:

“(i) excluded any associated with either obvious competitors (other songbirds), or potential food sources (invertebrates, e.g. crickets chirping); (ii) included only calls and sounds known to be heard at our study locations; (iii) matched our diurnal predator list with a diurnal non-predator list, and our nocturnal predator list with a nocturnal non-predator list; and then (iv) matched each predator with a non-predator call or sound that had acoustic properties that were as similar as possible.” [1]

Twelve nesting females were exposed to the predator playlist; while 12 others, located nearby, were exposed to the non-predator playlist. “Playbacks were broadcast every few minutes, 24 hours per day on a 4-day-on-4-day-off cycle, throughout the 130-day breeding season.” [2] (Average daytime interval: 2 minutes 20 seconds of playback followed by 3 minutes 30 seconds of silence; average nighttime interval: 2 minutes 20 seconds/5 minutes 22 seconds. [1])

Nest predation was prevented by “protecting every nest in the experiment with both electric fencing and seine netting.” [2]

To evaluate the effect of the predator playback broadcasts, the researchers compared several metrics between the two groups of sparrows. Among them:

“the number of offspring produced per year… egg and brood mass, nestling susceptibility to thermoregulatory stress (skin temperature 10 min after mother flushed from nest), and four measures of behavior reflective of effects on habitat use: nest site selection, vigilance (flight initiation distance, i.e., distance of experimenter from nest when mother flushed from nest), nest attendance (incubation bout duration), and foraging (parental feeding visits per hour during brood-rearing).” [2]

(Note: A detailed description of the methods and analysis employed, as well as photos of the site and equipment used, can be found in the paper’s “Supporting Online Material” (PDF))

The data show that predator-playback females produced, on average, few eggs, nestlings, and fledglings than their non-predator-playback counterparts, for a 40 percent reduction in offspring overall. In addition:

“predator-playback females built their nests in denser, thornier vegetation, were more skittish… and spent shorter times on and longer times off the nest during incubation, and predator-playback parents made fewer feeding visits per hour during brood-rearing. Effects on all four behaviors were associated with effects on offspring number and condition.” [2]

The Researchers
Zanette and Clinchy have been studying the Gulf Island’s song sparrows for 12 years or more now, their work focused largely on the demographic impacts of predatory pressures and food supply (as well as the interaction of the two: “We conclude that annual reproductive success in song sparrows is a function of both food-restricted production and predator-induced loss and indirect food and predator effects on both clutch and brood loss.” [3]). Predation by cats plays only a minor role in their published work, yet both Zanette and Clinchy seem quite eager to talk up that role for more mainstream audiences.

In an interview on CBC’s The Current about her participation in the documentary Cat Crazed, for example, Zanette describes research in which she and Clinchy used video cameras to “capture predators in the act of preying upon songbird nests” in Rithet’s Bog, 10–15 miles south the Gulf Islands.

“What we’ve found over the years is that, of all predation events that we recorded, cats are responsible for 22 percent of those. OK, so that’s cats going in and taking songbird eggs, and chewing on songbird nestlings—completely wiping out the reproductive effort of those parent birds… They chomp, and sometimes they look at the camera and they lick their lips afterwards.”

Although Zanette does acknowledge some other culprits—rats and brown-headed cowbirds, mostly—it’s with far less enthusiasm. Granted, the interview wasn’t about rats or cowbirds, but the context doesn’t explain the outsized impact Zanette ascribes the bog’s cats.

Clinchy’s also interviewed for the film—which, I need to point out, I’ve yet to see, as it’s unavailable for online streaming outside of Canada (and, for reasons that will become clear momentarily, I refuse to purchase the DVD). However, in a story appearing in the online version of Vancouver’s Georgia Straight, which the publication describes as “Canada’s largest urban weekly,” Judith Webster (author of the highly recommended 2007 paper “Missing Cats, Stray Coyotes: One Citizen’s Perspective”) notes: “it’s clear Clinchy was directed by the Cat Crazed interviewer to focus on his lack of fondness for cats.”

And then there’s his comment last week about “this introduced predator.” All in all, it’s difficult to take these two seriously when they start talking about the impact of cats on the song sparrows they study.

(None of which explains, however, why I haven’t bought the Cat Crazed DVD. That’s because of my dislike for the film’s director, Maureen Palmer, who, in addition to the obvious bias she brought to Cat Crazed, apparently lied to the Toronto Star about the conditions of the cats treated by FixNation, a top-notch high-volume spay-neuter clinic north of Los Angeles. I’d hate to see even a dime of my money—10.2 cents Canadian—used to support her agenda.)

The Sparrows
“Our results suggest that the perception of predation risk is itself powerful enough to affect wildlife population dynamics,” write Zanette et al., “and should thus be given greater consideration in vertebrate conservation and management.” [2] Even setting aside for the moment the unrealistic methods employed, the fact that these sparrows produced 40 percent fewer offspring doesn’t necessarily demonstrate population-level impacts; a single breeding season’s observations are hardly sufficient to make such projections.

And, more to the point, the authors don’t actually mention anything about the population dynamics of song sparrows in the real world. The Song Sparrow is, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, a species of Least Concern. That said, Breeding Bird Survey data indicate a 0.6 percent annual decrease, on average, from 1966 through 2009. (Among the most credible BBS data, the steepest decline, 2.1 percent, was seen in Alberta, while the greatest annual increase, 5.0 percent, comes from Missouri.)

So, is the decline suggested by BBS data the result of song sparrows subject to the “calls and sounds” of cats (or any number of “brush disturbance sounds”)? I suspect it has much more to do with the calls and sounds of humans—whose numbers in the U.S. soared 55 percent, from 197 to 307 million, between 1966 and 2009.

In fact, the interaction of cats and song sparrows has been studied in some detail when Cole Hawkins conducted his PhD work during the mid-1990s in two Alameda County, CA, parks. As I’ve mentioned previously, Hawkins’ conclusions are largely indefensible, but I take him at his word when it comes to his bird counts. And song sparrows were among five (of nine total) ground-feeding species that demonstrated “no clear preference for the no-cat or cat area [where up to 26 cats were being fed regularly].” [4] (In fact, in nine of the 14 surveys conducted over the course of Hawkins’ research, the number of song sparrows seen in the cat area exceeded the number seen in the no-cat area—in some cases by a factor of two or three.)

Yet, for all Zanette and Clinchy’s apparent concern for cats predating song sparrows, they never once cite Hawkins’ work.

The Take-away
I’ve no doubt that this study was, as the researchers themselves describe it, “logistically very challenging.” [1] Managing the technology involved (which doesn’t always cooperate in the field) and the constant monitoring of nests and nestlings would, alone, keep a team of bright, ambitious researchers on their toes. But hard work, in and of itself, does not necessarily produce meaningful results.

As Julie Levy, Maddie’s Professor of Shelter Medicine in the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine, mentioned in a comment on the ScienceNOW website, the study would have benefited from a “baseline control group” not subjected to the same “high degree of investigator interference.”

Levy goes on to speculate (admitting “it may be far-fetched”) that the non-predator-playback sparrows may have been “so relaxed and comfortable that their fledgling rate increased by 40 percent.”

Maybe it’s not so far-fetched.

Australian National University biologists Tonya Haff and Robert Magrath, whose work is cited by Zanette et al., argue that nestlings are “finely tuned to their acoustic world, and responded appropriately to sounds of danger nearby.” [5] So why couldn’t adult birds pick up on cues—broadcast continuously every 96 hours—suggesting that (1) there is no danger, and (2) food supplies are plentiful?

The predator-playback group, by contrast, would be picking up cues unlike anything they’d ever experienced: round-the-clock danger, in the air and on the ground.

One wonders, too, what impact a single-predator playback—say, Cooper’s hawks—might have had, used in intervals that mimic real-world conditions. Although Zanette et al. “have yet to observe them attacking a nest, they have been recorded doing so elsewhere and are known to represent a significant threat to adult sparrows.” [1] And, as Zanette and Clinchy point out in a previous paper, their research site has “the highest density of Cooper’s hawks in Canada.” [6]

In fact, Zanette et al. have already set the stage for such investigations—and funding: “it will be fruitful to evaluate the effects of cues from specific predators in future studies.” [1]

The Reaction
Not surprisingly, “Perceived Predation Risk” made UWO’s homepage, the proud university overstating the (already-overstated) implications of the work (even the authors must wince at the word prove): “New findings from Western prove fear of predation risk is powerful enough to affect wildlife populations even when predators are prevented from directly killing any prey.”

And it took The Wildlife Society’s Michael Hutchins less than 24 hours to endorse the paper, calling it “devastating to feral cat TNR advocates.” Misquoting Clinchy, Hutchins goes on to say the paper “is just another example of the growing peer-reviewed literature on this topic, which are providing strong evidence for the negative impact of feral cats on our native wildlife.” Demonstrating once again (as if we needed any more evidence) his commitment not to sound science, but to any headline that might drum up support for his witch-hunt (and year-end donations). (My comment, by the way, is awaiting approval.)

•     •     •

In the end, I’m left to wonder how studies such as this one—with its deeply flawed design—receive funding in the first place (in this case, by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Natural Sciences) and then warrant publication in Science (“the world’s leading outlet for scientific news, commentary, and cutting-edge research”).

Instead of increasing our understanding of the world, this research only adds to our misunderstanding.

I attempted to contact both Zanette and Clinchy by e-mail on Friday, but have yet to receive a reply (though there have been multiple visits to the Vox Felina site from in and around London, Ontario, where Zanette is based). Zanette never replied to my previous inquiry, either, related to her comments in the CBC interview.

Literature Cited
1. Zanette, L.Y., et al., “Perceived Predation Risk Reduces the Number of Offspring Songbirds Produce per Year (Supporting Online Material).” Science. 2011. 334(1398).

2. Zanette, L.Y., et al., “Perceived Predation Risk Reduces the Number of Offspring Songbirds Produce per Year.” Science. 2011. 334(6061): p. 1398–1401.

3. Zanette, L., Clinchy, M., and Smith, J.N.M., “Combined food and predator effects on songbird nest survival and annual reproductive success: results from a bi-factorial experiment.” Oecologia. 2006. 147: p. 632–640.

4. 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.

5. Haff, T.M. and Magrath, R.D., “Vulnerable but not helpless: Nestlings are fine-tuned to cues of approaching danger.” Animal Behaviour. 2010. 79(2): p. 487–496.

6. Zanette, L., et al., “Synergistic effects of food and predators on annual reproductive success in song sparrows.” Proceedings of The Royal Society B. 2003. 270: p. 799–803.

National Feral Cat Day 2011

National Feral Cat Day 2011 posterAs many of you are no doubt aware, Sunday is National Feral Cat Day, a holiday created 10 years ago by Alley Cat Allies “to raise awareness about feral cats, promote Trap-Neuter-Return, and recognize the millions of compassionate Americans who care for them.” This year, there are more than 320 events planned across all 50 states.

Even so, I’ll bet there are a number of scientists, journalists, and others who—despite devoting a great deal of attention to the topic the rest of the year—have allowed the holiday to sneak up on them, and therefore haven’t made plans. Here, then, are some suggestions for how some of these folks (listed in no particular order) might mark the 10th annual National Feral Cat Day.

•     •     •

Thank you to all those who—whether one day a year or year-round—raise awareness about, and care for, abandoned, stray, and feral cats, and promote TNR.

Hutchins & Co.

The Wildlife Society’s final position statement on Animal Rights Philosophy and Wildlife Conservation pits wildlife conservationists against animal rights advocates, further hampering an already difficult debate about free-roaming cats and TNR.

Last week, The Wildlife Society released its final position statement on Animal Rights Philosophy and Wildlife Conservation (PDF), declaring “that the philosophy of animal rights is largely incompatible with science-based conservation and management of wildlife.”

“The Wildlife Society recognizes the intrinsic value of wildlife and its importance to humanity,” says Michael Hutchins, Executive Director/CEO of TWS. “We also view wildlife and people as interrelated parts of an ecological-cultural-economic whole. But we’re concerned that core beliefs underlying the animal rights philosophy contradict the principles of successful wildlife management and conservation in North America and worldwide.” Those beliefs (listed below) “promote false choices regarding potential human-wildlife relationships and false expectations for wildlife population management,” says Hutchins. “They also undermine decades of knowledge gained through scientific research on wildlife and their habitats.”

At its core, the animal rights philosophy hinges on beliefs that: (1) each individual animal should be afforded the same basic rights as humans, (2) every animal should live free from human-induced pain and suffering, (3) animals should not be used for any human purpose, and (4) every individual animal has equal status regardless of commonality or rarity, or whether the species is native, exotic, invasive, or feral.

Strict adherence to these beliefs would preclude many of the science-based management techniques that professional wildlife biologists use, such as aversive conditioning, the capture and marking of animals for research, or lethal control of over-abundant, invasive, or diseased animals. For example, a recent TWS position statement advocates for control of non-native feral swine to protect and conserve native plants and animals and their habitats and to protect human and domestic animal health, yet this goal would be jeopardized by animal rights philosophy.

Instead of focusing exclusively on the “rights” of individual animals, TWS supports a more holistic philosophy of animal welfare and conservation that focuses on the quality of life and sustainability of entire populations or species of animals and their habitats. This approach allows for the management of animal populations and the use of animals for food or other cultural purposes, as long as any loss of life is justified, sustainable, and achieved through humane methods.

In sum, TWS’ policy regarding animal rights philosophy is to:

1. Recognize that the philosophy of animal rights is largely incompatible with science-based conservation and management of wildlife.

2. Educate organizations and individuals about the need for scientific management of wildlife and habitats for the benefit of conservation and other purposes, and inform people about the problems that animal rights philosophy creates for the conservation of wildlife and habitats and for society as a whole.

3. Support an animal welfare philosophy, which holds that animals can be studied and managed through science-based methods and that human use of wildlife—including regulated, sustainable hunting, trapping, and lethal control for the benefit of populations, threatened or endangered species, habitats, and human society—is acceptable, provided that individual animals are treated ethically and humanely.

“There is a profound conflict between many tenets of animal rights philosophy and the animal welfare philosophy required for effective management and conservation,” says TWS President Tom Ryder. “Established principles and techniques of wildlife population management are deemed unacceptable by the animal rights viewpoint, but are absolutely essential for the management and conservation of healthy wildlife populations and ecosystems in a world dominated by human influences.”

Superior Ideas
Etienne Benson, a research scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, provided a remarkably detailed, thoughtful critique of TWS’s statement on his blog, calling TWS’s final position “no surprise,” but “a shame nonetheless.”

“The statement caricatures the animal rights movement and will make it harder for wildlife conservationists and animal protectionists, even many of those who are skeptical of rights-based reasoning, to find common ground.”

“When the leadership of the Wildlife Society asked its members to comment on a draft position statement on animal rights early this year,” writes Benson, “I had some hope that calmer and better-informed minds might improve what then seemed like an intemperate and ill-thought-out attack.”

(Benson, whose “research focuses on the intersection of science and politics in the practice of conservation,” provides readers with an informative, very readable introduction to the subject.)

While I lack Benson’s familiarity with the topic in general, and TWS’s position in particular, I, too, wasn’t surprised at last week’s news. Indeed, the language of the official TWS statement is nearly identical to what’s found in Hutchins’ own writings. In “The Limits of Compassion,” published in the Summer 2007 issue of TWS’s The Wildlife Professional, Hutchins warned of “serious and legitimate concerns regarding the use of compassion, sentimentalism, and animal rights to generate public concern for wildlife and, more specifically, about the possible implications for wildlife management and conservation policy.” [1]

In his 2008 letter to Conservation Biology, Hutchins argues, “Animal rights and conservation ethics are, in fact, incompatible, at the most fundamental level.” [2]

“It would be wonderful if we could all get along, but it is time to recognize that some ideas are superior to others because they clearly result in the ‘greatest good.’ As a conservationist, I reject animal rights philosophy. This unrealistic and highly reductionist view, which focuses exclusively on individual sentient animals, is not a good foundation for the future of life on our planet and does not recognize the interrelationships that exist among various species in functioning ecosystems. It is time to face up to the fact that animal rights and conservation are inherently incompatible and that one cannot be an animal rights proponent and a conservationist simultaneously. To suggest otherwise only feeds into the growing public confusion over animal rights, welfare, and conservation and their vastly different implications for wildlife management and conservation policy (Hutchins 2007a, 2007b, 2008a, 2008b).” [2]

So, where’s TWS’s “superior idea” for feral cat management?

I’ve asked Hutchins directly and gotten nothing but his usual boilerplate response:

“Our position on TNR and feral cat management is based on valid science, established law (the ESA and MBTA), and has high moral ground (both based on animal welfare and conservation principles). We welcome a chance to educate the public about this growing environmental problem.”

And I’m not the only one who’s tried to pin down Hutchins on this point. In July, when Hutchins was (again, to the surprise of no one) singing the praises of a recent Mother Jones article that misrepresented both the threats posed by feral cats and the effectiveness of TNR, he twisted himself into a knot avoiding the real issue. (Instead, Hutchins scolds commenter Walter Lamb, using what’s become a familiar refrain: “I’m afraid that I don’t find you credible to lecture the community of highly trained wildlife professionals about what does or does not have basis in science.”)

More recently, Hutchins’ put an end to any such discourse in the future. Complaining that “the TWS blog site has been recently targeted by feral cat and horse activists,” he announced that TWS would “no longer post comments from non-member individuals who are clearly biased in their thinking, and are arguing in favor of ecologically destructive feral animals based solely on their emotional attachment to these particular animals.”

Inferior Facts
Hutchins and TWS (and here I’m referring only to the organization’s leadership; I doubt very much whether these few truly speak for, as they would have us believe, “over 10,000 professional wildlife biologists and managers”) like to portray their opposition to TNR as science-based (the term is used no less than four times in their recent release alone), despite their abysmal track record when it comes to gathering and presenting the relevant facts.

If TWS was really interested in science-based discourse and action, they would have done a better job pulling together their “facts” for the Spring Issue of The Wildlife Professional’s special section, “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats.”

TWS’s “fact sheets” are no better. “Problems with Trap-Neuter-Release” (PDF), for example, suggests—despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary—that the trap-and-kill approach adopted by Akron, OH, costs taxpayers about $10 per cat. And in their rabies “fact sheet,” TWS misrepresents CDC rabies data, overstating the cost of post-exposure treatment by a factor of seven.

Yet, TWS members—and the general public, of course—are told that it’s the core beliefs underlying the animal rights philosophy that are “undermin[ing] decades of knowledge gained through scientific research on wildlife and their habitats.”

If Hutchins’—and, by extension, TWS’s—ideas are, indeed, superior, why all the dishonesty?

•     •     •

I’m convinced that there’s more common ground between wildlife conservationists and animal rights advocates—including, as Benson points out, “those who believe… both that endangered species deserve special protection and that being a member of a so-called ‘invasive’ species does not automatically make one eligible for carefree extermination”—than Hutchins and TWS are willing to admit. And, therefore, more hope that philosophical differences can be overcome or set aside in order to move the TNR discussion forward.

“If The Wildlife Society wants to continue arguing that all we owe individual animals is efficient use and a pain-free death,” argues Benson, “it’s free to do so. But the rest of us will move on to a version of conservation that is more positive, more open, more humble—more about strengthening connections than building walls.”

While I agree, my hunch is that “the rest of us” actually includes a number of TWS members who are fed up with Hutchins’ witch-hunt against free-roaming cats, and the indefensible tactics he employs in its promotion. What if the greatest threat of “philosophical incompatibility” isn’t from outsiders, but from within his own organization?

Literature Cited

1. Hutchins, M., “The Limits of Compassion.” Wildlife Professional (Allen Press). 2007. 1(2): p. 42–44.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Cats, Less Brain Cancer

“Evidence continues to pile up,” writes Michael Hutchins, Executive Director and CEO of The Wildlife Society, in yesterday’s blog post, “that Toxoplasmosis, a disease caused by a parasite (Toxoplasma gondii) that lives in the guts of cats, may be responsible for serious human health problems.”

Hutchins was referring to a recent study in which researchers found “Infection with T. gondii was associated with a 1.8-fold increase in the risk of brain cancers across the range of T. gondii prevalence in our dataset (4–67 percent).” [1]

True to form, Hutchins used the opportunity to call for “doing away with managed cat colonies and TNR (trap-neuter-release) management practices for feral cats,” making a public plea to “public health officials, including the CDC.”

But what exactly does this latest study contribute to Hutchins’ “pile of evidence”?

The Study
According to a news release from the U.S. Geological Survey, “the study analyzed 37 countries for several population factors” and “showed that countries where Toxoplasma gondii is common also had higher incidences of adult brain cancers than in those countries where the organism is not common.”

“The study does not prove that Toxoplasma gondii directly causes cancer in humans, and the study does not imply that an infected person automatically has high cancer risk,” says [Kevin] Lafferty, who is based at the USGS Western Ecological Research Center. “However, we do know that Toxoplasma gondii behaves in ways that could stimulate cells towards cancerous states, so the discovery of this correlation offers a new hypothesis for an infectious link to cancer.”

According to the study’s abstract (I’ve been unable to access the paper), the authors took into account several factors:

“We corrected reports of incidence for national gross domestic product because wealth probably increases the ability to detect cancer. We also included gender, cell phone use and latitude as variables in our initial models. Prevalence of T. gondii explained 19 per cent of the residual variance in brain cancer incidence after controlling for the positive effects of gross domestic product and latitude among nations.” [1]

It will be interesting to compare—once I’m able to review the study in detail—these findings with those published earlier this year in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (a collaborative effort involving several agencies, including, as it happens, the CDC):

“The relatively low variation in incidence and death rates for cancer of the brain and [other nervous system] nationally and internationally suggests that environmental risk factors do not play a major role in this disease. In fact, other than hereditary tumor syndromes and increased familial risk without a known syndrome, the only known modifiable causal risk factor for brain tumors is exposure to ionizing radiation.” [2, in-line citations removed for readability]

Correlation ≠ Causation
To illustrate the critical difference between correlation and causation, author Charles Seife uses the dramatic example of the mid-1990s NutraSweet scare—which, incredibly, was also linked brain cancer (falsely, as it turns out).

“Lots of people… don’t eat foods that contain the artificial sweetener NutraSweet for fear of developing brain cancer,” writes Seife, tracing the mythical connection to “a bunch of psychiatrists led by Washington University’s John Olney.”

“These scientists noticed that there was an alarming rise in brain tumor rates about three or four years after NutraSweet was introduced in the market.

Aha! The psychiatrists quickly came to the obvious conclusion: NutraSweet is causing brain cancer! They published their findings in a peer-reviewed journal, the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology, and their paper immediately grabbed headlines around the world.

But a closer look at the data shows how unconvincing the link really is. Sure, NutraSweet consumption was going up at the same time brain tumor rates were, but a lot of other things were on the rise, too, such as cable TV, Sony Walkmen, Tom Cruise’s career. When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, government spending increased just as dramatically as brain tumor rates… The correlation between government overspending and brain cancer is just as solid as the link between NutraSweet and brain cancer.” [3]

Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it?

Given the numerous factors and interrelationships involved in developing brain cancer—some of which, of course, we don’t even know—Hutchins’ eager indictment of cats is, at the very least, premature. In fact, Hutchins is going to have a difficult time connecting the dots in light of recent research.

More Cats, Less Brain Cancer
If brain cancer is more common where T. gondii is more common, then one might expect rates of brain cancer to increase over time as the prevalence of T. gondii increases. Which would seem to be the case here in the U.S., if cats are indeed the culprit.

According to data compiled last year in Conservation Biology, the population of pet cats tripled over the past 40 years, from approximately 31 million in 1971 to more than 90 million today. [4]

So what about brain cancer?

In 2006, researchers using data from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program for 1973–2001 were surprised to find incident rates decreasing. Following an increase of 1.68 percent between 1973 and 1987, the incident rate began to drop off by 0.44 percent annually (as indicated in the chart below; EAPC = estimated annual percentage of change).

“The cause for this decline,” suggest the study’s authors, “is unclear because of the paucity of definitive knowledge on the risk factors of brain cancer, but solace can be taken from the fact that brain cancers are not rising in this era of increasing environmental toxic exposures.” [5]

More recently, a report published by the Central Brain Tumor Registry of the United States (PDF) found “no statistically significant trend in incidence rates of all primary brain tumors from 2004 through 2007.” [6]

•     •     •

Lafferty and his colleagues concede that their work is “correlational,” a jumping-off point for further investigation. Again, I haven’t been able to read the paper yet, but I’m skeptical that their line of inquiry is headed anywhere productive. Cast a net as wide as they did—surveying the prevalence of T. gondii and incidence of brain cancer across 37 countries—and you’re bound to catch something.

Of course, something is all Michael Hutchins needs for his witch-hunt.

Hutchins refers to piles of evidence without taking the trouble to examine any of it, simply ignoring what doesn’t fit neatly into his narrative—declining brain cancer rates in the U.S., for example. Or, some rather interesting comments from Lafferty himself (which, strangely, were omitted from USGS’s news release, but were mentioned by several other news outlets, including LiveScience and Fox News):

“…one shouldn’t be panicking about owning cats… The risk factors for getting Toxoplasma are really hygiene and eating undercooked meat. One should be more concerned about those than pets.”

That sounds familiar, too. It’s the same advice the CDC provides on its Website.

Literature Cited
1. Thomas, F., et al., “Incidence of adult brain cancers is higher in countries where the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii is common.” Biology Letters. 2011.

2. Kohler, B.A., et al., “Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, 1975, Featuring Tumors of the Brain and Other Nervous System.” Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 2011.

3. Seife, C., Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception. 2010: Viking Adult.

4. 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.

5. Deorah, S., et al., “Trends in brain cancer incidence and survival in the United States: Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program, 1973 to 2001.” Neurological Focus. 2006. 20(April): p. E1.

6. n.a., CBTRUS Statistical Report: Primary Brain and Central Nervous System Tumors Diagnosed in the United States in 2004-2007. 2011, Central Brain Tumor Registry of the United States: Hinsdale, IL.


On June 25, 2002—nine years ago tomorrow—Akron, Ohio’s Ordinance 332-2002 went into effect.

The “cat ordinance,” as it’s typically called in newspaper accounts, made it illegal for cats to be “off the premises of the owner and not under restraint by leash, cord, wire, strap, chain, or similar device or fence or secure enclosure adequate to contain the animal.” In addition, it became the duty of Akron’s Animal Control Wardens to “apprehend” and “impound” any cats “running at large.”

Enacting such a law in a city of around 215,000 people, spread out over 62 square miles, would seem to be a labor-intensive—and therefore costly—undertaking. But according to the latest TNR “Fact Sheet” (updated in February) from The Wildlife Society (PDF), Akron’s roundup was a real bargain:

“Managed cat colonies are often claimed to be the cheapest form of control for areas with feral cats. In Akron, Ohio, nearly 2,500 cats were trapped from public parks. Of these, approximately 500 were adopted while the remaining 2,000 feral, diseased, or injured cats were euthanized. The entire project cost less than $27,000. At the costs paid by Maddie’s Fund in California ($50/neuter, $70/spay), sterilizing just 500 cats would cost approximately $30,000, in addition to the costs of trapping, euthanasia for the sick or injured, and subsequent feeding of all the rest.” [1]

As its source, TWS cites a 2004 paper (presented as part of the American Veterinary Medical Association’s 2003 Animal Welfare Forum, “Management of Abandoned and Feral Cats”) by Linda Winter, founding director of the American Bird Conservancy’s Cats Indoors! campaign. But Winter makes no mention of public parks:

“Advocates of TNR believe that the general public does not support large-scale trap and remove programs and that they are cost-prohibitive. However, in response to complaints from citizens about numerous stray and feral cats, the Akron City Council passed an ordinance on March 25, 2002, prohibiting domestic cats from running at large. As of August 31, 2003, a total of 2,495 stray and feral cats had been trapped by citizens as well as by 4 wardens on an on-call basis and taken to Summit County Animal Control. Of those cats, 530 were redeemed or adopted and 1,965 were euthanatized because they were feral, injured, or diseased. The cost to the City of Akron was $26,546. If the public did not support this program, far fewer cats would have been trapped because private citizens did most of the trapping.” [2]

Whereas Winter emphasizes the apparent community support for Akron’s cat ordinance, TWS is more interested in playing the public-health-threat card—untroubled, it seems, with a bit of revisionist history in their “fact sheet.” I’ve pored over dozens of newspaper stories in the past weeks—spending what Michael Hutchins would likely consider an “inordinate amount of time”—and I’ve found no references to cats being trapped in public parks anywhere in Summit County.

Still, there’s an interesting story here—beginning with Winter’s source: “James G, Summit County Animal Control, Akron, Ohio: Personal communication, 2003.” [2]

At the time Winter spoke with Glenn James, he held the director’s job at SCAC. In January, 2004, James was fired for a host of problems at the shelter he oversaw. Among them: “widespread use of correction fluid to alter euthanasia logs,” and “a record-keeping system so poor that it’s impossible to determine what happened to dozens of animals.” [3]

It was, it turns out, also impossible to tell what happened to the shelter’s supply of Fatal-Plus, a drug used for euthanasia. (“James eventually pleaded guilty to a single felony charge of illegally processing drug documents after the prosecution determined that, while he did not steal any drugs from the shelter, he knew that they were being taken and did nothing about it.” [4])

All of which raises serious questions about the figures James reported to Winter. One also wonders about the extent to which initial support for the cat ordinance was dependent upon a blissful ignorance of the conditions at SCAC—especially those affecting animal care.

And yet, years later, TWS is suggesting that Akron’s cat ordinance is a model for budget-conscious municipalities across the country. In fact, Akron’s free-roaming cats policy was far more costly than TWS would have us believe, and far less popular than Winter suggests.

It also contributed significantly to the inhumane treatment of animals—cats and dogs alike—brought to the SCAC facility.

True Costs
Comparing the costs of traditional trap-and-kill programs to those associated with TNR is no trivial undertaking. And, as Cornell’s David Pimentel has clearly demonstrated, attempts to account for the environmental impact of feral cat management can quickly devolve into the absurd.

That said, we need to start someplace.

According to Winter/TWS, Akron taxpayers spent approximately $13.50 for each cat euthanized killed—the only ones guaranteed not to reproduce. (As recently as 2006, Summit County didn’t require sterilization of cats redeemed or adopted. [5]) That’s roughly one-fifth of what TWS claims Maddie’s Fund pays for spay/neuter services (described in David Jessup’s 2004 paper [6]).

It’s not clear how James arrived at $26,546, though a similar estimate was reported in a January 2003 story in the Akron Beacon Journal. [7] Comparing 2002 and 2003 Summit County budget documents, SCAC’s “Charges for Services” actually declined slightly from 2002 to 2003. Interestingly, the year-to-year difference in “Total Animal Control” numbers ($26,756) matches almost perfectly James’ figure—but that may be merely a coincidence.

In any event, if TNR were truly five times as costly as Akron’s roundup, one would expect communities all over the country to stick to “traditional” methods of feral cat management.

But, as Mark Kumpf, former president of the National Animal Control Association (NACA) points out, “there’s no department that I’m aware of that has enough money in their budget to simply practice the old capture-and-euthanize policy; nature just keeps having more kittens.” Traditional control methods, argues Kumpf, are akin to “bailing the ocean with a thimble.” [8]

And, contrary to what TWS suggests, bailing the ocean with a thimble isn’t cheap.

Shared Expenses
According to a 2005 report from the Ohio Auditor of State, 21 municipalities—including Akron—“save on overhead costs on employee salaries and benefits, maintaining a fleet of vehicles, and the boarding of animals” by contracting with SCAC. [9] Summit County was saving too, by contracting with the Humane Society of Greater Akron for veterinary and after-hours/emergency response services.

So, even if Akron did pay only $13.50 per cat, it was largely because of the extensive costs absorbed by the 540,000 or so residents of Summit County. But it didn’t take long for Akron to overwhelm County resources.

Summit County’s 2003 Budget report (PDF) includes what appears to be a request for four additional pound-keepers, which would have doubled the staff caring for animals at the shelter. Other information in the same report, however, indicates that SCAC staffing would remain at 2002 levels—suggesting that perhaps the request was more of a political statement than anything else.

Justification for the additional pound-keepers (“responsible for the daily care of all animals brought to the Animal Shelter” as well as “the care and maintenance of the Animal Control facility” [10]) includes what sounds like a perennial complaint: a growing population leading to more “animal problems.” [10] But did the population of Summit County double between 2002 and 2003? Hardly.

A quick check of Wikipedia suggests a 5.4 percent increase from 1990 to 2000, after which it remained flat or even declined slightly. (U.S. Census data: 1980: 524,472; 1990: 514,990; 2000: 542,899: 2010: 541,781.)

So what did change?

“…the City of Akron recently passed a new cat control ordinance, which has created more work for the pound keepers due to the substantial numbers of cats being impounded. To keep up with the escalating problems it will be necessary to hire more staff to maintain the same level of service that is currently being provided. Furthermore, additional supplies and equipment will be needed to accommodate the additional animals being impounded. More revenue will be needed to cover these expenses.” [10]

The Cattery
If the shelter didn’t receive additional help, it at least got a little larger.

In 2002, the facility’s lobby was partitioned to accommodate an 18-by-10 “cattery,” completed just in time for implementation of 332-2002. Cost of the renovation, which James called a “small project,” was $80,000. [11]

“Our decision to build the cattery,” James told the Beacon Journal, “came before plans for the ordinance.” [12] Fair enough—newspaper accounts indicate that James first floated the idea in 1998, a year after Akron considered licensing cats. “We want to be prepared when the time comes that we have to control cats more stringently. It’s just good common sense. Every animal control facility should have a cattery.” [13]

Still, it’s doubtful that Akron’s city council would have voted in favor of the cat ordinance had the cattery not been in the works. Indeed, they had scrapped the cat licensing proposal for this very reason (“the city decided not to because its animal shelters would have had to keep cats for three days before disposing of them, and they didn’t have the room”). [14]

The cattery increased Summit County’s capacity from four cages to 24, with 12 more in the “overflow room” [15] (though James told the Beacon Journal, “We could hold up to a maximum of 50 cats at one time”). [12]

A NACA study team, summoned by Summit County to review conditions and practices at SCAC, were unimpressed. Among the 132 recommendations included in their 2004 report: “Summit County should explore the possibility of constructing a new animal sheltering facility within the very near future” [15] (the emphasis is theirs, not mine). Indeed, the facility was awarded NACA’s lowest rating: 1 (“an immediate need”).

Cost of Living Dying Increase
As part of their deal with Akron, SCAC agreed to hold cats for five days: “three days to give the owners time [sic] retrieve them and another two days for adoption purposes.” [16] Akron was to pay $5 per day for the “mandatory three-day stay and the $10 disposal fee, if need be.” [16] (In fact, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that many cats and kittens were killed long before their time was up.)

But Akron’s cat ordinance quickly became a victim of its own “success,” with about 900 cats “plucked from city streets” [17] in the first three months alone.

Intake numbers for previous years vary considerably. In 1999, for example, James told the Beacon Journal “At least 200 stray cats each year are trapped by residents and brought to the Summit County Animal Shelter.” [18] In 2002, six weeks prior to the cat ordinance going into effect, the paper reported (again, citing James) that 400 cats “wind up at the county shelter each year.” [11] Then, in another story just seven months later, the figure was 3,500. [19]

Two years later, in a 2004 op-ed, the Beacon Journal suggested “100 or so had been the norm.” [20]

Whatever the numbers were, it’s clear that the increase overwhelmed available resources. So, in 2004, the County proposed rate increases for its animal services, “largely,” as Beacon Journal reporter Lisa A. Abraham put it, “because of the crush of stray cats the city has been depositing at the shelter.” [21] The cost to house a cat doubled, as did the fee for putting a cat down. (The increased “business” affected dogs, too: their housing fees also increased from $5 to $10 per day, while the cost to put a dog down tripled to $30.)

Additional Expenses
In addition, numerous ancillary expenses were incurred in response to 332-2002.

The NACA reviews, for instance—one in 2004, and a follow-up in 2006—were, it seems clear, a response to extensive criticism of shelter conditions, policies, and practices by local groups opposed to the cat ordinance. [22, 23] The cost: $8,000. [24]

In 2003, Summit County committed about $15,000 “to install cameras and other security equipment at the county animal shelter.” [25]

“The move is part of increased scrutiny of the shelter, which has come under fire from animal activists who allege that inhumane treatment of animals and criminal behavior have gone on at the North Street facility.” [25]

The following year, Akron’s city council approved $16,000 to microchip 1,000 cats, and “conduct some low-cost spaying and neutering clinics around the city.” [26]

“The move came in response to the furor that was created after the council passed a law two years ago, allowing free-roaming cats to be picked up if someone complained.” [26]

Akron had purchased five microchip scanners in 2002, but, as customer service administrator John Hoffman told the Beacon Journal two years later, “ha[d] yet to scan a chip.” [27] (Estimated cost: $1,500.)

It’s not clear how much sterilization was done (or how many residents took advantage of the microchip offer, for that matter). In fact, Hoffman was forced to defend what some saw as misplaced priorities (clearly, such efforts are aimed at pets and not feral cats):

“What I’ve heard is that some groups prefer us to spend our money doing neutering, and that’s something we’re considering that will come later… But I don’t follow the objections There’s no harm, no foul. And at $10, it’s affordable, so I cannot imagine a legitimate reason not to do this.” [26]

Eradication at Any Cost
Suddenly, Maddie’s sixty-bucks-a-cat is starting to look like the real bargain.

Not that I’m prepared to assign an exact number to the per-cat cost of Akron’s cat ordinance—sure to be a painful, unproductive exercise in “Pimentelian economics.” Still, though, it’s easy to imagine the true cost of 332-2002 being comparable to—or even exceeding—the costs of TNR.

When it comes right down to it, though, I think the real attraction for TWS is not the (fictitious) price tag of Akron’s cat ordinance, but its incompatibility with feral cats in general and TNR in particular. In the community, Akron’s unsocialized cats are at great risk; in the hands of SCAC, they’re sure to be killed.

Community Support
Winter’s measure of community support—the number cats trapped by Akron residents—is, given the vast discrepancies in reporting, likely to be inaccurate. Even at its most accurate, though, such a measure is remarkably incomplete.

Legal Opposition
Winter never mentions the controversy surrounding the City Council’s vote on 332-2002, for example. Just days before its implementation, the council—“faced with the looming threat of a lawsuit”—repealed the original ordinance. [16]

“Immediately afterward, the council unanimously passed a nearly identical version of the law as an emergency measure. It went into effect immediately as Mayor Don Plusquellic signed it following the meeting… City officials say this version should withstand legal scrutiny if a group of cat fanciers—Citizens for Humane Animal Practices, or CHAP—makes good on its threat of a lawsuit.” [16]

Earlier that evening, CHAP members held a candlelight vigil and protest.

“The group—sporting placards saying things like “Save our cats” and “I can’t speak at city council,” wearing shirts with the slogan, “No tax $ for cat killing” and carrying plush toy cats—has a lawsuit prepared and ready to file, according to… the group’s attorney. [16]

Although CHAP’s request for a preliminary injunction was denied in late 2002, the judge hearing the case acknowledged the risk of “irreparable harm” posed by Akron’s cat ordinance:

“‘Due to the lack of guidelines and/or policies, it is possible for cats to be euthanized’ without their owner or owners ever receiving proper notification, she wrote. If a cat owner never receives notification—and that individual’s pet is picked up and ultimately destroyed—the owners are indeed ‘irreparably injured/harmed,’ she said.” [28]

For “owners” of feral and stray cats, of course, there was never any proper notification.

General Opposition
Letters to the Beacon Journal’s editor seem to fall almost exclusively in the opposition camp (though, to be fair, I did not do a rigorous comparison).

Brenda Graham’s January 31, 2003, letter (one of at least two she had published in the Beacon Journal) compared the “the slaughter of healthy cats and kittens” brought on by 332-2002 to “the Salem witch hunts of the 17th century. Both are founded in ignorance and spite.” [29] Even so, Graham remained optimistic about her community: “We can turn this around and showcase Akron as compassionate and progressive, not barbaric.” [29]

“Why does the city use our tax dollars wastefully on a process that is both ineffective and cruel?” asked Patricia Shaw in her July 13, 2003, letter. “Why can’t Akron’s animal-control policies be brought into the 21st century?” [30]

“Many major cities have determined that euthanasia does not solve the problem of animal overpopulation. There is too much information out there for Akron City Council to be still operating in the Dark Ages. If others have found a better way, why can’t Akron do the same? I can’t imagine that these cities’ councils have a corner on intelligence.” [30]

Shaw’s vocal opposition to SCAC’s policies made her the subject of retaliation, resulting in the killing of dozen of cats and kittens for which she’d agreed to find homes (see below).

How closely these examples reflect opinions throughout the community is anybody’s guess. They may well represent a small minority—however vocal. On the other hand, I haven’t seen a single mention of a public discussion of 332-2002 among the dozens of Beacon Journal stories I’ve read on the topic—it seems there was very little public input on either side of the issue.

Finally, there’s the issue of effectiveness. No doubt supporters of the cat ordinance figured that killing 2,000 or so cats each year would make a difference in the number of stray and feral cats. If you’re determined to bail the ocean with a thimble, I don’t suppose it makes much difference that you’re 500 miles away.

Animal Services/Care
Economics and politics aside, it’s important to consider how cats were treated in the aftermath of 332-2002 (a factor TWS and Winter conveniently overlook). Akron’s cat ordinance, it’s clear, exacerbated a number of problems within SCAC, and created plenty of new ones. And, as is often the case, the animals suffered tremendously as a result.

A History of Abuses
I’ve been unable to determine precisely when Glenn James joined SCAC (the earliest newspaper story in which his name appears is dated June 1989), but it’s clear that he inherited a profoundly dysfunctional organization.

“For the most part—and especially in years past,” writes Beacon Journal reporter Charlene Nevada in her 1991 profile of James, “the people who chase dogs in Summit County have found themselves on the payroll because of political friends.” [31]

“James was hired and promoted because it became obvious to those around him that this was someone who walks on two feet but understands those who walk on four.” [31]

Maybe so, but it seems there wasn’t much competition, either.

Dog warden Joseph Kissel, who took over in the fall of 1988, had been on the job just two weeks when news that his wife had for years been selling cats—obtained free from the shelter—for $25 to $30 apiece to research facilities, including the Northeast Ohio Universities College of Medicine. [32]

“Kissel said his wife was treated like anyone else. Anyone can get as many cats as are available for free, he said. ‘Anybody who walks off the street. Can I have a cat? Yeah. Can I have 10 cats? Yeah. Can I have all of them? Yeah,’ Kissel said. He refused to discuss his wife’s business in detail, saying it was her business, not his. Kissel declined to estimate how many cats were released by the pound each year for sale to medical research organizations or how many his wife had received.” [32]

By 1991, with James in charge, SCAC had cut out the middleman, “illegally selling dogs from its animal shelter to research facilities for $27 over the state-imposed price,” bringing in perhaps as much as $16,000 in pound seizure fees. [33]

James defended the price gouging, citing “escalating animal-control expenses.” [33]

Akron’s Cats
The first four days under 332-2002 were a harbinger of grim days to come. Of the 53 cats brought into the shelter, “43 were too sickly to be kept and were euthanized.” [34]

“The sick cats were found to have ringworm, upper respiratory infections or were severely flea infested. Most were malnourished and appeared to be feral—wild cats that aren’t used to human contact… Some were kittens who hadn’t been weaned from their mother and wouldn’t survive…” [34]

For Akron’s cats, a runny nose had become fatal. Deadly, too, was a feral appearance—whatever that means.

And still, Hoffman told the Beacon Journal—presumably with a straight face—“We are not killing cats.”

“If there is any kind of ID tag, we’re calling that phone number and giving that cat a ride home,” Hoffman said. “If no cat goes to the animal shelter, that’s fine. We’re hoping to keep people’s pets safe and only deal with the true problem.” [34]

The “true problem,” though, was the number of cats being killed. In fact, the 81 percent kill rate demonstrated during the first four days was nothing new for Summit County; in 1988, Kissel told the Beacon Journal that 90–95 percent of the 3,000–4,000 cats brought into the shelter each year were killed. [32] (The fact that Kissel couldn’t narrow down the number of intakes any further is both alarming and indicative of conditions at the facility.)

During the first six months, the kill rate tapered off to 70 percent. [7] Six months later, the rate was up to 79 percent. [2] Imagine: four out of every five cats brought to SCAC were, as Winter suggests, “feral, injured, or diseased.” [2]

Three years later, the Beacon Journal reported to a 65 percent kill rate for cats brought into the shelter during 2005 (dogs fared slightly better, with a 49 percent kill rate). [35]

How credible any of these figures are—in light of SCAC’s record-keeping problems—is unclear, of course. Still, even their best numbers are nothing to be proud of.

Systemic Problems
The NACA reviews and related media coverage exposed a laundry list of failures at SCAC. Among them:

  • At the time of the original NACA review, Summit County’s shelter was open to the public only 28 hours each week (10:00–3:00 Monday–Friday; 12:00–3:00 on Saturdays), prompting the study team to comment: “current shelter hours do not favor today’s working households.” [15]
  • “During peak periods of the year,” notes the 2004 NACA report, “the facility generally operates at 100 percent capacity.” [15] Yet, on weekends, two assistant pound-keepers were allocated just 11 hours between them—to care for the shelter’s animals, clean the facility [with its 120 cages], and attend to any visitors during the three hours the shelter was open to the public on Saturdays. “The shelter could remain closed on Sundays,” suggests the report, “however the facility should be cleaned and all animals should receive food, water and care.” [15] That’s right: SCAC had to be told by NACA to take care of the animals in its care on weekends.
  • The drama surrounding the top job at SCAC didn’t end with James’ termination. James’ replacement, Jeffrey Wright, resigned under pressure after just a year on the job—during which time he used nearly three weeks of sick time. [36] Anthony Moore, who was appointed acting animal control manager following Wright’s departure, last only nine months, “demoted for using a diluted formula of the euthanasia drug on animals at the shelter.” (It didn’t help that Moore had drawn criticism for removing cats “from their cages with neck hooks during hours when visitors were in the facility.”) [37] Christine Congrove, who had been James’ secretary, took over in 2006, drawing fire for her lack of qualifications and experience, $61,000 starting salary, and family ties (she’s the daughter of then-councilman Dan Congrove). [37] Congrove—now Christine Fatheree—remains Animal Control Manager today.
  • Not only was Summit County’s kill rate incredibly high, their methods were often inhumane. Among the alarming results of a 2003 investigation by then-County Executive James McCarthy: “cats are euthanized with needles large enough for a cow.” [3] Even more controversial was the SCAC’s practice of intracardiac injection—or heart-stick—“a procedure for euthanizing animals by using a long needle to inject drugs directly into their hearts.” [38] And a 2006 lawsuit (more tax dollars wasted) alleged that shelter staff, having used insufficient doses of Fatal-Plus, were “throwing live animals in the freezer.” [39]
  • Despite apparent concerns for the number of stray and abandoned pets, sterilization was clearly not a priority for Summit County. Among NACA’s “immediate need” recommendations in 2004 was this: “any cat or dog adoption should include some form of required sterilization, preferably prior to adoption.” [15] Two years later, though, NACA reviewers reported “no progress,” using the reevaluation to emphasize once again, “The sterilization of adopted animals should be mandatory.” [5] At that time, Summit County also hadn’t implemented a low-cost spay/neuter program in the community. [40] (Today, all pets adopted from Summit County are sterilized, although it’s not clear that any community-based low-cost spay/neuter programs have been put in place.)
  • Criticism of shelter practices led to retaliation against local rescue groups. [3, 41] In “House of Horrors,” Cleveland Scene reporter Aina Hunter (now at CBS News), details the horrendous treatment Patricia Shaw received as, on two separate occasions, cats and kittens she’d agreed to find homes for were killed. (James “did it to teach us a lesson,” says Shaw. “He did it to show that he has the power of life and death—not people like me.” [41]) Hunter’s reporting reveals the abuses and deteriorating morale of an organization that had come entirely off the rails. (Interestingly, about the same time Hunter was uncovering the horrors inside Summit County’s shelter, Linda Winter was discussing the apparent success of Akron’s cat ordinance with the man in charge.)

(Detailed accounts of these incidents—and many more—can be found on the St. Francis Animal Sanctuary and The National Animal Cruelty Registry Websites.)

A Long Way to Go
SCAC has made some notable improvements in recent years—the most obvious its new $2.96 million shelter, which opened its doors last August. Those doors are open more often, too (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday: 10 am–5 pm; Wednesday: 10 am–7 pm; Saturday: 10 am–3 pm).

Adoptable animals are also showcased online. SCAC is, according to its Website, “a proud member of the Summit Animal Coalition,” made up of several local rescue groups and the Humane Society of Greater Akron.

There’s also a volunteer program. And earlier this year, the County nearly tripled its budget for veterinary care at the facility. [42]

Still, the there’s nothing listed under the Events and Programs tab, and the e-mail link for Fatheree won’t get you very far (her e-mail address is incomplete).

More worrisome, however, is the response I got when I did get through to Fatheree, asking for recent intake, redemption, adoption, and euthanasia figures:

“Good afternoon, Christine Fatheree has sent me your request for public records. These records were destroyed per our records retention schedule and no longer available.  Thank you.” —Jill Hinig Skapin, Director of Communications

Some problems just can’t be fixed with a three-million-dollar shelter.

•     •     •

Nine years later, it’s impossible to tell if 332-2002 is “working”—at least from the information I’ve been able to gather. But, given all that’s known about efforts to eradicate cats from oceanic islands, I doubt Akron’s cat ordinance has made much of a difference at all in terms of the number of stray and feral cats.

There’s no doubt at all, though, that the roundup has been far costlier than TWS suggests in its “fact sheet.”

Then again, TWS is about as interested in facts as the American Bird Conservancy is. (Recall, for example, how much space TWS allocated for Nico Dauphine and her “facts” in their recent special issue of The Wildlife Professional.)

I’m actually well past the point of being surprised by what TWS is trying to pull here. But I am a little surprised that they would expect anybody to fall for it. Executive Director/CEO Michael Hutchins likes to brag about TWS’s “10,000+ strong membership of wildlife professionals.” I wonder: How many of those 10,000+ does Hutchins take to be such fools?

Literature Cited
1. n.a., Problems with Trap-Neuter-Release. 2011, The Wildlife Society: Bethesda, MD. (

2. Winter, L., “Trap-neuter-release programs: The reality and the impacts.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1369–1376.

3. Abraham, L.A. (2003, December 6). Shelter is “Sloppy”. Akron Beacon Journal.

4. Abraham, L.A. (2004, April 24). Summit-Hired Group Backs Building a New Animal Shelter. Akron Beacon Journal.

5. Mays, J.W., Summit County Animal Control: Reevaluation Report. 2006, National Animal Control Association: Kansas City, MO. p. 36. (,%202006.pdf)

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. Wallace, J. (2003, January 6). Akron’s Stray Cat Effort Cheaper Than Expected. Akron Beacon Journal.

8. Hettinger, J., Taking a Broader View of Cats in the Community, in Animal Sheltering. 2008. p. 8–9.

9. n.a., Local Government Consolidation Reports. n.d., Ohio Auditor of State: Columbus.

10. n.a., Summit County: Building On a Solid Structure: 2003 Operating Budget. 2003, Office of Executive, Summit County: Akron, OH.

11.  Miller, M. (2002, May 6). Summit Cattery Opens Next Month. Akron Beacon Journal.

12. Chancellor, C. (2002, June 26). Kitty Lockup Is Ready for First Inmates. Akron Beacon Journal.

13. Biliczky, C. (1998, August 31). Stray Cats Could Get Den at Summit animal Shelter. Akron Beacon Journal.

14. Dorell, O. (1999, July 11). Rules For Cats Pose Problems In Barberton. Akron Beacon Journal.

15. Mays, J.W., Summit County Animal Control: Confidential Evaluation Report. 2004, National Animal Control Association: Kansas City, MO. p. 164. (

16. Wallace, J. (2002, June 25). No More Catting Around. Akron Beacon Journal.

17. Warsmith, S. (2002, September 25). Woman Lands In Court For Claiming Stray Cats. Akron Beacon Journal.

18. Dorell, O. (1999, June 15). Summit Looks to Rein Cats, Dogs. Akron Beacon Journal.

19. Miller, M. (2002, December 2). Shelter’s New Web Site Goes To the Dogs. Akron Beacon Journal.

20. n.a. (2004, April 26). Practical Advice—A Helpful Plan For Improving County Animal Shelter. Akron Beacon Journal, p. B3.

21. Abraham, L.A. (2004, March 21). County Seeks Hike in Animal Shelter Costs. Akron Beacon Journal.

22. Abraham, L.A. (2004, January 24). Animal Shelter Review Approved. Akron Beacon Journal.

23. Abraham, L.A. and Wallace, J. (2004, May 5). Akron Cat Law Lands On Its Feet. Akron Beacon Journal.

24. Hagelberg, K. (2006, September 19). Dog Pound Still has Problems. Akron Beacon Journal.

25. Abraham, L.A. (2003, December 11). Eye Kept On Shelter. Akron Beacon Journal.

26. Wallace, J. (2004, August 5). Microchip Gives Cats Instant ID. Akron Beacon Journal.

27. Bloom, C. (2004, July 17). Akron Chips Away at Lost-Cat Problem. Akron Beacon Journal.

28. Chancellor, C. (2002, December 10). Cat Law Injunction Is Denied. Akron Beacon Journal, p. B1.

29. Graham, B. (2003, January 31). A Better Way to Deal with Akron’s Cat Problem (Letter to the Editor). Akron Beacon Journal.

30. Shaw, P. (2003, July 13). Taxes Ought To Fund Compassion, Not Killing. Akron Beacon Journal, p. B2.

31. Nevada, C. (1991, December 26). Lion Tamer Turns Talents to Summit’s Stray Dogs. Akron Beacon Journal.

32. Oblander, T. (1988, September 25). Summit Dog Warden’s Wife Sold Cats to Labs. Akron Beacon Journal.

33. Rosenberg, A. (1994, October 5). State Says Summit Illegally Sells Dogs from Shelter. Akron Beacon Journal.

34. Wallace, J. (2002, June 29). 53 Cats Captured in 4 Days. Akron Beacon Journal.

35. Abraham, L.A. (2006, February 12). Second Look At Shelter. Akron Beacon Journal.

36. Abraham, L.A. (2005, July 13). Summit Animal Chief Resigns. Akron Beacon Journal.

37. Hagelberg, K. (2006, March 8). Animal Control Director Named. Akron Beacon Journal.

38. Abraham, L.A. (2003, December 9). Summit County Executive Stands Behind Animal Shelter. Akron Beacon Journal.

39. Hagelberg, K. (2006, November 19). Secret Deal Settles Suit With County. Akron Beacon Journal.

40. Hagelberg, K. (2006, March 9). Animal Control Director Under Fire. Akron Beacon Journal.

41. Hunter, A. (2003, October 22). House of Horrors. Cleveland Scene, from

42. Armon, R. (2011, February 12). Veterinary Services Budget in Summit Could Nearly Triple. Akron Beacon Journal.

Loose Threads

OpossumNorth American Opossum with winter coat. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Cody Pope.

A study published last month in the online open-access journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases suggests a new twist in the relationship between free-roaming cats, Toxoplasma gondii, and toxoplasmosis infections in marine mammals.

“The most remarkable finding of our study,” notes co-author Dr. Michael E. Grigg in a press release from the National Institutes of Health “was the exacerbating role that [Sarcocystis] neurona appears to play in causing more severe disease symptoms in those animals that are also infected with T. gondii.” What I found most remarkable, though, was the straightforward relationship between infections in land mammals and infected marine mammals implied in Grigg’s comments:

“Identifying the threads that connect these parasites from wild and domestic land animals to marine mammals helps us to see ways that those threads might be cut… by, for example, managing feral cat and opossum populations, reducing run-off from urban areas near the coast, monitoring water quality and controlling erosion to prevent parasites from entering the marine food chain.”

The Wildlife Society’s Michael Hutchins used the opportunity to once again call for the “control” of feral cats, which, he argues are “a menace to our native wildlife.” According to Hutchins, the study by Grigg (who serves as Chief of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Molecular Parasitology Unit) and his colleagues “is yet another demonstration that Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) management of feral house cats must be stopped if we value our native wildlife.”

But, of course, the threads that make up the ecological “fabric” are interwoven with many others. Cut even one of them, as Grigg suggests, and the whole thing can begin to unravel.

Which is what surprised me about Grigg’s narrow focus on cats (considered the definitive host for T. gondii) and opossums (considered the definitive host of S. neurona), neither of which was mentioned in the paper itself.

Toxoplasma gondii
Cats pass the mature, infective form of T. gondii 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]

Numerous studies have suggested a link between toxoplasmosis in marine life and freshwater run-off. In contrast to the “stress placed on the importance of the cat in the scientific literature,” [2] however, several studies have challenged the importance of environmental contamination in the transmission of T. gondii.

In the Absence of Cats
Researchers at the University of Salford’s Centre for Parasitology and Disease Research, for instance, observed high levels (e.g., 75 percent) of congenital transmission of T. gondii in a “wild population of mice,” leading them to conclude “that this phenomenon might be more widespread than previously thought.” [2] Another team of researchers from the same lab, citing studies of T. gondii infections in sheep, also make a compelling argument that congenital transmission “may be more important than previously considered.” [3]

And then there are the studies in the Arctic.

Among the “arctic foxes (n=594), Svalbard reindeer (n=390), sibling voles (n=361), walruses (n=17), kittiwakes (n=58), barnacle geese (n=149), and glaucous gulls (n=27),” tested, Prestrud et al. found T. gondii only in the arctic foxes (257, or 43 percent), geese (11, or 7 percent), and walruses (1, or 6 percent). [4] The fact that these researchers found no T. gondii-infected reindeer or sibling voles “indicates that infection by oocysts is not an important mode of transmission on Svalbard.” [4] In the end, Prestrud et al. suggest:

“…T. gondii most likely is brought to Svalbard by migratory birds that become infected in temperate agricultural areas in the winter. However, marine sources of infection may exist. The high seroprevalence of T. gondii in the arctic fox population on Svalbard may be due to: (1) infection from migratory bird species through predation; (2) vertical transmission; and (3) tissue cyst transmission within the Svalbard ecosystem through scavenging and cannibalism. Together, these transmission routes cause a surprisingly high seroprevalence of T. gondii in a top predator living in an ecosystem with very few cats.” [4]

A study of polar bears provides further evidence: “It would… be inconceivable to assume that the few cats would play a major role in the epidemiology of T. gondii in the vast high Arctic. This is apparently the case in East Greenland as well.” [5]

Ticks and Tick-bites
In a paper published in 2009, Polish researchers proposed yet another possibility. The “high incidence of T. gondii found, among others, in free-living ruminants,” write Sroka et al., “suggests a possibility of other, so far unknown, paths of transmission of this protozoan.”

“Due to the fact that they are widespread, and tick-bites occur frequently both in humans and in animals, ticks might play an important role in toxoplasmosis transmission.” [6]

Sarcocystis neurona and Opossums
The links between opossums and S. neurona infections, too, are not quite as straightforward as Grigg’s comment suggests. Researchers were surprised to find S. neurona in central Wyoming, for example—“outside the known range of the opossum.” [7]

“Finding antibodies to S. neurona… in at least 18 horses native to Wyoming is unexpected and unexplained. Opossums are not known to occur in central Wyoming, and there has not been any confirmed case of [equine protozoal myeloencephalitis] from horses native to Wyoming.” [7]

Their findings, write Dubey et al., “suggest that another definitive host may be involved or that the parasite shares antigens with another protozoan.” [7]

Conspicuously Absent
Grigg and his colleagues make no reference to these studies, nor do they acknowledge the alternative transmission routes suggested therein. To be clear, though, the paper focuses mostly on infection rates; it’s the press release that refers to cats and opossums as the ultimate source of infection.

(If all of this sounds familiar, it may be because I referred to many of the same studies in my response last month to a press release about a study of T. gondii-infected mammals in a “natural area in central Illinois” by Shannon Fredebaugh and Nohra Mateus-Pinilla.)

Stray Threads
Grigg and his colleagues found infection rates among mammals living in the inland waters of Washington, Oregon, and southern British Columbia were no greater than in those found along the outer coast, as illustrated in the figure below (blue dots indicating inland infection, red dots indicating infection among outer coast individuals).

But if environmental contamination plays such a critical role, shouldn’t that be reflected in higher infection rates inland (nearer, presumably, to greater concentrations of contaminated soil)?

Perhaps the most puzzling of their findings, though, is this: “T. gondii infections peaked in 2007 then declined relative to S. neurona” (as illustrated in the bar chart below).

Again, if environmental contamination is the culprit, does this mean that the population of free-roaming cats in the area also peaked around 2007? Could this, in fact, be empirical evidence of the positive impact of TNR? (At last, something for Hutchins to blog about!)

Obviously, there’s not enough evidence here to make that leap. Still, the data challenge assertions by the American Bird Conservancy that the feral cat population continues to rise—as well as the conventional wisdom about the presumed cause of T. Gondii-infected marine mammals, articulated most recently by David Jessup and Melissa Miller: “the science points to cats.” [8]

And finally, let’s say we were able to remove all of the cats and opossums from the environment. Setting aside for the moment the numerous hurdles (e.g., ethical, economic, etc.) involved, what impact could we expect in terms of T. gondii and/or S. neurona infections in marine mammals? Or in rodents, whose populations would surely skyrocket?

I’m skeptical that the benefits would be all that great. Skeptical, too, that we could predict with much accuracy the actual outcomes (to say nothing of the unintended consequences).

As for what Grigg thinks, he’s yet to respond to my e-mail inquiries on the subject.

Literature Cited
1. Elmore, S.A., et al., “Toxoplasma gondii: epidemiology, feline clinical aspects, and prevention.” Trends in Parasitology. 2010. 26(4): p. 190–196.

2. Marshall, P.A., et al., “Detection of high levels of congenital transmission of Toxoplasma gondii in natural urban populations of Mus domesticus.” Parasitology. 2004. 128(01): p. 39–42.

3. Hide, G., et al., “Evidence for high levels of vertical transmission in Toxoplasma gondii.” Parasitology. 2009. 136(Special Issue 14): p. 1877-1885.

4. Prestrud, K.W., et al., “Serosurvey for Toxoplasma gondii in arctic foxes and possible sources of infection in the high Arctic of Svalbard.” Veterinary Parasitology. 2007. 150(1-2): p. 6–12.

5. Oksanen, A., et al., “Prevalence of Antibodies Against Toxoplasma gondii in Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus) From Svalbard and East Greenland.” Journal of Parasitology. 2009. 95(1): p. 89–94.

6. Sroka, J., Szymańska, J., and Wójcik-Fatla, A., “The occurrence of Toxoplasma gondii and Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato in Ixodes ricinus ticks from eastern Poland with the use of PCR.” Annals of Agricultural and Environmental Medicine. 2009. 16(2): p. 313–319.

7. Dubey, J.P., et al., “Prevalence of Antibodies to Neospora caninum, Sarcocystis neurona, and Toxoplasma gondii in Wild Horses from Central Wyoming.” Journal of Parasitology. 2003. 89(4): p. 716–720.

8. Jessup, D.A. and Miller, M.A., “The Trickle-Down Effect.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 62–64.

Close Enough?

Among the findings of a recent study:

Five of 18 cats trapped “between the spring and fall of 2008 and 2009” in central Illinois’ 1,500-acre Robert Allerton Park tested positive for Toxoplasma gondii antibodies. Five of the seropositive cats were trapped at the same site; there, one white-footed mouse (of 21 trapped) also tested positive, and a gray squirrel tested negative. The site where the sixth seropositive cat was trapped revealed similar results among the “small home range” (SHR) mammals found there: one of 34 white-footed mice was seropositive; a fox squirrel was negative.

All of which means… what, exactly?

Although there were five times as many “infected” cats at the first site, infection rates among SHR mammals were only about one-and-a-half times as high as those at the second site. Put another way: given the infection rate among SHR mammals at the second site, one would have expected three seropositive SHR mammals at the first site.

In fact, a press release put out last week put a very different spin on Shannon Fredebaugh’s thesis work (downloadable PDF):

One third of the cats sampled were infected with T gondii, as were significant numbers of the wild animals found at every site. Animals that inhabit or range over territories of 247 acres (100 hectares) or more, such as raccoons and opossums, were more likely to be infected than those with smaller ranges.

But these animals “could have acquired T. gondii infection somewhere outside of the park,” said Nohra Mateus-Pinilla, a wildlife veterinary epidemiologist at the University of Illinois Prairie Research Institute and leader of the study. Animals with smaller home ranges likely picked up the infection close to where they were trapped, she said. This makes these animals good sentinels of disease in a natural area. “The small animals are screening the environment for us,” she said. “So when we sample one of those animals, we are really sampling their lifestyle.”

The absence of bobcats in the park combined with the occurrence of domestic cats and T. gondii infection in wildlife that inhabit small territories strongly suggest that feral, free-ranging or abandoned house cats are the source of the infection, Mateus-Pinilla said. Cats are vital for the survival of the parasite, and so they are—either directly or indirectly—spreading T. gondii to the wildlife in the park. “There’s no other option,” she said.

Well, “one third of the cats” certainly sounds more impressive than “six of 18.” And “significant numbers of the wild animals found at every site” had an undeniable allure to it—though, in fact, the statement applies only to the park’s “large home range” (LHR) mammals (mostly raccoons and opossums).

Far more troubling, though, is the alleged connection between cats, T. gondii, and infected SHR mammals.

Environmental Contamination
“If one infected cat defecates there, any area can become infected,” Fredebaugh said in the press release. “It just takes one cat to bring disease to an area.”

But, as Fredebaugh points out, “environmental detection of oocysts is difficult and was not evaluated in this study.” [1] She simply assumes a causal link between “infected” cats and environmental contamination: more seropositive cats means more contaminated soil.

In fact, Fredebaugh goes further, assuming that the mere presence of cats—seropositive or not—is the key factor in SHR infection rates. In addition to trapping data, she uses data from scent stations and motion detection cameras (which proved largely ineffective, capturing photos of just four cats over the course of the research) to designate each of the eight sites as either high or low “cat occurrence,” as indicated in the following table (please forgive the tiny type):

Table: Shannon Fredebaugh's Thesis

Fredebaugh acknowledges that “scent stations should only be used to identify trends in animal populations and as a supplemental tool in conjunction with other population estimates,” [1] thereby raising serious questions about their use in her study. (She’s not interested in trends, her scent station and trapping data correlate quite poorly, and her use of scent station data is hardly “supplemental.”)

But back to the environmental contamination.

Cats (both domestic and wild) are T. gondii’s definitive host—the animal in which the parasite reproduces sexually. Cats pass the mature, infective form of T. gondii in their feces—a process called “shedding oocysts.”

Although oocysts can survive in soil for up to 18 months, and are resistant to disinfectants, cats typically “shed oocysts only once in their life.” [see discussion in 2] Indeed, according to Dubey and Jones, “Most cats seroconvert after they have shed oocysts. Thus, it is a reasonable assumption that most seropositive cats have already shed oocysts.” [2]

So, who’s to say that the “infected” cats Fredebaugh trapped shed oocysts in the area where they were found? Indeed, we don’t even know that these cats shed oocysts in the park. It’s been suggested (based on a small sample of cats monitored closely from 1974 to 1977) that home ranges of unsterilized feral females can exceed 500 acres, while those of unsterilized feral males may approach 2,500 acres. (Even house-based males, which were also unsterilized, had large home ranges: 865–939 acres.) [3]

What’s more, Fredebaugh points out that, given their “relatively good physical condition,” some of these cats might have been “recently abandoned at RAP.” [1] In which case, they wouldn’t have been “contributing” any oocysts to the park’s soil—assuming they were seropositive to begin with.

Odds Ratios
Fredebaugh expresses her results using odds ratios, a measure easy enough to calculate but rather difficult to grasp intuitively (especially for those of us, myself included, unfamiliar with the measure). A page on the Children’s Mercy Hospital (Kansas City, MO) Website explains odd ratios this way:

“An odds ratio of 1 implies that the event is equally likely in both groups. An odds ratio greater than one implies that the event is more likely in the first group. An odds ratio less than one implies that the event is less likely in the first group.”

(Some examples are discussed in detail here.)

It seems to me that, in this case at least, odds ratios obscure more than they reveal. When Fredebaugh reports “a significant difference in the seroprevalence of T. gondii for SHR mammals at sites with a high frequency of cat occurrence,” we know nothing of sample size or the overall fit of the data (which, ranges from pretty good—for LHR mammals—to pretty lousy—for SHR mammals).

A simple x-y graph illustrates this point:

Chart: Shannon Fredebaugh's Thesis

By (mis?)representing the data in odds ratios, Fredebaugh suggests a connection that’s not actually supported by her research findings.

That said, she’s is hardly the first to imply causation where nothing more than correlation has been demonstrated (and, again, even that is dicey). In “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats,” a special section of the Spring Issue of The Wildlife Professional, for example, David Jessup and Melissa Miller argue that “the science points to cats,” but provide little more than “proximity” and “sheer numbers” to support their claim that “outdoor pet and feral domestic cats may be the most important source of T. gondii oocysts in near-shore marine waters.” [4]

(No?) Other Options
The fact that the researchers are so certain of their conclusions—that the only explanation for T. gondii in Robert Allerton Park is the presence of cats—is telling. I can’t help but think that they knew going in what they would find (a perception reinforced by what’s included in, and omitted from, Fredebaugh’s literature review, as described below).

In fact, Mateus-Pinilla’s comment—“There’s no other option.”—is challenged by several recent studies.

“Among white-footed mice,” writes Fredebaugh, “I found a 6 percent seroprevalence of T. gondii antibodies, which was high, compared to other studies… Mice have a short life span, thus the findings that mice, including some juveniles, were seropositive implies an active infection and recent T. gondii contamination in RAP.” [1]

Actually, researchers at the University of Salford’s Centre for Parasitology and Disease Research found an overall prevalence of 59 percent among the “200 mice… trapped from within houses in the Cheetham Hill area of Manchester.” [5] More important, they observed “high levels of congenital transmission… with 75 percent of female mice transmitting parasites to foetuses prior to birth” (emphasis added), leading them to conclude:

“These high levels of congenital transmission in this wild population of mice, taken together with other recent data on congenital transmission in sheep, suggests that this phenomenon might be more widespread than previously thought.” [5]

Fredebaugh, by contrast, mentions congenital transmission only in passing.

In another paper, researchers from the Centre for Parasitology and Disease Research challenge the conventional wisdom surrounding the transmission of T. gondii (note: I’ve removed several in-text citations for the sake of readability):

“The life cycle is well understood and three principal routes are recognised: ingestion of infective oocysts shed by the cat, consumption of undercooked meat containing Toxoplasma cysts and congenital transmission. Traditionally, the main route of infection is considered to be infection by oocysts deposited in faeces by the definitive host, the cat. This would imply that a high degree of contact with cats would be required to explain the very high prevalences found in many animal and human populations. Toxoplasma gondii has been reported in a very wide range of species. However, this also includes some species that would not normally come into contact with cats.” [6]

“Congenital transmission,” suggest Hide et al., “offers another possible mode of parasite transmission in the absence of cats.” [6]

“One way of determining the importance of transmission routes is to investigate transmission in a system where one of the routes of transmission is absent or minimal. For example, the carnivorous route could be excluded as a source of transmission in a herbivorous species such as sheep.” [6]

On the basis of multiple studies (see [7] and [8] for details of the study with sheep), Hide and his colleagues make a compelling argument that congenital transmission “may be more important than previously considered.” [6]

Researchers working in “the remote, virtually cat-free, high arctic islands of Svalbard” (the northern-most part of Norway) [9] came to similar conclusions. Among the “arctic foxes (n  = 594), Svalbard reindeer (n  = 390), sibling voles (n  = 361), walruses (n  = 17), kittiwakes (n  = 58), barnacle geese (n  = 149), and glaucous gulls (n  = 27),” tested, Prestrud et al. found T. gondii only in the arctic foxes (257, or 43 percent), geese (11, or 7 percent), and walruses (1, or 6 percent). [10]

“The finding of no seropositive reindeer or sibling voles,” they argue, “indicates that infection by oocysts is not an important mode of transmission on Svalbard.” [10] (Also of interest is their suggestion that the seropositive walrus demonstrates “that T. gondii is present in the marine food chain.” [10])

So where does the T. gondii come from?

“…we suggest that T. gondii most likely is brought to Svalbard by migratory birds that become infected in temperate agricultural areas in the winter. However, marine sources of infection may exist. The high seroprevalence of T. gondii in the arctic fox population on Svalbard may be due to: (1) infection from migratory bird species through predation; (2) vertical transmission; and (3) tissue cyst transmission within the Svalbard ecosystem through scavenging and cannibalism. Together, these transmission routes cause a surprisingly high seroprevalence of T. gondii in a top predator living in an ecosystem with very few cats.” [10]

A study of polar bears is further evidence that “other options” do indeed exist:

“In Svalbard cats are banned by the Norwegian authorities; however, a few cats may exist in Russian mining communities. Thus, the possibility of cats as a source of infection for polar bears cannot totally be excluded. Nonetheless, the existing cat population is very limited and local, and the proportion of seropositive polar bears is rather high, indicating that polar bears are commonly infected with T. gondii. It would, therefore, be inconceivable to assume that the few cats would play a major role in the epidemiology of T. gondii in the vast high Arctic. This is apparently the case in East Greenland as well.” [11]

As with the single seropositive walrus discussed above, the results of the polar bear study indicates “that there might be marine sources of T. gondii in the region.” [9]

And finally, in a paper published in 2009, Polish researchers proposed yet another possibility. The “high incidence of T. gondii found, among others, in free-living ruminants,” write Sroka et al., “suggests a possibility of other, so far unknown, paths of transmission of this protozoan.”

“Due to the fact that they are widespread, and tick-bites occur frequently both in humans and in animals, ticks might play an important role in toxoplasmosis transmission.” [12] (Note: the authors acknowledge both support for, and differing opinions about, the possibility of such a pathway.)

Fredebaugh mentions none of this work in her thesis; none of the author’s names appear in her lengthy list of references (which, to most people, probably appears comprehensive). And still, both she and Mateus-Pinilla (who chaired Fredebaugh’s thesis advisory committee) are committed to the proposition that, as Jessup and Miller suggest, “the science points to cats.”

Greater (Mis)Understanding
Fredebaugh concludes her thesis by suggesting that her results:

“provide a greater understanding of how feral cats and wildlife utilize natural areas in a highly fragmented landscape and how feral cat land use may impact wildlife parasite prevalence both directly and indirectly. With this information, I more clearly understand the association between wildlife and feral cats and can suggest better control strategies for feral cat populations. Using wildlife with small spatial scale habitat use as sentinels of parasite presence in the environment, I can gain a better understanding of the epidemiologic impact of T. gondii in different urban and rural settings to prevent human and wildlife infection. Further collaborative research is needed to determine the most effective management strategy for feral cat populations in natural areas and to evaluate the direct relationship between feral cats and their impacts on wildlife.” [1]

At the risk of being overly critical, I’m suggesting that Fredebaugh’s work has not only failed to clarify our understanding of feral cats, wildlife, and the transmission of T. gondii, but has—due to its problematic methodology and incomplete literature review—actually made matters worse (especially with regard to possible “control strategies”).

•     •     •

Not surprisingly, The Wildlife Society’s CEO/Executive Director Michael Hutchins immediately endorsed the study (his summary conveniently omits the small sample size involved, the inverse relationship between “infected” cats and “infected” SHR mammals, and several other important aspects of the research) and its misguided conclusions, pleading:

“How many more peer reviewed studies do we need to convince leaders to change the way that we are currently dealing with the feral cat population explosion in this country?”

I don’t want to suggest that Hutchins and I are on the same page here, but omit the word explosion, and that’s pretty much the same question I’ve been asking for a while now.

Literature Cited
1. Fredebaugh, S.L., Habitat Overlap and Seroprevalence of Toxoplasma Gondii in Wildlife and Feral Cats in a Natural Area. 2010, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: Urbana-Champaign, IL. p. 88.

2. Dubey, J.P. and Jones, J.L., “Toxoplasma gondii infection in humans and animals in the United States.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2008. 38(11): p. 1257–1278.

3. Liberg, O., “Home range and territoriality in free-ranging house cats.” Acta Zoologica Fennica. 1984. 171: p. 283–285.

4. Jessup, D.A. and Miller, M.A., “The Trickle-Down Effect.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 62–64.

5. Marshall, P.A., et al., “Detection of high levels of congenital transmission of Toxoplasma gondii in natural urban populations of Mus domesticus.” Parasitology. 2004. 128(01): p. 39–42.

6. Hide, G., et al., “Evidence for high levels of vertical transmission in Toxoplasma gondii.” Parasitology. 2009. 136(Special Issue 14): p. 1877-1885.

7. Morley, E.K., et al., “Significant familial differences in the frequency of abortion and Toxoplasma gondii infection within a flock of Charollais sheep.” Parasitology. 2005. 131(02): p. 181–185.

8. Morley, E.K., et al., “Evidence that primary infection of Charollais sheep with Toxoplasma gondii may not prevent foetal infection and abortion in subsequent lambings.” Parasitology. 2008. 135(02): p. 169–173.

9. Prestrud, K.W., et al., “Direct high-resolution genotyping of Toxoplasma gondii in arctic foxes (Vulpes lagopus) in the remote arctic Svalbard archipelago reveals widespread clonal Type II lineage.” Veterinary Parasitology. 2008. 158(1-2): p. 121–128.

10. Prestrud, K.W., et al., “Serosurvey for Toxoplasma gondii in arctic foxes and possible sources of infection in the high Arctic of Svalbard.” Veterinary Parasitology. 2007. 150(1-2): p. 6–12.

11. Oksanen, A., et al., “Prevalence of Antibodies Against Toxoplasma gondii in Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus) From Svalbard and East Greenland.” Journal of Parasitology. 2009. 95(1): p. 89–94.

12. Sroka, J., Szymańska, J., and Wójcik-Fatla, A., “The occurrence of Toxoplasma gondii and Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato in Ixodes ricinus ticks from eastern Poland with the use of PCR.” Annals of Agricultural and Environmental Medicine. 2009. 16(2): p. 313–319.

Monessen, PA

Given her 15 years’ experience writing the paper’s Pet Tales column, one might expect the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Linda Wilson Fuoco to know something about free-roaming cats and TNR. Or, failing that, leverage her 30+ years as a newspaper reporter and find out.

If her latest column is any indication, though, she’s simply not interested.

The Roundup
Late last month, about 35 people attended a rally in Monessen, PA, protesting the roundup of 34 free-roaming cats earlier this year. Among the cats was Chloe, a spayed pet Lorrie Cheroki had owned for 12 years.

According to Cheroki and Charlotte Luko (who lost Stripe to the trapping), co-founders of the Coalition for a Humane Monessen, the roundup came without warning. “The city circumvented state law,” notes their April 5 letter to the editor, “and gave an independently contracted, self-proclaimed ‘animal control officer’ carte blanche to trap and kill the feral cat colonies or any cat that was running ‘at large.’”

“…there had never been any attempt to locate any of the owners of the cats, that no messages were returned to anybody concerning the cats, despite days of calling, and that the shelter—at the direction of their ‘animal control officer’—abandoned its policy to hold the cats for 48 hours before killing them.”

Meanwhile, Monessen Mayor Mary Jo Smith continues to defend her actions, winning the admiration of The Wildlife Society’s CEO/Executive Director Michael Hutchins.

In any case, it seems the project’s on hold, now that the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society has stopped accepting cats from Monessen.

So, who’s responsible? According to Fuoco, the answer’s clear:

“The deaths of the Monessen cats were caused by people who claim they love cats. The blame lies with people who allow un-spayed females and un-neutered males to roam freely so that they can fight and breed and contribute to the unending supply of unwanted kittens.”

What this has to do with managed colonies of sterilized cats—and sterilized pet cats—isn’t clear at all, however.

Stranger still is Fuoco’s assertion that “people who love birds and other wildlife really hate free-ranging cats.” As Carl Sagan said rather famously, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Fuoco provides none. Instead, she turns to Pete Marra:

“A study recently published in the Journal of Ornithology says such cats were the No. 1 killer ‘by a large margin’ of baby gray catbirds in three Washington, D.C., suburbs.”

Not surprisingly, Fuoco doesn’t get into any of the details—which, as I’ve pointed out repeatedly, only undermine Marra’s own extraordinary claims.

Misinformed Electorate
Of course, the more important question is not who’s to blame—or whether or not people who appreciate wildlife do indeed hate cats—but: How do we solve the problem?

According to Fuoco, 41 percent of people responding to a Post-Gazette online poll (the results of which I’ve been unable to find) prefer the “traditional” trap-and-kill approach to feral cat management (compared to 53 percent who prefer TNR).

No doubt these people believe that additional roundups are all that’s needed to eliminate the area’s feral cats—largely because they’ve never been told otherwise. Not by Marra or Hutchins, of course, but also not by Fuoco and her colleagues in the media—who, collectively, have an abysmal record where feral cats and TNR are concerned.

Would Fuoco’s readers “vote” differently if they knew that Mark Kumpf, former president of the National Animal Control Association, compared trap-and-kill to “bailing the ocean with a thimble”? Or if they knew the brutality—and expense—involved in “successful” eradication efforts, even on small, uninhabited islands?

Or if they knew that communities across the country (e.g., Peoria, AZ, Inverness, FL, etc.)—fed up with the expense and ineffectiveness of “traditional” methods—are turning to TNR.

In fact, the Volusia County (Florida) Animal Control Advisory Board recently reported that taxpayers had shelled out $2.8 million for feral cat roundups—or $87 per cat—between 2008 and 2010. With no end in sight. Hence, the board’s recommendation to adopt TNR.

Meanwhile, in Monessen, PA, city officials declined the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society’s offer to put on a TNR seminar.

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.

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