On Wind Farms and Witch-hunts

Here’s a tip for those in the bird conservation community who persist in their witch-hunt against free-roaming cats: be careful what you wish for.

For several years now, the National Audubon Society and American Bird Conservancy have co-opted, twisted, and misrepresented any scrap of published science they could find—however indefensible—suggesting that such cats might have an impact on bird populations. And, as I’ve demonstrated time and time again, there’s an audience out there for such propaganda.

But what if their campaign has been too effective—with the wrong audience?

Read more

JAVMA Letter: A Trojan Horse

TNR opponents’ recent letter to the editors to JAVMA was just an excuse for promoting their witch-hunt agenda—supported, as has become their habit, with the kind of bogus “research” that fails to stand up to even moderate scrutiny. (And, I would bet, probably hasn’t actually been read by most of the letter’s co-authors.)

A recent letter to the editor, published last month in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (PDF available here), reminds me of one of the reasons I’ve never enabled comments on this blog: the likelihood that some commenters would surely hijack the conversation—pretty much any conversation, however marginally relevant—to take up their own agenda. Although I’m a proponent of open dialogue (the name of this blog is no accident), I have neither the time nor the patience for people intent on making my platform their platform.

Luckily, the JAVMA editors—dealing, as I’m sure they do, only with the most conscientious professionals—aren’t subject to such hijack attempts. Right?

Guess again. Read more

Montgomery County, VA: Then and Now

In answering one question, other more interesting questions sometimes emerge. That’s exactly what happened when I followed up on a claim made in “Rabies Prevention and Management of Cats in the Context of Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Release Programmes,” recently published in Zoonoses and Public Health (and critiqued in some detail in my August 3rd post).

As evidence of both the threat of free-roaming cats and the need for lethal roundups, the authors—five from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the other, George Fenwick, president of the American Bird Conservancy*—cite a 1992–1996 study of Montgomery County, VA, rabies exposure reports.

“Most striking, a study in Montgomery County, VA, attributed 63 percent of [post-exposure prophylaxis] recommendations to stray cat exposures compared with only 8 percent for wild animal contact. In this community, the high rate of PEP due to cats resulted in part from the lack of a county animal shelter facility for cats, illustrating the need for removal of feral and stray cats as a means of rabies control and PEP reduction.” [1]

A review of the work cited confirms that, indeed, 24 of 38 exposures requiring PEP (63 percent) over the course of the 55-month study period were related to stray and feral cats. [2] So far, so good. Read more

CDC Doing the American Bird Conservancy’s Bidding?

Representatives of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sign on to the American Bird Conservancy’s witch-hunt against free-roaming cats, misrepresenting the relevant science to support their claim that “rabies transmission via feral cats is a particular concern.”

“Feral cat populations,” argue the authors of a recently published paper, “must be reduced and eliminated to manage the public health risk of rabies transmission.” [1] Their solution? “Traditional animal control policies [that] have stressed stray animal control and removal.”

It’s no surprise, given the American Bird Conservancy’s contribution (president George Fenwick is among the paper’s seven co-authors, and Steve Holmer, Bird Conservation Alliance director, is thanked in the acknowledgments for his “review and input during the writing of the manuscript”) that the article provides no evidence whatsoever of such policies and practices reducing the risk of rabies posed by free-roaming cats.

Witch-hunts, after all, have little use for evidence.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Department of Agriculture, representatives of which make up the paper’s other six co-authors,* rely on solid evidence to develop sound public policy.**

Don’t they?

To borrow a line from Ernest HemingwayIsn’t it pretty to think so?

Read more

Research Brief: “Fearing the Feline”

Despite its dramatic-sounding conclusions, UK research into the “sub-lethal effects” of cats reveals very little about real-world predator-prey dynamics or their potential impact on bird populations.

Common blackbird. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Andreas Trepte.

“A new study from British scientists has documented for the first time, significant new impacts to birds from outdoor cats,” announced an April 18 news release from the American Bird Conservancy, “reporting that even brief appearances of cats near avian nest sites leads to at least a doubling in lethal nest predation of eggs and young birds by third-party animals.” The study, by PhD student Colin Bonnington, Kevin J. Gaston, professor of biodiversity and conservation at the University of Exeter, and Karl L. Evans, conservation biology lecturer at the University of Sheffield (and Bonnington’s PhD advisor), was published earlier this year in the Journal of Applied Ecology as “Fearing the feline: domestic cats reduce avian fecundity through trait-mediated indirect effects that increase nest predation by other species.” Read more

Brighter Days Ahead for the Sunshine State’s Cats?

Feral cat advocates were more than ready for some good news when, last Wednesday afternoon, we got some. Florida House Bill 1121, supported by Best Friends Animal Society, Alley Cat Allies, and the Humane Society of the United States, made it through the 11-member House Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee with unanimous approval. Among the key provisions of “The Community Cat Act,” as it’s come to be known, are protections for community cat caregivers (“release of a community cat by a community cat program is not abandonment or unlawful release”) and veterinarians participating in community cat programs (who would be “immune from criminal and civil liability for any decisions made or services rendered… except for willful and wanton misconduct.”)

As the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Holly Raschein (R-Key Largo), explained to Keynoter reporter Ryan McCarthy: “The basis for the bill is it’s not mandatory. It gives local governments an option if they want to deal with feral cat colonies.” [1]

The message didn’t seem to get through to opponents of HB 1121, however, who, as expected, brought to Tallahassee their usual misinformation and scaremongering. Read more

The American Bird Conservancy’s Campaign of Killing

“The only sure way to protect wildlife, cats and people is for domestic cats to be permanently removed from the outdoor environment,” argues American Bird Conservancy president George Fenwick in a Baltimore Sun op-ed published earlier this week.

“Trap-neuter-release programs that perpetuate the slaughter of wildlife and encourage the dumping of unwanted cats is [sic] a failed strategy being implemented across the United States without any consideration for environmental, human health, or animal welfare effects. It can no longer be tolerated.”

“Evidence” of the slaughter, Fenwick suggests, can be found “in a long line of scientific studies”—among them the Smithsonian/USFWS “killer cat study,” Rick Gerhold and David Jessup’s “Zoonotic Diseases” paper, Peter Marra’s gray catbird study, and Kerry Anne Loyd’s “KittyCam” research. The trouble, of course, is with the quality of Fenwick’s evidence—or in the case of Loyd’s work, how badly it’s been misrepresented by Fenwick and ABC.

But let’s face it: a witch-hunt is a much easier sell when you can put some “science” behind it. And, although too few Sun readers probably realize it, that’s exactly what Fenwick’s up to: Read more

American Bird Conservancy Calls for Killing of Cats

I don’t imagine USA Today has ever been accused of producing substantive journalism. And, judging from a worthless he-said/she-said-we-report-you-decide story in yesterday’s edition, that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

OK, not worthless, exactly. After all, American Bird Conservancy president George Fenwick finally went on record calling for the killing of free-roaming cats: “I detest the killing of cats and dogs or anything else. But this is out of control, and there may be no other answer.” [1]

How many cats are we talking about? Fenwick’s not saying. And reporter Chuck Raasch does readers no favors when he confuses free-roaming cats and feral cats (“Estimates of the U.S. feral cat population range from a few million to 125 million, with the Humane Society saying 50 million.”)

And in a move that’s become popular among TNR opponents,* Fenwick plays the “powerful cat lobby” card: “he worries his side is ‘out-emotioned’ and out-organized.” [1] It would, I think, be more accurate to say that “his side” has neither the science nor public opinion working in their favor. Read more

Serious Public Health Issues? Seriously?

Culex quinquefasciatus mosquito. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and CDC/Jim Gathany.

“This is a significant study that documents serious wildlife and public health issues associated with 125 million outdoor cats in the United States,” explained the American Bird Conservancy’s vice president for conservation advocacy, Darin Schroeder, in a September 18 press release. [1] Schroeder was referring to a paper (“a review of the various diseases of free-roaming cats and the public health implications associated with the cat populations,” [2] as the authors themselves describe it, not a study) published online in July by the journal Zoonoses Public Health (and to be included in an upcoming print edition).

“The information in this review,” explain Rick Gerhold and David Jessup, the paper’s authors, “highlights the serious public health diseases associated with free-roaming cats and underscores the need for increased public health attention directed towards free-roaming cats.” [2]

I’ll save my critique of “Zoonotic Diseases Associated with Free-Roaming Cats” for next time. And let’s set aside for the moment those alleged wildlife impacts, and ABC’s dubious estimate of the number of outdoor cats in this country. What about ABC’s apparent concern for those “serious public health diseases”? Read more

Mother Dearest

Is it possible I’ve been banned from posting comments on the Mother Jones website—the online home of “smart, fearless journalism”? It certainly looks that way.

Despite several attempts throughout the day Wednesday, my response to senior editor Kiera Butler’s “Kitties, Rabies, the Plague, and You” has yet to appear in the comments. Meanwhile, the conversation continues. Initially, I attributed my virtual absence to a technical problem. After repeated attempts (using two or three different applications to log on), however, I think I have to conclude that my comment is simply not being approved. And will not be approved.

I can’t imagine my response violates MoJo’s comment policy, especially after reading some of the others that have been posted. Could it be the magazine didn’t like being the recipient of the 2011 Trap Liner Award in recognition of its “tragic failure of journalistic integrity while fueling—intentionally or not—the witch-hunt against feral cats”? (This, of course, was in “honor” of Butler’s “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!,” which was later renamed—perhaps in response to some 1,645 comments, including mine—“Are Cats Bad for the Environment?”)

Did somebody at the magazine even notice? Who knows. Perhaps this really is just a tech issue. In any case, here’s my comment:

Given Butler’s previous contribution to the “never-ending war between cat people and bird people,” I’m not surprised she once again swallowed the American Bird Conservancy’s story in one gulp. It’s a shame—the same week Mother Jones made national news with its good old-fashioned hard-hitting journalism, Butler’s reprinting sensationalist press releases.

Had she done even a little bit of research, she would realize that ABC’s claims are just the same old misrepresentations and scaremongering. Take rabies, for example. In 2008, there were 294 cases reported in cats, compared to 75 cases in dogs. But let’s put that into context (using the very same report of CDC data that ABC used): 93 percent of cases were in wildlife; cats made up just 4.3 percent of rabies cases overall.

And, as the report makes clear, reports of rabies cases—such as those typically provided by the CDC—are not an accurate measure of overall infection rates. “Further, because of differences in protocols and submission rates among species and states, comparison of percentages of animals with positive results between species or states is inappropriate.” [1] Unfortunately, such comparisons are commonplace among TNR opponents eager to exaggerate the risk of rabies.

Actually, you’ve got a much better chance of being killed by lightning—not just struck, but killed by lightning. Data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicate that between 1959 and 2011, 3,947 people in the U.S. were killed by lightning.

That’s roughly 75 deaths annually. [2] Due to lightning strikes.

And Butler overlooks the obvious (again): What ABC is proposing is a ban on TNR—which means tens of millions of unsterilized and unvaccinated cats. How exactly is that supposed to benefit wildlife and public health? It’s an obvious question to ask, but one that apparently never occurred to Butler.

Next time I get one of Mother Jones’ e-mail pleas for donations, I think I’ll forward it to Darin Schroeder at ABC. They should at least have to pay their stooges.

So, did I go too far?

Literature Cited
1. Blanton, J.D., et al., “Rabies surveillance in the United States during 2008.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2009. 235(6): p. 676–689. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19751163


2. Holle, R., Lightning Fatalities by State, 1959–2011. 2012, Vaisala: Tucson, AZ. http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/stats/59-11_fatalities_rates.pdf

More Kitty Cams and PR Scams

“There’s hostility to lying, and there should be.” —Bob Woodward

With just six minutes and 34 seconds to play, I don’t imagine readers got very far with their bingo cards during Friday night’s episode of 20/20 (“The Camera Never Lies: Kitty Cam Killers”). (My apologies for not including Killing Spree—I should have seen that one coming.) It was clear, though, from the footage of George Fenwick’s interview, that things could have played out very differently—the president of the American Bird Conservancy had his talking points down. Read more

Kitty Cams and PR Scams Bingo

Earlier this week, the American Bird Conservancy announced to eNewsletter subscribers that ABC president George Fenwick will be appearing on ABC News’ 20/20 tonight “in a segment about domestic cat predation on birds and other wildlife.”

“The program was prompted by an August American Bird Conservancy news release on a University of Georgia and National Geographic study of house cats that were allowed to roam outdoors. The activities of the cats were recorded using small video cameras attached to the cats’ collars, leading to some startling results.  The issue has recently been covered by almost 100 newspapers nationwide as well as by CNN, CBS and USA Today. Members of that study team will also appear on Friday’s program.”

As I pointed out the day that news release was issued, it was an attempt at persuasion not through truth and credibility, but through blunt force—through nothing more than amplification and repetition.

I suspect Fenwick’s appearance on 20/20 will be no different. He and his colleagues at ABC have been lying about the impacts of free-roaming cats for at least 15 years now; I don’t imagine him rediscovering his integrity just when he’s got a television audience eager to hear all about, as 20/20 suggests in its segment title, the “Cutest Serial Killer You’ll Ever Meet.”

After all, some of the people tuning in might actually believe Fenwick. Especially if, as is typical of the mainstream media, the 20/20 team takes his indefensible claims at face value—never bothering with even the most obvious follow-up questions.

I am curious, though, to see if Kerrie Anne Loyd is among study team members to be interviewed. And, more to the point, which Kerrie Anne Loyd—the one who told CBS Atlanta, “Cats aren’t as bad as biologists thought”? That would be rather awkward, wouldn’t it?

In any case, Vox Felina readers will be prepared, bingo cards in hand. Unlike the original, however, this set of cards was designed to make winning virtually impossible. Look carefully at the cards and you’ll see that some have a space marked Five Birds, for example. Not likely Fenwick’s going to bring up the fact that only five birds were killed over the course of Loyd’s study (in which 55 cats contributed 2,000 hours of video). Or that they were, as seems to be the case, Common Species.

You get the idea. The downloadable PDF includes four bingo cards and 120 chips.

Whether you actually play along or not, don’t forget to leave a comment on the 20/20 website letting them know what you thought of the show.

Collisions vs. Impacts

In the first of a two-part series (the first part of which aired Wednesday) on NPR’s Morning Edition, American Bird Conservancy ornithologist Christine Sheppard described her research into how birds respond to different types of glass. And the motivation behind it: the numbers of birds killed each year in building collisions.

“Our best estimate is 100 million to a billion,” Sheppard said.

“It’s an incredible number,” observed NPR Science Desk Correspondent Christopher Joyce, “and she acknowledges it’s an estimate. But it’s based on reasonable assumptions.”

Reasonable assumptions? Like those used by ABC to “estimate” the number of birds killed each year by cats? Read more

Kitty Cams and PR Scams

In a joint media release, the American Bird Conservancy and The Wildlife Society team up to misrepresent the results of a recent predation study, decrying the “ongoing slaughter of wildlife by outdoor cats.” Meanwhile the University of Georgia researcher contradicts her previous position that “cats aren’t as bad as biologists thought.”

“To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; credible we must be truthful.”Edward R. Murrow

“‘KittyCam’ Reveals High Levels of Wildlife Being Killed by Outdoor Cats,” declares a media release issued today—a joint effort of the American Bird Conservancy and The Wildlife Society, and, to my knowledge, the first of its kind.

It’s difficult not to see this as an act of desperation—the PR-equivalent of an all-caps e-mail. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened sooner, though, given all that ABC and TWS have in common. Their shared disdain for TNR, obviously, but also their utter disregard for science, scientific literacy, and the truth about the impacts of free-roaming cats. Two peas in a pod, as it were. (Irony: peas are, alas, not native to North America.)

And so, their joint media release is exactly what one would expect: heavy on errors, misrepresentations, and glaring omissions, and light on defensible claims. Read more

Prince George’s County, Maryland

“Bird lovers have just derailed a plan to save some alley cats from death at the hands of animal control,” writes Bruce Leshan in a WUSA-9 TV story that aired Tuesday. “When Prince George’s County Council woman Mary Lehman proposed to order animal control to release” TNR cats, “she ran into a storm of criticism at a council public hearing.” [1]

As Lehman pointed out, “This is not trail-blazing legislation. Fairfax County, Baltimore City, and Washington, DC, all have programs.”

So what’s the hold-up in Prince George’s County? Mostly the American Bird Conservancy, it seems.

“The American Bird Conservancy, which opposes ‘trap, neuter, and return,’ says what you are really doing is releasing predatory, ownerless cats back into the wild to kill again.” [1]

Presumably, ABC will be leading the charge when Lehman brings her bill up again in the fall, which she’s promised to do. Perhaps they can then explain to the Prince George’s County Council—and everybody else—the rationale for their position. Where’s the science to support the numerous claims they make to the media? Read more

Rabies: Some Much-Needed Perspective

Seven minutes and 35 seconds. That’s how long Robert Siegel, co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered, spoke with Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy about their new book, Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus.

Cats weren’t mentioned even once.

Was this a massive oversight? A coup perpetrated by the Powerful Cat Lobby, perhaps?

Hardly. “Veterinarians spend a lot of time thinking about rabies, even though in this country, we hardly ever see it,” explained Murphy, a veterinarian. (Wasik, her husband, is a journalist.)

The scaremongerers over at the American Bird Conservancy and The Wildlife Society must be downright distraught at the thought of the American public being better informed on the subject. Indeed, an excerpt from Rabid describes some of the underlying myths and cultural baggage these folks routinely attempt to leverage in their witch-hunt against free-roaming cats.

“As the lone visible instance of animal-to-human infection, rabies has always shaded into something more supernatural: into bestial metamorphoses, into monstrous hybridities. Even during the twentieth century, after Pasteur’s invention of a rabies vaccine provided a near-foolproof means of preventing its fatality in humans, our dark fascination with rabies seemed only to swell. The vaccine itself became as mythologized as the bug, such that even today many Americans believe that treatment requires some twenty (or is it thirty?) shots, delivered with a foot-long syringe into the stomach. (In fact, today’s vaccine entails four shots, and not particularly deep in the arm.)

It’s almost as if the very anachronism of rabies, to the Western mind, has rendered it even more intriguing to us. Like the vampire, rabies carries with it the musty whiff of a centuries-old terror—even as it still terrifies us in the present day.”

Not exactly your typical summertime reading, maybe, but this one’s going on my list. I wonder if I can get signed copies for ABC’s Darin Schroeder and TWS’s Michael Hutchins

Oregon Man Diagnosed with Plague

According to last Friday’s USA Today, “Health officials have confirmed that an Oregon man has the plague after he was bitten while trying to take a dead rodent from the mouth of a stray cat.”

“State public health veterinarian Dr. Emilio DeBess said the man was infected when he was bitten by the stray his family befriended. The cat died and its body is being sent to the CDC for testing.”

Other news reports suggest that the source of the bacteria—which might have been the rodent—remains uncertain. (Indeed, the fact that the cat’s body was submitted for testing suggests, that there is some question about this. The cat’s death—also unexplained—raises additional questions.)

“Humans usually get plague,” explains the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on its website, “after being bitten by a rodent flea that is carrying the plague bacterium or by handling an animal infected with plague.” Read more

Never Bet Against Irony

Common Raccoon (Procyon lotor). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Darkone.

According to a recent story in The Charleston Gazette, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has, in recent years, made great strides in stopping the westward spread of the raccoon variant of the rabies virus. And a promising new vaccine, typically distributed in packets dropped from airplanes, may eliminate raccoon rabies altogether.

The news came via a presentation by Richard Chipman, Assistant National Rabies Management Coordinator for USDA’s Wildlife Services (yes, that Wildlife Services), and several of his colleagues at the Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ Conference in April. Read more

What Coyotes Eat

Once again, the American Bird Conservancy misrepresents the science in order to fuel TNR opposition. Ironically, ABC’s claim that “outdoor cats make up 13–45 percent of coyote diets” is refuted by the very studies cited in their recent media release.

Coyote at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and photographer Rebecca Richardson.

Late last month, a New York Times blog post reported that coyotes have made their way into Lower Manhattan. However unsettling the news may be to residents, some in the scientific community are praising the coyotes’ arrival.

“The growing presence of these top predators in New York City has piqued the interest of researchers, who say that coyotes in human territory might not be such a bad thing.”

Never ones to pass up an opportunity to misrepresent the threats both to and from free-roaming cats—there is, admittedly, a certain “efficiency” in playing both sides—the American Bird Conservancy issued a media release warning cat guardians to “think twice before letting their pet roam free outdoors.”

Which, to those unfamiliar with ABC’s long-running witch-hunt, might come across as actual concern. In fact, ABC cares about cats as much as they do science. Or professional ethics, for that matter.

Like its Cats Indoors! program, ABC’s latest bit of propaganda is little more than another Trojan Horse (doubly disguised with its British English) aimed squarely at TNR programs. In the words of Darin Schroeder, Vice President of Conservation Advocacy:

“Well-meaning but misguided cat lovers are creating unsafe conditions for domestic cats by releasing them back into areas where they may become prey for coyotes and other predators. Owners who let their pet cat out into their neighbourhoods may be unknowingly ringing the dinner bell to unseen coyotes. We urge states, cities, and communities to reject this inhumane approach to the feral cat problem and instead, require responsible care of pets and the removal of feral cats from the wild.”

Predation Studies
What caught my eye was not the u in neighbourhoods, but ABC’s claim that: “Studies show that outdoor cats make up 13–45 percent of coyote diets in those environments.”

Studies? Which studies?

Tucson, AZ
Between December 2005 and November 2006, researchers Shannon Grubbs and Paul Krausman tracked eight radio-collared coyotes in Tucson, AZ, “observ[ing] 45 instances of coyotes consuming prey and fruit: 19 cats (42 percent), 15 unidentified rodent species (33.3 percent), 8 lagomorphs (17.8 percent), 1 bird (2.2 percent), and in 3 observations coyotes consumed dates (6.6 percent).” [1]

Although ABC indicates otherwise, this was not an investigation into what coyotes eat. “Our objectives,” write the authors “were to describe the group size of coyotes involved in coyote–cat interactions, time and location of interactions, and outcomes of interactions.” [1] The whole point of the study was to find coyotes killing and/or eating cats—hardly representative of a “day in the life” of either species.

Here’s where it gets interesting, though.

I assume ABC’s “45 percent” was intended to be 42 percent—but that’s hardly worth mentioning in light of their far more egregious error. The real problem is that Grubbs and Krausman’s 42 percent figure actually tells us very little about coyotes’ dietary intake. In order to know what percentage of these coyotes’ diet is made up of domestic cats, the researchers would need to examine their stomach contents.

There are a number of ways to describe dietary intake—prey count being perhaps the easiest to understand. Often, though, researchers have available to them only stomach contents or scat, in which case results are typically expressed in either percent frequency of occurrence or percent by volume.

ABC has confused the two.

To appreciate the implications, consider a more familiar example: coffee consumption. According to the 2011 National Coffee Drinking Trends Study, “54 percent of adults age 25–39, said they drink coffee daily.” Were we to do a dietary study of this age group, then, we would expect to find coffee at a 54 percent frequency of occurrence.

To say that coffee makes up 54 percent of our dietary intake (either in terms of volume or, say, calories) on the other hand—essentially ABC’s interpretation—is obviously a gross exaggeration of true consumption levels.

A closer look at Grubbs and Krausman’s work reveals the same error, and—more broadly—the complexities involved in accurately assessing dietary intake in the field. Domestic cats, they argue, “have contributed ≤13.1 percent of the diet of coyotes (MacCracken 1982, Shargo 1988, Quinn 1997).” [1]

What exactly did these other researchers find?

Los Angeles Suburbs
Shargo analyzed 22 coyote scats collected “in a suburban residential neighborhood in Los Angeles from 1984 to 1987” and found domestic cats at a 13.6 percent frequency of occurrence. [2] Which, as I’ve explained, should not be confused with percent of dietary intake.

Among the other items tabulated: plant material: 81.8 percent; rodents: 45.5; garbage 40.9; mule deer 9.1; small birds 4.5. (The numbers are telling in that they add up to well over 100—this is to be expected when findings are expressed as percent frequency of occurrence. If, as ABC suggests, domestic cats make up as much as 45 percent of coyotes’ diet, then where are they putting all the plant material, rodents, and garbage?)

Although Shargo’s “study was not intended to analyze coyote diet in great detail,” he found that 13.6 figure worthy of comment: “Domestic pets, notably cats, are quite commonly eaten.” [2]

(An article in the current issue of The Wildlife Professional (PDF)—to which ABC refers in their media release—suggests that preventing coyote attacks on humans “might mean removing all exterior food sources such as trash, bird feeders, free-roaming cats, or tethered dogs.” [3] Shargo’s work suggests that rodents may be a far more attractive “food source”—one that would be available in even greater abundance were ABC to get their way and remove all free-roaming cats from the environment.)

Western Washington
Quinn “collected a total of 1,435 coyote scats from [three different] habitat types (735 from residential, 449 from mixed agricultural, and 251 from mixed forest)” in western Washington during his dissertation fieldwork in 1989 and 1990.

“Fruits and mammals were the largest classes of food item in all habitat types and their seasonal use was similar among habitats. Apple and cherry were the most abundant fruits in the scats, and ranged from 22–41 percent and 9–13 percent of the annual diet, respectively. Vole was the most abundant mammalian food item (41.7 percent) of coyotes in mixed agricultural-residential habitat while house cat and squirrel were the two most abundant mammalian food items (13.1 and 7.8 percent, respectively) of coyotes in residential habitat.” [4]

In the mixed agricultural mixed forest habitats, coyote scats contained 2.3 and 3.3 percent domestic cats, respectively. (Unlike Shargo’s, Quinn’s estimates reflect percent volume, not percent frequency.)

El Cajon, CA
Examining 97 coyote scats collected in El Cajon, CA, during 1978, MacCracken found domestic cats made up 2.3 percent by volume (though, inexplicably, his own paper suggests otherwise, that his figures represent “percent frequency of occurrence of items recovered”).

Overall, mammals accounted for 28.9 percent, birds 15.9 percent, and vegetation 38.5 percent by volume. “Miscellaneous items such as pieces from chicken egg shells, cellophane wrappers, pieces of cloth, string, plastic, and paper accounted for 16.7 percent of the remains in the scats examined.” [5]

All of which adds up to what, exactly? It’s difficult to say.

Even the most precise scat analysis provides an incomplete picture. “The ability of scat analysis to determine food habits undoubtedly varies by species and circumstances,” argues Bart O’Gara. “Scat analyses should be verified by at least limited stomach analyses so the stomach data can serve as a way to ‘calibrate’ results inferred from scats.” [6]

Off Script, On Message
One wonders just how closely ABC read the Grubbs and Krausman paper—ostensibly the study behind their headline-grabbing media release. What Grubbs and Krausman cite as an upper limit of dietary intake, ABC twisted into a lower limit. And what ABC claims to be an upper limit has no scientific basis whatsoever.

And this isn’t the first time ABC’s done this.

According to their brochure, Domestic Cat Predation on Birds and Other Wildlife (PDF), “extensive studies of the feeding habits of domestic, free-roaming cats… show that approximately… 20 to 30 percent [of their diet] are birds.”

Ellen Perry Berkeley carefully examined—and debunked—this claim in her 2004 book, TNR Past Present and Future: A history of the trap-neuter-return movement, pointing out that ABC’s figure (among its many flaws) is actually based largely on a misreading and/or misrepresentation of Mike Fitzgerald’s considerable research into the dietary habits of cats. Like Shargo, Fitzgerald reported results as percent frequency of occurrence. ABC’s “interpretation,” suggests Fitzgerald in his communication with Berkeley, likely overstates predation by a factor of two or three. [7]

And yet, the error persists even after ABC revised Domestic Cat Predation on Birds and Other Wildlife last year.

So, it’s not difficult to imagine their 13–45 percent of coyote diets claim becoming an equally persistent error in a future ABC brochure—especially in light of the press coverage it’s receiving. (See, for example, the San Francisco Chronicle’s politics blog and Salt Lake City’s KSL TV.)

All of which begs the question: Are such misrepresentations intentional, or do they suggest an inability to accurately interpret the relevant research?

Does it really matter? Neither answer paints ABC—an organization that claims repeatedly to base its policy recommendations on “the best available science”—in a flattering light.

•     •     •

To be clear: coyotes do pose a threat to outdoor cats.

Over the course of 790 hours, Grubbs and Krausman observed eight coyotes kill 19 cats, mostly in residential areas. And, in an often-cited study conducted in the San Diego area, researchers found that “25 percent of radio-collared [pet] cats were killed by coyotes.” [8]

In her outstanding paper on the subject (PDF), Judith Webster addresses this issue in great detail, and, in a comment anticipating ABC’s recent media release by five years, argues:

“One cannot address the issue of urban coyotes without talking about cats and songbirds. For many environmentalists, the killing of cats by coyotes is not the collateral damage of laissez-faire management, but a desired result.” [9]

In their latest media release, ABC puts a new twist on this—grossly exaggerating the killing of cats by coyotes to achieve their own desired result: the kind of press coverage that advances their anti-TNR agenda. And, not to put too fine a point on it, attracts donations.

Literature Cited
1.Grubbs, S.E. and Krausman, P.R., “Observations of Coyote-Cat Interactions.” Journal of Wildlife Management. 2009. 73(5): p. 683–685. http://dx.doi.org/10.2193/2008-033

2. Shargo, E.S., Home range, movements, and activity patterns of coyotes (Canis latrans) in Los Angeles suburbs, in ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. 1988, University of California, Los Angeles. p. 124 p.

3. Toomey, A.H., et al., “The Last Frontier.” The Wildlife Professional. 2012(Spring): p. 54–57. http://joomla.wildlife.org/documents/twp/the.last.frontier.pdf

4. Quinn, T., “Coyote (Canis latrans) Food Habits in Three Urban Habitat Types of Western Washington.” Northwest Science. 1997. 71(1): p. 1–5.

5. MacCracken, J.G., “Coyote Foods in a Southern California Suburb.” Wildlife Society Bulletin. 1982. 10(3): p. 280–281. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3781020

6. O’Gara, B.W., “Reliability of Scat Analysis for Determining Coyote Feeding on Large Mammals.” The Murrelet. 1986. 67(3): p. 79–81. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3536461

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

8. Crooks, K.R. and Soulé, M.E., “Mesopredator release and avifaunal extinctions in a fragmented system.” Nature. 1999. 400(6744): p. 563–566. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v400/n6744/abs/400563a0.html

9. Webster, J.C., Missing Cats, Stray Coyotes: One Citizen’s Perspective, in Wildlife Damage Management Conferences. 2007, Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management: University of Nebraska-Lincoln (Revised 2009 by the author). p. 74–116.

Seeds of Doubt

Last week, the Environment News Service reported: “Ohio lawn and garden care company Scotts Miracle-Gro has pleaded guilty to breaching federal pesticide laws by using an unapproved insecticide on bird seed sold nationwide for two years.”

“Scotts is proposing to pay a $4 million fine and give $500,000 to help support wildlife conservation and study. Judge Graham said he will issue his decision on the plea agreement at sentencing, which has not yet been scheduled. The government alleges that beginning in 2005, Scotts produced a line of wild bird food products under names including Morning Song and Country Pride that contained insecticides.

The government says the insecticides, which are toxic to birds and other wildlife, were not approved for use on bird food.

According to court records, in 2008, Scotts distributed 73 million packages of bird seed coated with the insecticides Storcide II containing the active ingredient chlorpyrifos, and Actellic 5E, containing the active ingredient pirimiphos-methyl, intended to keep insects from destroying the seed.

The company continued to produce and market the insecticide-coated seeds despite being alerted to toxicity dangers by a Scotts staff chemist and ornithologist.

Storcide II is labeled as ‘Toxic to birds. Toxic to wildlife,’ and that ‘Exposed treated seed may be hazardous to birds.’ No such warning exists on the Actellic 5E label.”

Reaction to the decision has been interesting

The SafeLawns blog, for example, referred to the timing as “suspicious.”

“The company, many folks believe, must have known this ruling in federal court was coming down for several months. The timing of the sponsorship with the National Wildlife Federation, announced by NWF on Jan. 18, was clearly designed to draw attention away from what is believed to be the largest fine ever levied on a pesticide company.”

It may very well be the largest fine of its kind—but let’s put this into context. Scotts’ net sales for fiscal 2011 were $2.84 billion, one billion of which was profit.

The American Bird Conservancy announced the decision in a February 7 media release in which ABC referred to results of its own recent independent testing of bird seed bought at Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Lowes, and Target. The analysis, conducted at the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System, part of the University of California, Davis, “specifically looked for harmful pesticides, such as organophosphate and carbamate insecticides.”

“We found that all of the tested bird seed was either free from pesticides or that pesticides occurred at only trace levels that would not threaten bird health,” said ABC president George Fenwick.

Now, the chlorpyrifos found in Storcide II is an organophosphate insecticide, but it seems likely that ABC’s testing was conducted long after the Scotts products were on the shelf. (And, it should be made clear, it’s not known if the various products tested at UC Davis included Scotts’ Morning Song and Country Pride.)

Statements made in the 2011 media release announcing the test results now have, in light of the Scotts case, an irony to them: “The potential for birds to be unwittingly poisoned by the very people who feed them was something we felt it important to know, so we could either raise the alarm bell or put people’s mind at rest,” said Dr. Moira McKernan, director of ABC’s Pesticides and Birds Program… We wanted to make sure that the isolated problem cases in the past, were indeed behind us, and as far as we can tell, that is the case. The bird seed producers seem to be doing a good job of producing a safe product.”

“This testing produced very positive findings,” McKernan continues, “but I think it is probably in the best interests of birds that if we identify funding sources, we perform some form of periodic analysis to make sure that we can all continue to buy bird food products with peace of mind, and to ensure that people’s hard earned money is spent helping birds, and not unintentionally harming them.”

In the February 7 release, Fenwick echoes McKernan’s comments: “in the light of this recent case against Scotts, this is clearly an issue that requires greater public attention. ABC seeks additional funding for continuing, needed testing.”

•     •     •

What I find rather unsettling about ABC’s response (in addition to its use as a fundraising opportunity) is its… restraint. Compared to, in particular, their various claims made about the impacts of free-roaming cats.

Speaking of which…

It’s been demonstrated that, on average, birds caught by cats are significantly less healthy than birds killed through non-predatory events (e.g., collisions with windows or cars) [1, 2]. One wonders what role tainted bird seed might play in such findings.

Note: I asked ABC’s director of public relations, Robert Johns, by e-mail, whether ABC expects to receive any of that $500,000 Scotts is promising “to help support wildlife conservation and study.” So far, no reply.

Update: According to The Columbus Dispatch, the $500,000 “will be evenly split among five groups and agencies to fund efforts to protect birds. They are Audubon Ohio, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Urban Forestry Program, Columbus Metro Parks, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and the Ohio Nature Conservancy.”

Literature Cited
1. Møller, A.P. and Erritzøe, J., “Predation against birds with low immunocompetence.” Oecologia. 2000. 122(4): p. 500–504. http://www.springerlink.com/content/ghnny9mcv016ljd8/

2. 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. http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/bsc/ibi/2008/00000150/A00101s1/art00008