Issues of Consumption, Production, and Surplus

As I continue to drill down into the “The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States”—tracking down and reading journal articles, compiling the data therein, etc.—I’m finding (not surprisingly) additional holes in the various claims made by Scott Loss, Tom Will, and Peter Marra. For example:

“Native species make up the majority of the birds preyed upon by cats. On average, only 33 percent of bird prey items identified to species were non-native species in 10 studies with 438 specimens of 58 species.” [1]

That’s quite a statement to make on the basis of just 10 studies (spanning 63 years*) and an average of fewer than eight specimens per species. And actually, one of the studies cited by Loss et al. was no study at all, but rather the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s two-page brochure Impacts of Feral and Free-ranging Domestic Cats on Wildlife in Florida (PDF). Not only are there no “bird prey items identified to species,” the document relies heavily on claims made by the American Bird Conservancy (thus raising serious doubts about the agency’s assertion that “scientific data drives management decisions for fish and wildlife populations and their habitats”).

How nobody—neither the three authors nor the multiple reviewers—caught this is a bit of a mystery. Just a glance at the brochure’s title ought to raise eyebrows in light of the way it’s cited by Loss et al. On the other hand, mistakes like this do happen. And in this case, I’m willing to give the authors the benefit of the doubt—largely because there are so many other, far more substantive, problems with their paper. Read more

The Show Must Go On!

On May 25, 2011, J. Scott Robinson, Director of the Office of Sponsored Projects for the Smithsonian Institute, sent a three-page proposal (PDF) to Randy Dettmers, a biologist in the Division of Migratory Birds for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, outlining the scope and budget for a project called “Effects of subsidized predators on bird populations in an urban matrix.”* The work was to begin in just one week and continue through the end of September, conducted by Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute researchers Peter Marra and Nico Dauphiné.

“We look forward to working with you on this important project,” Robinson wrote in closing.

The budget request was just $14K, but it’s difficult to imagine any proposal being approved and funded in a week—never mind one with a three-day holiday weekend. For this particular proposal, though, there was more than the usual bureaucracy to contend with.

Two weeks earlier, on May 11, Dauphiné had been arrested, charged with attempted animal cruelty for trying to poison neighborhood cats outside her Park Square apartment building. Read more

Garbage In, Garbage Out

By now—just about 72 hours after the story broke—it’s probably more difficult to find people who haven’t heard about the Smithsonian study claiming “that free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.4–3.7 billion birds and 6.9–20.7 billion mammals annually” [1] than it is to find people who’ve heard the news somewhere—the New York Times, the BBC, NPR’s All Things Considered, or any number of other media outlets.

Very few scientific papers receive the kind of press coverage that’s been given “The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States,” published in the online journal Nature Communications. Then again, very few studies make the kinds of claims made by the paper’s authors—claims the media has accepted without the slightest bit of scrutiny. Which is, unfortunately, to be expected.

And, I suspect, exactly what these researchers intended. Though they describe their work as a “data-driven systematic review,” [1] it’s difficult not to see it as part of a concerted effort to undermine TNR. Read more

A Ban on Cats in New Zealand?

I swear, I really didn’t want to put any energy in to the Gareth Morgan story—didn’t want to give the thing any more oxygen. As a former co-worker used to say, “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, and the pig likes it.”

But, as if often the case with such PR stunts, the media is having a field day with Morgan’s just-launched campaign to rid New Zealand of cats. All of them. “The fact is,” he explains on his Cats to Go website, “that cats have to go if we really care about our environment.” For Morgan, “a New Zealand businessman, economist, investment manager, motor cycle adventurer, public commentator and philanthropist,” according to Wikipedia, “that little ball of fluff you own is a natural born killer.”

Which, I suppose, would have been easy enough to ignore. Not so easily ignored, however, if the way Morgan and others have co-opted various scientific studies in an effort to justify his proposal. Read more

Opinions from the Front Lines, or Fog of War?

A recent study finds important differences between cat caretakers and bird conservationists when it comes to their attitudes and beliefs about the impacts of free-roaming cats and how to best manage them. In the end, however, the methods employed lead to far more questions than answers.

“Because western society’s orientations toward wildlife is becoming more moralistic and less utilitarian,” explain the authors of a study recently published online in PLoS ONE, “conservation biologists must develop innovative and collaborative ways to address the threats posed by feral cats rather than assuming wholesale removal of feral cats through euthanasia is a universally viable solution.” [1] Not surprisingly, the authors fail to acknowledge that “euthanasia” hasn’t proven to be a viable [see Note 1] solution anywhere but on small oceanic islands. Still, given the sort of recommendations typically generated by the conservation biology community on this subject, I suppose we have to recognize this as some kind of progress. Read more

The Outdoor Cat Conference: Wrap-Up

Putting on any conference is a tremendous undertaking. But the challenges involved in pulling together The Outdoor Cat: Science and Policy from a Global Perspective went far beyond the logistics of wrangling 20-some speakers and 150 or so attendees. For starters, there was deciding who should (and should not) be invited to present. (More on that shortly.) And then there’s the fact that, no matter what happens, you’re bound to be criticized.

There’s simply no way to get something like this completely right, no matter who’s in charge or how much planning goes into it.

And so, I give a lot of credit to the people involved—who knew all of this, and did it anyhow. Those I know of (and I’m sure to be leaving out many others, for which I apologize) include John Hadidian, Andrew Rowan, Nancy Peterson, Katie Lisnik, and Carol England from the Humane Society of the United States; and Aimee Gilbreath and Estelle Weber of FoundAnimals. Many of you told me, very modestly, that this conference was “a start.”

Fair enough, but it’s a very important one. Five or 10 years from now, we might look back and call it a milestone.

Here, then, are some snapshots of the various presentations (in the order in which the they were given). Read more

HAHF-Truths, HAHF-Measures, Full Prices (Part 1)

Complaining of the impacts of free-roaming cats on wildlife and the environment, along with a range of public health threats, dozens of veterinarians in Hillsborough County, Florida, have banded together to fight TNR. Evidence suggests, however, that their real concern has nothing to do with the community, native wildlife, or, indeed, with cats. What the Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation is most interested in protecting, it seems, is the business interests of its members.

This was Take Your Cat to the Vet Week, a time “to raise awareness of the fact that cats need an annual veterinarian examination just as much as dogs,” according to Feline Pine, the litter manufacturer responsible for the occasion’s creation. In Hillsborough County, Florida, however, it was a time for many in the veterinary community to reiterate their opposition to TNR.

“We love cats!” Don Thompson assured me earlier this week via e-mail. “Any person who argues that vets don’t love animals is being foolish.” But, just like David Aycock, chief animal control officer for Pompano Beach, Thompson’s love has its limits—feral cats need not apply.

Thompson’s not a vet himself, but an attorney. He, along with his veterinarian wife, Katie, operate the Veterinary Center at Fishhawk, and he’s also head of the Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation, whose members are, according to the HAHF website, “gravely concerned about Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR).” Read more

The Annotated Apocalypse Meow

In the current issue of The Washingtonian, senior writer Luke Mullins provides the most comprehensive profile yet of former Smithsonian researcher Nico Dauphiné, convicted last October of attempted animal cruelty. Most telling are his conversations with her unwavering supporters, who—in spite of the evidence, her well-documented history, and her miserable performance on the stand—continue to make excuses for her.

In the five months since she was convicted of attempted animal cruelty, former Smithsonian researcher Nico Dauphiné has enjoyed a respite from the largely unflattering media spotlight. All that changed in the past few weeks, though—first with Conservation magazine’s “Cat Fight,” and now with a 6,100-word feature in the April issue of The Washingtonian.

In “Apocalypse Now,” senior writer Luke Mullins digs into Dauphiné’s DC court case, as well as her previous “community service” in Athens, GA. The Nico Dauphiné that emerges is a far cry from the sympathetic character portrayed in “Cat Fight”—where, for example, writer John Carey laments: “Unfortunately, the strange case of the accused cat poisoner didn’t end well.” [1]

Although Mullins was unable to speak with Dauphiné for the piece, his conversations with people close to Dauphiné—as well as many who observed her mistreatment of cats—are illuminating. Read more

Fight or Flight?

“Cat Fight,” which appears in the latest issue of Conservation magazine, does little to cut through the rhetoric or clear up the numerous misrepresentations that plague the debate over free-roaming cats.

There is, it’s often said, no such thing as bad PR. Even so, I’m not thrilled with the way I’m portrayed in an article appearing in the current issue of Conservation. It’s only a couple of quotes, but still, I worry that I come off as more of a bomb-thrower than anything else.

“Wolf writes a blog, Vox Felina,” explains writer John Carey, in “Cat Fight,” “which regularly excoriates wildlife biologists for what Wolf calls their ‘sloppy pseudo-science.’ He charges that ‘the science in Dauphine’s paper about cats was so horrific that she should have never made it out of graduate school’ and that ‘Peter Marra is taking six bird deaths and predicting the Apocalypse.’”

As I told Carey via e-mail, just after the piece was published online, I don’t believe the quotes are accurate. Carey, on the other hand, assures me (in a cordial, professional manner typical of our exchanges) that “the quotes are exactly what [I] said.” (Neither of us recorded our conversation.)

“I know I realized immediately when you said those things that they were precisely the type of colorful statements that illustrate the nature of the debate, so I did appreciate you using such colorful language.”

Fair enough. Perhaps it’s not all the important if the content isn’t precisely correct—the tone is certainly accurate.

If I am a bomb-thrower, though, I am at least a well-informed bomb-thrower. And the “targets”—to extend the metaphor—have, simply put, got it coming to them. Carey acknowledges that I “do an excellent job scrutinizing the scientific evidence, and have clearly thought deeply about both sides of the issue.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t come across to Conservation readers.

That said, I want to make it clear: I’m grateful to have been included in the piece, and grateful, too, for my conversations with Carey. And whatever quibbles I have about my portrayal pale in comparison to various other aspects of “Cat Fight.”

Stuffing the Ballot Box
Referring to Peter Marra’s well-publicized catbird study, Carey writes: “Predators nabbed nearly half the birds, and cats were the number one predator.” [1]

Number one predator?

Certainly, this was the message Marra emphasized to the press—but I thought I’d straightened this out with Carey on the phone, and with a follow-up e-mail.

Here’s what Marra and his colleagues report in their paper:

A total of 69 fledglings were monitored, of which 42 (61 percent) died over the course of the study. Of those mortalities, 33 (79 percent) were due to predation of some kind. Eight of the 33 predatory events were observed directly: six involved domestic cats, one a black rat snake, and one a red-shouldered hawk.

That leaves 25 predation events (76 percent) for which direct attributions could not be made—which, in and of itself, raises serious questions about Carey’s “number one predator” claim.

About those other 25: Marra and his co-authors concede that “not all mortalities could be clearly assigned.” Seven were attributed to rats or chipmunks because they were “found cached underground,” while another one was attributed to birds because the remains were found in a tree.

In addition, 14 mortalities “could not be assigned to a specific predator.” Which leaves three: “fledglings found with body damage or missing heads were considered symptomatic of cat kills.” [2]

In fact, it’s rather well known that such predatory behavior is symptomatic not of cats, but of owls, grackles, jays, magpies, and even raccoons [3–5]—something I addressed in an October 2010 post (and discussed with Carey).

All of which is difficult to reconcile with Marra’s claim, in “Cat Fight,” that he and his colleagues “were very conservative assigning mortality to cats,” [1] and with his apparent confidence (shared by Carey) in putting cats at the top of the list.

Curious, too, that, although Carey opens his article with Nico Dauphine’s December 2011 sentencing hearing, he never mentions the fact that Marra was Dauphine’s advisor at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. (I suppose the connection isn’t something Marra brags about these days.)

The Cats Came Back
Carey argues that “moving cat colonies away from areas that harbor threatened species is a no-brainer” but points out that “it doesn’t always work.”

“In Fortescue, New Jersey, a colony of feral cats was moved away from the shore of Delaware Bay in 2011 to help protect red knots, which stop there in huge numbers to gorge on horseshoe-crab eggs to fuel their long migration from the tip of South America to the Arctic. But after only a few months, cats were back.” [1]

Here, I’ll defer to Animal Protection League of New Jersey attorney Michelle Lerner, whose comment was the first posted after “Cat Fight” was available online:

“The details about the Fortescue cats, with which I was involved, are incorrect. The colony was not ‘moved,’ it was removed completely. 40 cats were moved to a fence enclosure on a farm several counties away, 7 went to a sanctuary in another state, others went to barns or were friendly enough to be adopted. Removal was used, which is what the anti-TNR people always want. The only difference is the cats were not killed—something that was possible because of limited numbers. It is true that, due to the vacuum effect, different cats then showed up. The nonprofit doing the removal keeps trapping there in coordination with animal control to try to get them all. A few per month show up. But this is why TNR advocates warn removal never really works without intensive management and repeat trapping, and why statistical studies have shown it takes 10 times the effort to control a colony through removal as through TNR. Because there is a reason the cats were there in the first place and more will just move in—more who are unneutered—if the cats are removed.”

It’s worth pointing out, too, that, unlike the current relocation effort, taxpayers would be footing the bill for an ongoing lethal roundup.

And I wish Carey had included a bit of additional context here. The greatest threat to those red knots, from what I can tell (admittedly, doing nothing more than a quick Google search), has little to do with cats being fed nearby. According to The Wetlands Institute:

“…overharvesting of female horseshoe crabs by commercial fishermen, coupled with loss of spawning habitat resulting from beach erosion associated with sea level rise, has resulted in a precipitous decline in the Delaware Bay horseshoe crab population, and therefore the number of eggs available to feed migratory birds. This, in turn, has led to a dramatic decrease in the size of annual red knot migrating populations, to the point that red knots have been proposed for federally endangered status.”

Indeed, the Delaware Nature Society reports: “In 2008, New Jersey placed a moratorium on horseshoe crab harvests until the red knot numbers rebound.”

The Scientific Community v. The People of the District of Columbia
If Marra hasn’t come to Dauphine’s defense, Chris Lepczyk has—with the kind of confidence he (and Marra) usually reserve for vilifying free-roaming cats.

“‘I am 100 percent confident she was not poisoning cats,’ says University of Hawaii wildlife ecologist Christopher Lepczyk, who fears that she was convicted in part because of her articles about the cat-predation problem. ‘I don’t think anyone in the scientific community agrees that she is guilty.’” [1]

That’s quite an endorsement—especially in light of… you know, the facts.

On December 14th, the day Dauphine was sentenced, CNN reported that Superior Court Judge A. Truman Morrison III “said he had received a number of letters from people who know Dauphine.”

“He said such letters usually try to make a case that the verdict was in error, but in this case, the judge said, no one quarreled with the guilty verdict… Morrison said it was clear from letters written by Dauphine’s colleagues that ‘her career, if not over, it’s in grave jeopardy.’ The judge said that was already partial punishment for her actions.”

But Lepczyk’s right when he says the verdict was, in part, the result of Dauphine’s writings—just not in the way he suggests. Indeed, the day Dauphine was found guilty, The Washington Post reported: “Senior Judge Truman A. Morrison III said it was the video, along with Dauphine’s testimony, that led him to believe she had ‘motive and opportunity.’”

“He specifically pointed to her repeated denials of her writings. ‘Her inability and unwillingness to own up to her own professional writings as her own undermined her credibility,’ Morrison said.”

All of which—not to put too fine a point on it—was included in my numerous posts following the case. Perhaps Lepczyk ought to subscribe to Vox Felina.

I’ve been saying for nearly two years now that Dauphine’s professional work on the subject of free-roaming cats—cited and promoted with great enthusiasm before all this nasty press attention—is as indefensible as the actions that landed her in DC Superior Court. It’s a shame Carey didn’t pin down Lepczyk (and others) on that point.

Numb and Numb-er
If Carey included me in “Cat Fight” because of my colorful language, I have to imagine Stephen Vantassel, project coordinator of distance education for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s School of Natural Resources, was included for his unintended irony.

Referring to the toll cats take on wildlife, Vantassel told Carey, “The numbers are mind-numbing.” [1]

Actually, “mind-numbing” is a fitting description for the content of, and motivation behind, Feral Cats and Their Management, the well-publicized paper Vantassel co-authored in late 2010. Not only do the authors fail to get a handle on the predation numbers, they reveal a significant lack of understanding of the key issues surrounding cats and predation in general. Indeed, they misread, misinterpret, and/or misrepresent nearly every bit of research they reference. And, some of what the authors include isn’t valid research to begin with.

Two years later, it seems he’s still got nothing to contribute to the discussion.

OK, maybe that’s being too harsh. Consider what Vantassel has to say, in the sidebar that accompanies “Cat Fight,” about the uncertainty surrounding the legal status of free-roaming cats: it “has essentially turned outdoor cats into protected predators.” [6]

Protected predators?

Now, here’s a subject Vantassel knows well. After all, his PhD (theology) dissertation was dedicated to: “…fur trappers who, every winter, brave the harsh weather in continuance of America’s oldest industry. Regrettably, they must also endure the ravages of urban sprawl and the derision of an ungrateful and ignorant public.” [7]

Wisconsin: Landmarks and Mirages
My greatest disappointment with “Cat Fight”—one shared by others I’ve spoken with—is Carey’s inclusion of the infamous “Wisconsin Study.”

“In a landmark study in Wisconsin, Stanley Temple, now professor emeritus of forest and wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin, and his colleagues radio-collared free-ranging rural cats, watched the animals’ hunting behavior, and examined their stomach contents. (An inflammatory and inaccurate press report that implied that the researchers had killed the cats for the stomach contents—in fact, they used an emetic—led to death threats against Temple.) The study showed that each cat killed an average of 5.6 birds a year. With an estimated 1.4 million free-ranging rural cats just in Wisconsin, that’s nearly 8 million birds.” [1]

When I spoke with Carey, he’d already talked to Temple. And when he referred to a predation study Temple had done, I stopped him in his tracks: If Temple conducted any such work, it was never published.

What has been published involved combining cat density numbers Temple and graduate student John Coleman had gathered by surveying “farmers and other rural residents in Wisconsin for information about their free-ranging (not house-bound) cats” [8] with predation numbers from studies conducted in the 1930s and 1950s. All of which is explained in a 1992 article the two wrote for Wildlife Control Technology:

“…our four year study of cat predation in Wisconsin, completed in1992, coupled with data from other studies, allows us to make a reasonable estimate of birds killed annually in this state… At the high end, are estimates from diet studies of rural cats that indicate at least one kill per cat per day, resulting in over 365 kills per cat per year [9–11]. Other studies report 28 kills per cat per year for urban cats, and 91 kills per cat per year for rural cats [12].” [13]

“Using low values,” then, Temple and Coleman multiplied their estimated 1.4 million rural free-roaming cats in the state by 28 (“twice urban kill rate”), and then multiply that by 20 percent (the “low dietary percent,” as they call it, though it’s actually a gross misinterpretation of Mike Fitzgerald’s work, as Ellen Perry Berkeley points out in her 2004 book TNR Past Present and Future: A history of the trap-neuter-return movement [14]). The resulting “estimate” is “7.8 million birds killed annually.”

Twenty years later, though, the story seems to have changed dramatically.

Now, we’re to believe that Temple and Coleman’s study (funded, by the way, with “about $100,000 … from the [University of Wisconsin], U.S. Agriculture Department and the state Department of Natural Resources” [15]) revealed an average predation rate of 5.6 birds/year/cat. And that the 7.8 million figure comes not from “coupling” Temple and Coleman’s density work with others’ predation studies, but from their work alone.

Or perhaps the two methods resulted in exactly the same estimate.

Which, as I told Carey after reading the article, would be one hell of a coincidence. In fact, the very sources he cites call into question—if not discredit entirely—Temple’s claim.

Simply put: Carey failed to dig into this deeply enough. Instead of further perpetuating the myth of the Wisconsin Study, he might have exposed it for what it is: little more than a few misguided (and overpriced) back-of-the-envelope calculations—which Temple himself backed away from during a 1994 interview with The Sonoma County Independent: “They aren’t actual data; that was just our projection to show how bad it might be.” [16]

Or, failing that, then at least ignore the thing entirely.

Landmark study? Only insofar as it was instrumental in launching what’s become a witch-hunt against free-roaming cats in this country.

•     •     •

According to the magazine’s website, “Conservation stories capture the imagination and jump-start discussion.” Unfortunately, I don’t see “Cat Fight” adding much to the discussion—a missed opportunity in a debate where such opportunities are few and far between.

I agree with Carey that, as he notes in the article’s closing paragraph, “these great societal debates … are contested on a battleground of conflicting emotions, moral values, and ideologies. Facts alone rarely break up the fight.”

On the other hand, I don’t see how we’re going to break it up if we don’t first get the facts straight.

Literature Cited
1. Carey, J., “Cat Fight.” Conservation. 2012. March.

2. Balogh, A., Ryder, T., and Marra, P., “Population demography of Gray Catbirds in the suburban matrix: sources, sinks and domestic cats.” Journal of Ornithology. 2011: p. 1-10.

3. Thompson, B., The Backyard Bird Watcher’s Answer Guide. 2008: Bird Watcher’s Digest.

4. Bird, D.M., “Crouching Raptor, Hidden Danger.” The Backyard Birds Newsletter. 2010. No 5 (Fall/October).

5. Anderson, T.E., Identifying, evaluating and controlling wildlife damage, in Wildlife Management Techniques. 1969, Wildlife Society: Washington. p. 497–520.

6. Carey, J., “The Uncertain Legal Status of Cats.” Conservation. 2012. March.

7. Vantassel, S.M., Dominion over Wildlife?: An Environmental Theology of Human-Wildlife Relations. 2009: Resource Publications.

8. Coleman, J.S. and Temple, S.A., “Rural Residents’ Free-Ranging Domestic Cats: A Survey.” Wildlife Society Bulletin. 1993. 21(4): p. 381–390.

9. Errington, P.L., “Notes on Food Habits of Southwestern Wisconsin House Cats.” Journal of Mammalogy. 1936. 17(1): p. 64–65.

10. Parmalee, P.W., “Food Habits of the Feral House Cat in East-Central Texas.” The Journal of Wildlife Management. 1953. 17(3): p. 375-376.

11. Eberhard, T., “Food Habits of Pennsylvania House Cats.” The Journal of Wildlife Management. 1954. 18(2): p. 284–286.

12. Mitchell, J.C. and Beck, R.A., “Free-Ranging Domestic Cat Predation on Native Vertebrates in Rural and Urban Virginia.” Virginia Journal of Science. 1992. 43(1B): p. 197–207.

13. Coleman, J.S. and Temple, S.A., “How Many Birds Do Cats Kill?” Wildlife Control Technology. 1995. July–August. p. 44.

14. Berkeley, E.P., TNR Past present and future: A history of the trap-neuter-return movement. 2004, Bethesda, MD: Alley Cat Allies.

15. Imrie, R. (1997). Professor Says Predatory Cats Are Taking Toll on Ecosystem. St. Paul Pioneer Press, p. 1B,

16. Elliott, J. (1994, March 3–16). The Accused. The Sonoma County Independent, pp. 1, 10,

2011 Trap Liner Award

Referring to a particularly poor piece of journalism, a friend of mine suggested—recalling the irreverent moniker her late husband had given their own local paper—the newspaper in which it had appeared was perhaps best used for lining birdcages.

Twenty months into this blog, I’ve encountered my share of yellow journalism infecting both small-town weeklies and, with surprisingly regularity, major dailies. Indeed, in one of my first posts, I referred to an L.A. Times piece in which Steve Holmer, senior policy advisor for the American Bird Conservancy, told the paper (one assumes, with a straight face) that there are 160 million feral cats in the U.S. (based, he claimed, on “the latest estimates,” which, as it turned out, originated with former Smithsonian researcher Nico Dauphine).

A year later, Toronto Star reporters Mary Ormsby and Jim Wilkes filed a truly pathetic story portraying—clearly, without the burden of fact-checking—“bird advocates… up against a multi-million-dollar cat-care industry.” And over the summer, The Columbus Dispatch joined the chorus of publications pedaling the infamous University of Nebraska-Lincoln paper (not fit even for birdcage duty, that one) as if it were valid research.

And then there was Peter Marra’s (pr)op(aganda)-ed in The Washington Post.

The list goes on and on. All of which got me thinking… Inspired by my friend’s “birdcage liner” story, and by Nathan Winograd’s Phyllis Wright Awards (“given to those who epitomize everything that is wrong with our broken animal ‘shelter’ system”), I bring you the Trap Liner Award.

Just as some papers are best for lining birdcages, others are well-suited for lining the humane traps used for TNR work. Some, of course, are better (meaning worse) than others. The Trap Liner Award recognizes the writer or publication that, over the course of a given year, best demonstrates a tragic failure of journalistic integrity while fueling—intentionally or not—the witch-hunt against feral cats.

Competition in 2011—the first year of the Trap Liner Award—was fierce.

“Live and Let Kill,” Matt Smith’s feature for SF Weekly, looked to be a shoo-in, due largely to Smith’s poor choice of sources—among them, ABC and Travis Longcore—and “evidence” pulled from Jonathan Franzen’s most recent novel and Peter Marra’s catbird research (the reports of which themselves border on fiction). This from a publication that claims to be “San Francisco’s smartest.”

Three months later, however, another San Francisco publication—Mother Jones—raised (meaning, lowered) the bar with Kiera Butler’s “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” As I mentioned in my July 1 post, the misinformation, misrepresentations, and missteps that make up the bulk of “Faster, Pussycat!” betray either willful ignorance or glaring bias. Or both.

(Of these, only Butler’s population estimate was later corrected in the online version of the story—where, at last check, there were 1,646 comments—and where, interestingly, the title was softened considerably to “Are Cats Bad for the Environment?”)

In the end, it was the combination of Butler’s sloppy journalism—combined with the magazine’s impressive circulation of 250,000 and the irony of all their chest-thumping about bullshit-busting and “smart, fearless journalism”—that clinched it for MoJo.

And so, the 2011 Trap Liner Award goes to Kiera Butler and Mother Jones.

•     •     •

In just a couple days, I’ll start compiling entries for 2012. Happy new year.

Nico Dauphine Found Guilty of Attempted Animal Cruelty

The H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse, where the Superior Court of the District of Columbia is located. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and AgnosticPreachersKid.

After more than five months of delays, Nico Dauphine was, this afternoon in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, found guilty of attempted animal cruelty. (Sentencing hearing is scheduled for November 21st.)

Apparently, even “super lawyer” Billy Martin—brought in at the last minute—couldn’t save Dauphine. While the security camera footage (at least the portions released to the public via Fox 5 News) didn’t prove to be the smoking gun many expected, it was, it seems, sufficiently damning.

That, and Dauphine’s own testimony—which, I’m told, the judge simply didn’t buy. (Perhaps she was no more convincing in court—as, I’m told, she tried repeatedly to distance herself from her own very public statements opposing TNR—than she was during her infamous “Apocalypse Meow” presentation.)

According to a story in the Washington Post (published shortly after I had this post online), “Senior Judge Truman A. Morrison III said it was the video, along with Dauphine’s testimony, that led him to believe she had ‘motive and opportunity.’”

He specifically pointed to her repeated denials of her writings. “Her inability and unwillingness to own up to her own professional writings as her own undermined her credibility,” Morrison said.

Back in the News
While I’m pleased with the verdict, I think the fact that she’s been found guilty is actually less important than the fact that she didn’t get off the hook, if that makes any sense. This was a story that barely made the news when it first broke, and has been all but forgotten in the intervening months. A guilty verdict—regardless of the particulars—will, I hope, get the media interested again.

And, with any luck, asking some hard questions for a change.

Starting with: How in the hell was Nico Dauphine hired by the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center in the first place? They had to know her reputation for both misreading and misrepresenting the science in her efforts to vilify free-roaming cats. Yet, her supervisors—including Peter Marra, of course—had Dauphine studying the hunting habits of pet cats.

As I understand it, hers is a highly competitive fellowship—surely there were other candidates who would have been a better fit. (Or maybe not—again, her reputation preceded her. If Dauphine was in fact the best fit, though, what does that say about the Migratory Bird Center and the National Zoo?)

It’s going to be interesting to see how others react to today’s verdict.

Last I checked, The Wildlife Society’s Michael Hutchins hasn’t even mentioned Dauphine’s arrest on his blog—this, despite her extensive contribution to The Wildlife Professional (published by TWS) this past spring, when the magazine was devoted to “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats.” Nor have I seen ABC make any kind of statement. Will they remove Dauphine’s Impacts of Free-ranging Domestic Cats (Felis catus) on birds in the United States from the ABC website now that she’s been convicted, or does ABC still stand by her so-called research?

More interesting will be the reaction from those whose cats were lost—or nearly lost—as a result of Dauphine’s “community service” during her days in Athens. I don’t know that today’s decision will feel much like justice for them, though perhaps it’s a start.

Nico Dauphine on Trial (Day 3)

Testimony wrapped up Wednesday afternoon in Nico Dauphine’s attempted animal cruelty trial. Among the witnesses for the Defense: Peter Marra, Dauphine’s advisor at the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center—who’s previously described TNR as “essentially cat hoarding without walls.” [1] Dauphine took the stand as well, and, as I understand it, did herself no favors career-wise (even in the event she’s found not guilty).

Wednesday evening, Fox 5 News released the surveillance video at the heart of the Washington Humane Society’s investigation. In it, Dauphine is seen attending to some mysterious task—picking up the cat food that was left out by a neighbor, according to the Defense; adding rat poison to it, according to the Prosecution—before entering the building.

A decision is expected Monday afternoon.

Literature Cited
1. Lepczyk, C.A., et al., “What Conservation Biologists Can Do to Counter Trap-Neuter-Return: Response to Longcore et al.” Conservation Biology. 2010. 24(2): p. 627–629.

National Feral Cat Day 2011

National Feral Cat Day 2011 posterAs many of you are no doubt aware, Sunday is National Feral Cat Day, a holiday created 10 years ago by Alley Cat Allies “to raise awareness about feral cats, promote Trap-Neuter-Return, and recognize the millions of compassionate Americans who care for them.” This year, there are more than 320 events planned across all 50 states.

Even so, I’ll bet there are a number of scientists, journalists, and others who—despite devoting a great deal of attention to the topic the rest of the year—have allowed the holiday to sneak up on them, and therefore haven’t made plans. Here, then, are some suggestions for how some of these folks (listed in no particular order) might mark the 10th annual National Feral Cat Day.

•     •     •

Thank you to all those who—whether one day a year or year-round—raise awareness about, and care for, abandoned, stray, and feral cats, and promote TNR.

Jake and Lily

Letter from young child who loved Jake the cat

Over the past few months, I’ve heard from several people familiar with Nico Dauphine’s cat-trapping activities in and around Athens, GA, during her days as a PhD student at the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. Three years ago, in Athens-Clarke County Magistrate Court, Dauphine referred to her roundups as “community service.”:

“Oh, I do it basically as a community service, because I volunteered at Athens-Clarke County Animal Control for many years, and they’ve told me that one of their big problems that there’s no public service to pick up cats, but a lot of people have concerns about stray cats around.”

I recently heard from a former neighbor of Dauphine’s, whose family, like the defendant in the 2008 court case, was a victim of her “community service.” He agreed to share with me a letter he wrote—along with one written by one of his children (pictured above)—describing their experience:

“For more than six years my family has been consistently harassed by our neighbor Nico Dauphine… My wife and our children are fond of our pet cat. We have never owned more than two at a time, however we have been twice charged with a violation of the Athens leash law for our cat wandering into Nico’s yard. It was peculiar that when I requested to be shown the legal violation, that Patrick [Rives], Nico’s boyfriend, and head of animal control, handed a copy of the dog leash law with the word “dog” crossed out and “cat” hand-written in. This indicates to me that there is no specific violation concerning wandering licensed pet cats. Regardless, this household was fined twice, $80 on one occasion in 2008 or 09… and once for $50 in 2010… Additional circumstances involved in these cases would in most circumstances be considered legal entrapment, as Nico baited traps in her backyard with very aromatic bait to attract cats, then would take the cats away and drop them where they would be killed in traffic, as the local shelter would no longer accept cats.

On no occasion did Nico ever inform me that she had caught my cat. As a good neighbor I, on several occasions, asked Nico to alert us when our pet had wandered into her yard. I even suggested that she spray them with a garden hose to encourage them to stay away from her yard. Our children, who were six and eight years old at the time, had to give up their pet, which they had cared for since it was a very small kitten, as he (Jake) would get out and hide in the overgrown brush lot that is Nico’s yard. The children were heartbroken and have as a result learned to hate Nico, which is a behavior we try to minimize in our children.

My pet Siamese, who I had owned for more than six years, was a trained companion animal, as I am totally blind. My cat Lily was trained to pick up dropped items for me, warn me of obstacles in my path in the house, and alert me to people at the door. Nico trapped Lily once in a trap, without any water, on a weekend when Nico had been away in Florida for at least three days. I rescued Lily on that occasion, and threw the trap cage back across the fence into Nico’s yard. In the spring of 2010, Lily got out of my house. As she is chipped, I began calling all the shelters after she was missing for a full day. It was later reported back to me that Nico had told some neighbors that she had gotten rid of that cat. The distress and emotional drain of that incident continue to be costly to me. I had to withdraw from my PhD program as a result, where I was at the point of beginning data collection.

An additional factor about maintaining total control of our pet cat, which is nowhere in the U.S. required, as far as my research has revealed, is that… my wife has [cerebral palsy] and cannot walk adequately to chase down an active animal once it has escaped the house. The cruelty to these pets and to the owners—frequently young children—as a result, is beyond levels that decent society will normally tolerate.”

Isn’t this the same Nico Dauphine whose attorney, following her arrest in May, told the press that Dauphine’s “whole life is devoted to the care and welfare of animals”? The same Nico Dauphine who landed a prestigious position with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (part of the National Zoo), working alongside Peter Marra, conducting research “on [citizen participants’] free-roaming pet domestic cats”? And the same Nico Dauphine who was invited earlier this year by The Wildlife Professional to contribute to a special section of their Spring issue, “The Impacts of Free-roaming Cats” (in which Dauphine gives readers the ultimatum: “Pick One: Outdoor Cats or Conservation”)?

Of course. It’s also the same Nico Daupine who’s scheduled to appear in court October 24th, charged with attempted animal cruelty related to the poisoning of cats in her Washington, DC neighborhood.

Note: Patrick Rives did not respond to my e-mail request for comments about this story.

MoJo Losing Its Mojo

Mother Jones, according to its Website, “is a nonprofit news organization that specializes in investigative, political, and social justice reporting.”

“…smart, fearless journalism” keeps people informed—“informed” being pretty much indispensable to a democracy that actually works. Because we’ve been ahead of the curve time and again. Because this is journalism not funded by or beholden to corporations. Because we bust bullshit and get results. Because we’re expanding our investigative coverage while the rest of the media are contracting. Because you can count on us to take no prisoners, cleave to no dogma, and tell it like it is. Plus we’re pretty damn fun.

Right up my alley. Until now.

With “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!,” published in the July/August issue, articles editor Kiera Butler fails rather magnificently all the way around.

(The article isn’t available directly from yet, but you can read it (print it, too) simply by signing up for the magazine’s e-mail updates. Enter your e-mail address and click “Sign Up.” In the next window, click on “ACCESS THE ISSUE NOW”—the full issue will then open automatically in Zinio, a digital magazine reader. “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” begins on p. 72.)

Cover Art: "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!"

The title, by the way, comes from a 1965 cult classic in which “Three strippers seeking thrills encounter a young couple in the desert.” Sadly, the film is a better reflection of reality than the information in Butler’s article is.

Population of Cats
The most obvious blunder: Citing what seems to be the same data set (“the US feline population has tripled over the last four decades”) I referred to in my “Spoiler Alert” post, Butler arrives not at 90 million or so, as indicated in the original source [1], or even the bogus 150 million figure the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Tom Will tried to sell last year to the Bird Conservation Alliance.

No—according to Butler, there were 600 million cats in this country in 2007.

At that time, the human population was 301.3 million. For the sake of easy math, then, let’s call it two cats for every human (talk about “hip-deep in cats”!). This, I believe, sets a new record for absurd population claims—far surpassing the previous record held by Steve Holmer, senior policy advisor for the American Bird Conservancy.

And from here, it only gets worse. While her grossly inflated population figure might be attributed a simple mistake. These things happen (though, of course, one expects such things to be caught by somebody on the editorial staff). However, the misinformation, misrepresentations, and missteps that make up the bulk of “Faster, Pussycat!” betray either willful ignorance or glaring bias. Or both.

Smart, fearless journalism it is not.

One Billion Birds
Butler’s litany of complaints against feral cats is all too familiar: wildlife impacts (birds, in particular), public health threats, the “failures” of TNR, the powerful feral cat lobby, and the emotional/irrational nature of feral cat advocates (i.e., the classic “crazy cat lady” label). Her sources, too, include all the usual suspects; though few are cited, many others are obvious.

Sources of Mortality
Butler claims that domestic cats (“officially considered an invasive species”) top the list of mortality sources, killing perhaps one billion birds annually in the U.S. (Her tabulated comparison of seven mortality sources bears the familiar title “Apocalypse Meow.”)

The source of Butler’s “highest reliable estimates” is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, though the one-billion-birds claim has been made by others, including Nico Dauphine and Robert Cooper, [2, 3] and Rich Stallcup. [4] (In fact, Dauphine refers specifically to Stallcup’s wild-ass guess back-of-the-envelope calculation in her infamous “Apocalypse Meow” presentation.)

Yet even ABC, never one to go easy on cats—or to let science get in the way of their message—ranks building collisions ahead of cats. (Interestingly, neither USFWS nor ABC mentions the most direct human-caused source of bird mortality—hunting—which may account for 120 million avian deaths annually in the U.S. [5])

The one-billion-birds claim hinges upon an inflated estimate of outdoor cats (Dauphine and Cooper, for example, ignore published survey results [6–8], in effect doubling the number of pet cats allowed outdoors) and inflated predation rates (typically extrapolated from small, flawed studies). Multiplying one by the other, the result is impressive (hence, it’s “stickiness”).

Unfortunately, it’s also meaningless.

Still, such aggregate figures are useful for providing a scientific veneer to what is, at its core, little more than a witch-hunt. All of which makes it an easier sell to the media and the general public.

But sound bites ignore the importance of context. Aggregate predation rates, for example, fail to differentiate across vastly different habitats (e.g., islands, forests, coastlines, etc.), species (e.g., songbirds, seabirds, etc.), conditions (e.g., sick and healthy, young and old, etc.), and levels of vulnerability (e.g., ground-nesting and cavity-nesting species, rare and common species, etc.).

Predators—cats included—catch what’s easy. Indeed, at least two studies [9, 10] have found that cat-killed birds tend to be less healthy than those killed in non-predatory events (e.g., the other six mortality sources shown in Butler’s table).

Island Extinctions
In asserting that cats are “responsible for at least 33 avian extinctions worldwide,” Butler overlooks or ignores a critical detail: those extinctions involve primarily—perhaps exclusively—island species, with “insular endemic landbirds [being] most frequently driven to extinction” [11] And even this point is a matter of some debate. “Birds (both landbirds and seabirds) have been affected most by the introduction of cats to islands,” writes Mike Fitzgerald, one of the world’s foremost experts on the subject, “but the impact is rarely well documented.” [12]

“In many cases the bird populations were not well described before the cats were established and the possible role of other factors in changes in the bird populations are treated inadequately.” [12]

So what’s the impact of cats on continents?

In 2000, Fitzgerald and co-author Dennis Turner published a review of 61 predation studies, concluding unambiguously: “there are few, if any studies apart from island ones that actually demonstrate that cats have reduced bird populations.” [13]

Catbird Mortalities
Referring to research conducted by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Peter Marra, Butler contends that “cats caused 79 percent of deaths of juvenile catbirds in the suburbs of Washington, DC.” In fact, Marra and his colleagues documented just six deaths attributable to cats, of 42 overall (then justified another three on dubious grounds). [14]

That 79 percent figure comes from dividing the number of deaths attributed to all sources of predation (33) by the total number of deaths documented over the course of the study (42). Butler’s misreading overstates predation by cats by more than 500 percent.

Public Health Threats
“Feral cats,” writes Butler, “can carry some heinous people diseases, including rabies, hookworm, and toxoplasmosis, and infection known to cause miscarriages and birth defects.” Her omission of infection rates—remarkably low in light of the frequent contact between humans and cats—suggests an interest more in fear-mongering than anything else.

A hookworm outbreak in the Miami Beach area in late 2010 made headlines, prompting officials to create a “cat poop map” (cats can pass hookworm eggs in their feces).

Meanwhile, Floridians were dying of influenza or pneumonia by the hundreds. In fact, according to the Florida Department of Health, 100–140 or so die each week during the winter months. (Actually, that figure accounts for only 24 of the state’s 67 counties, so the total is likely much higher.)

My point is not to dismiss the risk of “heinous people diseases” (or the suffering of those who become infected) but to put that risk into perspective. (In terms of public health, we’re better off focusing on frequent hand washing, sneezing into our sleeves, and, in the case of hookworms on the beach, wearing flip-flops—as opposed to, say, exterminating this country’s most popular companion animal by the millions.)

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Website, “Although cats can carry diseases and pass them to people, you are not likely to get sick from touching or owning a cat.” And, notes the CDC, “People are probably more likely to get toxoplasmosis from gardening or eating raw meat than from having a pet cat.”

(The same is true of feeding feral cats, by the way. While it’s true that their infection rates tend to be higher, [15] our frequent, close contact with pet cats more than offsets these differences.)

“In theory,” writes Butler, “TNR sounds great. If cats can’t reproduce, their population will decline gradually. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. To put a dent in the total number of cats, at least 71 percent of them must be fixed, and they are notoriously hard to catch.”

In Los Angeles, adds Butler, “it failed miserably in the past.”

Contrary to Butler’s claims, however, there are numerous well-documented examples of TNR programs reducing colony size.

Perhaps the best-known TNR success story in this country is ORCAT. As of 2004, ORCAT, run by the Ocean Reef Community Association, had reduced its “overall population from approximately 2,000 cats to 500 cats.” [16] According to the ORCAT Website, the population today is approximately 350, of which only about 250 are free-roaming.

Other examples include a TNR program on the campus of the University of Florida University of Central Florida,
Orlando, in which caretakers found homes for more than 47 percent of the campus’ socialized cats and kittens, helping them reduce the campus cat population more than 66 percent, from 68 to 23. [17]

In North Carolina, researchers observed a 36 percent average decrease among six sterilized colonies in the first two years (even in the absence of adoptions), while three unsterilized colonies experienced an average 47 percent increase. [18] Four- and seven-year follow-up censuses revealed further reductions among sterilized colonies. [19]

A survey of caretakers in Rome revealed a 22 percent decrease overall in the number of cats through TNR, despite a 21 percent rate of “cat immigration.” [20]

And in South Africa, researchers recommended that “a suitable and ongoing sterilization programme, which is run in conjunction with a feral cat feeding programme, needs to be implemented” [21] on the campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Howard College—despite its proximity to “conservation-sensitive natural bush habitat and a nature reserve on the northern border.” [22]

The Cost of TNR
“Cash-strapped cities,” argues Butler, “can’t afford to chase down, trap, and sterilize every stray—a process that costs $100 per kitty.” So, can these cities afford to round up and kill the cats?

Mark Kumpf, past president of the National Animal Control Association doesn’t think so. “There’s no department that I’m aware of,” says Kumpf, “that has enough money in their budget to simply practice the old capture-and-euthanize policy; nature just keeps having more kittens.” Traditional control methods, he says, are akin to “bailing the ocean with a thimble.” [23]

The Cat Lobby
If TNR is so ineffective, why is it becoming the feral cat management approach of choice across the country (adopted in “at least 10 major cities,” according to Butler)? It must be the powerful cat lobby.

Alley Cat Allies, “whose budget was $5.3 million last year,” writes Butler, “has enjoyed generous grants from cat-food venders like PetSmart and Petco.”

It’s a play straight out of Dauphine’s playbook: paint the avian-industrial complex TNR opponents as victims of the powerful cat lobby. (In The Wildlife Professional’s recent special issue, “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats,” Dauphine complains: “The promotion of TNR is big business, with such large amounts of money in play that conservation scientists opposing TNR can’t begin to compete.” [24])

Alley Cat Allies
How generous were these grants, exactly? According to ACA’s 2010 Annual Report (PDF):

“Alley Cat Allies received more than $5.2 million in support between August 1, 2009 and July 31, 2010: more than 69,000 individuals contributed $4.8 million, including over $1 million in bequests. An additional $245,000 came from Workplace Campaigns, and over $14,000 came from foundation grants.”

Roughly 0.2 percent of their “total public support” came from all foundations combined. In 2009, grants and foundations accounted for 1.7 percent; in 2008, 1.0 percent.  (Maybe Butler never got the memo re: MoJo’s commitment to bullshit-busting.)

New Jersey Audubon
Another of Dauphine’s complaints that found its way into “Faster, Pussycat!”:

“Pro-feral groups—there are 250 or so in the United States—have used their financial might to woo wildlife groups. Audubon’s New Jersey chapter backed off on its opposition to TNR in 2005, around the same time major foundations gave the chapter grants to partner with pro-TNR groups.”

What Butler (like Dauphine before her) fails to acknowledge is the important role NJAS plays in the New Jersey Feral Cat & Wildlife Coalition, which has developed a set of model protocols and ordinances designed to help municipal TNR programs in ensuring the protection of any vulnerable native wildlife (DOC).

This is exactly the kind of collaborative effort that should be supported.

For what it’s worth: it’s not clear that NJAS was easily wooed with grant funding. A quick visit to reveals that NJAS brought in $6.8 million in 2008, and had $25.6 million in “net assets or fund balances” on its books. (I’ve been unable to determine the amount of grant funding NJAS received for “this important initiative,” as CEO and VP of Conservation and Stewardship Eric Stiles described it in a 2008 newsletter. [25])

Mental Health
Butler frames the TNR debate using what’s come to be standard form: rationale scientists on one side; on the other, cat advocates fueled by emotion. And mental illness, too, apparently: “There’s also speculation that [toxoplasmosis] can trigger schizophrenia and even the desire to be around cats—some researchers blame the crazy-cat-lady phenomenon on toxo.”

A Heated Debate
It’s a dangerous combination, according to Butler.

“Many of the biologists I spoke with say they’ve been harassed and even physically threatened when they’ve presented research about the effect cats have on wildlife.”

Is it really so one-sided?

Why didn’t Butler mention the case of Jim Stevenson, the Galveston birder who, in 2006, shot and killed (though not immediately) a feral cat within earshot of the cat’s caretaker? [26]

Or, more recently, the charges of attempted animal cruelty filed by the Washington Humane Society against Dauphine? (Or, for that matter, the stream of toxic comments almost guaranteed to accompany nearly any online story about feral cats or TNR.)

Clearly, the “cat people” don’t have a monopoly on emotional—even violent—responses to the issue.

Sustaining a Killer
When Butler tells an ecologist she knows that she’s feeding a feral cat, she’s told: “Basically, you’re sustaining a killer.” Which is essentially Butler’s intended take-away:

“Until they do [invent a single-dose sterilization drug], biologists recommend a combination of strategies. For starters, quit feeding ferals: Beyond sustaining strays, the practice often leads to delinquent pet owners to abandon their cats outdoors, assuming they will be well cared for.”

Are we to believe that abandonment is reduced or eliminated where the feeding of feral cats is prohibited? Owners (delinquent, I agree) interested in dumping their cats can, unfortunately, do so easily.

The far greater incentive for dumping comes from local shelters, most of which euthanize kill the majority of cats brought in. Many require a surrender fee.

I’m just about the last person to defend the dumping of cats, but shouldn’t we acknowledge the aspects of “animal control” policy that contribute to it?

But back to this idea that “no food” means “no ferals.” It sounds reasonable enough, but doesn’t hold up very well to scrutiny. For one thing, where there are humans, there’s food to be found. In fact, even where there are no people, cats don’t starve.

On Marion Island—barren and uninhabited—it took 19 years to eradicate approximately 2,200 cats. Their only human provision: “the carcasses of 12,000 day-old chickens” each injected with the poison sodium monofluoroacetate. [27] (The rest—the vast majority—were killed through the introduction of feline distemper, intensive hunting and trapping, and dogs. [28, 27])

Is Butler suggesting that the cats in her neighborhood would have it tougher than the Marion Island cats? Even setting aside the cruelty involved, we’re not likely to starve our way out of the “feral cat problem.” Unlike TNR, such an approach only drives the cats (and their caretakers) underground.

This, of course, is roughly the same approach that’s proved ineffective failed so spectacularly at addressing so many other complex issues, including drug enforcement, immigration policy, gays in the military, and so forth.

•     •     •

Since I launched Vox Felina last year, I’ve been critical of articles appearing in any number of publications: scientific journals (e.g., Conservation Biology), major newspapers (e.g., The Washington Post and The New York Times), an alt-weekly, and more.

None of which bothered me in the least, as I feel no particular connection to any of them. This is not to say that I don’t value, admire, and respect much of the work found, for instance, in the Times—only that I’ve no affinity for, or loyalty to, the paper itself.

But Mother Jones is different. Maybe it’s that whole bullshit-busting, take-no-prisoners, tell-it-like-it-is business—I’d like to think that’s something we share in common.

This time around, though, the magazine served up bullshit by the shovelful, swallowed in one gulp the misinformation churned out by ABC, The Wildlife Society, and other TNR opponents, and… well, told it like it isn’t.

With the publication of “Faster, Pussycat!,” Mother Jones failed miserably in its promise to readers. Which, I have to think, isn’t a lot of fun.

Literature Cited
1. Lepczyk, C.A., et al., “What Conservation Biologists Can Do to Counter Trap-Neuter-Return: Response to Longcore et al.” Conservation Biology. 2010. 24(2): p. 627–629.

2. Dauphine, N. and Cooper, R.J., Impacts of Free-ranging Domestic Cats (Felis catus) on birds in the United States: A review of recent research with conservation and management recommendations, in Fourth International Partners in Flight Conference: Tundra to Tropics. 2009. p. 205–219.

3. Dauphine, N. and Cooper, R.J., “Pick One: Outdoor Cats or Conservation.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 50–56.

4. Stallcup, R., “A reversible catastrophe.” Observer 91. 1991(Spring/Summer): p. 8–9.

5. Klem, D., “Glass: A Deadly Conservation Issue for Birds.” Bird Observer. 2006. 2. p. 73–81.

6. Clancy, E.A., Moore, A.S., and Bertone, E.R., “Evaluation of cat and owner characteristics and their relationships to outdoor access of owned cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2003. 222(11): p. 1541-1545.

7. Lord, L.K., “Attitudes toward and perceptions of free-roaming cats among individuals living in Ohio.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2008. 232(8): p. 1159-1167.

8. APPA, 2009–2010 APPA National Pet Owners Survey. 2009, American Pet Products Association: Greenwich, CT.

9. Møller, A.P. and Erritzøe, J., “Predation against birds with low immunocompetence.” Oecologia. 2000. 122(4): p. 500–504.

10. Baker, P.J., et al., “Cats about town: Is predation by free-ranging pet cats Felis catus likely to affect urban bird populations? Ibis. 2008. 150: p. 86–99.

11. Nogales, M., et al., “A Review of Feral Cat Eradication on Islands.” Conservation Biology. 2004. 18(2): p. 310–319.

12. Fitzgerald, B.M., Diet of domestic cats and their impact on prey populations, in The Domestic cat: The biology of its behaviour, D.C. Turner and P.P.G. Bateson, Editors. 1988, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge; New York. p. 123–147.

13. Fitzgerald, B.M. and Turner, D.C., Hunting Behaviour of domestic cats and their impact on prey populations, in The Domestic Cat: The biology of its behaviour, D.C. Turner and P.P.G. Bateson, Editors. 2000, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, U.K.; New York. p. 151–175.

14.  Balogh, A., Ryder, T., and Marra, P., “Population demography of Gray Catbirds in the suburban matrix: sources, sinks and domestic cats.” Journal of Ornithology. 2011: p. 1-10.

15. Dubey, J.P. and Jones, J.L., “Toxoplasma gondii infection in humans and animals in the United States.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2008. 38(11): p. 1257–1278.

16. Levy, J.K. and Crawford, P.C., “Humane strategies for controlling feral cat populations.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1354–1360.

17. Levy, J.K., Gale, D.W., and Gale, L.A., “Evaluation of the effect of a long-term trap-neuter-return and adoption program on a free-roaming cat population.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2003. 222(1): p. 42-46.

18. Stoskopf, M.K. and Nutter, F.B., “Analyzing approaches to feral cat management—one size does not fit all.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1361–1364.

19. 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 Department. 2005, North Carolina State University: Raleigh, NC. p. 224.

20. Natoli, E., et al., “Management of feral domestic cats in the urban environment of Rome (Italy).” Preventive Veterinary Medicine. 2006. 77(3-4): p. 180–185.

21. Tennent, J., Downs, C.T., and Bodasing, M., “Management Recommendations for Feral Cat (Felis catus) Populations Within an Urban Conservancy in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.” South African Journal of Wildlife Research. 2009. 39(2): p. 137–142.

22. Tennent, J. and Downs, C.T., “Abundance and home ranges of feral cats in an urban conservancy where there is supplemental feeding: A case study from South Africa.” African Zoology. 2008. 2: p. 218–229.

23. Hettinger, J., “Taking a Broader View of Cats in the Community.” Animal Sheltering. 2008. September/October. p. 8–9.

24. Dauphine, N., “Follow the Money: The Economics of TNR Advocacy.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 54.

25. Stiles, E., NJAS Works with Coalition to Reduce Bird Mortality from Outdoor Cats. 2008, New Jersey Audubon Society.

26. Barcott, B. (2007, December 2, 2007). Kill the Cat That Kills the Bird? New York Times, from–birds-t.html

27. 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.

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

Spoiler Alert

Coming up this Wednesday: “Impacts of Free Roaming Cats on Native Wildlife,” a Webinar sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Registration, from what I can tell, appears to be open to the public—though I’m still awaiting a confirmation e-mail (which will include, I hope, some clarification re: time zone for this “2:00–3:00 pm” event).

The USFWS Website lists the agency’s own Tom Will as the scheduled speaker, and includes the following description:

A rapidly growing feral and unrestrained domestic cat population kills an average of at least 1.5 million birds in the U.S. every day—and even greater numbers of small mammals and herptiles. Every small songbird species is vulnerable at some stage of its life cycle. Despite ample peer-reviewed science documenting the failure of trap-neuter-release (TNR) programs to reduce cat populations or address wildlife depredation, TNR and outdoor cat feeding colonies continue to be marketed to city councils, county boards, and state legislatures as a viable option. As a result, TNR feeding colonies are proliferating across the landscape at such an alarming rate that wildlife conservation programs intended to create source habitat are being rendered ineffectual in many areas. In this presentation, I briefly review the science on the effects of outdoor cats on wildlife and the ineffectiveness of TNR programs. Then, examples of the decision making process leading to community endorsement of TNR provide some insight into the roadblocks to effective conservation action. Finally, I offer a suite of strategic conservation actions at national agency, community, and home scales whereby the Service and its partners might work effectively to reduce the negative effects of irresponsible civic TNR decisions on wildlife trust resources.

I expect, given Will’s apparent interest in the science surrounding this issue, that he’ll shed some light on the origins of that 1.5 million birds/day predation rate—which, translated to an annual figure, is pretty close to what the American Bird Conservancy uses in The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation: “532 million birds killed annually by outdoor cats.” [1]

This Webinar, then, could be our chance to see the science behind the number. Or not—if this week’s presentation is anything like the one Will gave in 2010 to the Bird Conservation Alliance (which, according to its Website, is “facilitated by” ABC). Last year’s show, “What Can Federal Agencies Do? Policy Options to Address Cat Impacts to Birds and Their Habitats,” available (downloadable PDF) via the Animal Liberation Front Website, was short on science and long on rhetoric (and plenty of misinformation, too).

Now, I’ve no way of knowing what Will is going to present this week. So, although these things tend to be remarkably predictable, I’ll reserve judgment.

That said, it seems like a good time for a quick look at his 2010 material.

Birds of a Feather
As it happens, Tom Will is among those Nico Dauphine thanks “for helpful information, advice, ideas, and discussion in researching this subject” in her 2009 Partners In Flight conference paper. [2] And much of the material Will used last year was shown a year earlier by Dauphine, in her infamous “Apocalypse Meow” presentation. (The similarities are uncanny, actually: identical background color, many of the same images, etc.)

Death by (Faulty) Statistics
Like Dauphine, Will includes the graph (shown below) from the second edition of Frank Gill’s Ornithology, suggesting, apparently, that predation by cats far exceeds all other sources of mortality combined (a claim Dauphine made in her 2008 letter to the editor of the St. Petersburg Times).

But, as I’ve explained previously, Gill’s cat “data” aren’t data at all, but the indefensible (in terms of its lack of scientific merit, but also its almost palpable bias) guesswork of Rich Stallcup, co-founder of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory.

All of which raises serious doubts about USFWS’s commitment “to using sound science in its decision-making and to providing the American public with information of the highest quality possible.”

Counting Cats
The more intriguing visual, though, in Will’s 2010 presentation (shown below) is meant (it seems) to illustrate the relationship between the increasing population of cats and the decreasing populations of bird species over the past 40 years or so.

But, of course, correlation is not the same as causation. I’ll bet that, like cat ownership, membership in the National Audubon Society has risen steadily over the past 40 years—but somehow, I don’t imagine anybody suggesting that bird populations decline as NAS membership climbs.

What first caught my eye was not the the implied relationship between cat numbers and bird numbers, however, but the red dots themselves. The same data were plotted (as shown below) in “What Conservation Biologists Can Do to Counter Trap-Neuter-Return: Response to Longcore et al.,” [3] published last year in Conservation Biology, (among the paper’s 10 co-authors, by the way: Nico Dauphine and Peter Marra).

Look closely at the two graphs, and you’ll see that Will has gotten creative here. His data points (which, I believe, come primarily from the U.S. Census and APPA) are identical to those used in the letter to Conservation Biology, but the vertical scale’s been changed. In Will’s version, the upper right portion of the graph has jumped from 90 million to 150 million cats! (His horizontal axis is shifted slightly, but the impact is nothing by comparison.)

Apparently, Will is combining population data for pet cats with data for feral cats. Trouble is, his “data” for feral cats doesn’t exist. It looks as if Will simply borrowed from Dauphine, who borrowed from David Jessup—whose “estimate” is unattributed.

So much for “using sound science” and “providing the American public with information of the highest quality possible.”

Roaming Charges May Apply
What if Will stuck to what the data actually show? It seems the message is pretty clear: since 1971, the number of pet cats in the U.S. has nearly tripled.

OK, but what does that mean for the nation’s wildlife? Keep in mind: the country’s human population swelled by 43 percent over the same period, taking an enormous toll on wildlife—either directly (e.g., loss of habitat via development, birds colliding with buildings, etc.) or indirectly (e.g.,  increased pollution and pesticide use).

Let’s set all that aside for the moment, though, and get back to pet cats. Even if the graphs accurately reflect the upward trend of cat ownership in the U.S. (and I’m not sure they do), they grossly misrepresent the threat to wildlife—which, presumably, is the point.

Simply put, there are not three times as many pet cats outdoors today.

The data I have, from the American Pet Products Association, [4] go back only to 1998. At that time, 56 percent of cat owners responding to APPA’s National Pet Owners Survey indicated that their cats were indoors-only; in 2008, that figured had climbed to 64 percent.

With an estimated 89.6 million pets cats in the U.S. in 2010, then, that means that about 32.4 million cats are outdoors for at least some part of the day (and approximately half of those are outside for less than three hours each day [5, 6]).

What was the proportion in 1971? Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find any survey results from the 1970s or 1980s. All we can do it guess.

Let’s say that in 1971 just one-third of pet cats were kept indoors exclusively (the very situation Dauphine would have us believe we’re facing today). That means 21.5 million cats were free-roaming for at least some part of the day.

Again, this is a guess—not an unreasonable one, but a guess anyhow. Still, the implications are significant. While it’s true that the number of pet cats has tripled over the past 40 years, the number that are free-roaming has probably increased by only 50 percent or so.

Prosecution or Persecution?
Finally, I’m curious to see if Will’s “suite of strategic conservation actions” will include, as his 2010 presentation suggests, threatening those who conduct or officially endorse TNR with prosecution under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA).

This has become a common tactic in recent years (see, for example, the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex Integrated Predator Management Plan/Draft Environmental Assessment, released earlier this year), though it goes back to at least 2003, when Pamela Jo Hatley, then a law student, suggested the possibility.

(One wonders if USFWS, the agency responsible for drafting the Keys Predator Management Plan, could be prosecuted under the ESA and MBTA in the event—not unlikely—that a large-scale round-up of feral cats resulted in a population explosion of rats, which in turn decimate the very species the Plan claims to protect.)

•     •     •

As a say, I’m not going to critique Will’s presentation until he’s had the chance to give it. Indeed, he may very well deliver on the science review, policy insights, conservation actions, etc. If what he provided the BCA is any indication, though, the man’s got his work cut out for him.

Literature Cited
1. Lebbin, D.J., Parr, M.J., and Fenwick, G.H., The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation. 2010, London: University of Chicago Press.

2. Dauphine, N. and Cooper, R.J., Impacts of Free-ranging Domestic Cats (Felis catus) on birds in the United States: A review of recent research with conservation and management recommendations, in Fourth International Partners in Flight Conference: Tundra to Tropics. 2009. p. 205–219.

3. Lepczyk, C.A., et al., “What Conservation Biologists Can Do to Counter Trap-Neuter-Return: Response to Longcore et al.” Conservation Biology. 2010. 24(2): p. 627–629.

4. APPA, 2009–2010 APPA National Pet Owners Survey. 2009, American Pet Products Association: Greenwich, CT.

5. Clancy, E.A., Moore, A.S., and Bertone, E.R., “Evaluation of cat and owner characteristics and their relationships to outdoor access of owned cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2003. 222(11): p. 1541-1545.

6. Lord, L.K., “Attitudes toward and perceptions of free-roaming cats among individuals living in Ohio.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2008. 232(8): p. 1159-1167.

Perfectly Comfortable? I’m Not.

As many of you know, the National Zoo has shown no signs of suspending Nico Dauphine, despite her recent arrest on charges of attempted animal cruelty. As a result, at least two petitions are being circulated—one by Alley Cat Rescue, and another by Alley Cat Allies.

I encourage readers to sign both petitions, and also to send letters (an online form is available here). Below is my letter to National Zoo director Dennis Kelly:

Dear Dennis Kelly,

As you know, the National Zoo’s mission emphasizes leadership—in animal care, science, and education—as well as “the highest quality animal care.” But recent events indicate that Zoo management has lost sight of this noble mission.

Indeed, allowing Dr. Nico Dauphine—recently charged with attempted animal cruelty in connection with the poisoning of cats in her neighborhood—to continue her work for the Zoo’s Migratory Bird Center demonstrates a profound lack of leadership, and suggests a remarkably narrow view of “animal care.”

Comments made last week by the Zoo’s associate director of communications, Pamela Baker-Masson, only made matters worse—suggesting that Zoo management isn’t even aware of the research Dauphine is conducting. Baker-Masson told ABC News:

“We know what she’s doing would in no way jeopardize our animal collection at the National Zoo or jeopardize wildlife, so we feel perfectly comfortable that she continue her research.”

But, according to the Migratory Bird Center’s Website, Dauphine’s “current project examines predator-prey dynamics in an urban matrix in collaboration with citizen scientists at Neighborhood Nestwatch.”

The predators in this case are, of course, house cats. And, according to an online application form she’s been using to recruit field assistants (the form was recently removed from the Migratory Bird Center’s Website), Dauphine is asking participating citizen scientists to put cameras on their cats.

And still, the National Zoo feels “perfectly comfortable that she continue her research.” What kind of message does this send to the local community, and to the nation as a whole?

The Smithsonian’s 2009 Annual Report indicates that 75 percent of the organization’s revenue comes from “federal appropriations” (63 percent) and “government grants and contracts” (12 percent). One way or another, these are tax dollars. In standing by Dauphine, then, the National Zoo is violating the trust of its primary funding source: the American people (among whom, 38.9 million households own cats).

Finally, the National Zoo should use the current crisis as an opportunity to review its hiring practices. I think it’s safe to say that Dauphine’s reputation preceded her when she joined your organization. Her extreme position against TNR—and free-roaming cats in general—is well documented. As is her habit of misrepresenting the science surrounding the issue.

In her February 10, 2008, letter to the editor of the St. Petersburg Times, for example, Dauphine—who identifies herself as “a scientist who has studied this issue”—makes an outlandish claim:

“In North America, cats may be the single biggest direct cause of bird mortality, far outnumbering all other causes (including human hunters) put together!”

Not even the American Bird Conservancy—which has, for the past 15 years, taken every opportunity to demonize free-roaming cats—goes this far.

And yet, the National Zoo has Dauphine, together with Dr. Peter Marra (who, in a letter co-authored with Dr. Dauphine, has called TNR “cat hoarding without walls.”), [1] researching the hunting habits of house cats. All of which raises questions about the rigor and validity of the research being conducted—not to mention the integrity of those involved.

As the National Zoo’s director, you have the responsibility to address these issues. I am, therefore, asking you to start by suspending Dr. Dauphine until the charges of attempted animal cruelty are dropped, proven to be unfounded, or in some other way resolved.


Peter J. Wolf
Independent Researcher/Analyst
Vox Felina

Literature Cited
1. Lepczyk, C.A., et al., “What Conservation Biologists Can Do to Counter Trap-Neuter-Return: Response to Longcore et al.” Conservation Biology. 2010. 24(2): p. 627–629.

Nico Dauphine Update

Photo from an online application form Nico Dauphine was (until Tuesday) using to hire field assistants, whose duties include “assist[ing] citizen participants in deploying miniature collar-mounted cameras on their free-roaming pet domestic cats.”

Tuesday, while animal welfare organizations across the country were issuing statements condemning the alleged cruelty and urging justice in the case, Nico Dauphine’s employer was expressing a rather remarkable lack of concern.

Scott Giacoppo, Vice President External Affairs & Chief Programs Officer for the Washington Humane Society, questioned whether Dauphine should remain employed by the National Zoo in the event she’s convicted.

“If she did do this,” Giacoppo told ABC News, “then we naturally would be concerned about her being around all animals. Whoever would do such a thing is a threat to all animals. It is a slow and painful death. It was callous and complete disregard for animals’ well being.”

According to ABC News, evidence in the case is the result of WHS’s “month-long investigation monitoring video surveillance and matching card swipes in and out of an apartment complex near the scene of the alleged crime.”

The Humane Society of the United States [not affiliated with WHS] issued a statement “applaud[ing] the Washington Humane Society for its investigation” and “urg[ing] full prosecution by the U.S. Attorney’s Office if warranted.”

Alley Cat Allies president Becky Robinson called the story “troubling.” “Intentionally killing cats is illegal and cruel. Criminal charges in this case are appropriate and necessary.”

“Alley Cat Rescue vehemently disagrees with keeping Dauphine in her current position at the National Zoo,” reads a statement posted on the organization’s blog. “[ACR] believes she should be removed until an investigation into these allegations of animal cruelty has been completed.” ACR has started a petition aimed at getting Dauphine removed.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the National Zoo, which oversees the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center—where Dauphine works with her advisor, Peter Marra—was trying to play down the fact that one of its researchers is charged with attempted animal cruelty.

Pamela Baker-Masson, associate director of communications, told ABC News: “We know what she’s doing would in no way jeopardize our animal collection at the National Zoo or jeopardize wildlife, so we feel perfectly comfortable that she continue her research.”

Which begs the question: Does Baker-Masson actually know what Dauphine’s research is?

As I indicated Monday, when this story broke, Dauphine’s “current project examines predator-prey dynamics in an urban matrix in collaboration with citizen scientists at Neighborhood Nestwatch.”

The predators, in this case, are (not surprisingly) house cats. And, according to an online application form (which  mysteriously disappeared from the Smithsonian’s Website Tuesday) she’s been using to recruit field assistants, Dauphine is asking participants to put cameras on their cats—thus allowing her team to monitor the cats’ every move.

Granted, Dauphine’s yet to have her day in court, but still—at this point, who in their right mind would allow their cat to participate in any study sponsored by the Migratory Bird Center.

It’s Not the Media, It’s the Message

To hear The Wildlife Society’s staunch opponents of TNR tell it, the media’s just not interested in stories about “the impacts of free-ranging and feral cats on wildlife.”

“This January when thousands of blackbirds fell from the sky in Arkansas, articles about mass extinctions and bird conservation were a dime-a-dozen. When the Deepwater Horizon oil spill killed 6,000 birds between April to October 2010, news organizations ran ‘Breaking News’ about the negative impacts on the environment. Meanwhile it is estimated that one million birds are killed everyday by cats, and the only news organizations covering it are small, local branches. The bigger problem is being shuffled to the backburner for more sensational news.”

According to The Wildlife Society (TWS), however, “the bigger problem” is “greater than almost any other single-issue.”

In their effort to get the issue on the front burner, TWS has “gathered the facts about these cats, and published them in the Spring Issue of The Wildlife Professional in a special section called ‘The Impact of Free Ranging Cats.’” (available free via

Thus armed, readers are expected to, as it says on the cover, “Pick One: Outdoor Cats or Conservation”

Back Burner or Hot Topic?
Before we get to the “facts,” it’s worth looking back over the past 15 months to see just how neglectful the media have been re: “the bigger problem.”

  • January 9, 2010: Travis Longcore, science director for the Urban Wildlands Group, tells Southern California Public Radio: “Feral cats are documented predators of native wildlife. We do not support release of this non-native predator into our open spaces and neighborhoods, where they kill birds and other wildlife.”
  • January 17, 2010 Longcore, whose Urban Wildlands Group was lead plaintiff in a lawsuit aimed to put an end to publicly supported TNR in Los Angeles, tells the L.A. Times: “It’s ugly; it’s gotten very vicious. It’s not like we’ve got a vendetta here. This is a real environmental issue, a real public health issue.” In the same story, American Bird Conservancy’s Senior Policy Advisor, Steve Holmer, tells the Times: “The latest estimates are that there are about . . . 160 million feral cats [nationwide]… It’s conservatively estimated that they kill about 500 million birds a year.”

  • September 30, 2010: “Scientists are quietly raging about the effects that cats, both owned and stray, are having on bird populations,” claims Washington Post columnist Adrian Higgins. “It’s not an issue that has received much attention, but with an estimated 90 million pet cats in the United States, two-thirds of them allowed outdoors, the cumulative effect on birds is significant, according to experts.” Higgins’ story is riddled with misinformation, courtesy of the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), The Wildlife Society, and Dauphine and Cooper’s 2009 Partners in Flight paper.

“Palmer said one of the most ‘heartbreaking’ scenes during filming was at a volunteer spay-neuter clinic in Los Angeles that sterilized 80 ferals a day. She said most of the cats had infections that never healed, as well as broken bones, large abscesses around their teeth and mange.” (A claim easily discredited, if only the reporters had bothered to check.)

  • January 2011: Utah Representative Curtis Oda sponsors HB 210, which would permit “the humane shooting of an animal in an unincorporated area of a county, where hunting is not prohibited, if the person doing the shooting has a reasonable belief that the animal is a feral animal.”

Yet, the folks at TWS would have us believe that “the only news organizations covering [the cat-bird issue] are small, local branches.” As is often the case, their story doesn’t hold up well alongside the facts.

Indeed, other than when Higgins got Executive Director/CEO Michael Hutchins’ name wrong, it’s hard to see what TWS has to complain about.

The Art of Selling Science
“After years of arguments,” laments Nico Dauphine and Robert Cooper, recalling last year’s decision by Athens, GA, to adopt TNR, “the vote was cast: 9–1 in favor of the ordinance, with an additional 7–3 vote establishing a $10,000 annual budget to support the TNR program.”

“How could this happen in a progressive community like Athens, Georgia, home to one of the nation’s finest university programs in wildlife science? The answer is a complex mix of money, politics, intense emotions, and deeply divergent perspectives on animal welfare… If we’re going to win the battle to save wildlife from cats, then we’ll need to be smarter about how we communicate the science.” [1]

Something tells me this “smarter” communication doesn’t allow for much in the way of honesty and transparency—attributes already in short supply.

Old Habits
“The Impact of Free Ranging Cats” has given its contributors the opportunity to revive and reinforce a range of dubious claims, including the ever-popular exaggerations about the number of free-roaming cats in the environment.

According to Dauphine and Cooper, “The number of outdoor pet cats, strays, and feral cats in the U.S. alone now totals approximately 117 to 157 million,” [1] an estimate rooted in their earlier creative accounting. Colin Gillin, president of the American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians, who penned this issue’s “Leadership Letter” (more on that later), follows suit, claiming  “60 million or more pet cats are allowed outdoors to roam free.” [2]

The American Pet Products Association 2008 National Pet Owners Survey, though, indicates that 64 percent of pet cats are indoor-only during the daytime, and 69 percent are kept in at night [3]. Of those that are allowed outdoors, approximately half are outside for less than three hours each day. [4, 5]

This information is widely available—and has been for years—yet many TNR opponents continue to inflate by a factor of two the number of free-roaming pet cats.

And it only gets worse from here.

Dense and Denser
Not content to inflate absolute cat numbers, Dauphine and Cooper go on to misrepresent research into population demographics as well. “Local densities can be extremely high,” they write, “reaching up to 1,580 cats per square kilometer in urban areas.” [1] In fact, the very paper they cite paints a rather different picture. For one thing, there’s quite a range involved: 132–1,579 cats per square kilometer (a point recognized by Yolanda van Heezik, another contributor to the special issue [6].)

Also, this is a highly skewed distribution—there are lots of instances of low/medium density, while high densities are far less common. As a result, the median (417) is used “as a measure of central tendency” [7] rather than the mean (856). So, although densities “reaching up to 1,580 cats per square kilometer in urban areas” were observed, more than half fell between 132 and 417 cats per square kilometer (or 51–161 cats per square mile).

Even more interesting, however, are what Sims et al. learned when they compared bird density and cat density: in many cases, there were more birds in the very areas where there were more cats—even species considered especially vulnerable to predation by cats. It may be, suggest Sims et al., that, because high cat density corresponds closely to high housing density, this measure is also an indication of those areas “where humans provide more supplementary food for birds.” [7]

Another explanation: “consistently high cat densities in our study areas… and thus uniformly high impacts of cat populations on urban avian assemblages.” [7] (Interestingly, the authors never consider that they might be observing uniformly low impacts.)

The bottom line? It’s difficult enough to show a direct link between observed predation and population impacts; suggesting a causal connection between high cat densities and declining bird populations is misleading and irresponsible. (Not that Dauphine and Cooper are the only ones to attempt it; recall that no predation data from Coleman and Temple’s “Wisconsin Study” were ever published, despite numerous news stories in which Temple referred to their existence in some detail [8–10].)

Predation Pressure
Dauphine and Cooper make a similar leap when, to buttress their claim that “TNR does not reduce predation pressure on native wildlife,” [1] they cite a study not about predation, but about the home ranges of 27 feral cats on Catalina Island.

While it’s true that the researchers found “no significant differences… in home-range areas or overlap between sterilized and intact cats,” [11] this has as much due to their tiny sample size as anything else. And the difference in range size between the four intact males and the four sterilized males was—while not statistically significant—revealing.

The range of intact males was 33–116 percent larger during the non-breeding season, and 68–80 percent larger during the breeding season. In his study of “house-bound” cats, Liberg, too, found differences: “breeding males had ranges of 350–380 hectares; ranges of subordinate, non-breeding males were around 80 hectares, or not much larger than those of females.” [12]

All of which suggests smaller ranges for males that are part of TNR programs. What any of this has to do with “predation pressure on native wildlife,” however, remains an open question.

On the other hand, Castillo and Clarke (whose paper Dauphine and Cooper cite) actually documented remarkably little predation among the TNR colonies they studied. In fact, over the course of approximately 300 hours of observation (this, in addition to “several months identifying, describing, and photographing each of the cats living in the colonies” [13] prior to beginning their research), Castillo and Clarke “saw cats kill a juvenile common yellowthroat and a blue jay. Cats also caught and ate green anoles, bark anoles, and brown anoles. In addition, we found the carcasses of a gray catbird and a juvenile opossum in the feeding area” [13].

Another of Dauphine and Cooper’s “facts”—that “TNR does not typically reduce feral cat populations”—is contradicted by another one of the studies they cite. Contrary to what the authors suggest, Felicia Nutter’s PhD thesis work showed that “colonies managed by trap-neuter-return were stable in composition and declining in size throughout the seven year follow-up period.” [14]

Indeed, Nutter observed a mean decrease of 36 percent (range: 30–89 percent) in the six TNR colonies they studied over two years. By contrast, the three control colonies increased in size an average of 47 percent. [15]

Additional TNR success stories Dauphine and Cooper fail to acknowledge:

  • Natoli et al. reported a 16–32 percent decrease in population size over a 10-year period across 103 colonies in Rome—despite a 21 percent rate of “cat immigration.” [16]
  • As of 2004, ORCAT, run by the Ocean Reef Community Associa­tion (in the Florida Keys), had reduced its “overall population from approximately 2,000 cats to 500 cats.” [17] Accord­ing to the ORCAT Website, the population today is approximately 350, of which only about 250 are free-roaming.

Toxoplasma gondii
In recent years, Toxoplasma gondii has been linked to the illness and death of marine life, primarily sea otters [18], prompting investigation into the possible role of free-roaming (both owned and feral) cats. [19, 20] But if, as the authors claim, “the science points to cats,” then it does so rather obliquely, an acknowledgement Jessup and Miller make begrudgingly:

“Based on proximity and sheer numbers, outdoor pet and feral domestic cats may be the most important source of T. gondii oocysts in near-shore marine waters. Mountain lions and bobcats rarely dwell near the ocean or in areas of high human population density, where sea otter infections are more common.” [21, emphasis mine]

Correlation, however, is not the same as causation. And not all T. gondii is the same.

In a study of southern sea otters from coastal California, conducted between 1998 and 2004, a team of researches—including Jessup and Miller—found that 36 of 50 otters were infected with the Type X strain of T. gondii, one of at least four known strains. [22] Jessup and Miller were also among 14 co-authors of a 2008 paper (referenced in their contribution to “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats”) in which the Type X strain was linked not to domestic cats, but to wild felids:

“Three of the Type X-infected carnivores were wild felids (two mountain lions and a bobcat), but no domestic cats were Type X-positive. Examination of larger samples of wild and domestic felids will help clarify these initial findings. If Type X strains are detected more commonly from wild felids in subsequent studies, this could suggest that these animals are more important land-based sources of T. gondii for marine wildlife than are domestic cats.” [20, emphasis mine]

Combining the results of the two studies, then, nearly three-quarters of the sea otters examined as part of the 1998–2004 study were infected with a strain of T. gondii that hasn’t been traced to domestic cats. (I found this to be such surprising news that, months ago, I tried to contact Miller about it. Was I missing something? What studies were being conducted that might confirm or refute these finings? Etc. I never received a reply.)

As Miller et al. note, “subsequent studies” are in order. And it’s important to keep in mind their sample size was quite small: three bobcats, 26 mountain lions, and seven domestic cats (although the authors suggest at one point that only five domestic cats were included).

Still, a recently published study from Germany seems to support the hypothesis that the Type X strain isn’t found in domestic cats. Herrmann et al. analyzed 68 T. gondii-positive fecal samples (all from pet cats) and found no Type X strain. [23] (It’s interesting to note, too, that only 0.25 percent of the 18,259 samples tested positive for T. gondii.)

This is not to say that there’s no connection between domestic cats and Toxoplasmosis in sea otters, but that any “trickle-down effect,” as Jessup and Miller describe it, is not nearly as well understood as they imply. There’s too much we simply don’t know.

Money and Politics
I agree with Dauphine and Cooper that science is only part of the TNR debate—that it also involves “a complex mix of money, politics, intense emotions, and deeply divergent perspectives on animal welfare.” And I agree with their assessment of the progress being made by TNR supporters:

“Advocates of TNR have gained tremendous political strength in the U.S. in recent years. With millions of dollars in donor funding, they are influencing legislation and the policies of major animal-oriented nonprofit organizations.” [1]

What I find puzzling is Dauphine’s rather David-and-Goliath portrayal of the “cat lobby” (my term, not hers) they’re up against—in particular, her complaint, “promotion of TNR is big business, with such large amounts of money in play that conservation scientists opposing TNR can’t begin to compete.” [24]

The Cat Lobby
In “Follow the Money: The Economics of TNR Advocacy,” she notes that Best Friends Animal Society, “one of the largest organizations promoting TNR, took in over $40 million in revenue in 2009.” [24] Fair enough, but this needs to be weighed against expenses of $35.6 million—of which $15.5 million was spent on “animal care activities.”

But Dauphine’s got it wrong when she claims that Best Friends “spent more than $11 million on cat advocacy campaigns that year.” [24] Their financials—spelled out in the same document Dauphine cites—are unambiguous: $11.7 million in expenditures went to all “campaigns and other national outreach.” Indeed, there is no breakdown for “cat advocacy campaigns.”

Dauphine does a better job describing Alley Cat Allies’ 2010 financials: of the $5.2 million they took in, $3.3 million was spent in public outreach. But she’s overreaching in suggesting that their “Every Kitty, Every City” campaign is nationwide. For now, at least, it’s up and running in just “five major U.S. cities.”

Echoing Dauphine’s concerns, Florida attorney Pamela Jo Hatley decries ORCAT’s resources: “At a meeting hosted by the Ocean Reef Resort in June 2004,” recalls Hatley, “I learned that the ORCAT colony then had about 500 free-ranging cats, several paid employees, and an annual operating budget of some $100,000.” [25]

What Hatley fails to mention is how those resources have been used to make ORCAT a model for the rest of the country—using private donations. Hatley doesn’t seem to object to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shelling out $50,000—of tax dollars—in 2007 to round up fewer than 20 cats (some of which were clearly not feral) along with 81 raccoons (53 of which were released alive) in the Florida Keys. [26, 27]

Following the Money
According to their 2008 Form 990, ORCAT took in about $278,000 in revenue, compared to $310,000 in expenses. How does that compare to some of the organizations opposing TNR? A quick visit to helps put things in perspective.

  • In 2009, ABC took in just under $6 million, slightly more than their expenses.
  • TWS had $2.3 million in revenue in 2009, which was more than offset by expenses of $2.5 million.
  • Friends of the National Zoo, which oversees the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, showed $15 million in revenue, just exceeding their 2009 expenses of $14.7 million. (The Smithsonian Institute topped $1 billion in both the revenue and expense categories.)
  • And the National Audubon Society took in $61.6 million in 2008 (the most recent year for which information is available). And, despite expenses in excess of $86 million, finished the year with more than $255 million in net assets.

These numbers clearly don’t reflect the funding each organization dedicates to opposing TNR—but neither do they offer any evidence that, as Dauphine argues, “conservation scientists opposing TNR can’t begin to compete.”

Intense Emotions
Nobody familiar with the TNR debate would suggest that it’s not highly emotional. How can it be otherwise? Indeed, the very idea of decoupling our emotions from such important discourse is rather absurd.

Having an emotional investment in the debate does not, however, make one irrational or stupid.

“On the surface,” suggest Dauphine and Cooper, their tone unmistakably condescending, “TNR may sound reasonable, even logical.” [1] Gillin, for his part, bemoans the way the TNR debate “quickly shifts from statistics to politics to emotional arguments.” [2]

What’s particularly fascinating about all of this—the way TNR supporters are made out to be irrational (if not mentally ill—as in a letter to Conservation Biology last year, when several TNR opponents, including four contributors to “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats,” compared TNR to hoarding [28])—is just how emotionally charged the appeal of TNR opponents is.

Witness the “gruesome gallery of images,” for example, in which “one cat lies dead with a broken leg, one lies dying in a coat of maggots, and another suffers as ticks and ear mites plague its face.” [1] The idea, of course, is that these cats would have been better off if they’d been rounded up and killed “humanely.” A preemptive strike against the inevitability of “short, brutal lives.” (This phrase, which I first saw used by Jessup, [28] has become remarkably popular among TNR opponents.)

But is it that simple? Applying the same logic (if that’s what it is) to pelicans covered in oil, for instance, would we suggest that these birds should either be in captivity or “humanely euthanized”? Obviously not.

Divergent Perspectives on Animal Welfare
While I disagree that “the debate is predominately about whether cats should be allowed to run wild across the landscape and, if not, how to effectively and humanely manage them,” [29] I tend to agree with Lepczyk et al. when they write:

“It’s much more about human views and perceptions than science—a classic case where understanding the human dimensions of an issue is the key to mitigating the problem.” [29]

But, like Dauphine and Cooper, Lepczyk et al. seem more interested in broadcasting their message—loudly, ad nauseam—than in listening. “We need to understand whether people are even aware,” they write, “of the cumulative impact that their actions—choosing to let cats outdoors—can have on wildlife populations.” [29]

Although it’s packaged somewhat “softly,” we’re back to the same old speculative connections between predation and population impacts (familiar terrain for Lepczyk, who tried to connect these same dots in his PhD research). But how much of a connection is there, really? In their review of 61 predation studies, Mike Fitzgerald and Dennis Turner are unambiguous:

“We consider that we do not have enough information yet to attempt to estimate on average how many birds a cat kills each year. And there are few, if any studies apart from island ones that actually demonstrate that cats have reduced bird populations.” [30]

While the tone used by Lepczyk et al. is very much “we’re all in this together,” their prescription for “moving forward” suggests little common ground. (They actually cite that 2010 letter to Conservation Biology [28]—not much of an olive branch.)

“One approach is exemplified in Hawaii,” explain the authors, “where we’ve become part of a large coalition of stakeholders working together with the shared goal of reducing and eventually removing feral cats from the landscape.” [29] So, who’s involved?

“Our diverse group includes individuals from the Humane Society of the United States, the Hawaiian Humane Society, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, and the University of Hawaii. Our team also regularly interacts with other groups around the nation such as regional Audubon Societies and the American Bird Conservancy. Several stakeholders in the group have differing views, such as on whether or not euthanasia or culling is appropriate, or whether people should feed feral cats.” [29]

Other than the Humane Society organizations (whose position on TNR I don’t take for granted, considering they were early supporters of ABC’s Cats Indoors! campaign [31]), I don’t see a real diversity of views in this coalition.

I suppose it’s easy to make room at the table when you’re offering so few seats.

For Dauphine, though, any such collaboration approaches treason. Or selling out, at least.

“In some cases,” she explains, “conservation groups accept funding to join in efforts promoting TNR. The New Jersey Audubon Society, for example, had previously rejected TNR but began supporting it in 2005, acknowledging funding from the Frankenberg and Dodge Foundations for collaboration with TNR groups.” [24]

Dauphine doesn’t go into detail about the amount of funding, and it’s not clear what, if any, role it played in the decision by NJAS (which took in $6.8 million in 2008) to participate in the New Jersey Feral Cat-Wildlife Coalition—the kind of collaborative effort that should be encouraged, not derided:

“From 2002 to 2005, NJAS had actively opposed the practice of TNR in New Jersey. Despite this opposition, municipalities continued to adopt TNR ordinances. In 2005, NJAS, American Bird Conservancy, Neighborhood Cats and Burlington Feral Cat Initiative began exploratory dialogue about implementing standards to protect rare wildlife vulnerable to cat predation in towns which have already adopted TNR programs.” [32]

Message Received, Loud and Clear
Rather than wringing their hands over how to “better communicate the science” [1] or how to better facilitate “legal or policy changes, incentives, and increased education,” [29] TNR opponents might want to reconsider the message itself.

What they are proposing is the killing—on an unprecedented scale—of this country’s most popular pet.

I don’t imagine this tests well with focus groups and donors, of course, but there it is.

These people seem perplexed by a community’s willingness to adopt TNR (“In the end,” lament Lepczyk et al., referring to the decision in Athens, GA, “the professional opinion of wildlife biologists counted no more than that of any other citizen, a major reason for the defeat.” [29]) but fail to recognize how profoundly unpalatable their alternative is.

And, unworkable, too.

Which may explain why it’s virtually impossible to get them to discuss their “plan” in any detail. (I was unsuccessful, for example, in pinning down Travis Longcore during our back-and-forth on the Audubon magazine’s blog and couldn’t get Jessup or Hutchins to bite when I asked the same question during an online discussion of public health risks.)

In light of what’s involved with “successful” eradication programs, I’m not surprised by their eagerness to change the subject.

  • On Marion Island, it took 19 years to eradicate something like 2,200 cats—using disease (feline distemper), poisoning, intensive hunting and trapping, and dogs. This on an island that’s only 115 square miles in total area, barren, and uninhabited. [33, 34] The cost, I’m sure, was astronomical.
  • On the sparsely populated (fewer than 1,000, according to Wikipedia) Ascension Island (less than 34 total square miles), a 2003 eradication effort cost nearly $950,000 (adjusted to 2009 dollars). [35]
  • A 2000 effort on Tuhua (essentially uninhabited, and just 4.9 square miles) ran $78,591 (again, adjusted to 2009 dollars). [35]
  • Efforts on Macquarie Island (also small—47.3 square miles—and essentially uninhabited) proved particularly costly: $2.7 million in U.S. (2009) dollars. And still counting. The resulting rebound in rabbit and rodent numbers prompted “Federal and State governments in Australia [to commit] AU$24 million for an integrated rabbit, rat and mouse eradication programme.” [36] (To put this into context, Macquarie Island is about one-third the size of the Florida Keys.)

These examples represent, in many ways, low-hanging fruit. By contrast, “the presence of non-target species and the need to safely mitigate for possible harmful effects, along with substantial environmental compliance requirements raised the cost of the eradication.” [37] Eradicating rodents from Anacapa Island, “a small [1.2-square-mile] island just 80 miles from Los Angeles International Airport, cost about $2 million.” [38]

Now—setting aside the horrors involved—how exactly do TNR opponents propose to rid the U.S. of it’s millions of feral cats? [cue the sound track of crickets chirping]

I think the general public is starting to catch on. Even if they fall for the outlandish claims about predation, wildlife impacts, and all the rest—they don’t see anything in the way of a real solution. As Mark Kumpf, former president of the National Animal Control Association, put it in an interview with Animal Sheltering magazine, “the traditional methods that many communities use… are not necessarily the ones that communities are looking for today.” [39]

“Traditional” approaches to feral cat management (i.e., trap-and-kill) are, says Kumpf, akin to “bailing the ocean with a thimble.” [39]

For all their apparent interest—22 pages in the current issue of The Wildlife Professional alone—TWS might as well be handing out thimbles to its members. Although Gillin’s “Leadership Letter” invites “dialogue among all stakeholders,” it offers nothing substantive to advance the discussion:

“If removal and euthanasia of unadoptable feral cats is not acceptable to TNR proponents, then they need to offer the conservation community a logical, science-based proposal that will solve the problem of this invasive species and its effect on wildlife and the environment.” [2]

So much for leadership.

Literature Cited
1. Dauphine, N. and Cooper, R.J., “Pick One: Outdoor Cats or Conservation.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 50–56.

2. Gillin, C., “The Cat Conundrum.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 10, 12.

3. APPA, 2009–2010 APPA National Pet Owners Survey. 2009, American Pet Products Association: Greenwich, CT.

4. Lord, L.K., “Attitudes toward and perceptions of free-roaming cats among individuals living in Ohio.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2008. 232(8): p. 1159-1167.

5. Clancy, E.A., Moore, A.S., and Bertone, E.R., “Evaluation of cat and owner characteristics and their relationships to outdoor access of owned cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2003. 222(11): p. 1541-1545.

6. van Heezik, Y., “A New Zealand Perspective.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 70.

7. Sims, V., et al., “Avian assemblage structure and domestic cat densities in urban environments.” Diversity and Distributions. 2008. 14(2): p. 387–399.

8. Wilson, M. (1997). Cats Roaming Free Take a Toll on Songbirds. Boston Globe, p. 11.

9. Seppa, N. (1993, July 22). Millions of Songbirds, Rabbits Disappearing. Wisconsin State Journal, p. 1A.

10.  Wozniak, M.D. (1993, August 3). Feline felons: Barn cats are just murder on songbirds. The Milwaukee Journal, p. A1.

11. Guttilla, D.A. and Stapp, P., “Effects of sterilization on movements of feral cats at a wildland-urban interface.”Journal of Mammalogy. 2010. 91(2): p. 482–489.

12. Liberg, O. and Sandell, M., Spatial organisation and reproductive tactics in the domestic cat and other felids, in The Domestic cat: The biology of its behaviour, D.C. Turner and P.P.G. Bateson, Editors. 1988, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge; New York. p. 83–98.

13. Castillo, D. and Clarke, A.L., “Trap/Neuter/Release Methods Ineffective in Controlling Domestic Cat “Colonies” on Public Lands.” Natural Areas Journal. 2003. 23: p. 247–253.

14. 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 Department. 2005, North Carolina State University: Raleigh, NC. p. 224.

15. Stoskopf, M.K. and Nutter, F.B., “Analyzing approaches to feral cat management—one size does not fit all.”Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1361–1364.

16.  Natoli, E., et al., “Management of feral domestic cats in the urban environment of Rome (Italy).” Preventive Veterinary Medicine. 2006. 77(3-4): p. 180-185.

17. Levy, J.K. and Crawford, P.C., “Humane strategies for controlling feral cat populations.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1354–1360.

18. Jones, J.L. and Dubey, J.P., “Waterborne toxoplasmosis – Recent developments.” Experimental Parasitology. 124(1): p. 10-25.

19. Dabritz, H.A., et al., “Outdoor fecal deposition by free-roaming cats and attitudes of cat owners and nonowners toward stray pets, wildlife, and water pollution.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2006. 229(1): p. 74-81.

20. Miller, M.A., et al., “Type X Toxoplasma gondii in a wild mussel and terrestrial carnivores from coastal California: New linkages between terrestrial mammals, runoff and toxoplasmosis of sea otters.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2008. 38(11): p. 1319-1328.

21. Jessup, D.A. and Miller, M.A., “The Trickle-Down Effect.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 62–64.

22. Conrad, P.A., et al., “Transmission of Toxoplasma: Clues from the study of sea otters as sentinels of Toxoplasma gondii flow into the marine environment.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2005. 35(11-12): p. 1155-1168.

23. Herrmann, D.C., et al., “Atypical Toxoplasma gondii genotypes identified in oocysts shed by cats in Germany.”International Journal for Parasitology. 2010. 40(3): p. 285–292.

24. Dauphine, N., “Follow the Money: The Economics of TNR Advocacy.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 54.

25. Hatley, P.J., “Incompatible Neighbors in the Florida Keys.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 52–53.

26. O’Hara, T. (2007, April 3). Fish & Wildlife Service to begin removing cats from Keys refuges. The Key West Citizen, from

27. n.a., Lower Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Comprehensive Conservation Plan. 2009, U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service: Atlanta, GA.

28. Jessup, D.A., “The welfare of feral cats and wildlife.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1377-1383.

29. Lepczyk, C.A., van Heezik, Y., and Cooper, R.J., “An Issue with All-Too-Human Dimensions.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 68–70.

30. Fitzgerald, B.M. and Turner, D.C., Hunting Behaviour of domestic cats and their impact on prey populations, in The Domestic Cat: The biology of its behaviour, D.C. Turner and P.P.G. Bateson, Editors. 2000, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, U.K.; New York. p. 151–175.

31. Berkeley, E.P., TNR Past present and future: A history of the trap-neuter-return movement. 2004, Bethesda, MD: Alley Cat Allies.

32. Stiles, E., NJAS Works with Coalition to Reduce Bird Mortality from Outdoor Cats. 2008, New Jersey Audubon Society.

33. 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.

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

35. Martins, T.L.F., et al., “Costing eradications of alien mammals from islands.” Animal Conservation. 2006. 9(4): p. 439–444.

36. Bergstrom, D.M., et al., “Indirect effects of invasive species removal devastate World Heritage Island.” Journal of Applied Ecology. 2009. 46(1): p. 73-81.

37. Donlan, C.J. and Heneman, B., Maximizing Return on Investments for Island Restoration with a Focus on Seabird Conservation. 2007, Advanced Conservation Strategies: Santa Cruz, CA.

38. Donlan, C.J. and Wilcox, C., Complexities of costing eradications, in Animal Conservation. 2007, Wiley-Blackwell. p. 154–156.

39. Hettinger, J., Taking a Broader View of Cats in the Community, in Animal Sheltering. 2008. p. 8–9.

Freedom of the Press (Release)

Among the many news stories, research studies, and government reports brought to my attention last week was an article in Monday’s Toronto Star (thanks, once again, to the good folks at Alley Cat Rescue, who routinely put Google Alerts to shame!). What I find compelling about the article is not its central story (another community struggles with their “feral cat problem”), but the way it illustrates so much of what’s wrong with the free-roaming/feral cat/TNR debate.

In a nutshell, the story is about the town of Oakville changing its bylaws so that cats are no longer allowed to roam free. Wrong-headed policy, in my opinion—but more problematic is the case being made for this policy: what’s being said, how it’s being said, and by whom.

Déjà Vu
One doesn’t have to read further than the first line—“Sylvester and Tweety almost got it right”—to know that this is one of those stories. The kind of story that uses corny references to downplay the implications of a large-scale witch hunt. The kind of story that, frankly, makes it tough to feel much sympathy for a newspaper industry struggling for survival.

“In their cartoon world, the brainy yellow bird always outsmarts the puddy tat. In the real world, the cat kills the canary—and as many as one million birds daily in North America. This is causing a growing, sometimes violent, rift between animal lovers.”

Where that one-million-birds-per-day rate comes from is anybody’s guess, though it sounds awfully familiar—more than likely, one of American Bird Conservancy’s talking points. As for the “violent rift” reporters Mary Ormsby and Jim Wilkes refer to, that comes later.

“The crucial question: Should cats, which are natural hunters, be allowed to freely to roam the streets?”

It’s a fair question, but it’s not as if cats are the only natural hunters found in urban areas. In Chicago, for example, more than 60 coyotes are “roaming parks, alleys, yards and thoroughfares.” (The NPR story claims that coyotes kill area dogs and cats only “every so often,” but in light of Judith Webster’s 2007 paper “Missing Cats, Stray Coyotes: One Citizen’s Perspective,” I’m quite skeptical of such assertions.)

And then, of course, there are the raptors—birds of prey (which are attracted by, among other things, bird feeders—but I’ll get to that shortly).

All Sticks, No Carrots
Progressive animal service organizations have figured out that charging people to house their stray animals (i.e., the “traditional” approach) only hurts the animals and the community at large. Like mandatory spay-neuter laws, it’s great on paper but disastrous in practice.

Yet, this is precisely the direction (read: backwards) Oakville is taking.

“Owners whose loose cats repeatedly end up at the Oakville shelter can be fined $105, plus a $30 town surcharge, a return fee of $25 and $15 for each day the cat stays at the shelter.”

Such a policy virtually guarantees a dramatic increase in intakes—and killing.

“Johanne Golder, executive director of the Oakville and Milton Humane Society, which is contracted by Oakville to provide animal control services… said the mentality that cats are “disposable” pets (unwanted kittens are often abandoned or dumped at shelters) is to blame for the huge feline populations in urban centres.”

Again, a fair point—but I fail to see how the proposed “solution” will improve the situation. And it’s very likely to be a death sentence for the area’s feral cats.

Witch Hunt
Readers who might have similar misgivings are (presumably) set straight when Ormsby and Wilkes explain the threats posed by free-roaming cats:

“The more cats, the fewer birds, said McGill University avian expert David Bird. He said house pets are just as bloodthirsty as untamed ferals—homeless offspring of stray or abandoned cats raised without human contact. Bird (his surname and passion are coincidental, he chirped) estimated well-fed pets alone destroy upwards of a billion birds annually around the world. The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) estimates hundreds of millions are killed in the United States by cats each year but says an exact figure is unclear.”

“Unclear” is right! Anybody even vaguely familiar with the subject would agree that “an exact figure is unclear.” But for Bird to suggest that it’s even possible—or meaningful—is ridiculous. And highly irresponsible. Are we talking about islands or continents? Which part of the world? Rare or common species? Healthy or unhealthy birds? Etc.

And what’s the impact of this predation?

This is ABC’s kind of science: one that strives not for an increased degree of certainty, but greater ambiguity—while at the same time painting a decidedly grim picture. There’s a name for this, of course: propaganda.

Which is precisely what Bird advocates for in “What Conservation Biologists Can Do to Counter Trap-Neuter-Return: Response to Longcore et al.” Along with his nine co-authors, Bird calls on conservation biologists to “begin speaking out” against TNR “at local meetings, through the news media, and at outreach events.” [1]

(Late last year, co-author Peter Marra earned his Propaganda Badge via a Washington Post article, though the research findings he cited there have since been removed from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s website.)

Just as important as Bird’s absurd claim, though, is the language used. Indeed, it was the word bloodthirsty that rankled Alley Cat Rescue founder Louise Holton. And there’s plenty more where that came from:

“Bird, the author of The Bird Almanac and Birds of Canada, said the cat-on-bird carnage is as common in quiet residential cul-de-sacs as it is in the countryside.

I’d created a killing field in my own backyard,” recalled the wildlife biology professor, who once spotted four neighbourhood cats stalking finches, woodpeckers, nuthatches, juncos, jays and cardinals nibbling at feeders around his west Montreal home.”

Really, a killing field? Somehow, I don’t think any birds were killed at all. Had any harm come to his birds, I have no doubt Bird would have let readers know in no uncertain terms. This sounds like a Winterism: the careful arrangement of true statements for the purpose of creating a false impression.

Then, too, stalking is not catching or killing, as Fitzgerald and Turner point out:

“Hunting for birds requires stalking, since many species of birds have an up to 360˚ field of view and can detect a cat approaching them from behind [2]… The ‘wait’ just before the pounce is a characteristic element of the cat’s hunting behaviour and many birds also fly away during this ‘wait’ without ever having noticed the cat. Because of these failures, many cats soon give up bird hunting altogether.” [3]

Us and Them
When Bird complains, “I didn’t think it was right for other people’s hobby interest, i.e., owning a pet cat, to impinge upon my interests on my own property,” he betrays his profoundly myopic world view as much as any property rights concern he might have. Cat ownership a hobby interest? Tell that to the 38.2 million U.S. households owning, collectively, something like 94 million cats (my apologies—I don’t have statistics for Canada), which are, increasingly, treated like members of the family.

Is it any wonder “bird people” and “cat people” (classifications I use with some hesitation) have such difficulties communicating?

Bird seems to imply that his bird feeders are inherently benign—but again, that’s from his point of view. “Feeding birds is,” according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website, “a wonderful way to get to know your birds better! But, bird feeders can also be deadly.”

“Predators (cats, hawks, even dogs) can easily find birds at feeders, dirty feeders can spread disease, feeders can attract non-native, invasive species (house sparrows, brown-headed cow birds, and starlings for instance) which can be detrimental to native birds, and birds might fly away quickly and crash into nearby windows.”

How different is this from the “rationale” typically used to ban the feeding of feral cats? If feeding feral cats is in imposition on the community at large, then so are bird feeders. Should communities require people feeding birds to apply for permits, just as city officials in Yuma, AZ, want to require permits for those conducting TNR?

The way Ormsby and Wilkes tell it, though, birders are up against some kind of powerful cat lobby:

“Bird advocates like him are up against a multi-million-dollar cat-care industry in an animal rights fight that has been tested in U.S. courts, written about in a best-selling novel and spawned an outdoor furniture business to erect enclosed “catios” to give kitty a breath of fresh air.”

Had the reporters followed the money, they would have found a very different story on the advocacy front. According to the most recent data available from Charity Navigator, Alley Cat Allies’ net assets (as of July 2009) were about $2.8 million, compared to $3.7 million for ABC (December 2009). And the National Audubon Society holds in excess of $255 million (June 2009).

All of the sudden, that “multi-million-dollar” characterization doesn’t mean so much.

Cat Crazed
To further their case, Ormsby and Wilkes turn to Maureen Palmer, director of the recently released documentary Cat Crazed (currently unavailable for online streaming outside of Canada, though an audio interview with Palmer is available via the CBC).

“Palmer said one of the most ‘heartbreaking’ scenes during filming was at a volunteer spay-neuter clinic in Los Angeles that sterilized 80 ferals a day. She said most of the cats had infections that never healed, as well as broken bones, large abscesses around their teeth and mange.”

That does sound heartbreaking. But is it true?

I contacted Kim Senn, VP of Operations at FixNation, the clinic Palmer visited for the film. “We are fixing between 70–80 cats a day at FixNation,” she told me via e-mail, “and the overwhelming majority of them are healthy.”

“Less than 5 percent have any medical issues that prevent us from sterilizing them. The common, non-life-threatening issues we do see—like fleas, mange or an occasional abscess—are easily treatable while the cat is here at our clinic, and the cat is left better off than before TNR. And no longer reproducing, which is the best part.”

Immigration Status
Ormsby and Wilkes also touch on one of the most threadbare complaints against free-roaming and feral cats: their “status” as non-native. (Stay tuned for a follow-up story detailing (1) the exact date and time when North America was “pristine,” and (2) precisely how we might return to that mythical Eden.)

“Cats actually never roamed freely in North America until they were introduced by humans. The animals—rodent hunters in the wild—were first domesticated 7,000 years ago in the Middle East and Africa, according to researchers at the University of Nebraska. Those ancient cats evolved into a separate species called the domestic or house cat.”

Of all the possible sources the Toronto Star could consult about the history of the domestic cat, they turned to the authors of “Feral Cats and Their Management”? Isn’t that a bit like consulting Michael Vick about the history of the American Pit Bull Terrier?

“Since cats are not native predators in this part of the world, nesting North American birds have no natural defences against the agile tree climbers. Birds are already under stresses from habitat destruction, pollution, climate change and other animals, such as squirrels, who eat unattended eggs.”

Here, it seems, Ormsby and Wilkes have gone off the deep end, taking an argument used to explain the significant impact cats can have on island populations of birds and other animals—literally—to another level. As Fitzgerald and Turner write:

“Any bird populations on the continents that could not withstand these levels of predation from cats and other predators would have disappeared long ago, but populations of birds on oceanic islands have evolved in circumstances in which predation from mammalian predators was negligible and they, and other island vertebrates, are therefore particularly vulnerable to predation when cats have been introduced.” [3]

At the risk of stating the obvious: birds can fly—at least the ones found in trees can. That’s quite a defense against cats—less so against raptors, of course. Or buildings, pesticides, power lines, wind farms, etc.

Life Imitates Art
Ormsby and Wilkes quote Jonathan Franzen, whose latest novel, Freedom, touches rather directly on, as they put it, “the tension between cat people and bird people.”

There are many ways for a house cat to die outdoors, including dismemberment by coyote and flattening by a car but when the Hoffbauer family’s beloved pet Bobby failed to come home one early-June evening, and no amount of calling Bobby’s name or searching the perimeter of Canterbridge Estates or walking up and down the county road or stapling Bobby’s Xeroxed image to local trees turned up any trace of him, it was widely assumed on Canterbridge Court that Bobby had been killed by Walter Berglund.”

Actually, Franzen is more of an insider than the reporters let on; Franzen, winner of the 2001 National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize finalist the following year, sits on ABC’s board of directors, and he wrote the foreword to their recently released book, The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation (brilliant move: ABC has been publishing fiction for years now; at last, they have somebody on board who does it well). Franzen is also a fervent believer.

Ormsby and Wilkes end their article with a brief summary of a 2007 animal cruelty case that made headlines across the U.S. and beyond.

“In Texas five years ago, Jim Stevenson killed a cat. The Galveston ornithologist fatally shot a feral with a .22-calibre rifle, claiming the creature was killing piping plovers, an endangered shorebird species. Stevenson was charged with animal cruelty but walked free in 2007 when jurors failed to come to a decision and a mistrial was declared.”

Rather a dry telling of it, if you ask me. After hearing of bloodthirsty cats, backyard killing fields, and all the rest, aren’t readers entitled to a little more drama? Here, after all, is the only evidence of that “violent rift” Ormsby and Wilkes referred to early on—though, of course, it’s far more one-sided than the reporters suggested with their ominous foreshadowing.

That “feral,” by the way, was part of a colony cared for by John Newland, who, according to Assistant District Attorney Paige Santell, “had fed them, watered them, provided shelter for them, provided toys for them, provided vet care for some of them.”

“This animal suffered a great deal,” says Santell, during an interview with Alley Cat Allies. “That was another part of this case. I mean, this animal did not die right away. It took, you know, 30 to 45 minutes before it died. It was in a terrible amount of pain.”

It must be that Ormsby and Wilkes had hit their word limit already—it’s not as if they don’t like a good story.

The High Cost of a Free Press
Whether Ormsby and Wilkes were unable or unwilling to do this story justice I can’t say, but, as a piece of journalism, their finished product is astonishingly bad.

Not that they’re alone. On the contrary, they have plenty of company.

Last year around this time, when the Los Angeles Times ran a story about the injunction against city-funded TNR, reporter Kimi Yoshino invoked Sylvester and Tweety. And swallowed in one gulp the ridiculous claim by ABC’s Steve Holmer that “there are about . . . 160 million feral cats [nationwide].”

In December, several newspapers treated “Feral Cats and Their Management” as if it were legitimate research. Among the worst were Dale Bowman’s column in the Chicago Sun-Times (December 6), Scott Shalaway’s column (December 12) in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and an editorial (unsigned for good reason) in Lincoln’s Journal-Star (December 7).

And, it just keeps on coming.

Even as I was working on this post, somebody alerted me, via the Vox Felina Facebook page, to an opinion piece in the London Free Press (in which “expert” Theo Hofmann comes up short on both facts and logic: “Cats don’t eat the birds, they just kill them… So they really are causing a great deal of damage…”).

Do news accounts of cats killing a million birds a day turn ordinary citizens into Jim Stevensons? Or reports of 160 million feral cats (one for every two humans in this country!) provoke the kinds of horrors chronicled on the Cat Defender blog? Of course not.

On the other hand, the cumulative effect of such news coverage surely contributes to a misinformed public/electorate. Which, in turn, paves the way for misguided policy. (See, for example, Utah’s House Bill 210, sponsored by Republican Curtis Oda, which proposed to relax “provisions of the Utah Criminal Code relating to animal cruelty and animal torture,” in order to allow, among other things, “the humane shooting or killing of an animal if the person doing the shooting or killing has a reasonable belief that the animal is a feral animal.”)

Journalists have an obligation to approach any story with some healthy skepticism. They owe it to their readers to set aside, as much as possible, their own biases—and challenge those of their sources. To bring to the table some critical thinking and professional integrity.

When it comes to the subject of free-roaming/feral cats/TNR, however, the public rarely gets anything more substantive than a one-sided collection of talking points, sprinkled with cartoon references.

Literature Cited
1. Lepczyk, C.A., et al., “What Conservation Biologists Can Do to Counter Trap-Neuter-Return: Response to Longcore et al.” Conservation Biology. 2010. 24(2): p. 627–629.

2. Tabor, R., The Wild Life of the Domestic Cat. 1983, London: Arrow Books.

3. Fitzgerald, B.M. and Turner, D.C., Hunting Behaviour of domestic cats and their impact on prey populations, in The Domestic Cat: The biology of its behaviour, D.C. Turner and P.P.G. Bateson, Editors. 2000, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, U.K.; New York. p. 151–175.