Putting the “Con” in “The Conversation”

Full disclosure: I’ve listened to Hawaii Public Radio’s The Conversation exactly once, so I’m not going to make any broad generalizations here. Still, as an unapologetic Public Radio junkie, I found Tuesday’s show to be a bit of a train wreck.

According to the show’s website, the topic to be discussed was toxoplasmosis, the risks posed by outdoor cats, and “how to manage the situation.” In fact, relatively little attention was paid to the risks—either to humans or wildlife—and discussion of legitimate management options was avoided almost entirely. Instead, listeners (the broadcast is available here) were in for a campaign of misinformation and scaremongering fueled by useless factoids—including, for example, a reference to the estimated “14 tons of cat poop” deposited annually in Hawaii’s state parks.

Although panelist Jessica James, a volunteer with Poi Dogs and Popoki, an Oahu animal welfare organization that focuses on spay/neuter programs (including TNR), did a commendable job, the conversation was dominated by fellow panelists Bruce Anderson, Administrator of Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Aquatic Resources, and Thierry Work, Wildlife Disease Specialist for the U.S. Geological Survey.

DLNR never misses an opportunity to encourage the eradication of cats—and use the issue to lobby for more funding, of course. Work, too, seems to jump at the chance to portray outdoor cats as an apocalyptic scourge—even if he’s got to misrepresent his own research to do so. And so it was hardly a surprise hear Anderson and Work duck, dodge, and deflect every question that challenged their claims. (Hosts Catherine Cruz and Chris Vandercook, for their part, let them get away with it, even piling on at times.)

Consider, for example, Anderson’s response to the following question (which I submitted via e-mail) read on the air:

If the risks of T. gondii infection are as great as your panel suggests, how do they explain the fact that the infection rate in the U.S. has dropped in half between 1988 and 2010?

“They really don’t know—they don’t have a good number,” Anderson explained. “The Centers for Disease Control thinks the rate of infection is about 10 percent.”


The CDC’s website suggests the rate is about 11 percent. But what’s far more interesting are the results of the agency’s ongoing large-scale National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which demonstrate a significant decline in infection among U.S.-born participants 12–49 years old, from 14.1 percent for the 1988–1994 survey to 6.6 percent for the 2009–10 survey. [1]

To hear Anderson and Work tell it, the risks to humans and wildlife are considerable—and only increasing. So how to explain the NHANES findings?*

Besides, one would assume that this is the kind of research Anderson would be keenly aware of given his apparent interest in the topic—and his background as former president and CEO of Hawaii Health Systems Corp and, prior to that, director of the Hawaii Department of Health.

A similar question was asked about population trends for the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. In the sparsely populated Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where their largest population is found, “recovery interventions have proven successful thus far,” explains a 2016 report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “and the monk seal decline in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands has slowed by eight-fold.” [2] And the population in the Main Hawaiian Islands—where one would expect the risk of toxoplasmosis to be the greatest, since these are the most densely populated of the Hawaiian Islands, and therefore likely home to more cats—“is currently increasing and moving on a trajectory toward 500 individuals.” [3]

And, as Basil Scott, president of the Kauai Community Cat Project, pointed out (via another question read on-air), the number of monk seal mortalities attributed to T. gondii-infection is a small fraction of total mortalities (just 4.4 percent of the 183 seals necropsied by researchers over a 15-year period, and suspected in another two deaths [4]).

“Well, you’re not counting the animals that are not detected,” replied Work. “We are only reporting what we see, and what we see is only a minor fraction of what is existing out there.”

Which doesn’t really address either question. And again, these are questions prompted by data that directly challenges the claims being made by “the experts” (whose salaries and research are funded by taxpayers).

And their discussion of management options was no better.

Neither Anderson nor Work acknowledged, for example, that eradication campaigns typically involve methods likely to spark public outcry in the U.S. (e.g., hunting, infectious disease) and some aren’t even legal. [5, 6] No mention of costs, either—which can exceed $100,000 per square mile [7]—or that some of these campaigns backfire. [8, 9]

Instead, Work focused on “responsible pet ownership”—that all-too-familiar response from TNR opponents unwilling to discuss the implications of what they’re actually proposing.

“Instead of promoting trap-and-neuter, how about promoting enforcement of cat licensing? Enforcement of fining people who let their cats loose? If it’s found in the street, you get a $500 fine. If it’s got kittens, you get a $10,000 fine. We hit people in the wallet, and we encourage responsible animal ownership.”

Even if such an idea were feasible—and there’s not a shred of evidence to suggest that such policies would do anything to reduce the number of outdoor cats**—it fails to address the population of cats already out there. Or that “14 tons of cat poop” in state parks.

There’s no telling what listeners new the subject made of all this. But for those of us paying careful attention to the ongoing witch-hunt against Hawaii’s outdoor cats, Anderson and Work’s performance was all too familiar: heavy on the misinformation and scaremongering, light on the substance—especially where public policy is concerned. What was marketed as a “conversation” was hijacked—turned into an hour-long propaganda piece.

* It’s possible, of course, that the risks could indeed be increasing even while infections rates are decreasing significantly. The problem arises when TNR opponents emphasize the risks without even acknowledging the downward trend—never mind trying to reconcile the two.

** In fact, such polices are likely to backfire by undermining TNR programs and targeting caregivers, thereby resulting in fewer cats sterilized. There are no winners here.

Literature Cited

[1]        W. Krueger, E. Hilborn, R. Converse, and T. Wade, “Drinking water source and human Toxoplasma gondii infection in the United States: a cross-sectional analysis of NHANES data,” BMC Public Health, vol. 14, no. 1, p. 711, 2014.

[2]        n.a., “Priority Actions 2016–2020 Hawaiian Monk Seal Neomonachus schauinslandi,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, 2016.

[3]        R. S. Sprague, J. S. Walters, B. Baron-Taltre, and N. Davis, “Main Hawaiian Islands Monk Seal Management Plan,” National Marine Fisheries Service, Pacific Islands Region, Honolulu, HI, 2016.

[4]        M. M. Barbieri et al., “Protozoal-related mortalities in endangered Hawaiian monk seals Neomonachus schauinslandi,” Diseases of aquatic organisms, vol. 121, no. 2, pp. 85–95, Sep. 2016.

[5]        M. N. Bester, J. P. Bloomer, P. A. Bartlett, D. D. Muller, M. Van Rooyen, and H. Buchner, “Final eradication of feral cats from sub-Antarctic Marion Island, southern Indian Ocean,” South African Journal of Wildlife Research, vol. 30, no. 1, pp. 53–57, 2000.

[6]        M. N. Bester 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, vol. 32, no. 1, pp. 65–73, 2002.

[7]        K. J. Campbell, G. Harper, D. Algar, C. C. Hanson, B. S. Keitt, and S. Robinson, “Review of feral cat eradications on islands,” in Island invasives: eradication and management, C. R. Veitch, M. N. Clout, and D. R. Towns, Eds. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN, 2011.

[8]        M. J. Rayner, M. E. Hauber, M. J. Imber, R. K. Stamp, and M. N. Clout, “Spatial heterogeneity of mesopredator release within an oceanic island system,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 104, no. 52, pp. 20862–20865, Dec. 2007.

[9]        D. M. Bergstrom et al., “Indirect effects of invasive species removal devastate World Heritage Island,” Journal of Applied Ecology, vol. 46, no. 1, pp. 73–81, 2009.



In the News, Toxoplasma