The Things People Say (or Don’t)—Part 1

Wildlife/bird advocates opposed to TNR are eager to talk to the press, so why won’t they reply to my e-mail?

Just about the time I was writing my response to “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” (Conservation Biology, Volume 23, No. 4, 887–894), its lead author, Travis Longcore, began showing up in the news. The Urban Wildlands Group, for which Longcore serves as science director, was the lead petitioner in the case that would eventually lead to an injunction against publicly supported TNR in Los Angeles.

Given the obvious bias and overall tone of Longcore’s paper, I was hardly surprised to read what he told the press. There’s this, for example, from an interview with Southern California Public Radio:

“Feral cats are documented predators of native wildlife,” said Travis Longcore, science director for the Urban Wildlands Group. “We do not support release of this non-native predator into our open spaces and neighborhoods, where they kill birds and other wildlife.”

Hardly the stuff of controversy, at least at first glance. Who can argue with the fact that cats kills birds and other wildlife? That’s what predators—including cats and a number of other species, too, of course—do. Nobody’s debating that. What impact this predation has on birds and wildlife is another matter altogether—one Longcore doesn’t address here. (I’ll be addressing this issue repeatedly in future posts, starting with a critique of Longcore’s essay in Conservation Biology).

What’s more interesting is Longcore’s reference to cats as “non-native” and wildlife as “native.” It’s a recurring theme in the feral cat debate: native is inherently good; non-native is inherently bad (even worse is invasive non-native, another term often used to demonize cats). Never mind the fact that the cats are here because we brought them here, or the hypocrisy of the native/non-native argument. We routinely protect non-native species from native predators—consider, for example, the current controversy over livestock and wolves. Again, a topic to delve into more deeply in the future.

A week later, Longcore was quoted in the Los Angeles Times:

“It’s ugly; it’s gotten very vicious,” said Travis Longcore of the Urban Wildlands Group, one of the organizations that sued the city on behalf of the birds. “It’s not like we’ve got a vendetta here. This is a real environmental issue, a real public health issue.”

No vendetta? Maybe not, but Longcore’s essay in Conservation Biology has an agenda that takes priority over the science (hardly surprising in retrospect—given the timing of its publication, it must have been written while Longcore was preparing for the L.A. case). His apparent concern for the environment and public health strike me as largely disingenuous.

Also from the Times:

Those cats, Longcore said, often are diseased. And when colonies are fed, the practice often attracts more cats, either from around the neighborhood or because people dump new cats.

Let’s set aside for the moment Longcore’s assertion about colonies attracting cats, feral or dumped (I’ll get to that in another post). What about his suggestion that “these cats are often diseased”? In his own paper, Longcore acknowledges a rate of only 5–12% overall for feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and/or feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). In the largest of the studies he cites, more than 12,000 cats were tested for FeLV and FIV, revealing an overall rate of infection of 5.2%, which, noted the researchers, “is similar to results previously reported for feral cats and for pet cats.” [1]

What about rabies? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “approximately 1% of cats… tested for rabies were found positive” in 2008, the last year for which statistics are available.

It’s difficult to see how these rates of infection would lead anybody to suggest that free-roaming cats are “often diseased.” And I don’t expect to get any clarification from Longcore. While he seems eager to talk to mainstream media, which accepts his claims at face value (and passes them along as accurate to the public), he has yet to respond to my e-mail inquires.

I realize that taking issue with Longcore’s comments will no doubt strike some people as nitpicking. But such statements—which put PR before science—only impede any honest discussion of the issues.

[1] Wallace, J. L., & Levy, J. K. (2006). Population characteristics of feral cats admitted to seven trap-neuter-return programs in the United States. Journal of Feline Medicine & Surgery, 8, 279–284.


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