The Outdoor Cat Conference: Wrap-Up

Putting on any conference is a tremendous undertaking. But the challenges involved in pulling together The Outdoor Cat: Science and Policy from a Global Perspective went far beyond the logistics of wrangling 20-some speakers and 150 or so attendees. For starters, there was deciding who should (and should not) be invited to present. (More on that shortly.) And then there’s the fact that, no matter what happens, you’re bound to be criticized.

There’s simply no way to get something like this completely right, no matter who’s in charge or how much planning goes into it.

And so, I give a lot of credit to the people involved—who knew all of this, and did it anyhow. Those I know of (and I’m sure to be leaving out many others, for which I apologize) include John Hadidian, Andrew Rowan, Nancy Peterson, Katie Lisnik, and Carol England from the Humane Society of the United States; and Aimee Gilbreath and Estelle Weber of FoundAnimals. Many of you told me, very modestly, that this conference was “a start.”

Fair enough, but it’s a very important one. Five or 10 years from now, we might look back and call it a milestone.

Here, then, are some snapshots of the various presentations (in the order in which the they were given).

Presentations in Brief

• David Macdonald, director of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU)

Macdonald kicked off the conference with a fascinating talk in which he explained, among other things, where the domestic cat fits into the larger family of cats (Felidae) and how their social structure compares to that of various wild cats. Of particular interest to me was Macdonald’s comment, when discussing the impact of food location (i.e., clumped vs. dispersed) on group living dynamics, that “ecology fashions society.” To my knowledge, little research has been on the social structure of managed colonies of sterilized cats. One wonders what might be learned through such efforts that could then be used to shape best practices (and aid population modeling—see my snapshot of John Boone’s presentation below).

John Hadidian, director of urban wildlife programs for HSUS

If Macdonald gave the audience a sense of where domestic cats fit into their larger biological context, Hadidian provided some social, cultural, and political context—framing the issue of free-roaming cat management as a classic “wicked problem.” Indeed, we don’t even know what to call cats without obvious owners, which, as Hadidian pointed out, is a critical step to creating any kind of legal framework (a topic Laura Nirenberg discussed later in the day—see below). Even so, the application of conflict resolution is becoming increasingly sophisticated, and, explained Hadidian, there may be a role for third-party resolutions in the kind of deeply-rooted, identity-based disputes that often surround the debate over free-roaming cats.

Bill Lynn, research scientist with Clark University’s George Perkins Marsh Institute and author of the Practical Ethics blog

In many ways, Lynn picked up where Hadidian left off, pointing out the limitations of science in the debate over how best to manage outdoor cats. Science, he explained, can only inform, not decide our positions as stakeholders. Good public policy, explained Lynn, takes into account ecological, social, and ethical considerations. Only rarely are ethics considered, however; considering all three is almost never done. Like Hadidian, Lynn pointed to some examples from which both sides in the current debate might learn valuable lessons: the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ELSI) Research Program associated with the Human Genome project, for example, and the Barred Owl Working Group, in which Lynn participated (PDF of BOWG charter). As a first step, Lynn suggested that each side ask one simple question about the other: What are they right about?

• Dennis Turner, senior research associate at the University of Zurich’s Institute of Zoology and director of the Institute for Applied Ethology and Animal Psychology

Much of Turner’s presentation covered research he and his co-authors published in the first two editions of The Domestic Cat: The Biology of Its Behaviour. I was pleased to learn that a third edition of the book will be available in 2013, though, as I explained to Turner, I wonder how much of an audience it will find in this country. After all, I’ve never seen a TNR opponent acknowledge the conclusion drawn by Turner and fellow researcher Mike Fitzgerald in the second edition: “there are few, if any studies apart from island ones that actually demonstrate that cats have reduced bird populations.” [1] Indeed, the only reference I know of comes from the American Bird Conservancy, which has been misrepresenting Fitzgerald’s work for many years now (see Note 1), even after Ellen Perry Berkeley set the record straight in 2004. [3]

Andrew Rowan, chief scientific officer for the Humane Society of the United States

Rowan’s presentation was rich in statistics, mostly illustrating what we know about cat ownership demographics in the U.S. And, in keeping with the focus of the conference, he paid particular attention to the frequency and extent of outdoor access we allow our pet cats. Or don’t, as the case may be. As I often point out, multiple large-scale surveys [4–6] have found that only about one-third of these cats are allowed outdoors at all—and most of them only for a few hours each day. Based on such research, Rowan suggests that today’s outdoor cat FTE (full-time equivalent), as he put it, is probably comparable to that of 1960. (This stands in stark contrast to the claim made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Tom Will in his 2010 presentation to the Bird Conservation Alliance. There, he suggested that the number of pet cats allowed outdoors had, like the number of pet cats overall, tripled since 1971.)

Aimee Gilbreath, executive director of FoundAnimals

For her presentation, Gilbreath took a careful look at sheltering in Los Angeles County, drilling down into what must be a truly daunting mountain of data. Among her conclusions: more killing only leads to additional intakes—which in turn lead to more killing. None of which seems to reduce the overall population of stray, abandoned, and feral cats. And given the limited resources of the county system (restricted even further in the wake of recent budget cuts), any such population reduction will likely fall either to private organizations or to public/private partnerships.

• Anne Fleming, graduate student in Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine

Contrary to estimates of 100,000–200,000 feral cats in Rhode Island (the high-end based, apparently, on the often-used calculation: number of unowned cats = half the number of households), Fleming located (via a survey of caretakers looking after 263 colonies of at least four cats each) something like 3,000—a figure met with some skepticism among attendees. Of course, the human population of Rhode Island is tightly distributed around a handful of major cities; not surprisingly, 83 percent of the colony cats were also located in urban areas. Whatever the shortcomings of Fleming’s work (and she admitted to many), the capstone project for her degree in public health (to be conferred along with her DVM in May 2013), it’s good to see students tackling such ambitious projects.

• Kate Littin, senior advisor in the Animal Welfare Group at New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries

In New Zealand, conservation trumps animal welfare, explained Littin, and this is reflected in the culture broadly. Contrary to the title of her presentation, a cat is not a cat is not a cat; instead, they are treated according to three very different status levels: pets, strays, and feral. While Littin wasn’t entirely clear about this, many of us interpreted her comments to mean that the first two are afforded certain protections; cats considered truly feral, on the other hand, are considered vermin and routinely killed (via hunting, poison, etc.—though, again, Littin didn’t discuss this in detail).

Laura Nirenberg, legislative attorney for Best Friends’ Focus on Felines campaign

Although some of Nirenberg’s presentation repeated points made at the No More Homeless Pets Conference in October (e.g., questioning whether a cat can “take” a bird under the Endangered Species Act), she placed a greater emphasis on the legal classification of cats for this audience. It was a smart move, apparently, as it became clear afterward that many attendees had little knowledge of the potential consequences of such classification (e.g., the hunting of cats). The legislative component of the TNR debate seems—given the interest expressed in the topic, both here and at the NMHP conference—to be a topic in need of additional attention.

Stan Gehrt, associate professor in Ohio State University’s School of Environment & Natural Resources

Gehrt presented results from two studies, one completed and one still underway. Among his findings: the feral cats he studied in the Chicago area have a 73 percent chance of living from one year to the next. (Over two years, that translates to about a 50-50 chance.) Not the kind of news a caretaker wants to hear, but as Gehrt points out, this is better than most medium-sized mammals (e.g., raccoons, skunks, etc.) living in the urban/suburban landscape. In his second study, Gehrt established colonies at six sites and, from what I could tell, is “restocking” them in order to maintain eight cats at each site. Such an approach strikes me as profoundly unnatural—raising serious questions about any subsequent results. (I didn’t have a chance to talk to Gehrt at the conference, but will follow up with him on this and several other points.)

• Fern Duvall, wildlife biologist for Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources

More than half of the country’s threatened or endangered bird species are found in Hawaii, explained Duvall, “the extinction capital of the world.” Granted, the conference’s focus was outdoor cats, but I expected Duvall to at least acknowledge the impact of avian malaria, which, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, was probably the cause of many of these extinctions.

I found Duvall’s discussion of the impact of cats somewhat difficult to follow, in part because he seemed to conflate observations of managed colonies with those of unmanaged (and likely unsterilized) cats. Referring to a number of cats killed while preying on wedge-tailed shearwaters (categorized as a species of Least Concern), for example, Duvall pointed out that no cat food was found in their stomachs. It’s difficult to imagine these cats having food provided regularly, no matter how accessible their wild prey. Those provisions, suggested Duvall, have their own negative consequences: higher reproductive success. In theory, I imagine this is true, though I’ve not seen any studies demonstrating the effect. And there are numerous examples from eradication efforts on uninhabited islands suggesting that feral cats can reproduce successfully without any handouts at all. (John Boone, who spoke later in the day (see below), added another wrinkle to all of this when he suggested that extermination efforts actually seem to increase the fecundity of cats.)

• Veterinarian Donald Burton, founder and executive director of the Ohio Wildlife Center

Just a few slides into his presentation about diseases associated with cats, Burton told the audience that post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) runs $5,000­–8,000 per treatment. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that the figure is significantly lower, noting that “a course of rabies immune globulin and five doses of vaccine given over a 4-week period typically exceeds $1,000.” [7] Burton’s source, it would seem, was Rick Gerhold and David Jessup’s recent paper, “Zoonotic Diseases Associated with Free-Roaming Cats,” published online in July by the journal Zoonoses Public Health. Burton also referred to a 1994 Concord, NH, case in which at least 665 people were treated for rabies exposure, at a cost of at least $1.1 million. What Burton (and Paul Barrows, whose 2004 paper [8] appears to be Burton’s source) failed to mention was that the kitten involved was not outdoors at all, but for sale in a pet store—and the potential exposures spanned 35 days. A subsequent investigation found that more than 40 percent of the PEP administered was unwarranted. [9] Hardly minor details.

Burton’s case for toxoplasmosis was similarly misleading. Indeed, as a whole, his presentation echoed the kind of scaremongering so often seen in the mainstream media—hardly what one expects at a conference of this caliber. And I said so during the Q&A session (but was, regrettably, perhaps overly harsh in my comments).

Kate Hurley, veterinarian and program director of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at the University of California, Davis

The shelter system, argues Hurley, is entirely the wrong tool for managing the population of cats. Indeed, we have more than enough experience demonstrating that the ongoing killing of both owned and unowned cats has done nothing to reduce the numbers of either one. Contrary to what’s often suggested, Hurley explained, this isn’t lethal control at all, but lethal non-control.

If we’re going to continue using our municipal shelters (and the tax dollars that keep them running) to kill cats (756 cats each day in California alone), says Hurley, “we better have a damn good reason!” And, as she pointed out, we don’t. Those “short, brutal lives” we often hear about from TNR opponents? “It’s rare that we consider the risk of suffering to a species to be so great that we intervene and kill.” And, notes Hurley, shelter intakes are generally based on complaints, not on the risk that any particular cat or cats may pose to other cats, wildlife, or humans.

Hurley began her presentation by saying that she’s been waiting a long time to give it, and thought this was the right time and place. Judging by the reaction she got—an enthusiastic response to both the message and to Hurley’s fiery delivery—she was absolutely right. I’m grateful to have witnessed the event.

Julie Levy, veterinarian and director of Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida

Levy covered a great deal of terrain in 30 minutes—beginning with an update on the University of Central Florida’s TNR program. Between 1996 and 2002, the population of cats had been reduced from 68 to 23, [10] and today just five cats remain. Levy also reported on the results of a survey in which one of her graduate students found an unexpectedly high level of support for TNR among Audubon members and the general public (more on this in an upcoming post), and some promising work she’s doing with an experimental non-surgical sterilant. (Anybody interested in this topic ought to consider attending the Alliance for Contraception in Cats and Dogs’ 5th International Symposium next June in Portland, Oregon.)

• Jon Cicirelli, deputy director of San José Animal Care and Services

Unfortunately, I missed most of Cicirelli’s presentation, which, he told me later, echoed the one I did see at the No More Homeless Pets Conference in October. In other words, a data-rich account of the remarkable success of San José’s Feral Freedom program.

Inga Gibson, Hawaii State Director for HSUS

Gibson provided some valuable context for those of us only vaguely familiar with feral cat management in the Aloha State, where, she explained, shelters take in about 50,000 animals each year and kill about 70 percent of them. USDA’s Wildlife Services kill an additional 175,000 (mostly non-native birds), and is responsible for much of the state’s feral cat eradication effort—the largest in the country. The bulk of Gibson’s presentation, however, focused on HSUS’s involvement with the Hawaii Coalition for the Protection of Cats and Wildlife and the results of two surveys, one investigating the attitudes and beliefs of various stakeholder groups (PDF) and other aimed specifically at colony caretakers.

• Katie Lisnik, director of cat protection and policy for HSUS

Much as Anne Fleming did with her survey of Rhode Island caretakers, Lisnik found that the population of outdoor cats living in her home state of Maine is far lower than some would suggest. Indeed, her survey of Maine residents who feed outdoor cats leads her to conclude that this population may be no more than 10–15 percent of the pet cat population—which, if one does a back-of-the-envelope calculation using survey data from the American Pet Products Association and census data for the number of households in Maine, would mean something like 18,700–28,000 unowned cats. Lisnik readily admits this is just a rough estimate, but like Fleming’s Rhode Island estimate, it’s a far cry from the figure obtained from dividing the number of households by two: nearly 276,000.

• Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland

While I disagree with some of Sallinger’s claims (e.g., that all mortality sources, including cats, add to declining bird populations), I have to give him (and Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon executive director Karen Krauss) credit for taking some rather extraordinary steps in, to use Lynn’s words, merging horizons of understanding. I was impressed, for example, with Sallinger’s moderate stance on keeping pet cats indoors (e.g., if not this cat, then your next cat; if not all year, then during the springtime months; etc.). This is a far cry from the American Bird Conservancy’s 15-year-old Cats Indoors! program—so often used as a Trojan Horse used to indirectly undermine TNR—and Sallinger deserves to be acknowledged for his efforts.

• John Boone, wildlife biologist, lead author of the Nevada Comprehensive Bird Conservation Plan, and member of the Scientific Advisory Board for the Alliance for Contraception in Cats and Dogs

As a member of ACC&D’s Population Modeling Working Group, Boone and his colleagues are using VORTEX Population Viability Analysis software to examine the effect of various factors (e.g., mortality, density, home range size and overlap, etc.) on free-roaming cat populations. The goal, explained Boone, is to use their results to develop the kind of “adaptive management” strategies that are commonly used in conservation efforts. Preliminary guidelines are expected in May 2013, and the ACC&D working group is currently seeking pilot sites and study partners for implementation—all of which I hope to cover in future posts.

Conspicuously Absent

Among those missing from the conference were the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Peter Marra, an opponent of TNR whose work I’ve criticized. Marra was on the original schedule, but his name disappeared from subsequent revisions. I tried to contact him about this through the Smithsonian’s online form, but never heard back. Chris Lepczyk, whose work I’ve also criticized, was supposed to present alongside Inga Gibson, but his name was dropped from the schedule a week or two before the conference. I haven’t tried to contact Lepczyk or anybody else to learn why.

Also absent was Travis Longcore, whose opposition to TNR led to the 2010 injunction prohibiting the City of Los Angeles from supporting anything related to TNR. (Loncore’s 2009 Conservation Biology paper was also a key factor in my launching Vox Felina.) Considering Longcore’s deep involvement in the issue, his position as president of Los Angeles Audubon, and the convenient location of the conference (Marina del Rey is about 20 miles from downtown L.A.), one would have expected him to attend. Longcore didn’t reply to my e-mail inquiry prior to the conference. (For the record, I believe Garry George, secretary for L.A. Audubon, was there.)

Paul Krausman, president of The Wildlife Society, also failed to respond to my e-mail inquiry regarding TWS’s lack of participation (at least officially).

I did, however, hear back from George Fenwick, president of the American Bird Conservancy, who told me: “I am not aware that ABC was invited, but I did hear about this conference and would have declined if invited.”

“I have spent 15 years trying to convince TNR advocates about the problems of TNR, trying to find areas of compromise, trying to lower the level of the angry rhetoric, and have concluded that it has largely been a waste of time. A serious attempt to bring stakeholders together from different perspectives would have begun with joint planning of the conference itself, not just an invitation.”

I don’t know why some were invited and others were not, but I’ve little doubt the organizers had their reasons. In any case, I think any organization that claims to have a serious interest in the issue has an obligation to show up regardless of whether or not they’re offered a speaker’s slot. Alley Cat Allies, Alley Cat Rescue, FixNation, and the San Francisco SPCA were, for example, all there. Best Friends would have been there, I’m sure, even if Nirenberg wasn’t a presenter.

In his closing comments on the first day of the conference, Andrew Rowan suggested to us that “the debate is so bitter because our ignorance is so great.” Of course there’s no guarantee that sitting down in the same room together for a couple of days will automatically reduce our ignorance, but as was said many times over the course of this conference, it’s a start.

Note 1: According to ABC’s 2011 update of Domestic Cat Predation on Birds and Other Wildlife: “Roughly 60 to 70 percent of the animals cats kill are small mammals; 20 to 30 percent are birds; and up to 10 percent are amphibians, reptiles, and insects.” [2] But Fitzgerald reported his results as percent frequency of occurrence, not as a percentage of overall dietary intake. As a result—and as Berkeley pointed out—ABC’s “interpretation” likely overstates predation levels by a factor of two or three. [3]

Literature Cited

1. 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.

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

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

4. Clancy, E.A., Moore, A.S., and Bertone, E.R., “Evaluation of cat and owner characteristics and their relationships to outdoor access of owned cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2003. 222(11): p. 1541-1545.

5. Lord, L.K., “Attitudes toward and perceptions of free-roaming cats among individuals living in Ohio.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2008. 232(8): p. 1159–1167.

6. APPA, 2009–2010 APPA National Pet Owners Survey. 2009, American Pet Products Association: Greenwich, CT.

7. CDC (2011) Cost of Rabies Prevention Accessed September 18, 2012.

8. 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.

9. Noah, D.L., et al., “Mass human exposure to rabies in New Hampshire: exposures, treatment, and cost.” American Journal of Public Health. 1996. 86(8): p. 1149–51.

10. 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.