Adult Supervision Required

“Have you seen this already? This is awful.”

That’s what somebody posted on the Vox Felina Facebook page late last night—along with a link to an MSNBC news story. The headline was an attention-getter, no doubt about it: “Report: Kill feral cats to control their colonies.”

But beyond that, MSNBC had practically no details. A little digging around, however, led me to New England Cable News (NECN), which has the complete story.

“The report began in an undergraduate wildlife management class, with students writing reports on feral cats based on existing research. The students’ professor and other [University of Nebraska] researchers then compiled the report from the students’ work.” [1]

“Feral Cats and Their Management” claims, straightforwardly enough, to provide “research-based information on the management of feral cats.” [2] Management, in this case, meaning—as is so often the case in such contexts—killing, extermination, eradication, and so forth. Detailed advice is provided (e.g., “Body-gripping traps and snares can be used to quickly kill feral cats”).

And research? In this case, nothing more than a cursory review of all of the usual suspects: Coleman and Temple, Pamela Jo Hatley, Cole Hawkins, The Wildlife Society, Linda Winter. In other words, lots of Kool-Aid drinking.

It’s Like Science, Only Different
Among the research misinterpreted and/or misrepresented (none of which is cited in the text):

“As instinctive hunters, feral cats pose a serious threat to native wildlife, particularly birds.”

It’s no surprise that the authors of the report offer no evidence to support such a sweeping claim. “There are few if any studies,” write Mike Fitzgerald and Dennis Turner in their contribution to The Domestic Cat: The biology of its behaviour, “apart from island ones that actually demonstrate that cats have reduced bird populations.” [3]

Biologist C.J. Mead, reviewing the deaths of “ringed” (banded) birds reported by the British public, suggests that cats may be responsible for 6.2–31.3% of bird deaths. “Overall,” writes Mead, “it is clear that cat predation is a significant cause of death for most of the species examined.” Nevertheless, Mead concludes, “there is no clear evidence of cats threatening to harm the overall population level of any particular species… Indeed, cats have been kept as pets for many years and hundreds of generations of birds breeding in suburban and rural areas have had to contend with their predatory intentions.” [4]

The German zoologist Paul Leyhausen (1916–1998), who spent the bulk of his career studying the behavior of cats, found that cats, frustrated by the difficulties of catching them, “may soon give up hunting birds.” [5]

“During years in the field,” wrote Leyhausen, “I have observed countless times how cats have caught a mouse or a rat and just as often how they have stalked a bird. But I never saw them catch a healthy songbird that was capable of flying. Certainly it does happen, but, as I have said, seldom. I should feel sorry for the average domestic cat that had to live solely on catching birds.” [5]

“Cats kill an estimated 480 million birds per year (assuming eight birds killed per feral cat per year).”

Fitzgerald and Turner (whose work is not referenced in the report) argue that “we do not have enough information yet to attempt to estimate on average how many birds a cat kills each year.” [3] Though, of course, many studies have tried to do exactly that—few, it should be said, involve feral cats.

Unfortunately—and as I have pointed out time and time again—such work typically suffers from a range of methodological and analytical problems (e.g., statistical errors, small sample sizes, and inappropriate/baseless assumptions).

And—as with the UNL report—obvious bias.

“Estimates from Wisconsin indicate that between 500,000 and 8 million birds are killed by rural cats each year in that state…”

How anybody could misquote the numbers from the Wisconsin Study—easily the most widely circulated work on the subject—is a mystery. (On the other hand, the figures were, as Stanley Temple has said, “not actual data” [6] in the first place, so I suppose that does allow for some rather liberal interpretation.)

“The diets of well-fed house-based cats in Sweden consisted of 15 percent to 90 percent native prey, depending on availability.”

How important is it that the prey of feral cats is native, versus non-native? That’s a point of some debate—but not in this case. See, what Liberg actually wrote was this: “Most cats (80-85%) were house-based and obtained from 15 to 90% of their food from natural prey, depending on abundance and availability of the latter.” [7, emphasis mine] He was merely drawing the distinction between food provided by humans and any prey that cats might eat as food.

Liberg goes on to point out that the predation he documented did not, justify a conclusive assessment of the effects of cats on their prey populations, but… indicate[s] that cats by themselves were not limiting any of their prey.” [7] Even high rates of predation do not equate to population declines.

“In California, 67 percent of rodents, 95 percent of birds, and 100 percent of lizards brought home by cats were native species, and native birds were twice as likely to be seen in areas without cats.”

What looks to be truly damning evidence loses much of its impact when it’s seen in context. The reference to Crooks and Soulé’s 1999 paper, for example, omitted the sample size involved: “Identification of 68 prey items returned by cats bordering the fragments indicated that 67% of 26 rodents, 95% of 21 birds and 100% of 11 lizards were native species.” [8] It’s important to note, too, that these researchers asked residents to recall what kind of prey their cats returned—no prey items were collected—thereby raising questions about the accuracy of species attribution.

Furthermore, the cats involved with Crooks and Soulé’s study were all pet cats. How their habits compare with those of feral cats is an open question. Merritt Clifton of Animal People, an independent newspaper dedicated to animal protection issues, suggests, “feral cats appear to hunt no more, and perhaps less, than free-roaming pet cats. This is because, like other wild predators, they hunt not for sport but for food, and hunting more prey than they can eat is a pointless waste of energy.”

The second portion of the quote refers to Cole Hawkins’ PhD dissertation. Hawkins’ research methods and analysis are so problematic that the suggestion of a causal relationship between the presence of cats and the absence of birds (native or otherwise) is highly inappropriate (indeed, Hawkins scarcely investigates predation at all).

Among the key issues: Hawkins had no idea what the “cat” area of his study site was like before the cats were there; he merely assumes it was identical to the “no cat” area in terms of its fauna (though the two landscapes are actually quite different). It’s also interesting to note Hawkins’ emphasis on “the preference of ground feeding birds for the no-cat treatment” while downplaying the fact that five of the nine ground-feeding species included in the study showed no preference for either area. (For a more comprehensive analysis, please see my previous post on the subject.)

“…cats are the most important species in the life cycle of the parasite responsible for toxoplasmosis, and in 3 separate studies, most feral cats (62 percent to 80 percent) tested positive for toxoplasmosis.”

While cats are the “definitive host,” it’s important to note that “wild game can be a source of T. gondii infection in humans, cats, and other carnivores. Serologic data show that a significant number of feral pigs, bears, and cervids are exposed to T. gondii.” [9]

“Humans,” write Elmore et al., “usually become infected through ingestion of oocyst-contaminated soil and water, tissue cysts in undercooked meat, or congenitally. Because of their fastidious nature, the passing of non-infective oocysts, and the short duration of oocyst shedding, direct contact with cats is not thought to be a primary risk for human infection.” [10]

Toxoplasma gondii has been linked to the illness and death of marine life, primarily sea otters [11], prompting investigation into the possible role of free-roaming (both owned and feral) cats. [12, 13] It’s generally thought that oocysts (the mature, infective form of the parasite) are transferred from soil contaminated with infected feces to coastal waterways by way of freshwater run-off. [13]

However, a 2005 study found that 36 of 50 sea otters from coastal California were infected with the Type X strain of T. gondii [14], a type linked to wild felids (mountain lions and a bobcat, in this case), but not to domestic cats. [13] A recently published study from Germany seems to corroborate these findings. Herrmann et al. analyzed 18,259 fecal samples (all from pet cats) for T. gondii and found no Type X strain.  (It’s interesting to note, too, that only 0.25% of the samples tested positive for T. gondii). [15]

[NOTE: Please see follow-up post for additional information about cats and T. gondii.]

“Predation by cats on birds has an economic impact of more than $17 billion dollars [sic] per year in the U.S. The estimated cost per bird is $30, based on literature citing that bird watchers spend $0.40 per bird observed, hunters spend $216 per bird shot, and bird rearers spend $800 per bird released.”

According to this bizarre form of accounting, hunters value an individual bird more than 500 times as much as a birdwatcher does—suggesting, it seems, that dead birds are far more valuable than live birds. This is the kind of estimate that can be developed only through university (or perhaps government) research efforts.

Public Indecency
Stephen Vantassel, a wildlife damage project coordinator who worked on the study, said researchers were aware that some people would be ‘very offended that we offered any type of lethal control method.’ But he said the report was written for public consumption and wasn’t submitted to any science journals for publication.” [1]

For the record, Dr. Vantassel, I’m more offended by the way you’ve allowed such sloppy, grossly irresponsible work to pass for “research.” And the idea that such an undertaking is somehow acceptable because it’s meant for a mass audience is simply absurd!

Naturally, the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) embraced the report immediately, “with one official calling it ‘a must read for any community or government official thinking about what to do about feral cats.’” [1]

“‘Not surprisingly, the report validates everything American Bird Conservancy has been saying about the feral cat issue for many years—namely, TNR doesn’t work in controlling feral cat populations,’ Darin Schroeder, vice president of the Conservation Advocacy for American Bird Conservancy, said Tuesday.”

But validation requires far more than this report provides—beginning with a real interest in scientific inquiry and some basic critical thinking skills. And while we’re at it, a refresher in ethics wouldn’t hurt, either.

*     *     *

In my previous post, I’d indicated that my next post—this post—was going to focus on The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation. Obviously, something came up. Anyhow, the book will keep for a few more days…

Literature Cited
1. n.a. (2010) Report: Kill feral cats to control their colonies Accessed December 1, 2010.

2. Hildreth, A.M., Vantassel, S.M., and Hygnstrom, S.E., Feral Cats and Their Managment. 2010, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension: Lincoln, NE.

3. Fitzgerald, B.M. and Turner, D.C., Hunting Behaviour 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. 2000, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, U.K.; New York. p. 151–175.

4. Mead, C.J., “Ringed birds killed by cats.” Mammal Review. 1982. 12(4): p. 183-186.

5. Leyhausen, P., Cat behavior: The predatory and social behavior of domestic and wild cats. Garland series in ethology. 1979, New York: Garland STPM Press.

6. Elliott, J. (1994, March 3–16). The Accused. The Sonoma County Independent, pp. 1, 10

7. Liberg, O., “Food Habits and Prey Impact by Feral and House-Based Domestic Cats in a Rural Area in Southern Sweden.” Journal of Mammalogy. 1984. 65(3): p. 424-432.

8. Crooks, K.R. and Soule, M.E., “Mesopredator release and avifaunal extinctions in a fragmented system.” Nature. 1999. 400(6744): p. 563.

9. Hill, D.E., Chirukandoth, S., and Dubey, J.P., “Biology and epidemiology of Toxoplasma gondii in man and animals.” Animal Health Research Reviews. 2005. 6(01): p. 41-61.

10. Elmore, S.A., et al., “Toxoplasma gondii: epidemiology, feline clinical aspects, and prevention.” Trends in Parasitology. 26(4): p. 190-196.

11. Jones, J.L. and Dubey, J.P., “Waterborne toxoplasmosis – Recent developments.” Experimental Parasitology. 124(1): p. 10-25.

12. Dabritz, H.A., et al., “Outdoor fecal deposition by free-roaming cats and attitudes of cat owners and nonowners toward stray pets, wildlife, and water pollution.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2006. 229(1): p. 74-81.

13. Miller, M.A., et al., “Type X Toxoplasma gondii in a wild mussel and terrestrial carnivores from coastal California: New linkages between terrestrial mammals, runoff and toxoplasmosis of sea otters.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2008. 38(11): p. 1319-1328.

14. Conrad, P.A., et al., “Transmission of Toxoplasma: Clues from the study of sea otters as sentinels of Toxoplasma gondii flow into the marine environment.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2005. 35(11-12): p. 1155-1168.

15. Herrmann, D.C., et al., “Atypical Toxoplasma gondii genotypes identified in oocysts shed by cats in Germany.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2010. 40(3): p. 285–292.