Answering the Wrong Questions in Columbia, MO

Just three days after the Columbia Heart Beat reported that Nathan Voris may have had a financial stake in Columbia, Missouri’s new animal control ordinance, Voris is denying any conflict of interest.

Voris, the former chair of the Columbia-Boone County Board of Health—now an employee of Pfizer Animal Health—was instrumental in crafting the ordinance, which requires all colony cats to “be tested annually for feline leukemia and feline immune deficiency virus.” No such testing is required for pet cats.

Pfizer Animal Health manufactures vaccines and a variety of FeLV and FIV tests for cats.

According to a story in yesterday’s Columbia Daily Tribune, though, Voris’ relationship with Pfizer (which, the Heart Beat reported, actually began when Voris was in veterinary school, serving as the drug-maker’s student rep) had no impact on the ordinance.

“Voris said he did not begin his employment with Pfizer until after provisions regarding feral cats were written into the proposed legislation, and, as a member of the Equine Veterinary Operations team for Pfizer, he has no personal stake in products for cats.”

According to the Tribune, Voris testified at last week’s City Council meeting, where the ordinance was approved 4–2, “and he defended the effectiveness of tests for feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus.”

Was anybody disputing the effectiveness of the tests? The question is not whether or not they are effective, but whether they’re appropriate.

Research suggests that FeLV and FIV infection rates among colony cats are “similar to infection rates reported for owned cats,” [1] so the cats don’t benefit from annual testing. And the caretakers certainly don’t—in addition to the challenges of trapping and transporting cats for yearly vet visits, there’s the cost (easily $60 or more per cat, a local clinic tells me).

And there’s no benefit to local animal control officers, or to public health. So, what’s the provision in there for? According to Voris, the annual testing requirement has been in there for more than a year now—and still, nobody can explain its purpose.

I certainly can’t.

The news stories over the past week or so have done nothing to change my initial impression of Columbia’s new ordinance: this is the kind of legislation I’d craft if I were dead-set against TNR but lacked the integrity to take a stand publicly.

[Thank you, once again, to Alley Cat Rescue for the tip.]

Literature Cited
1. Lee, I.T., et al., “Prevalence of feline leukemia virus infection and serum antibodies against feline immunodeficiency virus in unowned free-roaming cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2002. 220(5): p. 620-622.

Pharma’s Market?

In my previous post, I criticized proposed revisions to Columbia, Missouri’s animal control ordinance, arguing that its onerous provisions “suggest either a lack of input from TNR practitioners, or a lack of good-faith negotiation on the part of those responsible for drafting the proposal. Or both.”

Later that same day, the Columbia City Council approved the ordinance 4–2. According to Ward 1 Councilman Fred Schmidt, who voted in favor of the proposal, the fact that the feral cat provisions are largely unenforceable played a key role in its approval.

Ward 4 Councilman Daryl Dudley, the only other official to respond to my inquiries, had a decidedly different take: “I believe that feral cats should be treated the same as feral dogs.”

Conflict of Interest
Four days later, reporter Mike Martin, writing for the Columbia Heart Beat, shed some new light on the issue.

“One of the chief architects of a controversial new Columbia ordinance that mandates yearly testing and vaccinations for stray cats is employed by a pharmaceutical giant that makes and sells the newly-required vaccines and tests, the Columbia Heart Beat has learned.”

Nathan Voris, who chaired the Columbia-Boone County Board of Health during 2010, after being elected Vice Chair in 2009, has been an employee of Pfizer Animal Health for the past year. According to Martin’s story, Voris also served as a student rep for the pharmaceutical giant during his days in veterinary school.

“Voris’ employer, writes Martin, “is a leading maker of at least six feline leukemia tests including one for ‘difficult-to-sample cats’ called ASSURE FeLV; four feline immunodeficiency tests; and rabies tests and vaccines under the Pfizer and Synbiotics brand names.”

Columbia’s new ordinance is perhaps the first in the country to require all colony cats to “be tested annually for feline leukemia and feline immune deficiency virus.” No such testing is required for the city’s pet cats.

Christina McCullen, a board member of SNAP (Spay, Neuter & Protect), a local TNR group opposed to the ordinance, told Martin that Voris’ “position on the feral cat ordinance was so extreme that other Board of Health members were commenting about it and attempting to be more moderate.”

“I had no idea that Nathan Voris was an employee of Pfizer, and I am outraged to learn that he may have a financial conflict of interest in the contentious debate over including these tests and vaccinations in the ordinance.”

Very Mixed Feelings
Whatever Voris’ financial interests, his opposition to TNR is no surprise.

In his May 22, 2009 blog post, Voris portrays stray and feral cats (and, by association, their caretakers) as the very scourge of Boone County. Voris’ claim that he has “very mixed feelings on the issue of feeding stray cats or managing stray cat colonies” is contradicted by his litany of complaints.

Many of Voris’ objections to TNR mirror Dudley’s: cats should be treated no differently than dogs—in which case, one feral cat is too many. (Voris’ “concession” is straight out of the American Bird Conservancy playbook: “If the captured cats were released into an enclosure that protected neighbors, the ecosystem and the public, I would fully support the TNR program.”)

Voris’ apparent concern for rabies vaccinations is understandable—if overblown. His hand-wringing over personal property damage, on the other hand, seems little more than a red herring. Misguided, too, if Voris is implying that a (growing) population of unsterilized cats is likely to cause less damage and prompt fewer nuisance complaints than a community of managed colonies.

But it’s the “ecosystem” portion of his argument that I found most interesting.

As evidence of the “environmental impacts of stray cat colonies on local wildlife,” Voris cites the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Migratory Bird Mortality “fact sheet” [1] (PDF), which, in turn, cites as its single source the infamous  “Wisconsin Study.”

If he’s looking for a scientific argument for opposing TNR, Voris is off to a remarkably poor start.

“There are coastal locations,” Voris continues, “where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are rounding up stray cat colonies due to their predation on endangered birds.”

“We have similar shorebirds (least tern and piping plover) on the Missouri River that are protected under the Endangered Species Act. If there were an exception for stray cat colony caretakers, what would stop every cat owner from claiming they are a colony caretaker and exempt from responsibility for their pet?”

Voris is right about USFWS’s shoreline roundups (though their rationale remains questionable). But along the Missouri River? According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, “The majority of nesting on the Missouri River by both species occurs” outside of Missouri:

“…below Gavins Point [on the Nebraska-South Dakota border] and Garrison Dams [North Dakota]. Least terns can also be found in small numbers below Fort Peck [Montana] and Fort Randall Dams [South Dakota] and occasionally limited nesting occurs on reservoir segments. Piping plovers also nest heavily on Lake Sakakawea and Lake Oahe with limited nesting occurring on Fort Peck Lake, Lewis and Clark Lake, and the sections of the Missouri River below Fort Peck Dam [Montana] and Fort Randall Dam. [South Dakota]” [2]

Reports from USACE suggest that cats simply aren’t a significant threat in these areas.

“Species documented as taking least tern and/or piping plover eggs, chicks, and/or adults: coyote, domestic dog, mink, raccoon, the American crow, American kestrel, black-billed magpie, common raven, European starling, great blue heron, great horned owl, northern harrier, merlin, peregrine falcon, red-tailed hawk, ring-billed gull, and various snake species.” [3]

In fact, neither the Final Predation Management Plan for Least Tern and Piping Plover Habitat along the Missouri River, [2] nor the related Environmental Assessment [3] mentions cats even once (this, despite numerous comments from ABC included in the EA).

(According to USFWS, by the way, “The serious decline of these birds [sic] species is directly related to the current operation of the [river] system and the elimination of habitat necessary for their survival. The large reservoirs formed by the six dams on the river have greatly changed the character of the river and the fish and wildlife it supports.” And I rather suspect USACE had a hand in the river’s “current operation.”)

•     •     •

Whether or not Voris’ association with Pfizer Animal Health is responsible for the inexplicable yearly testing provision in Columbia’s new ordinance, it’s clear that the provision has nothing to do with his alleged concerns for “neighboring property, the ecosystem and public health.”

I ended my previous post this way: If Columbia is truly interested in addressing the issue of feral cat management, then, it’s back to the drawing board—with, one hopes, a team that will take the task more seriously. A week later, I don’t see that Nathan Voris has any role to play on that team.

[Note: Alley Cat Allies has posted an Action Alert as a convenient way for Missouri residents to contact Columbia officials about this issue.]

Literature Cited
1. n.a., Migratory Bird Mortality. 2002, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Arlington, VA.

2. n.a., Final Predation Management Plan for Least Tern and Piping Plover Habitat along the Missouri River. 2009, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Missouri River Recovery Integrated Science Program: Omaha, NE. p. 46.

3. n.a., Environmental Assessment Predation Management Plan for the Least Tern and Piping Plover Habitat Along the Missouri River. 2009, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District: Omaha, NE. p. 109.