“Outside” Takes Aim at Outdoor Cats

In his 2007 TED Talk, author and social critic James Howard Kunstler decries the “immersive ugliness of our everyday environments in America,” arguing that the inevitable result of such failures is a bleak landscape of “places that are not worth caring about.” Taking aim at the civic center in Saratoga Springs, New York—somehow both imposing and soul-crushingly banal—Kunstler paints a picture of that pivotal moment when the whole project came undone:

“You can see exactly what went on at three o’clock in the morning—the design meeting. You know, eight hours before deadline, four architects trying to get this building in on time, right? And they’re sitting there at the long boardroom table with all the drawings, and the renderings, and all the Chinese food caskets are lying on the table, and—I mean, what was the conversation that was going on there? Because you know what the last word was—what the last sentence was, of that meeting. It was: Fuck it.”

I imagine the scene is somewhat different for the staff of Outside magazine—conference calls as opposed to conference tables, for example, and more flannel and fleece than exists in all the architecture firms combined. Still, it was Kunstler’s image of that fateful moment when all hope for a project is lost that immediately came to mind when I read “Hawaii’s Crazy War Over Zombie Cats,” published late last month on the magazine’s website.

This article, like so many of the architectural abominations that pollute our environment, had potential. There was a time—it’s clear enough if you look carefully—when writer Paul Kvinta could have produced something worthy of the effort expended and the 6,900 words he ultimately devoted to the piece. After all, he rolled up his sleeves, jumped in with both feet, etc.—an approach that, sadly, borders on anachronistic these days.

And yet… one imagines the Outside staff, at some point, uttering the same two words that, in Kunstler’s telling, marked the undoing of the Saratoga Springs civic center.

“Hawaii’s Crazy War” is a shameful, inexcusable rehash of the same tired framing we’ve been seeing for at least 20 years now: the kind-hearted-but-misguided “cat people” (funded by the flush “cat lobby,” of course) continue their campaign of Apocalyptic destruction while the Community of Respected Scientists looks on in horror. (No doubt Kvinta and his editors were devastated when they were scooped by the September release of Cat Wars.)

The only thing new in Kvinta’s account is his almost voyeuristic fascination with petty sniping and childish potshots among the various characters.*

As miserable a product as he delivered, I simply don’t have the time for a detailed critique. Or, rather, it’s not worth the time. Still, a rundown of the article’s more egregious errors, oversights, and misrepresentations is probably in order.

  • Kvinta opens the article in dramatic fashion, portraying eight Hawaiian monk seal deaths attributed to Toxoplasma gondii infection over a 15-year period as nothing short of the inevitable path to extinction: “Those numbers are significant when your population is declining each year in the face of global warming and other perils.” But, as I pointed out recently—citing statements and reports from the very research team Kvinta spoke with—their numbers are not declining, and are actually increasing in the Hawaiian Islands most likely to be infected with T. gondii.
  • In a similar vein, Kvinta implicates outdoor cats in the plights of the endangered Newell’s shearwater and wedge-tailed shearwater, conveniently ignoring all other sources of mortality. (In the case of the Newell’s shearwater, for example, hurricanes “devastated [Kauai’s] forests in 1982 and 1992,” contributing to their decline.)
  • Kvinta argues that “scientists and conservationists across the country” made a “compelling” case for a statewide feeding ban proposed during the previous legislative session. Compelling? Neither the scientists in question nor Kvinta acknowledge the obvious connection between feeding and trapping—and sterilizing—cats.
  • The misinformation and scaremongering surrounding toxoplasmosis is all too familiar at this point. And, like so many others, Kvinta insists the only explanation is Hawaii’s outdoor cats, ignoring the studies reporting high rates of infection in areas of the world with very few, if any, cats [1, 2] and a surprisingly high rate of congenital transmission. [1, 3] And, of course, no acknowledgement of the “growing belief that cats and sexual reproduction are not essential for the survival, transmission, and maintenance of T. gondii in a population, bringing into question the importance of the sexual cycle.” [4]
  • According to Kvinta, “there’s not one scientifically verified instance of TNR ever eliminating a cat colony anywhere, not in more than 30 years of practice.” This is not only technically incorrect, [5, 6] but betrays a profound (willful?) ignorance of the topic. Why must the baseline for TNR “success” be elimination of a colony? By this measure, the traditional approach—complaint-based impoundment often followed by lethal injection—is, of course, a monumental failure. Nevertheless, this is the very approach endorsed for years by the American Bird Conservancy and others opposed to TNR. Imagine applying a comparable standard to conservation efforts: either the work restores a particular population to, say, their pre-Columbian abundance,** or it’s simply deemed a failure (in which case, policies must be enacted to hamper any such efforts in the future).
  • Readers are supposed to be impressed by the “the peer-reviewed studies, lots of them, showing that cats continue to hunt even when fed,” but Kvinta doesn’t seem to have a clue about what these studies actually demonstrate (or the original 40-year-old study to which this claim can be traced).
  • Kvinta’s support for “an island-wide eradication effort” on Kauai is especially troubling, not just for what such efforts would mean for the island’s cats and caregivers, but for his “selective reading” of the literature. Although he acknowledges the barbaric methods involved, Kvinta ignores the astronomical costs involved, the considerable difference in scale between Kauai and the islands from which cats have been successfully eradicated, and the unintended consequences that sometimes accompany eradications. On Ascension Island, for example—roughly one-sixteenth the size of Kauai—a four-year restoration project “including eradication effort [resulting in the deaths of 635 cats] and monitoring of cats and seabirds” cost taxpayers approximately $1.2M in today’s dollars. [7] And on barren, uninhabited Marion Island—about one-fifth the size of Kauai—it took 19 years to exterminate approximately 2,200 cats. [8, 9] As a result, the island became overrun with mice, threatening the very wildlife whose protection was used to justify eradication of cats. [10] Indeed, the very source cited by Kvinta acknowledges that “more than half of all successful eradications were on islands” smaller than 0.8 square miles, and that “there have been some negative ecosystem impacts.” [11] Outside readers, however, are led to believe “the feral-cat dilemma [is] low-hanging fruit.”

•     •     •

I’m not a regular reader of Outside, but I do seem to recall some very solid long-form features over the years. So I’m inclined to give the magazine the benefit of the doubt—or I would be if I weren’t aware of just how much Kvinta and associate editor Will Egensteiner (with whom I spoke directly during the fact-checking phase) tossed in the trash to tell the story they apparently wanted to tell.

Ironically, the story they went with is nowhere near as good as the one they had within their grasp—which, for what it’s worth, had the added advantage of being true.

* Full disclosure: I’m quite fond of, and have great respect for, Basil Scott, president of the Kauai Community Cat Project and the target of much of mud-slinging Kvinta chronicles.

** This ought to appeal to the die-hard Nativists who, without giving much thought to either the (lack of) means or the (inevitable) disastrous consequences, insist on rolling back the clock to 1491.

Literature Cited

1. Oksanen, A., et al., Prevalence of Antibodies Against Toxoplasma gondii in Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus) From Svalbard and East Greenland. Journal of Parasitology, 2009. 95(1): p. 89–94. http://dx.doi.org/10.1645/GE-1590.1

2. Prestrud, K.W., et al., Serosurvey for Toxoplasma gondii in arctic foxes and possible sources of infection in the high Arctic of Svalbard. Veterinary Parasitology, 2007. 150(1–2): p. 6–12. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6TD7-4PYR4P2-2/2/fcc91fcf1d1426cd1b750bd3840bdb31

3. Hide, G., et al., Evidence for high levels of vertical transmission in Toxoplasma gondii. Parasitology, 2009. 136(Special Issue 14): p. 1877-1885. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0031182009990941

4. Worth, A.R., A.J. Lymbery, and R.C.A. Thompson, Adaptive host manipulation by Toxoplasma gondii: fact or fiction? Trends in Parasitology, 2013. 29(4): p. 150–155. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1471492213000172

5. Nutter, F.B., Evaluation of a Trap-Neuter-Return Management Program for Feral Cat Colonies: Population Dynamics, Home Ranges, and Potentially Zoonotic Diseases, in Comparative Biomedical Department2005, North Carolina State University: Raleigh, NC. p. 224.

6. Katzman, K.C., Port’s last wharf cat dies, in The Daily News of Newburyport2010: Newburyport, MA.

7. Ratcliffe, N., et al., The eradication of feral cats from Ascension Island and its subsequent recolonization by seabirds. Oryx, 2009. 44(01): p. 20–29. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S003060530999069X

8. 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. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6V5X-48XKBM6-T0/2/06492dd3a022e4a4f9e437a943dd1d8b

9. 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.


10. Carnie, T. ‘Killer mice’ wreak havoc on Marion Island. 2015.  http://www.iol.co.za/scitech/science/environment/killer-mice-wreak-havoc-on-marion-island-1.1855863 – .VWyZjjeVWQx

11. Campbell, K.J., et al., Review of feral cat eradications on islands, in Island invasives: eradication and management, C.R. Veitch, M.N. Clout, and D.R. Towns, Editors. 2011, IUCN: Gland, Switzerland.