The Greater Threat Is Junk Science: An Open Letter to the AVMA

An open letter to the American Veterinary Medical Association, in response to the publication of “Cats may be greater threat to wildlife than first thought,” in the April issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association:

As an advocate of trap-neuter-return working for one of that nation’s leading animal welfare organizations, Best Friends Animal Society—and somebody quite familiar with the science surrounding TNR and free-roaming cats in general—I feel compelled to respond to R. Scott Nolen’s recent article (“Cats may be greater threat to wildlife than first thought,” JAVMA News, April 1, 2013) about the paper published earlier this year by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Careful scrutiny reveals a number of flaws in the work, and challenges Nolen’s suggestion that that the researchers involved “took a rigorous and conservative approach” when developing their headline-grabbing predation estimates. Although a detailed critique is beyond the scope of this letter, a brief overview of the more glaring weaknesses will, I think, make the point.

The 1.4–3.7 billion annual bird mortalities reported by Scott Loss, Tom Will, and Peter Marra (which they describe throughout their paper as a conservative estimate [1]) represent an astonishing 29–76 percent of the estimated 4.7 billion land birds in all of North America, [2] a “contribution” that would very likely have led to the extinction of numerous bird species long ago. Even if, as some have suggested, “the total [population of land birds] could be 2 to 3 times higher in some regions,” [3] the implied impact due to predation by cats is simply not supported by existing data. Indeed, 57 of the 58 native bird species Loss et al. claim are targeted by cats have been given a “Least Concern” conservation status by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). [4] The one exception, the Northern Bobwhite, is considered “Near Threatened” due largely to “widespread habitat fragmentation” and extensive hunting. [5] Moreover, the populations of at least 23 of those 58 species are, as indicated by nearly 45 years of North America Breeding Bird Survey data, [6] stable or increasing.

Among the factors contributing to the authors’ inflated estimates is their assumption that 40–70 percent of owned cats are not only allowed to go outdoors, but are, as far as their model is concerned, outside 24/7. [1] In fact, surveys suggest that approximately 60 percent of these cats are indoor-only, and that those allowed outdoors are outside for no more than three hours each day. [7, 8].

This error is, in turn, compounded by the “correction factor to account for owned cats not returning all prey to owners” [1] used by Loss et al. The low-end of the range they used in their model (2.0–3.3) can be traced to a misreading of a 1974 paper published in The Wilson Bulletin, [9] while the upper-end was derived from observations of 12 cats successfully capturing “small mammals” rather than birds (which were observed to avoid capture). [10] The two errors alone inflate the predation rate attributed to pet cats by a factor of 10–20.

The claim made by Loss et al that about 69 percent of cat-killed birds and 89 percent of cat-killed mammals in the U.S. are killed by unowned cats is similarly flawed. Five of the eight studies the authors included in their analysis were conducted in the 1930s and 1950s, when it wasn’t unusual for researchers studying the diet of cats to simply shoot whatever cats could be found hunting along roadsides (or picked up dead, having been killed by a passing vehicle). [11] Setting aside the obvious ethical objections, such methods are, at best, useful for determining what the cats were hunting, but tell us very little about the frequency of their hunting efforts—and nothing whatsoever about any impact on prey populations.

And the estimate by Loss et al. that 80–100 percent of unowned cats kill wildlife relies exclusively on studies of rural cats. Research conducted in more densely populated areas, or areas where unowned cats aren’t entirely reliant on prey for their meals, reveals predation rates far lower than 80 percent, [12] especially for birds. [13] Again, one flaw is compounded by another, resulting in grossly inflated predation estimates.

Especially puzzling is the authors’ assertion that “projects to manage free-ranging cats, such as Trap-Neuter-Return colonies, are potentially harmful to wildlife populations.” [1] Not only do Loss et al. provide no evidence to support such a claim, they overlook an often-cited study that has documented predation by colony cats. Over the course of approximately 300 hours of observation (this, in addition to what the researchers describe as “several months identifying, describing, and photographing each of the cats living in the colonies” prior to beginning their research) in two Miami-Dade County (FL) parks, Castillo and Clarke “saw cats kill a juvenile common yellowthroat and a blue jay. Cats also caught and ate green anoles, bark anoles, and brown anoles… [and the researchers] found the carcasses of a gray catbird and a juvenile opossum in the feeding area.” [14] There were, at any one time, 85–95 cats across the two study sites—more than enough opportunity for documenting the kind of extensive predation suggested by Loss et al.

While it’s true, as Nolen suggests, that the IUCN “lists the domestic cat among the world’s 100 worst invasive alien species,” it’s important to point out that this designation has mostly to do with their impact on wildlife native to oceanic islands. [15] And as researchers Dennis Turner and Mike Fitzgerald explained 13 years ago, “there are few, if any studies apart from island ones, that actually demonstrate that cats have reduced bird populations.” [16] As Louise Holton, president and founder of Alley Cat Rescue, points out in the article, cats—like all predators—tend to prey on the young, the old, the weak and unhealthy. At least two studies have investigated this in great detail, revealing that birds killed by cats are, on average, significantly less healthy than birds killed through non-predatory events (e.g., collisions with windows or cars). [17, 18] “Despite the large numbers of birds killed, there is no scientific evidence that predation by cats in gardens is having any impact on bird populations UK-wide,” notes the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds on its website. “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.” [19]

Last year, Loss et al. published a paper in which they pointed out that “national mortality estimates are often based on extrapolation from a limited sample of small-scale studies, and estimates of uncertainty are ignored or only superficially assessed.” [20] Ironically, the authors include some of these very studies in their more recent analysis. And by pooling studies from various contexts, attempting to “correct” for different methods, and so forth, they actually add to the uncertainty they lamented previously.

Also ironic is the fact that two of the three authors have advocated publicly for restrictions or outright bans on TNR, [21, 22] despite compelling evidence demonstrating its effectiveness. [23–30] Such policies would, it’s virtually guaranteed, actually increase the risk to the wildlife we all want to protect.

The real story here has little to do with conservation; it’s about how such shoddy science is funded by U.S. taxpayers, published, sold to the public, and used as rationale for policy decisions [31, 32] that would likely result in the deaths of millions of domestic cats. It’s disappointing and troubling to see the AVMA—whose mission is “to advance the science and art of veterinary medicine”—effectively endorse the Smithsonian/USFWS paper, giving it undeserved credibility.

Peter J. Wolf
Cat Initiatives Analyst
Community Programs and Services
National Programs
Best Friends Animal Society

Literature Cited

1. Loss, S.R., Will, T., and Marra, P.P., “The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States.” Nature Communications. 2013. 4.

2. Rich, T.D., et al., Partners in Flight North American Landbird Conservation Plan. 2004, Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Ithaca, NY.

3. Blancher, P.J., K. V. Rosenberg, A. O. Panjabi, B. Altman, J. Bart, C. J. Beardmore, G. S. Butcher, D. Demarest, R. Dettmers, E. H. Dunn, W. Easton, W. C. Hunter, E. E. Iñigo-Elias, D. N. Pashley, C. J. Ralph, T. D. Rich, C. M. Rustay, J. M. Ruth, T. C. Will, Guide to the Partners in Flight Population Estimates Database. Version: North American Landbird Conservation Plan 2004, in Partners in Flight Technical Series No 5. 2007.

4. IUCN. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2012 [cited 2013 May 5]. 2012.2:[

5. n.a. (2012) Northern Bobwhite Colinus virginianus. IUCN 2012. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species Accessed May 5, 2013.

6. Sauer, J.R., et al. (2012) The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2011. Version 12.13.2011

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

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

9. George, W., “Domestic cats as predators and factors in winter shortages of raptor prey.” The Wilson Bulletin. 1974. 86(4): p. 384–396.

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

11. Errington, P.L., “Notes on Food Habits of Southwestern Wisconsin House Cats.” Journal of Mammalogy. 1936. 17(1): p. 64–65.

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

13. 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.

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

15. n.a. (2010) Felis catus (mammal). The Global Invasive Species Database

16. 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.

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

18. 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.

19. RSPB (2011) Are cats causing bird declines? Accessed October 26, 2011.

20. Loss, S.R., Will, T., and Marra, P.P., “Direct human-caused mortality of birds: improving quantification of magnitude and assessment of population impact.” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 2012. 10(7): p. 357–364.

21. Marra, P. (2011, March 18). No good for the birds, but also no good for the cats (Opinion). The Washington Post, from

22. Will, T., What Can Federal Agencies Do? Policy Options to Address Cat Impacts to Birds and Their Habitats, in Bird Conservation Alliance Teleconference. 2010.

23. 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.

24. 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.

25. 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.

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

27. Mendes-de-Almeida, F., et al., “The Impact of Hysterectomy in an Urban Colony of Domestic Cats (Felis catus Linnaeus, 1758).” International Journal of Applied Research in Veterinary Medicine. 2006. 4(2): p. 134–141.

28. Mendes-de-Almeida, F., et al., “Reduction of feral cat (Felis catus Linnaeus 1758) colony size following hysterectomy of adult female cats.” Journal of Feline Medicine & Surgery. 2011.

29. Robertson, S.A., “A review of feral cat control.” Journal of Feline Medicine & Surgery. 2008. 10(4): p. 366–375.

30. Donlan, A.E. (1996, June 30). North Shore cat-lovers go… Where the wild things are. Boston Herald,

31. Fenwick, G.H. (2013, February 25). House cats: The destructive invasive species purring on your lap. The Baltimore Sun, from,0,6415585.story

32. Lynes, M. (2013, February 4). No. 1 bird killer is outdoor cats. San Francisco Chronicle, from

The Agenda Behind Agenda-driven “Science”

What do you get when public policy is based on agenda-driven junk science? If various TNR opponents have their way, we’ll find out the hard way.

As I pointed out shortly after the Smithsonian/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s “killer cat study” was published, the paper actually has very little to do with science or conservation. At its core, this was an agenda-driven effort to undermine TNR. (Note, for example, the emphasis on unowned cats—the cause of about 69 percent of mortalities, according to the paper’s authors—and native species—“the majority of the birds preyed upon by cats,” [1] a claim unsupported by the very evidence the authors provide.)

And, as we’ve seen in the past couple weeks, members of the media, wildlife advocacy organizations, and the scientific community are trying to use the Loss et al. paper as a lever to shape policy. There was, of course, witch-hunt pioneer Stan Temple’s op-ed in the Sun-Sentinel, referring to the paper as “a new study… provid[ing] a science-based estimate of the number of birds and mammals killed by cats nationwide.” And the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife is sounding the alarm, claiming that “cats may even restrict the statewide recovery of some rare birds.”

Among the other stories I’ve seen (and no doubt there are many I’ve missed): Read more

Issues of Consumption, Production, and Surplus

As I continue to drill down into the “The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States”—tracking down and reading journal articles, compiling the data therein, etc.—I’m finding (not surprisingly) additional holes in the various claims made by Scott Loss, Tom Will, and Peter Marra. For example:

“Native species make up the majority of the birds preyed upon by cats. On average, only 33 percent of bird prey items identified to species were non-native species in 10 studies with 438 specimens of 58 species.” [1]

That’s quite a statement to make on the basis of just 10 studies (spanning 63 years*) and an average of fewer than eight specimens per species. And actually, one of the studies cited by Loss et al. was no study at all, but rather the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s two-page brochure Impacts of Feral and Free-ranging Domestic Cats on Wildlife in Florida (PDF). Not only are there no “bird prey items identified to species,” the document relies heavily on claims made by the American Bird Conservancy (thus raising serious doubts about the agency’s assertion that “scientific data drives management decisions for fish and wildlife populations and their habitats”).

How nobody—neither the three authors nor the multiple reviewers—caught this is a bit of a mystery. Just a glance at the brochure’s title ought to raise eyebrows in light of the way it’s cited by Loss et al. On the other hand, mistakes like this do happen. And in this case, I’m willing to give the authors the benefit of the doubt—largely because there are so many other, far more substantive, problems with their paper. Read more

Garbage In, Garbage Out

By now—just about 72 hours after the story broke—it’s probably more difficult to find people who haven’t heard about the Smithsonian study claiming “that free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.4–3.7 billion birds and 6.9–20.7 billion mammals annually” [1] than it is to find people who’ve heard the news somewhere—the New York Times, the BBC, NPR’s All Things Considered, or any number of other media outlets.

Very few scientific papers receive the kind of press coverage that’s been given “The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States,” published in the online journal Nature Communications. Then again, very few studies make the kinds of claims made by the paper’s authors—claims the media has accepted without the slightest bit of scrutiny. Which is, unfortunately, to be expected.

And, I suspect, exactly what these researchers intended. Though they describe their work as a “data-driven systematic review,” [1] it’s difficult not to see it as part of a concerted effort to undermine TNR. Read more

Many Loose and Ill-considered Statements

Does the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have an official policy on free-roaming cats and TNR? The official word from the agency is no. But that hasn’t stopped Service employees around the country from suggesting otherwise.

Had you attended the Southeast Partners in Flight conference in February, you would, more than likely, have come away with the impression that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has—despite statements to the contrary—an official, science-based position on free-roaming cats and TNR.

In his presentation Feral and Free-ranging Cats and Urban Birds, Steve Holzman, South Atlantic Geographic Area Data Manager for USFWS, argued that if the goal of PIF is to “keep common birds common,” predation by cats simply can’t be ignored. Among the “next steps” Holman proposed: “Continued work on USFWS position statement on feral and free-ranging cats, and zero tolerance on all federal lands, especially parks and refuges,” and “State policies that advocate trap and remove for all state lands.”

Hinting at what an uphill battle such policies face, Holzman pointed out that cats “are very popular,” and “currently represent 87.3 percent of all Internet content.”

This last bit was delivered as a humorous aside,” notes Holzman in the endnotes of his revised presentation. “No one really knows what percentage of Internet content is related to cats.”

I’ll have to take Holzman at his word about this being a joke, as I wasn’t there.

But what about those very official-sounding policy proposals? Surely, the audience took that stuff seriously. And yet, those bullet points were purged in his recent round of edits—prompted by a lengthy e-mail I sent to Holzman. (“Your questions have led me to understand the need to revise the PowerPoint presented on the SEPIF website,” Holzman wrote.)

What’s going on here? Read more

National Feral Cat Day 2011

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

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

•     •     •

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

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.


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.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Webinar, “Impacts of Free Roaming Cats on Native Wildlife,” originally scheduled for today, has been postponed.

It’s still not entirely clear whether or not the Webinar, put on by the USFWS’s National Conservation Training Center, is/was open to the public. What is clear is that people are interested; indeed, it was “an overwhelming response” and the resulting “logistical barriers” that forced NCTC to put the show on hold.

Stay tuned.

Spoiler Alert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•     •     •

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

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

2. Dauphine, N. and Cooper, R.J., Impacts of Free-ranging Domestic Cats (Felis catus) on birds in the United States: A review of recent research with conservation and management recommendations, in Fourth International Partners in Flight Conference: Tundra to Tropics. 2009. p. 205–219.

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

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

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

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