Prince George’s County, Maryland

“Bird lovers have just derailed a plan to save some alley cats from death at the hands of animal control,” writes Bruce Leshan in a WUSA-9 TV story that aired Tuesday. “When Prince George’s County Council woman Mary Lehman proposed to order animal control to release” TNR cats, “she ran into a storm of criticism at a council public hearing.” [1]

As Lehman pointed out, “This is not trail-blazing legislation. Fairfax County, Baltimore City, and Washington, DC, all have programs.”

So what’s the hold-up in Prince George’s County? Mostly the American Bird Conservancy, it seems.

“The American Bird Conservancy, which opposes ‘trap, neuter, and return,’ says what you are really doing is releasing predatory, ownerless cats back into the wild to kill again.” [1]

Presumably, ABC will be leading the charge when Lehman brings her bill up again in the fall, which she’s promised to do. Perhaps they can then explain to the Prince George’s County Council—and everybody else—the rationale for their position. Where’s the science to support the numerous claims they make to the media?

“By some counts there are as many as 120 million wild cats roaming the woods and alleys of America,” writes Leshan. “And studies cited by the American Bird Conservancy suggest they kill as many as 4.1 billion birds and small mammals a year.” [1]

120 million?

That’s a number that ABC first began throwing around in their 2010 book The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation. [2] Of course, there is no such “count.” And, while I don’t recognize that 4.1 billon figure, there’s no reason—given ABC’s abysmal track record when it comes to predation claims—to believe it’s even remotely valid.

ABC might also explain, should they return to oppose Lehman’s bill, how exactly cats impact bird populations. And how the situation here in the U.S. is different from that in the U.K. (where, by the way, allowing pet cats access to the outdoors is far more common than in this country).

Why doesn’t the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds share ABC’s fears?  “Despite the large numbers of birds killed, there is no scientific evidence that predation by cats in gardens is having any impact on bird populations UK-wide,” explains an article on the RSPB website. “It is likely that most of the birds killed by cats would have died anyway from other causes before the next breeding season, so cats are unlikely to have a major impact on populations.” [3]

And, while they’re at it, perhaps ABC could produce—finally, after 15 years—the “extensive studies of the feeding habits of domestic, free-roaming cats… show[ing] that approximately… 20 to 30 percent [of their diet] are birds.” [4]* Oh, and explain how prohibiting TNR and the feeding of outdoor cats will, as ABC claims, “stop the epidemic spread of feral cats.”

But why stop there?

As long as ABC is going to oppose the kind of legislation being proposed in Prince George’s County (where, by the way, the Animal Services budget for this year was cut 4.8 percent below its 2011 level [5]) shouldn’t they bring something besides indefensible “scientific” claims to the table? An alternative to TNR, for example?

Once the press starts asking about that, though, ABC—like other TNR opponents—isn’t going to have much to say.

* In fact, the very study cited as support [6] contradicts this claim; Mike Fitzgerald reported his results as percent frequency of occurrence, not as a percentage of overall dietary intake. (Although Ellen Perry Berkeley [7] untangled this eight years ago—and has Fitzgerald on record stating that ABC’s “interpretation” likely overstates predation levels by a factor of two or three—the claim is included in the 2011 version of ABC’s Domestic Cat Predation on Birds and Other Wildlife.)

Literature Cited
1. Leshan, B. (2012) Britt Cocanour of Alley Cat Allies in Bethesda, Md., says humans pose greater threat to songbirds than feral cats do

2. Lebbin, D.J., Parr, M.J., and Fenwick, G.H., The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation. 2010, London: University of Chicago Press.

3. RSPB (2011) Are cats causing bird declines? Accessed October 26, 2011.

4. ABC, Domestic Cat Predation on Birds and Other Wildlife. 2011, American Bird Conservancy: The Plains, VA.

5. n.a., Proposed Operating Budget Fiscal Year 2012: Department of Environmental Resources. 2011, Prince George’s County, Virginia.

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: Cambridge; New York. p. 123–147.

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