Portland Tribune Letter to the Editor

My sincere thanks to the folks at the Portland Tribune for publishing my letter to the editor, written in response to their January 19 story, “Fowl play: birders clash over wild-cat spaying.”

Why doesn’t anybody pin down Steve Holmer or anybody else at the American Bird Conservancy when they make their indefensible claims? Hundreds of millions of birds each year? Where’s the science to support such an assertion?

Aggregate predation figures, such as those routinely used by the ABC (as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and others), can typically be traced to small—often flawed—studies, the results of which are subsequently extrapolated from one habitat to another, conflating island populations (where the presence of cats can have dire consequences) and those on continents, combining common and rare bird species and so forth.

Something else to keep in mind: predators—cats included—tend to prey on the young, the old, the weak and unhealthy. As the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds notes: “It is likely that most of the birds killed by cats would have died anyway from other causes before the next breeding season, so cats are unlikely to have a major impact on populations.”

All of which raises serious doubt about the implied connections—both direct and indirect—between predation and population impacts. Indeed, there is plenty of scientific evidence to suggest that such a connection is relatively rare and highly context-specific.

While I’m pleased to see [conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland] Bob Sallinger supporting trap-neuter-release, he makes essentially the same error when he says, “There’s no question that outdoor cats are harming the local wild bird population.” Rehab intakes provide, at best, a soda-straw view of the world. It’s a bit like making conclusions about a community’s human population based on one’s experience as an ER nurse.

What’s truly bizarre about ABC’s “mayors letter” is their suggestion that policies prohibiting trap-neuter-release and the feeding of outdoor cats would, as ABC’s media release puts it, “stop the spread of feral cats.” Again, where’s the science to support such a ridiculous claim? That’s easy: it doesn’t exist; indeed, the inevitable result of such policies is, contrary to ABC’s assertion, more cats.

For years now, ABC has been promoting erroneous and misleading information (e.g., baseless feral cat population numbers, exaggerated/erroneous predation rates, etc.) in their tireless effort to vilify free-roaming cats. No organization has been more effective at working the anti-trap-neuter-release pseudoscience into a message neatly packaged for the mainstream media, and eventual consumption by the general public. Their “mayors letter” is just their latest attempt to fuel the witch-hunt.

Something else not mentioned here—and something ABC’s certainly not going share with the mayors on their mailing list: we can’t kill our way out of the “feral cat problem.”

Mark Kumpf, former president of the National Animal Control Association, refers to the traditional trap-and-kill approach as “bailing the ocean with a thimble.” “There’s no department that I’m aware of that has enough money in their budget to simply practice the old capture-and-euthanize policy; nature just keeps having more kittens.”

I agree that the feral cat population is, as ABC’s Darin Schroeder puts it in his letter, a human-caused tragedy, but let’s be clear: ABC is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Their recent letter is merely a sign of desperation – the result of having neither public opinion nor science on their side.