The (Willfully) Blind Leading the (Willfully) Blind

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

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

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

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

Open-Mic Night at NatGeo

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

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

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

Kitty Cams and PR Scams

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

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

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

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

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

Rabies: Some Much-Needed Perspective

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

Cats weren’t mentioned even once.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oregon Man Diagnosed with Plague

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

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

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

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

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

Less Toxo, More Hype

“As human populations continue to expand farther out into natural areas,” warns The Wildlife Society in a February 17 blog post, “domesticated animals will continue to be at risk for exposure to diseases carried by their wild relatives.” Considering the domesticated animals in question are cats, the organization’s apparent concern is almost touching. Almost.

Actually, TWS is, not surprisingly, much more concerned about cats transferring disease from “their wild relatives” to humans. Results of a recent study, published a month ago in the online, open-access journal PLoS ONE, suggests TWS blogger “policyintern,” illustrate “the importance of keeping domesticated cats close to home to prevent disease transmission among cats and to humans.”

Among those diseases is one that’s been getting lots of attention recently in the mainstream media: toxoplasmosis.

And just how likely is it that your cat will give you toxoplasmosis?

Not very—at least according to this latest research. (The study also looked at bartonellosis and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, but I’ll save those for another post.) To begin with, “feral, free ranging domestic cats were targeted in this study” [1, emphasis mine], not pets. And, despite what TWS and others would have us believe, contact with these cats is relatively uncommon.

Then there’s the unexpectedly low infection rate reported by the authors of the study: just 1 percent for domestic cats, as compared to 75 percent for pumas and 43 percent for bobcats. Based on previous studies, one would expect seroprevalence rates of 62–80 percent for feral cats. [2] (Even “owned” cats* were found to have rates of 34–36 percent. Interestingly, the highest rate of seroprevalence was found among cats living on farms: 41.9–100 percent.)

Seroprevalence, with bars representing 95 percent confidence intervals, of T. gondii IgG,** for domestic cats, bobcats, and pumas at all study locations (FR = Front Range, CO; WS = Western Slope, CO; OC = Orange County, CA; SDRC = San Diego/Riverside Counties, CA; VC = Ventura County, CA). Sample sizes are listed above columns.

This should be big news for TWS.

At the very least, the low infection rates found in feral cats—combined with the much higher rates in bobcats and pumas—raise serious questions about domestic cats’ role in environmental contamination of T. gondii. Just a year ago, an article published in a special section of The Wildlife Professional called “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats,” was unambiguous: “the science points to [domestic] cats.” [3]

“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.” [3]

And, over the past several months, TWS Executive Director/CEO Michael Hutchins has used the TWS blog to hammer the point home, arguing (and twisting the facts along the way), for example, that a 2011 NIH study provided “further evidence that feral cats are a menace to our native wildlife and should be controlled.

In July, it was the grave threat to humans:

T. gondii infection has recently been correlated with the incidence of Parkinson’s disease, autism, and schizophrenia in humans, and it has long been known to cause fetal deformities and spontaneous abortions in pregnant women… Let’s hope that public health officials, including the CDC, begin to take note of these growing concerns about cats and their implications for human health.”

In fact, this latest study suggests that such concerns may not be growing at all, at least where toxoplasmosis is concerned. On the other hand, the simpler, scarier story—cats as a menace to both wildlife and humans—is certainly an easier sell for TWS.

* I assume this refers to indoor/outdoor cats, but have not chased down the individual studies to confirm this.

** Refers to immunoglobulin, or antibody, G (IgG), “which is detectable for ≥52 weeks after infection,” as compared to immunoglobulin M (IgM), “which indicates recent infections and is usually detectable ≤16 weeks after initial exposure.” [1]

Literature Cited
1. Bevins, S.N., et al., “Three Pathogens in Sympatric Populations of Pumas, Bobcats, and Domestic Cats: Implications for Infectious Disease Transmission.” PLoS ONE. 2012. 7(2): p. e31403.

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

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

Game On!

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Impaired Vision

Opponents of trap-neuter-return are long on rhetoric, but short on alternatives—at least ones they’ll discuss openly.

We just want the cats gone.

Yeah, well, I want a pony.

I don’t actually say that, of course. Not usually, anyhow—in part, because the two wishes are hardly comparable. If I really wanted a pony, I’d simply go buy one (a rescue, of course; or, as an alternative, contact the Bureau of Land Management, which began its most recent brutal roundup of wild horses and burros in Nevada last year). End of story.

“Removing” cats—a euphemistic reference to an often-fatal course of action—on the other hand, is not the end of the story at all (except, as I say, for the particular cats involved). Where there is adequate food and shelter—and island eradication efforts have demonstrated rather dramatically just how little human assistance the domestic cat requires in this regard—there will very likely be cats. If not today, then it’s very likely only a matter of time.

And still, the call for their “removal”—accompanied by this naive wish that such a move will be a one-time occurrence—is, it seems, continuous.

Last week, Loews Hotels in Orlando, FL, made headlines nationally when the self-described “pet-friendly hotel brand” reversed its position on TNR and on-site managed colonies. Among the news stories brought to my attention this week: the Waco, TX, Lions Club is demanding that Heart of Texas Feral Friends, whose volunteers have been sterilizing and caring for cats in a park owned by the Lions Club, discontinue feeding. According to KXXV News, the cat food “could attract bigger animals that could bite children playing at the park.”

In Harvey Cedars, NJ, 51-year-old Mark Rist has been, according to the Asbury Park Press, “charged with feeding feral cats,” the result of a two-month investigation. According to the paper, Rist was feeding 63 cats in one area—despite what Police Chief Thomas Preiser describes as the community’s “ongoing effort to control feral cats.’’ “It has cost the borough over $5,800 in fees to have cats trapped and taken to the animal hospital,” said Preiser. “This is on top of the over $3,000 the borough pays just for animal-control services.’’ (An online petition advocating that the charges be dropped has been started, and has more than 1,650 signatures already.)

And, less than 60 miles away, in Manalapan, NJ, health department officials have announced that they’ll begin trapping a managed colony of cats located at the Bridge Plaza office complex on February 1. As Michael Volovnik, president of the property association, explained to the Asbury Park Press, the cats are using a playground sandbox as a litter box, and could also cause a traffic accident in the complex parking lot. (I thought I’d heard all the “reasons” for killing outdoor cats, but this one’s new to me.)

Take away their food—or the cats themselves—and the problem’s solved, right? End of story.

Um, no. Not even if you click together the heels of your ruby slippers three times, repeating as you do: “We just want the cats gone.”

And yet, this is precisely what TNR opponents would have us believe. In fact, they often go much further. When, for example, the American Bird Conservancy sent a letter (PDF) to the mayors of the 50 largest U.S. cities last October, urging them “to oppose Trap-Neuter-Re-abandon (TNR) programs and the outdoor feeding of cats as a feral cat management option,” their stated objective was to “stop the spread of feral cats.”

How’s that supposed to work, exactly?

Darin Schroeder, ABC’s Vice President for Conservation Advocacy, and author of the letter, hasn’t bothered—either in his original, well-publicized mass-mailing, or in response to my inquiries—to explain the mysterious cause-and-effect relationship underlying the claim. (Or, while we’re at it, ABC’s projections regarding the number of recipients who would surely be alienated by a letter that so grossly insults their intelligence.)

As I’ve pointed out previously, common sense—and science, which ABC claims to have firmly in its camp on this issue—tells us that such policies (assuming they could be enforced, of course) would only drive population numbers upward. (Indeed, there is plenty of evidence from island eradication efforts. On Marion Island, to take one of the more spectacular examples, the population of cats was estimated to be about 2,200 in 1975, just 26 years after they were introduced to the 115-square-mile, barren, uninhabited South Indian Ocean island. [1] If there were any efforts to sterilize these cats, I’ve not read about it. And the only “handouts” they received were “the carcasses of 12,000 day-old chickens” [1] injected with poison, as part of the 19-year eradication program.)

Now, if, as Schroeder claims, there are “well-documented impacts of cat predation on wildlife,” how could the inevitable increase in the free-roaming cat population possibly be a benefit? Or—again, if Schroeder is right about the impacts—be aligned with ABC’s vision of “an Americas-wide landscape where diverse interests collaborate to ensure that native bird species and their habitats are protected, where their protection is valued by society, and they are routinely considered in all land-use and policy decision-making”?

Such contradictions are, as anybody who’s been paying attention has surely noticed, hardly uncommon in ABC’s anti-cat messaging.

ABC didn’t do any better with their letter (this one, more of a low-key affair) to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, sent last summer. (DOI oversees the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which, as I’ve pointed out repeatedly, has been an eager, taxpayer-funded participant in the witch-hunt against free-roaming cats.) In that letter, ABC, along with several signatories, aimed to “call [Salazar’s] attention to the threat being posed to wildlife by feral cats.” (Once again, ABC referred to “the well-documented impacts of cat predation on wildlife,” this time citing the work of, among others, former Smithsonian researcher Nico Dauphine, convicted in October of attempted animal cruelty for trying to poison neighborhood cats. It’s not entirely clear, but I have to think the letter was sent just prior to her arrest, after which ABC hasn’t, to my knowledge, expressed the slightest support for Dauphine.)

Signatories to the letter “urge[d] the development of a Department-wide policy opposing Trap-Neuter-Release and the outdoor feeding of cats as a feral cat management option, coupled with a plan of action to address existing infestations affecting lands managed by the Department of the Interior.” (This would include much of the Florida Keys, of course. Regular readers will recall that ABC enthusiastically endorsed the deeply flawed Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex Integrated Predator Management Plan/Draft Environmental Assessment, issued a year ago.)

This “plan of action” is something I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to for some time now. And not just as it relates to “existing infestations” on DOI-controlled land; I’m interested in the big picture here. These folks are hell-bent on a future in which the feeding of outdoor cats is prohibited, one in which TNR is banned.

What I want to know is this: What happens if they get their way?

Alternatives to TNR?
One might expect that ABC, promoters for 15 years now of Cats Indoors!, would have an answer. Indeed, I brought up the subject during a December 2010 webinar celebrating the launch of their book The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation. “What we recommend,” offered Michael Parr, Vice President of ABC, “as an alternative to [TNR], is not abandoning cats in the first place.”

“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.”

After 14 years (at that time) of staunch opposition to TNR, this is the best ABC can do? Well, yes. (One wonders if ABC officials are truly so out-of-touch and/or flat-out delusional that they really think nobody’s noticed.)

The Wildlife Society
ABC is not alone, of course. The Wildlife Society, which signed onto the DOI letter, in its position statement (issued in August 2011) on Feral and Free-Ranging Domestic Cats (PDF), calls for “the humane elimination of feral cat populations,” as well as “the passage and enforcement of local and state ordinances prohibiting the feeding of feral cats.”

And in November, TWS sponsored the USFWS workshop, Influencing Local Scale Feral Cat Trap-Neuter-Release Decisions , at its annual conference. According to TWS, the “workshop [was] designed to train biologists and conservation activists to advocate for wildlife in the decision making process by providing the best available scientific evidence in an effective manner.” (Ah, yes: “best available scientific evidence.” It’s the same expression ABC and USFWS like to throw around. The critical term here is available. It seems all the science contradicting their steady stream of bogus claims is locked in the same filing cabinet, and the key’s been “lost.”)

But TWS hasn’t done any better than ABC when it comes to connecting the dots between our current situation and a future free of feral cats.

When, in his November 14 blog post, TWS Executive Director/CEO Michael Hutchins drifted off-message, conceding that “TNR alone is not the ultimate solution,” (emphasis mine) I used the opportunity to press him on the issue. Referring to the recently issued TWS position statement, I told Hutchins, “it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect a well-established and influential organization such as TWS to propose a plan to accompany such a vision.”

“On the contrary, it’s exactly what your membership should expect from their leadership—and what those of us who care for the cats you’re targeting demand.”

And Hutchins’ response? Cue the crickets (native species only, of course).

(Hutchins did, however, spend a good deal of time backpedaling: “I haven’t changed my position at all, and neither has The Wildlife Society, an organization now representing more than 10,600 wildlife professionals.” It now appears that the post itself has been modified to reflect his “corrected” position on the subject.)

Urban Wildlands Group
In January 2010, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge handed down an injunction prohibiting the City of Los Angeles from supporting TNR. Under the provisions of the injunction (in its revised version, filed with the court in March 2010), the City, its Board of Animal Services Commissioners, and its Department of Animal Services are prohibited from “promoting TNR for feral cats and encouraging or assisting third parties to carry out a TNR program.” [2]

According to the original petition—filed by the Urban Wildlands Group, Endangered Habitats League, Los Angeles Audubon Society, Palos Verdes/South Bay Audubon Society, Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society, and ABC—implementation of TNR in L.A. “can cause significant adverse environmental impacts by causing proliferation of rats and raccoons and creating water pollution problems.”

It’s important to recognize that the very premise of the petition—brought under the California Environmental Quality Act—is a red herring, nothing more than a roundabout way to go after TNR (in part, by restricting the funding to key organizations integral to L.A.’s various TNR programs). Setting that aside for the moment, though, the question remains: If TNR isn’t the answer, then how are we to reduce the population of stray, abandoned, and feral cats?

Travis Longcore ought to have an answer. Indeed, as head of the Urban Wildlands Group, current president of the Los Angeles Audubon Society, and author of the well-circulated “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” (a compilation of cherry-picked “facts,” misrepresentations, and glaring omissions, which I’ve critiqued in some detail), Longcore (who, I suspect, is the same “Travis” whose comment brought Hutchins back from the brink in November) would seem to be the go-to guy on this topic.

In fact, he doesn’t seem to have any plan, either.

In a December 2010 exchange on the Audubon magazine blog, The Perch (in which senior editor Alisa Opar blindly endorsed the infamous University of Nebraska-Lincoln paper as if it were actual research), Longcore twisted himself in a knot avoiding the question.

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

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

Longcore’s response, in a nutshell, advocated for mandatory spay/neuter, and “cat licensing so that cats are no longer treated as second class, disposable pets.” (It’s difficult to see how their wide-scale killing will get them bumped up to first-class, but such illogical leaps have long been the norm among TNR opponents.)

Whatever his misgivings about disclosing a feasible alternative to TNR, Longcore was more than willing to diagnose the mental health of TNR supporters:

“TNR advocates… aren’t actually interested in reducing feral cat numbers. TNR is something that they ‘sell’ to their jurisdiction so that they are allowed to keep feeding ‘their’ cats. They appear to prefer that the problem persist so that they can validate their sense of self worth by being rescuers.”

There’s an irony to Longcore’s allegation, of course. If, as he implies, he and his fellow petitioners are “actually interested in reducing feral cat numbers,” then why not lay out the way forward?

“You failed to answer the question posed,” I pressed.

“Let me rephrase it, then: Throw in mandatory spay/neuter (if and only if adequate low/no-cost S/N is provided to the community—a rarity, as I’m sure you know), as you suggest. And let’s say there are—again, just to simplify matters—no roaming pet cats. The problem remains: many, many feral cats. And even if Animal Control had the resources to round up every one of them that triggers a complaint, it’s a drop in the bucket. And once you’ve outlawed TNR, there’s no way even one of these cats is going to be sterilized. So, the next step here is what, exactly?”

Longcore’s reply, not surprisingly, was a laundry list of “policies needed to control feral cats,” the majority of which—either directly or indirectly—simply lead to more killing: mandatory spay/neuter, pet limits, prohibitions on roaming, and prohibitions of “feral cat feeding unless on feeder’s property, or with permission of property owner and nearby owners/residents.” Oh, and “euthanasia” (not to be confused with euthanasia). Among the non-lethal solutions: “adoption or other nonlethal removal (e.g. the few sanctuary spaces),” and “outdoor enclosures for ferals where property owners are willing.”

“If you want to go out and sterilize and release feral cats in your back yard under this scenario, go ahead, but recognize that doesn’t then mean your neighbor can’t then trap and remove them. If you want feral cats to have a good life, adopt them and treat them like real pets. If you aren’t going to, then it is my strong belief the appropriate thing to do is to euthanize them.”

As for how this mass “euthanasia” would play out—you know: budget, time line, population projections, examples of successful models, etc.—Longcore had no more to say than did Schroeder or Hutchins.

Visions of the Future
Is it really so unreasonable to expect TNR opponents—especially those individuals and organizations pushing so hard for policy changes—to present a feasible alternative to TNR? Or even, as a start, to address directly comments made by Mark Kumpf, former president of the National Animal Control Association, who compares the traditional trap-and-kill approach to “bailing the ocean with a thimble”?

“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,” explains Kumpf in a 2008 interview with Animal Sheltering magazine. “Nature just keeps having more kittens.” [3]

Those budgets are very likely even tighter today. Now, take away TNR—along with all the “free” resources that come with it—and you’re wishing you had a thimble with which to bail the ocean.

As I explained to Hutchins, those of us advocating and caring for our communities’ stray, abandoned, and feral cats demand better answers than they’ve provided. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that supporters of various organizations opposing TNR are beginning to feel the same way. In part, because—and this, too, is becoming increasingly clear—a position opposed to TNR and the feeding of outdoor cats often, in fact, runs counter to an organization’s stated vision.

Either that, or their “concerns” about outdoor cats are really little more than fear-mongering (a tried-and-true fundraising technique, of course).

The way I see it, there are really only four possible scenarios in play here:

1. No TNR + No Feeding = Fewer Cats
As I’ve pointed out, this one simply doesn’t add up. And heaven knows, if there were evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of such policies, ABC, TWS, the Urban Wildlands Group, et al. wouldn’t be shy about it. That’s not to say they don’t try to suggest as much, of course.

In its TNR “fact sheet” (PDF), TWS, for example, holds up Akron’s 2002 ordinance—which requires the city’s animal control wardens to “apprehend” and “impound” any cats “running at large”—as both humane and cost-effective. Last summer, I took an in-depth look at the impact of Akron’s “cat ordinance,” and found that it’s been far more costly than TWS suggests. And if it’s done anything to reduce the population of the city’s stray, abandoned, and feral cats, nobody’s documented it. (Again, this would seem to be a “success story” in the making for TNR opponents.)

2. No TNR + No Feeding = More Cats—Oops!
What if all this rabid campaigning against outdoor cats has blinded participants to the inevitable consequences of their actions? You know, a careful-what-you-wish-for scenario.

Again, there’s no evidence to suggest that the “plan” will work. And yet, the drumbeat only grows louder. I tend to think that, generally speaking, the leadership at ABC, TWS, the Urban Wildlands Group, et al. is—despite various failures, of which I’ve been highly critical—smart enough to realize this simple fact. On the other hand, I have colleagues—people with far more experience and a much broader perspective—stop me cold when I say so.

3. No TNR + No Feeding = More Cats—But That’s OK
In the 22 months since launching this blog, I’ve been at pains to expose the flimsy nature of most complaints regarding the alleged impacts of free-roaming cats on wildlife and the environment. Much of that effort has involved the untangling of predation estimates based on indefensible sampling and extrapolation, and—more important—decoupling the implied relationship between predation and population-level impacts. Among the evidence I’ve presented (which would seem to be locked tightly inside the aforementioned filing cabinet, thus rendering it “unavailable” to TNR opponents):

Mike Fitzgerald and Dennis Turner’s thorough review of 61 predation studies, in which the authors conclude rather unambiguously: “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.” [4]

Also: two very detailed studies supporting a widely understood (though only rarely acknowledged among TNR opponents) pattern of predators: cats tend to prey on the young, the old, the weak and unhealthy. [5, 6] Or, as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds makes puts it: “It is likely that most of the birds killed by cats would have died anyway from other causes before the next breeding season, so cats are unlikely to have a major impact on populations.” [7]

It may be that leaders of the TNR opposition do, in fact, recognize the implications of the well-documented science on the subject (though never publicly, of course), whether that concerns predation, rabies, toxoplasmosis, or any number of other aspects of the debate. Such an understanding would allow them to continue pushing for policies that would, despite their claims to the contrary, actually increase the number of free-roaming cats—but still have little or no significant consequences for the wildlife these organizations claim to protect.

Donors are happy, wildlife’s happy—what’s not to like, right? (Actually, all this unwarranted attention on cats is, I’m sure, diverting scarce resources from the real issues—so maybe the wildlife will, in the end, lose anyway.)

4. No TNR + No Feeding = More Cats. Exactly.
File this one under “A” for Apocalyptic. Or Armageddon, maybe.

What if more cats—lots of them—is not only OK, but the goal? At some point, their numbers become so great that popular opinion undergoes a tidal shift, favoring lethal control methods. The bigger the problem becomes, the more drastic the measures considered.

If some wildlife suffers for the cause, well, it’s a small price to pay. If you want to make an omelet, you have to be willing to break a few eggs, right? No free lunches here. Collateral damage. Etc.

Wild conspiracy-theory talk? Maybe so. I mean, it’s a bit like suggesting that our esteemed Smithsonian Institution hired a cat-killer to conduct research on pet cats. As I often tell my colleagues: you can’t make this stuff up. So.

•     •     •

TNR opponents have, for years, misled policymakers and the public—not only about the “threats” posed by free-roaming cats, but about their plan going forward (again, assuming they actually have a plan). They’re advocating for the extermination—in the tens of millions—of this country’s most popular companion animal, without ever proposing any feasible alternative to TNR. (Ironic, isn’t it? These same people claim to have the “best available science” on their side, but either cannot or will not describe or discuss what exactly they’ve got in mind for a solution to the “feral cat problem.”)

Once again, I’m reminded of that famous quote from Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants, electric light the most efficient policeman.” Public scrutiny and a demand for transparency, Brandeis recognized, can bring about significant social change.

We need to start asking better questions—and demanding better answers—of TNR opponents. And we must do so repeatedly and publicly—in town halls, letters to the editor, and any number of online venues; and by contacting local, state, and federal representatives and government agencies.

No TNR? No feeding of outdoor cats? What’s your plan, then?

As the sunlight Brandies spoke of reveals the fatal flaws underlying the anti-TNR rhetoric, it helps light the way forward.

Literature Cited
1. 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.

2. Urban Wildlands Group et al. vs. City of Los Angeles et al. (Case No. BS 115483). Stipulated Order Modifying Injunction. March 10, 2010. Los Angeles Superior Court.

3. Hettinger, J., “Taking a Broader View of Cats in the Community.” Animal Sheltering. 2008. September/October. p. 8–9.

4. 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.

5. 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.

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

7. n.a. (2011) Are cats causing bird declines? Accessed October 26, 2011.

12 Sparrows Stressing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe it’s not so far-fetched.

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

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

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

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

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

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

•     •     •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Search of Common Ground

It’s always good to see the Humane Society of the United States supporting and promoting TNR. After all, it wasn’t all that long ago when HSUS was on the other side of the issue. In 1997, when the American Bird Conservancy launched its Cats Indoors! campaign, the organization was “singled out as its ‘principal partner in this endeavor.’” [1]

On Monday, President and CEO Wayne Pacelle, waded into the feral cat/wildlife debate on his blog (brought to my attention by a helpful reader), noting that HSUS “work[s] for the protection of both feral cats and wildlife.”

HSUS is, says Pacelle, “working to find innovative, effective, and lasting solutions to this conflict.” In Hawaii, for example (“an ideal environment for free-roaming cats and a global hotspot for threatened and endangered wildlife”) HSUS is “meeting with local humane societies, state and federal wildlife officials, non-governmental organizations, and university staff to find solutions to humanely manage outdoor cat populations and ensure the protection of Hawaii’s unique wildlife.” (HSUS may want to add Hawaii’s various Invasive Species Committees to that list. If recent efforts are any indication, they’re contributing to the environment impact.)

I can certainly understand HSUS’s current focus on Hawaii, and I look forward to seeing the results of their efforts. It’s not difficult to imagine such results being adopted more broadly. (Tackle the really tough job first, and the others will be easy by comparison, right?)

Still, it’s important to remember that TNR opponents aren’t limiting their attention to such hotspots.

Beyond Hawaii
The Wildlife Society, for example, in its position statement (issued in August) on Feral and Free-Ranging Domestic Cats (PDF), calls for “the humane elimination of feral cat populations,” as well as “the passage and enforcement of local and state ordinances prohibiting the feeding of feral cats.”

Earlier this month, TWS hosted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s workshop, Influencing Local Scale Feral Cat Trap-Neuter-Release Decisions, at its annual conference.

And in October, ABC sent a letter to mayors of the 50 largest cities in the country “urg[ing them] to oppose Trap-Neuter-Re-abandon (TNR) programs and the outdoor feeding of cats as a feral cat management option.” (This, ABC claims, will “stop spread of feral cats.” I e-mailed Darin Schroeder, ABC’s Vice President for Conservation Advocacy, asking that he explain the biology and/or logic behind this miracle cure, but he never replied.)

Common Ground(?)
But we’re all after the same thing, right—no more “homeless” cats? The key difference being how we approach the problem?

I used to think so. Now, I’m not so sure.

TWS, ABC, and other TNR opponents are calling for the extermination—on the order of tens of millions—of this country’s most popular pet. Without, it must be recognized, a plan of any kind, or, given our decades of experience with lethal control methods, any hope of success. Nevertheless, they persist—grossly misrepresenting the impacts of cats on wildlife and public health in order to drum up support.

Common ground has proven remarkably elusive, and collaboration risky.

In the Spring issue of The Wildlife Professional (published by TWS) Nico Dauphine portrayed the New Jersey Audubon Society as sellouts for participating in the New Jersey Feral Cat & Wildlife Coalition (which included several supporters of TNR, including HSUS), a collaborative effort funded by the Regina R. Frankenberg and Geraldine R. Dodge foundations. [2, 3] The group’s commendable work, culminating in a pilot program based on their “ordinance and protocols for the management of feral cat colonies in wildlife-sensitive areas in Burlington County, New Jersey,” [4] (available here) has, from what I can tell, received little attention.

All of which suggests that we’re actually talking not only about very different means, but also very different ends.

•     •     •

How does one find common ground in the midst of a witch-hunt?

Earlier this month, Alley Cat Allies co-founder and president Becky Robinson proposed a crucial first step: “stop pitting species against species.”

“Today, I call on the leaders of the American Bird Conservancy, The Wildlife Society, and the leadership of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who persist in using flawed science and vicious rhetoric like Dauphine’s to blame cats for species decline, to stop.”

After which, there’s plenty of “real work” (some of which may, ironically, prove rather straightforward and uncontroversial) to be done, of course. Still, perhaps the situation in Hawaii is urgent enough, and the stakes high enough, to focus the mind—to get us that far.

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

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

3. Stiles, E., NJAS Works with Coalition to Reduce Bird Mortality from Outdoor Cats. 2008, New Jersey Audubon Society.

4. n.a., Pilot Program: Ordinance & Protocols for the Management of Feral Cat Colonies in Wildlife-Sensitive Areas in Burlington County, New Jersey. 2007, New Jersey Feral Cat & Wildlife Coalition. p. 17.

Nico Dauphine Resigns

According to the National Zoo’s Twitter feed and a comment posted on its Facebook page, “[Monday] the Smithsonian accepted Dr. Dauphine’s resignation; it was effective immediately.” I haven’t seen a statement anything more official looking from the National Zoo or the Migratory Bird Center.

Indeed, official statements seem to be remarkably scarce following Monday’s verdict. Where are all of Dauphine’s supporters? You know, the individuals and organizations that were so quick to cite her sloppy work when it suited their purpose (i.e., the witch-hunt against free-roaming cats), but that have remained—at least publicly—silent over the past few months.

Speaking of which… The Wildlife Society put out a peculiar statement today via its Making Tracks blog in which they seem to imply that the cats Dauphine attempted to poison had it coming to them because they “congregated near her building.” According to the statement, TWS “does not condone animal cruelty or illegal behavior of any kind”—but that’s hardly the same thing as condemning what was done in this case.

But that’s not all that’s missing. One expects more than “TWS cannot comment on this case” from a blog post called The Wildlife Society Responds to Dr. Dauphine Case on Attempted Animal Cruelty.

Of course, TWS was more than willing to offer Dauphine a platform earlier this year, when it published “Pick One: Outdoor Cats or Conservation” and “Follow the Money: The Economics of TNR Advocacy”—both of which demonstrated her willingness to put the witch-hunt ahead of the science (or even the basic information contained in an organization’s financial statements)—in a special section of The Wildlife Professional called “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats.”

So what’s changed?

On the other hand, what is there to say, really? The message is coming through loud and clear: Dauphine’s professional work on the subject of free-roaming cats—cited and promoted with great enthusiasm before all this nasty press attention—is as indefensible as the actions that landed her in DC Superior Court.

Nico Dauphine Found Guilty of Attempted Animal Cruelty

The H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse, where the Superior Court of the District of Columbia is located. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and AgnosticPreachersKid.

After more than five months of delays, Nico Dauphine was, this afternoon in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, found guilty of attempted animal cruelty. (Sentencing hearing is scheduled for November 21st.)

Apparently, even “super lawyer” Billy Martin—brought in at the last minute—couldn’t save Dauphine. While the security camera footage (at least the portions released to the public via Fox 5 News) didn’t prove to be the smoking gun many expected, it was, it seems, sufficiently damning.

That, and Dauphine’s own testimony—which, I’m told, the judge simply didn’t buy. (Perhaps she was no more convincing in court—as, I’m told, she tried repeatedly to distance herself from her own very public statements opposing TNR—than she was during her infamous “Apocalypse Meow” presentation.)

According to a story in the Washington Post (published shortly after I had this post online), “Senior Judge Truman A. Morrison III said it was the video, along with Dauphine’s testimony, that led him to believe she had ‘motive and opportunity.’”

He specifically pointed to her repeated denials of her writings. “Her inability and unwillingness to own up to her own professional writings as her own undermined her credibility,” Morrison said.

Back in the News
While I’m pleased with the verdict, I think the fact that she’s been found guilty is actually less important than the fact that she didn’t get off the hook, if that makes any sense. This was a story that barely made the news when it first broke, and has been all but forgotten in the intervening months. A guilty verdict—regardless of the particulars—will, I hope, get the media interested again.

And, with any luck, asking some hard questions for a change.

Starting with: How in the hell was Nico Dauphine hired by the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center in the first place? They had to know her reputation for both misreading and misrepresenting the science in her efforts to vilify free-roaming cats. Yet, her supervisors—including Peter Marra, of course—had Dauphine studying the hunting habits of pet cats.

As I understand it, hers is a highly competitive fellowship—surely there were other candidates who would have been a better fit. (Or maybe not—again, her reputation preceded her. If Dauphine was in fact the best fit, though, what does that say about the Migratory Bird Center and the National Zoo?)

It’s going to be interesting to see how others react to today’s verdict.

Last I checked, The Wildlife Society’s Michael Hutchins hasn’t even mentioned Dauphine’s arrest on his blog—this, despite her extensive contribution to The Wildlife Professional (published by TWS) this past spring, when the magazine was devoted to “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats.” Nor have I seen ABC make any kind of statement. Will they remove Dauphine’s Impacts of Free-ranging Domestic Cats (Felis catus) on birds in the United States from the ABC website now that she’s been convicted, or does ABC still stand by her so-called research?

More interesting will be the reaction from those whose cats were lost—or nearly lost—as a result of Dauphine’s “community service” during her days in Athens. I don’t know that today’s decision will feel much like justice for them, though perhaps it’s a start.

(Animal) Wise Guy III

Thanks once again to Animal Wise Radio hosts Mike Fry and Beth Nelson for having me back on the show Sunday.

Among the topics we discussed were The Wildlife Society’s position statement on Animal Rights Philosophy and Wildlife Conservation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s upcoming Influencing Local Scale Feral Cat Trap-Neuter-Release Decisions workshop, and the recent case of a North St. Paul, MN, man charged with failing to license—and allowing to roam freely—the unowned neighborhood cats he was sterilizing. (Charges were dismissed Friday, though the defendant is facing something like $5,000 is legal expenses.)

If you missed it, you can check the complete show in podcast format. An MP3 file (10 MB) of our conversation (approximately 20 minutes) is available here.

Hutchins & Co.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•     •     •

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

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

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

Literature Cited

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

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

Demanding (a) Better Service

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under fire for proposed roundups of free-roaming cats in the Florida Keys, an out-of-control burn on National Key Deer Refuge land, and participation in anti-TNR workshop.

Many U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel are, I suspect, looking forward to October—or at least putting September behind them. For those involved with USFWS’s “war on cats,” this month’s been a tough one: too much of the wrong kind of attention.

Camera (en)Trap(ment) Project
September got off to a rocky start with readers (myself included) responding to news of camera traps being used in Florida’s National Key Deer Refuge “to document the number of cats stalking prey in the refuge.”

According to Key West Citizen reporter Timothy O’Hara, cats appeared on 5 percent of the “nearly 7,000 [photos] snapped so far,” whereas the endangered Lower Keys Marsh Rabbit appeared on just 3 percent. (Deer and raccoons topped the list, though specific percentages weren’t mentioned.)

Future plans include “a more in-depth study to get a better handle on the number of cats,” which, says USFWS biologist Chad Anderson, who was interviewed for the story, “will give us better insight into the predator management plan [of which I’ve been highly critical]. We want it to be as effective and efficient as possible.”

Five days later, Big Pine Key resident Jerry Dykhuisen took USFWS to task in a letter to the editor calling O’Hara’s article “our quarterly puff piece about how great it’s all going to be when feral cats are trapped and removed from Big Pine Key.” Dykhuisen, vice president of Forgotten Felines, pointed out the incredible expense associated with the proposed roundup (a “government boondoggle that is nothing more than a waste of our tax dollars and job security for U.S. Fish and Wildlife”) and the risk of skyrocketing rodent populations if eradication efforts were actually “successful,” and challenges the “‘best available science’ of which they are so proud” (which “is not really very good science at all, being decades old, using statistical methods that are highly suspect, and not even being conducted on Big Pine.”).

Tax dollars are at a premium in this economy,” wrote Dykhuisen, “and the idea of spending more than $10,000 per cat on a project that has no chance of success is mindless government at its worst.”

The following week, a letter to the editor from Forgotten Felines volunteer Valerie Eikenberg called the camera trap project a lame-brain experiment,” criticizing Refuge personnel for baiting the cameras with cat food. “Why spend thousands of taxpayer dollars to figure out a question that any second-grader could answer,” she asked.

Refuge Manager Anne Morkill disputes Eikenberg’s claim: “extremely small amounts of bait were used at only two camera trap sites located at unauthorized cat feeding stations, where the cats were already lured by food. The purpose was to get the animals to stop and pause for a clear photo for identification purposes.” (I received a similar explanation by e-mail from Anderson.)

Note: I’ve tried to contact O’Hara, who badly misrepresented the science in his story (for example: “Research indicates that cat predation accounts for 50 percent to 77 percent of the deaths of Lower Keys marsh rabbits and Key Largo woodrats.”), but he’s not responded to my e-mail requests.

(Mis)prescribed Burn
Just two weeks later, Refuge personnel once again found themselves defending their actions, this time for a prescribed burn that grew quickly out of control, scorching about 100 acres—five times what was originally planned.

For some, at least, this was the last straw. “Morkill has to go!” read one particularly harsh comment to a Key West Citizen story about the fire.

“Not tomorrow, not next week, not at the end of the fiscal year, NOW!! She is completely over her head and needs to transfer somewhere else. From the complete mishandling of the feral cat situation [to] the out of controlled prescribed burn that threatened both residents AND sensitive wildlife… Ms. Morkill is a complete and total failure at her position. What a travesty. Go back to wherever you came from Anne, you’re a failed experiment in the Keys.”

Earlier this week, USFWS officials met with residents to explain the results of an internal investigation into the fire.

According to USFWS Fire Ecologist Vince Carver, “The review team came up with three findings: One, it was too dry to burn. Two, the [fire] crew that did it, the majority of them did not have enough experience for this type of burn. And three, after they did screw up, they did a fantastic job.” [1]

Refuge fire management specialist Dana Cohen “repeatedly apologized to residents, saying, ‘We made a bad call’ in deciding to burn, but most appeared unmoved.” [1] The “unhappy audience,” as Citizen reporter Adam Linhardt describes them, were short on patience, “speaking out and lambasting” USFWS officials. “One person described the burn as a ‘fiasco’ and called for Cohen’s firing.” [1]

National Feral Cat Policy
A day after the blaze on Big Pine Key, USFWS was trying to tamp down another fire of its own making. This one, too, had gotten out of hand—but on a national scale.

In a post on its Open Spaces blog, USFWS responded to “many expressions of interest and concern regarding participation by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees at an upcoming Wildlife Society conference.” This, of course, is a reference to Informing Local Scale Feral Cat Trap-Neuter-Release Decisions, the day-long workshop being presented by Tom Will, Mike Green (both of USFWS), and Christopher Lepczyk (University of Hawaii).

As part of that conference, two Service biologists are presenting a workshop designed to help wildlife biologists and other conservationists effectively communicate the best available science on the effects on wildlife from free-ranging domestic cats. The Service has no national policy concerning trap-neuter-release programs or feral cats.

If there’s no official policy, it’s not for lack of effort.

In his 2010 presentation to the Bird Conservation Alliance, What Can Federal Agencies Do? Policy Options to Address Cat Impacts to Birds and Their Habitats, Will is pushing for a “Firm policy statement—clear, definitive, easily available—as a tool for partners.” In fact, it looks like he’s suggesting that such a policy already exists, citing, for example, a 2007 “response to inquiry” from the USFWS Charleston Field Office:

Is it still FWS policy to promote legislation banning feeding of wildlife? Yes. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) stands firmly behind its recommendations promoting legislation banning the feeding of wildlife, especially nuisance species such as feral cats. Local governments are better equipped than are Federal and State agencies to regulate feral and free-ranging cats since most local governments have ordinances in place to address domestic animal issues as well as animal control services and personnel to implement those ordinances.

Is it still FWS policy opposing free ranging cats and establishment of feral cat colonies? Yes. The Service continues to oppose the establishment of feral cat colonies as well as the perpetuation and continued operation of feral cat colonies. As an agency responsible for administering the regulatory provisions of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), the Service’s position is that those practicing Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) could be subject to prosecution under those laws.

Is it still FWS policy opposing TNR programs? Yes… the Service’s New Jersey Field Office correctly states that “a municipality that carries out, authorizes, or encourages others to engage in an activity that is likely to result in take of federally protected species, such as the establishment or maintenance of a managed TNR cat colony, may be held responsible for violations of Section 9 of the ESA.”

Will goes on to cite several more passages from the letter quoted above, sent in November 2009 from the New Jersey Field Office to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Division of Fish and Wildlife “in support of the New Jersey Fish and Game Council’s Resolution on Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) and free-ranging domestic cats, passed June 19, 2007.”

The Service strongly opposes domestic or feral cats (Felis catus) being allowed to roam freely within the U.S. due to the adverse impacts of these non-native predators on federally listed threatened and endangered (T&E) species, migratory birds, and other vulnerable native wildlife. Therefore, the Service opposes TNR programs that allow return of domestic or feral cats to free-ranging conditions.

Migratory birds are Federal trust resources and are afforded protection under the MBTA, which prohibits the take of a migratory bird’s parts, nest, or eggs. Many species of migratory birds, wading birds, and songbirds nest or migrate throughout New Jersey. Migratory birds could be subject to predation from State municipality, or land manager-authorized cat colonies and free-ranging feral or pet cats. Predation on migratory birds by cats is likely to cause destruction of nests or eggs, or death or injury to migratory birds or their young, thereby resulting in a violation of the MBTA.

All of which looks a lot like a “national policy concerning trap-neuter-release programs or feral cats.” Which might explain why the American Bird Conservancy has the NJ Field Office letter posted on its website (PDF). (ABC and TWS were among the signatories to a letter sent earlier this year to Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, “urg[ing] the development of a Department-wide policy opposing Trap-Neuter-Release and the outdoor feeding of cats as a feral cat management option, coupled with a plan of action to address existing infestations affecting lands managed by the Department of the Interior.”)

To hear USFWS tell it, Will and Green don’t even speak for USFWS.

In order to protect the independence and integrity of their work and the quality of the scientific information generated, the Service does not review or edit their work based on its potential policy implications. Any findings or conclusions presented at this workshop, as well as other scientific papers and presentations by Service employees, are those of the organizers and do not necessarily represent those of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

How exactly does that work? Are taxpayers (who are, like it or not, supporting TWS’s conference: “the Service is a sponsor of the conference as a whole”) expected to believe that Informing Local Scale Feral Cat Trap-Neuter-Release Decisions wasn’t put together “on company time,” using agency resources? Like me, commenter “Mrs. McKenna” isn’t buying it:

“I find it very strange that there would be not be an edit or review of the presentations done by employees/consultants (personnel on your payroll.) Quite frankly, I know of no organization that would allow taxpayer paid employees to present at a conference of this magnitude without a screening of materials to be presented. In fact, one could deem this type of policy quite irresponsible… If there were no interest in presenting a specific viewpoint supported by U.S. Fish & Wildlife for current or upcoming policies, one can be quite certain no such presentation would be sponsored.”

Mrs. McKenna and I are, it turns out, not the only skeptics. At last check, there were 50 comments on the USFWS post (not all of them critical of the Service, of course), a record for the Open Space blog (which, since its inception in late April, has attracted just 140 comments across 97 posts—including the August 2 post about “a recent incident where the Service inadvertently issued a citation in Fredericksburg, Virginia,” which attracted 46 comments).

Although USFWS is, according to its Office of External Affairs, “committed to using sound science in its decision-making and to providing the American public with information of the highest quality possible,” recent events suggest otherwise.

Actually, past events tell a similar story.

In its Migratory Bird Mortality fact sheet (PDF), published in January 2002, USFWS offers this prediction: “Many citizens would be surprised to learn that domestic and feral cats may kill hundreds of millions of songbirds and other avian species each year.”

“A recent study in Wisconsin estimated that in that state alone, domestic rural cats kill roughly 39 million birds annually. Add the deaths caused by feral cats, or domestic cats in urban and suburban areas, and this mortality figure would be much higher.” [2]

In this case, the Service’s “best available science” can be traced to the infamous Wisconsin Study, [3] and—eventually—to “a single free-ranging Siamese cat” that frequented a rural residential property in New Kent County, Virginia. [4])

Nearly 10 later, Migratory Bird Mortality is still available from the USFWS website. So much for “using sound science in its decision-making and to providing the American public with information of the highest quality possible.”

USFWS is right about one thing, though: many citizens are surprised—just not in the way the Service imagined. The public, to whom USFWS is ostensibly accountable, is surprised at the way their tax dollars are being used to fund a witch-hunt. And, judging by the overwhelming response to the USFWS/TWS workshop (see, for example, Best Friends Animal Society’s Action Alert, blog posts from Alley Cat Rescue and BFAS co-founder Francis Battista, and the Care2 petition), the public has had enough.

With access to both information and “broadcast” technology more accessible than ever, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for USFWS to continue with business as usual. The people the Service is supposed to—well, serve—are demanding better science, more transparency, and greater accountability. People are paying attention like never before.

Think of it as “the new normal.”

Literature Cited
1. Linhardt, A. (2011, September 29). Residents rage about rogue fire—Fed officials apologize: ‘We made a bad call’. The Key West Citizen, p. 1A,

2. n.a., Migratory Bird Mortality. 2002, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Arlington, VA.

3. Coleman, J.S., Temple, S.A., and Craven, S.R., “Cats and Wildlife: A Conservation Dilemma.” 1997.

4. 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.

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.

2. n.a., Problems with Trap-Neuter-Release. 2011, The Wildlife Society: Bethesda, MD.

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.

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.

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.

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.

8. Yoshino, K. (2010, January 17). A catfight over neutering program. Los Angeles Times, from,0,1225635.story


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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, 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 (” [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.

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.

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.

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.

12. Yoshino, K. (2010, January 17). A catfight over neutering program. Los Angeles Times, from,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.

More Cats, Less Brain Cancer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it?

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

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

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

So what about brain cancer?

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

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

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

•     •     •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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