Follow-up Items

A few follow-up items related to my past couple of posts: the first sheds some additional light on the Santa Ana typhus scare, while the second provides a little historical context to The Sacramento Bee’s recent reporting on Wildlife Services.

1. Typhus, Fleas, and Cats
Somehow I missed press releases from both Stray Cat Alliance and Alley Cat Allies, both issued yesterday in response to the Santa Ana typhus scare. (My apologies!) Below is the SCA release in its entirety (as I’ve been unable to find a link). The ACA release can be found here. Read more

Contract Killing: The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Wildlife Services’ killing campaigns are not only brutal, costly, and ineffective—they may actually contribute to an increase in the population of the coyotes targeted by the agency.

In the second part of The Sacramento Bee’s three-part series investigating Wildlife Services, published Tuesday, reporter Tom Knudson sheds some light on the dubious rationale behind the agency’s methods. [I discussed the first installment in my previous post.]

“For decades,” writes Knudson, “Wildlife Services, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has specialized in trapping, poisoning and shooting predators in large numbers, largely to protect livestock and, more recently, big game.”

“Now such killing is coming under fire from scientists, former employees and others who say it often doesn’t work and can set off a chain reaction of unintended, often negative consequences.” [1]

(Many readers will recall that I made a similar argument in my February 2011 letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—no “relation” to Wildlife Services, though they seem to share the same penchant for lethal control methods and secrecy—regarding their ill-conceived Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex Integrated Predator Management Plan.)

“With rifles, snares and aerial gunning,” writes Knudson, “employees have killed 967 coyotes and 45 mountain lions at a cost of about $550,000. But like a mirage, the dream of protecting deer by killing predators has not materialized.” [1]

This despite a significant increase in the killing. Read more

Terrible Twos

Where were you two years ago today?

I was, as I am now, typing away on my laptop well into the night—compelled, as I wrote on the blog’s About page, to speak out on behalf of stray, abandoned, and feral cats. Two years—and 147 posts—later, it’s clear that people are listening.

In the past year alone, 213 additional readers have become subscribers, bringing the total to 370. And the Vox Felina Facebook page is up to 1,239 “Likes,” double what it was on the one-year anniversary.

And word continues to spread.

Over the past 12 months, Vox Felina has been mentioned in Animal People, Conservation magazine and The Washingtonian. In addition, I’ve been profiled in Best Friends magazine, interviewed on Animal Wise Radio, and invited to speak at the 2011 Animal Grantmakers conference.

And the next year is already shaping up to be at least as busy, with, for example, speaking commitments at the No Kill Conference in August and the No More Homeless Pets National Conference in October.

Although there’s already plenty on my to-do list, I’m always interested in hearing from Vox Felina readers. What can I do to help you advocate for stray, abandoned, and feral cats? Send me a note: peter[at] (Please be patient—none of my “assistants” has opposable thumbs.)

And, as always, thank you for your support—and for all that you’re doing on behalf of our community cats!


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.

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.

3. Clifton, M. (2003) Where cats belong—and where they don’t. Animal People.

4. Clifton, M. (2003) Roadkills of cats fall 90% in 10 years—are feral cats on their way out? Animal People.

Downgrading ABC’s “Perfect Storm”

Once again, the American Bird Conservancy is using scare tactics to gain support for their long-standing witch-hunt against free-roaming cats, this time suggesting a connection between TNR and rabies exposure. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention demonstrate no such connection.

Maybe the folks at the American Bird Conservancy were simply feeling left out, what with all the attention the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been getting for their participation in The Wildlife Society’s upcoming feral cat workshop.

You know, all dressed up (tired talking points in hand) and nowhere to go.

With just a day to spare, ABC announced that senior policy analyst Steve Holmer would be participating in the 2nd Annual World Rabies Day Webinar, apparently using the occasion—as is ABC’s habit—to trot out all the usual anti-TNR propaganda.

According to a media release from ABC, Managed Cat Colonies and Rabies was to be “one of 28 presentations being aired in over 70 countries.” I was unable to tune into Holmer’s presentation, but ABC’s announcement suggests I didn’t miss much: “Feral cat colonies bring together a series of high risk elements that result in a ‘perfect storm’ of rabies exposure.”

Put into context, though, the rabies threat posed by “feral cat colonies” is more of a tempest in a teacup.

“While cats make up a small percentage of rabies vectors,” argues Holmer, “they are responsible for a disproportionate number of human exposures.” As the media release explains:

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most people are exposed to rabies due to close contact with domestic animals such as cats and dogs. Although dogs historically posed a greater rabies threat to humans, dog-related incidents have become less frequent in recent decades, dropping from 1,600 cases in 1958 to just 75 in 2008. Meanwhile, cases involving cats have increased over the same period with spikes of up to 300 cases in a single year.

Here, ABC is, once again, not telling us the whole story—beginning with their source. It turns out this paragraph—along with other portions of their release—were lifted verbatim from The Wildlife Society’s Rabies in Humans and Wildlife “fact sheet” (PDF). TWS attributes the figures to a 2009 report of CDC data published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (which includes the graph below).

“State health authorities have different requirements for submission of specimens for rabies testing,” note the authors, “therefore, intensity of surveillance varies.” [1]

“Because most animals submitted for testing are selected because of abnormal behavior or obvious signs of illness, percentages of tested animals with positive results in the present report are not representative of the incidence of rabies in the general population. 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, italics mine]

Comparing rabies cases in dogs and cats, as TWS—and, by extension, ABC—have done, misrepresents the actual threat posed by cats. Indeed, as “Rabies surveillance in the United States during 2009” makes clear (see table below), no human case of rabies reported between 2000 and 2009 was linked to a cat.

As one of my colleagues astutely observed, “You are more likely to be executed by Rick Perry than die from rabies contracted from a cat.”

[Note: As I’ve demonstrated previously, TWS’s “fact sheets” aren’t any better than ABC’s media releases when it comes to, well, facts. In Rabies in Humans and Wildlife, TWS suggests that treatment for people exposed to rabies “can cost $7,000 or more; every year, the United States spends approximately $300 million on rabies prevention.” [2]

Among the sources cited by TWS is the CDC—which paints a very different economic picture, suggesting that “a course of rabies immune globulin and five doses of vaccine given over a 4-week period typically exceeds $1,000,” and pointing out that the annual expenditures for rabies prevention “include the vaccination of companion animals, animal control programs, maintenance of rabies laboratories, and medical costs, such as those incurred for rabies postexposure prophylaxis.”

If ABC isn’t going to do their own homework, then they should at least look for a trustworthy source.]

TNR: Barrier to Rabies Transmission
“Managed colonies teach feral cats to associate with humans,” says Holmer/TWS, “and while most people will not interact with wildlife, especially animals displaying erratic behavior, cats are perceived as domestic and approachable.”

In an e-mail to me earlier this week, Merritt Clifton editor of Animal People, dismissed several of Holmer’s assertions, describing TNR as “a very useful tool in fighting rabies.”

“Neuter/return feral cat population control, including vaccination, is in truth a very effective rabies control measure, as I know firsthand, because I was personally involved in the introduction of neuter/return feral cat control to the U.S. in 1991–1992—and it was done as part of a rabies control program.”

“The idea,” says Clifton, “was to see whether neuter/return could turn the feral cat population into a vaccinated barrier between rabid raccoons and free-roaming pet cats.”

“As coordinator of a rabies information hotline for the preceding year, following the arrival in Connecticut of the mid-Atlantic raccoon rabies pandemic, I became one of the three coordinators of an experiment which sterilized and vaccinated 330 feral cats at eight locations in northern Fairfield County, Connecticut.”

The experiment was, Clifton explains, a success. “The only rabid cat ever found near our eight working locations,” he says, “was an unvaccinated house cat who was not normally allowed outside, but escaped and fought with a raccoon before being captured by [a] Town of Monroe animal control officer.” Clifton and his colleagues were, he tells me, “honored by the Town of Monroe Police Department for our accomplishment in keeping rabies from spreading beyond raccoons. The certificate is above my desk right now.”

“To date,” Clifton continues, “there has never been even one case of rabies in the U.S. among cats who were part of a managed neuter/return program, coordinated with a humane society or animal control agency. Of the 32 instances of rabid cats in the U.S. reported by ProMed since 2005, 11 involved feral cats, and several others involved found kittens [and] cats of indeterminate status, but none were part of a neuter return/program.”

[Note: The apparent discrepancy between CDC and ProMed figures are, Clifton tells me, easily explained: “ProMed reports outbreaks, not individual cases.”]

For Holmer, incorporating the rabies vaccine into standard TNR protocol—as is done in many locations—is insufficient.

“Even when they are vaccinated when first trapped, re-trapping cats to revaccinate can be problematic as the cats become wary of the traps. There is also typically not the funding or infrastructure among the colony feeders to repeatedly re-trap cats to administer vaccines.”

In fact, boosters are probably unnecessary. Julie Levy, Maddie’s Professor of Shelter Medicine at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine—and one of this country’s foremost experts on feral cats—suggests, “Even a single dose of rabies vaccination provides years of protection against rabies infection.”

When it comes right down to it, initial vaccinations are probably unnecessary, too, in much of the country. As the authors of the 2009 rabies surveillance report—referring to the map shown below—point out, “Most (81.0 percent) of the 300 cases of rabies involving cats were reported from states where raccoon rabies is enzootic, with two states (Pennsylvania and Virginia) accounting for nearly a third of all rabid cats reported during 2009.” [3]

If ABC is truly concerned about the public health threat posed by “feral cat colonies,” why withhold such critical information? Because their “perfect storm” media release has nothing whatsoever to do public health. Or science, for that matter. It’s just another feeble attempt to gain support for their long-standing witch-hunt against free-roaming cats.

And to add to the fear-mongering, ABC now suggests that TNR actually increases the number of stray, abandoned, and feral cats.

“Peer reviewed studies have shown that over time, cat colonies increase in size, the result of the inability to neuter or spay all the cats and the dumping of unwanted cats at the colony sites by callous pet owners. The result is a large number of unvaccinated cats.”

Just 10 months ago, though, ABC was telling a rather different story. Authors of The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation suggest, “few colonies managed under this system shrink.” [4] Either way, ABC is ignoring compelling evidence that TNR can indeed reduce colony size over time—in some cases 16–32 percent, [5] 36 percent, [6] and 66 percent. [7]

•     •     •

“The increase in the cases of human rabies exposure from feral cats,” argues Holmer, “should be a concern to city and other government officials.”

“This problem will only get worse as managed feral cat colonies grow in number because half truths about their impacts and implications on local communities and the environment is accepted by decision makers who mistakenly believe they are receiving full disclosure.”

If Holmer’s looking for half-truths and partial disclosures, he needn’t look any further than ABC’s most recent piece of propaganda—the most insidious element of which is merely implied. One might easily get the impression that ABC has a plan to reduce the population of stray, abandoned, and feral cats—a feasible alternative to TNR.

In fact, there is no such plan.

That’s ABC’s dirty little secret (one they share with TWS and USFWS). And that’s what should be a concern to city and other government officials.

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.

2. n.a., Problems with Trap-Neuter-Release. 2011, The Wildlife Society: Bethesda, MD.

3. Blanton, J.D., Palmer, D., and Rupprecht, C.E., “Rabies surveillance in the United States during 2009.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2010. 237(6): p. 646–657.

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

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. Yoshino, K. (2010, January 17). A catfight over neutering program. Los Angeles Times, from,0,1225635.story

Press Here

I thought I’d use this post—my 100th!—as an opportunity to create a (long-overdue) press page. My sincere thanks to the various writers, reporters, editors and bloggers who have helped spread the word about Vox Felina—your support is greatly appreciated!

Reviving a Classic

“The cat, of all animals, is in some respects the most intimate companion of man… Nevertheless, it leads a dual existence. ‘The fireside sphinx,’ the pet of the children, the admired habitué of the drawing-room or the salon by day, may become at night a wild animal, pursuing, striking down and torturing its prey, frequently making night hideous with its cries, sneaking into dark, filthy, noisome retreats, or taking to the woods and fields, where it perpetrates untold mischief. Now it ravages the dovecote; now it steals on the mother bird asleep on her nest, striking bird, nest and young to the ground. In the darkness of night it turns poacher. No animal that it can reach and master is safe from its ravenous clutches.” —Edward Howe Forbush, The Domestic Cat: Bird Killer, Mouser and Destroyer of Wild Life; Means of Utilizing and Controlling It (1916)

Among the numerous criticisms of “Feral Cats and Their Management,” we can now add lack of originality.

In the January/February issue of Animal People, editor Merritt Clifton confirms his “hunch that ‘Feral Cats and Their Management’ is little more than a paraphrased and condensed update of the 1916 tract The Domestic Cat: Bird Killer, Mouser and Destroyer of Wild Life; Means of Utilizing and Controlling It, authored by then-Massachusetts state ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush.”

After a careful re-reading of the 1916 work (available online), Clifton (whose comprehensive article, “Where Cats Belong—and Where They Don’t,” I have quoted repeatedly) concludes:

“…the University of Nebraska paper and the Forbush work follow almost identical outlines from beginning to end, making similar allegations, arriving at the same recommendations in closely parallel language.” [1]

The Domestic Cat: Bird Killer, Mouser and Destroyer of Wild Life; Means of Utilizing and Controlling It

“The major structural difference,” writes Clifton, has to do with the sources involved. Whereas Forbush relied largely on “anecdotal testimony from more than 200 individual correspondents” (much of it from hunters who were after the same birds the cats were pursuing), Hildreth, Vantassel, and Hygnstrom provide “no firsthand testimony.” [1]

Instead, notes Clifton, they “plugged in references to more recent studies… in support of essentially the same claims, including that cats devastate populations of birds who would otherwise be hunted.” [1]

Among the similarities described in Clifton’s article:

Like Forbush, the authors of “Feral Cats and Their Management” use “outlandishly high claims about feline fecundity” [1] to drum up support for their eradication (“Hence the necessity for checking such increase promptly by killing all superfluous kittens soon after birth,” [2, p. 19] as Forbush put it).

For their reprise of Bird Killer, Mouser and Destroyer of Wild Life, Hildreth, Vantassel, and Hygnstrom turn to a frequently cited—but bogus—figure:

“The Humane Society of the United States estimates that a pair of breeding cats and their offspring can produce over 400,000 cats in seven years under ideal conditions, assuming none die.” [3]

But of course, feral cats—like all animals, and especially those living outdoors—don’t live “under ideal conditions.” And kittens do die. (The fact that Hildreth, Vantassel, and Hygnstrom leave it that is telling: their intent has nothing whatsoever to do with science, or research of any kind.)

In fact, the Wall Street Journal’s “Numbers Guy,” Carl Bialik, discredited this myth four years earlier in his column. What’s more, John Snyder, Vice President, Companion Animals, told Bialik then that HSUS wasn’t the source, adding, “that number is flawed.” (I’ve searched the HSUS website and can find no mention of it.)

Predation and Impact
Clifton points out that Forbush ignored reliable information indicating that free-roaming cats kill, on average 10 or 11 birds annually, and instead “dwelt on the claims of 15 people that their cats killed 20.4 birds per month, and the claims of six people that their cats killed about 50 birds per year.”

It’s not clear what information Hildreth, Vantassel, and Hygnstrom relied on, as they didn’t bother with in-text citations. Whatever the source, the authors settled on a surprisingly conservative annual predation rate of eight birds per year, and used 60 million as the estimated number of feral cats in the U.S. This, too, might be considered conservative in light of other “estimates,” (the American Bird Conservancy, for example, claims—without citing any source—that the population is 120 million) though Clifton himself estimated, 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.” [4]

Rather than relying on inflated predation rates to justify the eradication of feral cats, Hildreth, Vantassel, and Hygnstrom misrepresent well-known scientific studies of their impact on wildlife. Their “interpretation” of Olof Liberg’s 1984 paper, for example, and convenient omission of sample size (26 rodents, 21 birds, and 11 lizards) in their reference to Crooks and Soulé’s 1999 paper. [5]

And, not surprisingly, “Feral Cats and Their Management” makes no mention of compensatory predation.

Public Health Threats
“As a carrier of disease,” argued Forbush, “especially to children, no animal has greater opportunities [than the domestic cat].”

Among the threats suggested by Hildreth, Vantassel, and Hygnstrom are cat scratch fever, plague, rabies, ringworm, salmonellosis, fleas, and ticks. And toxoplasmosis—of particular concern, apparently, because “in 3 separate studies, most feral cats (62 percent to 80 percent) tested positive for toxoplasmosis.” [3]

But the rate of cats testing positive—or seroprevalence—is not a useful measure of their ability to infect other animals or people. Indeed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

“Although cats can carry diseases and pass them to people, you are not likely to get sick from touching or owning a cat… People are probably more likely to get toxoplasmosis from gardening or eating raw meat than from having a pet cat.”

•     •     •

“Much of Forbush’s antipathy toward cats,” suggests Clifton, “might be ascribed to the context of the times.”

“His life coincided with the era in which New England wildlife was more depleted than at any time since. Logging, ploughing, damming, and unrestrained development depleted the forest cover, the grasslands, and the rivers. Precocious as Forbush was in his birding, which then was done chiefly with a shotgun, predatory mammals, fur-bearers, and most wild species considered edible had already been extirpated from most of Massachusetts before he had much chance to see or kill them.” [1]

That was 1916. How to explain “Feral Cats and Their Management,” written 94 years later—in, presumably, a very different context? The answer—part of it, anyhow—may lie with one of the paper’s co-authors, Stephen Vantassel, whose PhD 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.” [6]

Vantassel, it seems, would be more at home in the early twentieth century than in the twenty-first. (Though, by 1916, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was already 50 years old, and the burgeoning animal welfare/right movement would surely have Vantassel longing for “the good old days.”)

Literature Cited
1. Clifton, M. (2011, January/February). The Domestic Cat: Bird Killer, Mouser and Destroyer of Wild Life; Means of Utilizing and Controlling It, by Edward Howe Forbush. Animal People, p. 17, from

2. Forbush, E.H., The Domestic Cat: Bird Killer, Mouser and Destroyer of Wild Life; Means of Utilizing and Controlling It 1916, Boston: Wright and Potter Printing Company.

3. Hildreth, A.M., Vantassel, S.M., and Hygnstrom, S.E., Feral Cats and Their Managment. 2010, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension: Lincoln, NE.

4. Clifton, M. Where cats belong—and where they don’t. Animal People, 2003.

5. Crooks, K.R. and Soulé, M.E., “Mesopredator release and avifaunal extinctions in a fragmented system.” Nature. 1999. 400(6744): p. 563–566.

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

American Bird Con

For years now, the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) has been promoting erroneous and misleading information in their tireless effort to vilify free-roaming cats. No organization has been more effective at working the anti-TNR pseudoscience into a message neatly packaged for the mainstream media, and eventual consumption by the general public. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal in 2002, Becky Robinson, co-founder and President of Alley Cat Allies, described ABC’s Cats Indoors! campaign as “a new environmental witch hunt.” [1]

Book Cover: The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation

In their recently released book, The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation, ABC changes tack a bit—using what the authors call “conservative” estimates of the outdoor cat population and annual predation rates, for example, to arrive at their figure of “532 million birds killed annually by outdoor cats.” [2] At the same time, they include much of the same misinformation ABC’s been promoting all along. It’s a clever strategy, really: endorsing bogus claims as valid science without having to defend them as such.

In fact, one doesn’t need to get past the book’s preface before realizing the role that science plays—or, more to the point, doesn’t play—at ABC. “We see very few issues resolved through coming to consensus on the science,” writes President and CEO George Fenwick.

“More often, science divides us. So, though we continue to need excellent science, conservationists also need to learn how to better persuade, use media effectively, and connect birds to the human condition, spirituality and ethical values.” [2]

If its section on cats is any indication, The ABC Guide is the manifestation of Fenwick’s philosophy: more style than substance, more sales than science. The authors didn’t even bother with citations and references, suggesting to readers, perhaps, that The ABC Guide is the last word on the subject. Where free-roaming cats are concerned, though, ABC has precious few answers—in part because they (still) aren’t asking the right questions.

Outdoor Cats
Referring to unattributed 2007 data, the authors of The ABC Guide—Daniel Lebbin, Michael Parr, and George Fenwick—claim that 43 percent of pet cats “have access to the outdoors.” [2] But, according to American Pet Products Association (APPA) 2008 National Pet Owners Survey, 64 percent of cats are indoor-only during the daytime, and 69 percent are kept in at night [3].

Other surveys have yielded similar results, and also indicate that, of those cats that are allowed outdoors, approximately half were outside for three hours or less each day [4, 5]. For Lebbin et al., though, these part-timers are no different from their feral relatives. Of which, “there are 60–120 million,” according to the authors. [2]

Where this figure comes from is anybody’s guess. It’s substantially higher than any other estimates I’ve seen, with one notable exception—a statement made earlier this year by an ABC official (more on that in a moment).

Feral Cat Numbers
Very little exists in terms of credible population estimates for feral cats. There are, however, many unsubstantiated claims.

Among the most popular for those interested in big numbers is the first line from David Jessup’s ironically titled 2004 paper “The welfare of feral cats and wildlife” (ironic because his “concerns” for the welfare of these cats are so plainly disingenuous): “There are an estimated 60 to 100 million feral and abandoned cats in the United States.” [6] As to the origins of Jessup’s “estimate,” again, it’s anybody’s guess, as he offers no reference.

Based on the results of a 1999 telephone survey of Alachua County, Florida, residents, Levy et al. estimated that the population of free-roaming cats represented approximately 44 percent of the county’s total population of cats. [7] Other researchers have reported similar figures for nationwide estimates. [8] By way of comparison, ABC’s estimate represents 39–56 percent of the overall population of cats in the U.S. (based on APPA’s latest figures for pet cats).

On the other hand, Merritt Clifton of Animal People, an independent newspaper dedicated to animal protection issues, makes a compelling argument that the population of feral cats in the U.S. is much smaller than is often reported, and may very well be on the decline. [9] Clifton’s estimates are derived not from surveys of homeowners feeding stray and feral cats, but from “information about the typical numbers of cats found in common habitat types, gleaned from a national survey of cat rescuers… cross-compared with animal shelter intake data.” [10] In 2003, Clifton suggested 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.” [10]

Population Increase
Earlier this year, ABC’s Senior Policy Advisor, Steve Holmer, told the Los Angeles Times, “The latest estimates are that there are about . . . 160 million feral cats [nationwide].” When pressed for details, Holmer referred me to Nico Dauphine and Robert Cooper’s 2009 Partners In Flight Conference paper. Which, as it turns out, leads right back to ABC and their Cats Indoors! campaign.

Dauphine and Cooper begin their adventure in creative accounting with Jessup’s unattributed 100 million, and add to it the number of owned cats they describe as “free-ranging outdoor cats for at least some portion of the day.” [11] For which they turn to Linda Winter, former director of Cats Indoors!, and her 2004 paper in which she reports the findings of a 1997 telephone survey (commissioned by ABC) of cat owners. According to Winter, “66 percent of cat owners let their cats outdoors some or all of the time.” [12]

In fact, the survey—as reported in ABC’s brochure “Human Attitudes and Behavior Regarding Cats”—indicated that “35 percent keep their cats indoors all of the time” and “31 percent keep them indoors mostly with some outside access.” [9] The difference in wording is subtle and hampered by imprecision (it all comes down to the meaning of some), but it’s difficult not to see this as deliberately misleading on Winter’s part.

In any case, results of other surveys (described previously) suggest quite convincingly that outdoor access for the vast majority of pet cats is really very limited. Nevertheless, Dauphine and Cooper persist, arriving at a staggering “117–157 million free-ranging cats.” [11] Holmer, in turn, rounds off the upper limit, “scrubs” the pet cats from the calculation by calling them all ferals, and gets the bogus figure printed in the Times. (Gold star for Holmer!)

Lebbin et al. don’t go that far, but their “most conservative estimate of outdoor and feral cats in the U.S.”—95 million—is, given its shaky origins, no more valid than Dauphine and Cooper’s.

According to The ABC Guide, “all outdoor cats hunt and kill birds (20­–30 percent of cat prey) and other small animals.” [2] No study I’m aware of has demonstrated that all cats hunt. On the contrary, some research suggests that less than half of outdoor cats hunt. Figures as low as 36–56 percent have been reported by researchers in Australia, for example. [13]

In the UK, Baker, Bentley, Ansell, and Harris reported that 77 cats returned a total of 212 prey items to 52 Bristol households participating in their pilot study, but “in each sampling period, the majority of cats (51–74 percent) failed to return any prey.” [14] The subsequent 12-month study (this time involving 186 Bristol households, 275 cats, and 495 prey items) found a similar level of apparent non-hunters: roughly 61 percent. [15]

Woods, McDonald, and Harris, also working in the UK, found that, although 91 percent of cats returned at least one item, “approximately 20–30 percent of cats brought home either no birds or no mammals.” [16] And Churcher and Lawton’s yearlong “English Village” study (involving approximately 70 cats and 1,090 documented prey items) found that that 8.6 percent of cats brought home no prey [17] (though the authors don’t specify the percentage of cats that returned no birds).

And while it’s true that cats are unlikely to return home with all they prey they catch, it’s equally true that they will bring home items they didn’t kill. Very little is known about the extent of either phenomenon, however. (Carol Fiore’s [18] attempt to unravel this mystery is plagued by methodological missteps and obvious bias; William George’s [19] comments are often interpreted as suggesting that cats return only half of what they catch, though this is incorrect.)

The Diet of Cats
The idea that birds make up 20–30 percent of the diet of free-roaming cats is one that ABC has been promoting since 1997, when they launched Cats Indoors! But it’s no more valid now than it was then.

According to ABC’s brochure, “Domestic Cat Predation on Birds and Other Wildlife” (downloadable from their website), “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 book, TNR Past Present and Future: A history of the trap-neuter-return movement, noting that ABC’s 20–30 percent figure wasn’t based on “extensive studies” at all. [10]

In fact, just three sources were used: the now-classic “English Village” study by Churcher and Lawton [11], the infamous “Wisconsin Study,” and researchers Mike Fitzgerald and Dennis Turner’s contribution to The Domestic Cat: The Biology of Its Behaviour. [12]

As Berkeley points out, combining or comparing data from these three sources is entirely inappropriate. Both the English Village and Wisconsin studies report the percentage of birds returned as a portion of the “total catch,” whereas Fitzgerald reports percentage by frequency (i.e., the occurrence of birds in the stomach contents or scats of free-roaming cats).

To put this into more familiar terms, consider coffee consumption. According to the 2009 National Coffee Drinking Trends Study, 54 percent of American adults drink coffee daily—54, then, is the percentage by frequency. To say that coffee makes up 54 percent of our dietary intake—essentially ABC’s interpretation—is obviously a gross exaggeration of consumption levels. (Neither measure says anything about the supply of coffee, of course.)

Nevertheless, 13 years after ABC first published its report—and six years after Berkeley exposed the error publicly in TNR—the myth persists. So much for ABC’s commitment, spelled out in the book’s section on threats, to “address all of the major threats responsible for killing large numbers of birds, using the best information and research available, while promoting further research and monitoring where it is most needed.” [2]

Which, in turn, raises serious questions about the integrity of ABC and the people running it.

Declawed Cats
Citing Fiore’s thesis research, Lebbin at al. conclude, “de-clawed cats kill as many birds as cats with claws.” [2] Fiore herself is equally confident:

“There were seven declawed cats in the study and all but one took birds (giving a figure of 86 percent); the top predator cat was declawed. Declawing cats appears to have no effect whatsoever on the ability to hunt birds.” [18]

But, both ABC and Fiore leave out some critical details. There were, after all, only 41 cats involved in the study—hardly the kind of sampling required to make such sweeping statements.

A closer look reveals that the declawed cats were apparently responsible for killing an average of 3.6 birds/cat/year while the cats with claws had an average of 3.0. Does this mean that the declawed cats are actually superior hunters compared to the other cats? Hardly.

In addition to the sampling issue, there’s the problem inherent in using the average to describe highly skewed distributions (many cats catching few prey, while few cats catch many prey). In such instances, it’s more appropriate to use median values, which better represent “average” hunting success. [20] Doing so yields estimates of 1 bird/cat/year for the declawed cats vs. 2 birds/cat/year for the cats with claws.

So, declawed cats kill only half as many birds as those with claws? I’ll leave such indefensible claims to others.

Now, to be clear: I’m no advocate of declawing. Nor do I think it’s in the best interest of pet cats to be outdoors—especially those without claws. My point here is merely to demonstrate the flaws in ABC’s deceptively straightforward assertion; once again, ABC is more interested in a good story than they are in good science. (Their comment about declawed cats is precisely the kind of sound-bite that is easily picked up by the media, and repeated so widely that it becomes nearly impossible to trace—never mind untangle.)

Cats and Birds
As evidence of the “variable predation rates by cats,” [2] The ABC Guide refers to just four studies. And, although no citations are included, people familiar with the literature will recognize the numbers and locations immediately.

  1. From Christopher Lepczyk’s dissertation work, the authors somehow extract a figure of 35.5 birds/cat/year, near the low end of Lepczyk’s own estimate of “between 0.7 and 1.4 birds per week.” [21] But Lepczyk’s research suffers from a range of problems—both in terms of his methods and analysis—that inflate his estimated predation rates. (Interestingly, ABC’s Fenwick and Winter are among those Lepczyk thanks “for helpful and constructive reviews” in the Acknowledgements section.)
  2. Another of the predation rates included in The ABC Guide is the more moderate 15 birds/cat/year from Crooks and Soulé’s 1999 paper [22]. But here, too, there are flaws that lead to bloated predation levels.Like Lepczyk, Crooks and Soulé asked residents to estimate annual levels of prey returned home by their cats (in contrast to some studies in which actual prey items are recorded and/or collected). But such guesswork becomes less accurate as estimates increase. David Barratt found that “predicted rates of predation greater than about ten prey per year generally over-estimated predation observed” [20]. At the levels reported by Crooks and Soulé—an average of 56 total prey items (including birds, mammals, etc.) per year—predicted rates were often twice actual predation rates.

    Also, Crooks and Soulé seem (not enough detail is provided in their paper to be certain) to have used a simple average in their calculations, perhaps doubling true predation levels. Taken together, these factors suggest that actual predation levels might be just a quarter of those suggested by Crooks and Soulé.

  3. The third study—easily the most rigorous of the four—with a predation rate of 9.6 birds/cat/year, comes from Woods et al. The researchers, having recruited study participants solely from The Mammal Society, allow that they “may have focused on predatory cats,” and ask that their results be “treated with requisite caution.” [16] They also make clear that their estimated predation rates “do not equate to an assessment of the impact of cats on wildlife populations” [16] (more on that shortly)
  4. Finally, there is the—seemingly inevitable—reference to the Wisconsin Study, though for some reason (again, without explanation) Lebbin et al. have adjusted Coleman and Temple’s figures of 28–365 birds/cat/year downward: “between 5.6 and 109.5.” [2]In this case, the details hardly matter. The Wisconsin Study isn’t actually a study at all; no predation data or findings were ever published. Coleman and Temple’s “estimates”—widely circulated as valid research, thanks in part to ABC—were nothing more than back-of-the-envelope calculations. “Our best guesses,” as the authors themselves admit, “at low, intermediate and high estimates of the number of birds killed annually by rural cats in Wisconsin.” [23]

    “Those figures were from our proposal,” Temple told The Sonoma County Independent. “They aren’t actual data; that was just our projection to show how bad it might be.” [24]

    Sixteen years later, though, ABC is still trying to make “actual data” out of “not actual data.” (Granted, they have backed off from Coleman and Temple’s high estimate, but no mathematical adjustments can transform these flawed, biased guesses into valid research findings.)

Cats as Hunters
Contrary to popular myth, evidence suggests that cats are not quite the hunters they’ve been made out to be. Fitzgerald and Turner suggest that the hunting behavior of cats leads to many “failures,” and, as a result, “many cats soon give up bird hunting altogether.” [25]

“Primarily, all cats hunt both birds and rodents with equal zeal,” observed German zoologist Paul Leyhausen, “and many obviously prefer eating birds.” But, argues Leyhausen (1916–1998), who spent the bulk of his career studying the behavior of cats, “they cannot catch them as easily, and for this reason with increasing experience may soon give up hunting birds.” [26]

“However, our town cats today are often compelled, because of the almost total absence of rodents in their territory to concentrate on chasing birds in order to discharge their pent-up hunting propensities. Even in these circumstances, however, cats are not capable of seriously endangering the songbird population of a substantial area. They almost always catch only old, sick or young specimens. But three quarters of the young birds must perish anyway, since the size of the population in an area remains fairly constant on an average over the years… During years in the field I have observed countless times how cats have caught a mouse or a rat and just as often how they have stalked a bird. But I never saw them catch a healthy songbird that was capable of flying. Certainly it does happen, but, as I have said, seldom. I should feel sorry for the average domestic cat that had to live solely on catching birds.” [26]

Although few predation studies have examined the hunting behavior of cats belonging to managed colonies, those that have are revealing. Reporting on their study of free-roaming cats in Brooklyn, Calhoon and Haspel write: “Although birds and small rodents are plentiful in the study area, only once in more than 180 [hours] of observations did we observe predation.” [27]

Castillo and Clarke, though highly critical of TNR (“This method is not an effective means to control the population of unwanted cats and confirms that the establishment of cat colonies on public lands encourages illegal dumping and creates an attractive nuisance.” [28]), documented little predation in the two Florida parks they used for their study (the focus of which was TNR efficacy, not predation). 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” [28] prior to beginning their research), Castillo and Clarke “saw cats kill a juvenile common yellowthroat and a blue jay.” [28]

“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.” [28]

Another study conducted in a public park, this one in Alameda County, California, also reported low levels of apparent predation of birds (though researcher Cole Hawkins makes every attempt to suggest otherwise). Of 120 scat samples found by searching the “cat area” of Hawkins’ study site, “65 percent were found to contain rodent hair and 4 percent feathers.” [2] This finding comes toward the end of the study, when the cat population was at its greatest (22 were sighted)—and still, only 4 percent contained feathers. And this could easily represent one cat and one bird (and, strictly speaking, even this is not evidence of actual predation, as the bird(s) could have been scavenged).

To arrive at their figure of “532 million birds killed annually by outdoor cats,” Lebbin et al. multiply “the most conservative predation rate (5.6 birds per cats per year) by the most conservative estimate of outdoor and feral cats in the U.S. (95 million).” [2] They go on to suggest that “the actual number” is “likely… much higher,” [2] though, of course, they ignore or overlook all the errors and misrepresentations bound up in their basic calculation.

Even setting all that aside, the question remains: What impact does predation by cats have on bird populations?

Islands and Continents
Here, the authors focus mostly on the extinction of seabirds linked to the presence of feral cats on islands. I’m only vaguely familiar with the examples they cite, but if the case of the Stephens Island Wren is any indication, the stories are far more complex than ABC suggests. [see, for example, 29 and 30]

But, as Fitzgerald and Turner point out, “because the range of prey available on islands differs markedly from that on the continents the two groups, continents and islands, are treated separately.” [25]

And when it comes to the impact of cats on continental bird populations, ABC highlights rare and endangered species—but ignores entirely two key points. First, as was mentioned previously, even high rates of predation do not equate to population declines.

Referring to the estimated 30 percent of House Sparrow mortality attributed to cat predation in the English Village study, Gary Patronek emphasizes the importance of viewing such predation in the larger context. “When the birds were counted,” writes Patronek, former Director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at the Cummings School, and one of the founders of the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, “they represented the postwinter population prior to hatching of spring chicks. By the year’s end, the actual sparrow population in the village numbered in the thousands, and the 130 birds caught represented about 5 percent of that number.” [31]

Compensatory vs. Additive Predation
Then there is the critical distinction between compensatory and additive predation, something Churcher himself alluded to: “I don’t really go along with the idea of cats being a threat to wildlife. If the cats weren’t there, something else would be killing the sparrows or otherwise preventing them from breeding.” [32]

Two very interesting studies have generated compelling evidence that birds killed by cats are, on average, significantly less healthy than those killed through non-predatory events (e.g., collisions with buildings). [15, 33] In other words, these birds probably weren’t going to live long enough to contribute to the overall population numbers; predation was compensatory rather than additive. Relative to population impacts, then, the “accounting” of bird kills is far more complex than ABC suggests.

Additional Evidence
Many researchers have disputed the kind of broad, overreaching claims Lebbin et al. make about the impact of cats on bird population (and wildlife in general).

Biologist C.J. Mead, reviewing the deaths of “ringed” (banded) birds reported by the British public, suggests that cats may be responsible for 6.2–31.3 percent of bird deaths. “Overall,” writes Mead, “it is clear that cat predation is a significant cause of death for most of the species examined.” Nevertheless, Mead concludes:

“there is no clear evidence of cats threatening to harm the overall population level of any particular species… Indeed, cats have been kept as pets for many years and hundreds of generations of birds breeding in suburban and rural areas have had to contend with their predatory intentions.” [34]

Mike Fitzgerald and Dennis Turner come to essentially the same conclusion: “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.” [25]

In the context of TNR, however, focusing on such figures may be missing the point. “If the real objection to managed colonies is that it is unethical to put cats in a situation where they could potentially kill any wild creature,” writes Patronek, “then the ethical issue should be debated on its own merits without burdening the discussion with highly speculative numerical estimates for either wildlife mortality or cat predation.” [35]

“Whittling down guesses or extrapolations from limited observations by a factor of 10 or even 100 does not make these estimates any more credible, and the fact that they are the best available data is not sufficient to justify their use when the consequence may be extermination for cats… What I find inconsistent in an otherwise scientific debate about biodiversity is how indictment of cats has been pursued almost in spite of the evidence, and without regard to the differential effects of cats in carefully selected, managed colonies, versus that of free-roaming pets, owned farm cats, or truly feral animals. Assessment of well-being for any species is an imprecise and contentious process at best. Additional research is clearly needed concerning the welfare of these cats.” [35]

“Many well-intentioned but misguided people,” write Lebbin et al. “exacerbate feral cat problems through a technique called Trap, Neuter, Release (TNR), whereby colony cats are caught, spayed or neutered, and then returned to colonies to be fed by volunteers.” [2] Here, the authors trot out a classic verbal swipe, using the term Release instead of Return, implying a certain lack of planning, or even abandonment (with its legal implications).

They also imply that ABC is a resource for the “misguided.”

Stay Cats (Peep Show)
From The ABC Guide, the caption reads: “Managed feral cat colonies are a hazard to birds and attract the dumping of additional unwanted cats.” In fact, the photographer, Tina Lorien, tells me that these cats were photographed on the Island of Crete, where, it seems, even spayed/neutered pet cats are rather rare.

“Despite its apparent appeal,” Lebbin et al. continue, “few colonies managed under this system shrink, as the program takes more time than most volunteers are able to give, some cats are never caught, and the colonies often become dumping grounds for more unwanted cats.” [2]

Their claim that TNR programs are ineffective due to limited resources is unsubstantiated. More important, though, they ignore the fact that any feral cat management program is resource-intensive (as is any conservation effort, of course). Several successful TNR programs have been documented (see below), and countless more operate quietly, out of the spotlight.

It’s important to point out, too, that TNR is typically funded through private donations and the out-of-pocket purchases of volunteers. Trap-and-kill, on the other hand, is more likely to rely entirely on local tax dollars.

Their suggestion that all the cats need to be sterilized also lacks support. One often-cited population modeling study—included here more as a reference point than anything else—found that, in order to reduce colony population, approximately 75 percent of fertile cats would need to be sterilized. [36] However, this figure from Andersen, Martin, and Roemer takes into account no adoptions, though the authors point out that adoptions “are similar in effect to euthanasia because these cats are permanently removed from the free-roaming cat population.” [36]

Nor do Andersen et al. consider emigration between cat colonies, though they concede that “a substantial number of owned cats are reported to be adopted strays.” [36] “Substantial” is right—in 2003, Clifton suggested that “up to a third of all pet cats now appear to be recruited from the feral population.” [10]

TNR Successes
Though Lebbin et al. refuse to acknowledge it, TNR has had its share of successes. A 10-year TNR program in Rome, for example, yielded a “16–32 percent decrease on total cat number” across 103 managed colonies. [37] Detractors [38] like to focus on authors’ suggestion that “all these efforts without an effective education of people to control the reproduction of house cats (as a prevention for abandonment) are a waste of money, time and energy.” [37]

In fact, given the 21 percent rate of immigration “due to abandonment and spontaneous arrival,” [37] this colony reduction is quite remarkable. And, as Julie Levy, Maddie’s Professor of Shelter Medicine in the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine, points out, “such a decline is still beneficial to wildlife if no better alternative is available.” [39] (The “alternatives” ABC proposes—outlined below—are, at best, exactly that: no better.)

Levy, Gale, and Gale reported a 66 percent decline in the population of managed colonies on the University of Central Florida campus between 1991 and 2002, despite the arrival of stray or abandoned cats. [40] (In their paper, Levy et al. cite several other success stories.) And, in their telephone survey of 101 north-central Florida colony caretakers, Centonze and Levy reported “a 27 percent decrease in mean colony size within less than one year of beginning neutering.” [41]

One of the best-known TNR programs is ORCAT, run by the Ocean Reef Community Association, which, according to a 2004 paper, had reduced “overall population from approximately 2,000 cats to 500 cats.” [42] According to the ORCAT website, the population today is approximately 350, of which only about 250 are free-roaming.

Any TNR program contends with the unfortunate (and illegal) dumping of cats. But to suggest that TNR invites abandonment of cats is ridiculous. I’ve seen no research supporting such a claim. If people are determined to abandon their pet cat(s), I fail to see how the presence or absence of a nearby TNR program will affect that decision. On the other hand, cats dumped near a managed colony are far more likely to be adopted and/or sterilized—thereby mitigating their potential impact on the overall population of unowned cats.

Finally, it’s important to note that, although rapid decline—and eventual elimination through attrition—of managed colonies is the goal of TNR (and apparently the only acceptable outcome for the authors of The ABC Guide), reduced growth is not without its benefits. “Population stabilization,” writes Levy, is “a valid metric given that the status quo for unsterilized cats is rapid population growth.” [39]

Alternatives to TNR
Given their ongoing criticism of TNR, one might expect ABC to offer an alternative method of feral cat management—an approach against which to measure TNR (and against which TNR would, presumably, prove inferior). For the most part, though, ABC sidesteps the issue.

“Neutering and spaying pet cats,” write Lebbin et al., “is a humane method for reducing cat over-population.” True enough, but that doesn’t address the sizable population of unowned cats. Although The ABC Guide calls for readers to “make TNR and the feeding of cat colonies illegal,” [2] there’s no recommendation for what should be done with all of these cats.

I put this question to Lebbin and Parr during an ABC webinar celebrating the launch of the book earlier this month. “What we recommend,” said Parr, Vice President of ABC, “as an alternative to [TNR], is not abandoning cats in the first place.” Again, I don’t think there’s any disagreement on this point. Parr continued:

“Other options would be to house those cats in shelters or outdoor sanctuaries which could be managed. Clearly, it’s a huge problem, and the solutions to this are going be things we going to have to work together on for a long period of time, but certainly that would be my first reaction to that question.”

Really, we’re back to sanctuaries? Is this the best ABC has to offer? Almost.

In their book, Lebbin et al. point out, with obvious pride, that, “By 2004, feral cats had been successfully removed from at least 48 islands worldwide” (there’s another euphemism: removed). [2] A particular “success” is Ascension Island, where, the authors maintain, feral cats had reduced seabird numbers “by 98 percent, from 200 million to 400,000.” [2] As a result of “a multi-year eradication effort that began in 2001,” [2] birds have begun to return.

But, as is often the case, what’s left out of the story is far more interesting than what included.

Detailed accounts of feral cats eradication Marion Island provide a glimpse of the horrors involved. A 1992 paper reports 872 cats shot and 80 more trapped during 14,725 hours of hunting. “Present action” included “mass trapping and poisoning, and the possible use of trained dogs [was] being investigated.” [43] This was after the highly contagious feline panleucopenia virus (feline distemper) had been introduced to the island’s feral cat population, reducing the population by an average 29 percent annually between 1977 and 1982. [44]

On Macquarie Island successful eradication has had “dire” [45] consequences in the form of rapidly increasing rabbit and rodent populations. “In response, Federal and State governments in Australia have committed AU$24 million for an integrated rabbit, rat and mouse eradication programme.” [45]

Given the extent to which conservation efforts backfired on Macquarie Island—less than 50 square miles in size—one can only imagine the consequences and expense (to say nothing of the protests!) of a similar attempt in the continental U.S. But according to ABC, it seems to be either this or sanctuaries—for a population of feral cats they claim to be 60–120 million strong.

(To be fair, Lebbin et al. do offer this concession: “In some cases, invasive or overabundant species may not need to be eradicated, but simply reduced to levels such that they no longer pose a serious threat to native endangered species.” [2] Given their staunch opposition to TNR, however, I suspect this “offer”—which in any case would mean the killing of many millions of cats—does not apply to feral cats.)

The Current Approach
We do have some sense of how ineffective “traditional” feral cat management—a mix of trap-and-kill and inaction—has been. In an interview with Animal Sheltering magazine, Mark Kumpf, President of the National Animal Control Association President from 2007 to 2008, described this approach as “bailing the ocean with a thimble,” suggesting, too, that “the traditional methods that many communities use… are not necessarily the ones that communities are looking for today.” [46]

Clifton goes further, suggesting that trap-and-kill has actually backfired: “Regardless of motive,” writes Clifton, “the effect on the feral cat population replicates natural predation: the most frequent victims are the very young, the old, the disabled, and the ill. The healthiest animals usually escape to breed up to the carrying capacity of the habitat, if they can.” [10]

“Responding to the intensified mortality,” Clifton continues, “felis catus now bears an average litter of four. Nearly seven centuries of killing cats doubled the fecundity of the species.” [10]

What Becky Robinson called a “new environmental witch hunt,” [1] I like to think of as a Trojan Horse. Disguised as good advice for responsible cat owners, ABC’s Cats Indoors! campaign has, since 1997, been used more to combat TNR than anything else.

With the publication of The ABC Guide, the authors had a chance to right some past wrongs by coming clean about the research surrounding predation, wildlife impacts, and TNR, as well as the true implications of their call to “make TNR and the feeding of cat colonies illegal.” [2] Instead, they elected for business as usual.

Facts vs. Human Connection
In doing so, ABC missed a golden opportunity to use its enormous influence for moving the discussion forward. (More recently, ABC took another big step backwards by endorsing a deeply flawed and irresponsible paper released by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, once again sacrificing their integrity for some easy PR.)

But Fenwick, who’s been President and CEO since ABC’s founding in 1994, doesn’t seem to get it. “What have we learned about the opposition?” he asks rhetorically in the book’s preface.

“For one thing, every point of view has its own science and economics to support its contentions, whether it be pro- or anti- pesticide use, free-roaming cats, bird collisions with glass or towers, conflicts with fisheries, land conversion, wind energy, mining, timbering, climate change, or any other issue we consider in addressing bird conservation…” [2]

Fenwick seems to be suggesting that “the opposition” has its own science and economics, whereas ABC has, on its side: Science and Economics (a truly untenable position, in light of a recent ABC press release).

“Facts alone will not win these battles,” he continues, “but human connection might.”

Communication vs. Misinformation
I have to agree with Fenwick that facts alone are insufficient to engage the general public. It’s difficult, for instance, to convey the critical nature of climate change in terms of ocean temperatures rising a couple of degrees Celsius (a figure I use here only to make a point). Explain to people how deep the water may rise in their city or neighborhood, however, and you’re liable to get their attention.

But that’s not what ABC is doing. They have effectively dismissed any and all rigorous science, choosing instead to broadcast as loudly as possible their increasingly dire message—in spite of the science.

Fenwick’s analogy is not climate change, but human health and welfare:

“…no matter the issue, our opposition will unfailingly question our priorities. So, they ask, ‘Why are you blaming __________ when we know habitat loss is the real problem?’ when I am asked these questions, I reply first that we continue to add to our base of knowledge and thus improve decisions affecting bird populations; second, if winning the debate translates to financial gain for the debater, then that position cannot be truly unbiased; and third, isn’t it analogous that if heart disease is the greatest mortality factor in our species, then why do we spend so much money combating cancer and other diseases, poverty and hunger? Solving any single problem—for birds or humans—is insufficient for our cause. Thoughtful people understand that it is critical that we fight for birds and humans across the full, broad front of issues.” [2]

Fenwick’s medical research analogy is an interesting one, but not in the way he intended. Actually, I’m reminded of David Freedman’s profile of John Ioannidis, professor at the University of Ioannina medical school’s teaching hospital, which appeared in last month’s Atlantic. In the piece, Freedman describes a provocative 2005 article that garnered Ioannidis worldwide attention:

“The article spelled out his belief that researchers were frequently manipulating data analyses, chasing career-advancing findings rather than good science, and even using the peer-review process—in which journals ask researchers to help decide which studies to publish—to suppress opposing views.” [47]

Obviously not the image Fenwick was trying to convey—but far more fitting.

Attacking “the full, broad front of issues” simultaneously makes perfect sense, but promoting erroneous and deceptive scientific claims in order to marshal the support necessary is unethical, plain and simple.

We’re not talking about cancer research distracting us from research into heart disease, to use Fenwick’s metaphor. No, what he and ABC are doing—in their relentless persecution of free-roaming cats, at least—is akin to funneling critical resources into the bottling and marketing of snake oil:

There’s no science behind it, and no remedy in its consumption—whatever the dosage.

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