L.A. Audubon President Renews Commitment to Shelter Killing

Promoting the Culture of Killing can’t be easy, what with public opinion strongly opposed to the lethal roundups of community cats [1, 2] and, more generally, the use of lethal methods as a shelter’s means of population control. [3] Nevertheless, there are those who persist.

Witness, for example, Travis Longcore’s comment on the Vox Felina Facebook page, left in response to my April 14th blog post, in which I argued that the injunction prohibiting the City of Los Angeles from supporting TNR—the result of a lawsuit in which Longcore’s Urban Wildlands Group was lead petitioner—is increasing the risks to the very wildlife and environment he claims to protect.

Longcore’s bar chart and references to statistics, extrapolation, and property rights were, I can only assume, intended to give the impression of a well-reasoned, comprehensive rejoinder. It was, in fact, nothing of the sort. Indeed, even a cursory examination suggests that Longcore’s reasoning is no better than his arithmetic. Read more

L.A. Audubon President Puts Wildlife at Risk

Below is a letter I wrote in response to a recent L.A. Weekly story. Unfortunately—especially since I learned this only after compiling and submitting my comments—the paper doesn’t seem to publish any letters, despite providing an online form for precisely this purpose.

Seems a shame to let it go to waste… Read more

Thinking Inside the Box

It’s difficult to determine how these things get started—how the results of a well-documented experiment conducted nearly 40 years ago become twisted into the frequently made—and widely-accepted—claim that “even well-fed cats hunt.”

This would appear to be a case of validity through repetition: repeat a claim often enough and, eventually, people will come to believe it’s true—never bothering to check the original source. (Pro Tip: For added efficacy, click the heels of your ruby-red slippers together while repeating the claim.)

This, it should go without saying, is not how science is supposed to work. Read more

Audubon Editor Suggests Poisoning Feral Cats

Armed with the recently published “killer cat study” from the Smithsonian Biological Conservation Institute and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, TNR opponents are calling for increasingly extreme measures.

Travis Longcore was among the first, telling KCET reporter Judy Muller that “managing and controlling unowned, free-roaming cats will require euthanasia. There are not enough shelter spaces, there is not enough sanctuary space. And we have to stand up and be honest. But the thing is something is going to die in this equation.” Witch-hunt pioneer Stanley Temple chimed in a few days later with an op-ed piece in the Orlando Sentinel in which he referred to the work of Scott Loss, Tom Will, and Peter Marra as “a new study [that] for the first time provides a science-based estimate of the number of birds and mammals killed by cats nationwide.”

A week-and-a-half later came another op-ed, this one in the Baltimore Sun and penned by American Bird Conservancy president George Fenwick, who, like Temple, endorsed the Smithsonian/USFWS paper as valid science rather than the PR scam it truly is. “Local governments need to act swiftly and decisively to gather the 30 million to 80 million unowned cats,” argued Fenwick, “aggressively seek adoptions, and establish sanctuaries for or euthanize those cats that are not adoptable.”

All of which pales in comparison to the rhetoric unleashed by Audubon magazine’s editor-at-large, Ted Williams, in his own op-ed, published in today’s Orlando Sentinel. Read more

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

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.

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

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

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

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. http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/bsc/ibi/2008/00000150/A00101s1/art00008

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

7. n.a. (2011) Are cats causing bird declines? http://www.rspb.org.uk/advice/gardening/unwantedvisitors/cats/birddeclines.aspx Accessed October 26, 2011.

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.

The Feral Feeding Movement

SF Weekly Cover (30-Mar-11)

SF Weekly is San Francisco’s smartest publication. That’s because we take journalism seriously, but not so seriously that we let ourselves be guided by an agenda.”

At least that’s what the paper’s Website says.

Now, as somebody who reads SF Weekly only rarely, I want to be careful not to generalize. But if last week’s feature story is typical, then it’s time for the paper to update either its About page or its editorial standards.

“Live and Let Kill” isn’t particularly smart. And, as journalism, it falls well short of the “serious” category.

Reporter Matt Smith argues that “greater scrutiny may be just what the feral feeding movement needs,” while he swallows in one gulp the numerous unsubstantiated claims made by TNR opponents.

Indeed, Smith pays more attention to colony caretaker Paula Kotakis’ “cat-hunting outfit” (“green nylon jacket, slacks, and muddied black athletic shoes”) and her mental health (“For Kotakis, strong emotions and felines go together like a cat and a lap.”) than he does the scientific papers he references (never mind those he overlooks).

His reference to “the feral feeding movement” reflects Smith’s fundamental misunderstanding of TNR, and his dogged efforts to steer the conversation away from sterilization, population control, reduced shelter killing, and the like—to focus on the alleged environmental consequences of subsidizing these “efficient bird killers and disease spreaders.”

Here, too, Smith misses the mark—failing to dig into the topic deeply enough to get beyond press releases, superficial observations, rhetorical questions, and his own bias.

Make no mistake: there’s an agenda here.

Science: The Usual Suspects
“Environmentalists,” writes Smith, “point out that outdoor cats are a greater problem to the natural ecological balance than most people realize.” Actually, what most people (including Smith, perhaps) don’t realize is that Smith’s sources can only rarely defend their dramatic claims with solid science.

Populations and Predation
Smith’s reference to the American Bird Conservancy, which, we’re told, “estimates that America’s 150 million outdoor cats kill 500 million birds a year,” brings to mind the 2010 L.A. Times story in which Steve Holmer, ABC’s Senior Policy Advisor, told the paper there were 160 million feral cats in the country.

Smith got a better answer out of ABC—but ABC’s better answers are only slightly closer to the truth.

Surveys indicate that about two-thirds of pet cats are kept indoors, which means about 31 million are allowed outside (though about half of those are outdoors for less than two or three hours a day). [1–3]. So where do the other 120 million “outdoor cats” come from? And if there are really 150 million of them in the U.S.—roughly one outdoor cat for every two humans—why don’t we see more of them?

Reasonable questions, but Smith is no more interested in asking than ABC is in answering.

The closest Smith comes to supporting ABC’s predation numbers is a reference to Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom, a book “about a birder who declares war on ‘feline death squads’ and calls cats the ‘sociopaths of the pet world,’ responsible for killing millions of American songbirds.” (The fact that Franzen sits on ABC’s board of directors seems to have escaped Smith’s notice.)

In Smith’s defense, chasing down ABC’s predation numbers is a fool’s errand. Such figures—like the rest of ABC’s message regarding free-roaming cats—have more to do with marketing and politics than with science.

No 1. Killer?
For additional evidence, Smith turns to Pete Marra’s study of gray catbirds in and around Bethesda, MD.

“In urban and suburban areas, outdoor cats are the No. 1 killer of birds, by a long shot, according to a new study in the Journal of Ornithology. Researchers from the Smithsonian Institution put radio transmitters on young catbirds and found that 79 percent of deaths were caused by predators, nearly half of which were cats.”

Let’s see now… half of 79 percent… That’s nearly 40 percent of bird deaths caused by cats, right? Well, no.

Although SF Weekly included a link to the Ornithology article on its Website, it seems Smith never read the paper. Like so many others (e.g., The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, etc.), he went with the story being served up by Pete Marra and the Smithsonian.

The real story, it turns out, is far less dramatic than headlines would suggest. In fact, neighborhood cats were observed killing just six birds.

What’s more, even if Marra and his colleagues are correct about the three additional kills they attribute to cats, the title of “No. 1 killer of birds” goes not to the cats, but to unidentified predators, as detailed in the Ornithology paper:

“During our study of post-fledging survival, 61% (42/69) of individuals died before reaching independence. Predation on juveniles accounted for 79% (33/42) of all mortalities (Bethesda 75% (6/8), Spring Park 75% (12/16), and Opal Daniels 83% (15/18) with the vast majority (70%) occurring in the first week post-fledging. Directly observed predation events involved domestic cats (n = 6; 18%), a black rat snake (n = 1; 3%), and a red-shouldered hawk (n = 1; 3%). Although not all mortalities could be clearly assigned, fledglings found with body damage or missing heads were considered symptomatic of cat kills (n = 3; 9%), those found cached underground of rat or chipmunk predation (n = 7; 21%) and those found in trees of avian predation (n = 1; 3%). The remaining mortalities (n = 14; 43%) could not be assigned to a specific predator. Mortality due to reasons other than predation (21%) included unknown cause (n = 2; 22%), weather related (n = 2; 22%), window strikes (n = 2; 22%) and individuals found close to the potential nest with no body damage (n = 3; 34%), suggesting premature fledging, disease or starvation.” [4]

Taken together, the detailed mortality figures and the study’s small sample size make a mockery of Smith’s claim, and—more important—its implications for feral cat management. Which might explain why he didn’t bother to share this information with readers.

The Power of One
“If trappers miss a single cat,” warns Smith, “populations can rebound if they’re continuously fed, because a fertile female can produce 100 kittens in her lifetime. Miss too many, and the practice of leaving cat food in wild areas will actually increase their numbers by helping them to survive in the wild.”

As Michael Hutchins, Travis Longcore, and others have pointed out, I don’t have a degree in biology. Still, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that “a single cat” isn’t likely to reproduce on its own.

Nor is a female cat—even with help—going to produce 100 kittens over the course of her lifetime. A study of “71 sexually intact female cats in nine managed feral cat colonies” found that:

“Cats produced a mean of 1.4 litters/y, with a median of 3 kittens/litter (range, 1 to 6). Overall, 127 of 169 (75%) kittens died or disappeared before 6 months of age. Trauma was the most common cause of death.” [5]

To produce 100 kittens, then, an unsterilized female would have to live at least 25 years. Smith fails to reconcile—or even acknowledge—the obvious discrepancy between claims of of-the-charts fecundity and—to use David Jessup’s phrase—the “short, brutal lives” [6] of feral cats.

Do these cats breed well into their golden years, or, are they “sickened by bad weather, run over by cars, killed by coyotes, or simply starved because feeders weren’t able to attend to a cat colony for the several years or more that are called for,” as Smith suggests?

Clearly, the two scenarios are mutually exclusive.

California Quail
The closest we get to the “demise of native birds” promised on the cover is Smith’s observation that “wildlife advocates blame the city’s forgiving attitude toward feral cats for helping to almost wipe out native quail, which used to be commonplace.”

This is not a new complaint, as a 1992 story in the San Francisco Chronicle illustrates:

“A decade ago, the hedges and thickets of Golden Gate Park teemed with native songbirds and California Valley quail. Now the park is generally empty of avian life, save for naturalized species such as pigeons, English sparrows and starlings.” [7]

But the Chronicle, despite its dire proclamation (“One thing seems certain: San Francisco can have a healthy songbird population or lots of feral cats, but not both.” [7]), did no better than SF Weekly at demonstrating anything more than correlation. This, despite interviews with scientists from the California Academy of Sciences, Point Reyes Bird Observatory, and Golden Gate Chapter of the Audubon Society.

A few years later, Cole Hawkins thought he found the answer. Conducting his PhD work at Lake Chabot Regional Park, Hawkins reported that where there were cats, there were no California Quail—the result, he argued, “of the cat’s predatory behavior.” [8] In fact, Hawkins found very little evidence of predation, and failed to explain why the majority of ground-nesting birds in his study were indifferent to the presence of cats—thus undermining his own dramatic conclusions.

A quick look at A. Starker Leopold’s 1977 book The California Quail (a classic, it would seem, given how often it’s cited) offers some interesting insights on the subject. (Full disclosure: this was a quick look—I turned immediately to the glossary, and then to the two sections corresponding to “Predators, cats and dogs.”)

In the “Quail Mortality” chapter, Leopold describes Cooper’s Hawk as “the most efficient and persistent predator of California Quail,” [9] in stark contrast to cats.

“The house cat harasses quail and may drive them from the vicinity of a yard or a feeding station (Sangler, 1931), but there is little evidence that they catch many quail in wild situations. Hubbs (1951) analyzed the stomach contents of 219 feral cats taken in the Sacramento Valley and recorded one California Quail. Feral cats, like bobcats, prey mostly on rodents.” [9, emphasis mine]

The picture changes somewhat, though, when we get to Leopold’s chapter on “Backyard Quail”:

“Cats… not only molest quail, but skillful individuals capture them frequently… Feline pets that are fed regularly are not dependent on catching birds for a living, but rather they hunt for pleasure and avocation. They can afford to spend many happy hours stalking quail and other birds around the yard, and hence they are much more dangerous predators than truly feral cats that must hunt for a living and therefore seek small mammals almost exclusively (wild-living cats rarely catch birds).” [9]

As to how many “skillful individuals” reside in Golden Gate Park, it’s anybody’s guess. (The idea that few cats catch many birds while many cats catch few if any, however, is well supported in the literature.) And, while they may be well fed, it’s not clear that their very public “yard” and skittish nature afford the park’s cats “many happy hours stalking.”

(A more recent source, The Birds of North America, provides an extensive list of California Quail predators—including several raptor species, coyotes, ground squirrels, and rattlesnakes. Cats are mentioned only as minor players. [10])

Toxoplasmosis
Another complaint from the area’s wildlife advocates, writes Smith, is “Toxoplasma gondii, “shed in cat feces, that threatens endangered sea otters and other marine mammals.” But not all T. gondii is the same. In fact, nearly three-quarters of the sea otters examined as part of one well-known study [11] were infected with a strain of T. gondii that hasn’t been traced to domestic cats. [12]

Once again, domestic cats have become an easy target—but, as with their alleged impact on California Quail, there’s plenty we simply don’t know.

Feral Feeding

For Smith, the trouble with TNR is its long-term maintenance of outdoor cat populations. “Its years of regular feeding,” he argues, citing Travis Longcore’s selective review of the TNR literature, [13] (which Smith mischaracterizes as “a study”), “causes ‘hyperpredation,’ in which well-fed cats continue to prey on bird, mammal, reptile, and amphibian populations, even after these animals become so scarce they can no longer sustain natural predators.”

But that’s not what happened in Hawkins’ study (though he did his best to suggest as much). And it’s not what happened in the two Florida parks Castillo and Clarke used to study the impact of TNR.

Over the course of approximately 300 hours of observation (this, in addition to “several months identifying, describing, and photographing each of the cats living in the colonies” [14] prior to beginning their research), the researchers “saw cats kill a juvenile common yellowthroat and a blue jay. Cats also caught and ate green anoles, bark anoles, and brown anoles. In addition, we found the carcasses of a gray catbird and a juvenile opossum in the feeding area.” [14]

That’s it—from nearly 100 cats (about 26 at one site, and 65 at another).

Calhoon and Haspel, too, found little predation among the free-roaming cats they studied in Brooklyn: “Although birds and small rodents are plentiful in the study area, only once in more than 180 [hours] of observations did we observe predation.” [15]

Feeding and Population Control
Smith’s description of the vacuum effect reflects his misunderstanding of the phenomenon and the role feeding play in TNR more broadly:

“Feral cat advocates believe removing cats from the wild creates a natural phenomenon known as the ‘vacuum effect,’ in which new cats will replace absent ones. (Key to the ‘vacuum’ are the tons of cat food TNR supporters place twice a day, every day, at secret feeding stations nationwide.)”

Smith would have readers believe that TNR practitioners bait cats the way hunters bait deer. In fact, the food comes after the cat(s), not the other way around.

Cats are remarkably resourceful; where there are humans, there is generally food and shelter to be found. Indeed, even where no such support is provided, cats persist. On Marion Island—barren, uninhabited, and only 115 square miles in total area—it took 19 years to eradicate about 2,200 cats, using disease (feline distemper), poisoning, intensive hunting and trapping, and dogs. [16, 17]

As Bester et al. observe, the island’s cats didn’t require “tons of cat food” as an incentive to move into “vacuums”:

“The recolonization of preferred habitats, cleared of cats, from neighbouring suboptimal areas served to continually concentrate surviving cats in smaller areas.” [16]

Still, those “tons of cat food TNR supporters place twice a day, every day, at secret feeding stations nationwide” are key to the success of TNR—just not in the way Smith suggested. Feeding allows caretakers to monitor the cats in their care, “enrolling” new arrivals as soon as possible.

By bringing these cats out into the open—via managed colonies—they’re much more likely to be sterilized and, in some cases, vaccinated. Many will also find their way into permanent homes. Take away the food, and these cats will merely slip back into the surroundings, go “underground.”

And in no time at all, the ones that weren’t sterilized will be breeding.

•     •     •

By framing TNR (the “feral feeding movement,” as he insists on calling it) as “animal welfare ethics on one side, and classic environmental ethics on the other,” Smith overlooks some critical common ground: all parties are interested in reducing the population of feral cats. He also allows himself to give in to an easy—and rather tired—narrative: the crazy cat ladies v. the respected scientists.

At the same time Smith recognizes Kotakis’ dedication and accomplishment (“In her tiny bit of territory in the eastern parts of the park, her method and dedication might just have created a tipping point that has produced a humane ideal of fewer feral cats.”), he can’t resist commenting on her OCD (including a quote from a clinical psychologist who, we can safely assume, has never even met Kotakis).

Meanwhile, Smith couldn’t care less about looking into the science.

I suppose “Live and Let Kill” is balanced in the sense that Smith gives “equal time” to both sides of the issue, but that’s not good enough. Serious journalism demands that readers are provided the truest account possible.

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

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

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

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

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

5. Nutter, F.B., Levine, J.F., and Stoskopf, M.K., “Reproductive capacity of free-roaming domestic cats and kitten survival rate.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1399–1402. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2004.225.1399

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

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

7. Martin, G. (1992, January 13). Feral Cats Blamed for Decline In Golden Gate Park Songbirds. The San Francisco Chronicle, p. A1,

8. 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

9. Leopold, A.S., The California Quail. 1977, Berkeley: University of California Press.

10. Calkins, J.D., Hagelin, J.C., and Lott, D.F., California quail. The Birds of North America: Life Histories for the 21st Century. 1999, Philadelphia, PA: Birds of North America, Inc. 1–32.

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

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

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

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. 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. http://www.jstor.org/pss/5003

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

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

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

Going Native

Two Archaeological photosEvidence of cats as pets? In Cyprus, 9,500 years ago (left) and, 3,500 years ago, in Peru (right).

As reported in yesterday’s New York Times, the history of the domestic cat is being rewritten—yet again. (Whether this piece gets the same attention as Elisabeth Rosenthal’s “Tweety Was Right” story remains to be seen—and I, for one, am not holding my breath.)

Arrivals and Departures
For years now, there has been some debate surrounding the arrival of cats in North America. Some have argued that cats were brought over by the Vikings (which might explain the resemblance between Norwegian Forest cats and Maine Coons [1]), while others have suggested that cats first arrived with Christopher Columbus or—roughly 100 years later—with the original settlers of Jamestown. [2]

A 2009 article in Scientific American demonstrated the uncertainly surrounding this issue in one of its illustrations: “Americas: 500 years ago?” [2]

Recent research, however, is challenging such estimates in a big way.

Working in the New Mexican desert, a team of archaeologists was shocked to find evidence of what appear to be domestic cats dating back to the late Archaic Period (roughly 8000 to 2000 BC). This, noted one of the researchers, isn’t entirely unexpected—it’s generally accepted that cats “sort of domesticated themselves” in response to the rise of agriculture elsewhere in the world. [3]

Even there, the story has been changing:

“Scholars long believed that the ancient Egyptians were the first to keep cats as pets, starting around 3,600 years ago. But genetic and archaeological discoveries made over the past five years have revised this scenario—and have generated fresh insights into both the ancestry of the house cat and how its relationship with humans evolved.” [2]

Indeed, a 2007 paper in Science made headlines when the authors, using DNA evidence, demonstrated that “the earliest evidence of cat-human association involves their co-occurrence in Cyprus deposits determined to be 9500 years old.” [3]

Closer to home: just last year, a site in Peru revealed that cats were being domesticated 3,500 years ago in the country’s ancient Lambayeque region.

Name-Calling
All of which raises the question: What’s the difference between native and non-native species?

Well, if you’re a domestic cat, it might just be the difference between life and death. “The claim that the cat’s exotic status should count against it often is employed in policy arguments about cats as a conversation-stopper,” writes Cornell’s James Tantillo, “that the cat is an exotic ‘alien’ is supposed to trump all other values in the debate.” [4]

For TNR opponents, it’s the gift that keeps on giving:

  • In a recent news release, the American Bird Conservancy describes the domestic cat as “a highly efficient non-native predator.”
  • The Wildlife Society, publisher of The Wildlife Professional, refers repeatedly to cats as “non-native” and “invasive” in a special section of its Spring Issue called “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats.”

Still, none provides anything by way of a definition or objective measure.

In his provocative 1998 essay, “Nativism and Nature: Rethinking biological invasion,” Jonah Peretti argues, “it is unclear how long a species needs to be established in a location before it is considered native. Is a species ‘naturalised’ in 100 years, 1,000 years, or 10,000 years? The distinctions are arbitrary and unscientific.” [6]

“Nativist trends in Conservation Biology have made environmentalists biased against alien species. This bias is scientifically questionable, and may have roots in xenophobic and racist attitudes. Rethinking conservationists’ conceptions of biological invasion is essential to the development of a progressive environmental science, politics, and philosophy.” [6]

Us and Them
The biases Peretti refers to are remarkably selective.

Where’s the outcry against honeybees, for example, which originated in South and Southeast Asia? “In many places,” suggests Mark Sagoff, “one can hardly imagine the landscape without alien species.” [7]

“Virtually everything down on the farm is an exotic: of all crops, only sunflowers, cranberries, and Jerusalem artichokes evolved in North America. Corn, soybeans, wheat, and cotton have been imported from some other land. Cattle came from Europe. Rockfish—or striped bass as they are known outside Maryland—are native to the Bay but have been introduced up and down the Atlantic and Pacific coasts for sport and commercial fishing. More than 90 percent of all oysters sold in the world are produced by aquaculture, and almost the entire oyster industry on the West Coast is based on a species imported from Japan.” [7]

Our very identities can be wrapped up in what is, in fact, alien, notes Sagoff. “Kentucky identifies itself as the ‘Bluegrass State,’ but bluegrass immigrated from England.” [7]

And immigrants, Sagoff points out, are—broadly speaking—often unwelcome.

“…those who seek funds to exclude or eradicate non-native species often attribute to them the same disreputable qualities that xenophobes have attributed to immigrant groups. These undesirable characteristics include sexual robustness, uncontrolled fecundity, low parental involvement with the young, tolerance for ‘degraded’ or squalid conditions, aggressiveness, predatory behavior, and so on.” [7]

I don’t know if I’m willing to go that far—and yet the parallels are both undeniable and striking. (“Feral Cats and Their Management,” don’t forget, was still trying to sell the idea—debunked long ago—that “a pair of breeding cats and their offspring can produce over 400,000 cats in seven years” [8] as recently as late 2010)

“The exotic issue,” argues Tantillo, “raises the philosophical problem known as the ‘is-ought’ problem: form a descriptive statement of what is, it is logically invalid to conclude automatically from that fact to what ought to be the case without some type of intervening moral argument.” [4]

For many, what ought to be the case is the idyllic past—as exemplified in the Leopold Report, which lay out the vision for the country’s national parks:

“As a primary goal, we would recommend that the biotic associations within each park be maintained, or where necessary recreated, as nearly as possible in the condition that prevailed when the area was first visited by the white man. A national park should represent a vignette of primitive America.”

As Peretti points out, however, primitive America is not only irretrievable; it’s also a myth.

“It is assumed that Europeans found the Americas in a pristine, natural state. The goal of management is to protect and recreate native nature, before it was altered, invaded, and degraded by European culture and European biota. This perspective often relies on an idealised and patronising attitude toward Native Americans… Many anthropologists and archaeologists challenge the view that Native Americans lived in perfect harmony with nature. Rather, they assert that Native American hunters were responsible for the extinction of the bulk of the Pleistocene megafauna. By the time Europeans arrived, most of these native species had already gone extinct. [6]

Re-writing History?
So, what if cats were here long before Europeans arrived? What if the domestic cat has actually been—as these recent discoveries indicate—in North America for 4,000 or 5,000 years? Or 10,000 years?

This changes everything, doesn’t it?

Well, it might on any other day of the year. On April 1st, though, it changes nothing—because it’s simply an April Fools’ fabrication (though nearly all of the “supporting evidence” is, I hasten to point out, completely accurate).

Unfortunately, even if such news were true, it’s difficult to imagine it making the slightest difference to TNR opponents—for whom the whole non-native argument is neither biologically nor philosophically based. It’s simply a red herring.

Take that away from them, and they’ll just find something else.

Literature Cited
1. Tabor, R., Cats—The Rise of the Cat. 1991, London: BBC Books.

2. Driscoll, C.A., et al., The Taming of the Cat, in Scientific American. 2009. p. 68–75. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-taming-of-the-cat

3. Driscoll, C.A., et al., “The Near Eastern Origin of Cat Domestication.” Science. 2007. 317(5837): p. 519-523. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/317/5837/519.abstract

4. Tantillo, J.A., Killing Cats and Killing Birds: Philosophical issues pertaining to feral cats, in Consultations in Feline Internal Medicine Volume 5, J.R. August, Editor. 2006, Elsevier Saunders: St. Louis, MO. p. 701–708.

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

6. Peretti, J.H., “Nativism and Nature: Rethinking biological invasion.”Environmental Values. 1998. 7: p. 183–192. http://www.erica.demon.co.uk/EV/EV710.html

7. Sagoff, M., What’s Wrong with Exotic Species? 1999, Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy. https://scholar.vt.edu/access/content/user/hullrb/PUBLIC/sagoffexoticspecies.pdf

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

It’s Not the Media, It’s the Message

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it only gets worse from here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the other hand, Castillo and Clarke (whose paper Dauphine and Cooper cite) actually documented remarkably little predation among the TNR colonies they studied. In fact, over the course of approximately 300 hours of observation (this, in addition to “several months identifying, describing, and photographing each of the cats living in the colonies” [13] prior to beginning their research), Castillo and Clarke “saw cats kill a juvenile common yellowthroat and a blue jay. Cats also caught and ate green anoles, bark anoles, and brown anoles. In addition, we found the carcasses of a gray catbird and a juvenile opossum in the feeding area” [13].

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

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

Additional TNR success stories Dauphine and Cooper fail to acknowledge:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, unworkable, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much for leadership.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exceptional Predator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•     •     •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revisiting “Reassessment”

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

Image of "Reassessment" Document

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

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

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

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

Download PDF

Without Apologies

The conversation continues on Audubon magazine’s blog, The Perch, with Travis Longcore doing everything he can to dodge the straightforward question I posed: If TNR and the feeding of feral cats are outlawed, then what will become of the many, many cats no longer receiving human assistance?

Among the topics he prefers to discuss are—and I have to say, this one caught me by surprise—me. Especially my reference to him as a “great purveyor of misrepresentations and bias” on the Vox Felina Facebook page. OK, perhaps I could have worded that differently, but as I point out in my most recent reply (fourth comment, page 2), if he’s going to stand by his 2009 paper, then he really has earned the title.

In his reply to a post by Vox Felina reader Laurie G., of Stray Pet Advocacy, Longcore lays out a litany of complaints against me:

“Peter Wolf has been attacking scientists with demeaning generalizations and grossly inflammatory statements on his blog for months now. He can also be clever and I appreciate the exchange we’re having on this page, but he accuses scientists of being grossly in competent and corrupt on a regular basis (bordering on slander) so I’m not going to apologize for being critical of him. Given the level of rhetoric on his blog and his vox felina persona on FB directed at me, this [is] a comparatively civil discussion.”

I don’t know about “bordering on slander.” I try to keep my criticisms focused on specific aspects of specific studies, reports, reviews, etc. And I go out of my way not to make hasty generalizations. As for all the rest: guilty.

Meanwhile, over at The Wildlife Society blog, Making Tracks, my comment (asking Executive Director/CEO Michael Hutchins the same question I posed to Longcore) has yet to be approved despite repeated attempts on my end. Apparently, my last exchange with Hutchins was…. well, my last exchange.

Conversation Killer

Over the weekend, a comment (criticizing, once again, the recently released University of Nebraska-Lincoln “report”) I posted on Audubon magazine’s blog, The Perch, drew fire from Travis Longcore.

Longcore, of course, is the lead author of the widely circulated paper, “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” and Science Director for the Urban Wildlands Group, the lead plaintiff in the case that led to the TNR-related injunction in Los Angeles earlier this year (under which City-funded spay/neuter vouchers for feral cats and shelter-based TNR promotions have been halted; TNR, however, continues), a decision currently making its way through the appeal process (I heard just this afternoon that “Round 2” was decided in favor of the plaintiffs).

After a weekend of back-and-forth debate about the science surrounding the UNL report and, more broadly, feral cats and TNR, I posed the following question to Longcore:

You’ve been very straightforward about your desire to see TNR and the feeding of feral cats outlawed. 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?

Will it be like what was done on Marion Island, where—despite being only 115-square-miles in size, barren, and uninhabited—it took something like 16 years to eradicate 2,500 cats? Using disease (feline distemper), poisoning, intensive hunting and trapping, and—if I’m not mistaken—dogs.

And, while we’re at it, who will pay for this unprecedented nightmare?

These are not rhetorical questions. As I say, I’ve heard plenty of arguments against TNR over the past year or so. I’ve yet to hear a single counter-proposal. Not one.

Trap-and-remove? That’s not a proposal—that’s a bromide. I want to hear about how all this would play out. And this seems like an appropriate venue, given the original topic and your role in the L.A. injunction.

So, Travis, what would you do?

Two days later, no word from Longcore. a well-considered reply, but still no answer to the question posed.

Rap(tor) Sheet

Perhaps it’s an act of desperation, this “kitchen sink” approach favored by some free-roaming cat/TNR opponents. Throw everything—including the kitchen sink—into the anti-cat argument, and perhaps something will stick. Their impact on wildlife and the environment, for instance, or their threat to public safety—it seems there’s something for everybody. (Surely it’s only a matter of time before beach erosion, ozone depletion, and climate change are added to this growing rap sheet.)

But for those of us willing to sort through this quantity-over-quality smokescreen, such arguments rarely prove substantive.

I touched on this point in one of my first Vox Felina posts, referring to how the now-classic predation study conducted by William G. George has been misread, misinterpreted, and misrepresented. This work, perhaps more than any other, has been used to suggest an indirect impact of free-roaming cats on raptors.

George was very cautious about drawing such a connection, acutely aware of the speculative nature of his own work. In recent years, however, the details of George’s work—and his well-tempered conclusions—have given way to a kind of mythology, having been co-opted by scientists more interested in their own agendas than in rigorous scientific inquiry.

The Study
Over four years, from January 1, 1968 through December 31, 1971, George monitored and recorded with meticulous care the various small mammals his three cats killed on his “fallow farmland” property in rural Cobden, Illinois. “As predators on rodents,” writes George, “cats inevitably compete for prey with many of our declining raptors, and therein may lie a serious problem.” (emphasis mine) [1].

“I am not suggesting a cause-and-effect relationship exists between the historical increase of cats and the historical decrease of raptors; however, cats, which are as efficient in their way as guns and DDT, accompany and add another dimension to man’s encroachment into wildlife areas.” [1]

The trouble, of course, is that so many scientists citing George’s work have suggested exactly that.

The Myth
“Cat predation on mammals,” write Longcore et al., is “cause for concern because of direct impacts to native species and competition with native predators (George 1974).” [2] “Human-subsidized cats,” warn Guttilla and Stapp, “can spill over into less densely populated wildland areas where they reduce prey for native predators (George 1974).” [3]

Of course anybody who grew up, as I did, watching Wild Kingdom, knows that competition is a central theme of many stories played out in the natural world. But competition for prey is one thing; having an impact on the population of competitors is something else altogether.

Which is precisely what Loyd and DeVore—citing only George’s research—suggest: “Feral cats can also have a considerable impact on the broader health of ecosystems by outcompeting native predators (George 1974)…” [4]

Dauphiné and Cooper, too, interpret George’s work rather loosely, but also seem to offer additional evidence of the indirect impacts about which he speculated:

“In addition to having direct impacts on prey, cats compete with avian predators, such as American Kestrels (Falco sparverius), Northern Harriers (Circus cyaneus), and Redtailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) (George 1974, Mosher 1989, Lepczyk et al. 2004). George (1974) estimated that cats killed 5.5 million rodents and other vertebrates in a 26,000 square mile area in Illinois, effectively depleting the prey base for wintering raptors and other native predators.” [5]

What did Lepczyk add to the conversation? Nothing, actually; he merely cited George’s study:

“… cats may be directly competing with avian predators, such as American Kestrels (Falco sparverius), Northern Harriers (Circus cyaneus) and Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis; George, 1974).” [6]

And Mosher? This one’s far more interesting. According to Dauphiné and Cooper, Mosher’s research reveals some compelling evidence:

“In a study in Maryland of Cooper’s Hawks (Accipiter cooperii) that depended heavily on eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) to feed nestlings, Mosher (1989) found that these raptors altered their diet to prey more on songbirds in an area where chipmunks were eradicated by cats. The resulting increase in hunting time and difficulty for Cooper’s Hawks was associated with a decrease in nestling survival.” [5]

But Mosher’s paper includes no mention of cats at all. In fact, he suggests only “that reproductive performance, especially in studies encompassing relatively small areas, may reflect natural phenomena such as dependence on a particular prey species that undergoes population fluctuations.” [7] I found an earlier paper by Mosher, also mentioning chipmunks and Cooper’s Hawks [8]—but again, no mention of cats.

It’s possible this is an honest mistake, that Dauphiné and Cooper merely included the wrong reference. However, I was unable to find a hint of any such research in my (admittedly brief) online sleuthing. And, given the sloppiness and bias that permeates the rest of their paper, nothing these two might do would surprise me.

(If, as Dauphiné and Cooper suggest, the real problem is that raptors are preying on songbirds rather than chipmunks, then shouldn’t we be doing everything in our power to increase the chipmunk population? It’s an absurd suggestion, of course—but only slightly more so than many accepted wildlife “management” practices.)

Getting back to George’s research, the winner for most distorted version undoubtedly goes to David Jessup, who writes with a certitude generally reserved for politicians, marketers, and novelists. Gone is the trepidation George expressed—first, regarding the impact of cat predation on rodent and other prey populations; second, regarding the relationship between these populations and the raptors that feed on them. For Jessup, who offers no additional evidence, it’s all very straightforward:

“Feral cats also indirectly kill native predators by removing their food base.” [9]

Local/Regional Raptor Update
So, how have those raptors fared in the subsequent 40 years? Certainly there are factors other than cats that would likely contribute to their decline—habitat fragmentation and destruction, for instance. Such environmental impacts have the potential to affect the birds themselves, clearly, but also their prey.

Research into the population trends of Red-tailed Hawks, Northern Harriers, and American Kestrels—three raptors identified specifically by George—suggests that his concerns were largely unfounded.

BBS Routes and Data
Only one Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) route runs into Union County, Illinois, where George’s property was located. Unfortunately, count data for BBS Route 34080 go back only to 1993. However, data for neighboring routes are available from the time of George’s study through 2006. Surveys along two nearby routes in Illinois (34059 and 34061) began in 1970; surveys of two others, along the eastern edge of Missouri (52001 and 52007), date back to 1967.

Selected BBS Routes: Missouri and Illinois

No BBS count data from the routes in question are available for Northern Harriers, suggesting that perhaps this species was, for one reason or another, simply not included. Data sets for other birds—the Red-shouldered Hawk, for example—exist despite frequent counts of zero (in the case of the Red-shouldered Hawk, just one bird was recorded along Routes 52001 from 1967 through 2006).

BBS data for Red-tailed Hawks indicate a rather dramatic population increase for the two southwestern Illinois routes, and slight increases for the same period across the two eastern Missouri routes, as indicated in the following graphs.

Red-tailed Hawks Four BBS RoutesBBS Data: Red-tailed Hawks for two Illinois and two Missouri routes (adapted from North American Breeding Bird Survey website)

Populations of American Kestrels (along the same routes and for the same period) remained mostly stable.

American Kestrels Four BBS RoutesBBS Data: American Kestrels for two Illinois and two Missouri routes (adapted from North American Breeding Bird Survey website)

The bottom line? If the area’s cats are out-competing the raptors for prey, there’s no evidence in the BBS count data.

Prairie Voles
Of particular interest to George were prairie voles, which made up “more than 41 percent of all captured vertebrates and 45 percent of the captured mammals.” [1] And whose reduced numbers, suggested George, “could well pose the principal threat to the success of wintering hawks in my area of study.” [1] But maybe the voles weren’t as important as George surmised.

In Minnesota, the declining population of prairie voles—significant enough to warrant “special concern species” status beginning in 1984—seems to have had no effect on the populations of Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, and American Kestrels. Indeed, BBS data indicate that these raptors’ numbers have fluctuated little over the past 40 years or so. (And, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the reason for the state’s declining vole numbers has nothing to do with cats, but “is due almost exclusively to the destruction of its prairie habitat through plowing and over-grazing.”)

BBS Data: Three Raptors across MinnesotaBBS Data: Three raptor species across Minnesota (adapted from North American Breeding Bird Survey website)

Raptors Across the Country
Of course, isolating the relationship between the population of a predator and that of its preferred prey species is incredibly difficult; there are simply too many additional—often interdependent—factors that must be considered. Zooming out for a big-picture view of population dynamics across the U.S. only blurs such relationships, thereby complicating any subsequent analysis.

Nevertheless, I think it’s worth a look. George claimed (unfortunately, without referring to a specific source, and without specifying whether he was referring only to owned/pet cats) that there were 31 million cats in the U.S. at the time of his study. [1] Today, according to the American Pet Products Association’s 2009–2010 National Pet Owners Survey, there are 93.6 million.

Direct comparisons over this 40-year time frame are difficult for a number of reasons (e.g., lack of reliable data, the increasing proportion of indoor-only cats in recent years, etc.). But if, as some suggest, cats are having an negative impact on raptor populations—and there are now three times as many of them (not accounting for feral cats, whose numbers have also likely increased)—well, one might expect find these birds in dire straights by now.

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary
To see for myself, I turned to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s Conservation Status Reports. Located in east-central Pennsylvania, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is, according to its website, “the world’s first refuge for birds of prey.”

The outlook for the Northern Harrier and Red-tailed Hawk is mostly good. “The Northern Harrier is considered secure in most of North America,” notes its 2007 conservation report, “but it is a species of concern regionally in many of the [Bird Conservation Regions] west of the Mississippi River.”

The Red-tailed Hawk, too, “is considered secure throughout most of its range in North America.

“Migration counts have declined in eastern North America since 1995, but concurrent increases in [Breeding Bird Surveys] and [Christmas Bird Counts] suggest that these migration trends may be the result of changes in migration geography or behavior. Elsewhere in North America, population monitoring generally indicates increasing or stable populations of this common raptor.”

American Kestrels, on the other hand, seem to be in trouble: “Overall, the data suggest substantial declines in populations… across much of North America, and consequently strong cause for conservation concern.” The factors affecting these declines are unknown and, the report notes, “warrant further investigation.” However, some patterns have been observed—“factors exerting negative influences on populations are strongest along the Atlantic coast,” for example. Also: “More recent declines in western North America… appear to have occurred in concert with a prolonged drought.”

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website paints a rather different picture, noting that the population of American Kestrels “increased greatly with historical deforestation of North America. No significant trend across North America, but some local increases and decreases.”

*     *     *

All of which adds up to… what? Like the BBS data, the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Conservation Status Reports reveal population trends perhaps best described as “mixed.” Nowhere is there any indication that declining raptor numbers can be linked to the success of competing predators—including cats.

For George, the idea was nothing more than a hypothesis anyhow. But rather than put it to the test (ostensibly the role of scientists), Longcore, Dauphiné, Jessup, and the rest, have instead tried to elevate its status through nothing more than repetition—thereby betraying an agenda that has little to do with science at all.

Literature Cited
1. George, W., “Domestic cats as predators and factors in winter shortages of raptor prey.” The Wilson Bulletin. 1974. 86(4): p. 384–396. elibrary.unm.edu/sora/Wilson/v086n04/p0384-p0396.pdf

2. Longcore, T., Rich, C., and Sullivan, L.M., “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap–Neuter–Return.” Conservation Biology. 2009. 23(4): p. 887–894.

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

4. Loyd, K.A.T. and DeVore, J.L., “An Evaluation of Feral Cat Management Options Using a Decision Analysis Network.” Ecology and Society. 2010. 15(4). http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol15/iss4/art10/

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

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

7. Mosher, J.A., Accipiters, in Northeast Raptor Management Symposium and Workshop, B.A.G. Pendleton, Editor. 1989, National Wildlife Federation Scientific and Technical Series No. 13.: Syracuse, NY. p. 47–52.

8. Mosher, J.A., “Breeding Biology of Raptors in the Central Appalachians.” Raptor Research. 1982. 16(1): p. 18–24.

9. Jessup, D.A., “The welfare of feral cats and wildlife.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1377-1383. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2004.225.1377

Garden Tool

The timing was uncanny. Four days after my post “Inside Job,” Washington Post columnist Adrian Higgins reported incorrectly that two-thirds of pet cats are allowed outdoors. Higgins doesn’t mention where he got that figure, but considering the sources he used for the piece—including the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), The Wildlife Society, and Dauphiné and Cooper’s 2009 Partners in Flight paper—it’s not hard to sort out.

Ditto for his matter-of-fact assertion that “the cumulative effect on birds is significant, according to experts.” Higgins relies on Dauphiné and Cooper for estimates of both the number of “stray and out-and-out feral cats” (“there may be as many as 100 million such cats in the country”) and birds killed by free-roaming cats (“at least one billion birds are killed by cats annually, ‘and the actual number is probably much higher.’”). [1]

Higgins’ column appeared exactly one week after the release of Charles Seife’s book Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception. Proofiness, writes Seife, is “the art of using bogus mathematical arguments to prove something that you know in your heart is true—even when it’s not.” [2]

Many—perhaps most—of the scientific claims made by opponents of free-roaming cats/TNR are textbook cases of proofiness. Nevertheless, they are often accepted at face value by the media, which—simply by passing them along for public consumption—gives these assertions unwarranted credibility.

Pete Marra
The central character in Higgins’ story is Pete Marra, a fellow gardener and a research associate at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Marra’s name rang a bell.

Sure enough, this is the same Peter P. Marra who, along with nine others (including Dauphiné and Cooper), authored a comment in Conservation Biology earlier this year, entitled “What Conservation Biologists Can Do to Counter Trap-Neuter-Return: Response to Longcore et al.” (the publication of which prompted a series of Vox Felina posts, beginning with this one).

What Marra and his co-authors penned is an unapologetic call to action:

Proponents of TNR are well organized and push for TNR-friendly policies in communities and shelters around the United States, often with little opposition from the conservation biology and wildlife ecology communities… Regardless of why the scientific and management communities have remained relatively silent, it is imperative that we now begin speaking out. [2]

As I have argued, the silence that so frustrates Marra and the others may simply reflect the fact that so much of the work he and his colleagues defend is largely indefensible. Indeed, “What Conservation Biologists Can Do” is, in its own way, representative. Consider the authors’ comparison of TNR with hoarding:

The animal welfare community opposes “cat hoarding,” whereby people care for more pets than they can adequately support, because it is considered inhumane. Trap-neuter-return is essentially cat hoarding without walls. Considering that most communities have laws banning animal hoarding, we should consider the same standard for outdoor cats as those that are in a person’s home. [3]

But their interest in using the law to put a stop to TNR doesn’t end there. Marra and his colleagues continue:

…it may become incumbent upon us to take legal action against colonies and colony managers, particularly in areas that provide habitat for migratory birds or endangered species. [3]

The authors quote a 2003 article written by Linda Winter, the former director of the ABC’s Cats Indoors! campaign, for the Hawaii Audubon Society newsletter:

“…releasing cats into the wild and supporting feral cat colonies is a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act, as well as laws prohibiting animal abandonment.” (her emphasis, not mine) [4]

As a frequent critic of Winter’s writing, I was eager to read the newsletter (which can be downloaded here). It turns out Winter was referring to a 2003 report submitted by Pamela Jo Hatley—then a student in the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law and part of its University of Florida Conservation Clinic—to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Winter—and by extension, Marra and his colleagues—are unambiguous on this point: TNR is a clear violation of both the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act. But, of course, law students don’t make legal decisions; that’s what we have courts for (which might explain why, years later, Travis Longcore and his Urban Wildlands Group took a rather different approach in their TNR-related lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles).

But back to Hatley—there’s another familiar name. In fact, I’d seen it right beside Marra’s earlier this year. See, Pamela Jo Hatley is one of the 10 co-authors of “What Conservation Biologists Can Do.”

So why didn’t the authors just cite Hatley’s work directly, rather than turning to Winter’s version of it? Simply put, Winter’s version is a better story—short and sweet, and brimming with certitude.

But if Marra and the others—Hatley included—wanted to distance themselves from the original, it’s understandable. Though her legal arguments are somewhat compelling, Hatley’s report is a minefield of misrepresentations, flawed estimates, and unsubstantiated claims where the science is concerned (e.g., extrapolating the Wisconsin Study to Florida, and then suggesting that “the actual number [of birds killed by cats in the state] may be much higher” [5]). In other words, more proofiness.

Its title, Feral Cat Colonies in Florida: The Fur and the Feathers Are Flying, is a good indication of how seriously the report—ostensibly a formal document submitted to a federal agency—should be taken.

Getting Dirty
To read Higgins’ column in the Post, one gets the idea that he and Marra are merely fellow gardeners, perhaps having bumped into each other at the local nursery or hardware store. And that’s where the story began. It could be.

But there’s a sentence in “What Conservation Biologists Can Do” that’s been bothering me ever since I read Higgins’ piece:

Conservation biologists have just as much opportunity to make their points at local meetings, through the news media, and at outreach events as do TNR proponents. (emphasis mine) [2]

I have no idea whether Higgins and Marra knew each other before Higgins began work on his column, or how Higgins feels about cats. And I’m not one to go in for conspiracy theories, either.

What I am sure of is that Higgins—as a journalist—should have done his homework. He did not. (To be fair, Higgins did speak with Alley Cat Allies; but “equal time” is a poor substitute for accuracy.) And the consequences of his carelessly scattering a few figures around a column devoted to gardening are considerable: the seeds of proofiness!

Maybe readers don’t expect Higgins to know (or care, even) how many free-roaming cats there are in the U.S. Or how much time pet cats spend outdoors. Still, though, Higgins is an avid gardener—he, of all people, should be able to recognize bullshit.

*     *     *

SPECIAL THANKS to Louise Holton, founder of Alley Cat Rescue, who brought the Washington Post article (along with countless other news items over the past few months!) to my attention. She and Maggie Funkhouser, ACR’s Director of Communications and Public Relations, have become invaluable resources.

Literature Cited
1. Higgins, A., Bird lovers see roaming cats as a major threat to many species, in The Washington Post. 2010: Washington, DC. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/28/AR2010092803999.html

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

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. Winter, L., “Popoki and Hawai’i’s Native Birds.” ‘Elepaio: Journal of the Hawaii Audubon Society. 2003. 63(6).

5. Hatley, P.J., Feral Cat Colonies in Florida: The Fur and the Feathers Are Flying. 2003, University of Florida Conservation Clinic: Gainsville, FL.

Red Herrings, White Lies, and Blue Birds

A pair of Eastern Bluebirds in Michigan, USA. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons and Sandysphotos2009

As I sift through my growing collection of studies, news stories, press releases, and anything else relevant to the free-roaming cats/TNR debate, it’s not unusual for me to be diverted by a seemingly minor item—a claim, interpretation, or reference that simply doesn’t sit right with me. (The subsequent investigation of which helps explains the almost alarming rate at which the collection continues to grow.) Sometimes these diversions snowball, taking on a momentum all their own and, ultimately, evolve into their own blog post(s). Others remain largely in the background—overshadowed by more pressing issues—but are too compelling to be ignored for long.

This was the case with some comments Lepczyk et al. made about “two species of conservation concern” in their 2003 paper “Landowners and Cat Predation Across Rural-to-Urban Landscapes,” [1] which I discussed some time ago. The study, in which surveys were distributed across three southeastern Michigan landscapes (rural, suburban, and urban) corresponding to established breeding bird survey (BBS) routes, asked respondents to recall the number of birds their cat(s) brought home April through August 2000. Among the authors’ conclusions:

“The fact that both Eastern Bluebirds and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds were listed [among those killed by cats] indicates that some species of concern are being captured.” [1]

Eastern Bluebirds
Of the 137 birds (representing an estimated 23 species) identified by landowners (approximately one-third were not identified), six (4.4%) were Eastern Bluebirds. What piqued my curiosity was not the tally itself, but the authors’ subsequent comment that “the location of the three landscapes represents an area of Michigan where the species is rarest and not always identified on bird atlas survey routes.” [1]

Wait a minute. The people conducting bird counts along these routes rarely, if ever, locate Eastern Bluebirds—but the cats that live nearby managed to find at least six of them over the course of just five months? Where Lepczyk et al. see reason for concern, I see reason for (cautious) optimism: There are, as the cats demonstrated, more Eastern Bluebirds than we thought!

Just to be clear: I don’t mean to dismiss conservation concerns for uncommon or rare species. Nor am I criticizing the efforts of the many dedicated professionals and volunteers responsible for bird counts. But in trying to reconcile these seemingly contradictory findings, one can’t help but wonder: How many birds are there, really?

To find out, I began by consulting The Atlas of Breeding Birds of Michigan, the very source Lepczyk et al. cite, where, sure enough, a map indicates that no more than two Eastern Bluebirds are typically found along survey routes in the southeastern part of the state. Indeed, even in the most abundant parts of Michigan, no more than four of this species are reported. [2] But this atlas was published in 1991, more than 10 years prior to Lepczyk’s dissertation research.

To look at more recent data—and long-term trends—I referred to the website for the North American Breeding Bird Survey, where the survey is explained this way:

“The BBS is a large-scale survey of North American birds. It is a roadside survey, primarily covering the continental United States and southern Canada, although survey routes have recently been initiated in Alaska and northern Mexico. The BBS was started in 1966, and the over 3,500 routes are surveyed in June by experienced birders.”

The BBS site allows visitors to investigate trends (spanning roughly 40 years) by species, region, and survey route. What I found for Eastern Bluebirds along the three routes employed by Lepczyk et al. (49053, 49167, and 49168) was rather surprising. In all three cases, the abundance of Eastern Bluebirds trends upward—in some cases dramatically.

Eastern Bluebird BBS Data
BBS Data: Eastern Bluebirds for Three Michigan Routes (adapted from North American Breeding Bird Survey website)

Route 49053 is of particular interest for a couple reasons. First of all, it is the only one of the three for which data going back to the BBS’s inception is available, allowing the best long-term perspective. Secondly, the increase in Eastern Bluebird abundance corresponds almost perfectly to publication of The Atlas of Breeding Birds of Michigan. Between 1991 and 2000 (the year Lepczyk was conducting his research), the picture changed considerably.

The other two routes—to a lesser degree, certainly—also exhibit notable increases. Why Lepczyk referred to the Atlas rather than to this more recent data is unclear.

Bird Counts
It’s important to recognize that bird counts are not intended to quantify, in any absolute sense, the number of birds in a particular area, a point made clear on the BBS website:

“The survey produces an index of relative abundance rather than a complete count of breeding bird populations.”

In addition, the use of roadside surveys has been criticized for its potential biases. Roadside habitats may not reflect—and/or may change at rates different from—an area’s overall habitat, for example. [3] Also, a number of factors affect an observer’s ability to detect or identify a particular species. Some—sight, hearing, and training, and even clothing color, for example—are associated with the surveyors, while others (e.g., plumage, body size, coloration, and density) have to do with the birds being surveyed. [4] Rosenstock et al. suggest that such impediments raise serious questions about index counts in general:

“Measures of relative abundance derived from index counts… represent an uncertain, confounded combination of detectability and density. Given these weaknesses, index counts should not be expected to provide reliable information or a valid basis for inference.” [4]

All of which makes weighing the six Eastern Bluebirds in Lepczyk’s study against those detected along the survey routes a dodgy proposition. (Dodgier still is the more expansive claim made by Longcore et al. that Lepczyk’s work is “evidence indicat[ing] that cats can play an important role in fluctuations of bird populations.” [5])

House Sparrows
To reiterate, I’m not discounting conservation concerns for rare or protected species (the Eastern Bluebird, it should be noted—and Lepczyk et al. acknowledge—is neither “extremely rare” nor a “species of state or national concern.” [1]) I’m merely pointing out some of the complexities involved in trying to connect predation levels of one species to population levels of another.

Which brings me back to The Atlas of Breeding Birds of Michigan, where I discovered an interesting twist in this story. The Eastern Bluebird, it seems, probably peaked in Michigan during the late 1800s.

“A gradual decline occurred in the early 1900s as the House Sparrow advanced, and favorite nesting places such as wooden fenceposts and old apple orchards were eliminated.” [2]

As it turns out, House Sparrows were at the top of the list in Lepczyk’s study, making up 38% of the identified species of birds taken by cats.

“Although the species group of Sparrows could not be broken down into species, it is very likely that the dominant species observed was the House Sparrow (Passer domesitcus). Sparrows were also the most commonly observed depredated species found in England and Australia [6, 7].” [1]

While I’m not prepared to suggest that the cats’ heavy predation of House Sparrows is responsible for the increasing numbers of Eastern Bluebirds, perhaps it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Similar assertions have been made regarding the role of cats in the larger ecosystem (though such claims are rarely in defense of the cats).

Nature’s interconnectedness rarely makes for punchy sound bites or bumper sticker aphorisms. Then, too, such complex relationships are often overlooked, ignored, or dismissed simply because they don’t fit cleanly into one’s argument.

Literature Cited
1. Lepczyk, C.A., Mertig, A.G., and Liu, J., “Landowners and cat predation across rural-to-urban landscapes.” Biological Conservation. 2003. 115(2): p. 191-201.

2. Brewer, R., McPeek, G.A., and Adams, R.J., The atlas of breeding birds of Michigan. 1991, East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.

3. Keller, C.M.E. and Scallan, J.T., “Potential Roadside Biases Due to Habitat Changes along Breeding Bird Survey Routes.” The Condor. 1999. 101(1): p. 50-57.

4. Rosenstock, S.S., et al., “Landbird Counting Techniques: Current Practices and an Alternative.” The Auk. 2002. 119(1): p. 46-53.

5. Longcore, T., Rich, C., and Sullivan, L.M., “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap–Neuter–Return.” Conservation Biology. 2009. 23(4): p. 887–894.

6. Churcher, P.B. and Lawton, J.H., “Predation by domestic cats in an English village.” Journal of Zoology. 1987. 212(3): p. 439-455.

7. Barratt, D.G., “Predation by House Cats, Felis catus (L.), in Canberra, Australia. I. Prey Composition and Preference.” Wildlife Research. 1997. 24(3): p. 263–277.

Parasite Lost

Until now, my posts have focused almost exclusively on wildlife impacts (real and otherwise) related to predation by cats, a topic I’ll be returning to soon enough. Over the past week or so, however, I’ve been researching the Toxoplasma gondii parasite (another subject that will keep me busy well into the future). As it turns out, there’s big news on the T. gondii front—though in this case, the “news” is actually two years old.

Toxoplasma gondii
Toxoplasma gondii
is found in many mammals and birds, but its definitive host—the animal in which the parasite reproduces—is the cat, both domestic and wild species. Cats pass the mature, infective form of the parasite in their feces—a process called “shedding oocysts.” T. gondii infection, or toxoplasmosis, in humans can be traced to “ingestion of oocyst-contaminated soil and water, from tissue cysts in undercooked meat, by transplantation, blood transfusion, laboratory accidents, or congenitally.” [1]

How often cats shed oocysts, and to what extent, is a complex issue—one I’ll save for later. For now, I will simply note that, in general, it is thought that most cats build up immunity to re-shedding oocysts (though exceptions have been documented in laboratory testing). [2] (For a concise overview of T. gondii’s prevalence in, and risks to, humans, download Toxoplasma gondii: Epidemiology, feline clinical aspects, and prevention.”)

T. Gondii, Cats, and Sea Otters
In recent years, T. gondii has been linked to the illness and death of marine life, primarily sea otters [2], thereby prompting investigation into the possible role of free-roaming (both owned and feral) cats. [3, 4] It’s generally thought that oocysts are transferred from soil contaminated with infected feces to coastal waterways by way of freshwater run-off. [4] And it’s also generally thought that domestic cats are the culprits—or at least it was.

As I was sifting through my growing pile of T. gondii studies, I was rather shocked to find this:

“Three of the Type X-infected carnivores were wild felids (two mountain lions and a bobcat), but no domestic cats were Type X-positive. Examination of larger samples of wild and domestic felids will help clarify these initial findings. If Type X strains are detected more commonly from wild felids in subsequent studies, this could suggest that these animals are more important land-based sources of T. gondii for marine wildlife than are domestic cats.” [4] (italics mine)

Let me explain. There are multiple strains of T. Gondii. Studies of southern sea otters from coastal California found that 36 of 50 otters were infected with the Type X strain. [5] In other words, 72% of the otters were infected with a strain of T. gondii that has yet to be traced to domestic cats.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that these results are to be treated with caution—as Miller et al. note, “subsequent studies” are in order. For one thing, their sample size was quite small: three bobcats, 26 mountain lions, and seven domestic cats (although the authors suggest at one point that only five domestic cats were included). In addition, this area of research is quite active—and, as this study illustrates, the results can be surprising. Future research intended to confirm or refute this work could just as easily take us off in another direction altogether.

That said, this is still big news. Nearly two years old now, however, it’s not exactly breaking news. So why is this the first I’ve heard about these important findings?

What’s the Story?
For some reason, Miller et al. downplay their findings. Worse, they confuse matters by going into detail about the estimated mass of “feline fecal deposition” created by domestic cats in the communities adjacent to their study site. Suddenly, the focus is back on domestic cats. Given the authors’ findings, I’m not sure how this is relevant, other than as background—previous assumptions being called into question by their results. Perhaps it’s merely the inevitable result of 14 co-authors (one of whom, it should be noted, is David Jessup, of whose work I have been critical in the past) collaborating on a single paper.

But I’m unwilling to give Longcore et al. the same benefit of the doubt. In their essay, Longcore et al. [6] dissemble to such an extent that readers are likely to come away missing the point entirely:

“The large quantity of waste from feral and free-roaming cats containing Toxoplasma oocysts [3, 7] and the correlation between freshwater runoff and toxoplasmosis in marine mammals [8] has led researchers to suspect domestic cats as the source of the infections, although further research is needed to determine the relative importance of native versus exotic felids as sources of this parasite [4].”

While technically correct, Longcore et al. gloss over the fact that, based on the very study they cite, “the relative importance of native versus exotic felids as sources of this parasite” might be something like three-to-one.

And it’s not as if these authors are unwilling to consider speculative findings—such as those by Baker et al. [9] and Hawkins [10]. Longcore et al. even take seriously the Wisconsin Study [11] and its findings that “aren’t actual data.” [12] And they leave out plenty, too—which in the case of the Miller et al. work, might have been a more honorable approach.

Something else they should have omitted:

“Felids, including feral and free-roaming cats, shed Toxoplasma oocysts that infect southern sea otters [8, 5], Pacific harbor seals, and California sea lions.” [6]

In fact, Conrad et al. examined just one harbor seal and one sea lion—and in both cases found the Type X strain of T. gondii. [5] Which, when combined with the results from Miller et al., suggests wild felids as the more likely source, rather than domestic cats.

These two studies not only contradict the specific claims made by Longcore et al., they also challenge the native-good/non-native-bad dichotomy that seems to be at the root of so many feral cat/TNR complaints.

*     *     *

I sent an e-mail to Melissa Miller, lead author of “Type X Toxoplasma gondii in a wild mussel and terrestrial carnivores from coastal California: New linkages between terrestrial mammals, runoff and toxoplasmosis of sea otters,” asking her to comment on my reading of the study. I have not yet received a response.

Literature Cited
1. Elmore, S.A., et al., “Toxoplasma gondii: epidemiology, feline clinical aspects, and prevention.” Trends in Parasitology. 26(4): p. 190-196.

2. Jones, J.L. and Dubey, J.P., “Waterborne toxoplasmosis—Recent developments.” Experimental Parasitology. 124(1): p. 10-25.

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

4. Miller, M.A., et al., “Type X Toxoplasma gondii in a wild mussel and terrestrial carnivores from coastal California: New linkages between terrestrial mammals, runoff and toxoplasmosis of sea otters.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2008. 38(11): p. 1319-1328.

5. Conrad, P.A., et al., “Transmission of Toxoplasma: Clues from the study of sea otters as sentinels of Toxoplasma gondii flow into the marine environment.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2005. 35(11-12): p. 1155-1168.

6. Longcore, T., Rich, C., and Sullivan, L.M., “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap–Neuter–Return.” Conservation Biology. 2009. 23(4): p. 887–894.

7. Dabritz, H.A., et al., “Detection of Toxoplasma gondii-like oocysts in cat feces and estimates of the environmental oocyst burden.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2007. 231(11): p. 1676-1684.

8. Miller, M.A., et al., “Coastal freshwater runoff is a risk factor for Toxoplasma gondii infection of southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis).” International Journal for Parasitology. 2002. 32(8): p. 997-1006.

9. Baker, P.J., et al., “Impact of predation by domestic cats Felis catus in an urban area.” Mammal Review. 2005. 35(3/4): p. 302-312.

10. 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

11. Coleman, J.S. and Temple, S.A., On the Prowl, in Wisconsin Natural Resources. 1996, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: Madison, WI. p. 4–8. http://dnr.wi.gov/wnrmag/html/stories/1996/dec96/cats.htm

12. Elliott, J., The Accused, in The Sonoma County Independent. 1994. p. 1, 10.

Science Meets Fiction

Unhinged (book cover)

“The reason that we have a peer review process is to assess the quality and likely validity of scientific data and their interpretation… One goal of the peer review process is to assess an author’s command of the existing literature and whether or not it is being cited selectively to support the author’s views, without critical evaluation of contradictory evidence.” —Michael Hutchins, CEO and Executive Director of The Wildlife Society, May 3rd blog post.

Just a week after my previous post—in which I pointed out some high-profile failures of the peer-review process Hutchins defends—I caught this related interview on NPR’s Fresh Air.

In his book Unhinged: The Trouble with Psychiatry—A Doctor’s Revelations about a Profession in Crisis, Dr. Daniel Carlat reveals that about half the articles written about the antidepressant Zoloft where, at one time, actually ghostwritten by non-physicians working for a marketing firm, and funded by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer (the maker of Zoloft). Prominent psychiatrists were then paid to put their names on the bogus work.

Where was the peer-review process—designed to protect against such practices—in all of this? Once again, it seems, the system failed miserably. According to Carlat:

“…these were in journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, the American Journal of Psychiatry, etc. So essentially all the top journals that doctors read were publishing unbeknownst, I’m sure, to the journal editors—ghostwritten articles written by an advertising firm, essentially pushing the benefits of Zoloft, and they were being paid to do this by Pfizer.”

The fact that a major drug manufacturer would attempt such a thing is—sadly—not entirely surprising. The fact that these articles were actually published in a number of prestigious journals, though—that is a surprise.

And it highlights a key point I’ve made numerous times already: publication in well-regarded journals is a guarantee of neither the work’s validity nor the authors’ integrity.

Still, the most unsettling part of the story is its epilogue. A recent study cited by Carlat indicates that 10–20% of articles in such journals are still being ghostwritten. And, although the incident prompted some new policies concerning disclosure, there seems to be no accountability for the people responsible. “You would think that there would be repercussions,” Carlat told Fresh Air guest host Dave Davies. “However, there have not been any such repercussions.”

This, too, sounds familiar. Rather than address the misrepresentations, errors, and biases I pointed out in the Longcore paper, for example, Conservation Biology chose to publish more of the same.

Clearly, the “independent peer-review process” Hutchins refers to in his post is the ideal. Its real-world manifestation, however, varies considerably. Too often, it seems, the emphasis is on peers, at the expense of independence and review.

Out-Sciencing the Scientists

Although it’s taken me two months to respond, it took less than two weeks for Vox Felina to come under attack by feral cat/TNR opponent Michael Hutchins, CEO and Executive Director of The Wildlife Society. In his post, Hutchins accuses me of trying to “out-science the scientists,” and refers to my critique of the essay “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” as “a flawed analysis, which could have been written by a high school biology student, and not a very good one at that.”

Hutchins goes on to write:

“Unless the author, who is obviously not a trained scientist himself, can publish a strong and verifiable critique of the Longcore et al. paper in the peer-reviewed wildlife biology/ecology literature, all of his arguments must be taken with a gigantic grain of salt.”

In the weeks since Hutchins’ post, I’ve gone to some length to point out some of the more blatant instances of errors, misrepresentations, and bias in the wildlife biology/ecology literature he defends. As this seven-part series, called “The Work Speaks,” (beginning with this post) makes clear, Hutchins’ had better have plenty more salt on hand as he reviews the work of his colleagues.

In the interest of transparency, then, here is my response—as an open letter—to Hutchins’ May 3rd post:

Dear Michael,

Let me begin by introducing myself. My name is Peter J. Wolf, and I’m the writer behind the Vox Felina blog. I’d like to address some of the points you made in your May 3rd critique of my work. (In the interest of transparency, this letter will be posted in its entirety on my blog.)

By way of clarification, you referred to me in your post as “the author, who is obviously not a trained scientist himself.” In fact, my training is in mechanical engineering and qualitative research methods. That said, does it require a trained scientist to point out the numerous flaws in the anti-feral cat/TNR literature—to, if I might borrow from the title of your post, out-science the scientists? I don’t think so. Indeed, some of your colleagues—including those you defend—have set an astonishingly low bar. Consider, for example, some of the issues I’ve addressed in my recent posts:

  • When did it become acceptable to cite work one hasn’t actually read? As I pointed out in “Lost in Translation,” this seems to be surprisingly common. Nico Dauphiné and Robert Cooper, for example, are just the latest to get William George’s classic 1974 study [1] wrong. George never “found that only about half of animals killed by cats were provided to their owners,” [2] as these two authors suggest. This is an error—and an all-too-tempting-shortcut to the doubling of predation rates—that, as Fitzgerald noted 10 years ago, “has been reported widely, though it is unfounded.” [3] (Of course, if Dauphiné and Cooper aren’t reading George’s work—which they cite—I don’t imagine they’d bother with Fitzgerald’s—which they don’t even mention.)
  • Are scientists no longer expected to recognize and deal appropriately with non-normal data sets, such as the positively skewed distributions that describe prey catches, cat ownership, time spent outdoors by pet cats, and more? As I describe in “Mean Spirited,” this seems to be the exception, not the rule. Using simple averages overestimates the factor in question, and in turn, the impact of free-roaming cats on wildlife. Such errors increase rapidly when one is multiplied by another, as Christopher Lepczyk demonstrated in his PhD work. [4]
  • While we’re on the subject of statistics, what about appropriate sample sizes? This was the focus of my 27-May post, “Sample-Minded Research.” Among the examples I discussed was Kays and DeWan’s misguided conclusion that the actual “kill rate” of pet cats allowed access to the outdoors is “3.3 times greater than the rate estimated from prey brought home.” [5] This “correction” factor has been used by many [2, 6–8] as another easy multiplier, despite the fact that it’s based on the behavior of just 24 cats—12 that returned prey home, and another 12 that were observed hunting for a total of 181 hours.Even setting aside the size of the samples, their dissimilarities are striking: the cat observed the most (46.5 hours) was only a year old—the youngest of the 12 observed, and therefore likely to be the most active hunter. In addition, larger, more comparable samples would probably have revealed a profile of time spent outdoors more similar to those found in other studies [9] and [10] (thereby reducing the magnitude of Kays and DeWan’s error).
  • And finally, there’s the issue of how some of these studies are designed. Take Cole Hawkins’ PhD work, for example. Hawkins compares rodent and bird numbers between two areas, and draws conclusions—infers important causal relationships—without (1) taking into account various factors (e.g., the many differences between the two study areas) that likely affected the differences he observed, and (2) any evidence of what “pre-treatment” conditions were like. Although he concludes, “the differences observed in this study were the results of the cat’s predatory behavior,” [11] he offers no explanation for the numerous exceptions—for example, the five (of nine) species of ground-feeding birds that showed no preference for the “no-cat area” over the area with cats. Lepcyzk, too, started off his PhD work on shaky ground, asking owners of cats to recall the number and species of birds killed or injured by their cats over the previous six-month period. Five years earlier, David Barratt demonstrated that such guesswork tends to overestimate predation rates—perhaps by a factor of two or more. [12]

In your post, you write:

“One goal of the peer review process is to assess an author’s command of the existing literature and whether or not it is being cited selectively to support the author’s views, without critical evaluation of contradictory evidence.”

But the essay you defend is plagued by such “selective support.” For example, Longcore et al. trot out figures from the long-discredited (and non-peer-reviewed, by the way) Wisconsin Study. In 1994, co-author Stanley Temple told the press that their estimates “aren’t actual data; that was just our projection to show how bad it might be.” [13] But 16 years later, Longcore et al. seem to be suggesting otherwise—that these figures are actual data. By publishing these deeply flawed estimates, the authors—and, by extension, Conservation Biology—give them undeserved credibility.

Longcore et al. also give too much weight to the claim made by Baker et al. that cat predation may produce a habitat sink, [6] ignoring strong evidence that the predation observed was compensatory rather than additive [7, 14] (as well as the significant flaws in their estimates of predation rates/levels). In this case, the contradictory evidence you refer to was provided by the authors of the original study, and still, Longcore et al. fail to acknowledge it—never mind offer any critical evaluation. Indeed, they fail to acknowledge any distinction between the two types of predation—a critical point in the discussion of cat predation and its impact on wildlife.

And what about the authors’ reference to the 2003 paper by Lepczyk et al. as evidence that “cats can play an important role in fluctuations of bird populations”? [15] One might get that impression from the paper’s abstract. However, the study’s focus was—as Lepczyk et al. note themselves—on cat predation, not bird populations:

“Although our research highlights a number of important findings regarding outdoor cats, there remains many aspects that are in need of further research… conservation biologists lack data on how specific levels of cat predation depress wildlife populations and if there are thresholds at which cat densities become a biologically significant source of mortality.” [4]

Somehow, all of this (and much more) survived the peer-review process you so revere—a system whose failures have been made quite public over the past eight months or so, first, when climate scientists’ e-mail messages were hacked at a British university, and later, when the Lancet retracted a 1998 paper incorrectly linking vaccinations to autism in children.

Obviously, these are spectacular cases. But if such high-profile work can be published and circulated widely, then how much easier is it for other papers—facing far less scrutiny—to do so as well?

Scientific Publications and the Peer-Review Process
I find your criticism ironic—even hypocritical—in light of the Scientific Societies’ Statement on the Endangered Species Act you co-authored in 2006. There, you acknowledged the value of the peer-review process, but also cautioned that “proposed limitations on the use of non-peer-reviewed technical reports and other studies will weaken, not strengthen, the science employed in endangered species decisions by limiting the data available to scientists and decision-makers.” Can we not make a similar argument for critiques and reviews such as those I’ve carefully composed and compiled via Vox Felina?

It’s curious that neither you nor the editors at Conservation Biology actually dispute any of the claims I’ve made regarding the flaws in “Critical Assessment.” Instead, you call my work “vaguely scientific” and “editorializing,” ultimately dismissing it because of its lowly status as a blog (“clearly not the place that the debate should occur”).

This is quite a departure from the position you took just four years ago. Rather than advocating for rigorous scientific discourse—regardless of a particular work’s origin—you’re now putting publication above all else. Would you suggest, for example, that using means to describe highly skewed populations—because such practice has been published in peer-reviewed journals—is appropriate and acceptable? And, further, that my calling these researchers on the carpet for it—because I’ve done it via a blog—is somehow invalid? Or that the predation rates proposed in the Wisconsin Study have merit?

The same can be said for the numerous issues I’ve covered in the past several weeks (many of which I’ve outlined above): if I’m right, then I’m right; if I’m wrong, then I’m wrong. In the end, it shouldn’t matter whether these critiques are published in a peer-reviewed journal, posted at Vox Felina, or scribbled on the back of a cocktail napkin. What matters is simply whether the points I’ve made are valid or not.

It’s difficult not to see a certain irony in your immediate and wholesale dismissal of my work—based only on the first of a four-part series (and clearly “advertised” as such). You’re quick to criticize, for example, my apparent failure to “address any of the more recent work that Longcore et al. relied on, or that have subsequently been published.” I wonder: did you bother to read any of my subsequent posts, in which I addressed these points at some length? As a trained scientist, wouldn’t you want to see all the “data” before drawing your conclusions? Your post has done far more to highlight the need for Vox Felina than to discredit it.

Don’t get me wrong—I’ve nothing against criticism; indeed, that’s the very premise of Vox Felina. But, before rendering judgment, you owe it to your readers, your colleagues, and yourself to at least have all the relevant information in front of you. This, it seems to me, is a necessary first step not only for scientific discourse, but for any civil discourse.

Los Angeles Court Case
With regard to the injunction against publicly supported TNR in Los Angeles, you’re correct in noting that the case was not about the efficacy of TNR. However, there’s far more science in the administrative record than you suggest. Though the majority of the record is made up of e-mail communications, trapping permits, and the like, it is peppered throughout with various papers, reports, and numerous references to scientific literature.

To take just one example, there’s this excerpt from a letter dated March 27, 2006 by Babak Naficy, the attorney representing the Urban Wildlands Group and the American Bird Conservancy:

“A decision by the Commission to implement the TNR policy will likely result in an increase in the population of feral cats in the City by returning feral cats to the environment that otherwise would be taken into shelters, and by issuing permits to maintain feral cat colonies. Notwithstanding the goal of the project to reduce feral cat numbers, TNR programs are less effective than removal in controlling feral cat populations, [16] and consequently this shift in policy would increase the number of feral cats in the environment. As has been communicated to the Commission by my clients in the past, it is well settled that feral and domestic cats adversely affect the population of songbirds and other small animals, such as small mammals and lizards. [11] Furthermore, the scientific literature shows that TNR is not effective in decreasing the number of feral cats on a regional basis. [17] An intensive TNR program combined with cat adoption at a Florida university took 11 years to reduce a county by two-thirds (6% per year), and even then animals continued to be abandoned and added to the colony.” [18]

“Additionally, City-endorsed feral cat colonies present a severe public health risk, [19] especially to vulnerable human populations such as the homeless. Maternal exposure to toxoplasmosis, often carried by feral cats, increases risk of schizophrenia in humans. [20] Therefore, any decision that mandates return of unowned cats to the environment may increase the number of free-roaming cats in the City and will likely result in a concomitant adverse impact on the environment.”

That said, perhaps I was not clear in my post. I was not implying any direct connection between the Longcore et al. paper and the Los Angeles TNR case (e.g., that the paper itself was part of the administrative record). The point I was trying to make was that the Urban Wildlands Group—lead petitioner in the case—was not a disinterested party concerned with science for its own sake. Longcore et al. were key stakeholders—focused, it seems, more on their “message” (the timing of which was itself uncanny) than the validity of any scientific claims.

And in any event, I don’t see how the case can be so easily divorced from science. This is not about property rights or tax code. Its status as a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) case presupposes the possibility of “either a direct physical change in the environment or a reasonably foreseeable indirect change in the environment.” The evidence of such changes, of course, would rely on scientific research. As I say, the administrative record contains numerous claims regarding potential impacts and the studies supporting or refuting them. Whether the judge in the case allowed this material to influence his eventual decision is unknown; but it’s clear from court transcripts that he considered it quite relevant:

“Look, you put feral cats in the wild, they endanger wildlife. That is an environmental concern…”

“It doesn’t affect birds? It doesn’t affect other wildlife? A fair argument has been made that it does. A fair argument… a fair argument has been made that when you take them out of the wild—not all of them are taken out of wild—but you take 50,000 cats out of the wild and do not consider other alternatives such as euthanizing them and return them back to the wild, I would be embarrassed to stand there and argue that there is no environmental effect… so you bring them in, you neuter the them and you put them out, and they endanger other wildlife and perhaps health and a lot of other issues that come to bear, and that’s the only consideration made and that’s not a project. Please, spare me.”

“And who is to go out and if the feral cats are running wild, does the Animal Services have a program to round up a herd of cats, if that’s possible—that’s an old expression—and bring them in a neuter them and let these little kitties out to kill birds and other wildlife?”

Whether or not Los Angeles had an official TNR program in place may have been at the center of the case, but it was certainly not the whole case.

Compromise, Courage, and Leadership
As I’ve noted on Vox Felina’s About page, there are legitimate issues to be debated regarding the efficacy, environmental impact, and morality of TNR. But attempts at an honest, productive debate are hampered—if not derailed entirely—by the dubious claims so often put forward by TNR opponents. Exactly the sort of claims I’ve attempted to untangle over the past several weeks.

But from what I’ve read of your work, you don’t seem interested in such a debate, and even less interested in finding common ground:

“Cooperation and compromise, no matter what the cost, is not courageous leadership.” [21]

Perhaps it’s impressive as rhetoric, but your comments strike me as somewhat hypocritical (your attempt to make a virtue of the same ideological inflexibility you dismiss in the animal rights community), misguided, and, in the end, simply unhelpful. More worrisome, however, is your willingness to let your ideology blind you to the numerous errors in the work you so vigorously defend.

Michael, how can you expect so much courage and leadership from your colleagues when you demand so little honesty and integrity?

Peter J. Wolf
www.voxfelina.com

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

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

3. 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.

4. Lepczyk, C.A., Mertig, A.G., and Liu, J., “Landowners and cat predation across rural-to-urban landscapes.” Biological Conservation. 2003. 115(2): p. 191-201.

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

6. Baker, P.J., et al., “Impact of predation by domestic cats Felis catus in an urban area.” Mammal Review. 2005. 35(3/4): p. 302-312.

7. 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.

8. van Heezik, Y., et al., “Do domestic cats impose an unsustainable harvest on urban bird populations? Biological Conservation. 143(1): p. 121-130.

9. ABC, Human Attitudes and Behavior Regarding Cats. 1997, American Bird Conservancy: Washington, DC. http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/materials/attitude.pdf

10. 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.

11. 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

12. Barratt, D.G., “Predation by house cats, Felis catus (L.), in Canberra, Australia. II. Factors affecting the amount of prey caught and estimates of the impact on wildlife.” Wildlife Research. 1998. 25(5): p. 475–487.

13. Elliott, J., The Accused, in The Sonoma County Independent. 1994. p. 1, 10

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

15. Longcore, T., Rich, C., and Sullivan, L.M., “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap–Neuter–Return.” Conservation Biology. 2009. 23(4): p. 887–894.

16. Andersen, M.C., Martin, B.J., and Roemer, G.W., “Use of matrix population models to estimate the efficacy of euthanasia versus trap-neuter-return for management of free-roaming cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(12): p. 1871-1876.

17. Foley, P., et al., “Analysis of the impact of trap-neuter-return programs on populations of feral cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2005. 227(11): p. 1775-1781.

18. 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.

19. Patronek, G.J., “Free-roaming and feral cats—their impact on wildlife and human beings.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 1998. 212(2): p. 218–226.

20. Brown, A.S., et al., “Maternal Exposure to Toxoplasmosis and Risk of Schizophrenia in Adult Offspring.” Am J Psychiatry. 2005. 162(4): p. 767-773.

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