No-Kill Austin? Not So Fast.

In March, Austin made headlines when its city council voted to adopt “Recommendations for the Implementation Plan to Reduce Animal Intake and Increase Live Animal Outcomes,” also known as the “No Kill Plan.” Over the weekend, it became clear just what an accomplishment this was, when Austin American-Statesman writer Mike Leggett devoted his column to the defense of his cat-killing neighbor. According to Leggett, the man’s killed more than 20 feral cats—he “just cannot tolerate what cats do to wild birds.” And, according to Leggett, “none of us should.”

Not exactly the no-kill spirit Austin had in mind, I’ll bet.

As if anticipating a backlash from Statesman readers, Leggett offered “all apologies to cat lovers,” before launching into his personal endorsement of cat killing. Judging by the online comments, there are a lot of people out there who doubt his sincerity. And what about Leggett’s neighbor, the executioner? He’s not a bad guy, either, apparently: “He doesn’t boast about it. Doesn’t take any pleasure in it.” Indeed, writes Leggett, “His family has owned cats.” What does that mean, exactly? Did his grandmother have a cat once? Hardly a ringing endorsement.

And nothing even approximating a defense. Leggett seems to be suggesting that it’s OK to kill cats as long as “your family has owned cats.” But how would that work, do you suppose? I mean, does this apply only to immediate family? Is there a statute of limitations involved? What if my family has owned only dogs—am I still allowed to kill cats?

Leggett’s argument doesn’t get any better when he looks to science for support, referring to the infamous “Wisconsin Study.” He doesn’t cite a specific source, but it’s likely, given which estimate he used, that it came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Apparently, that’s good enough for Leggett. Never mind the fact that he’s writing about a controversial subject—which, one would hope, warrants a little bit of honest research.

Leggett also refers to a recent study published in The Journal of Mammalogy. Leggett’s take on this research: “Catching feral cats and neutering them did nothing to diminish the territory they hunted, nor did it stop them from hunting the birds that nest and rest on the island.” Anybody familiar with the topic of cat predation knows that results of island studies cannot simply be applied to continental studies. Or, to put it another way, Austin is not an island.

But there are more immediate issues with Leggett’s use of this research as “evidence.” The Catalina study [1] actually had very little to do with the hunting habits of cats at all. Essentially, these researchers measured how far 27 cats traveled across the island—to get a sense of their range—and also estimated the total number of cats living on Catalina. Everything else was extrapolation and speculation. There have been many studies of cat predation, but this is not one of them.

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What comes through loud and clear (despite his disingenuous attempts to suggest otherwise: “I know killing cats is not for everyone. I know I don’t want to do it.”) is that Leggett simply doesn’t like cats. And he’s looking for whatever support he can find to justify their being killed. But he’s done something far worse. By presenting his endorsement as something justified scientifically—in a major newspaper—Leggett has crossed another line altogether.

If Leggett wants to engage in the feral cat/TNR debate, then he should do so honestly. His recent column—lacking even the pretense of a genuine journalistic endeavor—demonstrates an inexcusable lack of professional integrity. And the same can be said for the editorial staff across whose desks his article passed. What value did they suppose it would add to the paper? To the lives of its readers? Is it any wonder newspapers are in decline?

1. Guttilla, D.A. and Stapp, P., “Effects of sterilization on movements of feral cats at a wildland-urban interface.” Journal of Mammalogy. 91(2): p. 482-489.