Jake and Lily

Letter from young child who loved Jake the cat

Over the past few months, I’ve heard from several people familiar with Nico Dauphine’s cat-trapping activities in and around Athens, GA, during her days as a PhD student at the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. Three years ago, in Athens-Clarke County Magistrate Court, Dauphine referred to her roundups as “community service.”:

“Oh, I do it basically as a community service, because I volunteered at Athens-Clarke County Animal Control for many years, and they’ve told me that one of their big problems that there’s no public service to pick up cats, but a lot of people have concerns about stray cats around.”

I recently heard from a former neighbor of Dauphine’s, whose family, like the defendant in the 2008 court case, was a victim of her “community service.” He agreed to share with me a letter he wrote—along with one written by one of his children (pictured above)—describing their experience:

“For more than six years my family has been consistently harassed by our neighbor Nico Dauphine… My wife and our children are fond of our pet cat. We have never owned more than two at a time, however we have been twice charged with a violation of the Athens leash law for our cat wandering into Nico’s yard. It was peculiar that when I requested to be shown the legal violation, that Patrick [Rives], Nico’s boyfriend, and head of animal control, handed a copy of the dog leash law with the word “dog” crossed out and “cat” hand-written in. This indicates to me that there is no specific violation concerning wandering licensed pet cats. Regardless, this household was fined twice, $80 on one occasion in 2008 or 09… and once for $50 in 2010… Additional circumstances involved in these cases would in most circumstances be considered legal entrapment, as Nico baited traps in her backyard with very aromatic bait to attract cats, then would take the cats away and drop them where they would be killed in traffic, as the local shelter would no longer accept cats.

On no occasion did Nico ever inform me that she had caught my cat. As a good neighbor I, on several occasions, asked Nico to alert us when our pet had wandered into her yard. I even suggested that she spray them with a garden hose to encourage them to stay away from her yard. Our children, who were six and eight years old at the time, had to give up their pet, which they had cared for since it was a very small kitten, as he (Jake) would get out and hide in the overgrown brush lot that is Nico’s yard. The children were heartbroken and have as a result learned to hate Nico, which is a behavior we try to minimize in our children.

My pet Siamese, who I had owned for more than six years, was a trained companion animal, as I am totally blind. My cat Lily was trained to pick up dropped items for me, warn me of obstacles in my path in the house, and alert me to people at the door. Nico trapped Lily once in a trap, without any water, on a weekend when Nico had been away in Florida for at least three days. I rescued Lily on that occasion, and threw the trap cage back across the fence into Nico’s yard. In the spring of 2010, Lily got out of my house. As she is chipped, I began calling all the shelters after she was missing for a full day. It was later reported back to me that Nico had told some neighbors that she had gotten rid of that cat. The distress and emotional drain of that incident continue to be costly to me. I had to withdraw from my PhD program as a result, where I was at the point of beginning data collection.

An additional factor about maintaining total control of our pet cat, which is nowhere in the U.S. required, as far as my research has revealed, is that… my wife has [cerebral palsy] and cannot walk adequately to chase down an active animal once it has escaped the house. The cruelty to these pets and to the owners—frequently young children—as a result, is beyond levels that decent society will normally tolerate.”

Isn’t this the same Nico Dauphine whose attorney, following her arrest in May, told the press that Dauphine’s “whole life is devoted to the care and welfare of animals”? The same Nico Dauphine who landed a prestigious position with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (part of the National Zoo), working alongside Peter Marra, conducting research “on [citizen participants’] free-roaming pet domestic cats”? And the same Nico Dauphine who was invited earlier this year by The Wildlife Professional to contribute to a special section of their Spring issue, “The Impacts of Free-roaming Cats” (in which Dauphine gives readers the ultimatum: “Pick One: Outdoor Cats or Conservation”)?

Of course. It’s also the same Nico Daupine who’s scheduled to appear in court October 24th, charged with attempted animal cruelty related to the poisoning of cats in her Washington, DC neighborhood.

Note: Patrick Rives did not respond to my e-mail request for comments about this story.

Devolution In the Classroom: Three Editions of F. Gill’s “Ornithology”

For more than 20 years now, Gill’s classic text has been required reading for ornithology students. While the book’s attention to conservation issues has expanded over its three editions, its treatment of the impact of cats on bird populations reflects an unsettling shift away from science.

The hoards of students descending upon college campuses this fall will—despite the rise of the eco-friendly PDF and a great variety of online content—more often than not find their arms and backpacks stuffed with old-school printed-and-bound books. Among them will be Frank Gill’s Ornithology, a regular offering on campus bookstore shelves for 21 years now.

Gill’s Ornithology is, I’m told by one Vox Felina reader, “considered (at least in these parts) the text regarding ornithology.” From what I can tell, it’s popularity as required reading for third- and fourth-year undergraduates isn’t limited to any one region of the country. Indeed, according to Amazon.com, the book is “the classic text for the undergraduate ornithology course.” Its third edition, published in 2007, “maintains the scope and expertise that made the book so popular while incorporating a tremendous amount of new research.”

Unfortunately, none of this new research made it into the section—a single paragraph—meant to address the “threat” of cats. Indeed, students interested in this topic are better off with the first edition, published 17 years earlier.

First Edition
“The numbers of deaths attributable directly or indirectly to human actions each year during the 1970s are staggering,” writes Gill in the 1990 edition of Ornithology, “but are apparently minor in relation to the population level.” [1] Citing a 1979 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report by Richard C. Banks, Gill continues:

“Human activities are responsible for roughly 270 million bird deaths every year in the continental United States. This seemingly huge number is less than two percent of the 10 to 20 billion birds that inhabit the continental United States and appears to have no serious effect on the viability of any of the populations themselves, unlike human destruction of breeding habitat and interference with reproduction… Miscellaneous accidents such as impact with golf balls, electrocution by transmission lines, and cat predation, may amount to 3.5 million deaths a year.” [1]

Predation by cats (included under “All Other Indirect”), then, according to Banks, represents about 1.3 percent of overall human-caused mortality—a loss of, at most, 0.04 percent of the U.S. bird population annually. By contrast, hunting and “collision with man-made objects” combine to make up “about 90 percent of the avian mortality documented” in Banks’ report. [2]

Second Edition
Five years later, in the second edition, the story changes dramatically. Gill discards Banks’ reference to cats and uses his 270 million figure purely for dramatic effect—the set-up for a punch line in the form of Rich Stallcup’s back-of-the-envelope guesswork (which Stallcup himself considered “probably a low estimate” [3]). Gill even includes a bar chart to drive the point home. (Apparently, he didn’t find Banks’ pie chart compelling enough to include in the his first edition of Ornithology.)

“Human activities are directly responsible for roughly 270 million bird deaths every year in the continental United States, about 2 percent of the 10 to 20 billion birds that inhabit the continental United States (Banks 1979)… Dwarfing these losses are those attributable to predation by pets. Domesticated cats in North America may kill 4 million songbirds every day, or perhaps over a billion birds each year (Stallcup 1991). Millions of hungrier, feral (wild) cats add to this toll, which is not included in the estimate of 270 million bird deaths each year.” [4]

But Stallcup’s “estimate”—published in the Observer, a publication of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory (which Stallcup co-founded)—lacks even the slightest scientific justification. In fact, “A Reversible Catastrophe” is little more than Stallcup’s advice—at once both folksy and sinister—about defending one’s garden from neighborhood cats (“…try a B-B or pellet gun. There is no need to kill or shoot toward the head, but a good sting on the rump seems memorable for most felines, and they seldom return for a third experience.” [3]).

“Let’s do a quick calculation, starting with numbers of pet cats. Population estimates of domestic house cats in the contiguous United States vary somewhat, but most agree the figure is between 50 and 60 million. On 3 March 1990, the San Francisco Chronicle gave the number as 57.9 million, ‘up 19 percent since 1984.’ For this assessment, let’s use 55 million.

“Some of these (maybe 10 percent) never go outside, and maybe another 10 percent are too old or too slow to catch anything. That leaves 44 million domestic cats hunting in gardens, marshes, fields, thickets, empty lots, and forests.

“It is impossible to know how many of those actively hunting animals catch how many birds, but the numbers are high. To be very conservative, say that only one in ten of those cats kills only one bird a day. This would yield a daily toll of 4.4 million songbirds!! Shocking, but true—and probably a low estimate (e.g., many cats get multiple birds a day).” [3]

It’s hardly surprising that Stallcup’s “estimate” grossly exaggerates predation rates since his research never went any further than the Chronicle’s mention of the U.S. pet cat population. His assumptions about how many of these cats go outdoors and their success as hunters stand in stark contrast to the trend suggested by pet owner survey results and various predation studies (some of which suggest that just 36–56 per­cent of cats are hunters. [5, 6])

(It was, no doubt, the “shocking” aspect of Stallcup’s numbers that appealed to Nico Dauphine, who, in her “Apocalypse Meow” presentation, acknowledges that Stallcup “didn’t do a study” but nevertheless concludes, inexplicably, that his “is a conservative estimate.”)

Unnatural Selection
So, how did Stallcup’s indefensible “estimate” make it into the standard ornithology textbook? It was, Gill told me recently by e-mail, “one of the few refs [he] could find.”

Referring to what he calls “the great cat debates,” Gill writes: “I claim no great expertise or authority… now or in the ancient histories of early textbook editions.”

Fair enough. Writing, editing, and revising multiple editions of Ornithology was an enormous undertaking—one for which Gill deserves much credit. But there was, available at the time, work by scientists who, unlike Stallcup actually studied predation. Indeed, even before the first edition of Ornithology was published, a great deal of work had been done—and compiled in the first edition (published in 1988) of The Domestic Cat: The Biology of Its Behaviour. In it, Mike Fitzgerald, one of the world’s foremost experts on the subject, reviewed 61 predation studies, concluding:

“Predation on songbirds by domestic cats is noticed because it takes place during the day, whereas much predation on mammals takes place at night. People generally enjoy having songbirds in their gardens, and providing food in winter may increase the numbers of birds. When cats kill some of these birds, people assume that cats are reducing the bird populations. However, although this predation is so visible, and unpopular, remarkably little attempt has been made to assess its impact on populations of songbirds.” [7]

Two years later, Fitzgerald had a brief letter on the subject published in Environmental Conservation. His comments are as relevant today as they were some 21 years ago:

“Before embarking… on programmes to educate the public so that they will pressure elected officials to act on ‘cat delinquency,’ we must discover what effect domestic cats really have on the wildlife populations in various urban localities—not merely what effect we assume they have on the basis of prey brought home by cats in one English village. Although we know what prey cats bring home in a few urban localities, we do not know what effect this predation has on the prey populations, or how the wildlife populations might differ if cat populations were reduced. Until we have this information we cannot ensure sound educational programmes. We should perhaps also try to discover what values urban people place on their wildlife and their pets—it seems likely that many of the people who love their pets also treasure the wildlife.” [8]

Surely, Fitzgerald’s work would have been more appropriate for, and useful to, Ornithology’s audience. Instead, unsuspecting undergraduates were treated to biased editorializing dressed up as science.

Third Edition
Gill tells me I wasn’t the first to “react… to the Stallcup paper,” and that the push-back was sufficient to prompt its removal from the third edition. Gone, too, is Banks’ report. Instead, Gill employs the now-common kitchen-sink approach, rattling off a litany of sins—borrowed, it seems, from the American Bird Conservancy.

“Domestic house cats in North America, for example, may kill hundreds of millions of songbirds each year. Farmland and barnyard cats kill roughly 39 million birds (and lots of mice, too) each year. Millions of hungrier, feral (wild) cats add to this toll. There is a common-sense solution. Letting cats roam outside the house shortens their expected life span from 12.5 years to 2.5 years and increases their risk of rabies, distemper, toxoplasmosis, and parasites. Evidence is mounting that cats help to spread diseases such as Asian bird flu. The message is clear: Keep pet cats inside for their own well being and for the future of backyard birds (http://www.abcbirds.org/cats/).” [9]

That 39 million birds figure, of course, comes from the infamous “Wisconsin Study,” the authors of which claim: “The most reasonable estimates indicate that 39 million birds are killed in the state each year.” [10] (The “reason” is, in fact, notably absent from Coleman and Temple’s figure—which can be traced to “a single free-ranging Siamese cat” that frequented a rural residential property in New Kent County, Virginia. [11])

Its implied use as a nationwide estimate, Gill says, was “a lapse.” The more serious lapse by far, though—not in copyediting but in judgment—is Gill’s endorsement of ABC.

A Constructive Approach
While he readily admits that he’s “not tracked nor verified [ABC’s] stats (and have paid precious little attention to the issue for almost 10 years),” Gill’s support is unwavering.

“ABC has taken a lead role on the cat-bird issues, generally with a constructive approach, which I applaud, given how polarized the debates can be.”

Constructive? As I’ve pointed out repeatedly, no organization has been more effective at working the anti-TNR pseudoscience into a message neatly packaged for the mainstream media, and eventual consumption by the general public. (The Wildlife Society, though, which shares ABC’s penchant for bumper-sticker science and public discourse via sound-bites, is at least as eager to participate in the witch-hunt.)

Among the more glaring examples: senior policy advisor, Steve Holmer’s claim, quoted in the Los Angeles Times, that “there are about… 160 million feral cats [nationwide]” [12]; ABC’s promotion of “Feral Cats and Their Management,” with its absurd $17B economic impact “estimate,” published last year by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; and the numerous errors, exaggerations, and misrepresentations that persist in their brochure Domestic Cat Predation On Birds and Other Wildlife (PDF)—including a rather significant blunder that Ellen Perry Berkeley brought to light seven years ago in her book TNR Past, Present and Future. [13]

A constructive approach begins, by necessity, with sound science. But when it comes to the issue of free-roaming cats, at least, ABC has demonstrated neither an interest nor an aptitude.

So how does such an organization end up as the sole resource listed in a widely-used undergraduate textbook? (One written by the same man who served as the National Audubon Society’s chief scientist from 1996 to 2005, no less.) What’s next—physiology and nutrition books directing students to the PepsiCo Website for their hydration lesson? Psychology texts deferring to Pfizer (makers of Zoloft) on selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors?

Frank Gill’s View
Gill never responded to my follow-up questions for this post. Still, his comments during our first exchange shed some light on his general attitude toward cats. “I have owned some wonderful (Siamese) cats in my life,” Gill explained, “so I do view them positively in many ways. But when they are dumped near a research station by returning vacationers and then eat the ringed birds I have been studying for many years, I take a different view.”

He followed this last sentence with a smiley-face emoticon, though the joke was clearly wasted on me.

“My informal view now is that managed feral cat colonies are potentially a serious threat to local bird populations, including both migrants that stopover in urban parks and endangered shorebird colonies. Sustaining those colonies should be prohibited generally. The return of coyotes to suburban landscapes is most welcome both to add a top predator to these ecosystems and to counter the numbers of feral cats as well as other midsized predators that impact breeding productivity. Just their presence in a neighborhood should persuade cat owners to keep their cats safely inside!”

•     •     •

It would be a mistake to suggest that the sloppy, flawed research I spend so much time critiquing can be traced directly to the second or third editions of Frank Gill’s textbook. Still, for many students, the path to a degree in ornithology (and onto related graduate degrees) leads through the book of the same name. As such, Ornithology may well be their first exposure to issues of population dynamics, conservation, and the like.

First impressions tend to be lasting ones. If, as a wide-eyed undergraduate, you “learned” that cats kill up to four million songbirds every day, how might that shape your future studies? Your career? What if you “learned” that such predation takes a $17B toll on the country annually?

Considering the tremendous burden we’re placing on future generations, why would we hobble them—before they even get started, really—with such misinformation and bias? They’ve got more than enough on their plate without having to fact-check their textbooks, too.

Literature Cited
1. Gill, F.B., Ornithology. 1st ed. 1990, New York: W.H. Freeman and Company. 660.

2. Banks, R.C., Special Scientific Report—Wildlife No. 215. 1979, United States Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service: Washington, DC. p. 16.

3. Stallcup, R., “A reversible catastrophe.” Observer 91. 1991(Spring/Summer): p. 8–9. http://www.prbo.org/cms/print.php?mid=530

http://www.prbo.org/cms/docs/observer/focus/focus29cats1991.pdf

4. Gill, F.B., Ornithology. 2nd ed. 1995, New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

5. Perry, G. Cats—perceptions and misconceptions: Two recent studies about cats and how people see them. in Urban Animal Management Conference. 1999.

6. Millwood, J. and Heaton, T. The metropolitan domestic cat. in Urban Animal Management Conference. 1994.

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

8. Fitzgerald, B.M., “Is Cat Control Needed to Protect Urban Wildlife? Environmental Conservation. 1990. 17(02): p. 168-169. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0376892900031970

9. Gill, F.B., Ornithology. 3rd ed. 2007, New York: W.H. Freeman. xxvi, 758 p.

10. Coleman, J.S., Temple, S.A., and Craven, S.R., “Cats and Wildlife: A Conservation Dilemma.” 1997. http://forestandwildlifeecology.wisc.edu/wl_extension/catfly3.htm

11. Mitchell, J.C. and Beck, R.A., “Free-Ranging Domestic Cat Predation on Native Vertebrates in Rural and Urban Virginia.” Virginia Journal of Science. 1992. 43(1B): p. 197–207. www.vacadsci.org/vjsArchives/v43/43-1B/43-197.pdf

12. Yoshino, K. (2010, January 17). A catfight over neutering program. Los Angeles Times, from http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-feral-cats17-2010jan17,0,1225635.story

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

Community Service

On October 24th, Nico Dauphine is scheduled to appear in court, charged with attempted animal cruelty related to the poisoning of cats in her Columbia Heights neighborhood. (The latest continuance, requested by the prosecution and granted earlier this month, pushes the trial date back two full months.)

It won’t be the first time her “involvement” with cats has landed her in front of a judge.

Three years ago, while she was a PhD student at the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, Dauphine was in an Athens-Clarke County court seeking a judgment against a woman whose cat she’d trapped and turned in to the Athens Area Humane Society. I don’t know that her testimony will have any bearing on the case brought by the Washington Humane Society, but it speaks volumes about her attitude toward cats—owned and feral alike (and contradicts the statement made by her attorney following her arrest in May: “her whole life is devoted to the care and welfare of animals”).

Her testimony also raises additional questions about her willingness and/or ability to be truthful, even under oath. (I say additional because, as I’ve pointed out more than once, Dauphine’s professional work is simply indefensible in terms of its scientific underpinnings—as she demonstrated in the collection of “facts” she complied for the Spring Issue of The Wildlife Professional and in her infamous “Apocalypse Meow” presentation to an audience of students and local birders at Warnell in 2009.)

The Case
What follows is an edited version of the transcribed court proceedings—focusing on testimony by both Dauphine and the witness for the defense. The names of the people involved (other than Dauphine’s, obviously) have been omitted (as denoted by […]) throughout. (Note: As a matter of convenience, I refer to the cat’s owner as the defendant in the case; in fact, I’m not sure that’s the correct term for a dispute brought before a magistrate court.)

A little background: The defendant’s cat (its rhinestone color clearly indicating that it was somebody’s pet) had been missing for 16 days when Dauphine turned it in to the Athens Area Humane Society. Out of frustration and a determination to make public Dauphine’s trapping activities, the defendant created a blog/website (taken down voluntarily after the court hearing “to make it all go away,” as one of the people involved put it to me recently).

Dauphine’s Testimony I
The proceedings began with the judge magistrate explaining to the defendant the process and the options available to her:

…my decision today is to decide whether or not to issue an arrest warrant against you for simple assault, for terroristic threats, or for any other criminal activity that I hear, or to issue a good behavior bond against you.

Now, I could not arrest you for anything, hold the matter under advisement and just order you to do certain things and not do certain things, and as long as you abide by the terms of my order, you’ll not be arrested—but if you violate my order, then I can arrest you on these charges and any other future charges that might happen. Or I could decide that you did nothing wrong and dismiss it altogether. Those are the choices that I have this morning. Do you understand those choices?

The defendant agreed, and both parties were sworn in. Dauphine then described the series of events that led to her appearance in court—beginning with her April 15 visit to the Athens Area Humane Society, when she turned in eight cats—one of which belonged to the defendant. There, she was “confronted” by an AAHS volunteer who was “very aggressive and angry.”

“… she said that she didn’t want me to bring cats there, and that… if any of the cats belonged to them, they would be very angry. She said she was going to try to come after me for animal cruelty, and made a number of other threats.”

Three days later, Dauphine received a call from AAHS.

“They said that that morning, Friday morning the 18th, they had gotten a call from a woman who lived in an apartment complex on Barnett Shoals—that this woman had picked up a cat… that I had trapped… They warned me that this person might come to my house and hurt me.”

Dauphine then described her subsequent interactions with AAHS and the police, as well as her discovery of the blog created by the defendant. The judge magistrate then asked Dauphine about her trapping activities.

Judge Magistrate: So, have you ever gone onto the property at Cambridge Apartments and set traps for animals?
Nico Dauphine: I have not trapped there. I have several friends there and have been on the property many, many times.

JM: But you never set a trap for animals?
ND: Correct.

JM: And so the animals that you took to the shelter on April 15—how many were there?
ND: There were—I had eight cats with me.

JM: Eight cats?
ND: That’s correct.

JM: And where did you get them from?
ND: They were from—one or two were from Tivoli Apartments.

JM: Timberly?
ND: Tivoli Apartments, which is on Cedar Shoals: T-I-V-O-L-I.

JM: Oh yeah, and how did you get them?
ND: You set humane live traps and you put food in them and the animal goes in.

JM: Do you live at Tivoli?
ND: No, my friend […] lives at Tivoli.

JM: So why would you do that at Tivoli if you don’t live there?
ND: Oh, I do it basically as a community service, because I volunteered at Athens-Clarke County Animal Control for many years, and they’ve told me that one of their big problems that there’s no public service to pick up cats, but a lot of people have concerns about stray cats around.

JM: So it’s your mission to just go to apartment complexes and pick up stray cats and take them to the animal shelter?
ND: My mission is, when people—well, I mean, I have other things that I do—

JM: Let’s just talk about this one.
ND: Okay. If people ask me—I’ve had a number of people ask me to help them if they have cats on their property.

JM: Are you doing it for the landlord or are you doing it for the tenants?
ND: I’m doing—well yeah, either way.

JM: But suppose the cats belong to somebody?
ND: Well then the animal—they can be reunited with their animals at the animal shelter.

JM: Why do you make people go through that though? I don’t understand. You just go from apartment to apartment just taking up animals and taking them to the shelter?
ND: Only if people are concerned about cats there and they ask me to help them.

JM: So you took eight on April 15th—which, you got one to two from Tivoli, and where did the others come from?
ND: A couple came from my neighborhood.

JM: Which is where?
ND: East Meadow Drive…

JM: And—
ND: And the others came from off Peter Street at an address of a colleague of mine there.

JM: So who gave you permission on Peter Street?
ND: The colleague of mine.

JM: And was that—the animal is picked up at your colleague’s house, or just along the street?
ND: Yeah—no, at his house he has a lot of stray cats that come around. He doesn’t know.

JM: And so he doesn’t want them there so you set the humane traps and—
ND: That’s correct.

JM: —pick up the animals and take them to the shelter?
ND: That’s correct.

JM: That’s a new one for me. Okay. So this person that created this website is accusing you of having taken animals from Cambridge Apartments?
ND: Mmm-hmm.

JM: So have you ever set at trap at Cambridge Apartments to pick up animals from there?
ND: No, I haven’t.

JM: Okay. And the website accuses you of having set traps for animals for years. So have you been doing this for quite a while?
ND: No. I’ve only been doing it—I’ve done it at my own home which I own for about two years but I’ve only started helping other people if they need help for about six or eight months, something like that.

JM: Okay.
ND: I’ve also had the police ask me for help because it’s—there is no public service, and sometimes people leave a house with 50 cats. This happened recently. I know a number of people in the same situation.

(A search of the Banner-Herald for the first half of 2008 reveals only one possible incident fitting Dauphine’s description: “Wilford Bradford Sims, 48, pleaded guilty to 51 counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty… for leaving dozens of cats to fend for themselves in a house he abandoned” in the fall of 2007. According to the paper, although “investigators at the time called it one of the worst cases of animal neglect they’d seen,” all of the cats “found homes, including several that became barn cats, according to the Humane Society.” [1] Was Dauphine implying that she was somehow involved?)

JM: So do you work for the animal shelter, or you do this on your own?
ND: I work for the Forestry School and so we have access to humane live traps through them and—

JM: You use their traps?
ND: Uh-huh, and I’ve done a lot of volunteer work for Animal Control, and that’s how I learned about the whole situation and problem.

JM: Yeah.
ND: They say they get calls all the time—people concerned about cats and they want them to be picked up so they can be—they can find homes, they can get adopted, they can be reunited with their owners, but there’s no public service to do that.

JM: So are you aware of any cats that you’ve picked up that have been killed by the—because they had too many because—
ND: The—you know—the Athens Area Humane Society has a policy of not—

JM: Euthanizing them?
ND: —they do not euthanize socialized cats, period. So there’s never been a socialized cat that I’ve picked up that’s been killed. In fact, by contrast, I think 24 cats I’ve brought in have been able to find homes—new homes—be adopted because they were strays and they were abandoned.

A few comments are in order at this point:

Dauphine fails to acknowledge that pets brought in to be “reunited” with their owners were taking up the shelter’s limited space, thus increasing the likelihood that cats would be killed. [2, 3]

And she never admits that any cats deemed feral—correctly or not—would almost certainly be killed. Instead, she dances around the issue, playing games with the judge magistrate, who, it’s clear, is unfamiliar with the issue (hence, she never asks what happens to the unsocialized cats brought to AAHS).

In fact, when AAHS backed out of its contract with the county a year later, it was due to “philosophical differences” concerning feral cats, according to the Athens Banner-Herald.

Keeping what is essentially a wild animal in a cage for five business days—the amount of time the county requires for any animal it picks up—is cruel and futile, because they rarely are adopted, [AAHS Executive Director Crystal] Evans said. “We would argue, for a truly feral animal, that’s inhumane,” she said. “These are cats that have had basically no human contact, so basically what you’re doing is scaring them to death for seven days and then killing them.” [2]

There’s an irony to all of this.

I’m told by people familiar with the situation that AAHS’s decision to cancel its contract was, in fact, largely the result of Dauphine’s “community service” activities. She had broken the system. And once AAHS canceled its contract, there was no place to take feral cats—a predicament that the Athens-Clarke Commission resolved, in 2010, by voting 9–1 in favor of TNR. [4]

In other words, Athens’ decision to adopt TNR, which Dauphine herself describes as “a resounding defeat for science—and for wildlife conservation,” [5] got a major push from one of its harshest critics.

As it happens, Dauphine was interviewed for the 2009 Banner-Herald story, arguing, “There’s very little or, arguably, no evidence at all that [TNR is] effective. To me, it’s just a lot about people’s discomfort with death and people not wanting to deal with it.”

Was Dauphine suggesting that she has no such qualms?

Dauphine’s Testimony II
Dauphine wrapped up her testimony by explaining her rationale for trapping the defendant’s cat. (She never explains how long she had the cat; nor does she deny having the cat for 16 days.)

…my friends in the Cambridge Apartments were telling me that it was not the first time that cat was lost. Apparently it happened again, so the cat—there is a leash law in Athens and it applies to all domestic animals.

So all domestic animals are supposed to be under their owner’s control at all times. A lot of people don’t pay attention to that with cats. With dogs—obviously if your dog is running around the Animal Control will pick it up, but this is what they can’t do with cats because they don’t have the manpower.

But some—my friends at Cambridge told me that there have been a number of missing lost cat signs, and that particular cat that the website was about was lost again about a month later…

(I’ve spoken with the defense witness, and he tells me that the cat did not go missing again—and that this is just one part of Dauphine’s testimony that “doesn’t compute.”)

JM: Okay. And so you want me to arrest […] on a good behavior bond because you fear for your safety?
ND: I was told by the Humane Society that this person was going to come and physically hurt me, or that they were talking about it. And also on the websites that they were posting on they said that people were following me or they had people following me. They’re kind of vague. They’re not explicit threats but—

JM: But I have to arrest based on your fear of […], not based on what other people might do.
ND: Right, right.

JM: So tell me why you’re fearful of […]
ND: Well, I don’t know her, but she seems to be obsessed with looking up information about me, with contacting people about me. She created an entire website about—that I’m supposedly evil, and all of these crimes that I’ve supposedly committed, when I have absolutely no relationship with her at all. And when I spoke to the police about it, he said that this pattern of behavior makes him worried that she might come and do something to me, so he advised me to get them to leave me alone.

JM: You didn’t have your lawyer contact her, or anybody contact her? Did the police contact her?
ND: I talked to an officer that said he would have his partner talk with her, but I don’t—

JM: Did you get the result of that?
ND: I wasn’t able—I tried to follow up with the police and I wasn’t able to get a communication from them. I did have—I did speak to a lawyer about a defamation case and he—

JM: That’s civil though.
ND: That’s right, yes, so that’s a separate case—so the lawyer contacted them about the website or about the civil case but not—I did talk to several police officers, and they both advised me to file the bond—the good behavior bond—to keep her from continuing to threaten me.

So I don’t know. It’s hard for me to know because I don’t—I don’t scare easily but I find it very disturbing that somebody is working this hard to create a lot of negative propaganda about me.

JM: Has anything happened since May or April?
ND: Since May—since May 18, I’m not aware of anything further.

JM: Anything else you want to tell me?
ND: Not unless you have questions.

JM: [Addressing the defendant]… Do you have any questions you want to ask her?

Defendant: Did the person on the phone with the Athens Area Humane Society identify themselves?
ND: It was […] the Director who called me…

Defendant: The person [who] made threats indirectly to you to—did they identify themselves on the phone?
ND: The Director of the Humane Society called me… The Assistant Director… took the call, and she told me details about this person.

JM: Did she give the person’s name is the question.
ND: She did not give the name.

Defendant: Who took the call again?
ND: […]

JM: Any other questions?
Defendant: No, ma’am.

Two individuals testified on behalf of Dauphine, essentially agreeing with her account of the telephone call she received from AAHS informing her that the defendant (whose name was withheld) was quite angry with Dauphine.

The Defense
A single witness testified on behalf of the defendant.

Defense Witness: On March 31, 2008 our cat went missing. He was gone for a couple of hours. We went outside looking for him and—there’s a forest around our apartment complex owned by some different properties—and in the course of looking for him we noticed some traps that were set for cats—with cat food in them—in the forest.

And, you know, silly us, being naïve and not knowing that there were people that did this out there, we thought it was a humane organization and that probably our cat—he loves wet food—probably got trapped by these people. So we put some notes on the cages saying, “If you have our cat, please call us back,” and we went to dinner.

We came back about an hour later and, lo and behold, the traps were gone and we never got a phone call from these people whatsoever and, in fact, I had noticed when I was looking at the traps that there’s no identifying markers on the traps at all either. So I started calling around the humane organizations around town that are responsible for trapping cats. We talked to all of them. Every one of them said—we called these different organizations and they—all of them say, No, all of our traps have signs on them, have labels on them, and we haven’t been trapping at your apartment complex. So this is the first time that we really start to get suspicious like, Whoa, something’s happening here, you know, What’s going on?

So we go to the Athens Area Humane Society—well, we put up signs everywhere. We go to the Athens Area Humane Society and they tell us, you know, that there’s what they described as a crazy lady who has been trapping cats for about three years here in Athens, including people’s pets. That was their words, not my words, and, you know, we’re shocked at this.

Actually a couple of nights before, we had been looking online—like, who traps cats illegally in town, and we had read that maybe it was dog catchers. So we spent all night bawling, thinking our cat had met this horrible death, but when we find out that it’s this woman that eventually turns them in to the Humane Society, we were encouraged—but we wanted to get our cat back as quickly as possible because at this point it had been over a week.

And finally about, you know, through the course of this time, some people at the Humane Society and friends of theirs were—they wouldn’t tell us who the person was because of confidentiality reasons—but started telling us some information about where that this person had been trapping. So what we started to do was go to the Wal-Mart parking lot which was one of the places and—that they told us—and the Carmike Theater parking lot, and hoped to catch this person in the act and get some pictures of it so we could prove that she was criminally trespassing, and that—and then maybe we could force her to give our cat back.

… we also had a person […] who was helping us do this, who was also staying at some of these—in some of these parking lots—helping to catch the person. Well, lo and behold, 16 days after our cat is gone, Nico turns in our cat to the Athens Area Humane Society—surprise, surprise, it was trapped.

JM: How do you know Nico does that?
DW: Because we were—well the Humane Society takes the names when she turns them in and I also saw her there when—

JM: You saw her there with your cat?
DW: Yes, well […] was staking out the Humane Society and saw her turn in my cat, and when I got there, she was—Nico was there filling out the paperwork for the cats that she had turned in, and I got my cat back immediately and they said, “Yes, he had just been turned in.”

She claimed that—Nico claimed that she caught him five days prior at Tivoli Apartments. So basically there’s one of two explanations here. One: she caught—our cat wandered for 10 days across multiple, and busy, streets—this cat that hardly ever goes outside—and happened to get caught by the person that we were looking for.

Or, the person knew we were onto them, knew they were trespassing—we have signed statements from both the YWCA and the Cambridge Apartments where we found the traps that she—they have never allowed someone to trap there—knew that they were trespassing, and so freaked out, and kept the cat and didn’t call us. It just, to me, makes sense that she had our cat for 16 days. Either way, she caught our cat.

…We’ve never made any violent, physical threats to her. I contacted the police and asked them if there was enough of a case to get her on trespassing, et cetera, and they said there’s probably not enough for a criminal case but you have a pretty strong civil case.

They said also one of the officers offered to go over to her house and offer her a warning on criminal trespass, which he told me he did, and he said that Nico said, “I’m sorry, and I promise I won’t be trespassing,” or whatever.

JM: Do you know anything about [the blog]?
DW: Yes, we helped form the blog.  The blog is just an account of everything that I have told you here today.

JM: That’s not very nice. Why would y’all do something like that?
DW: Because we think there’s a public right to know that this person—we learned from the Humane Society this person has been trapping people’s pets for three years, many of which get euthanized because she dumps so many off at the Humane Society.

JM: So you think that’s okay to—
DW: I think the public has a right to know that she’s been doing this.

JM: So you think that that’s okay to say that she’s an evil person by putting this on here?
DW: Well, the evil is hyperbole, but everything else on there is our story, is exactly what happened.

JM: You think it’s okay to do this?
DW: Yeah, I think it’s public right to know. I think it’s called freedom of speech, and this is not a libel case.

JM: It’s almost like everybody gets to decide what their own rights are. She gets to decide she has the right to decide that she’s an evil person, and y’all just publicly display the things that y’all just—
DW: Well, this is not a libel case.

JM: Don’t talk when I talk.
DW: I’m sorry.

JM: Okay, because I’m mad at both sides. This is kind of ridiculous—
DW: It is.

JM: —to waste my time with her picking up cats, and y’all saying that she took your cat.  It’s kind of crazy, and I just don’t understand why people think they have the right to just make up their own rules. You get the right to say she’s evil; she gets the right to take cats. It’s kind of crazy to me.
DW: Well yeah, I mean, the evil thing may be—admittedly—is a little exaggerated, but if you read the rest of the blog everything else is exactly what I’ve just said, and I do think that, like you said, there is a reason why what she’s doing would make people mad. I mean, our cat was gone for 16 days.

We cried about it. When we got him back, by the way, he had five days worth of fecal matter impacted in his intestines. We have the veterinary bill. We had to take him to the vet to have the fecal matter removed from his intestines. It was one of the most horrific experiences of my life, where I had to dig poop out of my cat because he had been trapped in a cage for 16 days because of this woman and now we’re the ones on trial?

I mean we’ve contacted lawyers, we contacted the police, we have done this legally and professionally at every step of the way, and now suddenly we’re the ones on trial?  This is ridiculous. I can’t—

JM: So did […] call the Humane Society and threaten Ms. Dauphine? Do you know?
DW: I have no idea—no, I don’t think so.

JM: That’s why you’re here, because the Humane Society said someone threatened her.
DW: When we talked to the Humane Society we didn’t know her name at all.  So this is—

JM: So how did you find out her name?  From […]?
DW: No, we found out her name when she turned in our cat.

JM: Okay. So you don’t know who threatened her?
DW: No, and we didn’t know her name, so if […] did make a threat before when we talked to the Humane Society people, she was threatening a generic person who trapped our cat, not Nico specifically.

JM: Well somehow somebody found where Ms. Nico lived based on her address from somebody […] Do you know anything about that?
DW: No, no, no, no. That’s not true at all. We found out how she lived because I followed her home the day she turned in my cat.

JM: You followed her home? You think that’s okay.
DW: I think when we’re trying to gather evidence for a criminal case about her trespassing.

JM: That’s what the police are for.
DW: The police said we—actually the police officer encouraged me to—he said trespassing, you have to catch them in the act, and he encouraged me to follow her and to try to catch them in the act of doing this and trespassing.

After a short break, the judge magistrate returned with her decision.

JM: …I was leaning toward arresting both of you, because I think there is a reason why the law allows police officers to do certain things that the public is prohibited from doing. Ms. Dauphine, I think your cause is admirable, but I also think it’s dangerous. I don’t think you have the right to go onto other people’s property to trap animals because there is no public service to do that.

Now the [defense] witness […] testified to three agencies that he knew that did what you do on your own, and that they seem to have some protocol for doing that. I don’t know if that’s true or not, and I really—to be honest with you—don’t really care, but what I do know is that if you try to do something on your own that involves other people’s property you get yourself in trouble for doing that, either civilly because you took their animal without consent or criminally because you trespassed on somebody else’s property in order to do what you think is your mission to do.

So I’m not saying that it’s not a worthy cause, and that it shouldn’t be done—because I don’t care that much for stray animals either—but I think you’ve put yourself in a very difficult position by doing something like that, so I’m not going to arrest you for it, but I just think you need to think about what you’re doing and how you potentially get yourself in trouble for doing it.

On the other hand [Defendant], you’re not innocent in all this either. Just because someone does something that you think is wrong, in terms of taking your animal, you don’t have the right to be a vigilante any more than she does.

You don’t have the right to have […] stalk her, or follow her to find out where she lives, or who she is. You don’t have the right to put evil things on the Internet just because you feel like she does things wrong.

There are proper procedures for that. You could have brought her in this proceeding, just like she brought you, to say to me, Stop her from doing this; I think that’s wrong—she’s trespassing on people’s property, she’s taking animals that doesn’t belong to her.

I can stop her. The law doesn’t give you the right to take matters into your own hands and stop her from doing something that she thinks is wrong. So my policy has always been if you both are wrong, and I find legally that you both did what was wrong in the eyes of the law, that I either arrest both of you or I arrest neither one of you.

And I don’t think justice will be served by arresting both of you, so I’m not going to arrest either one of you. But I’m going to warn you as well that this is not the proper way to handle something as a citizen… to make evil comments about people on the Internet just because they did something you don’t like.

There is an application for arrest warrant procedure—you fill out the application, you bring her here, and let me fuss at her or let me arrest her, because you don’t take matters into your own hands… I don’t think that’s the proper way to handle it.

If the police told you that […] should follow her to find out where she lives, you send that police officer to me and I’ll chastise him, because that’s not the proper way to handle proceedings—to follow her to find out where she lives so that you can do whatever you think you ought to be able to do.

So, still, I’m mad at both of you all but I’m going send you on your way…

Civic Duty
Three months after her court appearance—with the TNR debate heating up in Athens—Dauphine weighed in publicly, writing a letter to the editor of Flagpole, Athens’ alternative weekly newspaper.

In it, she touches on all the usual talking points (e.g., cats are non-native, exaggerated predation rates, etc.), and portrays her trapping as a civic duty—done in the best interest not only of the community, but also of the cats. Dauphine also suggests—contrary to what she admitted in court—that her trapping efforts were limited to her own property.

“After reflecting on my responsibilities as a citizen and learning the relevant laws, I began trapping what turned out to be dozens of cats on my property. The vast majority were feral and stray and some of them were suffering from infectious diseases…

I’m all for enjoyment and finding a sense of purpose, but I think we can agree that we all need to do that without infringing on everyone else’s rights and causing mass destruction. If helping feral cats is your thing, that’s great—go out feed them and care for them to your heart’s content in your own house or an enclosure on your own property, where they will be safe from harm and will also not harm other animals or people…

It’s a free country, as the saying goes, but we are also a nation of laws. I do not have the freedom to release dogs, horses, goats, cattle, snakes, tigers or bears on my neighbors’ property. Likewise, I don’t want other people releasing animals, including cats, feral or otherwise, on mine. Cats are beautiful animals that make wonderful pets, but they were domesticated thousands of years ago—they’re not wild, they don’t belong outside roaming and killing native wildlife, and your cats definitely don’t belong on my property…” [6]

In what can only be described as gross hypocrisy, Dauphine closes her letter by arguing that “TNR is not respectful of law, private property, or citizens’ rights.” [6] Had she been more respectful of the law, private property, and citizens’ rights, Dauphine wouldn’t have found herself in court three months earlier.

Or—if the Washington Humane Society investigators are right—once again, three years later.

Literature Cited
1. Johnson, J. (2008, February 2). Man who abandoned cats to serve 20 days. Athens Banner-Herald (GA),

2. Aued, B. (2009, March 28). Feral feline problem now life-or-death issue. Athens Banner-Herald, from http://onlineathens.com/stories/032809/new_415448061.shtml

3. Aued, B. (2009, Auguest 3). Athens Area Humane Society moves to new digs in Watkinsville. Athens Banner-Herald, from http://onlineathens.com/stories/080409/new_475853412.shtml

4. Aued, B. (2010, March 3). TNR approved in 9-1 vote. Athens Banner-Herald, from http://www.onlineathens.com/stories/030310/new_569880708.shtml

5. Dauphine, N. and Cooper, R.J., “Pick One: Outdoor Cats or Conservation.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 50–56.

6. Dauphine, N. (2008, October 15). Letter to the Editor. Flagpole, from http://flagpole.com/Weekly/Letters/FeralCats.15Oct08

Fantasy Islands

Thirty-three: that’s how many species of birds have been driven to extinction by feral cats. At least.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve stumbled across references to this figure over the past couple years. Not once, however, have I seen more than one species (usually the Stephens Island Wren, its story having been twisted into mythology over the years) mentioned as an example.

Which species? From where? Under what circumstances?

I seemed to be the only one interested in these questions. Indeed—as is often the case with such “facts”—the impact of the 33 extinctions reference increases the further it’s separated from its original context.

Recent Sightings
The most recent reference comes from Kiera Butler’s article in the July/August issue of Mother Jones. Domestic cats, Butler writes, are “responsible for at least 33 avian extinctions worldwide.” [1]

The authors of Feral Cats and Their Management, published last year by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, qualified the role of cats somewhat: “While loss of habitat is the primary cause of species extinctions, cats are responsible for the extinction of at least 33 species of birds around the world.” [2]

Nico Dauphine mentioned the 33 extinctions in her now-infamous “Apocalypse Meow” presentation, and in her 2009 Partners In Flight paper, co-written with Robert Cooper: “Historically, cats have been specifically implicated in at least 33 bird extinctions, making them one of the most important causes of bird extinctions worldwide (Nogales et al. 2004).” [3]

In “A Review of Feral Cat Eradication on Islands,” Nogales et al. explain: “Feral cats are responsible for the extinction of at least 33 bird species. Insular endemic landbirds are most frequently driven to extinction.” [4, emphasis mine]

So we’re talking about islands? That’s no small distinction, as Fitzgerald and Turner make clear in their contribution to The Domestic Cat: The biology of its behaviour:

“Cats have become established within the last century or two on many oceanic islands that, by the nature of their origin, had very few if any mammals but possessed avian faunas that had evolved without mammalian predators. In these circumstances, cats have had severe effects, that were often combined with the effects of other introduced mammals and habitat modification.” [5]

In Search Of 33 Extinctions
As their source, Nogales et al. cite a 1994 book by Christopher Lever, Naturalized animals: The ecology of successfully introduced species, which in turn points us to a 1977 text:

“According to Jackson (1977), naturalized predators have collectively been responsible for the extermination throughout the world of no fewer than 61 avian taxa, the principal culprits being feral domestic Cats which have caused 33 extinctions, rats 14, and the Small Indian Mongoose nine. These are in addition to the numerous occasions of local extinctions.” [6]

Now we’re getting somewhere. Jackson provides a bar chart illustrating the “Relative importance of causes of avian extinctions since 1600; data are summarized from Ziswiler (1967).” [7]

Now, a truly thorough search wouldn’t end with Ziswiler’s work—as he cites four additional sources. Nevertheless, Ziswiler provides what I was looking for: the various species that were driven to extinction, their location, and an approximate date.

And—just as important—the various other factors that acted in combination with predation by cats (which Ziswiler lists in what appears to be hierarchical order, though it’s not entirely clear).

That’s right: not only are these extinctions limited to island habitats, they typically involve two or three contributing factors. In fact, of the 33 extinctions tabulated by Ziswiler, only eight are attributed to cats exclusively (and it turns out some of those have been “overturned” in the 44 years since Ziswiler first published his list, as we’ll see shortly).

All of which is pretty difficult to reconcile with, say, Butler’s straightforward indictment: cats are “responsible for at least 33 avian extinctions worldwide.” [1]

Cats and Avian Extinctions
Of the eight extinctions Ziswiler attributes to cats alone, just two have stood the test of time: the Stephens Island Wren and the Macquarie Island kakariki (red-crowned parakeet), as described below.

  • Stephens Island Wren (Xenicus lyalli; Traversia lyalli)
    Location: Stephens Island
    Cause (Ziswiler): feral cats
    What we know now: “Traversia lyalli is only known from recent times from Stephen’s Island, New Zealand, although it is common in fossil deposits from both of the main islands. It is not thought to have existed beyond 1894… Construction of a lighthouse on Stephens Island in 1894 led to the clearance of most of the island’s forest, with predation by the lighthouse keeper’s cat delivering the species’ coup-de-grace.” (BirdLife International)

    In fact, the story of the “lighthouse keeper’s cat” is only partly accurate.

    Drawing upon “archival and museum records,” Galbreath and Brown found that, contrary to popular accounts, it was not a single cat, but “a small population of cats… preying on the birds and other life of the island.” [8]

    “They had a considerable impact on the land birds of the island: the flightless Traversia lyalli was only the first to disappear. Judging by the numbers of specimens obtained in 1894 and subsequent years, the species was reduced considerably in that first year and eliminated entirely within perhaps a few more years. Extermination was rapid, although probably not as rapid as usually stated, nor by a single cat. But although the extinction of the Stephens Island wren may not have been quite as dramatic as it has usually been portrayed, it was tragic enough. Traversia lyalli was only one of the casualties of human exploitation of Stephens Island, which could, with just a little more care, have remained a safe haven for this and other species now entirely extinct.” [8]

  • Macquarie Island kakariki (Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae erythrotis)
    Location: Macquarie Island
    Cause (Ziswiler): feral cats
    What we know now: “For 70 years following the discovery of Macquarie Island in 1810 the endemic parakeet Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae erythrotis remained plentiful, despite the introduction of cats (Felis catus) and other predators. The crucial factor in the bird’s rapid disappearance between 1881 and 1890 appears to have been the successful liberation of rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) in 1879. This led to great increases of feral cats and introduced wekas (Gallirallus australis) and presumably to greatly intensified predation on parakeets.” [9]

    Macquarie Island provides an interesting footnote: A 15-year cat eradication effort on the island, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site, concluded in 2000 with “unintended consequences [that] have been dire.” In the absence of cats, the population of rabbits and rodents has skyrocketed, prompting the Australian government to commit AU$24 million to further eradication efforts. [10]

Other Factors
Three of the other six cat-caused extinctions described by Ziswiler actually involve a host of factors, as revealed by 44 years of additional research

  • Guadalupe storm petrel (Oceanodroma macrodactyla)
    Location: Guadalupe
    Cause (Ziswiler): feral cats
    What we know now: “The main cause of its demise is thought to be heavy predation by feral cats, compounded by goats destroying and degrading nesting habitat.” However, “it cannot yet be presumed to be Extinct because there have been no thorough surveys of this difficult-to-detect species in the appropriate season since 1906, and relatively recent reports of unidentified storm-petrels calling at night, plus the persistence of Leach’s Storm-petrel breeding on the island provide some hope that it may survive. Any remaining population is likely to be tiny, and for these reasons it is treated as Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct).” (BirdLife International)
  • Choiseul crested pigeon (Microgoura meeki)
    Location: Choiseul Island
    Cause (Ziswiler): feral cats
    What we know now: “Its extinction was presumably caused by predation by feral dogs and cats, as suitable habitat survives on the island… It has not been recorded since 1904 despite searching and interviews with villagers.” (BirdLife International)
  • Bonin crested pigeon (Comumba versicolor)
    Location: Bonin Islands
    Cause (Ziswiler): feral cats
    What we know now: “Its extinction presumably resulted from clearance of the islands’ subtropical evergreen forest, and from predation by introduced cats and rats… It was last recorded in 1889.” (BirdLife International)

Natural Disaster
The case of the St. Christopher Bullfinch is intriguing in that cats may not have been involved at all.

  • St. Christopher Bullfinch (Loxigilla portoricensis grandis)
    Location: St. Christopher Island
    Cause (Ziswiler): feral cats
    What we know now: In 1979, Herbert Raffaele offered an explanation that makes no mention of cats whatsoever, picking up the story where James Greenway [11], one of the sources cited by Ziswiler, left off:

    “The only explanation yet put forward for the extinction of L. p. grandis is that of Bond (1936, 1956), who suggested the bird’s demise resulted from heavy predation by Green Monkeys (Cercopithecus aethiops) which were introduced on St. Kitts. Greenway (1958) noted that this hypothesis appears weak because the related Lesser Antillean Bullfinch (L. noctis) has survived disturbance by the same monkeys on Barbados (indeed, L. noctis thrives on St. Kitts itself); he further suggested that “Other unknown factors may have been involved.” Greenway, however, did not propose an alternative hypothesis. I shall examine the often-quoted monkey hypothesis and suggest an alternative explanation.” [12]

    Readers interested in the details of the “often-quoted monkey hypothesis” will want to download the PDF. The short answer is: two hurricanes during August 1899 were “probably enough to eliminate L. p. grandis.” [12]

Extinction Is (Not) Forever
Perhaps the most surprising finding, though, is that two of the species Ziswiler claims were driven to extinction by feral cats—the Aukland Islands rail and the Eyrean grass-wren—turn out not to be extinct at all.

  • Aukland Islands rail (Rallus muelleri; Lewinia muelleri)
    Location: Aukland Islands
    Cause (Ziswiler): feral cats
    What we know now: “It was once thought to be extinct but was rediscovered on Adams Island (100 km2) in 1966 and Disappointment Island (4 km2) in 1993… Population numbers are apparently stable.  Although both rail-inhabited islands are predator-free, Auckland Island (a few hundred metres from Adams) supports feral cats, mice and pigs, and therefore the introduction of these animals is a possible threat.” (BirdLife International)
  • Eyrean grass-wren (Amytornis goyderi)
    Location: Australia
    Cause (Ziswiler): feral cats
    What we know now: “Although this species may have a restricted range, it is not believed to approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criterion… the population trend criterion… [or] the population size criterion… For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern.” (BirdLife International)

Plenty of Blame to Go Around
The remaining 25 extinctions, while not as dramatic as some of those already mentioned, illustrate very well complexities generally lost to those who blindly cite the 33 extinctions (reason enough, they seem to argue, to outlaw the feeding of feral cats and TNR programs everywhere).

  • Iwo Jima rail (Poliolimnas cinereus brevipes)
    Location: Iwo Jima
    Cause (Ziswiler): rats and feral cats
    What we know now: “Due to an increasing human population on Naka from 1910 onwards, its habitat degraded, and natural water sources became scarce. Therefore, the birds had to depend on water tanks near houses in the dry season, where they were easily caught by feral or domestic cats. The last birds collected for science were in 1911 (the 12 birds of the type-series of brevipes), and the last bird seen was in 1920–1925 (Greenway 1967).” (Zoological Museum Amsterdam)

  • Bonin night heron (Nycticorax caledonicus crassirostris)
    Location: Bonin Islands
    Cause (Ziswiler): “habitat altered through civilization or monocultures” and feral cats
    What we know now: “The most likely reason for its extinction is predation by rats and feral cats. However, collectors fascinated by its plumes may also have been responsible; birds shot for use in millinery (a burgeoning business in contemporary Japan) would not have ended up in scientific collections… The Bonin Night Heron became extinct only 50 years after its description. The last specimen was taken in 1889 on Nakōdo-jima.” (Wikipedia)
  • Red-billed rail (Rallus pacificus)
    Location: Tahiti
    Cause (Ziswiler): rats and feral cats
    What we know now: “It was flightless, and its extinction was presumably caused by introduced cats and rats… there were reports from Tahiti until 1844, and from the nearby Mehetia until the 1930s.(BirdLife International)
  • Chatham Island banded rail (Rallus dieffenbachii)
    Location: Chatham Island
    Cause (Ziswiler): feral cats and rats
    What we know now: “Its extinction was presumably due to predation by introduced rats, cats and dogs, and habitat loss from fire… The species was already scarce when the type was collected in 1840, and was extinct by 1872.” (BirdLife International)
  • Samoa wood rail (Pareudiastes pacificus; Gallinula pacifica)
    Location: Samoa
    Cause (Ziswiler): feral cats and rats
    What we know now: “Cats, rats, pigs and dogs have no doubt contributed to its disappearance, and hunting may also have been a factor as it was formerly a favoured food of the human population… it was last recorded in 1873. In 1984 there were two possible sightings in upland forest west of Mt Elietoga, and in October 2003 a possible sighting of two individuals was made at 990 m on Mount Sili Sili. A recent survey of the island yielded no record of the species.” (BirdLife International)
  • Jamaica Pauraque (Siphonornis americanus americanus; Siphonorhis americana)
    Location: Jamaica
    Cause (Ziswiler): feral cats and “mongoose forms”
    What we know now: “This species has not been recorded since 1860, and it may have been driven to extinction by introduced mongooses and rats, whose effect may have been exacerbated by habitat destruction. However, it cannot yet be presumed to be Extinct because there have been recent unconfirmed reports, and surveys may possibly have overlooked this nocturnal species. Any remaining population is likely to be tiny, and for these reasons it is treated as Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct).” (BirdLife International)

    Note: there is no mention of cats at all.

  • Lord Howe grey-headed blackbird (Turdus poliocephalus vinitinctus)
    Location: Lord Howe Island
    Cause (Ziswiler): feral cats and feral pigs
    What we know now: “It was quite common in 1906 but its population began to diminish in 1913 due to disturbance by man, cats, dogs, goats and feral pigs. When the SS Makambo was shipwrecked on Lord Howe in June 1918 rats escaped from the vessel and overran the island. With other endemic bird species this ground-nesting bird became extinct within six years.” (Wikipedia)
  • Raiatea thrush (Turdus ulietensis)
    Location: Society Islands
    Cause (Ziswiler): feral cats and rats
    What we know now: “Raiatea was visited in 1850 by explorer and natural history collector Andrew Garrett, who failed to record the species. Evidently it became extinct between 1774 and 1850, almost certainly as a consequence of the inadvertent introduction of Black or Brown Rats to the island.” (Wikipedia)

    Again, no mention of cats.

  • Kittlitz’s thrush (Zoothera terrestris)
    Bonin Islands
    Cause (Ziswiler): feral cats and rats
    What we know now: “Whalers started to use the island in the 1830s and it was probably driven to extinction by introduced rats and cats shortly after.” (BirdLife International)
  • Hawaiian honeycreepers (16 forms)
    Location: Hawaii
    Cause (Ziswiler): “habitat altered through destruction of the forest,” “habitat altered through civilization or monocultures,” and feral cats
    What we know now: “Some 20 species of Hawaiian honeycreeper have become extinct in the recent past, and many more in earlier times, between the arrival of arrival of the Polynesians who introduced the first rats, chickens, pigs, dogs, and hunted and converted habitat for agriculture.” (Wikipedia)

    Also: “The birds face a host of hungry new arrivals such as rats, cats, and pigs, as well as the age-old problem of habitat destruction. But their main enemy was the arrival of avian malaria in the 1940s.” (The Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

•     •     •

So, how many avian extinctions have cats caused? I don’t know.

Then again, neither do Butler, the authors of the UNL paper, Dauphine, or any of the others who suggest they do—and then use that “knowledge” to fuel the witch-hunt against free-roaming cats.

It’s funny how the same people who make so much noise about the U.S. population of pet cats tripling over the past 40 years (without acknowledging the increasing likelihood that these cats are indoor-only, of course) have demonstrated no interest at all in updating their island extinctions factoid.

Then again, they only rarely acknowledge the fact that the extinctions occurred on islands, or the fact that feral cats were just one of many contributing factors. In those instances where cats were involved at all—and where birds were actually driven to extinction.

Considering what these people are proposing—the wholesale killing of cats by the tens of millions—is it really too much to ask that they do a little more fact-checking and a little less Kool-Aid drinking?

Literature Cited
1. Butler, K., “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” Mother Jones. 2011. July/August. p. 72–73.

2. Hildreth, A.M., Vantassel, S.M., and Hygnstrom, S.E., Feral Cats and Their Managment. 2010, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension: Lincoln, NE. elkhorn.unl.edu/epublic/live/ec1781/build/ec1781.pdf

3. Dauphine, N. and Cooper, R.J., Impacts of Free-ranging Domestic Cats (Felis catus) on birds in the United States: A review of recent research with conservation and management recommendations, in Fourth International Partners in Flight Conference: Tundra to Tropics. 2009. p. 205–219. http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/pif/pubs/McAllenProc/articles/PIF09_Anthropogenic%20Impacts/Dauphine_1_PIF09.pdf

4. Nogales, M., et al., “A Review of Feral Cat Eradication on Islands.” Conservation Biology. 2004. 18(2): p. 310–319. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2004.00442.x/abstract

5. Fitzgerald, B.M. and Turner, D.C., Hunting Behaviour of domestic cats and their impact on prey populations, in The Domestic Cat: The biology of its behaviour, D.C. Turner and P.P.G. Bateson, Editors. 2000, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, U.K.; New York. p. 151–175.

6. Lever, C., Naturalized animals: The ecology of successfully introduced species. 1994, London: T & A.D. Poyser Natural History.

7. Jackson, J.A., Alleviating Problems of Competition, Predation, Parasitism, and Disease in Endangered Birds: A Review, in Endangered Birds: Management Techniques for Preserving Threatened Species, S.A. Temple, Editor. 1977, The University of Wisconsin Press: Madison. p. 75–84.

8. Galbreath, R., “The tale of the lighthouse-keeper’s cat: Discovery and extinction of the Stephens Island wren (Traversia lyalli).” Notornis. 2004. 51: p. 193–200.

9. Taylor, R.H., “How the Macquarie Island Parakeet Became Extinct.” New Zealand Journal of Ecology. 1979. 2: p. 42–45. www.nzes.org.nz/nzje/free_issues/NZJEcol2_42.pdf

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

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

11. Greenway, J.C., Extinct and vanishing birds of the world. 1958, American Committee for International Wild Life Protection.

12. Raffaele, H.A., “Comments on the extinction of Loxigilla portoricensis grandis in Saint Kitts.” Condor. 1977. 79: p. 389–390. elibrary.unm.edu/sora/Condor/files/issues/v079n03/p0389-p0390.pdf

MoJo Losing Its Mojo

Mother Jones, according to its Website, “is a nonprofit news organization that specializes in investigative, political, and social justice reporting.”

“…smart, fearless journalism” keeps people informed—“informed” being pretty much indispensable to a democracy that actually works. Because we’ve been ahead of the curve time and again. Because this is journalism not funded by or beholden to corporations. Because we bust bullshit and get results. Because we’re expanding our investigative coverage while the rest of the media are contracting. Because you can count on us to take no prisoners, cleave to no dogma, and tell it like it is. Plus we’re pretty damn fun.

Right up my alley. Until now.

With “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!,” published in the July/August issue, articles editor Kiera Butler fails rather magnificently all the way around.

(The article isn’t available directly from MotherJones.com yet, but you can read it (print it, too) simply by signing up for the magazine’s e-mail updates. Enter your e-mail address and click “Sign Up.” In the next window, click on “ACCESS THE ISSUE NOW”—the full issue will then open automatically in Zinio, a digital magazine reader. “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” begins on p. 72.)

Cover Art: "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!"

The title, by the way, comes from a 1965 cult classic in which “Three strippers seeking thrills encounter a young couple in the desert.” Sadly, the film is a better reflection of reality than the information in Butler’s article is.

Population of Cats
The most obvious blunder: Citing what seems to be the same data set (“the US feline population has tripled over the last four decades”) I referred to in my “Spoiler Alert” post, Butler arrives not at 90 million or so, as indicated in the original source [1], or even the bogus 150 million figure the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Tom Will tried to sell last year to the Bird Conservation Alliance.

No—according to Butler, there were 600 million cats in this country in 2007.

At that time, the human population was 301.3 million. For the sake of easy math, then, let’s call it two cats for every human (talk about “hip-deep in cats”!). This, I believe, sets a new record for absurd population claims—far surpassing the previous record held by Steve Holmer, senior policy advisor for the American Bird Conservancy.

And from here, it only gets worse. While her grossly inflated population figure might be attributed a simple mistake. These things happen (though, of course, one expects such things to be caught by somebody on the editorial staff). However, the misinformation, misrepresentations, and missteps that make up the bulk of “Faster, Pussycat!” betray either willful ignorance or glaring bias. Or both.

Smart, fearless journalism it is not.

One Billion Birds
Butler’s litany of complaints against feral cats is all too familiar: wildlife impacts (birds, in particular), public health threats, the “failures” of TNR, the powerful feral cat lobby, and the emotional/irrational nature of feral cat advocates (i.e., the classic “crazy cat lady” label). Her sources, too, include all the usual suspects; though few are cited, many others are obvious.

Sources of Mortality
Butler claims that domestic cats (“officially considered an invasive species”) top the list of mortality sources, killing perhaps one billion birds annually in the U.S. (Her tabulated comparison of seven mortality sources bears the familiar title “Apocalypse Meow.”)

The source of Butler’s “highest reliable estimates” is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, though the one-billion-birds claim has been made by others, including Nico Dauphine and Robert Cooper, [2, 3] and Rich Stallcup. [4] (In fact, Dauphine refers specifically to Stallcup’s wild-ass guess back-of-the-envelope calculation in her infamous “Apocalypse Meow” presentation.)

Yet even ABC, never one to go easy on cats—or to let science get in the way of their message—ranks building collisions ahead of cats. (Interestingly, neither USFWS nor ABC mentions the most direct human-caused source of bird mortality—hunting—which may account for 120 million avian deaths annually in the U.S. [5])

The one-billion-birds claim hinges upon an inflated estimate of outdoor cats (Dauphine and Cooper, for example, ignore published survey results [6–8], in effect doubling the number of pet cats allowed outdoors) and inflated predation rates (typically extrapolated from small, flawed studies). Multiplying one by the other, the result is impressive (hence, it’s “stickiness”).

Unfortunately, it’s also meaningless.

Still, such aggregate figures are useful for providing a scientific veneer to what is, at its core, little more than a witch-hunt. All of which makes it an easier sell to the media and the general public.

But sound bites ignore the importance of context. Aggregate predation rates, for example, fail to differentiate across vastly different habitats (e.g., islands, forests, coastlines, etc.), species (e.g., songbirds, seabirds, etc.), conditions (e.g., sick and healthy, young and old, etc.), and levels of vulnerability (e.g., ground-nesting and cavity-nesting species, rare and common species, etc.).

Predators—cats included—catch what’s easy. Indeed, at least two studies [9, 10] have found that cat-killed birds tend to be less healthy than those killed in non-predatory events (e.g., the other six mortality sources shown in Butler’s table).

Island Extinctions
In asserting that cats are “responsible for at least 33 avian extinctions worldwide,” Butler overlooks or ignores a critical detail: those extinctions involve primarily—perhaps exclusively—island species, with “insular endemic landbirds [being] most frequently driven to extinction” [11] And even this point is a matter of some debate. “Birds (both landbirds and seabirds) have been affected most by the introduction of cats to islands,” writes Mike Fitzgerald, one of the world’s foremost experts on the subject, “but the impact is rarely well documented.” [12]

“In many cases the bird populations were not well described before the cats were established and the possible role of other factors in changes in the bird populations are treated inadequately.” [12]

So what’s the impact of cats on continents?

In 2000, Fitzgerald and co-author Dennis Turner published a review of 61 predation studies, concluding unambiguously: “there are few, if any studies apart from island ones that actually demonstrate that cats have reduced bird populations.” [13]

Catbird Mortalities
Referring to research conducted by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Peter Marra, Butler contends that “cats caused 79 percent of deaths of juvenile catbirds in the suburbs of Washington, DC.” In fact, Marra and his colleagues documented just six deaths attributable to cats, of 42 overall (then justified another three on dubious grounds). [14]

That 79 percent figure comes from dividing the number of deaths attributed to all sources of predation (33) by the total number of deaths documented over the course of the study (42). Butler’s misreading overstates predation by cats by more than 500 percent.

Public Health Threats
“Feral cats,” writes Butler, “can carry some heinous people diseases, including rabies, hookworm, and toxoplasmosis, and infection known to cause miscarriages and birth defects.” Her omission of infection rates—remarkably low in light of the frequent contact between humans and cats—suggests an interest more in fear-mongering than anything else.

Hookworms
A hookworm outbreak in the Miami Beach area in late 2010 made headlines, prompting officials to create a “cat poop map” (cats can pass hookworm eggs in their feces).

Meanwhile, Floridians were dying of influenza or pneumonia by the hundreds. In fact, according to the Florida Department of Health, 100–140 or so die each week during the winter months. (Actually, that figure accounts for only 24 of the state’s 67 counties, so the total is likely much higher.)

My point is not to dismiss the risk of “heinous people diseases” (or the suffering of those who become infected) but to put that risk into perspective. (In terms of public health, we’re better off focusing on frequent hand washing, sneezing into our sleeves, and, in the case of hookworms on the beach, wearing flip-flops—as opposed to, say, exterminating this country’s most popular companion animal by the millions.)

Toxoplasmosis
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Website, “Although cats can carry diseases and pass them to people, you are not likely to get sick from touching or owning a cat.” And, notes the CDC, “People are probably more likely to get toxoplasmosis from gardening or eating raw meat than from having a pet cat.”

(The same is true of feeding feral cats, by the way. While it’s true that their infection rates tend to be higher, [15] our frequent, close contact with pet cats more than offsets these differences.)

TNR
“In theory,” writes Butler, “TNR sounds great. If cats can’t reproduce, their population will decline gradually. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. To put a dent in the total number of cats, at least 71 percent of them must be fixed, and they are notoriously hard to catch.”

In Los Angeles, adds Butler, “it failed miserably in the past.”

Contrary to Butler’s claims, however, there are numerous well-documented examples of TNR programs reducing colony size.

Perhaps the best-known TNR success story in this country is ORCAT. As of 2004, ORCAT, run by the Ocean Reef Community Association, had reduced its “overall population from approximately 2,000 cats to 500 cats.” [16] According to the ORCAT Website, the population today is approximately 350, of which only about 250 are free-roaming.

Other examples include a TNR program on the campus of the University of Florida University of Central Florida,
Orlando, in which caretakers found homes for more than 47 percent of the campus’ socialized cats and kittens, helping them reduce the campus cat population more than 66 percent, from 68 to 23. [17]

In North Carolina, researchers observed a 36 percent average decrease among six sterilized colonies in the first two years (even in the absence of adoptions), while three unsterilized colonies experienced an average 47 percent increase. [18] Four- and seven-year follow-up censuses revealed further reductions among sterilized colonies. [19]

A survey of caretakers in Rome revealed a 22 percent decrease overall in the number of cats through TNR, despite a 21 percent rate of “cat immigration.” [20]

And in South Africa, researchers recommended that “a suitable and ongoing sterilization programme, which is run in conjunction with a feral cat feeding programme, needs to be implemented” [21] on the campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Howard College—despite its proximity to “conservation-sensitive natural bush habitat and a nature reserve on the northern border.” [22]

The Cost of TNR
“Cash-strapped cities,” argues Butler, “can’t afford to chase down, trap, and sterilize every stray—a process that costs $100 per kitty.” So, can these cities afford to round up and kill the cats?

Mark Kumpf, past president of the National Animal Control Association doesn’t think so. “There’s no department that I’m aware of,” says Kumpf, “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, he says, are akin to “bailing the ocean with a thimble.” [23]

The Cat Lobby
If TNR is so ineffective, why is it becoming the feral cat management approach of choice across the country (adopted in “at least 10 major cities,” according to Butler)? It must be the powerful cat lobby.

Alley Cat Allies, “whose budget was $5.3 million last year,” writes Butler, “has enjoyed generous grants from cat-food venders like PetSmart and Petco.”

It’s a play straight out of Dauphine’s playbook: paint the avian-industrial complex TNR opponents as victims of the powerful cat lobby. (In The Wildlife Professional’s recent special issue, “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats,” Dauphine complains: “The promotion of TNR is big business, with such large amounts of money in play that conservation scientists opposing TNR can’t begin to compete.” [24])

Alley Cat Allies
How generous were these grants, exactly? According to ACA’s 2010 Annual Report (PDF):

“Alley Cat Allies received more than $5.2 million in support between August 1, 2009 and July 31, 2010: more than 69,000 individuals contributed $4.8 million, including over $1 million in bequests. An additional $245,000 came from Workplace Campaigns, and over $14,000 came from foundation grants.”

Roughly 0.2 percent of their “total public support” came from all foundations combined. In 2009, grants and foundations accounted for 1.7 percent; in 2008, 1.0 percent.  (Maybe Butler never got the memo re: MoJo’s commitment to bullshit-busting.)

New Jersey Audubon
Another of Dauphine’s complaints that found its way into “Faster, Pussycat!”:

“Pro-feral groups—there are 250 or so in the United States—have used their financial might to woo wildlife groups. Audubon’s New Jersey chapter backed off on its opposition to TNR in 2005, around the same time major foundations gave the chapter grants to partner with pro-TNR groups.”

What Butler (like Dauphine before her) fails to acknowledge is the important role NJAS plays in the New Jersey Feral Cat & Wildlife Coalition, which has developed a set of model protocols and ordinances designed to help municipal TNR programs in ensuring the protection of any vulnerable native wildlife (DOC).

This is exactly the kind of collaborative effort that should be supported.

For what it’s worth: it’s not clear that NJAS was easily wooed with grant funding. A quick visit to Guidestar.com reveals that NJAS brought in $6.8 million in 2008, and had $25.6 million in “net assets or fund balances” on its books. (I’ve been unable to determine the amount of grant funding NJAS received for “this important initiative,” as CEO and VP of Conservation and Stewardship Eric Stiles described it in a 2008 newsletter. [25])

Mental Health
Butler frames the TNR debate using what’s come to be standard form: rationale scientists on one side; on the other, cat advocates fueled by emotion. And mental illness, too, apparently: “There’s also speculation that [toxoplasmosis] can trigger schizophrenia and even the desire to be around cats—some researchers blame the crazy-cat-lady phenomenon on toxo.”

A Heated Debate
It’s a dangerous combination, according to Butler.

“Many of the biologists I spoke with say they’ve been harassed and even physically threatened when they’ve presented research about the effect cats have on wildlife.”

Is it really so one-sided?

Why didn’t Butler mention the case of Jim Stevenson, the Galveston birder who, in 2006, shot and killed (though not immediately) a feral cat within earshot of the cat’s caretaker? [26]

Or, more recently, the charges of attempted animal cruelty filed by the Washington Humane Society against Dauphine? (Or, for that matter, the stream of toxic comments almost guaranteed to accompany nearly any online story about feral cats or TNR.)

Clearly, the “cat people” don’t have a monopoly on emotional—even violent—responses to the issue.

Sustaining a Killer
When Butler tells an ecologist she knows that she’s feeding a feral cat, she’s told: “Basically, you’re sustaining a killer.” Which is essentially Butler’s intended take-away:

“Until they do [invent a single-dose sterilization drug], biologists recommend a combination of strategies. For starters, quit feeding ferals: Beyond sustaining strays, the practice often leads to delinquent pet owners to abandon their cats outdoors, assuming they will be well cared for.”

Are we to believe that abandonment is reduced or eliminated where the feeding of feral cats is prohibited? Owners (delinquent, I agree) interested in dumping their cats can, unfortunately, do so easily.

The far greater incentive for dumping comes from local shelters, most of which euthanize kill the majority of cats brought in. Many require a surrender fee.

I’m just about the last person to defend the dumping of cats, but shouldn’t we acknowledge the aspects of “animal control” policy that contribute to it?

But back to this idea that “no food” means “no ferals.” It sounds reasonable enough, but doesn’t hold up very well to scrutiny. For one thing, where there are humans, there’s food to be found. In fact, even where there are no people, cats don’t starve.

On Marion Island—barren and uninhabited—it took 19 years to eradicate approximately 2,200 cats. Their only human provision: “the carcasses of 12,000 day-old chickens” each injected with the poison sodium monofluoroacetate. [27] (The rest—the vast majority—were killed through the introduction of feline distemper, intensive hunting and trapping, and dogs. [28, 27])

Is Butler suggesting that the cats in her neighborhood would have it tougher than the Marion Island cats? Even setting aside the cruelty involved, we’re not likely to starve our way out of the “feral cat problem.” Unlike TNR, such an approach only drives the cats (and their caretakers) underground.

This, of course, is roughly the same approach that’s proved ineffective failed so spectacularly at addressing so many other complex issues, including drug enforcement, immigration policy, gays in the military, and so forth.

•     •     •

Since I launched Vox Felina last year, I’ve been critical of articles appearing in any number of publications: scientific journals (e.g., Conservation Biology), major newspapers (e.g., The Washington Post and The New York Times), an alt-weekly, and more.

None of which bothered me in the least, as I feel no particular connection to any of them. This is not to say that I don’t value, admire, and respect much of the work found, for instance, in the Times—only that I’ve no affinity for, or loyalty to, the paper itself.

But Mother Jones is different. Maybe it’s that whole bullshit-busting, take-no-prisoners, tell-it-like-it-is business—I’d like to think that’s something we share in common.

This time around, though, the magazine served up bullshit by the shovelful, swallowed in one gulp the misinformation churned out by ABC, The Wildlife Society, and other TNR opponents, and… well, told it like it isn’t.

With the publication of “Faster, Pussycat!,” Mother Jones failed miserably in its promise to readers. Which, I have to think, isn’t a lot of fun.

Literature Cited
1. Lepczyk, C.A., et al., “What Conservation Biologists Can Do to Counter Trap-Neuter-Return: Response to Longcore et al.” Conservation Biology. 2010. 24(2): p. 627–629. www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/pdf/Lepczyk-2010-Conservation%2520Biology.pdf

2. Dauphine, N. and Cooper, R.J., Impacts of Free-ranging Domestic Cats (Felis catus) on birds in the United States: A review of recent research with conservation and management recommendations, in Fourth International Partners in Flight Conference: Tundra to Tropics. 2009. p. 205–219. http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/pif/pubs/McAllenProc/articles/PIF09_Anthropogenic%20Impacts/Dauphine_1_PIF09.pdf

3. Dauphine, N. and Cooper, R.J., “Pick One: Outdoor Cats or Conservation.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 50–56.

4. Stallcup, R., “A reversible catastrophe.” Observer 91. 1991(Spring/Summer): p. 8–9. http://www.prbo.org/cms/print.php?mid=530

http://www.prbo.org/cms/docs/observer/focus/focus29cats1991.pdf

5. Klem, D., “Glass: A Deadly Conservation Issue for Birds.” Bird Observer. 2006. 2. p. 73–81. http://www.massbird.org/BirdObserver/index.htm

6. Clancy, E.A., Moore, A.S., and Bertone, E.R., “Evaluation of cat and owner characteristics and their relationships to outdoor access of owned cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2003. 222(11): p. 1541-1545. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2003.222.1541

7. Lord, L.K., “Attitudes toward and perceptions of free-roaming cats among individuals living in Ohio.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2008. 232(8): p. 1159-1167. http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/javma_232_8_1159.pdf

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

9. Møller, A.P. and Erritzøe, J., “Predation against birds with low immunocompetence.” Oecologia. 2000. 122(4): p. 500–504. http://www.springerlink.com/content/ghnny9mcv016ljd8/

10. Baker, P.J., et al., “Cats about town: Is predation by free-ranging pet cats Felis catus likely to affect urban bird populations? Ibis. 2008. 150: p. 86–99. http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/bsc/ibi/2008/00000150/A00101s1/art00008

11. Nogales, M., et al., “A Review of Feral Cat Eradication on Islands.” Conservation Biology. 2004. 18(2): p. 310–319. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2004.00442.x/abstract

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

13. Fitzgerald, B.M. and Turner, D.C., Hunting Behaviour of domestic cats and their impact on prey populations, in The Domestic Cat: The biology of its behaviour, D.C. Turner and P.P.G. Bateson, Editors. 2000, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, U.K.; New York. p. 151–175.

14.  Balogh, A., Ryder, T., and Marra, P., “Population demography of Gray Catbirds in the suburban matrix: sources, sinks and domestic cats.” Journal of Ornithology. 2011: p. 1-10. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10336-011-0648-7

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

15. 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. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6T7F-4S85DPK-1/2/2a1f9e590e7c7ec35d1072e06b2fa99d

16. Levy, J.K. and Crawford, P.C., “Humane strategies for controlling feral cat populations.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1354–1360. http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/default.asp

http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/javma_225_9_1354.pdf

17. Levy, J.K., Gale, D.W., and Gale, L.A., “Evaluation of the effect of a long-term trap-neuter-return and adoption program on a free-roaming cat population.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2003. 222(1): p. 42-46. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2003.222.42

18. Stoskopf, M.K. and Nutter, F.B., “Analyzing approaches to feral cat management—one size does not fit all.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1361–1364. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15552309

www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/javma_225_9_1361.pdf

19. Nutter, F.B., Evaluation of a Trap-Neuter-Return Management Program for Feral Cat Colonies: Population Dynamics, Home Ranges, and Potentially Zoonotic Diseases, in Comparative Biomedical Department. 2005, North Carolina State University: Raleigh, NC. p. 224. http://www.carnivoreconservation.org/files/thesis/nutter_2005_phd.pdf

20. Natoli, E., et al., “Management of feral domestic cats in the urban environment of Rome (Italy).” Preventive Veterinary Medicine. 2006. 77(3-4): p. 180–185. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6TBK-4M33VSW-1/2/0abfc80f245ab50e602f93060f88e6f9

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

21. Tennent, J., Downs, C.T., and Bodasing, M., “Management Recommendations for Feral Cat (Felis catus) Populations Within an Urban Conservancy in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.” South African Journal of Wildlife Research. 2009. 39(2): p. 137–142. http://dx.doi.org/10.3957/056.039.0211

22. Tennent, J. and Downs, C.T., “Abundance and home ranges of feral cats in an urban conservancy where there is supplemental feeding: A case study from South Africa.” African Zoology. 2008. 2: p. 218–229. http://login.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eih&AN=47391224&site=ehost-live

23. Hettinger, J., “Taking a Broader View of Cats in the Community.” Animal Sheltering. 2008. September/October. p. 8–9. http://www.animalsheltering.org/resource_library/magazine_articles/sep_oct_2008/taking_a_broader_view_of_cats.html

http://www.animalsheltering.org/resource_library/magazine_articles/sep_oct_2008/broader_view_of_cats.pdf

24. Dauphine, N., “Follow the Money: The Economics of TNR Advocacy.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 54.

25. Stiles, E., NJAS Works with Coalition to Reduce Bird Mortality from Outdoor Cats. 2008, New Jersey Audubon Society. http://www.njaudubon.org/Portals/10/Conservation/PDF/ConsReportSpring08.pdf

26. Barcott, B. (2007, December 2, 2007). Kill the Cat That Kills the Bird? New York Times, from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/02/magazine/02cats-v–birds-t.html

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

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

28. Bloomer, J.P. and Bester, M.N., “Control of feral cats on sub-Antarctic Marion Island, Indian Ocean.” Biological Conservation. 1992. 60(3): p. 211-219. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6V5X-48XKBM6-T0/2/06492dd3a022e4a4f9e437a943dd1d8b

Akron

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. (http://joomla.wildlife.org/documents/cats_tnr.pdf)

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. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2004.225.1369

http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/javma_225_9_1369.pdf

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. (http://www.co.summit.oh.us/pdfs/Animal%20Control%20Reevaluation%20Report%20-%20June,%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. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15552312

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

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. http://www.animalsheltering.org/resource_library/magazine_articles/sep_oct_2008/taking_a_broader_view_of_cats.html

http://www.animalsheltering.org/resource_library/magazine_articles/sep_oct_2008/broader_view_of_cats.pdf

9. n.a., Local Government Consolidation Reports. n.d., Ohio Auditor of State: Columbus. http://www.auditor.state.oh.us/conferences/fiscaldistress/handouts/files/LeadingPracticesLocalGovConsolidationReports.xlsx

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. (www.co.summit.oh.us/executive/pdfs/NACA%20Report.pdf)

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 http://www.clevescene.com/cleveland/house-of-horrors/Content?oid=1484255

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

(Animal) Wise Guy II

My sincere thanks to Animal Wise Radio hosts Mike Fry and Beth Nelson for having me back on the show—this time to discuss the recent arrest of National Zoo researcher Nico Dauphine on charges of attempted animal cruelty and the Smithsonian’s subsequent reaction.

If you missed it, you can check out the complete show in podcast format at iTunes. Also, an MP3 file (22 MB) of our conversation about Nico Dauphine and the Smithsonian (approximately 22 minutes) is available here.

Spoiler Alert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•     •     •

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

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

2. Dauphine, N. and Cooper, R.J., Impacts of Free-ranging Domestic Cats (Felis catus) on birds in the United States: A review of recent research with conservation and management recommendations, in Fourth International Partners in Flight Conference: Tundra to Tropics. 2009. p. 205–219. http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/pif/pubs/McAllenProc/articles/PIF09_Anthropogenic%20Impacts/Dauphine_1_PIF09.pdf

3. Lepczyk, C.A., et al., “What Conservation Biologists Can Do to Counter Trap-Neuter-Return: Response to Longcore et al.” Conservation Biology. 2010. 24(2): p. 627–629. www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/pdf/Lepczyk-2010-Conservation%2520Biology.pdf

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

5. Clancy, E.A., Moore, A.S., and Bertone, E.R., “Evaluation of cat and owner characteristics and their relationships to outdoor access of owned cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2003. 222(11): p. 1541-1545. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2003.222.1541

6. Lord, L.K., “Attitudes toward and perceptions of free-roaming cats among individuals living in Ohio.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2008. 232(8): p. 1159-1167. http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/javma_232_8_1159.pdf

Apocalypse Meow: A Brief Review

Although Nico Dauphine has yet to be suspended from her duties at the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center, it seems all the attention she’s received over the past week-and-a-half is making life rather uncomfortable for her supporters.

Last week, the National Zoo removed Dauphine’s online application for recruiting field assistants from its Website; this week, the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources pulled her infamous “Apocalypse Meow” presentation from its site.

Which is understandable, given the circumstances. Far more puzzling is what it was doing there in the first place. The content is, not surprisingly, remarkably “selective” in terms of the science. What is surprising, though, is Dauphine’s delivery: she looks and sounds like a person without the least bit of conviction in the material she’s presenting. (Actually, she’s mostly reading to the audience—for 41 minutes.)

Dauphine (whose status hearing, originally scheduled for June 1, has been postponed until the 15th) presented “Apocalypse Meow: Free-ranging Cats and the Destruction of American Wildlife” in March of 2009, at Warnell (where she earned her PhD). Although she tells the audience that her goal “is to review and present the best available science that we have,” what she delivers is essentially no different from what she presented in her Partners In Flight conference paper [1]  (much of which is recycled in the current issue of The Wildlife Professional in a special section called “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats” [2]).

In other words: lots of exaggerated and misleading claims—and plenty of glaring omissions (i.e., the distinction between compensatory and additive predation).

Included in the section on predation are all the usual suspects: Longcore et al., [3] Coleman and Temple, [4] Crooks and Soulé, [5] PhD dissertations by both Christopher Lepczyk [6] and Cole Hawkins, [7] along with references to Linda Winter, David Jessup, [8] Pamela Jo Hatley, and others.

Among the highlights:

Invasive Species (of All Kinds)
Referring to island extinctions, Dauphine references a 2008 paper by Dov Sax and Steven Gaines—the same one the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cite (again, as “evidence” of island extinctions caused by cats) in their Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex Integrated Predator Management Plan/Draft Environmental Assessment, released earlier this year. As I point out in my response to the Keys plan, though, the Sax & Gaines paper isn’t about cats at all, but invasive plants. [9]

Magic Multipliers
For Dauphine, Lepczyk’s estimated 52 birds/cat/year predation rate simply isn’t enough. Studies using “prey returns,” she argues, underestimate the real damage. “Some studies using radio-collars and other techniques have shown that, typically, cats will return maybe one in three kills that they make, and sometimes not at all—so this is, again, a very conservative estimate of the actual number of kills.”

But Lepczyk’s PhD work wasn’t based on “prey returns” at all. He used a survey (one of many flaws), asking landowners, “how many dead or injured birds a week do all the cats bring in during the spring and summer months?” [6]

And the idea that cats return only one in every three kills? That’s based on some wonky analysis by Kays and DeWan, who studied the hunting behaviors of just 24 cats: 12 that returned prey home, and another 12 (11 pets and 1 feral) that were observed hunting for a total of 181 hours (anywhere from 4.8–46.5 hours per cat). [10]

The Selective Generalist
Dauphine stretches Hawkins’ conclusions (which Hawkins himself had already stretched past the point of being defensible) to suggest “a sort of preferential prey take for native species in some cases, by cats.” In other words, the cats might target native species.

Or not. Less than two minutes later, Dauphine’s making the case for hyperpredation—the devastating impact on native prey species (e.g., seabirds) brought about by a large population of cats supported largely by predation on an introduced prey species (e.g., rabbits).

From Millions to Billions
It’s difficult not to see Dauphine’s assertion that “it’s not productive to argue about the numbers”—which comes fairly early in her presentation—as disingenuous when she tries repeatedly to quantify predation levels (each of which is then qualified as “conservative”). Her use of a graph included in the second edition of Frank Gill’s Ornithology (shown below) is particularly interesting.

Now, the original source of Gill’s cat “data,” as Dauphine acknowledges, is Rich Stallcup’s 1991 article, “A reversible catastrophe”—inexplicably, the only source Gill cites when he refers to predation by cats: “Domesticated cats in North America may kill 4 million songbirds every day, or perhaps over a billion birds each year (Stallcup 1991). Millions of hungrier, feral (wild) cats add to this toll…” [11]

And where does Stallcup’s “data” come from?

“He simply argued—he didn’t do a study—he just argued that if one in ten of those cats kills one bird per day, already then we have 1.6 billion cat-killed birds per year,” explains Dauphine. “We actually know that the numbers are much larger. For instance, he’s starting out with 55 million pet cats; we know there are over 100 million outdoor cats in this country, and possibly far more. We also know from some studies that 80 percent of cats hunt, and the number of birds killed per year are probably much higher. So again, just to emphasize: this is a conservative estimate.”

In fact, Stallcup’s “estimate” is even flimsier than Dauphine suggests:

“Let’s do a quick calculation, starting with numbers of pet cats. Population estimates of domestic house cats in the contiguous United States vary somewhat, but most agree the figure is between 50 and 60 million. On 3 March 1990, the San Francisco Chronicle gave the number as 57.9 million, ‘up 19 percent since 1984.’ For this assessment, let’s use 55 million.

Some of these (maybe 10 percent) never go outside, and maybe another 10 percent are too old or too slow to catch anything. That leaves 44 million domestic cats hunting in gardens, marshes, fields, thickets, empty lots, and forests.

It is impossible to know how many of those actively hunting animals catch how many birds, but the numbers are high. To be very conservative, say that only one in ten of those cats kills only one bird a day. This would yield a daily toll of 4.4 million songbirds!! Shocking, but true—and probably a low estimate (e.g., many cats get multiple birds a day).” [12]

Shocking, yes. True? Why would anybody think so? (I can see the appeal for Dauphine, though: like her, Stallcup grossly overestimates the number of pet cats allowed outdoors.)

(The fact that this absurdity made it—however well disguised—into a standard ornithology textbook may explain a great deal about the positions frequently taken by today’s wildlife managers and conservation biologists regarding feral cats/TNR.)

Apocalypse Now
Perhaps the strangest—almost surreal—part of “Apocalypse Meow” comes when, to illustrate her point that the (over)heated TNR debate can “result in a lot of misunderstandings, misinformation, and hard feelings,” Dauphine refers to an e-mail sent out to the university’s CATSONCAMPUS listserv during the fierce TNR debate in Athens, which read in part:

“There are some folks in the area (and all over) who are not only Anti-TNR, they also hate felines so much that some of them want to round up the cats in the area and kill them.”

Two years later, this is pretty much what Nico Dauphine stands accused of.

Literature Cited
1. Dauphine, N. and Cooper, R.J., Impacts of Free-ranging Domestic Cats (Felis catus) on birds in the United States: A review of recent research with conservation and management recommendations, in Fourth International Partners in Flight Conference: Tundra to Tropics. 2009. p. 205–219. http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/pif/pubs/McAllenProc/articles/PIF09_Anthropogenic%20Impacts/Dauphine_1_PIF09.pdf

2. Dauphine, N. and Cooper, R.J., “Pick One: Outdoor Cats or Conservation.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 50–56.

3. Longcore, T., Rich, C., and Sullivan, L.M., “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return.” Conservation Biology. 2009. 23(4): p. 887–894. http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/pdf/Management_claims_feral_cats.pdf

4. Coleman, J.S. and Temple, S.A., “Rural Residents’ Free-Ranging Domestic Cats: A Survey.” Wildlife Society Bulletin. 1993. 21(4): p. 381–390. http://www.jstor.org/pss/3783408

5. Crooks, K.R. and Soulé, M.E., “Mesopredator release and avifaunal extinctions in a fragmented system.” Nature. 1999. 400(6744): p. 563–566. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v400/n6744/abs/400563a0.html

6. Lepczyk, C.A., Mertig, A.G., and Liu, J., “Landowners and cat predation across rural-to-urban landscapes.” Biological Conservation. 2003. 115(2): p. 191–201. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6V5X-48D39DN-5/2/d27bfff8454a44161f8dc1ad7cc585ea

7. 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

8. Jessup, D.A., “The welfare of feral cats and wildlife.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1377-1383. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15552312

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

9. Sax, D.F. and Gaines, S.D., Species invasions and extinction: The future of native biodiversity on islands, in In the Light of Evolution II: Biodiversity and Extinction,. 2008: Irvine, CA. p. 11490–11497. www.pnas.org/content/105/suppl.1/11490.full

http://www.pnas.org/content/105/suppl.1/11490.full.pdf

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

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

11. Gill, F.B., Ornithology. 2nd ed. 1995, New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

12. Stallcup, R., “A reversible catastrophe.” Observer 91. 1991(Spring/Summer): p. 8–9. http://www.prbo.org/cms/print.php?mid=530

http://www.prbo.org/cms/docs/observer/focus/focus29cats1991.pdf

Friends with Benefits

According to their 2009 Annual Report (the most recent available), Friends Of the National Zoo raised $17.5M in “total support and revenue” during 2009. Of that, $1.4M went to the National Zoo and Smithsonian Institution. But FONZ support doesn’t end there.

Consider the response I received from a FONZ spokesperson when I inquired about their position on the Zoo’s decision to keep Nico Dauphine on board:

Thank you for contacting the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and FONZ regarding the allegations against Dr. Nico Dauphine, a postdoctoral research fellow based within the Migratory Bird Center. We take our role as the nation’s zoo very seriously and work hard to provide leadership in animal care, conservation science, education, and sustainability.

Animal care is one of the Zoo’s top priorities, and we appreciate when visitors share our passion and concern for our animals’ well-being. Please be assured that Dr. Dauphine’s research in no way jeopardizes animals, and the Smithsonian has taken appropriate temporary precautions with respect to her postdoctoral appointment. These restrictions will allow this matter to be fairly resolved within the judicial system.

Our leadership team thanks you for sharing our passion for the Zoo, and your continued support is greatly appreciated.

Now, compare that to the response a colleague received about the same time from the National Zoo (this shouldn’t take long):

Thank you for contacting the Smithsonian’s National Zoo regarding the allegations against Dr. Nico Dauphine, a postdoctoral research fellow based within the Migratory Bird Center. We take our role as the nation’s zoo very seriously and work hard to provide leadership in animal care, conservation science, education, and sustainability.

Animal care is one of the Zoo’s top priorities, and we appreciate when visitors share our passion and concern for our animals’ well-being. Please be assured that Dr. Dauphine’s research in no way jeopardizes animals, and the Smithsonian has taken appropriate temporary precautions with respect to her postdoctoral appointment. These restrictions will allow this matter to be fairly resolved within the judicial system.

Our leadership team thanks you for sharing our passion for the Zoo, and your continued support is greatly appreciated.

All this talk of leadership and animal care seems like a mix of wishful thinking and damage control more than anything else. Would the reaction—from either the Zoo or FONZ—be the same if the animals involved weren’t neighborhood cats, but animals in the Zoo’s collection? I rather doubt it.

(Oh, and for the record: the Zoo does not have my continued support.)

•     •     •

“A friend will help you move,” goes the old joke. “A good friend will help you move a body.”

When FONZ says they’re “the dedicated partner of the National Zoological Park,” they mean it. Indeed, FONZ seems just as interested as the National Zoo in sweeping this whole “attempted animal cruelty” business under the rug. (Imagine: bad press the week before the busy Memorial Day weekend!)

Earlier this week, I sent my comments to National Zoo director Dennis Kelly via the Zoo’s incredibly opaque contact form. It turns out the same form is used to contact FONZ—bringing to mind the image of a series of individual recycling bins that, in fact, all lead to the same destination: the trash. Rather than falling for the same trick once more, then, I’m posting my message to FONZ right here:

Friends don’t let friends employ accused cat killers.

Perfectly Comfortable? I’m Not.

As many of you know, the National Zoo has shown no signs of suspending Nico Dauphine, despite her recent arrest on charges of attempted animal cruelty. As a result, at least two petitions are being circulated—one by Alley Cat Rescue, and another by Alley Cat Allies.

I encourage readers to sign both petitions, and also to send letters (an online form is available here). Below is my letter to National Zoo director Dennis Kelly:

Dear Dennis Kelly,

As you know, the National Zoo’s mission emphasizes leadership—in animal care, science, and education—as well as “the highest quality animal care.” But recent events indicate that Zoo management has lost sight of this noble mission.

Indeed, allowing Dr. Nico Dauphine—recently charged with attempted animal cruelty in connection with the poisoning of cats in her neighborhood—to continue her work for the Zoo’s Migratory Bird Center demonstrates a profound lack of leadership, and suggests a remarkably narrow view of “animal care.”

Comments made last week by the Zoo’s associate director of communications, Pamela Baker-Masson, only made matters worse—suggesting that Zoo management isn’t even aware of the research Dauphine is conducting. Baker-Masson told ABC News:

“We know what she’s doing would in no way jeopardize our animal collection at the National Zoo or jeopardize wildlife, so we feel perfectly comfortable that she continue her research.”

But, according to the Migratory Bird Center’s Website, Dauphine’s “current project examines predator-prey dynamics in an urban matrix in collaboration with citizen scientists at Neighborhood Nestwatch.”

The predators in this case are, of course, house cats. And, according to an online application form she’s been using to recruit field assistants (the form was recently removed from the Migratory Bird Center’s Website), Dauphine is asking participating citizen scientists to put cameras on their cats.

And still, the National Zoo feels “perfectly comfortable that she continue her research.” What kind of message does this send to the local community, and to the nation as a whole?

The Smithsonian’s 2009 Annual Report indicates that 75 percent of the organization’s revenue comes from “federal appropriations” (63 percent) and “government grants and contracts” (12 percent). One way or another, these are tax dollars. In standing by Dauphine, then, the National Zoo is violating the trust of its primary funding source: the American people (among whom, 38.9 million households own cats).

Finally, the National Zoo should use the current crisis as an opportunity to review its hiring practices. I think it’s safe to say that Dauphine’s reputation preceded her when she joined your organization. Her extreme position against TNR—and free-roaming cats in general—is well documented. As is her habit of misrepresenting the science surrounding the issue.

In her February 10, 2008, letter to the editor of the St. Petersburg Times, for example, Dauphine—who identifies herself as “a scientist who has studied this issue”—makes an outlandish claim:

“In North America, cats may be the single biggest direct cause of bird mortality, far outnumbering all other causes (including human hunters) put together!”

Not even the American Bird Conservancy—which has, for the past 15 years, taken every opportunity to demonize free-roaming cats—goes this far.

And yet, the National Zoo has Dauphine, together with Dr. Peter Marra (who, in a letter co-authored with Dr. Dauphine, has called TNR “cat hoarding without walls.”), [1] researching the hunting habits of house cats. All of which raises questions about the rigor and validity of the research being conducted—not to mention the integrity of those involved.

As the National Zoo’s director, you have the responsibility to address these issues. I am, therefore, asking you to start by suspending Dr. Dauphine until the charges of attempted animal cruelty are dropped, proven to be unfounded, or in some other way resolved.

Respectfully,

Peter J. Wolf
Independent Researcher/Analyst
Vox Felina

Literature Cited
1. Lepczyk, C.A., et al., “What Conservation Biologists Can Do to Counter Trap-Neuter-Return: Response to Longcore et al.” Conservation Biology. 2010. 24(2): p. 627–629. www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/pdf/Lepczyk-2010-Conservation%2520Biology.pdf

Nico Dauphine Update

Photo from an online application form Nico Dauphine was (until Tuesday) using to hire field assistants, whose duties include “assist[ing] citizen participants in deploying miniature collar-mounted cameras on their free-roaming pet domestic cats.”

Tuesday, while animal welfare organizations across the country were issuing statements condemning the alleged cruelty and urging justice in the case, Nico Dauphine’s employer was expressing a rather remarkable lack of concern.

Scott Giacoppo, Vice President External Affairs & Chief Programs Officer for the Washington Humane Society, questioned whether Dauphine should remain employed by the National Zoo in the event she’s convicted.

“If she did do this,” Giacoppo told ABC News, “then we naturally would be concerned about her being around all animals. Whoever would do such a thing is a threat to all animals. It is a slow and painful death. It was callous and complete disregard for animals’ well being.”

According to ABC News, evidence in the case is the result of WHS’s “month-long investigation monitoring video surveillance and matching card swipes in and out of an apartment complex near the scene of the alleged crime.”

The Humane Society of the United States [not affiliated with WHS] issued a statement “applaud[ing] the Washington Humane Society for its investigation” and “urg[ing] full prosecution by the U.S. Attorney’s Office if warranted.”

Alley Cat Allies president Becky Robinson called the story “troubling.” “Intentionally killing cats is illegal and cruel. Criminal charges in this case are appropriate and necessary.”

“Alley Cat Rescue vehemently disagrees with keeping Dauphine in her current position at the National Zoo,” reads a statement posted on the organization’s blog. “[ACR] believes she should be removed until an investigation into these allegations of animal cruelty has been completed.” ACR has started a petition aimed at getting Dauphine removed.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the National Zoo, which oversees the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center—where Dauphine works with her advisor, Peter Marra—was trying to play down the fact that one of its researchers is charged with attempted animal cruelty.

Pamela Baker-Masson, associate director of communications, told ABC News: “We know what she’s doing would in no way jeopardize our animal collection at the National Zoo or jeopardize wildlife, so we feel perfectly comfortable that she continue her research.”

Which begs the question: Does Baker-Masson actually know what Dauphine’s research is?

As I indicated Monday, when this story broke, Dauphine’s “current project examines predator-prey dynamics in an urban matrix in collaboration with citizen scientists at Neighborhood Nestwatch.”

The predators, in this case, are (not surprisingly) house cats. And, according to an online application form (which  mysteriously disappeared from the Smithsonian’s Website Tuesday) she’s been using to recruit field assistants, Dauphine is asking participants to put cameras on their cats—thus allowing her team to monitor the cats’ every move.

Granted, Dauphine’s yet to have her day in court, but still—at this point, who in their right mind would allow their cat to participate in any study sponsored by the Migratory Bird Center.

Predator-Prey Dynamics In an Urban Matrix

According to the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center, Nico Dauphine’s “current project examines predator-prey dynamics in an urban matrix in collaboration with citizen scientists at Neighborhood Nestwatch.” But according to news stories coming out of the Washington, DC, area this evening, it seems Dauphine may have taken on the role of predator herself.

NBC reports: “Authorities say they suspect Nico Dauphine, a PhD who specializes in bird conservation, was poisoning feral cats in her Columbia Heights neighborhood.”

Regular readers will recognize Dauphine’s name immediately, as I’ve been highly critical of her work from the very beginning of Vox Felina. It was, for example, a paper [1] she co-authored with Robert J. Cooper (published in the Proceedings of the Fourth International Partners In Flight Conference) that Steve Holmer, senior policy advisor for American Bird Conservancy, used to justify his bogus claim that “there are about . . . 160 million feral cats” in the U.S.

I’ve pointed out, more than once, Dauphine’s dubious scholarship—citing David Jessup’s unattributed “estimate” of “60 to 100 million feral and abandoned cats in the United States,” [2] for example. Or ignoring the results of multiple surveys suggesting that roughly two-thirds of pet cats are kept indoors, in stark contrast to Dauphine’s assertion that “65 percent, or 57 million, are free-ranging outdoor cats for at least some portion of the day.” [1]

She also misinterprets/misrepresents William George’s classic study, suggesting that “only about half of animals killed by cats were provided to their owners,” [1] thereby creating a convenient multiplier where predation is concerned.

More recently, she and Cooper were responsible for “Pick One: Outdoor Cats or Conservation,” a lengthy article in a special section of the Spring Issue of The Wildlife Professional called “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats.” Which was, not surprisingly, plagued with the same exaggerations, misrepresentations, and errors I’ve come to expect. (Dauphine also authored “Follow the Money: The Economics of TNR Advocacy,” in the same issue—where she does to the political and economic aspects of the debate what she and her colleagues have been doing to the scientific side of the debate for years now.)

•     •     •

Obviously, there’s a great deal we don’t know at this point. According to the NBC story, Dauphine “denies the accusations, saying, ‘her whole life is devoted to the care and welfare of animals.’”

At the same time, it’s my understanding that Dauphine was charged with the same crime accused of similar activities when she was living in Georgia. Perhaps we’ll find out more, one way or the other, about that case as the current case unfolds.

In any event, if these charges prove to be true, Daupine is going to have a lot of explaining—and perhaps a little time—to do.

Literature Cited
1. Dauphine, N. and Cooper, R.J., Impacts of Free-ranging Domestic Cats (Felis catus) on birds in the United States: A review of recent research with conservation and management recommendations, in Fourth International Partners in Flight Conference: Tundra to Tropics. 2009. p. 205–219. http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/pif/pubs/McAllenProc/articles/PIF09_Anthropogenic%20Impacts/Dauphine_1_PIF09.pdf

2. Jessup, D.A., “The welfare of feral cats and wildlife.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1377-1383. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15552312

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

It’s Not the Media, It’s the Message

To hear The Wildlife Society’s staunch opponents of TNR tell it, the media’s just not interested in stories about “the impacts of free-ranging and feral cats on wildlife.”

“This January when thousands of blackbirds fell from the sky in Arkansas, articles about mass extinctions and bird conservation were a dime-a-dozen. When the Deepwater Horizon oil spill killed 6,000 birds between April to October 2010, news organizations ran ‘Breaking News’ about the negative impacts on the environment. Meanwhile it is estimated that one million birds are killed everyday by cats, and the only news organizations covering it are small, local branches. The bigger problem is being shuffled to the backburner for more sensational news.”

According to The Wildlife Society (TWS), however, “the bigger problem” is “greater than almost any other single-issue.”

In their effort to get the issue on the front burner, TWS has “gathered the facts about these cats, and published them in the Spring Issue of The Wildlife Professional in a special section called ‘The Impact of Free Ranging Cats.’” (available free via issuu.com)

Thus armed, readers are expected to, as it says on the cover, “Pick One: Outdoor Cats or Conservation”

Back Burner or Hot Topic?
Before we get to the “facts,” it’s worth looking back over the past 15 months to see just how neglectful the media have been re: “the bigger problem.”

  • January 9, 2010: Travis Longcore, science director for the Urban Wildlands Group, tells Southern California Public Radio: “Feral cats are documented predators of native wildlife. We do not support release of this non-native predator into our open spaces and neighborhoods, where they kill birds and other wildlife.”
  • January 17, 2010 Longcore, whose Urban Wildlands Group was lead plaintiff in a lawsuit aimed to put an end to publicly supported TNR in Los Angeles, tells the L.A. Times: “It’s ugly; it’s gotten very vicious. It’s not like we’ve got a vendetta here. This is a real environmental issue, a real public health issue.” In the same story, American Bird Conservancy’s Senior Policy Advisor, Steve Holmer, tells the Times: “The latest estimates are that there are about . . . 160 million feral cats [nationwide]… It’s conservatively estimated that they kill about 500 million birds a year.”

  • September 30, 2010: “Scientists are quietly raging about the effects that cats, both owned and stray, are having on bird populations,” claims Washington Post columnist Adrian Higgins. “It’s not an issue that has received much attention, but with an estimated 90 million pet cats in the United States, two-thirds of them allowed outdoors, the cumulative effect on birds is significant, according to experts.” Higgins’ story is riddled with misinformation, courtesy of the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), The Wildlife Society, and Dauphine and Cooper’s 2009 Partners in Flight paper.

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

  • January 2011: Utah Representative Curtis Oda sponsors HB 210, which would permit “the humane shooting of an animal in an unincorporated area of a county, where hunting is not prohibited, if the person doing the shooting has a reasonable belief that the animal is a feral animal.”

Yet, the folks at TWS would have us believe that “the only news organizations covering [the cat-bird issue] are small, local branches.” As is often the case, their story doesn’t hold up well alongside the facts.

Indeed, other than when Higgins got Executive Director/CEO Michael Hutchins’ name wrong, it’s hard to see what TWS has to complain about.

The Art of Selling Science
“After years of arguments,” laments Nico Dauphine and Robert Cooper, recalling last year’s decision by Athens, GA, to adopt TNR, “the vote was cast: 9–1 in favor of the ordinance, with an additional 7–3 vote establishing a $10,000 annual budget to support the TNR program.”

“How could this happen in a progressive community like Athens, Georgia, home to one of the nation’s finest university programs in wildlife science? The answer is a complex mix of money, politics, intense emotions, and deeply divergent perspectives on animal welfare… If we’re going to win the battle to save wildlife from cats, then we’ll need to be smarter about how we communicate the science.” [1]

Something tells me this “smarter” communication doesn’t allow for much in the way of honesty and transparency—attributes already in short supply.

Old Habits
“The Impact of Free Ranging Cats” has given its contributors the opportunity to revive and reinforce a range of dubious claims, including the ever-popular exaggerations about the number of free-roaming cats in the environment.

According to Dauphine and Cooper, “The number of outdoor pet cats, strays, and feral cats in the U.S. alone now totals approximately 117 to 157 million,” [1] an estimate rooted in their earlier creative accounting. Colin Gillin, president of the American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians, who penned this issue’s “Leadership Letter” (more on that later), follows suit, claiming  “60 million or more pet cats are allowed outdoors to roam free.” [2]

The American Pet Products Association 2008 National Pet Owners Survey, though, indicates that 64 percent of pet cats are indoor-only during the daytime, and 69 percent are kept in at night [3]. Of those that are allowed outdoors, approximately half are outside for less than three hours each day. [4, 5]

This information is widely available—and has been for years—yet many TNR opponents continue to inflate by a factor of two the number of free-roaming pet cats.

And it only gets worse from here.

Dense and Denser
Not content to inflate absolute cat numbers, Dauphine and Cooper go on to misrepresent research into population demographics as well. “Local densities can be extremely high,” they write, “reaching up to 1,580 cats per square kilometer in urban areas.” [1] In fact, the very paper they cite paints a rather different picture. For one thing, there’s quite a range involved: 132–1,579 cats per square kilometer (a point recognized by Yolanda van Heezik, another contributor to the special issue [6].)

Also, this is a highly skewed distribution—there are lots of instances of low/medium density, while high densities are far less common. As a result, the median (417) is used “as a measure of central tendency” [7] rather than the mean (856). So, although densities “reaching up to 1,580 cats per square kilometer in urban areas” were observed, more than half fell between 132 and 417 cats per square kilometer (or 51–161 cats per square mile).

Even more interesting, however, are what Sims et al. learned when they compared bird density and cat density: in many cases, there were more birds in the very areas where there were more cats—even species considered especially vulnerable to predation by cats. It may be, suggest Sims et al., that, because high cat density corresponds closely to high housing density, this measure is also an indication of those areas “where humans provide more supplementary food for birds.” [7]

Another explanation: “consistently high cat densities in our study areas… and thus uniformly high impacts of cat populations on urban avian assemblages.” [7] (Interestingly, the authors never consider that they might be observing uniformly low impacts.)

The bottom line? It’s difficult enough to show a direct link between observed predation and population impacts; suggesting a causal connection between high cat densities and declining bird populations is misleading and irresponsible. (Not that Dauphine and Cooper are the only ones to attempt it; recall that no predation data from Coleman and Temple’s “Wisconsin Study” were ever published, despite numerous news stories in which Temple referred to their existence in some detail [8–10].)

Predation Pressure
Dauphine and Cooper make a similar leap when, to buttress their claim that “TNR does not reduce predation pressure on native wildlife,” [1] they cite a study not about predation, but about the home ranges of 27 feral cats on Catalina Island.

While it’s true that the researchers found “no significant differences… in home-range areas or overlap between sterilized and intact cats,” [11] this has as much due to their tiny sample size as anything else. And the difference in range size between the four intact males and the four sterilized males was—while not statistically significant—revealing.

The range of intact males was 33–116 percent larger during the non-breeding season, and 68–80 percent larger during the breeding season. In his study of “house-bound” cats, Liberg, too, found differences: “breeding males had ranges of 350–380 hectares; ranges of subordinate, non-breeding males were around 80 hectares, or not much larger than those of females.” [12]

All of which suggests smaller ranges for males that are part of TNR programs. What any of this has to do with “predation pressure on native wildlife,” however, remains an open question.

On the other hand, Castillo and Clarke (whose paper Dauphine and Cooper cite) actually documented remarkably little predation among the TNR colonies they studied. In fact, 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” [13] prior to beginning their research), Castillo and Clarke “saw cats kill a juvenile common yellowthroat and a blue jay. Cats also caught and ate green anoles, bark anoles, and brown anoles. In addition, we found the carcasses of a gray catbird and a juvenile opossum in the feeding area” [13].

Another of Dauphine and Cooper’s “facts”—that “TNR does not typically reduce feral cat populations”—is contradicted by another one of the studies they cite. Contrary to what the authors suggest, Felicia Nutter’s PhD thesis work showed that “colonies managed by trap-neuter-return were stable in composition and declining in size throughout the seven year follow-up period.” [14]

Indeed, Nutter observed a mean decrease of 36 percent (range: 30–89 percent) in the six TNR colonies they studied over two years. By contrast, the three control colonies increased in size an average of 47 percent. [15]

Additional TNR success stories Dauphine and Cooper fail to acknowledge:

  • Natoli et al. reported a 16–32 percent decrease in population size over a 10-year period across 103 colonies in Rome—despite a 21 percent rate of “cat immigration.” [16]
  • As of 2004, ORCAT, run by the Ocean Reef Community Associa­tion (in the Florida Keys), had reduced its “overall population from approximately 2,000 cats to 500 cats.” [17] Accord­ing to the ORCAT Website, the population today is approximately 350, of which only about 250 are free-roaming.

Toxoplasma gondii
In recent years, Toxoplasma gondii has been linked to the illness and death of marine life, primarily sea otters [18], prompting investigation into the possible role of free-roaming (both owned and feral) cats. [19, 20] But if, as the authors claim, “the science points to cats,” then it does so rather obliquely, an acknowledgement Jessup and Miller make begrudgingly:

“Based on proximity and sheer numbers, outdoor pet and feral domestic cats may be the most important source of T. gondii oocysts in near-shore marine waters. Mountain lions and bobcats rarely dwell near the ocean or in areas of high human population density, where sea otter infections are more common.” [21, emphasis mine]

Correlation, however, is not the same as causation. And not all T. gondii is the same.

In a study of southern sea otters from coastal California, conducted between 1998 and 2004, a team of researches—including Jessup and Miller—found that 36 of 50 otters were infected with the Type X strain of T. gondii, one of at least four known strains. [22] Jessup and Miller were also among 14 co-authors of a 2008 paper (referenced in their contribution to “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats”) in which the Type X strain was linked not to domestic cats, but to wild felids:

“Three of the Type X-infected carnivores were wild felids (two mountain lions and a bobcat), but no domestic cats were Type X-positive. Examination of larger samples of wild and domestic felids will help clarify these initial findings. If Type X strains are detected more commonly from wild felids in subsequent studies, this could suggest that these animals are more important land-based sources of T. gondii for marine wildlife than are domestic cats.” [20, emphasis mine]

Combining the results of the two studies, then, nearly three-quarters of the sea otters examined as part of the 1998–2004 study were infected with a strain of T. gondii that hasn’t been traced to domestic cats. (I found this to be such surprising news that, months ago, I tried to contact Miller about it. Was I missing something? What studies were being conducted that might confirm or refute these finings? Etc. I never received a reply.)

As Miller et al. note, “subsequent studies” are in order. And it’s important to keep in mind their sample size was quite small: three bobcats, 26 mountain lions, and seven domestic cats (although the authors suggest at one point that only five domestic cats were included).

Still, a recently published study from Germany seems to support the hypothesis that the Type X strain isn’t found in domestic cats. Herrmann et al. analyzed 68 T. gondii-positive fecal samples (all from pet cats) and found no Type X strain. [23] (It’s interesting to note, too, that only 0.25 percent of the 18,259 samples tested positive for T. gondii.)

This is not to say that there’s no connection between domestic cats and Toxoplasmosis in sea otters, but that any “trickle-down effect,” as Jessup and Miller describe it, is not nearly as well understood as they imply. There’s too much we simply don’t know.

Money and Politics
I agree with Dauphine and Cooper that science is only part of the TNR debate—that it also involves “a complex mix of money, politics, intense emotions, and deeply divergent perspectives on animal welfare.” And I agree with their assessment of the progress being made by TNR supporters:

“Advocates of TNR have gained tremendous political strength in the U.S. in recent years. With millions of dollars in donor funding, they are influencing legislation and the policies of major animal-oriented nonprofit organizations.” [1]

What I find puzzling is Dauphine’s rather David-and-Goliath portrayal of the “cat lobby” (my term, not hers) they’re up against—in particular, her complaint, “promotion of TNR is big business, with such large amounts of money in play that conservation scientists opposing TNR can’t begin to compete.” [24]

The Cat Lobby
In “Follow the Money: The Economics of TNR Advocacy,” she notes that Best Friends Animal Society, “one of the largest organizations promoting TNR, took in over $40 million in revenue in 2009.” [24] Fair enough, but this needs to be weighed against expenses of $35.6 million—of which $15.5 million was spent on “animal care activities.”

But Dauphine’s got it wrong when she claims that Best Friends “spent more than $11 million on cat advocacy campaigns that year.” [24] Their financials—spelled out in the same document Dauphine cites—are unambiguous: $11.7 million in expenditures went to all “campaigns and other national outreach.” Indeed, there is no breakdown for “cat advocacy campaigns.”

Dauphine does a better job describing Alley Cat Allies’ 2010 financials: of the $5.2 million they took in, $3.3 million was spent in public outreach. But she’s overreaching in suggesting that their “Every Kitty, Every City” campaign is nationwide. For now, at least, it’s up and running in just “five major U.S. cities.”

Echoing Dauphine’s concerns, Florida attorney Pamela Jo Hatley decries ORCAT’s resources: “At a meeting hosted by the Ocean Reef Resort in June 2004,” recalls Hatley, “I learned that the ORCAT colony then had about 500 free-ranging cats, several paid employees, and an annual operating budget of some $100,000.” [25]

What Hatley fails to mention is how those resources have been used to make ORCAT a model for the rest of the country—using private donations. Hatley doesn’t seem to object to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shelling out $50,000—of tax dollars—in 2007 to round up fewer than 20 cats (some of which were clearly not feral) along with 81 raccoons (53 of which were released alive) in the Florida Keys. [26, 27]

Following the Money
According to their 2008 Form 990, ORCAT took in about $278,000 in revenue, compared to $310,000 in expenses. How does that compare to some of the organizations opposing TNR? A quick visit to Guidestar.com helps put things in perspective.

  • In 2009, ABC took in just under $6 million, slightly more than their expenses.
  • TWS had $2.3 million in revenue in 2009, which was more than offset by expenses of $2.5 million.
  • Friends of the National Zoo, which oversees the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, showed $15 million in revenue, just exceeding their 2009 expenses of $14.7 million. (The Smithsonian Institute topped $1 billion in both the revenue and expense categories.)
  • And the National Audubon Society took in $61.6 million in 2008 (the most recent year for which information is available). And, despite expenses in excess of $86 million, finished the year with more than $255 million in net assets.

These numbers clearly don’t reflect the funding each organization dedicates to opposing TNR—but neither do they offer any evidence that, as Dauphine argues, “conservation scientists opposing TNR can’t begin to compete.”

Intense Emotions
Nobody familiar with the TNR debate would suggest that it’s not highly emotional. How can it be otherwise? Indeed, the very idea of decoupling our emotions from such important discourse is rather absurd.

Having an emotional investment in the debate does not, however, make one irrational or stupid.

“On the surface,” suggest Dauphine and Cooper, their tone unmistakably condescending, “TNR may sound reasonable, even logical.” [1] Gillin, for his part, bemoans the way the TNR debate “quickly shifts from statistics to politics to emotional arguments.” [2]

What’s particularly fascinating about all of this—the way TNR supporters are made out to be irrational (if not mentally ill—as in a letter to Conservation Biology last year, when several TNR opponents, including four contributors to “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats,” compared TNR to hoarding [28])—is just how emotionally charged the appeal of TNR opponents is.

Witness the “gruesome gallery of images,” for example, in which “one cat lies dead with a broken leg, one lies dying in a coat of maggots, and another suffers as ticks and ear mites plague its face.” [1] The idea, of course, is that these cats would have been better off if they’d been rounded up and killed “humanely.” A preemptive strike against the inevitability of “short, brutal lives.” (This phrase, which I first saw used by Jessup, [28] has become remarkably popular among TNR opponents.)

But is it that simple? Applying the same logic (if that’s what it is) to pelicans covered in oil, for instance, would we suggest that these birds should either be in captivity or “humanely euthanized”? Obviously not.

Divergent Perspectives on Animal Welfare
While I disagree that “the debate is predominately about whether cats should be allowed to run wild across the landscape and, if not, how to effectively and humanely manage them,” [29] I tend to agree with Lepczyk et al. when they write:

“It’s much more about human views and perceptions than science—a classic case where understanding the human dimensions of an issue is the key to mitigating the problem.” [29]

But, like Dauphine and Cooper, Lepczyk et al. seem more interested in broadcasting their message—loudly, ad nauseam—than in listening. “We need to understand whether people are even aware,” they write, “of the cumulative impact that their actions—choosing to let cats outdoors—can have on wildlife populations.” [29]

Although it’s packaged somewhat “softly,” we’re back to the same old speculative connections between predation and population impacts (familiar terrain for Lepczyk, who tried to connect these same dots in his PhD research). But how much of a connection is there, really? In their review of 61 predation studies, Mike Fitzgerald and Dennis Turner are unambiguous:

“We consider that we do not have enough information yet to attempt to estimate on average how many birds a cat kills each year. And there are few, if any studies apart from island ones that actually demonstrate that cats have reduced bird populations.” [30]

While the tone used by Lepczyk et al. is very much “we’re all in this together,” their prescription for “moving forward” suggests little common ground. (They actually cite that 2010 letter to Conservation Biology [28]—not much of an olive branch.)

“One approach is exemplified in Hawaii,” explain the authors, “where we’ve become part of a large coalition of stakeholders working together with the shared goal of reducing and eventually removing feral cats from the landscape.” [29] So, who’s involved?

“Our diverse group includes individuals from the Humane Society of the United States, the Hawaiian Humane Society, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, and the University of Hawaii. Our team also regularly interacts with other groups around the nation such as regional Audubon Societies and the American Bird Conservancy. Several stakeholders in the group have differing views, such as on whether or not euthanasia or culling is appropriate, or whether people should feed feral cats.” [29]

Other than the Humane Society organizations (whose position on TNR I don’t take for granted, considering they were early supporters of ABC’s Cats Indoors! campaign [31]), I don’t see a real diversity of views in this coalition.

I suppose it’s easy to make room at the table when you’re offering so few seats.

For Dauphine, though, any such collaboration approaches treason. Or selling out, at least.

“In some cases,” she explains, “conservation groups accept funding to join in efforts promoting TNR. The New Jersey Audubon Society, for example, had previously rejected TNR but began supporting it in 2005, acknowledging funding from the Frankenberg and Dodge Foundations for collaboration with TNR groups.” [24]

Dauphine doesn’t go into detail about the amount of funding, and it’s not clear what, if any, role it played in the decision by NJAS (which took in $6.8 million in 2008) to participate in the New Jersey Feral Cat-Wildlife Coalition—the kind of collaborative effort that should be encouraged, not derided:

“From 2002 to 2005, NJAS had actively opposed the practice of TNR in New Jersey. Despite this opposition, municipalities continued to adopt TNR ordinances. In 2005, NJAS, American Bird Conservancy, Neighborhood Cats and Burlington Feral Cat Initiative began exploratory dialogue about implementing standards to protect rare wildlife vulnerable to cat predation in towns which have already adopted TNR programs.” [32]

Message Received, Loud and Clear
Rather than wringing their hands over how to “better communicate the science” [1] or how to better facilitate “legal or policy changes, incentives, and increased education,” [29] TNR opponents might want to reconsider the message itself.

What they are proposing is the killing—on an unprecedented scale—of this country’s most popular pet.

I don’t imagine this tests well with focus groups and donors, of course, but there it is.

These people seem perplexed by a community’s willingness to adopt TNR (“In the end,” lament Lepczyk et al., referring to the decision in Athens, GA, “the professional opinion of wildlife biologists counted no more than that of any other citizen, a major reason for the defeat.” [29]) but fail to recognize how profoundly unpalatable their alternative is.

And, unworkable, too.

Which may explain why it’s virtually impossible to get them to discuss their “plan” in any detail. (I was unsuccessful, for example, in pinning down Travis Longcore during our back-and-forth on the Audubon magazine’s blog and couldn’t get Jessup or Hutchins to bite when I asked the same question during an online discussion of public health risks.)

In light of what’s involved with “successful” eradication programs, I’m not surprised by their eagerness to change the subject.

  • On Marion Island, it took 19 years to eradicate something like 2,200 cats—using disease (feline distemper), poisoning, intensive hunting and trapping, and dogs. This on an island that’s only 115 square miles in total area, barren, and uninhabited. [33, 34] The cost, I’m sure, was astronomical.
  • On the sparsely populated (fewer than 1,000, according to Wikipedia) Ascension Island (less than 34 total square miles), a 2003 eradication effort cost nearly $950,000 (adjusted to 2009 dollars). [35]
  • A 2000 effort on Tuhua (essentially uninhabited, and just 4.9 square miles) ran $78,591 (again, adjusted to 2009 dollars). [35]
  • Efforts on Macquarie Island (also small—47.3 square miles—and essentially uninhabited) proved particularly costly: $2.7 million in U.S. (2009) dollars. And still counting. The resulting rebound in rabbit and rodent numbers prompted “Federal and State governments in Australia [to commit] AU$24 million for an integrated rabbit, rat and mouse eradication programme.” [36] (To put this into context, Macquarie Island is about one-third the size of the Florida Keys.)

These examples represent, in many ways, low-hanging fruit. By contrast, “the presence of non-target species and the need to safely mitigate for possible harmful effects, along with substantial environmental compliance requirements raised the cost of the eradication.” [37] Eradicating rodents from Anacapa Island, “a small [1.2-square-mile] island just 80 miles from Los Angeles International Airport, cost about $2 million.” [38]

Now—setting aside the horrors involved—how exactly do TNR opponents propose to rid the U.S. of it’s millions of feral cats? [cue the sound track of crickets chirping]

I think the general public is starting to catch on. Even if they fall for the outlandish claims about predation, wildlife impacts, and all the rest—they don’t see anything in the way of a real solution. As Mark Kumpf, former president of the National Animal Control Association, put it in an interview with Animal Sheltering magazine, “the traditional methods that many communities use… are not necessarily the ones that communities are looking for today.” [39]

“Traditional” approaches to feral cat management (i.e., trap-and-kill) are, says Kumpf, akin to “bailing the ocean with a thimble.” [39]

For all their apparent interest—22 pages in the current issue of The Wildlife Professional alone—TWS might as well be handing out thimbles to its members. Although Gillin’s “Leadership Letter” invites “dialogue among all stakeholders,” it offers nothing substantive to advance the discussion:

“If removal and euthanasia of unadoptable feral cats is not acceptable to TNR proponents, then they need to offer the conservation community a logical, science-based proposal that will solve the problem of this invasive species and its effect on wildlife and the environment.” [2]

So much for leadership.

Literature Cited
1. Dauphine, N. and Cooper, R.J., “Pick One: Outdoor Cats or Conservation.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 50–56.

2. Gillin, C., “The Cat Conundrum.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 10, 12.

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

4. Lord, L.K., “Attitudes toward and perceptions of free-roaming cats among individuals living in Ohio.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2008. 232(8): p. 1159-1167. http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/javma_232_8_1159.pdf

5. Clancy, E.A., Moore, A.S., and Bertone, E.R., “Evaluation of cat and owner characteristics and their relationships to outdoor access of owned cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2003. 222(11): p. 1541-1545. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2003.222.1541

6. van Heezik, Y., “A New Zealand Perspective.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 70.

7. Sims, V., et al., “Avian assemblage structure and domestic cat densities in urban environments.” Diversity and Distributions. 2008. 14(2): p. 387–399. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1472-4642.2007.00444.x

8. Wilson, M. (1997). Cats Roaming Free Take a Toll on Songbirds. Boston Globe, p. 11.

9. Seppa, N. (1993, July 22). Millions of Songbirds, Rabbits Disappearing. Wisconsin State Journal, p. 1A.

10.  Wozniak, M.D. (1993, August 3). Feline felons: Barn cats are just murder on songbirds. The Milwaukee Journal, p. A1.

11. Guttilla, D.A. and Stapp, P., “Effects of sterilization on movements of feral cats at a wildland-urban interface.”Journal of Mammalogy. 2010. 91(2): p. 482–489. http://dx.doi.org/10.1644/09-MAMM-A-111.1

12. Liberg, O. and Sandell, M., Spatial organisation and reproductive tactics in the domestic cat and other felids, in The Domestic cat: The biology of its behaviour, D.C. Turner and P.P.G. Bateson, Editors. 1988, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge; New York. p. 83–98.

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

14. Nutter, F.B., Evaluation of a Trap-Neuter-Return Management Program for Feral Cat Colonies: Population Dynamics, Home Ranges, and Potentially Zoonotic Diseases, in Comparative Biomedical Department. 2005, North Carolina State University: Raleigh, NC. p. 224.

15. Stoskopf, M.K. and Nutter, F.B., “Analyzing approaches to feral cat management—one size does not fit all.”Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1361–1364. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15552309

www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/javma_225_9_1361.pdf

16.  Natoli, E., et al., “Management of feral domestic cats in the urban environment of Rome (Italy).” Preventive Veterinary Medicine. 2006. 77(3-4): p. 180-185. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6TBK-4M33VSW-1/2/0abfc80f245ab50e602f93060f88e6f9

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

17. Levy, J.K. and Crawford, P.C., “Humane strategies for controlling feral cat populations.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1354–1360. http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/default.asp

http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/javma_225_9_1354.pdf

18. Jones, J.L. and Dubey, J.P., “Waterborne toxoplasmosis – Recent developments.” Experimental Parasitology. 124(1): p. 10-25. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6WFH-4VXB8YT-2/2/8f9562f64497fe1a30513ba3f000c8dc

19. Dabritz, H.A., et al., “Outdoor fecal deposition by free-roaming cats and attitudes of cat owners and nonowners toward stray pets, wildlife, and water pollution.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2006. 229(1): p. 74-81. http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/javma_229_1_74.pdf

20. Miller, M.A., et al., “Type X Toxoplasma gondii in a wild mussel and terrestrial carnivores from coastal California: New linkages between terrestrial mammals, runoff and toxoplasmosis of sea otters.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2008. 38(11): p. 1319-1328. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6T7F-4RXJYTT-2/2/32d387fa3048882d7bd91083e7566117

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

22. Conrad, P.A., et al., “Transmission of Toxoplasma: Clues from the study of sea otters as sentinels of Toxoplasma gondii flow into the marine environment.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2005. 35(11-12): p. 1155-1168. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6T7F-4GWC8KV-2/2/2845abdbb0fd82c37b952f18ce9d0a5f

23. Herrmann, D.C., et al., “Atypical Toxoplasma gondii genotypes identified in oocysts shed by cats in Germany.”International Journal for Parasitology. 2010. 40(3): p. 285–292. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6T7F-4X1J771-2/2/dc32f5bba34a6cce28041d144acf1e7c

24. Dauphine, N., “Follow the Money: The Economics of TNR Advocacy.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 54.

25. Hatley, P.J., “Incompatible Neighbors in the Florida Keys.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 52–53.

26. O’Hara, T. (2007, April 3). Fish & Wildlife Service to begin removing cats from Keys refuges. The Key West Citizen, from http://keysnews.com/archives

27. n.a., Lower Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Comprehensive Conservation Plan. 2009, U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service: Atlanta, GA. http://www.fws.gov/nationalkeydeer/

http://www.fws.gov/southeast/planning/PDFdocuments/Florida%20Keys%20FINAL/TheKeysFinalCCPFormatted.pdf

28. Jessup, D.A., “The welfare of feral cats and wildlife.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1377-1383. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15552312

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

29. Lepczyk, C.A., van Heezik, Y., and Cooper, R.J., “An Issue with All-Too-Human Dimensions.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 68–70.

30. Fitzgerald, B.M. and Turner, D.C., Hunting Behaviour of domestic cats and their impact on prey populations, in The Domestic Cat: The biology of its behaviour, D.C. Turner and P.P.G. Bateson, Editors. 2000, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, U.K.; New York. p. 151–175.

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

32. Stiles, E., NJAS Works with Coalition to Reduce Bird Mortality from Outdoor Cats. 2008, New Jersey Audubon Society. http://www.njaudubon.org/Portals/10/Conservation/PDF/ConsReportSpring08.pdf

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

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

34. Bloomer, J.P. and Bester, M.N., “Control of feral cats on sub-Antarctic Marion Island, Indian Ocean.” Biological Conservation. 1992. 60(3): p. 211-219. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6V5X-48XKBM6-T0/2/06492dd3a022e4a4f9e437a943dd1d8b

35. Martins, T.L.F., et al., “Costing eradications of alien mammals from islands.” Animal Conservation. 2006. 9(4): p. 439–444. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1469-1795.2006.00058.x/abstract

http://i3n.iabin.net/documents/pdf/Costingeradicationsofalienmammalsfromislands.pdf

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

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

37. Donlan, C.J. and Heneman, B., Maximizing Return on Investments for Island Restoration with a Focus on Seabird Conservation. 2007, Advanced Conservation Strategies: Santa Cruz, CA. http://www.advancedconservation.org/roi/ACS_Seabird_ROI_Report.pdf

38. Donlan, C.J. and Wilcox, C., Complexities of costing eradications, in Animal Conservation. 2007, Wiley-Blackwell. p. 154–156. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1469-1795.2007.00101.x/abstract

http://www.advancedconservation.org/library/donlan_&_wilcox_2007a.pdf

39. Hettinger, J., Taking a Broader View of Cats in the Community, in Animal Sheltering. 2008. p. 8–9. http://www.animalsheltering.org/resource_library/magazine_articles/sep_oct_2008/taking_a_broader_view_of_cats.html

http://www.animalsheltering.org/resource_library/magazine_articles/sep_oct_2008/broader_view_of_cats.pdf

Best Available Science?

After a while, I suppose, such things will no longer surprise me.

A couple weeks ago, the American Bird Conservancy released a statement in support of the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex Integrated Predator Management Plan/Draft Environmental Assessment proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS):

“American Bird Conservancy, the nation’s leading bird conservation organization, and 27 additional science and conservation organizations have signed a letter to the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuge supporting their plans to remove cats and cat feeding stations found on refuge lands in the Keys because of the harm they are causing to birds and other wildlife, including endangered species.”

No surprise there, really. It’s the following paragraph that caught my eye:

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deserves credit for bringing the best available science to bear on the management of exotic predators inhabiting National Wildlife Refuge lands regardless of the emotional aspects of the issue,” said Steve Holmer, Senior Policy Advisor for American Bird Conservancy. “Given the overwhelming evidence of harm to native birds inhabiting and migrating through the Keys, this predator management plan offers hope for healthier environment.”

“Best available science”? Are we talking about the same document here?

Granted, this is Steve Holmer—the same guy who, a year ago, told the Los Angeles Times that there are 160 million feral cats in the U.S. (a figure he arrived at by “reinterpreting” the already inflated figure proposed by Dauphine and Cooper).

In other words, consider the source.

Among the letter’s highlights (the letter itself doesn’t seem to be available, which is a shame, as I’m very interested in knowing which other “science and conservation organizations” are supporters):

“…cat predation accounted for 50 percent and 77 percent of mortality of two endangered species—the Lower Keys Marsh Rabbit and the Key Largo Woodrat.”

Lower Keys Marsh Rabbit
ABC’s claim about cats being responsible for half the mortality of marsh rabbits doesn’t actually correspond with what’s in the USFWS plan:

“Free-roaming domestic cat predation accounted for 50 percent of adult Lower Keys marsh rabbit mortality during radio telemetry studies and was cited as the largest factor limiting their population viability in the 1990s (Forys and Humphrey 1999).” [1]

During her PhD dissertation work, Elizabeth Forys’ found that 13 of 24 rabbits monitored over the course of her research were killed by cats, [2] findings she described four years later (in the paper cited by USFWS) this way:

“Twenty-seven (18 M, 9 F) of the 43 radiocollared individuals died during our 2.5-year study. Domestic cats killed the most marsh rabbits (53 percent of all mortality), killing nearly an equal number of both juvenile and adult marsh rabbits.” [3]

ABC misrepresents both Forys’ work and the USFWS plan by transforming those 13 marsh rabbits into “50 percent of mortality of [this] endangered species.” And this is too straightforward to be an accident.

For what it’s worth, this has been done before.

Impact of Cats on Marsh Rabbits
The Multi-Species Recovery Plan (MSRP) for South Florida, published in 1999 by USFWS, refers repeatedly to Forys’ work, noting, for example:

“Although habitat loss is responsible for the original decline of the Lower Keys marsh rabbit, high mortality from cats may be the greatest current threat to the persistence of the Lower Keys marsh rabbit [4].”

The report’s authors alternate between concessions and allegations, the latter of which are based on what can only be considered—even in the most generous light—circumstantial evidence. They acknowledge, for instance, that “a detailed study of cat diets in the Keys has not been conducted,” but then point out that “rabbits were the largest component of feral cat diets in several studies that have been conducted elsewhere (Jones and Coman 1981, Liberg 1985).” [5]

Let’s set aside for the moment the debate about whether or not two is considered “several” (and the fact that they got the year wrong on the Liberg study). Where exactly were those studies conducted? “Victorian Mallee, Kinchega National Park in western New South Wales, and the Victorian eastern highlands” [6] and “Revinge area in southern Sweden.” [7]

None of which, it’s safe to say, could be mistaken for the Florida Keys.

USFWS also acknowledges that “the exact extent [of predation by cats] cannot be determined,” though they imply that it must be increasing: “the number of cats present in the Lower Keys has increased over the past 20 years with the increase in the residential population.” [5]

(In fact, a number of studies have shown that cats will shift their “preferences” according to prey availability [see, for example, the review in 8]. Indeed, this was the case in the study from southern Sweden cited by USFWS: “Wild rabbits were the most important prey, and cats responded functionally to changes in abundance and availability of this prey.” [7])

The less common the rabbits, the less likely they are to fall prey to free-roaming cats.

Telling Stories
Somewhere along the line, though, the marsh rabbit story began to change.

An article in The Key West Citizen describing USFWS’s 2007 effort to round up cats in the Keys [9, 10] is a clear reference to—and equally clear misrepresentation of—Forys’ work:

“According to a 1999 U.S. Fish and Wildlife report, feral cats have killed 53 percent of marsh rabbits in the Lower Keys.” [9]

Contributors to the 2008 South Florida Environmental Report claim, “feral cats… have contributed to a 50 percent decline in populations of Hugh Hefner’s rabbits (Sylvilagus palustris hefneri, an endangered subspecies of marsh rabbit named for Hefner’s contributions to their research) on Big Pine Key (CNN.com, accessed May 20, 2007).” [11] I was unable to find anything at the CNN site, but suspect the story was nothing more than a pick-up of the story that ran in The Key West Citizen. (Florida residents will no doubt take great comfort in knowing that the South Florida Water Management District, publisher of the report, is unwilling to look any further than CNN.com for its science.)

In the 2009 book Invasive Species: Detection, Impact and Control, the story is much the same:

“[cats] have been a factor in the 50 percent decline in populations of the endangered Lower Keys marsh rabbit (Forys and Humphrey 1999).” [12]

In fact, Forys and Humphrey have little to say about the declining population:

“During the 1970s and 1980s, a period of intense habitat destruction, a decline in marsh rabbits was reported (Lazell 1984).” [3]

And Lazell? Nothing at all about the marsh rabbit population. I did, however, find this interesting:

“In 1980 I live-trapped five specimens on Lower Sugarloaf Key under Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission (FGFWFC) permit 28. Three were prepared as skins and skeletons; two were released after physiological studies (Dunson and Lazell, 1982).” [13]

Not that Lazell was the only scientist taking marsh rabbits. North of the Keys, 10 years earlier, Nicholas Holler and Clinton Conaway were studying the reproduction of this now-endangered species.

“From September 1968 through August 1969, 610 marsh rabbits were collected by hand or with a .22 caliber rifle in sugarcane plantations south and west of Belle Glade, Palm Beach and Hendry counties, Florida, at the southern edge of Lake Okeechobee. Rabbits were readily obtained except in July, August, and September…. After collection, rabbits were weighed and one eye and one front paw were preserved in 10 percent formalin.” [14]

To put this into perspective, the MSRP (published 30 years after Holler and Conway’s research) suggests that there may be only 100–300 marsh rabbits left. [5]

How’s that for irony? It seems the best evidence of a declining population comes from two scientists who killed several hundred marsh rabbits 40 years ago.

Key Largo Woodrat
ABC’s reference to Key Largo woodrat mortality is actually an accurate recounting of what’s in the USFWS plan:

“In addition, cats accounted for 77 percent of the mortality during a recent re-introduction of the Key Largo woodrat (S. Klett, Refuge Manager, personal communication).” [1]

Such personal communications—even by knowledgeable, honest professionals—are no substitute for rigorous, science-based reporting. What kind of sample size are we talking about? Over what duration? Under what conditions? Where? Etc.

More to the point, though: here is ABC once again blatantly misrepresenting the science (or the closest thing we’ve got to science, in this case). USFWS is talking about a portion of the population, while ABC is talking about the entire population. And I have to think the people responsible are smart enough to know the difference—which, of course, can mean only one thing: it’s not the intelligence that’s lacking here, but the integrity.

The Rest of the Best
But what about all the rest of the science—the “best available,” according to Holmer, don’t forget—that USFWS including in its Integrated Predator Management Plan/Draft Environmental Assessment? Among the more egregious errors and misinterpretations I cited in my comments to USFWS:

  • Another of the papers cited by USFWS has nothing to do with extinctions at all. As the authors describe it, their study was an evaluation of “whether a collar-worn pounce protector, the CatBib, reduces the number of vertebrates caught by pet cats and whether its effectiveness was influenced by colour or adding a bell.” [17]
  • Listed among the “evidence” of island extinctions were studies that—in addition to having nothing to do with extinctions—were not conducted on islands. Coleman and Temple’s 1993 survey, for example, involved rural Wisconsin residents and their outdoor cats, [18] while Churcher and Lawton surveyed residents of a small English village. [19]
  • Among the evidence that “free-roaming cats kill at least one billion birds every year in the U.S., representing one of the largest single sources of human-influenced mortality for small native wildlife,” [1] is Rich Stallcup’s 1991 article from the Observer, a publication of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory. In fact, “A Reversible Catastrophe” is little more than Stallcup’s advice—at once both folksy and sinister—about defending one’s garden from neighborhood cats (“…try a B-B or pellet gun. There is no need to kill or shoot toward the head, but a good sting on the rump seems memorable for most felines, and they seldom return for a third experience.” [21]).
  • Another of the studies cited by FWS—a 2008 paper by Sax and Gaines—isn’t about cats at all. Or even invasive animals. It’s about invasive plants. [22]
  • Citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, USFWS argues: “…free-roaming cats not only threaten wildlife through direct predation but also serve as vectors for a number of diseases including rabies, cat scratch fever, hookworms, roundworms and toxoplasmosis. Some of these diseases can be transmitted to other domestic animals, native wildlife, and in some cases, humans.”

    In fact, the CDC site makes no mention of cats being a threat to wildlife. And humans? “Although cats can carry diseases and pass them to people, you are not likely to get sick from touching or owning a cat.” And, notes the CDC, “People are probably more likely to get toxoplasmosis from gardening or eating raw meat than from having a pet cat.”

    (Unwilling to do their own research and writing, ABC uses exactly the same language and cites the same CDC website as USFWS. Had they simply clicked on the link, they might have avoided the blunder—which, I think, speaks volumes about little scrutiny they gave the USFWS plan before backing it.)

This is what Holmer is referring to when he says USFWS “deserves credit for bringing the best available science to bear on the management of exotic predators inhabiting National Wildlife Refuge lands regardless of the emotional aspects of the issue.”

What’s Missing
In addition to everything USFWS gets wrong, though, there’s also everything they overlooked or ignored (again, each point is covered in detail in my comments to USFWS). For example:

Mesopredator Release
“In the absence of large, dominant predators,” write Soulé et al., “smaller omnivores and predators undergo population explosions, sometimes becoming four to 10 times more abundant than normal.” [23] Several studies have demonstrated such an “explosion” of non-native rat populations as a result of cat populations being eliminated. [24–27]

As Courchamp et al. explain, “although counter-intuitive, eradication of introduced superpredators, such as feral domestic cats, is not always the best solution to protect endemic prey when introduced mesopredators, such as rats, are also present.” [26] Fan et al. warn of the risks involved with such eradication efforts: “In some cases, it may cause a disastrous impact to managed or natural ecosystems.” [25]

But USFWS doesn’t even mention the risk of mesopredator release, despite the fact that—should the population of free-roaming cats be sufficiently reduced—the situation in the Keys suggests that such an outcome is actually quite likely. And controlling these rats is complicated considerably by the need to protect Lower Keys marsh rabbits. Indeed, the MSRP warns of these rabbits coming into contact with pesticides and “poisons used to control black rats.” [5]

Based on evidence cited by USFWS itself, it’s clear that a dramatic reduction in the number of free-roaming cats in the Keys (assuming it’s possible—see below) will very likely have a negative impact on the marsh rabbit population—and may well lead to their extirpation from any Key where these rats are present.

Such impacts would also likely affect the Key Largo cotton mouse [28–29], Key Largo woodrat [30–31], and silver rice rat [32–33], all of which USFWS identifies as species of particular concern, and which are threatened—either through predation or competition—by non-native rats such as the black rat.

Removing Cats
Reports indicate that USFWS has a rather poor track record when it comes to trapping cats. Its 2003 contract with USDA, for example, yielded just 23 cats over 31 days of trapping. [34] Their efforts four years later—at a cost of $50,000—were equally ineffective. [9–10]

None of which should surprise USFWS. “Successful” eradication efforts require both extraordinary resources and profound cruelty. For example:

  • Nogales et al., describing the “success” of Marion Island, note, “it took about 15 years of intense effort to eradicate the cats, combining several methods such as trapping, hunting, poisoning, and disease introduction… The use of disease agents or targeted poisoning campaigns hold promise for an initial population reduction in eradication programs on large islands—such an approach may save effort, time, and money.” [35]
  • Cruz and Cruz point out that, of all the non-native mammals there, cats were “the most difficult to control or eliminate on Floreana Island.” Although “hunting with dogs was the single most effective method employed and it gave a sure body count,” the authors warn that “the method was costly and with the limited manpower available was only useful over small areas. Both poisoning and trapping were effective and the combination of the three methods is probably the most effective approach, as well as being the best use of time and materials.” [15]
  • Veitch describes efforts on 11-square-mile Little Barrier Island as “a determined [cat] eradication attempt” involving “cage traps, leg-hold traps, dogs and 1080 poison were used, but leg-hold traps and 1080 poison were the only effective methods.” [36] Four cats were also infected with Feline enteritis, but “because of the poor reaction to the virus no other cats were dosed and none were released… Altogether, 151 cats were known to have been killed before the eradication was declared complete. Important lessons learnt can be transferred to other feral cat eradication programmes.” [36] (By way of comparison, the Keys are approximately 137 square miles in total area.)

As USFWS admits, such methods are “not… socially acceptable” and “inconsistent with the points of consensus developed by the stakeholder group.” Yet, they offer nothing in the way of a feasible alternative; their latest plan is just more of what’s been done—and proven ineffective—in the past.

Because it’s extremely doubtful that USFWS will be able to remove the cats quickly enough to keep up with reproduction rates (again, consider the “success” stories outlined above), the most likely outcome of their plan is an increase in the number of feral cats in the Keys—and, of course, a corresponding increase in the negative impacts they have on the area’s wildlife and environment.

•     •     •

I fully expected ABC to support the USFWS plan. And, come to think of it, I should have expected them to blindly embrace the underlying science. After all, this is the same organization that’s been trying, since at least 1997, to sell the Wisconsin Study as valid research.

And, more recently, ABC endorsed “Feral Cats and Their Management” (also known as the University of Nebraska report) as if it were valid research.

Perhaps this is what ABC President and CEO George Fenwick meant when he wrote, in the preface to The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation, “every point of view has its own science.” [37]

Literature Cited
1. n.a., Draft Environmental Assessment: Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex Integrated Predator Management Plan. 2011, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: Big Pine Key, FL. http://www.fws.gov/nationalkeydeer/predatormgmt.html

http://www.fws.gov/nationalkeydeer/pdfs/USFWS%20FL%20Keys%20Refuges%20Integrated%20Predator%20Mgmt%20Plan%20&%20EA%20FINAL%20DRAFT.pdf

2. Forys, E.A., Metapopulations of marsh rabbits: A population viability analysis of the Lower Keys marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris hefneri), in Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation. 1995, University of Florida: Gainesville. p. 244.

3. Forys, E.A. and Humphrey, S.R., “Use of Population Viability Analysis to Evaluate Management Options for the Endangered Lower Keys Marsh Rabbit.” The Journal of Wildlife Management. 1999. 63(1): p. 251–260. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3802507

4. Forys, E.A. and Humphrey, S.R., “Home Range and Movements of the Lower Keys Marsh Rabbit in a Highly Fragmented Habitat.” Journal of Mammalogy. 1996. 77(4): p. 1042-1048. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1382784

5. n.a., Multi-Species Recovery Plan for South Florida: Lower Keys Rabbit. 1999, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Atlanta, GA. p. 151–171. http://www.fws.gov/verobeach/index.cfm?Method=programs&NavProgramCategoryID=3&programID=107&ProgramCategoryID=3

www.fws.gov/verobeach/images/pdflibrary/lkmr.pdf

6. Jones, E. and Coman, B.J., ” Ecology of the feral cat, Felis catus (L.), in southeastern Australia.” Australian Wildlife Research. 1981. 8: p. 537–547. http://www.publish.csiro.au/paper/WR9810537.htm

7. Liberg, O., “Food Habits and Prey Impact by Feral and House-Based Domestic Cats in a Rural Area in Southern Sweden.” Journal of Mammalogy. 1984. 65(3): p. 424-432. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1381089

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

9. O’Hara, T. (2007, April 3). Fish & Wildlife Service to begin removing cats from Keys refuges. The Key West Citizen, from http://keysnews.com/archives

10. n.a., Lower Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Comprehensive Conservation Plan. 2009, U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service: Atlanta, GA. http://www.fws.gov/nationalkeydeer/

http://www.fws.gov/southeast/planning/PDFdocuments/Florida%20Keys%20FINAL/TheKeysFinalCCPFormatted.pdf

11. Ferriter, A., et al., The Status of Nonindigenous Species in the South Florida Environment, in 2008 South Florida Environmental Report. 2008, South Florida Water Management District.

12.  Engeman, R., Constantin, B., and Hardin, S., “Species Pollution” in Florida: A Cross Section of Invasive Vertebrate Issues and Management Responses, in Invasive Species: Detection, Impact and Control, C.P. Wilcox and R.B. Turpin, Editors. 2009. p. 179–197.

13. Lazell, J.D., Jr., “A New Marsh Rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris) from Florida’s Lower Keys.”Journal of Mammalogy. 1984. 65(1): p. 26–33. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1381196

14. Holler, N.R. and Clinton, H.C., “Reproduction of the Marsh Rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris) in South Florida.” Journal of Mammalogy. 1979. 60(4): p. 769–777. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1380192

15. Cruz, J.B. and Cruz, F., “Conservation of the dark-rumped petrel Pterodroma phaeopygia in the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador.” Biological Conservation. 1987. 42(4): p. 303-311. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6V5X-48XKMBP-17J/2/f81b57e317f217802d9aca8b6927a88c

16. Kirkpatrick, R.D. and Rauzon, M.J., “Foods of Feral Cats Felis catus on Jarvis and Howland Islands, Central Pacific Ocean.” Biotropica. 1986. 18(1): p. 72-75. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2388365

17. Calver, M., et al., “Reducing the rate of predation on wildlife by pet cats: The efficacy and practicability of collar-mounted pounce protectors.” Biological Conservation. 2007. 137(3): p. 341-348. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6V5X-4NGBB7H-3/2/456180347a2c3916d1ae99e220dd329e

18. Coleman, J.S. and Temple, S.A., “Rural Residents’ Free-Ranging Domestic Cats: A Survey.”Wildlife Society Bulletin. 1993. 21(4): p. 381–390. http://www.jstor.org/pss/3783408

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

20. 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.

21. Stallcup, R., “A reversible catastrophe.” Observer 91. 1991(Spring/Summer): p. 8–9. http://www.prbo.org/cms/print.php?mid=530

http://www.prbo.org/cms/docs/observer/focus/focus29cats1991.pdf

22. Sax, D.F. and Gaines, S.D., Species invasions and extinction: The future of native biodiversity on islands, in In the Light of Evolution II: Biodiversity and Extinction,. 2008: Irvine, CA. p. 11490–11497. www.pnas.org/content/105/suppl.1/11490.full

http://www.pnas.org/content/105/suppl.1/11490.full.pdf

23. Soulé, M.E., et al., “Reconstructed Dynamics of Rapid Extinctions of Chaparral-Requiring Birds in Urban Habitat Islands.” Conservation Biology. 1988. 2(1): p. 75–92. http://www.jstor.org/pss/2386274

http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/2027.42/74761/1/j.1523-1739.1988.tb00337.x.pdf

24. Fitzgerald, B.M., Karl, B.J., and Veitch, C.R., “The diet of feral cat (Felis catus) on Raoul Island, Kermadec group.” New Zealand Journal of Ecology. 1991. 15(2): p. 123–129. http://www.feral.org.au/the-diet-of-feral-cats-felis-catus-on-raoul-island-kermadec-group/

www.newzealandecology.org.nz/nzje/free_issues/NZJEcol15_2_123.pdf

25. Fan, M., Kuang, Y., and Feng, Z., “Cats protecting birds revisited.” Bulletin of Mathematical Biology. 2005. 67(5): p. 1081–1106. http://www.springerlink.com/content/p0h5854n56183874/

26. Courchamp, F., Langlais, M., and Sugihara, G., “Cats protecting birds: modelling the mesopredator release effect.” Journal of Animal Ecology. 1999. 68(2): p. 282–292. http://dx.doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-2656.1999.00285.x

http://deepeco.ucsd.edu/~george/publications/99_cats_protecting.pdf

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

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

28. n.a., Key Largo Cotton Mouse (Peromyscus gossypinus allapaticola) 5-Year Review: Summary and Evaluation. 2009, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Southeast Region, South Fiorida Ecological Services Office: Veero Beach, FL. p. 19. http://ecos.fws.gov/speciesProfile/profile/speciesProfile.action?spcode=A086

http://ecos.fws.gov/docs/five_year_review/doc2378.pdf

29. n.a., Multi-Species Recovery Plan for South Florida: Key Largo Cotton Mouse. 1999, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Atlanta, GA. p. 79–96. http://www.fws.gov/verobeach/index.cfm?Method=programs&NavProgramCategoryID=3&programID=107&ProgramCategoryID=3

http://www.fws.gov/verobeach/images/pdflibrary/klcm.pdf

30. n.a., Key Largo Woodrat (Neotomafloridana smalli) 5-Year Review: Summary and Evaluation. 2008, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Southeast Region, South Fiorida Ecological Services Office: Vero Beach, FL. http://ecos.fws.gov/speciesProfile/profile/speciesProfile.action?spcode=A087

http://ecos.fws.gov/docs/five_year_review/doc1985.pdf

31. n.a., Multi-Species Recovery Plan for South Florida: Key Largo Woodrat. 1999, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Atlanta, GA. p. 195–216. http://www.fws.gov/verobeach/index.cfm?Method=programs&NavProgramCategoryID=3&programID=107&ProgramCategoryID=3

http://www.fws.gov/verobeach/images/pdflibrary/klwr.pdf

32. n.a., Multi-Species Recovery Plan for South Florida: Rice Rat. 1999, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Atlanta, GA. p. 173–194. http://www.fws.gov/verobeach/index.cfm?Method=programs&NavProgramCategoryID=3&programID=107&ProgramCategoryID=3

http://www.fws.gov/verobeach/images/pdflibrary/srra.pdf

33. n.a., Rice rat (Oryzomys palustris natator) 5-Year Review: Summary and Evaluation. 2008, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Southeast Region, South Florida Ecological Services Office: Vero Beach, FL. http://ecos.fws.gov/speciesProfile/profile/speciesProfile.action?spcode=A083

http://ecos.fws.gov/docs/five_year_review/doc1958.pdf

34. n.a., Feral and Free-Ranging Cat Trapping by the USDA, APHIS, Wildlife Services (WS) on North Key Largo. 2004, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

35. Nogales, M., et al., “A Review of Feral Cat Eradication on Islands.” Conservation Biology. 2004. 18(2): p. 310–319. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2004.00442.x/abstract

36. Veitch, C.R., “The eradication of feral cats (Felis catus) from Little Barrier Island, New Zealand.” New Zealand Journal of Zoology. 2001. 28: p. 1–12. http://www.royalsociety.org.nz/publications/journals/nzjz/2001/001/

http://www.royalsociety.org.nz/media/publications-journals-nzjz-2001-001.pdf

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

Exceptional Predator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•     •     •

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

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

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

3.  Møller, A.P. and Erritzøe, J., “Predation against birds with low immunocompetence.” Oecologia. 2000. 122(4): p. 500–504. http://www.springerlink.com/content/ghnny9mcv016ljd8/

4. Baker, P.J., et al., “Cats about town: is predation by free-ranging pet cats Felis catus likely to affect urban bird populations? Ibis. 2008. 150: p. 86-99. http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/bsc/ibi/2008/00000150/A00101s1/art00008

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Errington, P.L., “Notes on Food Habits of Southwestern Wisconsin House Cats.” Journal of Mammalogy. 1936. 17(1): p. 64–65. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1374554

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

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

13. Dauphine, N. and Cooper, R.J., Impacts of Free-ranging Domestic Cats (Felis catus) on birds in the United States: A review of recent research with conservation and management recommendations, in Fourth International Partners in Flight Conference: Tundra to Tropics. 2009. p. 205–219. http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/pif/pubs/McAllenProc/articles/PIF09_Anthropogenic%20Impacts/Dauphine_1_PIF09.pdf

Revisiting “Reassessment”

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

Image of "Reassessment" Document

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

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

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

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

Download PDF

On Invasion and Persuasion

Smithsonian magazine is, according to its website, “created for modern, well-rounded individuals with diverse interests” and “chronicles the arts, history, sciences and popular culture of the times.” Jess Righthand’s recent article, “The World’s Worst Invasive Mammals,” seems—despite its inclusion in the online edition’s “Science & Nature” section—better suited for the pop culture category.

Indeed, the story has more to do with sensationalism than science.

Feral Cat Population
Righthand’s claim that “there are an estimated 60 million feral cats in the United States alone” is conservative compared to some other estimates. David Jessup, for example, suggested in 2004 that there were 60–100 million [1], while, more recently, The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation puts the figure at 60–120 million [2] (neither cites a source).

Still, Merritt Clifton of Animal People, an independent newspaper dedicated to animal protection issues, makes a compelling argument that the population of feral cats in the U.S. is much smaller than is often reported, and may very well be on the decline. [3]

Clifton’s estimates are derived not from surveys of homeowners feeding stray and feral cats, but from “information about the typical numbers of cats found in common habitat types, gleaned from a national survey of cat rescuers… cross-compared with animal shelter intake data.” [4] In 2003, Clifton suggested that “the winter feral cat population may now be as low as 13 million and the summer peak is probably no more than 24 million.” [4]

Predation on Birds
Righthand puts the figure for annual bird deaths attributed to feral cats at “around 480 million.” Nowhere near the “one billion birds” proposed by Nico Dauphine and Robert Cooper, [5] of course, but more than enough to get the attention of Smithsonian readers.

But, as I’ve pointed out repeatedly, even high rates of predation do not equate to population declines (though, clearly, it’s easy to suggest as much). Many researchers have disputed the kind of broad, overreaching claims to which Righthand alludes. Biologist C.J. Mead, for example, reviewing the deaths of “ringed” (banded) birds reported by the British public, suggests that cats may be responsible for 6.2–31.3 percent of bird deaths. “Overall,” writes Mead, “it is clear that cat predation is a significant cause of death for most of the species examined.” Nevertheless, Mead concludes:

“there is no clear evidence of cats threatening to harm the overall population level of any particular species… Indeed, cats have been kept as pets for many years and hundreds of generations of birds breeding in suburban and rural areas have had to contend with their predatory intentions.” [6]

Mike Fitzgerald and Dennis Turner come to essentially the same conclusion: “We consider that we do not have enough information yet to attempt to estimate on average how many birds a cat kills each year. And there are few, if any studies apart from island ones that actually demonstrate that cats have reduced bird populations.” [7]

Then, too, there’s the critical distinction between compensatory and additive predation—again, a point I’ve made numerous times. Two very interesting studies have generated compelling evidence that birds killed by cats are, on average, significantly less healthy than those killed through non-predatory events (e.g., collisions with buildings). [8, 9] In other words, these birds probably weren’t going to live long enough to contribute to the overall population numbers; predation was compensatory rather than additive.

Public Health Threats
“When house cats are allowed free range outdoors by their owners,” argues Righthand, “or simply don’t have owners, they not only wreak havoc as opportunistic hunters, they can also spread disease. In addition to carrying rabies, 62 to 82 percent of cats in a recent study tested positive for toxoplasmosis.” Here, Righthand seems to be cribbing off of Hildreth, Vantassel, and Hygnstrom, of “Feral Cats and Their Management” fame—hardly a reputable source.

Rabies
Regarding rabies—a topic I’ll save for future posts—I think it’s important to put this into perspective. I happen to have data from Florida handy, and according to that state’s Department of Health, approximately 22,000 Florida residents have died of the flu or pneumonia since 2006 (actually, that figure accounts for only 24 of Florida’s 67 counties, so the total is surely much higher).

By way of comparison: from 2005 through mid-May of this year, there were 11 reported cases of rabies in humans across the entire country (though, I believe there were a handful of reported cases this summer as well).

In terms of public health, then, I think we’re all better off focusing on frequent hand washing, sneezing into our sleeves, and the like—as opposed to, say, exterminating this country’s most popular companion animal by the millions.

Toxoplasma gondii (I)
While it’s true that cats are the definitive host of Toxoplasma gondii, it’s important to note that “wild game can be a source of T. gondii infection in humans, cats, and other carnivores. Serologic data show that a significant number of feral pigs, bears, and cervids are exposed to T. gondii. [10]

“Humans,” write Elmore et al., “usually become infected through ingestion of oocyst-contaminated soil and water, tissue cysts in undercooked meat, or congenitally. Because of their fastidious nature, the passing of non-infective oocysts, and the short duration of oocyst shedding, direct contact with cats is not thought to be a primary risk for human infection.” [11]

But to Righthand’s point: the rate of cats testing positive—or seroprevalence—is, in any event, not a useful measure of their ability to infect other animals or people.

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.” [12] “Testing positive,” in this case, is nothing more than the detection of antibodies resulting from seroconversion (the same process, by the way, that takes place in humans after receiving a flu shot).

So, what exactly is Righthand’s point? Did she simply not do her homework here, or is the idea to portray these cats as a threat far, far beyond what the scientific evidence supports? Both, I suspect.

Toxoplasma gondii (II)
T. gondii
, Righthand continues, “has been shown to cause neurological damage to sea otters and other marine mammals that are exposed when heavy rainfall washes infected cat feces into the water.” Again, this is terrain I’ve covered previously. (Righthand, it seems, could do herself—and Smithsonian readers—a favor by subscribing to Vox Felina!)

Yes, T. gondii has been linked to the illness and death of marine life, primarily sea otters [13], prompting investigation into the possible role of free-roaming (both owned and feral) cats. [14, 15] It’s generally thought that oocysts (the mature, infective form of the parasite) are transferred from soil contaminated with infected feces to coastal waterways by way of freshwater run-off. [15]

However, one study found that 36 of 50 sea otters from coastal California were infected with the Type X strain of T. gondii [16], a type linked to wild felids (mountain lions and a bobcat, in this case), but not to domestic cats. [15] A recently published study from Germany seems to corroborate these findings. Herrmann et al. analyzed 18,259 fecal samples (all from pet cats) for T. gondii and found no Type X strain. (It’s interesting to note, too, that only 0.25% of the samples tested positive for T. gondii). [17]

Once again, we’re back to the question: What is Righthand trying to accomplish here?

Population Impacts
“Cats have,” writes Righthand, “also hurt populations of birds, reptiles and other creatures. The black stilt of New Zealand (a seabird), the Okinawa woodpecker and the Cayman Island ground iguana are just a few of the dozens of endangered species at risk due to the proliferation of feral cats.”

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, endangered species are—by definition—at risk due to the proliferation of all sorts of threats. That’s how they became endangered in the first place. To suggest, as Righthand does, that cats are the sole threat these animals face is both misleading and irresponsible.

Righthand (taking a cue, perhaps, from the authors of The ABC Guide?) also makes the common mistake of using island impacts (which are, themselves, more complex than often acknowledged) to imply impacts elsewhere (better yet: everywhere). Readers, it seems, are on their own in terms of doing any research on the topic.

Mission Failure
How much of the blame we can put on Righthand, I don’t know. According to Smithsonian’s website, she’s an intern with the magazine. Had the editors wanted a more thoroughly researched article, they could have demanded one. (This, some readers will recall, is not the first time I’ve been disappointed with the Smithsonian’s lack of rigor.)

According to its website, the mission of the Smithsonian is straightforward but ambitious: “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Righthand’s article—misleading at best—falls well short. It seems she’s still struggling with how to best express the organization’s proclaimed values—in this case, going overboard on the creativity at the expense of excellence and integrity.

Literature Cited
1. Jessup, D.A., “The welfare of feral cats and wildlife.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1377-1383. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2004.225.1377

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

3. Clifton, M. (2003) Roadkills of cats fall 90% in 10 years—are feral cats on their way out? http://www.animalpeoplenews.org/03/11/roadkills1103.html Accessed May 23, 2010.

4. Clifton, M. Where cats belong—and where they don’t. Animal People 2003 [cited 2009 December 24].  http://www.animalpeoplenews.org/03/6/wherecatsBelong6.03.html.

5. Dauphiné, N. and Cooper, R.J., Impacts of Free-ranging Domestic Cats (Felis catus) on birds in the United States: A review of recent research with conservation and management recommendations, in Fourth International Partners in Flight Conference: Tundra to Tropics. 2009. p. 205–219. www.pwrc.usgs.gov/pif/pubs/McAllenProc/articles/PIF09_Anthropogenic%20Impacts/Dauphine_1_PIF09.pdf

6. Mead, C.J., “Ringed birds killed by cats.” Mammal Review. 1982. 12(4): p. 183-186. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2907.1982.tb00014.x

7. Fitzgerald, B.M. and Turner, D.C., Hunting Behaviour of domestic cats and their impact on prey populations, in The Domestic Cat: The biology of its behaviour, D.C. Turner and P.P.G. Bateson, Editors. 2000, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, U.K.; New York. p. 151–175.

8. Baker, P.J., et al., “Cats about town: is predation by free-ranging pet cats Felis catus likely to affect urban bird populations? Ibis. 2008. 150: p. 86-99. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1474-919X.2008.00836.x

9. Møller, A.P. and Erritzøe, J., “Predation against birds with low immunocompetence.” Oecologia. 2000. 122(4): p. 500-504. http://www.springerlink.com/content/ghnny9mcv016ljd8/

10. Hill, D.E., Chirukandoth, S., and Dubey, J.P., “Biology and epidemiology of Toxoplasma gondii in man and animals.” Animal Health Research Reviews. 2005. 6(01): p. 41-61. http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=775956&fulltextType=RA&fileId=S1466252305000034

11. Elmore, S.A., et al., “Toxoplasma gondii: epidemiology, feline clinical aspects, and prevention.” Trends in Parasitology. 26(4): p. 190-196. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6W7G-4YHFWNM-1/2/2a468a936eb06649fde0463deae4e92f

12. 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. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6T7F-4S85DPK-1/2/2a1f9e590e7c7ec35d1072e06b2fa99d

13. Jones, J.L. and Dubey, J.P., “Waterborne toxoplasmosis – Recent developments.” Experimental Parasitology. 124(1): p. 10-25. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6WFH-4VXB8YT-2/2/8f9562f64497fe1a30513ba3f000c8dc

14. Dabritz, H.A., et al., “Outdoor fecal deposition by free-roaming cats and attitudes of cat owners and nonowners toward stray pets, wildlife, and water pollution.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2006. 229(1): p. 74-81. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.229.1.74

15. Miller, M.A., et al., “Type X Toxoplasma gondii in a wild mussel and terrestrial carnivores from coastal California: New linkages between terrestrial mammals, runoff and toxoplasmosis of sea otters.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2008. 38(11): p. 1319-1328. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6T7F-4RXJYTT-2/2/32d387fa3048882d7bd91083e7566117

16. Conrad, P.A., et al., “Transmission of Toxoplasma: Clues from the study of sea otters as sentinels of Toxoplasma gondii flow into the marine environment.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2005. 35(11-12): p. 1155-1168. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6T7F-4GWC8KV-2/2/2845abdbb0fd82c37b952f18ce9d0a5f

17. Herrmann, D.C., et al., “Atypical Toxoplasma gondii genotypes identified in oocysts shed by cats in Germany.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2010. 40(3): p. 285–292. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6T7F-4X1J771-2/2/dc32f5bba34a6cce28041d144acf1e7c

American Bird Con

For years now, the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) has been promoting erroneous and misleading information in their tireless effort to vilify free-roaming cats. No organization has been more effective at working the anti-TNR pseudoscience into a message neatly packaged for the mainstream media, and eventual consumption by the general public. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal in 2002, Becky Robinson, co-founder and President of Alley Cat Allies, described ABC’s Cats Indoors! campaign as “a new environmental witch hunt.” [1]

Book Cover: The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation

In their recently released book, The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation, ABC changes tack a bit—using what the authors call “conservative” estimates of the outdoor cat population and annual predation rates, for example, to arrive at their figure of “532 million birds killed annually by outdoor cats.” [2] At the same time, they include much of the same misinformation ABC’s been promoting all along. It’s a clever strategy, really: endorsing bogus claims as valid science without having to defend them as such.

In fact, one doesn’t need to get past the book’s preface before realizing the role that science plays—or, more to the point, doesn’t play—at ABC. “We see very few issues resolved through coming to consensus on the science,” writes President and CEO George Fenwick.

“More often, science divides us. So, though we continue to need excellent science, conservationists also need to learn how to better persuade, use media effectively, and connect birds to the human condition, spirituality and ethical values.” [2]

If its section on cats is any indication, The ABC Guide is the manifestation of Fenwick’s philosophy: more style than substance, more sales than science. The authors didn’t even bother with citations and references, suggesting to readers, perhaps, that The ABC Guide is the last word on the subject. Where free-roaming cats are concerned, though, ABC has precious few answers—in part because they (still) aren’t asking the right questions.

Outdoor Cats
Referring to unattributed 2007 data, the authors of The ABC Guide—Daniel Lebbin, Michael Parr, and George Fenwick—claim that 43 percent of pet cats “have access to the outdoors.” [2] But, according to American Pet Products Association (APPA) 2008 National Pet Owners Survey, 64 percent of cats are indoor-only during the daytime, and 69 percent are kept in at night [3].

Other surveys have yielded similar results, and also indicate that, of those cats that are allowed outdoors, approximately half were outside for three hours or less each day [4, 5]. For Lebbin et al., though, these part-timers are no different from their feral relatives. Of which, “there are 60–120 million,” according to the authors. [2]

Where this figure comes from is anybody’s guess. It’s substantially higher than any other estimates I’ve seen, with one notable exception—a statement made earlier this year by an ABC official (more on that in a moment).

Feral Cat Numbers
Very little exists in terms of credible population estimates for feral cats. There are, however, many unsubstantiated claims.

Among the most popular for those interested in big numbers is the first line from David Jessup’s ironically titled 2004 paper “The welfare of feral cats and wildlife” (ironic because his “concerns” for the welfare of these cats are so plainly disingenuous): “There are an estimated 60 to 100 million feral and abandoned cats in the United States.” [6] As to the origins of Jessup’s “estimate,” again, it’s anybody’s guess, as he offers no reference.

Based on the results of a 1999 telephone survey of Alachua County, Florida, residents, Levy et al. estimated that the population of free-roaming cats represented approximately 44 percent of the county’s total population of cats. [7] Other researchers have reported similar figures for nationwide estimates. [8] By way of comparison, ABC’s estimate represents 39–56 percent of the overall population of cats in the U.S. (based on APPA’s latest figures for pet cats).

On the other hand, Merritt Clifton of Animal People, an independent newspaper dedicated to animal protection issues, makes a compelling argument that the population of feral cats in the U.S. is much smaller than is often reported, and may very well be on the decline. [9] Clifton’s estimates are derived not from surveys of homeowners feeding stray and feral cats, but from “information about the typical numbers of cats found in common habitat types, gleaned from a national survey of cat rescuers… cross-compared with animal shelter intake data.” [10] In 2003, Clifton suggested that “the winter feral cat population may now be as low as 13 million and the summer peak is probably no more than 24 million.” [10]

Population Increase
Earlier this year, ABC’s Senior Policy Advisor, Steve Holmer, told the Los Angeles Times, “The latest estimates are that there are about . . . 160 million feral cats [nationwide].” When pressed for details, Holmer referred me to Nico Dauphine and Robert Cooper’s 2009 Partners In Flight Conference paper. Which, as it turns out, leads right back to ABC and their Cats Indoors! campaign.

Dauphine and Cooper begin their adventure in creative accounting with Jessup’s unattributed 100 million, and add to it the number of owned cats they describe as “free-ranging outdoor cats for at least some portion of the day.” [11] For which they turn to Linda Winter, former director of Cats Indoors!, and her 2004 paper in which she reports the findings of a 1997 telephone survey (commissioned by ABC) of cat owners. According to Winter, “66 percent of cat owners let their cats outdoors some or all of the time.” [12]

In fact, the survey—as reported in ABC’s brochure “Human Attitudes and Behavior Regarding Cats”—indicated that “35 percent keep their cats indoors all of the time” and “31 percent keep them indoors mostly with some outside access.” [9] The difference in wording is subtle and hampered by imprecision (it all comes down to the meaning of some), but it’s difficult not to see this as deliberately misleading on Winter’s part.

In any case, results of other surveys (described previously) suggest quite convincingly that outdoor access for the vast majority of pet cats is really very limited. Nevertheless, Dauphine and Cooper persist, arriving at a staggering “117–157 million free-ranging cats.” [11] Holmer, in turn, rounds off the upper limit, “scrubs” the pet cats from the calculation by calling them all ferals, and gets the bogus figure printed in the Times. (Gold star for Holmer!)

Lebbin et al. don’t go that far, but their “most conservative estimate of outdoor and feral cats in the U.S.”—95 million—is, given its shaky origins, no more valid than Dauphine and Cooper’s.

Predation
According to The ABC Guide, “all outdoor cats hunt and kill birds (20­–30 percent of cat prey) and other small animals.” [2] No study I’m aware of has demonstrated that all cats hunt. On the contrary, some research suggests that less than half of outdoor cats hunt. Figures as low as 36–56 percent have been reported by researchers in Australia, for example. [13]

In the UK, Baker, Bentley, Ansell, and Harris reported that 77 cats returned a total of 212 prey items to 52 Bristol households participating in their pilot study, but “in each sampling period, the majority of cats (51–74 percent) failed to return any prey.” [14] The subsequent 12-month study (this time involving 186 Bristol households, 275 cats, and 495 prey items) found a similar level of apparent non-hunters: roughly 61 percent. [15]

Woods, McDonald, and Harris, also working in the UK, found that, although 91 percent of cats returned at least one item, “approximately 20–30 percent of cats brought home either no birds or no mammals.” [16] And Churcher and Lawton’s yearlong “English Village” study (involving approximately 70 cats and 1,090 documented prey items) found that that 8.6 percent of cats brought home no prey [17] (though the authors don’t specify the percentage of cats that returned no birds).

And while it’s true that cats are unlikely to return home with all they prey they catch, it’s equally true that they will bring home items they didn’t kill. Very little is known about the extent of either phenomenon, however. (Carol Fiore’s [18] attempt to unravel this mystery is plagued by methodological missteps and obvious bias; William George’s [19] comments are often interpreted as suggesting that cats return only half of what they catch, though this is incorrect.)

The Diet of Cats
The idea that birds make up 20–30 percent of the diet of free-roaming cats is one that ABC has been promoting since 1997, when they launched Cats Indoors! But it’s no more valid now than it was then.

According to ABC’s brochure, “Domestic Cat Predation on Birds and Other Wildlife” (downloadable from their website), “extensive studies of the feeding habits of domestic, free-roaming cats… show that approximately… 20 to 30 percent [of their diet] are birds.” Ellen Perry Berkeley carefully examined—and debunked—this claim in her book, TNR Past Present and Future: A history of the trap-neuter-return movement, noting that ABC’s 20–30 percent figure wasn’t based on “extensive studies” at all. [10]

In fact, just three sources were used: the now-classic “English Village” study by Churcher and Lawton [11], the infamous “Wisconsin Study,” and researchers Mike Fitzgerald and Dennis Turner’s contribution to The Domestic Cat: The Biology of Its Behaviour. [12]

As Berkeley points out, combining or comparing data from these three sources is entirely inappropriate. Both the English Village and Wisconsin studies report the percentage of birds returned as a portion of the “total catch,” whereas Fitzgerald reports percentage by frequency (i.e., the occurrence of birds in the stomach contents or scats of free-roaming cats).

To put this into more familiar terms, consider coffee consumption. According to the 2009 National Coffee Drinking Trends Study, 54 percent of American adults drink coffee daily—54, then, is the percentage by frequency. To say that coffee makes up 54 percent of our dietary intake—essentially ABC’s interpretation—is obviously a gross exaggeration of consumption levels. (Neither measure says anything about the supply of coffee, of course.)

Nevertheless, 13 years after ABC first published its report—and six years after Berkeley exposed the error publicly in TNR—the myth persists. So much for ABC’s commitment, spelled out in the book’s section on threats, to “address all of the major threats responsible for killing large numbers of birds, using the best information and research available, while promoting further research and monitoring where it is most needed.” [2]

Which, in turn, raises serious questions about the integrity of ABC and the people running it.

Declawed Cats
Citing Fiore’s thesis research, Lebbin at al. conclude, “de-clawed cats kill as many birds as cats with claws.” [2] Fiore herself is equally confident:

“There were seven declawed cats in the study and all but one took birds (giving a figure of 86 percent); the top predator cat was declawed. Declawing cats appears to have no effect whatsoever on the ability to hunt birds.” [18]

But, both ABC and Fiore leave out some critical details. There were, after all, only 41 cats involved in the study—hardly the kind of sampling required to make such sweeping statements.

A closer look reveals that the declawed cats were apparently responsible for killing an average of 3.6 birds/cat/year while the cats with claws had an average of 3.0. Does this mean that the declawed cats are actually superior hunters compared to the other cats? Hardly.

In addition to the sampling issue, there’s the problem inherent in using the average to describe highly skewed distributions (many cats catching few prey, while few cats catch many prey). In such instances, it’s more appropriate to use median values, which better represent “average” hunting success. [20] Doing so yields estimates of 1 bird/cat/year for the declawed cats vs. 2 birds/cat/year for the cats with claws.

So, declawed cats kill only half as many birds as those with claws? I’ll leave such indefensible claims to others.

Now, to be clear: I’m no advocate of declawing. Nor do I think it’s in the best interest of pet cats to be outdoors—especially those without claws. My point here is merely to demonstrate the flaws in ABC’s deceptively straightforward assertion; once again, ABC is more interested in a good story than they are in good science. (Their comment about declawed cats is precisely the kind of sound-bite that is easily picked up by the media, and repeated so widely that it becomes nearly impossible to trace—never mind untangle.)

Cats and Birds
As evidence of the “variable predation rates by cats,” [2] The ABC Guide refers to just four studies. And, although no citations are included, people familiar with the literature will recognize the numbers and locations immediately.

  1. From Christopher Lepczyk’s dissertation work, the authors somehow extract a figure of 35.5 birds/cat/year, near the low end of Lepczyk’s own estimate of “between 0.7 and 1.4 birds per week.” [21] But Lepczyk’s research suffers from a range of problems—both in terms of his methods and analysis—that inflate his estimated predation rates. (Interestingly, ABC’s Fenwick and Winter are among those Lepczyk thanks “for helpful and constructive reviews” in the Acknowledgements section.)
  2. Another of the predation rates included in The ABC Guide is the more moderate 15 birds/cat/year from Crooks and Soulé’s 1999 paper [22]. But here, too, there are flaws that lead to bloated predation levels.Like Lepczyk, Crooks and Soulé asked residents to estimate annual levels of prey returned home by their cats (in contrast to some studies in which actual prey items are recorded and/or collected). But such guesswork becomes less accurate as estimates increase. David Barratt found that “predicted rates of predation greater than about ten prey per year generally over-estimated predation observed” [20]. At the levels reported by Crooks and Soulé—an average of 56 total prey items (including birds, mammals, etc.) per year—predicted rates were often twice actual predation rates.

    Also, Crooks and Soulé seem (not enough detail is provided in their paper to be certain) to have used a simple average in their calculations, perhaps doubling true predation levels. Taken together, these factors suggest that actual predation levels might be just a quarter of those suggested by Crooks and Soulé.

  3. The third study—easily the most rigorous of the four—with a predation rate of 9.6 birds/cat/year, comes from Woods et al. The researchers, having recruited study participants solely from The Mammal Society, allow that they “may have focused on predatory cats,” and ask that their results be “treated with requisite caution.” [16] They also make clear that their estimated predation rates “do not equate to an assessment of the impact of cats on wildlife populations” [16] (more on that shortly)
  4. Finally, there is the—seemingly inevitable—reference to the Wisconsin Study, though for some reason (again, without explanation) Lebbin et al. have adjusted Coleman and Temple’s figures of 28–365 birds/cat/year downward: “between 5.6 and 109.5.” [2]In this case, the details hardly matter. The Wisconsin Study isn’t actually a study at all; no predation data or findings were ever published. Coleman and Temple’s “estimates”—widely circulated as valid research, thanks in part to ABC—were nothing more than back-of-the-envelope calculations. “Our best guesses,” as the authors themselves admit, “at low, intermediate and high estimates of the number of birds killed annually by rural cats in Wisconsin.” [23]

    “Those figures were from our proposal,” Temple told The Sonoma County Independent. “They aren’t actual data; that was just our projection to show how bad it might be.” [24]

    Sixteen years later, though, ABC is still trying to make “actual data” out of “not actual data.” (Granted, they have backed off from Coleman and Temple’s high estimate, but no mathematical adjustments can transform these flawed, biased guesses into valid research findings.)

Cats as Hunters
Contrary to popular myth, evidence suggests that cats are not quite the hunters they’ve been made out to be. Fitzgerald and Turner suggest that the hunting behavior of cats leads to many “failures,” and, as a result, “many cats soon give up bird hunting altogether.” [25]

“Primarily, all cats hunt both birds and rodents with equal zeal,” observed German zoologist Paul Leyhausen, “and many obviously prefer eating birds.” But, argues Leyhausen (1916–1998), who spent the bulk of his career studying the behavior of cats, “they cannot catch them as easily, and for this reason with increasing experience may soon give up hunting birds.” [26]

“However, our town cats today are often compelled, because of the almost total absence of rodents in their territory to concentrate on chasing birds in order to discharge their pent-up hunting propensities. Even in these circumstances, however, cats are not capable of seriously endangering the songbird population of a substantial area. They almost always catch only old, sick or young specimens. But three quarters of the young birds must perish anyway, since the size of the population in an area remains fairly constant on an average over the years… During years in the field I have observed countless times how cats have caught a mouse or a rat and just as often how they have stalked a bird. But I never saw them catch a healthy songbird that was capable of flying. Certainly it does happen, but, as I have said, seldom. I should feel sorry for the average domestic cat that had to live solely on catching birds.” [26]

Although few predation studies have examined the hunting behavior of cats belonging to managed colonies, those that have are revealing. Reporting on their study of free-roaming cats in Brooklyn, Calhoon and Haspel write: “Although birds and small rodents are plentiful in the study area, only once in more than 180 [hours] of observations did we observe predation.” [27]

Castillo and Clarke, though highly critical of TNR (“This method is not an effective means to control the population of unwanted cats and confirms that the establishment of cat colonies on public lands encourages illegal dumping and creates an attractive nuisance.” [28]), documented little predation in the two Florida parks they used for their study (the focus of which was TNR efficacy, not predation). 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” [28] prior to beginning their research), Castillo and Clarke “saw cats kill a juvenile common yellowthroat and a blue jay.” [28]

“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.” [28]

Another study conducted in a public park, this one in Alameda County, California, also reported low levels of apparent predation of birds (though researcher Cole Hawkins makes every attempt to suggest otherwise). Of 120 scat samples found by searching the “cat area” of Hawkins’ study site, “65 percent were found to contain rodent hair and 4 percent feathers.” [2] This finding comes toward the end of the study, when the cat population was at its greatest (22 were sighted)—and still, only 4 percent contained feathers. And this could easily represent one cat and one bird (and, strictly speaking, even this is not evidence of actual predation, as the bird(s) could have been scavenged).

Impact
To arrive at their figure of “532 million birds killed annually by outdoor cats,” Lebbin et al. multiply “the most conservative predation rate (5.6 birds per cats per year) by the most conservative estimate of outdoor and feral cats in the U.S. (95 million).” [2] They go on to suggest that “the actual number” is “likely… much higher,” [2] though, of course, they ignore or overlook all the errors and misrepresentations bound up in their basic calculation.

Even setting all that aside, the question remains: What impact does predation by cats have on bird populations?

Islands and Continents
Here, the authors focus mostly on the extinction of seabirds linked to the presence of feral cats on islands. I’m only vaguely familiar with the examples they cite, but if the case of the Stephens Island Wren is any indication, the stories are far more complex than ABC suggests. [see, for example, 29 and 30]

But, as Fitzgerald and Turner point out, “because the range of prey available on islands differs markedly from that on the continents the two groups, continents and islands, are treated separately.” [25]

And when it comes to the impact of cats on continental bird populations, ABC highlights rare and endangered species—but ignores entirely two key points. First, as was mentioned previously, even high rates of predation do not equate to population declines.

Referring to the estimated 30 percent of House Sparrow mortality attributed to cat predation in the English Village study, Gary Patronek emphasizes the importance of viewing such predation in the larger context. “When the birds were counted,” writes Patronek, former Director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at the Cummings School, and one of the founders of the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, “they represented the postwinter population prior to hatching of spring chicks. By the year’s end, the actual sparrow population in the village numbered in the thousands, and the 130 birds caught represented about 5 percent of that number.” [31]

Compensatory vs. Additive Predation
Then there is the critical distinction between compensatory and additive predation, something Churcher himself alluded to: “I don’t really go along with the idea of cats being a threat to wildlife. If the cats weren’t there, something else would be killing the sparrows or otherwise preventing them from breeding.” [32]

Two very interesting studies have generated compelling evidence that birds killed by cats are, on average, significantly less healthy than those killed through non-predatory events (e.g., collisions with buildings). [15, 33] In other words, these birds probably weren’t going to live long enough to contribute to the overall population numbers; predation was compensatory rather than additive. Relative to population impacts, then, the “accounting” of bird kills is far more complex than ABC suggests.

Additional Evidence
Many researchers have disputed the kind of broad, overreaching claims Lebbin et al. make about the impact of cats on bird population (and wildlife in general).

Biologist C.J. Mead, reviewing the deaths of “ringed” (banded) birds reported by the British public, suggests that cats may be responsible for 6.2–31.3 percent of bird deaths. “Overall,” writes Mead, “it is clear that cat predation is a significant cause of death for most of the species examined.” Nevertheless, Mead concludes:

“there is no clear evidence of cats threatening to harm the overall population level of any particular species… Indeed, cats have been kept as pets for many years and hundreds of generations of birds breeding in suburban and rural areas have had to contend with their predatory intentions.” [34]

Mike Fitzgerald and Dennis Turner come to essentially the same conclusion: “We consider that we do not have enough information yet to attempt to estimate on average how many birds a cat kills each year. And there are few, if any studies apart from island ones that actually demonstrate that cats have reduced bird populations.” [25]

In the context of TNR, however, focusing on such figures may be missing the point. “If the real objection to managed colonies is that it is unethical to put cats in a situation where they could potentially kill any wild creature,” writes Patronek, “then the ethical issue should be debated on its own merits without burdening the discussion with highly speculative numerical estimates for either wildlife mortality or cat predation.” [35]

“Whittling down guesses or extrapolations from limited observations by a factor of 10 or even 100 does not make these estimates any more credible, and the fact that they are the best available data is not sufficient to justify their use when the consequence may be extermination for cats… What I find inconsistent in an otherwise scientific debate about biodiversity is how indictment of cats has been pursued almost in spite of the evidence, and without regard to the differential effects of cats in carefully selected, managed colonies, versus that of free-roaming pets, owned farm cats, or truly feral animals. Assessment of well-being for any species is an imprecise and contentious process at best. Additional research is clearly needed concerning the welfare of these cats.” [35]

Trap-Neuter-Return
“Many well-intentioned but misguided people,” write Lebbin et al. “exacerbate feral cat problems through a technique called Trap, Neuter, Release (TNR), whereby colony cats are caught, spayed or neutered, and then returned to colonies to be fed by volunteers.” [2] Here, the authors trot out a classic verbal swipe, using the term Release instead of Return, implying a certain lack of planning, or even abandonment (with its legal implications).

They also imply that ABC is a resource for the “misguided.”

Stay Cats (Peep Show)
From The ABC Guide, the caption reads: “Managed feral cat colonies are a hazard to birds and attract the dumping of additional unwanted cats.” In fact, the photographer, Tina Lorien, tells me that these cats were photographed on the Island of Crete, where, it seems, even spayed/neutered pet cats are rather rare.

“Despite its apparent appeal,” Lebbin et al. continue, “few colonies managed under this system shrink, as the program takes more time than most volunteers are able to give, some cats are never caught, and the colonies often become dumping grounds for more unwanted cats.” [2]

Resources
Their claim that TNR programs are ineffective due to limited resources is unsubstantiated. More important, though, they ignore the fact that any feral cat management program is resource-intensive (as is any conservation effort, of course). Several successful TNR programs have been documented (see below), and countless more operate quietly, out of the spotlight.

It’s important to point out, too, that TNR is typically funded through private donations and the out-of-pocket purchases of volunteers. Trap-and-kill, on the other hand, is more likely to rely entirely on local tax dollars.

Sterilization
Their suggestion that all the cats need to be sterilized also lacks support. One often-cited population modeling study—included here more as a reference point than anything else—found that, in order to reduce colony population, approximately 75 percent of fertile cats would need to be sterilized. [36] However, this figure from Andersen, Martin, and Roemer takes into account no adoptions, though the authors point out that adoptions “are similar in effect to euthanasia because these cats are permanently removed from the free-roaming cat population.” [36]

Nor do Andersen et al. consider emigration between cat colonies, though they concede that “a substantial number of owned cats are reported to be adopted strays.” [36] “Substantial” is right—in 2003, Clifton suggested that “up to a third of all pet cats now appear to be recruited from the feral population.” [10]

TNR Successes
Though Lebbin et al. refuse to acknowledge it, TNR has had its share of successes. A 10-year TNR program in Rome, for example, yielded a “16–32 percent decrease on total cat number” across 103 managed colonies. [37] Detractors [38] like to focus on authors’ suggestion that “all these efforts without an effective education of people to control the reproduction of house cats (as a prevention for abandonment) are a waste of money, time and energy.” [37]

In fact, given the 21 percent rate of immigration “due to abandonment and spontaneous arrival,” [37] this colony reduction is quite remarkable. And, as Julie Levy, Maddie’s Professor of Shelter Medicine in the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine, points out, “such a decline is still beneficial to wildlife if no better alternative is available.” [39] (The “alternatives” ABC proposes—outlined below—are, at best, exactly that: no better.)

Levy, Gale, and Gale reported a 66 percent decline in the population of managed colonies on the University of Central Florida campus between 1991 and 2002, despite the arrival of stray or abandoned cats. [40] (In their paper, Levy et al. cite several other success stories.) And, in their telephone survey of 101 north-central Florida colony caretakers, Centonze and Levy reported “a 27 percent decrease in mean colony size within less than one year of beginning neutering.” [41]

One of the best-known TNR programs is ORCAT, run by the Ocean Reef Community Association, which, according to a 2004 paper, had reduced “overall population from approximately 2,000 cats to 500 cats.” [42] According to the ORCAT website, the population today is approximately 350, of which only about 250 are free-roaming.

Any TNR program contends with the unfortunate (and illegal) dumping of cats. But to suggest that TNR invites abandonment of cats is ridiculous. I’ve seen no research supporting such a claim. If people are determined to abandon their pet cat(s), I fail to see how the presence or absence of a nearby TNR program will affect that decision. On the other hand, cats dumped near a managed colony are far more likely to be adopted and/or sterilized—thereby mitigating their potential impact on the overall population of unowned cats.

Finally, it’s important to note that, although rapid decline—and eventual elimination through attrition—of managed colonies is the goal of TNR (and apparently the only acceptable outcome for the authors of The ABC Guide), reduced growth is not without its benefits. “Population stabilization,” writes Levy, is “a valid metric given that the status quo for unsterilized cats is rapid population growth.” [39]

Alternatives to TNR
Given their ongoing criticism of TNR, one might expect ABC to offer an alternative method of feral cat management—an approach against which to measure TNR (and against which TNR would, presumably, prove inferior). For the most part, though, ABC sidesteps the issue.

“Neutering and spaying pet cats,” write Lebbin et al., “is a humane method for reducing cat over-population.” True enough, but that doesn’t address the sizable population of unowned cats. Although The ABC Guide calls for readers to “make TNR and the feeding of cat colonies illegal,” [2] there’s no recommendation for what should be done with all of these cats.

I put this question to Lebbin and Parr during an ABC webinar celebrating the launch of the book earlier this month. “What we recommend,” said Parr, Vice President of ABC, “as an alternative to [TNR], is not abandoning cats in the first place.” Again, I don’t think there’s any disagreement on this point. Parr continued:

“Other options would be to house those cats in shelters or outdoor sanctuaries which could be managed. Clearly, it’s a huge problem, and the solutions to this are going be things we going to have to work together on for a long period of time, but certainly that would be my first reaction to that question.”

Really, we’re back to sanctuaries? Is this the best ABC has to offer? Almost.

Trap-and-Remove
In their book, Lebbin et al. point out, with obvious pride, that, “By 2004, feral cats had been successfully removed from at least 48 islands worldwide” (there’s another euphemism: removed). [2] A particular “success” is Ascension Island, where, the authors maintain, feral cats had reduced seabird numbers “by 98 percent, from 200 million to 400,000.” [2] As a result of “a multi-year eradication effort that began in 2001,” [2] birds have begun to return.

But, as is often the case, what’s left out of the story is far more interesting than what included.

Detailed accounts of feral cats eradication Marion Island provide a glimpse of the horrors involved. A 1992 paper reports 872 cats shot and 80 more trapped during 14,725 hours of hunting. “Present action” included “mass trapping and poisoning, and the possible use of trained dogs [was] being investigated.” [43] This was after the highly contagious feline panleucopenia virus (feline distemper) had been introduced to the island’s feral cat population, reducing the population by an average 29 percent annually between 1977 and 1982. [44]

On Macquarie Island successful eradication has had “dire” [45] consequences in the form of rapidly increasing rabbit and rodent populations. “In response, Federal and State governments in Australia have committed AU$24 million for an integrated rabbit, rat and mouse eradication programme.” [45]

Given the extent to which conservation efforts backfired on Macquarie Island—less than 50 square miles in size—one can only imagine the consequences and expense (to say nothing of the protests!) of a similar attempt in the continental U.S. But according to ABC, it seems to be either this or sanctuaries—for a population of feral cats they claim to be 60–120 million strong.

(To be fair, Lebbin et al. do offer this concession: “In some cases, invasive or overabundant species may not need to be eradicated, but simply reduced to levels such that they no longer pose a serious threat to native endangered species.” [2] Given their staunch opposition to TNR, however, I suspect this “offer”—which in any case would mean the killing of many millions of cats—does not apply to feral cats.)

The Current Approach
We do have some sense of how ineffective “traditional” feral cat management—a mix of trap-and-kill and inaction—has been. In an interview with Animal Sheltering magazine, Mark Kumpf, President of the National Animal Control Association President from 2007 to 2008, described this approach as “bailing the ocean with a thimble,” suggesting, too, that “the traditional methods that many communities use… are not necessarily the ones that communities are looking for today.” [46]

Clifton goes further, suggesting that trap-and-kill has actually backfired: “Regardless of motive,” writes Clifton, “the effect on the feral cat population replicates natural predation: the most frequent victims are the very young, the old, the disabled, and the ill. The healthiest animals usually escape to breed up to the carrying capacity of the habitat, if they can.” [10]

“Responding to the intensified mortality,” Clifton continues, “felis catus now bears an average litter of four. Nearly seven centuries of killing cats doubled the fecundity of the species.” [10]

Accountability
What Becky Robinson called a “new environmental witch hunt,” [1] I like to think of as a Trojan Horse. Disguised as good advice for responsible cat owners, ABC’s Cats Indoors! campaign has, since 1997, been used more to combat TNR than anything else.

With the publication of The ABC Guide, the authors had a chance to right some past wrongs by coming clean about the research surrounding predation, wildlife impacts, and TNR, as well as the true implications of their call to “make TNR and the feeding of cat colonies illegal.” [2] Instead, they elected for business as usual.

Facts vs. Human Connection
In doing so, ABC missed a golden opportunity to use its enormous influence for moving the discussion forward. (More recently, ABC took another big step backwards by endorsing a deeply flawed and irresponsible paper released by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, once again sacrificing their integrity for some easy PR.)

But Fenwick, who’s been President and CEO since ABC’s founding in 1994, doesn’t seem to get it. “What have we learned about the opposition?” he asks rhetorically in the book’s preface.

“For one thing, every point of view has its own science and economics to support its contentions, whether it be pro- or anti- pesticide use, free-roaming cats, bird collisions with glass or towers, conflicts with fisheries, land conversion, wind energy, mining, timbering, climate change, or any other issue we consider in addressing bird conservation…” [2]

Fenwick seems to be suggesting that “the opposition” has its own science and economics, whereas ABC has, on its side: Science and Economics (a truly untenable position, in light of a recent ABC press release).

“Facts alone will not win these battles,” he continues, “but human connection might.”

Communication vs. Misinformation
I have to agree with Fenwick that facts alone are insufficient to engage the general public. It’s difficult, for instance, to convey the critical nature of climate change in terms of ocean temperatures rising a couple of degrees Celsius (a figure I use here only to make a point). Explain to people how deep the water may rise in their city or neighborhood, however, and you’re liable to get their attention.

But that’s not what ABC is doing. They have effectively dismissed any and all rigorous science, choosing instead to broadcast as loudly as possible their increasingly dire message—in spite of the science.

Fenwick’s analogy is not climate change, but human health and welfare:

“…no matter the issue, our opposition will unfailingly question our priorities. So, they ask, ‘Why are you blaming __________ when we know habitat loss is the real problem?’ when I am asked these questions, I reply first that we continue to add to our base of knowledge and thus improve decisions affecting bird populations; second, if winning the debate translates to financial gain for the debater, then that position cannot be truly unbiased; and third, isn’t it analogous that if heart disease is the greatest mortality factor in our species, then why do we spend so much money combating cancer and other diseases, poverty and hunger? Solving any single problem—for birds or humans—is insufficient for our cause. Thoughtful people understand that it is critical that we fight for birds and humans across the full, broad front of issues.” [2]

Fenwick’s medical research analogy is an interesting one, but not in the way he intended. Actually, I’m reminded of David Freedman’s profile of John Ioannidis, professor at the University of Ioannina medical school’s teaching hospital, which appeared in last month’s Atlantic. In the piece, Freedman describes a provocative 2005 article that garnered Ioannidis worldwide attention:

“The article spelled out his belief that researchers were frequently manipulating data analyses, chasing career-advancing findings rather than good science, and even using the peer-review process—in which journals ask researchers to help decide which studies to publish—to suppress opposing views.” [47]

Obviously not the image Fenwick was trying to convey—but far more fitting.

Attacking “the full, broad front of issues” simultaneously makes perfect sense, but promoting erroneous and deceptive scientific claims in order to marshal the support necessary is unethical, plain and simple.

We’re not talking about cancer research distracting us from research into heart disease, to use Fenwick’s metaphor. No, what he and ABC are doing—in their relentless persecution of free-roaming cats, at least—is akin to funneling critical resources into the bottling and marketing of snake oil:

There’s no science behind it, and no remedy in its consumption—whatever the dosage.

Literature Cited
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22. Crooks, K.R. and Soule, M.E., “Mesopredator release and avifaunal extinctions in a fragmented system.” Nature. 1999. 400(6744): p. 563–566. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v400/n6744/abs/400563a0.html

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

25. Fitzgerald, B.M. and Turner, D.C., Hunting Behaviour of domestic cats and their impact on prey populations, in The Domestic Cat: The biology of its behaviour, D.C. Turner and P.P.G. Bateson, Editors. 2000, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, U.K.; New York. p. 151–175.

26. Leyhausen, P., Cat behavior: The predatory and social behavior of domestic and wild cats. Garland series in ethology. 1979, New York: Garland STPM Press.

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

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

29. Galbreath, R., “The tale of the lighthouse-keeper’s cat: Discovery and extinction of the Stephens Island wren (Traversia lyalli).” Notornis. 2004. 51: p. 193–200.

30. Medway, D.G., “The land bird fauna of Stephens Island, New Zealand in the early 1890s, and the cause of its demise.” Notornis. 2004. 51: p. 201–211.

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

32. n.a., What the Cat Dragged In, in Catnip. 1995, Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine: Boston, MA. p. 4–6.

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

34. Mead, C.J., “Ringed birds killed by cats.” Mammal Review. 1982. 12(4): p. 183-186. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2907.1982.tb00014.x

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

36. Andersen, M.C., Martin, B.J., and Roemer, G.W., “Use of matrix population models to estimate the efficacy of euthanasia versus trap-neuter-return for management of free-roaming cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(12): p. 1871-1876. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2004.225.1871

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

39. Levy, J.K., Comments Re: “Critical Assessment”, Personal Communication. July 21, 2010.

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41. Centonze, L.A. and Levy, J.K., “Characteristics of free-roaming cats and their caretakers.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2002. 220(11): p. 1627-1633. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2002.220.1627

42. Levy, J.K. and Crawford, P.C., “Humane strategies for controlling feral cat populations.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1354-1360. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2004.225.1354

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44. Rensburg, P.J.J.v., Skinner, J.D., and van Aarde, R.J., “Effects of Feline Panleucopaenia on the Population Characteristics of Feral Cats on Marion Island.” Journal of Applied Ecology. 1987. 24: p. 63–73.

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

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47. Freedman, D.H., Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science, in The Atlantic. 2010: Boston. p. 76–86. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/print/2010/11/lies-damned-lies-and-medical-science/8269/

Rap(tor) Sheet

Perhaps it’s an act of desperation, this “kitchen sink” approach favored by some free-roaming cat/TNR opponents. Throw everything—including the kitchen sink—into the anti-cat argument, and perhaps something will stick. Their impact on wildlife and the environment, for instance, or their threat to public safety—it seems there’s something for everybody. (Surely it’s only a matter of time before beach erosion, ozone depletion, and climate change are added to this growing rap sheet.)

But for those of us willing to sort through this quantity-over-quality smokescreen, such arguments rarely prove substantive.

I touched on this point in one of my first Vox Felina posts, referring to how the now-classic predation study conducted by William G. George has been misread, misinterpreted, and misrepresented. This work, perhaps more than any other, has been used to suggest an indirect impact of free-roaming cats on raptors.

George was very cautious about drawing such a connection, acutely aware of the speculative nature of his own work. In recent years, however, the details of George’s work—and his well-tempered conclusions—have given way to a kind of mythology, having been co-opted by scientists more interested in their own agendas than in rigorous scientific inquiry.

The Study
Over four years, from January 1, 1968 through December 31, 1971, George monitored and recorded with meticulous care the various small mammals his three cats killed on his “fallow farmland” property in rural Cobden, Illinois. “As predators on rodents,” writes George, “cats inevitably compete for prey with many of our declining raptors, and therein may lie a serious problem.” (emphasis mine) [1].

“I am not suggesting a cause-and-effect relationship exists between the historical increase of cats and the historical decrease of raptors; however, cats, which are as efficient in their way as guns and DDT, accompany and add another dimension to man’s encroachment into wildlife areas.” [1]

The trouble, of course, is that so many scientists citing George’s work have suggested exactly that.

The Myth
“Cat predation on mammals,” write Longcore et al., is “cause for concern because of direct impacts to native species and competition with native predators (George 1974).” [2] “Human-subsidized cats,” warn Guttilla and Stapp, “can spill over into less densely populated wildland areas where they reduce prey for native predators (George 1974).” [3]

Of course anybody who grew up, as I did, watching Wild Kingdom, knows that competition is a central theme of many stories played out in the natural world. But competition for prey is one thing; having an impact on the population of competitors is something else altogether.

Which is precisely what Loyd and DeVore—citing only George’s research—suggest: “Feral cats can also have a considerable impact on the broader health of ecosystems by outcompeting native predators (George 1974)…” [4]

Dauphiné and Cooper, too, interpret George’s work rather loosely, but also seem to offer additional evidence of the indirect impacts about which he speculated:

“In addition to having direct impacts on prey, cats compete with avian predators, such as American Kestrels (Falco sparverius), Northern Harriers (Circus cyaneus), and Redtailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) (George 1974, Mosher 1989, Lepczyk et al. 2004). George (1974) estimated that cats killed 5.5 million rodents and other vertebrates in a 26,000 square mile area in Illinois, effectively depleting the prey base for wintering raptors and other native predators.” [5]

What did Lepczyk add to the conversation? Nothing, actually; he merely cited George’s study:

“… cats may be directly competing with avian predators, such as American Kestrels (Falco sparverius), Northern Harriers (Circus cyaneus) and Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis; George, 1974).” [6]

And Mosher? This one’s far more interesting. According to Dauphiné and Cooper, Mosher’s research reveals some compelling evidence:

“In a study in Maryland of Cooper’s Hawks (Accipiter cooperii) that depended heavily on eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) to feed nestlings, Mosher (1989) found that these raptors altered their diet to prey more on songbirds in an area where chipmunks were eradicated by cats. The resulting increase in hunting time and difficulty for Cooper’s Hawks was associated with a decrease in nestling survival.” [5]

But Mosher’s paper includes no mention of cats at all. In fact, he suggests only “that reproductive performance, especially in studies encompassing relatively small areas, may reflect natural phenomena such as dependence on a particular prey species that undergoes population fluctuations.” [7] I found an earlier paper by Mosher, also mentioning chipmunks and Cooper’s Hawks [8]—but again, no mention of cats.

It’s possible this is an honest mistake, that Dauphiné and Cooper merely included the wrong reference. However, I was unable to find a hint of any such research in my (admittedly brief) online sleuthing. And, given the sloppiness and bias that permeates the rest of their paper, nothing these two might do would surprise me.

(If, as Dauphiné and Cooper suggest, the real problem is that raptors are preying on songbirds rather than chipmunks, then shouldn’t we be doing everything in our power to increase the chipmunk population? It’s an absurd suggestion, of course—but only slightly more so than many accepted wildlife “management” practices.)

Getting back to George’s research, the winner for most distorted version undoubtedly goes to David Jessup, who writes with a certitude generally reserved for politicians, marketers, and novelists. Gone is the trepidation George expressed—first, regarding the impact of cat predation on rodent and other prey populations; second, regarding the relationship between these populations and the raptors that feed on them. For Jessup, who offers no additional evidence, it’s all very straightforward:

“Feral cats also indirectly kill native predators by removing their food base.” [9]

Local/Regional Raptor Update
So, how have those raptors fared in the subsequent 40 years? Certainly there are factors other than cats that would likely contribute to their decline—habitat fragmentation and destruction, for instance. Such environmental impacts have the potential to affect the birds themselves, clearly, but also their prey.

Research into the population trends of Red-tailed Hawks, Northern Harriers, and American Kestrels—three raptors identified specifically by George—suggests that his concerns were largely unfounded.

BBS Routes and Data
Only one Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) route runs into Union County, Illinois, where George’s property was located. Unfortunately, count data for BBS Route 34080 go back only to 1993. However, data for neighboring routes are available from the time of George’s study through 2006. Surveys along two nearby routes in Illinois (34059 and 34061) began in 1970; surveys of two others, along the eastern edge of Missouri (52001 and 52007), date back to 1967.

Selected BBS Routes: Missouri and Illinois

No BBS count data from the routes in question are available for Northern Harriers, suggesting that perhaps this species was, for one reason or another, simply not included. Data sets for other birds—the Red-shouldered Hawk, for example—exist despite frequent counts of zero (in the case of the Red-shouldered Hawk, just one bird was recorded along Routes 52001 from 1967 through 2006).

BBS data for Red-tailed Hawks indicate a rather dramatic population increase for the two southwestern Illinois routes, and slight increases for the same period across the two eastern Missouri routes, as indicated in the following graphs.

Red-tailed Hawks Four BBS RoutesBBS Data: Red-tailed Hawks for two Illinois and two Missouri routes (adapted from North American Breeding Bird Survey website)

Populations of American Kestrels (along the same routes and for the same period) remained mostly stable.

American Kestrels Four BBS RoutesBBS Data: American Kestrels for two Illinois and two Missouri routes (adapted from North American Breeding Bird Survey website)

The bottom line? If the area’s cats are out-competing the raptors for prey, there’s no evidence in the BBS count data.

Prairie Voles
Of particular interest to George were prairie voles, which made up “more than 41 percent of all captured vertebrates and 45 percent of the captured mammals.” [1] And whose reduced numbers, suggested George, “could well pose the principal threat to the success of wintering hawks in my area of study.” [1] But maybe the voles weren’t as important as George surmised.

In Minnesota, the declining population of prairie voles—significant enough to warrant “special concern species” status beginning in 1984—seems to have had no effect on the populations of Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, and American Kestrels. Indeed, BBS data indicate that these raptors’ numbers have fluctuated little over the past 40 years or so. (And, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the reason for the state’s declining vole numbers has nothing to do with cats, but “is due almost exclusively to the destruction of its prairie habitat through plowing and over-grazing.”)

BBS Data: Three Raptors across MinnesotaBBS Data: Three raptor species across Minnesota (adapted from North American Breeding Bird Survey website)

Raptors Across the Country
Of course, isolating the relationship between the population of a predator and that of its preferred prey species is incredibly difficult; there are simply too many additional—often interdependent—factors that must be considered. Zooming out for a big-picture view of population dynamics across the U.S. only blurs such relationships, thereby complicating any subsequent analysis.

Nevertheless, I think it’s worth a look. George claimed (unfortunately, without referring to a specific source, and without specifying whether he was referring only to owned/pet cats) that there were 31 million cats in the U.S. at the time of his study. [1] Today, according to the American Pet Products Association’s 2009–2010 National Pet Owners Survey, there are 93.6 million.

Direct comparisons over this 40-year time frame are difficult for a number of reasons (e.g., lack of reliable data, the increasing proportion of indoor-only cats in recent years, etc.). But if, as some suggest, cats are having an negative impact on raptor populations—and there are now three times as many of them (not accounting for feral cats, whose numbers have also likely increased)—well, one might expect find these birds in dire straights by now.

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary
To see for myself, I turned to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s Conservation Status Reports. Located in east-central Pennsylvania, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is, according to its website, “the world’s first refuge for birds of prey.”

The outlook for the Northern Harrier and Red-tailed Hawk is mostly good. “The Northern Harrier is considered secure in most of North America,” notes its 2007 conservation report, “but it is a species of concern regionally in many of the [Bird Conservation Regions] west of the Mississippi River.”

The Red-tailed Hawk, too, “is considered secure throughout most of its range in North America.

“Migration counts have declined in eastern North America since 1995, but concurrent increases in [Breeding Bird Surveys] and [Christmas Bird Counts] suggest that these migration trends may be the result of changes in migration geography or behavior. Elsewhere in North America, population monitoring generally indicates increasing or stable populations of this common raptor.”

American Kestrels, on the other hand, seem to be in trouble: “Overall, the data suggest substantial declines in populations… across much of North America, and consequently strong cause for conservation concern.” The factors affecting these declines are unknown and, the report notes, “warrant further investigation.” However, some patterns have been observed—“factors exerting negative influences on populations are strongest along the Atlantic coast,” for example. Also: “More recent declines in western North America… appear to have occurred in concert with a prolonged drought.”

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website paints a rather different picture, noting that the population of American Kestrels “increased greatly with historical deforestation of North America. No significant trend across North America, but some local increases and decreases.”

*     *     *

All of which adds up to… what? Like the BBS data, the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Conservation Status Reports reveal population trends perhaps best described as “mixed.” Nowhere is there any indication that declining raptor numbers can be linked to the success of competing predators—including cats.

For George, the idea was nothing more than a hypothesis anyhow. But rather than put it to the test (ostensibly the role of scientists), Longcore, Dauphiné, Jessup, and the rest, have instead tried to elevate its status through nothing more than repetition—thereby betraying an agenda that has little to do with science at all.

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

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

3. Guttilla, D.A. and Stapp, P., “Effects of sterilization on movements of feral cats at a wildland-urban interface.” Journal of Mammalogy. 2010. 91(2): p. 482-489. http://dx.doi.org/10.1644/09-MAMM-A-111.1

4. Loyd, K.A.T. and DeVore, J.L., “An Evaluation of Feral Cat Management Options Using a Decision Analysis Network.” Ecology and Society. 2010. 15(4). http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol15/iss4/art10/

5. Dauphiné, N. and Cooper, R.J., Impacts of Free-ranging Domestic Cats (Felis catus) on birds in the United States: A review of recent research with conservation and management recommendations, in Fourth International Partners in Flight Conference: Tundra to Tropics. 2009. p. 205–219. www.pwrc.usgs.gov/pif/pubs/McAllenProc/articles/PIF09_Anthropogenic%20Impacts/Dauphine_1_PIF09.pdf

6. Lepczyk, C.A., Mertig, A.G., and Liu, J., “Landowners and cat predation across rural-to-urban landscapes.” Biological Conservation. 2003. 115(2): p. 191-201. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6V5X-48D39DN-5/2/d27bfff8454a44161f8dc1ad7cc585ea

7. Mosher, J.A., Accipiters, in Northeast Raptor Management Symposium and Workshop, B.A.G. Pendleton, Editor. 1989, National Wildlife Federation Scientific and Technical Series No. 13.: Syracuse, NY. p. 47–52.

8. Mosher, J.A., “Breeding Biology of Raptors in the Central Appalachians.” Raptor Research. 1982. 16(1): p. 18–24.

9. Jessup, D.A., “The welfare of feral cats and wildlife.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1377-1383. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2004.225.1377