On Wisdom

Serengeti Elephant Herd
Three African Bush Elephants (Loxodonta africana) on the Serengeti plains. Photo courtesy of Ikiwaner and Wikimedia Commons.

In the latest issue of Orion, journalist and author J.B. MacKinnon makes good on the magazine’s commitment to “inform, inspire, and engage individuals and grassroots organizations in becoming a significant cultural force for healing nature and community.”

In his essay, “Wisdom in the Wild: A case for elderly animals,” MacKinnon does a brilliant job of (re)connecting the reader with the natural world by making the connection unusually personal:

I have stopped eating groundfish, not because the fishery is unsustainable, which was the biologist’s actual point, but because any one of the fish might be as old as my grandmother. The decision is easy to deride as a most-embarrassing anthropomorphism, I know, but my spouse, at least, offered unhesitating support. “Who knows what wisdom they’ve developed in that time?” she said. And who wants to risk consuming the planet’s store of wisdom?

But, as MacKinnon points out, our regard for such wisdom often develops only in hindsight. Among the examples he cites, two involve African elephants.

In 1993, Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park suffered the worst drought in 35 years. “By the time the rains came again,” writes MacKinnon, “the Tarangire herd had lost sixteen out of eighty-one calves, a level of juvenile mortality ten times above normal.”

Herds with females old enough to remember the previous drought left the park in search of water while demographically younger herds stayed behind—ultimately suffering the greatest mortality rates.

Pilanesberg National Park
As MacKinnon’s second example illustrates, an elephant herd’s “institutional memory” is only part of the story; elders also provide “parental supervision.”

In the early 1980s, the elephant population was swelling in Kruger National Park, and wildlife managers decided to dart numbers of adult elephants from the air and then shoot them to death on the ground, often in plain view of the juveniles. The youngsters were then rounded up and sent to other parks and reserves, with about forty ending up in Pilanesberg National Park, several hundred miles to the southwest. It must have seemed like a logical if gruesome act of conservation: reduce overpopulation in one place and spread the wealth of the species to others.

About ten years later, relocated males were—much to the shock of biologists—responsible for killing dozens of white rhinoceroses. In most cases, the social structure of elephant herds limits such “teenage” aggression. “After standing down to a dominant male,” writes MacKinnon, “the rush of hormones stops, in some cases in a matter of minutes.”

In the absence of dominant males, however, the young elephants suffered from a chemical imbalance that turned them into killers.

It’s Complicated
MacKinnon’s piece got me thinking about how eager we are to “manage” wildlife despite our limited understanding. And the consequences of a what-do-we-kill-next? approach fueled, it seems, more by economic and political considerations (not the least of which is job security) than by any noble concern for conservation.

Among the most glaring examples is Macquarie Island, where, in 2000—after 15 years—cats were finally eradicated. Forty-plus years of rabbit control was “reversed in only six years,” devastating the island’s vegetation. In addition, “a pulse of at least 103,000 mice and 36,600 rats have also entered the ecosystem since cat eradication.” [1]

What’s next for this United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site?

Tony Eastley, host of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s AM radio show, explained it this way recently: “The project aimed at eradicating rabbits and rodents is no overnight quick fix. It’s expected to take five years and cost at least $25 million.” (Incredibly, the story makes no mention of cats at all.)

If scientists could be so wrong in their understanding of the ecology of this 50-square-mile, uninhabited island, what makes us think they’ll get it right when tackling larger, more complex ecosystems—say, the Florida Keys, for example?

•     •     •

“It is tempting,” warned Abraham Maslow, “if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” The same is true, all too often, of wildlife management—the hammer being lethal control (see, for example, New York magazine’s “field guide to what the Feds are hunting”).

But an effective, humane approach to feral cat management requires a more expansive set of tools. Of course, a little wisdom wouldn’t hurt, either.

Literature Cited
1. 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



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

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

Stay tuned.

Spoiler Alert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•     •     •

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

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

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

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. www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/pdf/Lepczyk-2010-Conservation%2520Biology.pdf

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

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. 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

A House Deluded

On February 25th, the Utah House of Representatives voted rather decisively—44 to 28—in favor of HB 210, which would amend the state’s animal cruelty laws. Whether or not the representatives knew what they were voting for, however, is anybody’s guess.

Listening to the floor debate, one gets the impression there were two—maybe three—different bills up for discussion. Not that House members got any help from sponsor Curtis Oda (R). Indeed, Oda’s rambling, disjointed presentation only muddied the waters further.

Among the bill’s provisions is an exemption for animal cruelty in cases where the individual responsible for harming or killing an animal acted reasonably, in the protection of people or property. Also included—and the source of the greatest controversy—is an allowance for “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.”

This Is Not About Cats
Referring to the bad press HB 210 has received over the past few weeks (including a stinging satire on The Colbert Report, which was widely circulated on the Web), Oda was, not surprisingly, defensive.

“It wasn’t about cats; it’s about all animals that are feral—including cats, dogs, pigeons, pigs, whatever it might be… But the cat community has made it a cat issue, so let’s talk cats.”

And talk cats he did.

“Let’s get into some of the other reasons why we need some of this… The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—and because it was made into a cat issue, I’m using cats—cites that cats and other introduced predators are responsible for much of the migratory bird loss. Domestic and feral may kill hundreds of millions of songbirds and other avian species every year, roughly 39 million birds annually. They’re opportunistic hunters, taking any small animal available—pheasants, native quail, grouse, turkeys, waterfowl, and endangered piping plovers. Most of these birds are protected species.”

That 39 million figure, of course, comes from the notorious Wisconsin Study, and represents Coleman and Temple’s “intermediate… estimate of the number of birds killed annually by rural cats in Wisconsin.” [1] Nothing more than a “best guess,” as the authors call it, and one based entirely on the predation of a single cat in rural Virginia. [2, 3]

It’s a figure commonly found in U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) publications, [4, 5] and on their Website. (Oda’s not the first one to mistake this for an estimate of predation across the country, however; Frank Gill made the same error in his book Ornithology. [6])

Oda’s choice of bird species surely raised a few eyebrows—at least among those who were paying attention. First of all, a number of the birds are hunted in Utah—which would seem to complicate the predation issue significantly (though, of course, hunters are paying for the “privilege” of killing wildlife).

And those “endangered piping plovers” (technically, listed as “Near Threatened”)? According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Website, this “small pale shorebird of open sandy beaches and alkali flats…[apparently, Utah’s salt flats don’t count] is found along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, as well as inland in the northern Great Plains.”

Another obvious blunder: Oda would have us believe that cats are both opportunistic hunters (which they are) but that they also target rare and endangered species. (But again, Oda’s not alone: USFWS made a similar argument in their recent Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex Integrated Predator Management Plan/Draft Environmental Assessment.

Economic Impact
Once Oda brought up Wisconsin, it seemed almost inevitable that Nebraska, too, would creep into the debate. It didn’t take long.

“The Audubon magazine recently cited a new peer-reviewed paper by University of Nebraska–Lincoln—researchers concluding that feral cats—domestic that live outdoors and are ownerless—in other words, feral—account for $17 billion—that’s billion—in economic loss from predation on birds in the U.S. every year.”

That $17 million dollar figure (which, apparently, was just too good for the National Audubon Society, American Bird Conservancy, and others to pass up) is based on some very dubious math (indeed, the paper notes that birders spend just $0.40 for each bird seen, whereas hunters spend $216 for each bird shot, suggesting, it seems, that dead birds are far more valuable than live birds—a point NAS and ABC, of course, ignored entirely).

The origins of the figure can be traced to two papers by Cornell’s David Pimentel and his colleagues, [7, 8] in which the authors estimate “economic damages associated with alien invasive species.” [8]

Referring to this work, Hoagland and Jin, resource economists at the Marine Policy Center, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, (using the case of the European green crab to make their point) warn: “There are many reasons to be concerned about the use of these estimates for policymaking.” [9] Among their concerns, are the use of potential rather than actual impacts, and the validity of the underlying science—as well as the overall lack of rigor involved in developing such estimates.

“Heretofore, estimates of the economic losses arising from invasive species have been far too casual. Unfounded calculations of economic damages lacking a solid demonstration of ecological effects are misleading and wasteful.” [9]

Predation Estimates
Oda then tried to put the predation into context:

“In Utah alone, if we assume a million households, you can estimate around a third of them have cats—that’s 333,333. If we just add a feral population of at least that many, making it two-thirds of a million—if each cat killed just three birds per year, you can see that the predation is around two million each year.”

Three birds/year is more conservative than what’s used for many back-of-the-envelope estimates, but that doesn’t excuse the flaws in Oda’s calculation—beginning with his suggestion that the number of feral cats in the state equals the number of pet cats. Where’s the evidence?

He’s also assuming that all cats hunt. However, about two-thirds of pet cats don’t even go outside. [10–12]

And then, of course, there’s the issue of impact. Even if Oda’s right about the two million birds, that says nothing about the impact on their populations. Are the birds common? Rare? Healthy? Unhealthy? Etc.

Referring to “Cats and Wildlife: A Conservation Dilemma,” another of the Wisconsin Study papers, [13] Oda continues:

“Nationwide, cats probably kill over a billion mammals and hundreds of millions of birds each year. Worldwide, cats may have been involved in the extinction of more bird species than any other cause except by habitat destruction.”

Again, no mention of impact. And, no mention of where the vast majority of those extinctions took place.  According to Gill’s Ornithology:

“Most (119, or 92 percent) of the 129 bird species that have become officially extinct in the past 500 years are island species. Roughly half of these species were exterminated by introduced predators and diseases. The rest were driven to extinction by direct human exploitation and habitat destruction.” [6]

However isolated Utah may seem at times—politically, socially, and culturally—the state is not an actual island.

For an assessment of TNR, Oda turns not to Alley Cat Allies or to the No More Homeless Pets in Utah program, but to David Jessup, Senior Wildlife Veterinarian with the California Department of Fish and Game:

“David Jessup, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, has written that trap, neuter, and release programs are not working as well as it has been touted. I’ve got packets here talking about that. If anybody wants to see it, they’re welcome to that.”

In fact, Jessup offers little to support his own sweeping claim that, “in most locations where TNR has been tried, it fails to substantially or quickly reduce cat numbers and almost never eliminates feral cat populations” [14] Instead, he refers to a paper by Linda Winter, [15] former director of ABC’s Cats Indoors! campaign—and prolific source of misinformation on the subject of TNR.

Oda continues:

“Releasing feral cats back into the wild is actually an unnatural act. They are unnatural predators that compete [for] food with eagles, hawks, owls, ferrets, etc.”

This last point, it would seem, is a reference to the often-cited work of William George, who suggested that “cats inevitably compete for prey with many of our declining raptors, and therein may lie a serious problem.” [16] It turns out, though, that George’s concerns were largely unfounded, as I’ve discussed previously.

No wonder Oda turned to Jessup and Winter for a TNR primer—the man simply doesn’t have a clue:

“Citizens that want to help are often met with expenses and inconveniences that deter them. Many who monitor TNR colonies are not managing them correctly. I had one lady who said she had more than 100 cats that she had saved with TNR, but kept getting new cats almost weekly. She’d been feeding them more than what they could do on their own, thereby attracting new cats.”

I rather doubt that making it legal to shoot at feral cats will somehow make caretakers’ lives easier. And why, if Oda thinks regular citizens are unable to properly manage a colony of feral cats, is he so sure they’ll be able to properly distinguish a feral cat from a pet in the event they want to shoot it?

Oda’s complaint about feeding feral cats—and the idea that this attracts additional cats—is a common one. Cats are remarkably resourceful, and where there are people, there is food. Better to have them part of a managed colony, where they are sterilized—and often adopted, too—than to be under the radar.

The same argument can be made for the alleged relationship between TNR and the dumping of cats. It’s difficult to imagine that the presence or absence of a nearby TNR program would affect a person’s decision to abandon his/her pet cat(s). (If any studies had demonstrated such a connection, TNR opponents would surely cite them.) And, under the circumstances, isn’t it better that they be “enrolled” in a TNR program than the alternative?

“Releasing is also unfair to the rest of the neighborhood,” argued Oda, “who’s adversely affected.”

“It doesn’t affect just the person monitoring. But the problem is much bigger than TNR only. An unspayed female cat can have up to three litters per year, with an average of five kittens per litter, so as you can see, the problem grows exponentially.”

While unrestricted populations will grow exponentially, Oda’s numbers are ridiculous—probably the foundation for the widely debunked 420,000-cats-in-seven-years-myth.

Still think HB 210 isn’t about cats?

A Little Something for Everybody
At this point, Oda’s presentation moves beyond the bogus science and tired, baseless complaints—and pretty well comes off the rails entirely.

“This bill does not replace TNR, but it’s supposed to work potentially in conjunction with TNR, but we need to make sure everybody uses those TNR programs properly. We do have a serious problem with irresponsible owners, and we can’t make it unreasonable for them to take their animals to shelters and animal control facilities… We need to make things a little bit easier for people to help, not just make it easier for them to—” [lost audio]

How open season on feral cats is “supposed to work potentially in conjunction with TNR” is a mystery—and one Oda didn’t have a chance to clear up. At this point, his colleagues give him just one more minute to wrap things up.

“We just need to make it easier for people to be able to do things the right way, instead of making it so ridiculously expensive and inconvenient—so that it’s easier for them to just take their animals and drop them off anywhere else, whether it be cats or dogs, or whatever it may be. Perhaps down the road we might have to have mandatory licensing for cats. We do that with dogs already and the problem with dogs has diminished substantially.”


Are we still talking about the same bill here? HB 210 does nothing at all to address dumping, intake policies at shelters, or licensing. The confusion only worsened as several representatives supporting the bill took to the House floor to make their positions known.

Rep. Fred Cox
(R), who helped revise the bill, suggested that HB 210 offers a means of controlling the population of feral cats—a complement to TNR programs:

“We spent quite a bit of time reviewing with proposed amendments… We did have the opportunity of listening to a number of individuals speak for and on behalf of various options… You have to decide whether or not it’s a good idea for individuals to purposely release certain animals—sometimes in large quantities into the wild that were not originally designed to be here. There are certain parts of the world that have had problems with this area, and in some cases, we have problems now. This provides us an option. We still have other options that are available—with trap, neuter, and release—those are still on the table. This does not prohibit those methods to be used, but does allow another method to be used.”

For Rep. Lee Perry (R), HB 210 offers a humane approach for dealing with abandoned pets:

“I represent a lot of rural farmers and ranchers, and this bill is critical to them. I can’t have a farmer or rancher going to jail or to prison because they take care of a feral cat or a feral dog that is on their ranch or their farm, that somebody inhumanely took out and dumped out in the middle of western Box Elder County or in western Cache County. When the people go out there and dump their animals, thinking they’re being humane and putting them… out into the wild or onto somebody’s farm, they’re actually harming those animals more than what these farmers or ranchers would be doing in basically being humane, and putting them out of their misery at that point. Because these animals are eventually going to starve to death, in some cases, and die. They’re left in the cold, in the elements. These are usually animals that are meant to be raised in a house, and in a controlled environment. Because of that, I support this substitute bill, and I would ask that the body would support it as well.”

Easily the most interesting account, however, was that of Rep. Brad Galvez (R):

“I had an individual that lives just a few miles west of my home who was basically attacked by a cat—had a cat that scratched him on his hand, and he basically just flung it against the wall. This individual was charged with a third-degree felony.”

A search of several newspapers tells a very different story. Reese Ransom, 85, was actually charged with aggravated animal cruelty—a misdemeanor—when he severely injured a feral kitten. When Ransom picked up the kitten—one of a litter he and his wife had been feeding—to bring it inside:

“It went wild, like cats do,” he said. “It was scratching and biting. It was hanging from my hands with its teeth, so I just pitched it away to get rid of it. It hit the garage and knocked it out.” [17]

According to Ogden’s Standard–Examiner, Weber County Sheriff’s Deputy Bryce Weir witnessed the event. “Weir’s report said Weir got out of his patrol car and walked to the garage, noting the kitten was still alive, but barely moving.” [18]

The kitten was eventually euthanized.

The Animal Advocacy Alliance of Utah pushed for Ransom to be changed with a felony, but were unsuccessful.

But Galvez, who—don’t forget—lives just a few miles east of Ransom, completely misrepresents the facts of the case to his colleagues. There’s no telling whether or not his “interpretation” of events had any bearing on the eventual vote, but it raises questions about the man’s integrity.

Opponents of HB 210
HB 210 had its detractors as well. Among them, Rep. Marie Poulson (D):

“I am… the daughter of a rancher and a cattleman, but have another perspective on this. I realize the threat to cattle of these pests, or feral animals. But, in our particular case, we encourage the population of feral cats, as we have four granaries, and they were some of our best farm workers, and kept down the rodent population. My main problem with this bill is, there’s no designation between what’s considered a feral animal and your beloved house pet. And I think this bill gives license to kill in those areas. My other consideration here is that I have received so many letters from constituents upset by this bill that if I voted for it, I would be considered feral.”

Rep. David Litvack (D) wasn’t buying what Oda and his supporters were selling, especially when it comes to defining feral. “If a person knows that a particular animal is a pet of their neighbor,” explained Oda during his introductory comments, “it’s not feral. If it’s wearing a collar, it’s not feral. If there’s other signs it’s very friendly, obviously it’s not feral.”

Litvack was unmoved:

“I believe it is wrong for us, as a state, to move in the direction where we are having individuals make the decision, the determination on their own (1) what is feral, and (2) now, that they can shoot them, even if it’s only in an unincorporated county. Not a good policy, and, quite frankly, a bit of an embarrassment to the state of Utah.”

Referring specifically to Lines 153 and 154 of the amended bill (“…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.”), Rep. Brian King (D) took a similar stance:

“My concern is that we’re providing a loophole in the statute for individuals that want to use this as an opportunity to go out and satisfy [lost audio] they get pleasure from going out and just shooting what are now defined as feral animals just for the pleasure of killing the animal… This is a bill that’s been brought to us now, in its amended form, just today, and we haven’t had a chance to hear from the Humane Society, from other individuals or agencies that have an interest in this. And my concern is that, although I think there is undoubtedly a reasonable need for individuals under certain circumstances—in rural areas, especially—to control feral animal populations that are causing damage, I still have concerns—without more input from those who deal with this, and have really had a chance to think the language through—in voting it out of our body.”

“We spent quite a bit of time reviewing with proposed amendments,” countered Cox. “We did have the opportunity of listening to a number of individuals speak for and on behalf of various options.”

Cox offered no specifics about who was invited to the bargaining table. And it may not have made any difference anyhow—like Oda and Perry, Cox seems to think HB 210 is about feral cat management:

“You have to decide whether or not it’s a good idea for individuals to purposely release certain animals—sometimes in large quantities into the wild that were not originally designed to be here. There are certain parts of the world that have had problems with this area, and in some cases, we have problems now. This provides us an option. We still have other options that are available—with trap, neuter, and release—those are still on the table. This does not prohibit those methods to be used, but does allow another method to be used.”

Rep. Paul Ray (R) responded to King’s concern by comparing TNR to abandonment (an argument perhaps first articulated by Jessup, who refers to TNR as “trap, neuter, and reabandon” [14]):

“It’s against the law to abandon an animal… [TNR practitioners] abandon the animal again. So when we’re talking about getting the perfect language, I’m not sure we can do that because even under the current law we have right now, we have some discrepancies…”

Setting aside the TNR/abandonment issue for the moment, that’s quite a position to take for somebody whose job it is to craft legislation: What we’ve got now isn’t perfect, so why bother?

Oda’s response was no better. “Out in the rural areas,” he said, referring to the concerns about the ambiguity surrounding the term feral, “they know exactly what animals belong in the area, so that’s not even an issue.”

This, I’m sure, was no consolation to Litvack or King.

Shoot First, Ask Questions Later
If you missed the part where the bill’s supporters defend—or even explain—the need for Utahns to be able to shoot feral animals, you’re not alone. I’ve listened to the entire debate at least twice now and still don’t get it.

As Laura Nirenberg, legislative analyst for Best Friends’ Focus on Felines campaign, pointed out to me, the bill’s language already addresses many issues brought up in the debate.

Under HB 210, for example, the crime of animal cruelty requires that “the person’s conduct is not reasonable and necessary to protect: (1) the actor or another person from injury or death; or (2) property from damage or loss if the property is an animal; or other property that is $50 or more in value.” (The $50 threshold seems like too low a bar to me, but it was never mentioned during the floor debate.)

This, it seems, goes an awful long way toward protecting farmers and ranchers who are merely protecting their livestock. And the Reese Ransoms of the world, too. Moreover, there’s already a provision in Utah’s animal cruelty code exempting a “person who humanely destroys any apparently abandoned animal found on the person’s property” (which, strangely, never came up during the HB 210 debate).

Granted, the bill’s amended language does lessen its potential impact on feral cats by restricting “the humane shooting of an animal” to unincorporated areas “where hunting is not prohibited.” Hunting regulations must comply with Utah criminal code, which prohibits the “discharge any kind of dangerous weapon or firearm… without written permission to discharge the dangerous weapon from the owner or person in charge of the property within 600 feet of: a house, dwelling, or any other building; or any structure in which a domestic animal is kept or fed, including a barn, poultry yard, corral, feeding pen, or stockyard.”

Even so, the shooting provision of HB 210 strikes me as essentially indefensible. It’s simply an invitation for senseless cruelty. Representative Litvack is exactly right: “Not a good policy, and, quite frankly, a bit of an embarrassment to the state of Utah.”

•     •     •

It will be interesting to see what happens when HB 210 moves to the Utah Senate, where, just last week, TNR-friendly SB 57 was passed. Among its provisions:

“This bill… defines a sponsor of a cat colony as a person who actively traps cats in a colony for the purpose of sterilizing, vaccinating, and ear-tipping before returning the cat to its original location; exempts community cats from the three-day mandatory hold requirement; and allows a shelter that receives a feral cat to release it to a sponsor that operates a cat program.”

I encourage readers to listen to the HB 210 debate in its entirety, as it provides a fascinating glimpse of democracy in action—warts and all (including, for example, when Oda responds to the call for a vote with “Meow.”) The SMIL audio file is available here, and the required Real Audio application can be downloaded free here.

Literature Cited
1. 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

2. 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

3. Mitchell, J.C. and Beck, R.A., “Free-Ranging Domestic Cat Predation on Native Vertebrates in Rural and Urban Virginia.” Virginia Journal of Science. 1992. 43(1B): p. 197–207. www.vacadsci.org/vjsArchives/v43/43-1B/43-197.pdf

4. USFWS, Migratory Bird Mortality. 2002, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Arlington, VA. http://www.fws.gov/birds/mortality-fact-sheet.pdf

5.  USFWS, Perils Past and Present : Major Threats to Birds Over Time. 2003, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Arlington, VA. http://www.fws.gov/birds/documents/PastandPresent.pdf

6. Gill, F.B., Ornithology. 3rd ed. 2007, New York: W.H. Freeman. xxvi, 758 p.

7. Pimentel, D., et al., “Environmental and Economic Costs of Nonindigenous Species in the United States.” Bio Science. 2000. 50(1): p. 53–65. http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1641/0006-3568%282000%29050%5B0053%3AEAECON%5D2.3.CO%3B2?journalCode=bisi


8. Pimentel, D., Zuniga, R., and Morrison, D., “Update on the environmental and economic costs associated with alien-invasive species in the United States.” Ecological Economics. 2005. 52(3): p. 273–288. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6VDY-4F4H9SX-3/2/149cde4f02744cae33d76c870a098fea

9. Hoagland, P. and Jin, D.I., “Science and Economics in the Management of an Invasive Species.”BioScience. 2006. 56(11): p. 931-935. http://www.mendeley.com/research/science-economics-management-invasive-species-8/

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. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2003.222.1541

11. 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

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

13. Coleman, J.S., Temple, S.A., and Craven, S.R., Cats and Wildlife: A Conservation Dilemma. 1997, University of Wisconsin, Wildlife Extension. http://forestandwildlifeecology.wisc.edu/wl_extension/catfly3.htm

14. 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


15. Winter, L., “Trap-neuter-release programs: the reality and the impacts.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1369–1376. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2004.225.1369


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

17. Miller, J. (2010, June 24). Charge questioned in death-of-kitten case. Standard-Examiner. http://www.standard.net/topics/courts/2010/06/23/charge-questioned-death-kitten-case

18. Gurrister, T. (2010, July 22, 2010). Cruelty charge in West Haven kitten case to be dismissed Standard-Examinerhttp://www.standard.net/topics/courts/2010/07/22/cruelty-charge-west-haven-kitten-case-be-dismissed

Operation Sisyphus

The draft environmental assessment (EA) for the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex Integrated Predator Management Plan (download PDF), released last week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), aims to eliminate free-roaming cats in the Keys. Not that this is anything new—FWS (along with USDA, and some state agencies) has been trying to do this for years now.

Plans include the trapping/removal of free-roaming cats—owned and unowned alike—from refuge lands and other public lands nearby, as well as from other land (including private property) where cats may be considered a threat to vulnerable native species. TNR has been dismissed as an option, and FWS proposes to prohibit the feeding of feral cats wherever possible.

Unfortunately, the proposed plan is unlikely to be any more successful than previous efforts. There’s plenty to dislike about the FWS plan—including the risk that it may set a dangerous precedent nationwide. The deadline for public comments (see Plan for details) is February 3.

Justification or Rationalization?
In a section of the document called Justification for Management Action, FWS lays out their numerous grievances against “non-native species and human-subsidized populations of native predators.” [1] As a review of the relevant literature, the sub-section on domestic cats leaves much to be desired is a train wreck.

In fact, if this were a college-level term paper, it would likely receive a failing grade—followed, perhaps, by disciplinary action. (And, if it were allowed under the law, maybe a drug test, too.)

Among the references cited here (about three-quarters of which I’m familiar; the rest I’m still chasing down) is, admittedly, some rather damning evidence. For example:

  • The near-extirpation of rock iguanas from Pine Cay in the Caicos Islands during the 1970s. “The decline, from an estimated adult lizard population of nearly 5,500, was due primarily to predation by domestic dogs and cats introduced to the island simultaneously with hotel construction.” [2] (Strangely, FWS cites Iverson’s paper not as an example of a near-miss, but of a global extinction. This, however, pales in comparison to the “strangeness” of many of their other citations.)
  • On Little Barrier Island, off the coast of New Zealand, cats “were considered to have been the sole cause of the local eradication of North Island saddleback and to have contributed to the extinction of the Little Barrier snipe, and to threaten, by their continued presence, grey-faced, black, and Cook’s petrels. Cats probably also contributed to the decline of tuatara and the 12 lizard species known to be present on Little Barrier Island.” [3]

On the other hand, much of the FWS’s evidence is, at best, circumstantial. Among the studies cited to support their claim that “free-roaming cats have been shown to be a major cause of 33 native species extinction [sic] globally,” is a 1987 paper by Cruz and Cruz, in which the authors, studying Galápagos Petrels, found that cats were hardly the only culprits:

“They are threatened by introduced rats, which attack eggs and young chicks… dogs and pigs which prey on eggs, nestlings and adults. Introduced goats, burros and cattle destroy nesting habitat and trample nests. A different combination of these pests and predators exists at each of the petrel nesting sites, while three of the islands are plagued by all of them.” [4]

And, as with the rock iguanas, the FWS would have the public believe the Galápagos Petrel is among those 33 extinctions. In fact, the birds are still there, though they are listed as Critically Endangered.

The story is similar for the 1986 paper by Kirkpatrick and Rauzon, another purported link between free-roaming cats and species extinctions. Kirkpatrick and Rauzon found that more than 90 percent of the diet of free-roaming cats on Jarvis Island and Howland Island was made up of Sooty Terns, Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, and Brown Noddies—each of which is listed as a species of Least Concern.

Another of the papers cited by FWS has nothing to do with extinctions at all. As the authors themselves describe it, their study was an evaluation of “whether a collar-worn pounce protector, the CatBib, reduces the number of vertebrates caught by pet cats and whether its effectiveness was influenced by colour or adding a bell.” [5]

FWS argues that “many of the species impacted by free-roaming cats are federally listed threatened or endangered species and federally protected migratory birds.” While probably true, this statement is also largely meaningless. According to the 2009 State of the Birds report, published by the Department of the Interior (which oversees FWS):

“The United States is home to a tremendous diversity of native birds, with more than 800 species inhabiting terrestrial, coastal, and ocean habitats, including Hawaii. Among these species, 67 are federally listed as endangered or threatened. An additional 184 are species of conservation concern because of their small distribution, high threats, or declining populations.” [6]

That translates to approximately 31 percent of all birds in this country being species of concern. FWS makes it sounds as if perhaps the cats are targeting these birds; in fact, they could just as easily have claimed that many of the species impacted by all forms of mortality are federally listed threatened or endangered species and federally protected migratory birds of these birds.

Hang in there, though—it gets better. I mean worse.

Also listed among the evidence of island extinctions were Coleman and Temple’s 1993 survey of rural Wisconsin residents about their outdoor cats [7], and Churcher and Lawton’s “English Village” study [8]. (While England is an island, it’s quite a stretch to suggest that Felmersham’s House sparrows are at risk of extinction.)

When it comes to the disruption caused by cats to “the abundance, diversity, and integrity of native ecosystems,” FWS turns to, among others, studies by Hawkins [9] and Jessup. [10]

As I’ve discussed previously, Hawkins’ dissertation work was plagued with problems that raise serious doubts about his rather triumphant conclusions—“the preference of ground feeding birds for the no-cat treatment was striking,” [9] for example. A closer look reveals that five of the nine ground-feeding birds showed no preference for either area of the study site. One could, based on Hawkins’ findings, just as easily conclude that more than half of the ground-feeding species studied were indifferent to the presence of cats.

Jessup cites some well-known predation studies, but his concern is the condemnation of “trap, neuter, and reabandon,” [10] as he calls it (“Abandonment of animals cannot be morally justified and is illegal under state humane laws… If it is illegal to abandon a cat once, how can it be legal to do it a second time? How can veterinarians justify being party to abandonment, an illegal act of animal cruelty?” [10])

FWS suggests that “free-roaming cats kill at least one billion birds every year in the U.S., representing one of the largest single sources of human-influenced mortality for small native wildlife,” [1] supporting their assertion with just three sources, one of which is Rich Stallcup’s 1991 article from the Observer, a publication of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory. But “A Reversible Catastrophe” is very light on science—and Stallcup gets most of that wrong. Mostly, the article is Stallcup’s manifesto regarding neighborhood cats:

“If you have a garden, why not proclaim it a wildlife sanctuary and protect it from non-native predators? If roaming cats come into your sanctuary to poach the wildlife under your stewardship, you have the right and perhaps even the duty to discourage them in a serious way.” [11]

Discourage them? Among Stallcup’s suggestions: “…try a B-B or pellet gun. There is no need to kill or shoot toward the head, but a good sting on the rump seems memorable for most felines, and they seldom return for a third experience.” [11]

No feral cat witch hunt would be complete without some public health threat fear-mongering, and FWS’s plan is no different:

“According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), free-roaming cats not only threaten wildlife through direct predation but also serve as vectors for a number of diseases including rabies, cat scratch fever, hookworms, roundworms and toxoplasmosis. Some of these diseases can be transmitted to other domestic animals, native wildlife, and in some cases, humans.” [1]

But the CDC site makes no mention of cats being a threat to wildlife. And humans? “Although cats can carry diseases and pass them to people, you are not likely to get sick from touching or owning a cat.” And, notes the CDC, “People are probably more likely to get toxoplasmosis from gardening or eating raw meat than from having a pet cat.”

There’s even a link to another page on the CDC’s site, called “Health Benefits of Pets.”

And finally, there’s the paper by Sax and Gaines. If the previous examples miss their mark, this one’s a full-blown non-sequitur. Though the authors do mention “the extinction of many native animal species on islands” [12] briefly in their introduction, the purpose of the paper is, as the authors state plainly enough, to “show that the number of naturalized plant species has increased linearly over time on many individual islands.” [12, emphasis mine]

•     •     •

FWS intends to eliminate free-roaming cats from the Florida Keys, and this is the best they can do? If so, well, perhaps they ought to be doing something else. If this is their “justification for action,” then any subsequent action can, I think, rightfully be considered unjustified.

Predator Management
Among the animals to be monitored throughout and/or removed from the four refuges that make up the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex (National Key Deer Refuge, Key West National Wildlife Refuge, Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, and Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge) are non-native reptiles and rodents, native raccoons, and, of course, the cats.

“Presence of exotic non-native iguanas, lizards, and large-bodied snakes will be detected through reports, incidental sightings, and the community-based interagency ‘Python Patrol’ network. Exotic reptiles will be immediately dispatched in accordance with AVMA guidelines for humane euthanasia.” [1]

“Any non-native opossum, armadillo, or rat caught incidentally in the live traps targeted for cats on Refuge lands will be immediately dispatched in accordance with the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) guidelines for humane euthanasia. All native species will be immediately set free.” [1, emphasis mine]

“Raccoons trapped incidentally in live traps targeted for cats or other non-native predators will be released alive at the trap location… Raccoons that exhibit severe disease or other serious health issues will receive appropriate evaluation, which may include care by a state-certified wildlife rehabilitator or euthanasia as recommended by a qualified veterinarian or animal control services provider… If field studies and monitoring indicate that raccoon populations are having a negative impact on endangered species, the USFWS will reevaluate the need to implement more direct control by removal of raccoons from sensitive habitats. Removal could include, but not be limited to, transfer to a wildlife park or zoo, a state-certified wildlife rehabilitator, or euthanasia. Any decision by the Service to use lethal control measures on raccoons will trigger additional public notification and an amendment to this EA.” [1]

Free-roaming Cats
But, as I say, the cats are the real focus here: “The USFWS will remove all free-roaming cats found on Refuge lands through live trapping,” at which point, the cats will become of the responsibility of any one of three (currently, two; a third contractor is currently being sought) Monroe County animal control providers.

“The Monroe County animal control service provider will have the authority to determine the final disposition of the trapped cats according to county ordinances and standards, which may include returning to owner, adopting out, relocating to a long-term cat care facility on the mainland, or euthanizing.” [1]

Of course, it’s no secret what happens to the vast majority of feral cats brought into shelters. As Nathan Winograd writes in his book Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America, “there is no other animal entering a shelter whose prospects are so grim and outcome so certain.”

I asked Connie Christian, Executive Director of the Florida Keys SPCA, about this last week. “Every cat brought to our facility is assessed to determine their disposition,” Christian told me via e-mail. “Every attempt is made to return ‘non-feral’ cats to their owners or place for adoption.”

“Unfortunately,” she continued, “we do not have an outlet for feral cats that are brought to us without a request for return.” Which would likely be the case for cats unlucky enough to be trapped by FWS. (Interestingly, FKSPCA is involved with TNR, which FWS wants to eliminate—more on that in a moment.)

What about that “relocation to long-term facilities on the mainland” option? There was some discussion of this option during stakeholder meetings that took place in 2008. And local papers carried stories suggesting the possibility. [13, 14] Now it looks like FWS is dumping this is the laps of Monroe County animal control providers.

I guess they can say they tried.

Expanding Territory
But FWS isn’t stopping at their property line—and the four refuges included in the plan already make up, according to my calculations, more than 28 percent of the Keys’ total land mass. According to the South Florida Multi-Species Recovery Plan (MSRP), FWS has plans to use land acquisition and conservation easements or agreements to protect the endangered Lower Keys marsh rabbit. [15]

The MSRP, excerpts of which are included in the EA, also spells out FWS’s intention to “remove nuisance feral cats” from land “near rabbit habitat” in the Lower Keys. [1] Additional plans include deed restrictions “to prohibit free-roaming cats” [1] in areas where they might be a threat to the rabbits, the Key Largo Woodrat, or the Key Largo Cotton Mouse. And to “enforce deed restrictions of cat control in Ocean Reef Club and other areas.” [1]

The Ocean Reef Club, of course, is home to ORCAT, perhaps the best known—and certainly one of the most successful—TNR programs in the country. According to their website, ORCAT has reduced the island’s population of cats from approximately 2,000 cats, in the early 1990s, to about 350 today, “about 100 of which reside at the Grayvik Animal Care Center.”

Frankly, I’m not sure what FWS means by “enforce deed restrictions” (one of many follow-up items on my to-do list). Other aspects of their plan, however, are straightforward:

“Feral cat colonies and feeding stations on Refuge lands will be identified and removed. The USFWS will also coordinate with county and state agencies to assist in the identification and removal, where feasible and legal, cat colonies and feeding stations on other public properties that are adjacent to or near Refuge lands. Extensive public outreach will be conducted to encourage people who feed free-roaming cats to cease doing so, and to promote trapping and relocating those animals to long-term facilities on the mainland where they will no longer be a threat to Refuge’s wildlife.” [1]

Something else that’s clear: FWS is going after pet cats, too. The MSRP includes plans to “establish a program to license domestic cats, implement leash laws, eliminate cat-feeding stations, implement spay and neuter program, increase awareness through educational material, test diseases, and remove nuisance feral cats.” [15]

Is this mandatory spay/neuter (which has been shown to fail when implemented in the absence of adequate low- and no-cost services)? Does the FWS plan to test pets for, say FIV and FeLV? Lots of unanswered questions here, obviously.

It’s no surprise, then, given their plan for the removal of feeding stations—and cats—that FWS is staunchly opposed to TNR, which, they argue “does little to reduce cat predation on native wildlife.” [1]

Success Stories
“In addition,” argues FWS, “the TNR method has little valid scientific support for claims that it actually reduces cat colony numbers over time and often has been shown to attract people to release new cats into an area.” [1]

Ironically, some of the greatest TNR success stories are right there in the papers cited by FWS. Natoli, for example, 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]

Castillo and Clarke, though highly critical of TNR documented remarkably little predation in the two Florida parks they used for their study. 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” [17] prior to beginning their research), Castillo and Clarke “saw cats kill a juvenile common yellowthroat and a blue jay.” [17]

“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.” [17]

Any TNR program contends with the unfortunate (and illegal) dumping of cats. Still, it’s difficult to imagine that the presence or absence of a nearby TNR program would affect a person’s decision to abandon his/her pet cat(s). (If any studies had demonstrated such a connection, TNR opponents would surely cite them!) On the other hand, cats dumped near a managed colony are far more likely to be adopted and/or sterilized—thereby mitigating their potential impact on the overall population of unowned cats—as well any impacts to wildlife and the environment.

Moreover, FWS ignores the value of population stabilization. Julie Levy, Maddie’s Professor of Shelter Medicine in the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and one of the country’s foremost experts on feral cats, argues that “wildlife benefits when populations of cats that are trending rapidly upwards are at least stabilized” [18].

Among the more perplexing aspects of FWS’s argument is their claim that “TNR practices are prohibited on National Wildlife Refuges, and violate the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) because they may result in the direct harm of protected species.” [1]

This is an argument that’s been thrown around since at least 2003, when Pamela Jo Hatley, then a law student, suggested the possibility. But that’s all it was—and, apparently, is—a possibility.

“It is quite obvious that cats can be lethal to birds,” writes Hatley, “and if the death of a migratory bird can be traced to a cat, or a cat colony, which can be further traced to an individual or organization, there may be strict liability for that person under the MBTA.” [19] Hatley’s argument for violations of the Endangered Species Act is similarly speculative: “…persons who release cats into the wild or who maintain feral cat colonies could be found liable for a take under section 9 of the ESA if maintenance of feral cats in the wild is found to kill or injure wildlife by degrading habitat.” [19]

It’s been nearly eight years now—a period during which TNR has undoubtedly increased substantially across the country—so where are all the court cases? If this were as black-and-white as FWS makes it sound, there wouldn’t even be a discussion about TNR (and the Urban Wildlands Group would likely have taken a very different tack in Los Angeles).

Finally—perhaps in a desperate attempt to appear as though their plan has the support of animal welfare organizations—FWS gives PETA a plug.

“Some animal advocates therefore often agree that traditional TNR programs are not the most appropriate choice, especially where cats are released near designated wildlife areas and at-risk wildlife populations (see the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ Animal Rights Uncompromised fact sheets at www.peta.org/about/why-peta/default.aspx). For these reasons, TNR was considered but dismissed from further evaluation.” [1]

PETA, of course, is also opposed to caged birds, crating dogs, and zoos. When PETA is the only “animal advocate” you can get to endorse your approach, it’s time to rethink it.

Operation Sisyphus
The purpose of FWS’s Plan/EA “is to conserve and restore federally-listed species and protect all native fauna and flora on the [refuges] from population decline and potential extirpation or extinction due to predation by non-native species and human-subsidized populations of native predators.” [1]

Will the plan work? Only time will tell, of course—but there’s plenty of reason for skepticism. If their “literature review” is any indication, FWS either doesn’t have a particularly strong grasp of the issues involved—or they’re not interested in sharing that understanding with the public.

Nitpicking? I don’t think so. In their attempt to focus—however carelessly—on the impacts of cats, FWS overlooks some key factors.

Mesopredator Release
FWS refers to two often-cited papers [20, 21] as evidence of cats disrupting native ecosystems, but fails to acknowledge the larger point made by the authors: the mesopredator release phenomenon. “In the absence of large, dominant predators,” write Soulé et al., “smaller omnivores and predators undergo population explosions, sometimes becoming four to 10 times more abundant than normal.” [20]

In Soulé’s example, coyotes were the dominant predators, while cats were the mesopredators. In other contexts, however, cats have been shown to play the dominant predator role with rats becoming the mesopredators.

Mathematical modeling of the mesopredator release phenomenon illustrates the complexities involved in eradication efforts, even on small islands. As Courchamp et al. explain, “although counter-intuitive, eradication of introduced superpredators, such as feral domestic cats, is not always the best solution to protect endemic prey when introduced mesopredators, such as rats, are also present.” [22] Fan et al. warn of the risks involved with such eradication efforts: “In some cases, it may cause a disastrous impact to managed or natural ecosystems.” [23]

Macquarie Island, located roughly halfway between New Zealand and Antarctica, offers a well-documented example of such a disastrous impact. In 2000, cats were eradicated from this United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site in order to protect its seabird populations. The resulting rebound in rabbit and rodent numbers, however, has had its own disastrous impact. “In response, Federal and State governments in Australia have committed AU$24 million for an integrated rabbit, rat and mouse eradication programme.” [24]

Could something like this happen in the Florida Keys?

According to FWS, non-native rats are already “prevalent in residential and commercial areas.” [1] Should the removal of cats create a spike in their numbers, FWS suggests that they’re prepared to remove the rats, too: “Noticeable population increases based on reports, road kill, or other specific or auxiliary data may initiate targeted control and eradication efforts in addition to incidental capture…” [1]

But controlling these rats is complicated considerably by the need to protect Lower Keys marsh rabbits. The MSRP warns of these rabbits coming into contact with pesticides and “poisons used to control black rats.” [15]

“In a 1993 Biological Opinion, the FWS investigated the effects of vertebrate control agents on endangered and threatened species and determined that several chemicals (e.g., Pival) would jeopardize the continued existence of the Lower Keys marsh rabbit. Chemicals—such as Pival—a rodenticide used to kill rats, are lethal if ingested. The FWS also concluded that if development in the Keys continues to increase, the potential for these animals to come in contact with such chemicals also increases, as does the potential for their extinction. Based on these findings, the FWS believes the continued use of such chemicals will result in the deaths of Lower Keys marsh rabbits. Given that the majority of occupied habitat is adjacent to urbanized areas, and that urbanization continues to expand into their habitat, then it can reasonably be predicted that the use of such chemicals has had a negative impact upon the Lower Keys marsh rabbit that may prevent its recovery.” [15]

Removing Cats
It’s also not clear that FWS will be able to remove the free-roaming cats from the Keys. For one thing, they have no idea how many are there. Only now—after years of struggling with this issue—does FWS propose to “implement monitoring and conduct further research as needed to determine abundance and distribution of free-roaming cats throughout the Refuge, document effectiveness of management actions taken or not taken on cat populations, and determine the impacts on the ecosystems and native species to aid in the adaptive management process.” [1]

Plus, FWS has a rather poor track record when it comes to actually trapping cats.

In 2007, they “received $50,000 to remove cats from federal refuges on Big Pine Key and Key Largo, and to protect endangered marsh rabbits, silver rice rats and other animals and birds that call the refuges home.” [25] Reports (from what I can tell, nothing official has been issued) suggest that fewer than 20 cats were caught—some of which were returned to their owners (kudos to FWS and USDA)—along with 81 raccoons, 53 of which were released alive. [26]

I think it’s safe to say that the Keys’ wildlife reaped little or no benefit from this effort. Had that same money been used for TNR, on the other hand…

So what’s different this time around?

Déjà Vu
All the while I’ve been doing the research for this post, I’ve been haunted by two quotes I’ve used rather extensively in the past. Actually, the first is not a quote as such, but the title of Merritt Clifton’s excellent article: Where cats belong—and where they don’t. [27]

The second comes from Gary Patronek, who argues that “the release of cats into an environment where they would impact endangered or threatened species, or even into wildlife preserves or refuges, is inexcusable.” [28] Patronek, the former Director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at the Cummings School, and one of the founders of the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, continues:

I do not believe that this is being advocated by cat protectors who see urban, managed colonies as an imperfect but still preferable alternative to the euthanasia of healthy animals. Abandoned pet cats whose own habitat has been reduced to colonies, and the wild species endangered by clear-cutting or beachfront development, are casualties of the same callous disregard for the lives of animals. I see little justification for shifting the role of cats to that of scapegoat.” [28, emphasis mine]

Well, isn’t this precisely what I’m advocating? I honestly don’t know.

Here’s what I do know:

There is no doubt that the Florida Keys are immensely valuable for their diversity of animal and plant life, some of which can be found nowhere else in the world. Due to a wide range of factors (most of them human-caused), this habitat has become quite fragile, with some animal and plant species on the brink of extinction. And, in such habitats, it’s been shown that free-roaming cats can have a significant negative impact.

I also know that where cats have been eradicated, the process is a horror. In fact, it’s spelled out in some of the papers cited by FWS (though, understandably, they don’t draw attention to that):

  • Nogales et al., describing the “success” of Marion Island, note, “it took about 15 years of intense effort to eradicate the cats, combining several methods such as trapping, hunting, poisoning, and disease introduction… The use of disease agents or targeted poisoning campaigns hold promise for an initial population reduction in eradication programs on large islands—such an approach may save effort, time, and money.” [29]
  • Cruz and Cruz point out that, of all the non-native mammals there, cats were “the most difficult to control or eliminate on Floreana Island.” Although “hunting with dogs was the single most effective method employed and it gave a sure body count,” the authors warn that “the method was costly and with the limited manpower available was only useful over small areas. Both poisoning and trapping were effective and the combination of the three methods is probably the most effective approach, as well as being the best use of time and materials.” [4]
  • Veitch describes efforts on 11-square-mile Little Barrier Island as “a determined [cat] eradication attempt” involving “cage traps, leg-hold traps, dogs and 1080 poison were used, but leg-hold traps and 1080 poison were the only effective methods.” [3] Four cats were also infected with Feline enteritis, but “because of the poor reaction to the virus no other cats were dosed and none were released… Altogether, 151 cats were known to have been killed before the eradication was declared complete. Important lessons learnt can be transferred to other feral cat eradication programmes.” [3] (By way of comparison, the Keys are approximately 137 square miles in total area.)

I know that ecosystems—especially those as fragile as the Keys—are incomprehensibly complex, and that tinkering with them is incredibly risky. And there’s plenty we simply do not know, and cannot—despite our best efforts—predict.

But I know, too, that time is short. And that we’ll never have all the answers we’d like to have before the need for action precludes further inquiry.

Put another way: I’ve given this issue a lot of thought—and, here’s what I’m afraid will happen in the Keys:

FWS will proceed with their plan, rounding up cats—ferals and pets alike—on and “near” public lands. The pet cats will mostly be returned, but some mistakes—the risk of which will likely increase in an atmosphere of mass trapping—will surely be made. Feral cats will be killed.

Progress will move slowly, as these things often do—far too slowly to keep up with reproduction rates. If feeding and TNR are eliminated (to whatever extent possible) throughout the Keys, the cats will simply “go underground.” No more monitoring—and sterilizing—by the “foot soldiers” who currently care for colonies of cats.

Indeed, it’s quite likely that feral cat complaint calls to Monroe County, FWS, and the USDA would taper off considerably, as it becomes clear that such a call is essentially a death sentence. Thus, the cats become that much more difficult to locate—and sterilize. The population, therefore, increases.

Using a population model, Andersen, Martin, and Roemer have suggested that, in the absence of a sterilization program, 50 percent of cats would have to be removed in order for a colony to decrease 10 percent annually. [30] By contrast, the authors suggest that 75 percent of cats would need to be sterilized to achieve the same result.

This model has its flaws, as I’ve explained elsewhere, but the study is one many researchers are familiar with. And, frankly, it’s convenient for my purposes here.

Even if Andersen et al. are off by a factor of two, FWS would need to “remove” 25 percent of the free-roaming, unsterilized (and once they chase away the colony caretakers, it won’t be long before that’s the norm) cats continuously in order to achieve a 10 percent reduction in overall numbers.

Does anybody really think that’s going to happen? Where’s the evidence to suggest that it’s even possible?

FWS has—it seems—taken off the table the unspeakable methods so often employed on small, uninhabited islands.

“While lethal control is allowed by Refuge System policy, it is not a socially acceptable approach and is inconsistent with the points of consensus developed by the stakeholder group. This alternative would likely not be logistically feasible on a FKNWRC-wide basis and would not allow for adaptive management under a strategic habitat conservation approach.” [1]

But they’ve also taken TNR off the table. So, what’s left? We’re back to doing what we’ve been doing for years now—which, of course, is how we got into this mess in the first place.

From what I can tell, the FWS plan is nothing more than a warmed-over version of old-school trap-and-remove, an approach Mark Kumpf, president of the National Animal Control Association President from 2007 to 2008, describes as “bailing the ocean with a thimble.” [31] (There’s a metaphor that ought to resonate with people in the Keys!)

If so, it’s easy to imagine the losers in the deal—the cats, obviously, but also all of the wildlife FWS wants to protect. And the taxpayers, too, of course—not much of a return on investment for all of us, no matter what our position might be on feral cats, wildlife conservation, and the like.

The question is, where are the winners?

Literature Cited
1. n.a., Draft Environmental Assessment: Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex Integrated Predator Management Plan. 2011, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: Big Pine Key, FL.

2. Iverson, J.B., “The impact of feral cats and dogs on populations of the West Indian rock iguana, Cyclura carinata.” Biological Conservation. 1978. 14(1): p. 63–73. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6V5X-48XKN72-1NN/2/bff9bfdeecb8ff6cec68527221b99a97

3. Veitch, C.R., “The eradication of feral cats (Felis catus) from Little Barrier Island, New Zealand.” New Zealand Journal of Zoology. 2001. 28: p. 1–12. http://www.royalsociety.org.nz/publications/journals/nzjz/2001/001/

4. Cruz, J.B. and Cruz, F., “Conservation of the dark-rumped petrel Pterodroma phaeopygia in the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador.” Biological Conservation. 1987. 42(4): p. 303–311. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6V5X-48XKMBP-17J/2/f81b57e317f217802d9aca8b6927a88c

5. Calver, M., et al., “Reducing the rate of predation on wildlife by pet cats: The efficacy and practicability of collar-mounted pounce protectors.” Biological Conservation. 2007. 137(3): p. 341-348. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6V5X-4NGBB7H-3/2/456180347a2c3916d1ae99e220dd329e

6. n.a., State of the Birds, United States of America, 2009. 2009, U.S. Department of Interior: Washington, DC. p. 36.

7. Coleman, J.S. and Temple, S.A., “Rural Residents’ Free-Ranging Domestic Cats: A Survey.” Wildlife Society Bulletin. 1993. 21(4): p. 381–390.

8. 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

9. 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.

10. 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.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/javma_225_9_1377.pdf

11. Stallcup, R., “A reversible catastrophe.” Observer 91. 1991(Spring/Summer): p. 8–9.

12. Sax, D.F. and Gaines, S.D., Species invasions and extinction: The future of native biodiversity on islands, in In the Light of Evolution II: Biodiversity and Extinction,. 2008: Irvine, CA. p. 11490–11497. www.pnas.org/content/105/suppl.1/11490.full

13. n.a. (2007, March 29). Key Deer Refuge wants to control feral cats: A plan to round up feral cats in the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine and No Name keys has animal-rights groups and area cat owners upset. The Reporter.

14. Busweiler, R. (2008, December 1). Feds begin drafting rabbit protection plan—BIG PINE KEY. The Key West Citizen.

15.  n.a., Multi-Species Recovery Plan for South Florida: Lower Keys Rabbit. 1999, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Atlanta, GA. p. 151–171. www.fws.gov/verobeach/images/pdflibrary/lkmr.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. www.kiccc.org.au/pics/FeralCatsRome2006.pdf

17. 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.

18. Levy, J.K., Personal communication, 2010.

19. Hatley, P.J., Feral Cat Colonies in Florida: The Fur and the Feathers Are Flying. 2003, University of Florida Conservation Clinic: Gainsville, FL. www.law.ufl.edu/conservation/pdf/feralcat.pdf

20. Soulé, M.E., et al., “Reconstructed Dynamics of Rapid Extinctions of Chaparral-Requiring Birds in Urban Habitat Islands.” Conservation Biology. 1988. 2(1): p. 75-92. http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/2027.42/74761/1/j.1523-1739.1988.tb00337.x.pdf

21. Crooks, K.R. and Soulé, M.E., “Mesopredator release and avifaunal extinctions in a fragmented system.” Nature. 1999. 400(6744): p. 563–566. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v400/n6744/abs/400563a0.html

22. Courchamp, F., Langlais, M., and Sugihara, G., “Cats protecting birds: modelling the mesopredator release effect.” Journal of Animal Ecology. 1999. 68(2): p. 282–292. http://deepeco.ucsd.edu/~george/publications/99_cats_protecting.pdf

23. Fan, M., Kuang, Y., and Feng, Z., “Cats protecting birds revisited.” Bulletin of Mathematical Biology. 2005. 67(5): p. 1081-1106. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bulm.2004.12.002

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

25. O’Hara, T. (2007, April 3). Fish & Wildlife Service to begin removing cats from Keys refuges. The Key West Citizen.

26. n.a., Lower Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Comprehensive Conservation Plan. 2009, U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service: Atlanta, GA.

27. Clifton, M. Where cats belong—and where they don’t. Animal People 2003.  http://www.animalpeoplenews.org/03/6/wherecatsBelong6.03.html.

28. Patronek, G.J., “Letter to Editor.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 1996. 209(10): p. 1686–1687.

29. Nogales, M., et al., “A Review of Feral Cat Eradication on Islands.” Conservation Biology. 2004. 18(2): p. 310-319. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2004.00442.x

30. 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. http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/javma_225_12_1871.pdf

31. 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/broader_view_of_cats.pdf