Animal Wise Radio: 2012 Trap Liner Awards

Did you catch this week’s Animal Wise Radio show? Hosts Mike Fry and Beth Nelson had me on to discuss the 2012 Trap Liner Awards and my November 16 Q&A with Walter Lamb.

If you missed it, you can check the complete show in podcast format. An MP3 file (12 MB) of our conversation (approximately 25 minutes) is available here.

2012 Trap Liner Award

“Like so many others of my tenure and temperament—stubborn ancients, I suppose—web reporting is anathema to everything I love about newspapering: getting a tip, developing leads, fleshing-out the details, then telling the story.”

“Now,” laments former Times-Picayune reporter Chris Rose in the August issue of the Oxford American (excerpted in the current issue of Utne), “it stops with the tip. Just verify (hopefully!) and post it. I didn’t write stories anymore; I ‘produced content.’”

Perhaps this emphasis on “web reporting” explains the largely pathetic coverage surrounding the free-roaming cat/TNR issue. There’s probably not even a tip in many cases, just a press release.

Whatever the cause, the effect (in addition to a misinformed public, misguided policy, etc.) is a very competitive field for the 2012 Trap Liner Award. Read more

Mother Dearest

Is it possible I’ve been banned from posting comments on the Mother Jones website—the online home of “smart, fearless journalism”? It certainly looks that way.

Despite several attempts throughout the day Wednesday, my response to senior editor Kiera Butler’s “Kitties, Rabies, the Plague, and You” has yet to appear in the comments. Meanwhile, the conversation continues. Initially, I attributed my virtual absence to a technical problem. After repeated attempts (using two or three different applications to log on), however, I think I have to conclude that my comment is simply not being approved. And will not be approved.

I can’t imagine my response violates MoJo’s comment policy, especially after reading some of the others that have been posted. Could it be the magazine didn’t like being the recipient of the 2011 Trap Liner Award in recognition of its “tragic failure of journalistic integrity while fueling—intentionally or not—the witch-hunt against feral cats”? (This, of course, was in “honor” of Butler’s “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!,” which was later renamed—perhaps in response to some 1,645 comments, including mine—“Are Cats Bad for the Environment?”)

Did somebody at the magazine even notice? Who knows. Perhaps this really is just a tech issue. In any case, here’s my comment:

Given Butler’s previous contribution to the “never-ending war between cat people and bird people,” I’m not surprised she once again swallowed the American Bird Conservancy’s story in one gulp. It’s a shame—the same week Mother Jones made national news with its good old-fashioned hard-hitting journalism, Butler’s reprinting sensationalist press releases.

Had she done even a little bit of research, she would realize that ABC’s claims are just the same old misrepresentations and scaremongering. Take rabies, for example. In 2008, there were 294 cases reported in cats, compared to 75 cases in dogs. But let’s put that into context (using the very same report of CDC data that ABC used): 93 percent of cases were in wildlife; cats made up just 4.3 percent of rabies cases overall.

And, as the report makes clear, reports of rabies cases—such as those typically provided by the CDC—are not an accurate measure of overall infection rates. “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] Unfortunately, such comparisons are commonplace among TNR opponents eager to exaggerate the risk of rabies.

Actually, you’ve got a much better chance of being killed by lightning—not just struck, but killed by lightning. Data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicate that between 1959 and 2011, 3,947 people in the U.S. were killed by lightning.

That’s roughly 75 deaths annually. [2] Due to lightning strikes.

And Butler overlooks the obvious (again): What ABC is proposing is a ban on TNR—which means tens of millions of unsterilized and unvaccinated cats. How exactly is that supposed to benefit wildlife and public health? It’s an obvious question to ask, but one that apparently never occurred to Butler.

Next time I get one of Mother Jones’ e-mail pleas for donations, I think I’ll forward it to Darin Schroeder at ABC. They should at least have to pay their stooges.

So, did I go too far?

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. Holle, R., Lightning Fatalities by State, 1959–2011. 2012, Vaisala: Tucson, AZ.

2011 Trap Liner Award

Referring to a particularly poor piece of journalism, a friend of mine suggested—recalling the irreverent moniker her late husband had given their own local paper—the newspaper in which it had appeared was perhaps best used for lining birdcages.

Twenty months into this blog, I’ve encountered my share of yellow journalism infecting both small-town weeklies and, with surprisingly regularity, major dailies. Indeed, in one of my first posts, I referred to an L.A. Times piece in which Steve Holmer, senior policy advisor for the American Bird Conservancy, told the paper (one assumes, with a straight face) that there are 160 million feral cats in the U.S. (based, he claimed, on “the latest estimates,” which, as it turned out, originated with former Smithsonian researcher Nico Dauphine).

A year later, Toronto Star reporters Mary Ormsby and Jim Wilkes filed a truly pathetic story portraying—clearly, without the burden of fact-checking—“bird advocates… up against a multi-million-dollar cat-care industry.” And over the summer, The Columbus Dispatch joined the chorus of publications pedaling the infamous University of Nebraska-Lincoln paper (not fit even for birdcage duty, that one) as if it were valid research.

And then there was Peter Marra’s (pr)op(aganda)-ed in The Washington Post.

The list goes on and on. All of which got me thinking… Inspired by my friend’s “birdcage liner” story, and by Nathan Winograd’s Phyllis Wright Awards (“given to those who epitomize everything that is wrong with our broken animal ‘shelter’ system”), I bring you the Trap Liner Award.

Just as some papers are best for lining birdcages, others are well-suited for lining the humane traps used for TNR work. Some, of course, are better (meaning worse) than others. The Trap Liner Award recognizes the writer or publication that, over the course of a given year, best demonstrates a tragic failure of journalistic integrity while fueling—intentionally or not—the witch-hunt against feral cats.

Competition in 2011—the first year of the Trap Liner Award—was fierce.

“Live and Let Kill,” Matt Smith’s feature for SF Weekly, looked to be a shoo-in, due largely to Smith’s poor choice of sources—among them, ABC and Travis Longcore—and “evidence” pulled from Jonathan Franzen’s most recent novel and Peter Marra’s catbird research (the reports of which themselves border on fiction). This from a publication that claims to be “San Francisco’s smartest.”

Three months later, however, another San Francisco publication—Mother Jones—raised (meaning, lowered) the bar with Kiera Butler’s “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” As I mentioned in my July 1 post, the misinformation, misrepresentations, and missteps that make up the bulk of “Faster, Pussycat!” betray either willful ignorance or glaring bias. Or both.

(Of these, only Butler’s population estimate was later corrected in the online version of the story—where, at last check, there were 1,646 comments—and where, interestingly, the title was softened considerably to “Are Cats Bad for the Environment?”)

In the end, it was the combination of Butler’s sloppy journalism—combined with the magazine’s impressive circulation of 250,000 and the irony of all their chest-thumping about bullshit-busting and “smart, fearless journalism”—that clinched it for MoJo.

And so, the 2011 Trap Liner Award goes to Kiera Butler and Mother Jones.

•     •     •

In just a couple days, I’ll start compiling entries for 2012. Happy new year.