The (Willfully) Blind Leading the (Willfully) Blind

If the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative truly aims to “develop management strategies that are guided by sound science,” then its recently released White Paper on Feral and Free-ranging Domestic Cats (PDF) represents a glaring and inexcusable failure. Just two sentences into the three-page paper, the self-described “coalition of 102 non-governmental organizations, governmental agencies, and businesses” [1] resorts to the familiar “kitchen sink approach,” a laundry list of (presumably) damning claims meant to substitute for a well-reasoned argument and appeal to the broadest audience possible:

“A number of peer-reviewed studies strongly suggest that large numbers of small mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians are killed each year by domestic cats. Additionally, cats act as reservoirs for several diseases that can sicken humans, native wildlife, and other domestic animals, such as rabies, toxoplasmosis, bartonellosis, typhus, and feline immunodeficiency virus.” [1]

One wonders what rabies, toxoplasmosis, bartonellosis, typhus, and FIV have to do with OBCI’s stated mission: “Ensuring the conservation and effective management of birds in Ohio by fostering partnerships among governmental agencies, conservation organizations, businesses, and the public”?

Nothing, really. Perhaps OBCI is expecting that nobody will notice.

The coalition’s apparent concern for typhus is particularly puzzling, as U.S. cases of Murine (or endemic) typhus occur only in parts of Texas, Southern California, and Hawaii. [2] And a review of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s annual rabies surveillance reports from 1990 through 2013 (the most recent available) reveals just 10 reported cases of rabies in Ohio cats.

To put this into context, consider the fact that, between 2001 and 2014, 64 people died from West Nile Virus in the state (PDF). Yet a search of the OBCI website turns up nothing about WNV.

Sloppy Sourcing Part 1

The sources OBCI turns to for the “sound science” to underpin their management strategies tell us plenty about the organization’s interest in the subject. Or lack of interest, to be more accurate. Take, for example, the supporting evidence corresponding to those first two sentences of their white paper: two nearly identical sentences from The Wildlife Society’s Final Position Statement: Feral and Free-Ranging Domestic Cats (PDF):

“A growing body of literature strongly suggests that domestic cats are significant predators on small mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. Feral and free-ranging cats also serve as reservoirs for several diseases, including rabies, toxoplasmosis, bartonellosis, typhus, and feline immunodeficiency virus, that can have significant effects on the health of humans, wildlife, and other domestic animals.” [3]

So, OBCI is relying solely on TWS here—and TWS didn’t even bother to include citations in their position statement. This kind of laziness would get you tossed from any respectable middle-school science fair.

Long-time readers will recall that TWS, especially under the former leadership of Michael Hutchins (now on staff at the American Bird Conservancy), long ago abandoned any interest in legitimate scientific inquiry on the subject of outdoor cats, adopting instead a knee-jerk, almost faith-based approach. In other words, not the sort of organization one looks to for sound science—or even common sense, at least as it applies to the management of outdoor cats.

Sloppy Sourcing Part 2

In a move straight out of the American Bird Conservancy’s playbook, OBCI supports their various claims not with solid evidence at all, but with lots of desperate arm waving and clumsy leaps of logic. For example: “Because domestic cats are not a natural part of Ohio’s ecosystems, their impact on native wildlife, including birds, is dramatic.” [1]

Again, the authors must assume nobody will notice the obvious flaw here: the latter does not automatically follow from the former. And their “science” is no better.

“It is estimated that free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.4–3.7 billion birds and 6.9–20.7 billion mammals each year in the U.S. [4] In fact, cats are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic mortality for birds and mammals in the country. [4] Importantly, even well-fed cats follow their instincts to hunt and kill wildlife. Therefore, owned or feral cats that are fed still pose a significant threat to birds and other wildlife. [5]” [1]

From this, readers are apparently supposed to come away convinced of the “dramatic impact” cats have on Ohio’s native wildlife—despite the lack of any evidence whatsoever.

Even if that predation estimate* were accurate (it’s not), it says nothing about Ohio’s birds in particular. And the claim that even well-fed cats hunt is nothing more than the common misrepresentation of a 1976 paper (which, we can only assume, nobody at OBCI has actually read).

Sloppy Sourcing Part 3

Were there any questions about OBCI’s Kool-Aid consumption, the issue was put to rest with Grant Sizemore’s October 21 webinar, part of the organization’s Lunch with the Birds series.

It’s not clear what material Sizemore, ABC’s Director of Invasive Species Programs, presented, as the link is broken (something else to be blamed on cats, no doubt!). It’s safe to assume, however, that it differed little from the contents of Cats, Birds, and People: The Consequences of Outdoor Cats and the Need for Effective Management, an unsophisticated jumble of cherry-picked references, misrepresentations, and scaremongering.

•     •     •

If it’s true that we’re judged by the company we keep, then we can only conclude that OBCI—just like their philosophical doppelgängers, TWS and ABC—actually has little interest in sound science as a basis for management strategies related to outdoor cats. The irony, of course, is that, taken seriously, their white paper’s most actionable recommendations (e.g., opposing “the release of feral or unwanted cats outdoors,” “the feeding of feral cats,” etc.) would move us further from, not closer to, OBCI’s vision of “the successful conservation of birds and their habitats in Ohio.”

* In addition to the numerous flaws with “The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States” (about which I’ve written in some detail), there is the matter of this estimate in particular. In December 2013, Nature Communications published a correction to the article, revising the estimates as follows: “1.3–4.0 billion birds and 6.3–22.3 billion mammals annually.” If, as OBCI suggests in its white paper, the impact of domestic cats is “one of the most significant issues in wildlife conservation in Ohio,” [1] is it so unreasonable to expect them to familiarize themselves with such revisions?

Literature Cited

1. n.a., White Paper on Feral and Free-ranging Domestic Cats, 2015, Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative

2. n.a., Flea-Borne Typhus, 2014, California Department of Public Health, Division of Communicable Disease Control.

3. n.a., Final Position Statement: Feral and Free-Ranging Domestic Cats, 2011, The Wildlife Society: Bethesda, MD.

4. Loss, S.R., T. Will, and P.P. Marra, The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States. Nature Communications, 2013. 4

5. Adamec, R.E., The interaction of hunger and preying in the domestic cat (Felis catus). Behavioral Biology, 1976. 18: p. 263–272.