We Report, You Decide

According to a story in last Saturday’s Akron Beacon Journal, the American Bird Conservancy “estimates there are 90 million wild cats nationwide, part of a free-roaming population that is killing more than a half billion birds annually.”

Beacon Journal readers unfamiliar with ABC’s free-roaming cats “message” probably assumed those “estimates” correspond to real numbers, give or take a few million. For the rest of us—those who know the organization’s line of misrepresentations, inaccuracies, and flat-out fabrications all too well—such “estimates” are taken about as seriously as the claims accompanying wee-hour infomercials.* Indeed, their greatest value, more often than not, is as fodder for another round of Feral Cat Witch-hunt Bingo.

And George Fenwick, ABC’s president, did not disappoint in this regard.

“Our read is really quite clear that free-roaming cats—that includes TNR cats—are proliferating. They are expanding horrifically and the data that we have, that’s been peer reviewed and published, makes it quite clear that there is no evidence that TNR works.”

In fact, what seems to be expanding horrifically is ABC’s witch-hunt—resulting in increasingly desperate, indefensible claims. All of which I pointed out—with quotes and citations from several peer-reviewed, published articles—to Beacon Journal reporter Kathy Antoniotti.

She was, I think it’s safe to say, unimpressed.

“It is my job to make sure that both sides are represented in any story I do,” she told me via e-mail, “and Mr. Fenwick has impressive credentials as a scientist.”

“I realize everyone thinks they are right on this issue. But as a reporter I have an obligation to present both sides of the argument, not to interrupt the information with my personal beliefs.”

Both Sides
Now, in Antoniotti’s defense, she did interview Julie Levy, Maddie’s Professor of Shelter Medicine in the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine, Alley Cat Allies president Becky Robinson, as well as individuals from nearby One of a Kind Pet Rescue and Dancing Paws Wellness Center for the piece. And, unlike so many reporters, she didn’t frame the debate as “the respected scientists” vs. “the crazy cat ladies.”

Antoniotti also refused to disclose the location of the three managed colonies she refers to in the story’s lede (a professional courtesy not to be taken for granted).

But, still: does her obligation really end with the representation of both sides?

In my reply to her e-mail, I asked Antoniotti if she’d be satisfied with presenting “both sides” of the climate change debate. What about intelligent design, or the MMR vaccine/autism “controversy”?

“I have great respect for journalists,” I continued, “but fully expect that their role is not to present both sides, but to get at, to whatever extent possible, the truth of a story (which means questioning even those with ‘impressive credentials’).”

Why didn’t Antoniotti at least ask Fenwick what ABC proposes instead of TNR—a perfectly reasonable follow-up? (Her failure to do so does not bode well for any subsequent follow-ups in response to ABC’s standard talking points about sanctuaries, the various risks to outdoor cats, and so forth.)

Or, how prohibiting TNR and the feeding of outdoor cats would, as ABC claims in its October 2011 letter to big-city mayors—to which Antoniotti refers in her story—“stop the epidemic spread of feral cats that threaten national bird populations as well as scores of other wildlife.”

Antoniotti was quick to respond, but never addressed these questions, suggesting simply, “we will have to agree to disagree.” She also explained that she’d “spent several days on this article and more than a month on research, when time allowed.”

Well, OK. I, more than most people, understand the enormous challenges of wading through the various claims, published studies, government reports, etc. in search of the truth (generally without the added pressure of deadlines or space constraints). A single report leads to half-a-dozen important articles, each of which leads to others—some of which are easily obtained, while others require connections to a network of libraries and subscription-only databases. Before you know it, you’ve forgotten what you were after in the first place.

On the other hand, some claims are remarkably easy to debunk—such as Antoniotti’s assertion, attributed to the Humane Society of the United States, that, “in seven years, one female cat and her offspring theoretically can produce 420,000 cats.” The Wall Street Journal’s “Numbers Guy,” Carl Bialik, untangled this one more than five years ago:

“Hundreds of media reports have repeated that startling stat… This is one feline number that has nine lives. Though no one I spoke to could say for sure where it comes from, and no one defended it, the myth of the precociously procreating cat has lived on as an advocacy tool for spaying cats for at least 18 years.”

See that? Dig into the claim a little bit, and it turns out there aren’t actually “two sides” after all.

Return to Akron
Meg Geldhof, a veterinarian with One of a Kind Pet Rescue, told Antoniotti that she doesn’t necessarily think TNR conflicts with ABC’s “goal… to reduce the number of feral cats.”

“If we do nothing, then we will continue to have an overpopulation of cats. This actually reduces them. And, isn’t that what they want?”

Good question. What exactly does ABC want? Absolutely no outdoor cats is the obvious the answer. And how do we get there? What’s to be done with the millions of stray, abandoned, and feral cats—90 million of them, if ABC is to be believed?

Here’s a hint: the answer is not sanctuaries. (Actually, I speculated about four possible scenarios in a post last month.)

So why is the press so reluctant to pin down ABC on this issue? For Antoniotti and the Beacon Journal, in particular, this was a missed opportunity. Since Akron approved its “cat ordinance” nearly 10 years ago, it’s become a hotspot in the TNR/free-roaming cat debate.

Ordinance 332-2002 made it illegal for cats to be “off the premises of the owner and not under restraint by leash, cord, wire, strap, chain, or similar device or fence or secure enclosure adequate to contain the animal.” In addition, it became the duty of Akron’s Animal Control Wardens to “apprehend” and “impound” any cats “running at large.”

All of which would, it seems, make the city a kind of poster-child for ABC and its Cats Indoors! program (not quite the ideal fully realized, obviously, but a significant step in what the organization views as the right direction). So, why isn’t Fenwick singing the praises of Akron’s forward-thinking policymakers, bragging about the area’s soaring population of birds now that cats are Public Enemy #1, and so forth? (ABC has, after all, been claiming Akron’s decision as a victory since at least 2004. [1])

Because there are no such success stories, would be my guess.

Now there’s something Beacon Journal readers ought to know about. And, how many cats have been rounded up and killed over the past 10 years as a result of the ordinance. Last year, one of Antoniotti’s colleagues at the paper reported on Summit County Animal Control’s 2010 adoption numbers (“More than 1,925 cats and dogs were adopted last year through the county—the largest number in at least the past seven years. Slightly more cats—986—were adopted than dogs.”), but the story never mentioned the number of pets that don’t make it out the front door. (When I asked Animal Control Manager Christine Fatheree about the agency’s intake, redemption, adoption, and “euthanasia” figures I was told: “These records were destroyed per our records retention schedule and no longer available.”)

Readers (and, since the Beacon Journal is now published online, this audience extends far beyond Summit County) might also like to know how the city’s policy has affected the population of free-roaming cats in the area—assuming, of course, it has. In short: what return have Akron taxpayers gotten for their investment?

Like all controversial stories, such ambitious journalistic undertakings would have (at least) two sides to tell. But the job doesn’t end there. Readers—many of whom are in-the-trenches stakeholders in the debate—expect and deserve better.

* I suspect that 90 million figure is derived, more as a matter of convenience than anything else, from a 2003 paper by Levy, Gale, and Gale, in which the authors write: “The number of unowned free-roaming cats in the United States is unknown, but is suspected to rival that of pet cats (73 million in 2000).” [2] These days, the number of pet cats is estimated to be 86.4 million, according to the 2011–2012 American Pet Products Association National Pet Owners Survey. Now, it’s quite a leap to suggest that for every additional pet cat acquired over the past 12 years in the U.S., there has been a one-cat increase in the free-roaming population—assuming two populations were more or less identical in 2000. Animal People’s Merritt Clifton estimated (also in 2003) that “the winter feral cat population may now be as low as 13 million and the summer peak is probably no more than 24 million.” [3] Later that same year, using roadkill data as a guide, Clifton suggested, “the U.S. feral cat population may have been reduced to as few as five million.” [4] “Since then,” Clifton tells me via e-mail, “the numbers suggest to me that the U.S. feral cat population has been flat, at about 6.5 million in winter, 13–16 million in summer.”

Literature Cited
1. Winter, L., “Trap-neuter-release programs: The reality and the impacts.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1369–1376. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2004.225.1369


2. 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. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2003.222.42

3. Clifton, M. (2003) Where cats belong—and where they don’t. Animal People.  http://www.animalpeoplenews.org/03/6/wherecatsBelong6.03.html.

4. Clifton, M. (2003) Roadkills of cats fall 90% in 10 years—are feral cats on their way out? Animal People. http://www.animalpeoplenews.org/03/11/roadkills1103.html