Faith Misplaced?

Old news: Richard Conniff’s March 23rd op-ed in the New York Times, in which he used his experience of losing a cat he cared for as an opportunity to misrepresent TNR, and vilify animal welfare organizations that support it. Although Conniff’s piece lacks the kind of focus one expects from an op-ed in the Times, it’s clear to anybody familiar with the issue: he’s using all the familiar “science” and scaremongering to justify lethal roundups.

And like so many others who have taken the same position, Conniff is happy to talk about anything except the evidence that lethal methods can do the trick.

The reason, of course, is because such evidence doesn’t exist.

More recently: The Dodo published a recap of Conniff’s op-ed on March 24th, followed by a response from cat behavior consultant and UC Berkeley PhD candidate Mikel Maria Delgado two days later and, yesterday, a response I wrote on behalf of Best Friends Animal Society.

The latter prompted a response from Conniff himself, via Twitter:

‪@dodo ‪@bestfriends Are you really pretending cats don’t kill wildlife?  Have you ever owned a cat?

Which suggests that he didn’t actually read the piece. Or maybe he’s simply resorting to that tactic so often employed by people who’ve taken an indefensible position: try to change the subject.

Maybe it’s both.

In any case, Conniff apparently got enough pushback that he felt compelled to defend himself on his blog yesterday, with a post bearing the title “Sorry, Cat Lovers, TNR Simply Doesn’t Work.” Among the evidence Conniff cites as proof of TNR’s ineffectiveness, is an 11-year study (which he refers to as the “pick of the litter”) on the campus of the University of Central Florida in which nearly half (47 percent) of the 155 cats living on campus were adopted. In 2002, upon completion of a related six-year study, just 23 cats remained on campus. [1]

For Conniff, though, the project’s “intensive adoption program” is cheating somehow. “Another 11 percent was euthanized, and at least another six percent was killed by automobiles or moved off campus to nearby woods,” Conniff continues. “TNR itself appears to have accomplished almost nothing—and took 11 years to do it.”

At which point, one would expect Conniff to present his readers with an example or two of lethal roundups that have outperformed the UCF effort. He does no such thing—because, again, such evidence doesn’t exist.

If the UCF project “accomplished almost nothing,” then lethal methods—employed for generations now—have accomplished less than nothing.

The rest of Conniff’s post is more of the same. (Of course it is; what else has he got?)

His reference to the often-cited Rome study is interesting not so much for what he says about it, but what he doesn’t say. “The authors of that study,” writes Conniff, “concluded that, in the absence of a public education campaign to stop people from abandoning cats, “all these efforts” are “a waste of money, time and energy.”

Well sort of.

What the authors actually concluded was this:

“The spay/neuter campaigns brought about a general decrease in cat number but the percentage of cat immigration (due to abandonment and spontaneous arrival) is around 21 percent. This suggests that all these efforts without an effective education of people to control the reproduction of house cats (as a prevention for abandonment) are a waste of money, time and energy.” [2]

So, spay/neuter education and outreach. Exactly the sort of thing that’s an integral part of virtually every community cat program I’m aware of.

I think we can check that box.

“Trapping and neutering decreased the populations of 55 cat colonies there,” Conniff goes on to explain, “while the other 48 colonies either gained population or stayed the same.” (His description is very similar to the one used by the authors of the publicly funded, agenda-driven “Rabies Prevention and Management of Cats in the Context of Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Release Programmes,” published last year, which tells us something about Conniff’s reading list.)

What Conniff fails to mention, of course, is the degree of the program’s success.

Although some colonies experienced initial increases, numbers began to decrease significantly after three years of TNR: “colonies neutered 3, 4, 5 or 6 years before the survey showed progressive decreases of 16, 29, 28 and 32 percent, respectively.” [2]

True to form, Conniff has nothing to offer by way of trap-and-kill efforts demonstrating similar reductions.

The fact that Conniff is unable—neither in his NYT op-ed, nor in his blog post—to provide a single example of a community that has killed its way out of the “feral cat problem” says it all. Yet it’s “TNR proponents,” he complains—apparently without irony—who “just go on touting the same evidence, with an almost magical faith that it will somehow turn out to support their almost religious beliefs.

Already on the wrong side of science and public opinion, Conniff seems to have bids farewell to reason and common sense.

All of which we’ve come to expect from the American Bird Conservancy, The Wildlife Society, various purveyors of junk science on the subject, and others who persist in their efforts to keep the witch-hunt going. But Conniff, I’d like to think, is not one of them. He writes for National Geographic, Smithsonian, the New York Times, and other highly regarded publications.

And science writers—though they can’t be expected to have all the answers—are very good at asking the right kind of questions.

Or maybe that’s just my magical faith talking.

Literature Review

1. Levy, J.K., D.W. Gale, and L.A. Gale, 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.

2. 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.


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