American Bird Conservancy Fails Statistics 101

For those of you who might have missed my letter to The Baltimore Sun, published Saturday in response to a recently published letter by Grant Sizemore, Director of Invasive Species Programs for the American Bird Conservancy, here it is as it appeared in Saturday’s paper:

Grant Sizemore’s recent letter (“Feral cats pose a serious health threat to humans,” Sept. 26) betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of statistics and serves as a textbook example of how such misinterpretations can lead to poor public policy.

According to Mr. Sizemore, the Labor Day weekend closing of an Anne Arundel County elementary school, the result of animal control officers’ search for a stray cat who’d wandered inside, “demonstrated prudent concern for the health and well-being of students.” Referring to the findings of a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Hand Surgery, he warns: “if one of those kids had been bitten by the feral cat, there was about a one in three chance the child would need to be hospitalized for more than three days and a one in seven chance they would need two operations to quell the infection.”

While it’s true that 30 percent of the 193 patients studied with cat bites to the hand were hospitalized for treatment, these findings say nothing about the risk of being bitten or of the need for hospitalization following a bite to the hand.

Mr. Sizemore is missing the larger point — in order for a child to be among the 30 percent requiring hospitalization, he or she would first have to be bitten by a cat that spent days hiding from humans and bitten severely enough to require medical care. And on this point, the literature is quite clear. The vast majority of bite wounds are minor with victims never seeking any medical attention. (Equally clear: more than half of all cat bites are attributed pets of which there are more than 95 million in the U.S. — a fact that Mr. Sizemore and his employer, the American Bird Conservancy, no doubt have a more difficult time messaging on.)

Yes, a cat bite can be serious. As with all public health issues, however, it’s essential that the public be well informed about the risks and associated costs. If Mr. Sizemore and the American Bird Conservancy were truly concerned for public health, they would avoid claims that mislead policymakers and the general public.

In stark contrast, Best Friends Animal Society, one of the largest animal welfare organizations in the country, continues to develop the nation’s most comprehensive community cat programs, sterilizing and vaccinating several thousand cats each year in communities across the country. In Baltimore alone, we’ve sterilized and vaccinated more than 2,500 during the first nine months of 2014 through our public-private partnership with the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter.

Such focused programs have not only proven effective at reducing the number of cats killed in shelters but also at reducing the number of free-roaming cats in a community. Just as important, they have overwhelming support from a public that’s grown weary of the lethal control methods that have, for generations now, proven both ineffective and costly.

If the American Bird Conservancy insists on promoting such failed policy, that’s their prerogative, of course. By misrepresenting the science on the subject, however, they are doing nothing to protect public health. On the contrary, such irresponsible behavior only increases the risks.

Peter J. Wolf
Cat Initiatives Analyst, Best Friends Animal Society