War on Nature, War on Cats

In Nature Wars, to be released next week, award-winning journalist Jim Sterba argues that it’s time for Americans to reconnect with nature—and what better incentive than a massive lethal control campaign against any number of plants and animals, including feral cats? His book reflects attitudes that are out of step with contemporary culture, and a rationale that’s not supported by the science. As the song says: War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothin’…

“People have very different ideas regarding what to do, if anything, about the wild creatures in their midst,” writes Jim Sterba in his new book Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards Into Battlegrounds, “even when they are causing problems.”

“Enjoy them? Adjust to them? Move them? Remove them? Relations between people and wildlife have never been more confused, complicated, or conflicted.” [1]

Agreed. And I largely agree with Sterba’s diagnosis: “Americans have become denatured.”

“That is to say, they have forgotten the skills their ancestors acquired to manage an often unruly natural world around them, and they have largely withdrawn from direct contact with that world by spending most of their time indoors, substituting a great deal of real nature with reel nature—edited, packaged, digitized, and piped in electronically.” [1]

So what’s the solution? Here, Sterba and I part company. For him, “management” is, in almost all cases, fatal; the unruly are to be ruled—and by whatever means necessary. Sterba, it seems, [see Note 1] has little interest in non-lethal control methods. He’s dismissive, for example, of immunocontraceptive vaccines for white-tailed deer.

“Animal rights people speak in glowing terms about how wonderfully birth control works—in limited tests. Lots of people at the meeting have heard about someplace over the horizon where a deer contraception program has been a great success.” [1]

Well, as he says, people have different ideas about what to do. The trouble with Nature Wars isn’t so much Sterba’s unapologetic endorsement for killing as our best—perhaps only—route to a balanced ecosystem; [see Note 2] far more problematic is his rationale, which betrays, at best, a profound lack of curiosity on the part of this veteran journalist, or, more likely, a willful blindness to the relevant science.

Not two pages into the book’s introduction, Sterba suffers the first of many blows to his credibility when he complains of the white-tailed deer that frequent his Dutchess County, NY, weekend rental: “They snack in our yard and have salted it with ticks (I’ve had Lyme disease three times in eleven years).” [see Note 3] [1]

In fact, the deer have little to do with Sterba (or anybody else) contracting Lyme disease. Indeed, a 2002 study conducted in—of all places, Dutchess County—found that 80–90 percent of ticks infected with the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium, the cause of Lyme disease, were traced not to whitetails, but to mice, chipmunks, and shrews. [2] Moreover, it’s been shown that “whenever deer are eliminated, reduced by hunting, or excluded by fencing, the next several years see an increase in the proportion of immature ticks that are infected with Lyme disease spirochetes.” [2, emphasis mine]

One expects far more rigorous reporting from somebody with Sterba’s credentials—according to his website, he’s “been a foreign correspondent, war correspondent, and national correspondent for more than four decades, first for The New York Times and then for The Wall Street Journal.

How are we supposed to decide what to do “about the wild creatures in our midst” when we don’t even have the facts straight? Which brings me to Sterba’s chapter on feral cats…

The Trouble With TNR

Although Sterba refers to Ellen Perry Berkeley’s 2004 book, TNR Past present and future: A history of the trap-neuter-return movement, along with Alley Cats Allies’ “Truth Cards,” he fails to acknowledge a single instance of TNR’s success [see, for example, 3] and [4] and [5]. Instead, he quotes Audubon magazine columnist Ted Williams: “It’s all the rage across the United States. And it doesn’t work.” [6]

“To succeed,” explains Sterba, “TNR caregivers must also keep new unsterilized strays from joining the colony. Yet the food they put out attracts more cats (and wild animals), and the presence of a colony that is cared for invites people to dump their unwanted cats into it.”

I’m still waiting for the evidence indicating that the people who dump their cats would, but for TNR, simply keep them. Or bring them to their local shelter (knowing the cat would most likely be killed), for that matter. In any case, Sterba (and many others) overlook the obvious: attracting unsterilized strays to a managed colony is the best way to get these cats sterilized and vaccinated—and very possibly re-homed. (It’s unlikely, given the typical workload of municipal animal control agencies, that such cats would find their way to a shelter before they began reproducing.)

To Sterba, the very idea of TNR seems absurd (“Such volunteer efforts nationally are tiny in an ocean of need.”) and even cruel (“the do-gooders save feral cats, neuter them, and return them in more or less supervised colonies to live what are often short and miserable lives.”).

Oh, and costly. (We’ll get to that shortly.)

Not that he cites any examples of lethal control successes. (Unless, of course, one includes his reference to William Hornaday’s 1913 book Our Vanishing Wild Life, in which the author, director of what is now the Bronx Zoo, writes: “We killed every cat that was found hunting in the park… We eliminated that pest.” And, explains Sterba, “the wildlife slowly came back.”)


Not surprisingly, Sterba’s justification for lethal roundups focuses largely on predation. Critics of TNR, he explains, argue that “it allows invasive predators access to plunder ecosystems of native wild birds and animals.” [1] But, much like the critics he refers to, Sterba offers little in the way of compelling evidence. For example:

“The International Union for Conservation of Nature says cats are responsible for the extinction of at least 33 bird species.” [1]

I’ve been unable to find any such assertion on the IUCN website, but the claim itself is bogus, in any case. First of all, Sterba overlooks or ignores a critical bit of context: we’re talking about islands here, where feral cats can have a devastating impact on bird species. But, as I explained in August of last year, only eight of the 33 “extinctions” were attributed to cats exclusively; and of those, just two species are actually extinct.

(Interestingly, the IUCN site describes the eradication of feral cats from Ascension Island as “one example of a success story” in the struggle “to remove the most harmful invasive species.” [7] It’s not difficult to see why Sterba (and others) wouldn’t want to highlight such an example (even if some do see it as some sort of model program): On Ascension Island (37 square miles, population: ~880), it cost approximately $1,732/cat to eradicate an estimated 635 of them over 27 months. And nearly 40 percent of the island’s pet cats were accidentally killed in the process, which, as one report noted, “caused public consternation.” [8])

“According to Dennis C. Turner, a zoologist at the University of Zurich, and Patrick Bateson, an animal behaviorist at Cambridge University, once [cats] hear prey, they stalk it and then, in the case of birds and small mammals such as rabbits, ambush it…Cats hunt and kill for food when they are hungry and for practice when they are not.” [1]

And the impact of that hunting? The answer can be found in the very same chapter of The Domestic Cat: The Biology of Its Behaviour to which Sterba’s referring—where Turner and researcher Mike Fitzgerald (not Bateson, as Sterba suggests) review 61 predation studies, concluding rather unambiguously: “We consider that we do not have enough information yet to attempt to estimate on average how many birds a cat kills each year. And there are few, if any studies apart from island ones that actually demonstrate that cats have reduced bird populations.” [9]

“In my experience, people and organizations with vested economic interests in not having cats around find ways to remove them quietly without calling attention to their activities or alerting cat protection groups. Duck-hunting groups have shown that trapping predators in areas where ducks lay and hatch their eggs, such as the Prairie Pothole region of the Dakotas and Canada, greatly increases the hatching success rates and survivability of young ducklings.” [1]

A quick online search turned up plenty of evidence of predator trapping in the Prairie Pothole region, but no mention of feral cats at all. “In most cases the primary reason for nest failure,” reads one 2007 paper, “is predation by a suite of medium-sized mammals, most notably red fox, raccoon, and striped skunk. Thus, many management efforts aim to separate these predators from duck nests.” [10] Another, from 2006, describes “the predator community on our sites” as having been “dominated by medium-sized mesocarnivores, with striped skunk, raccoon, and American mink most commonly captured, comprising 48 percent, 25 percent, and 17 percent of total captures, respectively.” [11] (The average cost of trapping and killing each of these animals was about $55.65.)

“In 1931, Herbert L. Stoddard published a landmark treatise on the management of quail entitled The Bobwhite Quail: Its Habits, Preservation and Increase… ‘Cats are the most serious enemies of the bobwhite quail here,’ he reported. ‘House cats roam the fields during the night time, catching quail of all ages. Although only one chick may be caught by [a cat’s leap] into a full-winged covey, all chicks during their earlier days are at the mercy of cats that discover them.’ […] Unlike other quail predators, such as opossums, armadillos, and raccoons, cats rarely destroy and eat quail eggs. Instead, the cats wait until they hear baby chicks pecking out of their shells to hatch and come running to devour them at first cheep.” [1]

Writing five years later, Paul Errington supplied some much-needed (then and, apparently, now) context: “Although H.L. Stoddard found that the housecat preys heavily upon incubating Georgia bob-whites and their chicks, and my own bob-white studies have indicated that this may occur in the north-central states, I find scant evidence of adult, strong, winter birds suffering cat predation to any extent… Preying upon a species is not necessarily synonymous with controlling it, or even influencing its numbers to any perceptible degree. Predation which merely removes an exposed prey surplus that is naturally doomed anyway is entirely different from predation the weight of which is instrumental in forcing down prey populations or in holding them at given approximate levels.” [12]

As justification for a return to the “good old days” when free-roaming cats were seen by many as vermin, Sterba’s arguments fail miserably. Which should come as no surprise when one considers where he got his information.

Let’s Consider the Source

If Sterba’s perspective on feral cats and TNR seems badly misinformed (it is), it could be because of his remarkably one-sided reporting on the issue. (His 2002 article, “Tooth and Claw: Kill Kitty?” for The Wall Street Journal was, by the way, no better.) Or perhaps it’s the other way around. After all, Sterba assembled a 28-page chapter on feral cats and never once spoke with anybody at Alley Cat Allies. It appears he didn’t speak with Dr. Julie Levy, either, one of the country’s foremost researchers on the subject (and whose work he cites).

Sterba did, however, speak with Shelly Kotter, community cat program manager for Best Friends Animal Society, about the nationwide backlash following a 2008 announcement by the mayor of Randolph, Iowa, of “a $5.00 bounty payment for the catching and delivering live to me, any loose cat or dog caught in town.” Kotter tells me that, while Sterba didn’t exactly misquote her, he did omit a great deal of context.

And Sterba contacted Dr. Jack W. Zimmerly, who, according to Sterba, “markets two sizes of carbon monoxide euthanasia chambers, ranging from $6,500 for a small one to $20,000 for both. They can euthanize forty cats an hour at an operating cost of 11 cents per cat, he said.” [1]

Sterba also spoke with Dr. Paul Barrows, a certified wildlife biologist, retired Chief of U.S. Army Veterinary Corps, and longtime proponent of lethal control for free-roaming cats. Like Sterba, Barrows doesn’t let the facts get in the way of his anti-TNR position. In his 2004 paper bearing the ironic title “Professional, ethical, and legal dilemmas of trap-neuter-release,” he misrepresents several key points, including the threat of rabies posed by free-roaming cats and the threats—both verbal and personal—reported by “those supporting trap and removal of abandoned and feral cats, rather than TNR.” [13] (I took a careful look at Barrows’ misleading claims in my August 24 post).

Another of Sterba’s sources who will be familiar to regular readers is Colin M. Gillin, president of the American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians and author of the “Leadership Letter” [see Note 4] in the Spring 2011 issue of The Wildlife Professional (with its special section, “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats”). Like Barrows, Gillin is critical of companion animal veterinarians who support TNR, as “few [of them] know anything beyond the Discovery Channel about wildlife medicine, wildlife disease, life histories, ecology, or habitat involving free-ranging wildlife or, for that matter, individual wild animals. It is not part of the standard veterinary education.” [1]

Fair enough. But why is it Barrows and Gillin—and Dr. David Jessup, another wildlife veterinarian—can’t explain how a ban on TNR would benefit the wildlife they claim to protect? [see Note 5] It’s an obvious question, but one Sterba doesn’t seem the least bit interested in asking.

Powerful Cat Lobby

Sterba’s portrayal of TNR supporters is (not unlike that of his sources) a rather contradictory one: “do-gooders” whose “quest allows [them] to feel good” on the one hand; on the other, a well-organized, well-funded network willing to do whatever it takes to protect cats—from monkey-wrenching to intimidation and assault. He describes a letter from Alley Cat Allies delivered to Randolph’s mayor, “on top of all the other letters,” as “a threat.” [1]

“Legislators and local leaders are under pressure from rich and powerful feral cat advocacy groups to expressly protect ferals as ‘community cats’ and pass laws against removing or harming them.” [1]

Sterba’s portrayal is hardly new, of course. In 2009, Williams argued in Audubon magazine that “the political power of wildlife advocates is dwarfed by that of the feral cat lobby.” [6] Last year, writing in The Wildlife Professional, former Smithsonian researcher Nico Dauphiné echoed Williams’ comment: “The promotion of TNR is big business, with such large amounts of money in play that conservation scientists opposing TNR can’t begin to compete.” [14]

Sterba, for his part, calls out Maddie’s Fund (“endowed in 2001 with $300 million by a California computer software magnate, funded veterinary schools to teach shelter medicine and campaigned to create a ‘no-kill nation’ by 2015”), Best Friends Animal Society (“which receives donations of up to $45 million a year”), Alley Cat Allies (“In 2010, it received $5.2 million in donations.”), and the Humane Society of the United States, which “once called the practice ‘subsidized abandonment.’”

“HSUS reversed itself in 2006, saying it was better to have ferals managed than unmanaged. Others told me, however, that cat lovers are such important sources of donations that animal protection charities can’t afford to alienate them with positions and policies they oppose.” [1]

So what about the various organizations opposed to TNR that Sterba refers to?

According to IRS filings for 2010, PETA took in $31.8 million that year; the American Bird Conservancy reported revenue of $8.4M (which would increase to $9.8 million in 2011), the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies: $4.8 million, and The Wildlife Society: $2.5 million. The National Audubon Society reported revenue of more than $103 million in 2010, and finished the year with more than $401 million in net assets. (Some local and regional chapters are surprisingly flush as well. The New Jersey Audubon Society’s 2010 revenue topped $6.3 million, for example, and the Audubon Society of Portland reported $2.3 million for the same year.)

In February of this year, President Obama requested $1.3 billion for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in FY 2013.

Like Williams and Dauphiné, though, Sterba doesn’t express any interest in the other side of the ledger. Simple stories tend to sell better, I suppose.

•     •     •

A recent survey of 1,118 pet owners commissioned by the Associated Press and Petside.com demonstrated Americans’ opposition to shelter killing.

“According to the poll, 71 percent of pet owners feel that shelters should only be allowed to euthanize animals when they are too sick to be treated or too aggressive to be adopted. Only 25 percent said that euthanasia should be used as a means to control the animal population.” [15]

A 2007 Harris Interactive survey commissioned by Alley Cat Allies revealed similar attitudes, with 81 percent of the “nationally representative sample of 1,205 adults” agreeing that “leaving a stray cat outside to live out his life is more humane than having the cat caught and killed.” [16]

But this, in Sterba’s view, is exactly the problem: our attitudes are misguided. When it comes to managing the planet’s flora and fauna—including feral cats—there are simply too many “do-gooders” and too few willing to do the dirty work of… you know, “management.” It’s this seemingly controversial (and arrogant) view that will likely attract the attention of the mainstream media—thereby giving Nature Wars and its author undeserved credibility. But the truth is, Sterba’s thesis is little more than a warmed-over version of an outdated and, increasingly, irrelevant position. (In some ways, the most surprising part of the book is its 2012 copyright.)

At its core, Nature Wars is a desperate—wistful, even—plea for a return to the culture of killing. The fact that Sterba does such a poor job of making his case—with a series of weak, incongruous arguments—is hardly surprisingly; he has neither science nor public opinion on his side.

Note 1: I’ve focused my attention mostly on Chapter 12 (Feral Felines), as well as the book’s introduction and epilogue. Other chapters I’ve only skimmed. It’s important to point out, also, that my copy is an uncorrected proof.

Note 2: Not that I agree with his endorsement, of course.

Note 3: Later, in a chapter devoted to whitetails, he refers to them as “a mass transit system for ticks carrying Lyme disease.”

Note 4: Gillin’s letter read, in part: “If removal and euthanasia of unadoptable feral cats is not acceptable to TNR proponents, then they need to offer the conservation community a logical, science-based proposal that will solve the problem of this invasive species and its effect on wildlife and the environment.” [16] As I said at the time, so much for leadership.

Note 5: Though they continue to imply as much. In a paper published earlier this year, for example, Jessup and co-author Rick Gerhold call on “local, county and state legislative and medical officials… to understand the economic and public health threats associated with various policies and laws associated with free-roaming cat populations.” [17]

Literature Cited

1. Sterba, J.P., Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds. 2012: Crown.

2. Ostfeld, R., Lyme Disease: The Ecology of a Complex System. 2011: Oxford University Press USA.

3. Stoskopf, M.K. and Nutter, F.B., “Analyzing approaches to feral cat management—one size does not fit all.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1361–1364. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15552309


4. Natoli, E., et al., “Management of feral domestic cats in the urban environment of Rome (Italy).” Preventive Veterinary Medicine. 2006. 77(3-4): p. 180–185. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6TBK-4M33VSW-1/2/0abfc80f245ab50e602f93060f88e6f9


5. Levy, J.K., Gale, D.W., and Gale, L.A., “Evaluation of the effect of a long-term trap-neuter-return and adoption program on a free-roaming cat population.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2003. 222(1): p. 42–46. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2003.222.42

6. Williams, T., “Felines Fatale.” Audubon Magazine. 2009. September-October. http://www.audubonmagazine.org/incite/incite0909.html

7. n.a. (2011) The Fight Against Invasiveshttp://www.iucn.org/about/work/programmes/species/?7634/The-Fight-Against-Invasives Accessed November 2, 2012.

8. Ratcliffe, N., et al., “The eradication of feral cats from Ascension Island and its subsequent recolonization by seabirds.” Oryx. 2010. 44(01): p. 20–29. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S003060530999069X

9. 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.

10. Rohwer, F.C. and Fisher, J., Reducing Populations of Medium-size Mammalian Predators to Benefit Waterfowl Production in the Prairie Pothole Region, in 72nd North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference. 2007, Wildlife Management Institute: Portland, OR. p. 225–245.

11. Chodachek, K.D. and Chamberlain, M.J., “Effects of Predator Removal on Upland Nesting Ducks in North Dakota Grassland Fragments.” The Prarie Naturalist. 2006. 38(1): p. 25–37.

12. Errington, P.L., “Notes on Food Habits of Southwestern Wisconsin House Cats.” Journal of Mammalogy. 1936. 17(1): p. 64–65. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1374554

13. Barrows, P.L., “Professional, ethical, and legal dilemmas of trap-neuter-release.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1365-1369. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2004.225.1365

14. Dauphiné, N., “Follow the Money: The Economics of TNR Advocacy.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 54.

15. Karpusiewicz, R. (2012) AP-Petside.com Poll: Americans Favor No-Kill Animal Sheltershttp://www.petside.com/article/ap-petsidecom-poll-americans-favor-no-kill-animal-shelters

16. Chu, K. and Anderson, W.M., Law & Policy Brief: U.S. Public Opinion on Humane Treatment of Stray Cats. 2007, Alley Cat Allies: Bethesda (MD). http://www.alleycat.org/document.doc?id=61

17. Gillin, C., “The Cat Conundrum.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 10, 12.

18. Gerhold, R.W. and Jessup, D.A., “Zoonotic Diseases Associated with Free-Roaming Cats.” Zoonoses Public Health. 2012. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22830565


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