Rabies in Cats Continues to Decline

Well, this must be awkward—for some, anyhow. In particular, the people who continue to overstate the threat of rabies, leveraging whatever fear they can muster in their ongoing campaign to undermine community cat programs and TNR efforts.

Awkward or not, though, it’s a fact: the number of cats testing positive for rabies in the U.S. declined for the second year in a row.

The 2013 data, compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published November 15th in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association, show a decline of 10 cases (3.9 percent) from the 257 cases reported in 2012—which represented a rather dramatic decline of 15.2 percent from 2011’s total of 303 cases. Read more

Free-Roaming Cats, Infectious Diseases, and the Zombie Apocalypse

A recently published paper describing free-roaming cats as “a significant public health threat” fails to deliver convincing evidence. In fact, the very work the authors cite undermines, time and time again, their claims.

“Domestic cats are a potential source of numerous infectious disease agents,” write Rick Gerhold and David Jessup, in their paper, “Zoonotic Diseases Associated with Free-Roaming Cats,” published online in July by the journal Zoonoses Public Health (and to be included in an upcoming print edition).

“However, many of these diseases are controlled in cats belonging to responsible owners through routine veterinary care, proper vaccination regimens and parasite chemotherapy. Free-roaming cats often lack the necessary preventative care to control these diseases and consequently pose a potential health threat to other domestic animals, wildlife and humans.” [1]

Just how much of a threat do these cats pose?

Gerhold and Jessup would have us believe that the risks are high and the consequences dire. A careful reading of their paper, however, reveals the authors’ tendency to cherry-pick some studies and misrepresent others. And, occasionally, simply get their facts wrong.*

All of which raises serious questions about Gerhold and Jessup’s case against free-roaming cats. Read more

American Bird Conservancy Calls for Killing of Cats

I don’t imagine USA Today has ever been accused of producing substantive journalism. And, judging from a worthless he-said/she-said-we-report-you-decide story in yesterday’s edition, that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

OK, not worthless, exactly. After all, American Bird Conservancy president George Fenwick finally went on record calling for the killing of free-roaming cats: “I detest the killing of cats and dogs or anything else. But this is out of control, and there may be no other answer.” [1]

How many cats are we talking about? Fenwick’s not saying. And reporter Chuck Raasch does readers no favors when he confuses free-roaming cats and feral cats (“Estimates of the U.S. feral cat population range from a few million to 125 million, with the Humane Society saying 50 million.”)

And in a move that’s become popular among TNR opponents,* Fenwick plays the “powerful cat lobby” card: “he worries his side is ‘out-emotioned’ and out-organized.” [1] It would, I think, be more accurate to say that “his side” has neither the science nor public opinion working in their favor. Read more

HAHF-Truths, HAHF-Measures, Full Price (Part 2)

Complaining of the impacts of free-roaming cats on wildlife and the environment, along with a range of public health threats, dozens of veterinarians in Hillsborough County, Florida, have banded together to fight TNR. Evidence suggests, however, that their real concern has nothing to do with the community, native wildlife, or, indeed, with cats. What the Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation is most interested in protecting, it seems, is the business interests of its members.

In Part 2 of this five-part series, I use Florida Department of Heath data for rabies cases (in animals) and possible rabies exposures (humans) to challenge HAHF’s claim that free-roaming cats pose a significant rabies threat.

The “trouble with trap-neuter-re(abandon!),” as the Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation explains on its website, “is simply stated by the executive summary of the 2012 Florida Department of Health Rabies Guide.”

“The concept of managing free-roaming/feral domestic cats (Felis catus) is not tenable on public health grounds because of the persistent threat posed to communities from injury and disease. While the risk for disease transmission from cats to people is generally low when these animals are maintained indoors and routinely cared for, free-roaming cats pose a continuous concern to communities. Children are among the highest risk for disease transmission from these cats.” [1]

“Veterinarians are legally required to follow the Rabies Guide,” argues HAHF. “As a result, we are gravely concerned about Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR), and the implications of any such county funded or endorsed program.”

But if TNR truly increases the risk of rabies exposure, what difference does it make where the funding comes from? (I’ll get into that in Part 5.)

In any case, veterinarians are legally required to follow the law.

And while the Rabies Guide (PDF), issued by the Florida Department of Health, cites a variety of statutes, codes, and ordinances—in addition to multiple references to the “legislative authority” granted the Florida DOH—it’s curious that the publication doesn’t actually refer to any law prohibiting “the concept of managing free-roaming/feral domestic cats.” (In fact, the entire section covering free-roaming cats is of such poor quality—claims directly contradicting CDC data and reports, for example, and its failure to acknowledge the potential for TNR to provide a rabies barrier between wildlife and humans [2]—one wonders about the motivation of its authors. Perhaps I’ll tackle this in a future post.)

Humans (Possibly) Exposed to Rabies
“More than 2,000 people were exposed to rabid or potentially rabid animals in Florida in 2010,” explains HAHF. “This represents a 46 percent increase over the five-year average, and cats represented 25 percent of the incidents.” In fact, the increase was—according to the very report HAHF cites—actually 41.33 percent, with cats representing 24 percent of “exposed persons for whom treatment was recommended.” [3] But that’s quibbling, I suppose.

What’s far more interesting is how HAHF chose to “edit” their summary of the Florida DOH report, which is worth quoting at length:

“In 2001, reporting of animal encounters for which rabies post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is recommended was initiated. Rabies PEP is recommended when an individual is bitten, scratched, or has mucous membrane or fresh wound contact with the saliva or nervous tissue of a laboratory-confirmed rabid animal, or a suspected rabid animal that is not available for testing. The annual incidence of exposures PEP is recommended has increased since case reporting was initiated. In 2010, the incidence rate was up 41.33 percent over the previous five-year average although the number of confirmed rabid animals decreased in 2010 compared to 2009. This increase in PEP may be due to improved reporting, increased exposures to possible rabid animals, increased inappropriate or unnecessary use of PEP, or a combination of factors. Reductions in state and local resources may contribute to increases in inappropriate or unnecessary use of PEP by decreasing resources to investigate animal exposures and confirm animal health status, and by reducing county health department staff time to provide regular rabies PEP education for health care providers.” [3, emphasis mine]

(As I pointed out in my previous post, HAHF may very well be contributing to the “increased inappropriate or unnecessary use of PEP” with all their scaremongering.)

Suddenly, what seems like a dramatic uptick in rabies exposure—one in which HAHF suggests cats played a key role—looks more like what it is: the result of several poorly understood (and, in some cases, competing) factors. Puzzling, but hardly the public health threat suggested by HAHF.

Interestingly, dogs were implicated in 46 percent of PEP incidents, nearly twice as many as were cats. And, 75 percent of the owned animals (which made up 20 percent of the total) involved in the 2,114 exposures that occurred in 2010 were pet dogs. [3] My point is not to shift attention to dogs, but simply to add a little perspective. One would expect HAHF—as members of the veterinarian community concerned for “our precious children”—to at least acknowledge the point.

Instead, HAHF quotes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “In 2009, rabies cases among cats increased for the second consecutive year. Three times more rabid cats were reported than rabid dogs.” Which is true—but also misleading. As a report of CDC data makes clear: “differences in protocols and submission rates among species and states [make] comparison of percentages of animals with positive results between species or states… inappropriate.” [4]

In other words, the rabies surveillance data at the heart of all these claims are not an accurate reflection of rabies prevalence in the population of any particular species. The low numbers for bobcats in Florida (just 44 across 20 years), for example, are likely a reflection of this cat’s relatively few encounters with humans as much as anything else.

Some additional perspective: since 1960, only two cases of human rabies in the U.S. have been attributed to cats. [5]

The Risks to Children
Contrary to the claims made in the Florida DOH Rabies Guide (“Children are among the highest risk for disease transmission from [free-roaming] cats.”) and on the HAHF website (“a large burden of the [public health] risk lies against our precious children!”), Florida DOH data suggest that the only age group less likely to be exposed to rabies is adults 55 and older. According to the 2010 Florida Morbidity Statistics Report (from which the chart below was taken):

“The average age of the victim for the 2,114 cases reported in 2010 was 37 years, with a range from under one year to 110 years of age. The highest incidence was seen in individuals aged between 20 and 24 years, but incidence was similar for ages 15 to 19 and 45 to 54 years. There were some variations in age based on the type of animal involved. Average age for those recommended to receive PEP who were exposed to dogs was 32 years; cats, 41 years; and wildlife, 43 years.” [3, emphasis mine]

Rabid Animals
It’s perfectly understandable for public health officials to focus on possible exposure and PEP incidents—but it’s also worth looking at the data documenting confirmed cases of rabid animals in Florida and Hillsborough County. (Tampa Bay Online has developed a handy interactive state map of 2006–09 rabies cases.) Doing so reveals a steady downward trend since the mid-1990s* at both the state [6] and county levels, [7] as indicated in the graphs below.

The trend is even more striking when one considers Florida’s population explosion over the same period, from 12,937,926 in 1990 to 18,801,311 in 2010, an increase of 45 percent. More people means more pets—as well as the kinds of interactions with wildlife that lead to increased surveillance reporting.

Now, I’m not prepared to attribute the notable downturn in rabies cases—in cats and in animals overall—to TNR. There are simply too many factors involved. On the other hand, the trend challenges the assertion made by HAHF (and the Florida DOH in its Rabies Guide) that TNR—which has become increasingly popular over the past 20 years—leads to an increased risk of rabies exposure.

•     •     •

*The data suggest that the sharp increase during the early 1990s was due to an increase in rabies cases among the state’s raccoon population.

Coming up:

• Part 3: Toxoplasmosis prevalence
• Part 4: Hillsborough County Animal Services: Past, Present, and Future
• Part 5: Would the real HAHF please stand up?

Literature Cited
1. n.a., Rabies Prevention and Control in Florida, 2012. 2012, Florida Department of Health: Tallahassee, FL. www.myfloridaeh.com/newsroom/brochures/rabiesguide2012.pdf

2. Clifton, M. (2010). How to introduce neuter/return & make it work. Animal People, pp. 3–4, from http://www.animalpeoplenews.org/10/4/April10.htm

3. n.a., 2010 Florida Morbidity Statistics Report. 2011, Florida Department of Health, Division of Disease Control, Bureau of Epidemiology: Tallahassee, FL. http://www.doh.state.fl.us/disease_ctrl/epi/Morbidity_Report/2010/2010_AMR.pdf

4. Blanton, J.D., et al., “Rabies surveillance in the United States during 2008.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2009. 235(6): p. 676–689. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19751163


5. n.a., “Recovery of a Patient from Clinical Rabies—California, 2011.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2012. 61(4): p. 61–64. http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6104a1.htm

6. n.a., 20 Year Animal Rabies Summary by Species (1991–2010) 2011, Florida Department of Health: Tallahassee, FL. http://www.doh.state.fl.us/environment/medicine/rabies/Data/2010/Rabies20YrTable91_10.pdf

7. n.a. Rabies Surveillance: Charts, Maps, and Graphs. 2006 [cited 2012 August 25].  http://www.doh.state.fl.us/Disease_ctrl/epi/rabies/chart.html.

Facts Felina

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, No Kill Conference attendees were clearly hungry for more TNR resources—programs and program funding, but also legislation and policies that would more effectively protect unowned cats. It was, therefore, an excellent time to release the first three Vox Felina TNR Fact Sheets. Read more

Westchester County, NY, Rabies Case

“A rabies alert was posted Tuesday by the Westchester County Department of Health,” reported the Tarrytown Daily Voice earlier this week, “after a police officer shot a stray cat who attacked him after trying to attack a man and woman in Elmsford.”

“When Elmsford Police Department responded, the cat chased the officer into a neighbor’s yard and attacked him. The cat bit the officer’s leg as he tried to fend off the animal, police said. The officer shook the cat from his leg, but the animal pounced at the officer again, puncturing his skin with its teeth and claws.

‘An officer got a few nasty bites and is being treated for rabies,’ [Elmsford Mayor Robert] Williams said Sunday night, before testing confirmed the cat had rabies. ‘You have to start the treatment right away while they are awaiting the results from the cat. He was released from the hospital later that day [Friday] and went home to rest. He returned to work the next day.’” [1]

No doubt TNR opponents will have a field day with this one. But how about a little perspective? Read more

Rabies: Some Much-Needed Perspective

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

Cats weren’t mentioned even once.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tune In to Animal Wise Radio Sunday!

Tune in tomorrow to Animal Wise Radio, when I’ll be catching up with hosts Mike Fry and Beth Nelson. (It’s been more than seven months!) Among the topics up for discussion: toxoplasmosis, rabies, and typhus (oh, my!).

Listen online—and while you’re at it, why not show your support by “Liking” their Facebook page.

Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Targets Feral Cats

“The Barnett Access on the Little Red River is being overrun with feral cats,” reported last Tuesday’s edition of The Sun-Times, the local paper in Heber Springs, Arkansas. “Due to the interaction between the public and feral cats, and the risk to human health, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission is going to begin a trapping effort in July to remove the cats.” [1]

Interaction between the public and feral cats?

Huh. The feral cats I’m familiar with don’t really interact with the public. They’re… you know, feral.

What’s going on here?

“Tom Bly, fisheries biologist with the AGFC said that feral cats are considered an invasive species by conservation agencies and organizations nationwide. ‘Cats are the most significant invasive species affecting native bird populations and are also estimated to kill twice as many mammals as birds. There are also numerous human health concerns associated with feral cat colonies. Through feces, fleas, bites, or scratches cats can pass a variety of parasitic, bacterial and viral illnesses including rabies, toxoplasmosis, hook worms, and typhus,’ Bly said.” [1]

Sounds like Bly’s been drinking TNR opponents’ Kool-Aid. Read more

Oregon Man Diagnosed with Plague

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

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

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

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

Never Bet Against Irony

Common Raccoon (Procyon lotor). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Darkone.

According to a recent story in The Charleston Gazette, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has, in recent years, made great strides in stopping the westward spread of the raccoon variant of the rabies virus. And a promising new vaccine, typically distributed in packets dropped from airplanes, may eliminate raccoon rabies altogether.

The news came via a presentation by Richard Chipman, Assistant National Rabies Management Coordinator for USDA’s Wildlife Services (yes, that Wildlife Services), and several of his colleagues at the Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ Conference in April. Read more

Downgrading ABC’s “Perfect Storm”

Once again, the American Bird Conservancy is using scare tactics to gain support for their long-standing witch-hunt against free-roaming cats, this time suggesting a connection between TNR and rabies exposure. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention demonstrate no such connection.

Maybe the folks at the American Bird Conservancy were simply feeling left out, what with all the attention the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been getting for their participation in The Wildlife Society’s upcoming feral cat workshop.

You know, all dressed up (tired talking points in hand) and nowhere to go.

With just a day to spare, ABC announced that senior policy analyst Steve Holmer would be participating in the 2nd Annual World Rabies Day Webinar, apparently using the occasion—as is ABC’s habit—to trot out all the usual anti-TNR propaganda.

According to a media release from ABC, Managed Cat Colonies and Rabies was to be “one of 28 presentations being aired in over 70 countries.” I was unable to tune into Holmer’s presentation, but ABC’s announcement suggests I didn’t miss much: “Feral cat colonies bring together a series of high risk elements that result in a ‘perfect storm’ of rabies exposure.”

Put into context, though, the rabies threat posed by “feral cat colonies” is more of a tempest in a teacup.

“While cats make up a small percentage of rabies vectors,” argues Holmer, “they are responsible for a disproportionate number of human exposures.” As the media release explains:

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most people are exposed to rabies due to close contact with domestic animals such as cats and dogs. Although dogs historically posed a greater rabies threat to humans, dog-related incidents have become less frequent in recent decades, dropping from 1,600 cases in 1958 to just 75 in 2008. Meanwhile, cases involving cats have increased over the same period with spikes of up to 300 cases in a single year.

Here, ABC is, once again, not telling us the whole story—beginning with their source. It turns out this paragraph—along with other portions of their release—were lifted verbatim from The Wildlife Society’s Rabies in Humans and Wildlife “fact sheet” (PDF). TWS attributes the figures to a 2009 report of CDC data published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (which includes the graph below).

“State health authorities have different requirements for submission of specimens for rabies testing,” note the authors, “therefore, intensity of surveillance varies.” [1]

“Because most animals submitted for testing are selected because of abnormal behavior or obvious signs of illness, percentages of tested animals with positive results in the present report are not representative of the incidence of rabies in the general population. Further, because of differences in protocols and submission rates among species and states, comparison of percentages of animals with positive results between species or states is inappropriate.” [1, italics mine]

Comparing rabies cases in dogs and cats, as TWS—and, by extension, ABC—have done, misrepresents the actual threat posed by cats. Indeed, as “Rabies surveillance in the United States during 2009” makes clear (see table below), no human case of rabies reported between 2000 and 2009 was linked to a cat.

As one of my colleagues astutely observed, “You are more likely to be executed by Rick Perry than die from rabies contracted from a cat.”

[Note: As I’ve demonstrated previously, TWS’s “fact sheets” aren’t any better than ABC’s media releases when it comes to, well, facts. In Rabies in Humans and Wildlife, TWS suggests that treatment for people exposed to rabies “can cost $7,000 or more; every year, the United States spends approximately $300 million on rabies prevention.” [2]

Among the sources cited by TWS is the CDC—which paints a very different economic picture, suggesting that “a course of rabies immune globulin and five doses of vaccine given over a 4-week period typically exceeds $1,000,” and pointing out that the annual expenditures for rabies prevention “include the vaccination of companion animals, animal control programs, maintenance of rabies laboratories, and medical costs, such as those incurred for rabies postexposure prophylaxis.”

If ABC isn’t going to do their own homework, then they should at least look for a trustworthy source.]

TNR: Barrier to Rabies Transmission
“Managed colonies teach feral cats to associate with humans,” says Holmer/TWS, “and while most people will not interact with wildlife, especially animals displaying erratic behavior, cats are perceived as domestic and approachable.”

In an e-mail to me earlier this week, Merritt Clifton editor of Animal People, dismissed several of Holmer’s assertions, describing TNR as “a very useful tool in fighting rabies.”

“Neuter/return feral cat population control, including vaccination, is in truth a very effective rabies control measure, as I know firsthand, because I was personally involved in the introduction of neuter/return feral cat control to the U.S. in 1991–1992—and it was done as part of a rabies control program.”

“The idea,” says Clifton, “was to see whether neuter/return could turn the feral cat population into a vaccinated barrier between rabid raccoons and free-roaming pet cats.”

“As coordinator of a rabies information hotline for the preceding year, following the arrival in Connecticut of the mid-Atlantic raccoon rabies pandemic, I became one of the three coordinators of an experiment which sterilized and vaccinated 330 feral cats at eight locations in northern Fairfield County, Connecticut.”

The experiment was, Clifton explains, a success. “The only rabid cat ever found near our eight working locations,” he says, “was an unvaccinated house cat who was not normally allowed outside, but escaped and fought with a raccoon before being captured by [a] Town of Monroe animal control officer.” Clifton and his colleagues were, he tells me, “honored by the Town of Monroe Police Department for our accomplishment in keeping rabies from spreading beyond raccoons. The certificate is above my desk right now.”

“To date,” Clifton continues, “there has never been even one case of rabies in the U.S. among cats who were part of a managed neuter/return program, coordinated with a humane society or animal control agency. Of the 32 instances of rabid cats in the U.S. reported by ProMed since 2005, 11 involved feral cats, and several others involved found kittens [and] cats of indeterminate status, but none were part of a neuter return/program.”

[Note: The apparent discrepancy between CDC and ProMed figures are, Clifton tells me, easily explained: “ProMed reports outbreaks, not individual cases.”]

For Holmer, incorporating the rabies vaccine into standard TNR protocol—as is done in many locations—is insufficient.

“Even when they are vaccinated when first trapped, re-trapping cats to revaccinate can be problematic as the cats become wary of the traps. There is also typically not the funding or infrastructure among the colony feeders to repeatedly re-trap cats to administer vaccines.”

In fact, boosters are probably unnecessary. Julie Levy, Maddie’s Professor of Shelter Medicine at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine—and one of this country’s foremost experts on feral cats—suggests, “Even a single dose of rabies vaccination provides years of protection against rabies infection.”

When it comes right down to it, initial vaccinations are probably unnecessary, too, in much of the country. As the authors of the 2009 rabies surveillance report—referring to the map shown below—point out, “Most (81.0 percent) of the 300 cases of rabies involving cats were reported from states where raccoon rabies is enzootic, with two states (Pennsylvania and Virginia) accounting for nearly a third of all rabid cats reported during 2009.” [3]

If ABC is truly concerned about the public health threat posed by “feral cat colonies,” why withhold such critical information? Because their “perfect storm” media release has nothing whatsoever to do public health. Or science, for that matter. It’s just another feeble attempt to gain support for their long-standing witch-hunt against free-roaming cats.

And to add to the fear-mongering, ABC now suggests that TNR actually increases the number of stray, abandoned, and feral cats.

“Peer reviewed studies have shown that over time, cat colonies increase in size, the result of the inability to neuter or spay all the cats and the dumping of unwanted cats at the colony sites by callous pet owners. The result is a large number of unvaccinated cats.”

Just 10 months ago, though, ABC was telling a rather different story. Authors of The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation suggest, “few colonies managed under this system shrink.” [4] Either way, ABC is ignoring compelling evidence that TNR can indeed reduce colony size over time—in some cases 16–32 percent, [5] 36 percent, [6] and 66 percent. [7]

•     •     •

“The increase in the cases of human rabies exposure from feral cats,” argues Holmer, “should be a concern to city and other government officials.”

“This problem will only get worse as managed feral cat colonies grow in number because half truths about their impacts and implications on local communities and the environment is accepted by decision makers who mistakenly believe they are receiving full disclosure.”

If Holmer’s looking for half-truths and partial disclosures, he needn’t look any further than ABC’s most recent piece of propaganda—the most insidious element of which is merely implied. One might easily get the impression that ABC has a plan to reduce the population of stray, abandoned, and feral cats—a feasible alternative to TNR.

In fact, there is no such plan.

That’s ABC’s dirty little secret (one they share with TWS and USFWS). And that’s what should be a concern to city and other government officials.

Literature Cited
1. Blanton, J.D., et al., “Rabies surveillance in the United States during 2008.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2009. 235(6): p. 676–689. www.avma.org/avmacollections/rabies/javma_235_6_676.pdf

2. n.a., Problems with Trap-Neuter-Release. 2011, The Wildlife Society: Bethesda, MD. http://joomla.wildlife.org/documents/cats_tnr.pdf

3. Blanton, J.D., Palmer, D., and Rupprecht, C.E., “Rabies surveillance in the United States during 2009.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2010. 237(6): p. 646–657. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/pdf/10.2460/javma.237.6.646

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

5. 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


6. 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

7. 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

8. 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

The Things People Say (or Don’t)—Part 1

Wildlife/bird advocates opposed to TNR are eager to talk to the press, so why won’t they reply to my e-mail?

Just about the time I was writing my response to “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” (Conservation Biology, Volume 23, No. 4, 887–894), its lead author, Travis Longcore, began showing up in the news. The Urban Wildlands Group, for which Longcore serves as science director, was the lead petitioner in the case that would eventually lead to an injunction against publicly supported TNR in Los Angeles.

Given the obvious bias and overall tone of Longcore’s paper, I was hardly surprised to read what he told the press. There’s this, for example, from an interview with Southern California Public Radio:

“Feral cats are documented predators of native wildlife,” said Travis Longcore, science director for the Urban Wildlands Group. “We do not support release of this non-native predator into our open spaces and neighborhoods, where they kill birds and other wildlife.”

Hardly the stuff of controversy, at least at first glance. Who can argue with the fact that cats kills birds and other wildlife? That’s what predators—including cats and a number of other species, too, of course—do. Nobody’s debating that. What impact this predation has on birds and wildlife is another matter altogether—one Longcore doesn’t address here. (I’ll be addressing this issue repeatedly in future posts, starting with a critique of Longcore’s essay in Conservation Biology).

What’s more interesting is Longcore’s reference to cats as “non-native” and wildlife as “native.” It’s a recurring theme in the feral cat debate: native is inherently good; non-native is inherently bad (even worse is invasive non-native, another term often used to demonize cats). Never mind the fact that the cats are here because we brought them here, or the hypocrisy of the native/non-native argument. We routinely protect non-native species from native predators—consider, for example, the current controversy over livestock and wolves. Again, a topic to delve into more deeply in the future.

A week later, Longcore was quoted in the Los Angeles Times:

“It’s ugly; it’s gotten very vicious,” said Travis Longcore of the Urban Wildlands Group, one of the organizations that sued the city on behalf of the birds. “It’s not like we’ve got a vendetta here. This is a real environmental issue, a real public health issue.”

No vendetta? Maybe not, but Longcore’s essay in Conservation Biology has an agenda that takes priority over the science (hardly surprising in retrospect—given the timing of its publication, it must have been written while Longcore was preparing for the L.A. case). His apparent concern for the environment and public health strike me as largely disingenuous.

Also from the Times:

Those cats, Longcore said, often are diseased. And when colonies are fed, the practice often attracts more cats, either from around the neighborhood or because people dump new cats.

Let’s set aside for the moment Longcore’s assertion about colonies attracting cats, feral or dumped (I’ll get to that in another post). What about his suggestion that “these cats are often diseased”? In his own paper, Longcore acknowledges a rate of only 5–12% overall for feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and/or feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). In the largest of the studies he cites, more than 12,000 cats were tested for FeLV and FIV, revealing an overall rate of infection of 5.2%, which, noted the researchers, “is similar to results previously reported for feral cats and for pet cats.” [1]

What about rabies? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “approximately 1% of cats… tested for rabies were found positive” in 2008, the last year for which statistics are available.

It’s difficult to see how these rates of infection would lead anybody to suggest that free-roaming cats are “often diseased.” And I don’t expect to get any clarification from Longcore. While he seems eager to talk to mainstream media, which accepts his claims at face value (and passes them along as accurate to the public), he has yet to respond to my e-mail inquires.

I realize that taking issue with Longcore’s comments will no doubt strike some people as nitpicking. But such statements—which put PR before science—only impede any honest discussion of the issues.

[1] Wallace, J. L., & Levy, J. K. (2006). Population characteristics of feral cats admitted to seven trap-neuter-return programs in the United States. Journal of Feline Medicine & Surgery, 8, 279–284.