Cats and Caregivers Targeted in Hawaii

A pair of bills winding their way through Hawaii’s legislature threaten community cats, their caregivers—and the very wildlife some supporters claim they’re trying to protect.

On barren, uninhabited Marion Island, it took 19 years to exterminate approximately 2,200 cats — using feline distemper, poisoning, hunting and trapping, and dogs. [1, 2] The only “handouts” these cats received were “the carcasses of 12,000 day-old chickens” [2] injected with poison. If there was any evidence of starvation, I’ve not read about it.

In Antioch, California, a 2014 feeding ban proved futile. “Opponents of the ban have simply ignored it without much consequence,” reported the San José Mercury News, “while city officials admit they don’t have the resources to enforce the law.”

Why, then, does anybody even remotely familiar with this topic think a feeding ban would reduce the number of unowned, free-roaming cats? Where’s the evidence?

And yet, this magical thinking is exactly what TNR opponents are using to sell Senate Bill 2450 to residents of Hawaii (including the state’s legislators).

Law and Order and the War on Cats

SB2450 (and HB2118, its identical twin in the House) would make it “unlawful for individuals to release, feed, water, or otherwise care for unrestrained predators on state lands.” Because domestic cats—owned or unowned, socialized or not—are included in the definition of “predators” under Hawaii’s Conservation and Resources law, passage of these bills has obvious consequences for some caregivers.

As if the situation weren’t bad enough already. Under current state law, cats “may be destroyed by any means deemed necessary” by the Department of Land and Natural Resources, if they’re found “on any game management area, public hunting area, or forest reserve or other lands under the jurisdiction of [DLNR].”

And even a cursory review of the DLNR website reveals a great deal about the agency’s stance on outdoor cats. Their reference to the infamous Smithsonian/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service paper and its absurd predation “estimates,” for example, an admonishment not to feed “feral cats,” and, most telling of all, a link to the American Bird Conservancy’s Cats Indoors Program. Clearly, this is a government agency that doesn’t let science get in the way of their agenda.

Still, some aren’t satisfied with the progress of the witch-hunt in the Aloha State.

Promoting the Culture of Killing

Bill Lucey, manager of the Kauai Invasive Species Committee, for example, submitted written testimony (PDF) in support of SB2450 when the bill was before the Water, Land, and Agriculture, and Economic Development, Environment, and Technology committees. Heavy with misinformation and scaremongering—mostly associated with Toxoplasmosis—Lucey’s testimony argues that passage of SB2450 is “imperative,” as it would help with local efforts to “reduce the number of feral cats occupying the landscape.”

But again, there’s no reason to think that the legislation in question would do that. Indeed, it’s far more likely to drive TNR efforts underground, thereby making matters worse. (Perhaps this is what TNR opponents are really after.)

Not to be outdone by Lucey, biologist Chris Lepczyk, professor in Auburn’s School of Forestry & Wildlife Sciences, and Daniel Rubinoff, professor of entomology at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, weighed in last weekend with a guest column* in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser (PDF), arguing that passage of SB 2450 is “a chance [for Hawaii] to lead the nation and make significant advances in both animal welfare, conservation, and health.” [3] Many readers will recall Lepczyk’s name—he is, after all, responsible for some of most egregious junk science on the subject of free-roaming cats, including (with Cheryl Lohr, his PhD student at the time) a hopeless attempt at a public opinion survey and a laughable economic analysis.

“Across the history of Hawaii,” lament Lepczyk and Rubinoff, “there are reports over 100 years old noting the growing problem of feral cats on public lands.” But the authors fail to acknowledge the predominant management scheme over that same period: killing, either directly or in the form of a one-way trip to a local shelter. It should be obvious by now that it hasn’t been very effective.

Perhaps the authors thought nobody would connect the dots.

(The American Bird Conservancy’s Grant Sizemore, who shares Lepczyk’s tendency for muddled thinking and clumsy arguments, recently made a similar blunder: “There were zero domestic cats in North America in 1492, which means that we now have well over 100 million invasive predators roaming the landscape, killing wildlife.” More than 500 years trying to kill our way out of the “feral cat problem” without any measurable progress, but Sizemore’s determined to stay the course.)

True to form, Lepczyk used the opportunity to peddle his junk science to a new, unsuspecting audience. Although the aforementioned survey, for example, was rendered largely useless when Lohr (as research for her PhD dissertation) collected responses mostly from rural residents and hunters, Star-Advertiser readers were led to believe the results represent the opinion of Hawaii’s population overall—and that residents felt “that TNR was the least acceptable form of management among those currently available.” [3] (Curiously, I’ve never seen Lepczyk or Lohr even acknowledge a Ward Research survey of residents of Hawaii, which found 85% support for TNR,” [4] never mind explain the huge discrepancy between these results and theirs.)

Lepczyk and Rubinoff go on to deny TNR’s efficacy (“There has never been any hard science or peer-reviewed scientific data that demonstrates that TNR is effective in reducing feral cat numbers.”), play the PETA card (“the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals considers management options such as TNR as an inhumane option for managing feral cats.”), and suggest that TNR is a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and/or Endangered Species Act (“People who feed feral cats on public lands, be it the University of Hawaii–Manoa campus or the Hawaii Kai Park and Ride are, in essence, breaking the public trust by committing a ‘taking.’”)

Like Lucey, Lepczyk and Rubinoff claim that SB2450 represents “progress on the feral cat issue… a step in the right direction.” [3] And, like Lucey, they don’t go to the trouble of providing the slightest explanation of how the proposed feeding ban will improve the situation. Instead, they focus on what the bill isn’t:

“The bill would not stop individuals from adopting cats or re-homing them. It also would not ban outdoor cats on private lands.” [3]

(Actually, current law already puts outdoor cats on private land at risk—but that’s another blog post.)

So what would SB2450** do? According to Lepczyk and Rubinoff, it’s “simply a bill to stop allowing the illegal use of public lands by a set of private individuals engaged in an activity most people in the state do not support.”

Of course, if the activity were already illegal, there would be no need for SB2450. And, as the Ward Research survey demonstrated, most people in Hawaii do support TNR. Moreover, if Lepczyk and Rubinoff truly object to “a set of private individuals” using public land in the service of their own interests, they ought to focus their attention on another provision of SB2450—which makes an exemption for “hunters that deploy, feed, or water unrestrained dogs in the course of hunting.”

Then again, this is politics; things are rarely what they seem, and these folks don’t dare alienate their base.

* Signing onto the piece were David C. Duffy, who recently collaborated with Lepczyk on more of the usual agenda-driven “science,” and Linda J. Cox, who co-authored with Lepczyk an “economic analysis” that would make even David Pimentel blush.
** At the time of this writing, it seems SB2450 is stalled as result of heavy opposition. The 2016 legislative session is, however, far from over.

Literature Cited

1. Bloomer, J.P. and M.N. Bester, Control of feral cats on sub-Antarctic Marion Island, Indian Ocean. Biological Conservation, 1992. 60(3): p. 211–219.

2. Bester, M.N., et al., A review of the successful eradication of feral cats from sub-Antarctic Marion Island, Southern Indian Ocean. South African Journal of Wildlife Research, 2002. 32(1): p. 65–73.

3. Lepczyk, C.A., et al., Ban on feeding feral cats would be good for the cats, residents, Hawaii, in Honolulu Star-Advertiser2016.

4. Gibson, I., Hawaii Case Study: Developing Productive Partnerships to Protect Cats and Wildlife, in The HSUS Cats Outdoors Conference2012: Marina del Rey, CA.