Open-Mic Night at NatGeo

The National Geographic Society is, according to its website, “one of the largest nonprofit scientific and educational institutions in the world.” I’m not going to dispute the relative size of the organization, but an article posted Tuesday on its News Watch blog raises doubts about their commitment to science and education.

The piece, which is billed as “an interview with Dr. Michael Hutchins,” is not much of an interview at all, but an easy platform for Hutchins, former executive director and CEO of The Wildlife Society, to vilify invasive species in general and—not surprisingly—free-roaming cats in particular. As I pointed out in my online comment (still awaiting moderation), one would expect some insightful follow-up questions on a topic that, as contributing editor Jordan Carlton Schaul acknowledges, “has generated contentious debate among a number of factions, including conservation scientists and activist communities.”

For starters: How would restrictions or outright bans on TNR, such as those proposed by Hutchins, benefit the wildlife he claims to want to protect?

This would seem an obvious question to ask, but Schaul gives Hutchins a pass. National Geographic, it seems—like so many other organizations with a large, flashy online presence to pay for—is confusing content (driven by word count and links) with reporting (driven by an interest in the truth and a concern for accuracy). And hoping their audience either can’t tell the difference or doesn’t care.

The result is something like a “worst-of” compilation of Hutchins’ writing for the TWS blog, repackaged for National Geographic as irrefutable fact handed down from on high by “renowned wildlife professional and ecologist Dr. Michael Hutchins.”

There’s the expected scaremongering, of course, with an emphasis on Toxoplasma gondii (“linked to fetal deformities and death in humans… autism, schizophrenia and even brain cancer,” and the cause of “death of thousands of marine mammals, including dolphins, whales, seals, sea lions, and sea otters”) and rabies (“cases in feral cats appear to be increasing,” Hutchins’ “evidence” being the American Bird Conservancy’s “perfect storm” media release).

Among Hutchins’ other dubious references are Kerry Anne Loyd’s “KittyCam” study (evidence that “domestic cats—even well-fed ones—are deadly predators… killing an estimated 1 billion birds and other small native animals annually”) and the 2000 paper co-authored by David Pimentel (as evidence that “introduced species are costing the U.S. $120 billion annually in lost crops, property damage, environmental degradation, etc.”) This, of course, is the same paper that was cited in the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s infamous Feral Cats and Their Management for it’s absurd claim that feral cats are responsible for $17 billion in “total damage to the U.S. bird population” each year [1] (a claim that was promptly endorsed by ABC and Audubon Magazine).

Also not surprising is Hutchins’ reference to “the feral cat lobby” and his apparent concern (disingenuous at best) for outdoor cats (which “are hit by cars, contract diseases, and are killed by predators”—and on this last point, he misrepresents a 2005–06 study by Shannon Grubbs and Paul Krausman, claiming, incorrectly, that the authors found that “42 percent of the items consumed by 8 coyotes… were domestic cats”).

•     •     •

It’s ironic, in light of Hutchins’ ongoing campaign of misinformation, that he criticizes “local politicians who have little or no knowledge about the situation, are only told one side of the story, or are just taking the easy way out.” Indeed, Hutchins has, for years now, done little to provide policymakers with the kind of accurate, useful information they need to engage honestly in the debate.

Of course, we expect as much from Hutchins—but it’s disappointing to see National Geographic providing him an outlet to continue his witch-hunt.

Thanks to Best Friends legislative attorney Laura Nirenberg for bringing this story to my attention.

Literature Cited

1. Pimentel, D., et al., “Environmental and Economic Costs of Nonindigenous Species in the United States.” Bio Science. 2000. 50(1): p. 53–65.