Nibbling at the Margins—Part 1

Since I first became involved with the Great Kitty Rescue, I’d begun slowly compiling journal articles and news stories related to feral cat management, and in particular, TNR. As a newcomer to the world of cat rescue, I was struggling to sift through the many claims made—on both sides of this highly controversial issue—regarding its efficacy and potential impact.

When I came across the essay “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” (Conservation Biology, Volume 23, No. 4, 887–894). I thought I’d struck gold. Here, I naively assumed, was what I’d been looking for, all neatly complied in a single document (complete with an extensive list of references, allowing me to chase down all of the original research as well). As it turned out, the discovery of this essay proved to be a turning point—but not in the way that I expected. Instead of answering my questions, this paper (the details of which will be the focus of many future posts) raised many more. This “critical assessment,” authored by Travis Longcore, Catherine Rich, and Lauren M. Sullivan—with its glaring omissions, numerous misrepresentations, and obvious bias—revealed for me the ugly side of the feral cat/TNR debate.

So I did what any writer in my position would do: I wrote a letter to the editor.

I was then invited by outgoing editor Gary Meffe (who had been at the helm when the original essay was published) to submit a letter for possible publication in the journal. The letter, suggested Meffe, was “to be substantive and shed more light than heat. In other words, if it is simply a difference of opinion it will not be suitable. I always look for letters to be substantive critiques of a paper.”

Which, I maintain, is precisely what I delivered. Meffe, however, disagreed, and—to his credit—explained in detail his reasoning:

I am not saying it is unimportant to conservation, but it is a fairly narrow and specialized topic. Publication of the Longcore et al. paper was nibbling at the margins to begin with, but I and the reviewers felt that it had enough relevance and interest for us to publish it. I am reluctant to further engage the topic in the journal in great detail, so any responses to it need to be very focused and address specific errors in the paper. Your critique gets into assessment of the broader literature on the subject and its use by Longcore et al. I don’t think this is the format to do that. You are really critiquing the overall literature in the area and pointing out its complexities, problems, and uncertainties; one could do that for almost any topic in conservation and probably for many papers that are published. If this cat TNR literature really is problematic then it calls for a much more comprehensive critical assessment in a thorough review paper. Thus, if you would like to prepare a comprehensive review paper on cat TNR that thoroughly examines the literature and its complexities and problems, then perhaps that could be of interest to this journal.

Not the response I was hoping for, obviously—but I’d already invested too much to give up so easily. Perhaps my next letter would be more successful…


The Cat Debate