Learning Your ABC

According to an AP story posted on MSNBC, city officials in Barre, VT, are considering a leash law for cats—effectively prohibiting them from roaming. Such stories tend to vary only in their specifics; quotes from embattled citizens, and feline references that are more dismissive than clever (e.g., in Barre, the debate “sparked a hissing match”) are pretty much a given. And, more often than not, there’s a statement from the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) about the threat free-roaming cats pose to wildlife. This story was no exception:

“Scientists estimate that free-roaming cats kill hundreds of millions of birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians each year,” the Virginia-based American Bird Conservancy, which runs a “Cats Indoors!” campaign, says on its website. “Cat predation is an added stress to wildlife populations already struggling to survive habitat loss, pollution, pesticides, and other human impacts.”

Although I don’t know anybody who would argue with ABC’s second point, that first one bears closer inspection.

I discussed a similar claim by ABC’s Senior Policy Advisor, Steve Holmer, in one of my first Vox Felina posts. In January, Holmer told the Los Angeles Times:

“The latest estimates are that there are about . . . 160 million feral cats [nationwide] . . .  It’s conservatively estimated that they kill about 500 million birds a year.”

Late last year, an article in Audubon Magazine had published nearly identical figures, citing ABC as its source. [1]

The feral cat estimate comes from a conference paper written by Nico Dauphiné and Robert J. Cooper, available for download via the ABC website. When I pressed Holmer about the authors’ “creative accounting,” he backed off, assuring me that ABC’s materials “should now say”:

There are currently 88 million pet cats in the U.S. according to a pet trade association, and that number is growing. In addition, it is estimated that there may be 60–100 million free-ranging feral cats in the U.S., and that these cats may collectively kill more than one million birds each day. Reducing this mortality even a small amount could potentially save millions of birds each year.

I never received a reply, though, to my inquiries about that “more than one million birds each day” claim. Such incidents are, unfortunately, not uncommon; when it comes to assertions about cat predation and its impact on wildlife, ABC has a rich—and rather shameful—history.

Cats Indoors!
Holmer’s comment to the L.A. Times is just one example of ABC’s concerted effort to use the (largely unquestioning) media in getting their message out. Last year, at a news conference about the “The U.S. State of the Birds” report, ABC’s Darin Schroeder told the press, “education is urgently needed to make the public aware of the toll of pet cats.” Which is precisely what ABC’s Cats Indoors! campaign—launched in 1997—aims to do.

The question is, what kind of education is the public getting from ABC?

  • A 1997 report by ABC claimed, “extensive studies of the feeding habits of domestic, free-roaming cats… show that approximately… 20 to 30 percent [of their diet] are birds.” [cited in 2] In fact, as Ellen Perry Berkeley points out in her book, TNR Past Present and Future: A history of the trap-neuter-return movement, the 20–30% figure was not based on “extensive studies” at all. [2]ABC’s Linda Winter, writing to Berkeley, cited just three sources. Two of them—the now-classic “English village” study by Peter Churcher and John Lawton, and the “Wisconsin Study” by John Coleman and Stanley Temple—have been widely discredited. [3–5] And the third, Mike Fitzgerald’s contribution to “Diet of domestic cats and their impact on prey populations,” [6] was misinterpreted and/or misrepresented by ABC. (As Berkeley notes, Fitzgerald’s data “would put birds, as a portion of the diet of cats, at roughly 7 to 10.5 percent—nowhere near the ‘20 to 30 percent’ figures unleashed on the unscientific public by ABC!” [2])
  • Winter, director of Cats Indoors! (assuming she’s still at ABC; their website does not list her among the staff), and ABC president George Fenwick were among those thanked “for helpful and constructive reviews” in the Acknowledgements section of Christopher Lepczyk’s 2003 paper, “Landowners and cat predation across rural-to-urban landscapes.” As I detailed in my previous post, Lepczyk’s study is flawed both in terms of its method and analysis, and his predation estimates are highly inflated as a result. The fact that Winter and Fenwick were involved in such as study—at any level—raises questions about ABC’s credibility (and its possible influence on research outcomes).
  • In 2004, Winter misrepresented the results of a survey commissioned by ABC. In “Trap-neuter-release programs: The reality and the impacts,” published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, she suggested, “66% of cat owners let their cats outdoors some or all of the time.” [7]In fact, the survey indicated that “35% keep their cats indoors all of the time” and “31% keep them indoors mostly with some outside access.” [9] While Winter’s claim isn’t exactly untrue, it certainly paints a very different picture: rather than one-third, two-thirds of cats are free-roaming. Which, apparently, is exactly how Dauphiné and Cooper read it, combining this with an inflated figure for the number of feral cats to come up with their estimate of “117–157 million free-ranging cats in the United States.” [8] (It’s difficult not to see a certain coziness here: Dauphiné and Cooper citing Winter’s “interpretation” of her own survey results, and Holmer’s reliance on Dauphiné and Cooper’s conference paper.
  • To this day, ABC refers to the highly-criticized Wisconsin Study in its brochure Domestic Cat Predation on Birds and Other Wildlife: “Researchers… estimated that rural free-roaming cats kill at least 7.8 million and perhaps as many as 217 million birds a year in Wisconsin. Suburban and urban cats add to that toll.” [9]And, despite Berkeley’s efforts to untangle their erroneous dietary figures, ABC has backed off only slightly: “In an ongoing, but unpublished, study of cat prey items including stomach contents, scat analysis, observations of kills, and prey remains, birds were 19.6% of 1,976 prey captured by 78 outdoor cats (Temple, S.A, Univ. of WI, personal communication, 1/22/04).”

    [Note: Download Laurie D. Goldstein’s Addressing the Wisconsin Study for a comprehensive critique of this work.]

*     *     *

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for keeping cats indoors. But what about the feral and stray cats out there—what happens to them? Here, ABC doesn’t seem to have a lot of answers. At least not any they’re willing to be up-front about.

In fact, by disseminating information that is at best misleading—and often, just plain wrong—ABC is doing whatever it can to shape policy in such a way that many of these cats will, one way or another, be killed. Intentional or not, Cats Indoors! has become a kind of Trojan horse for those determined to eliminate all free-roaming cats. Attention can very quickly shift from the impact of a proposed leash law, for example, to the “cat problem” in general.

Although it’s packaged as sound advice for cat owners, the Cats Indoors! campaign has probably had a far greater (deadly) impact on unowned cats than on pet cats.

1. Williams, T., Felines Fatale, in Audubon Magazine. 2009, National Audubon Society: New York, NY. http://www.audubonmagazine.org/incite/incite0909.html

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

3. Goldstein, L.D., O’Keefe, C.L., and Bickel, H.L. Addressing “The Wisconsin Study”. 2003.  http://www.straypetadvocacy.org/html/wisconsin_study.html.

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

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

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

7. Winter, L., “Trap-neuter-release programs: the reality and the impacts.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1369-1376.

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

9. ABC, Domestic Cat Predation on Birds and Other Wildlife. n.d., American Bird Conservancy: The Plains, VA. www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/materials/predation.pdf