Revisiting “Reassessment”

“Reassessment: A Closer Look at ‘Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return’” has been revised and expanded!

Image of "Reassessment" Document

This paper, a brief review and critique of the essay “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” by Travis Longcore, Catherine Rich, and Lauren M. Sullivan, now includes sections on Toxoplasma gondii, the mesopredator release phenomenon, and more. In addition, links and downloadable PDFs have been added to the list of references.

Over the past year, “Critical Assessment” has gotten a great deal of traction among TNR opponents, despite its glaring omissions, blatant misrepresenta­tions, and obvious bias. “Reassessment”—intended to be a resource for a broad audience, including, wildlife and animal control professionals, policymakers, and the general public—shines a bright spotlight on these shortcomings, thereby bringing the key issues back into focus.

Act Locally
Politics is, as they say, local. This is certainly true of the debate surrounding TNR. Policies endorsing TNR, the feeding of feral cats, etc. typically begin with “Town Hall” meetings, or even meetings of neighborhood associations. “Reassessment” provides interested parties with a rigorous, science-based counter-argument to those using “Critical Assessment” as a weapon against feral cats/TNR.

So, once you’ve had a look for yourself, please share generously! Together, we can—in keeping with the mission of Vox Felina—improve the lives of feral cats through a more informed, conscientious discussion of feral cat issues in general, and TNR in particular.

Download PDF

Nibbling at the Margins—Part 2

In December 2009, my critique of “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” (Conservation Biology, Volume 23, No. 4, 887–894) was rejected by outgoing editor Gary Meffe. Frustrated that Meffe was willing to publish something he considered “nibbling at the margins” topic-wise, but then reject a thoughtful critique of it, I appealed—noting, among other things:

  1. Longcore et al. were very “careful” about the studies they selected, and even the particular claims within the studies cited (this despite the fact that they criticize TNR advocates for their “reference to selected peer reviewed studies”). The authors make no attempt to explain their rationale for this obvious cherry picking.
  2. Although I was, as Meffe suggests, “critiquing the overall literature in the area and pointing out its complexities, problems, and uncertainties,” it was only to put the original essay into context. Meffe’s comment ignores the larger issue: Longcore et al. were essentially breathing new life into flawed studies by citing them uncritically. And here, Conservation Biology is also implicated (which might help explain Meffe’s decision to reject my commentary), a point I made to Meffe:

Conservation Biology is, according to the journal’s website, “the most influential and frequently cited journal in its field.” I’m afraid that by publishing the essay submitted by Longcore et al., Conservation Biology has effectively given its “stamp of approval,” thereby burying more deeply the complexities of the subject and its body of literature. No wonder bird advocacy groups have embraced the paper, including PDFs on their websites—here, it would seem, is additional “proof” of the damage cats are doing to bird populations!

In the end, Meffe didn’t budge. And neither did current editor Erica Fleishman, who seemed to have little patience for the subject. What Meffe found to be too broad, Fleishman read as a “fairly personal critique,” adding, “…we aim for objective presentation of facts that may provide evidence contrary to a previous publication rather than (what comes across as) a more pointed rejoinder to authors and the journal.”

At this point, it seemed clear that I was getting nowhere. Nevertheless, I appealed, explaining what I intended to include in my paper:

… regarding “a more comprehensive piece,” what I’m proposing is a detailed review of the literature regarding cat predation on birds, the scope of which includes—but also goes well beyond—the material covered in the essay by Longcore et al.

Once again, my appeal fell on deaf ears, eliciting this response—obviously intended to put an end to the discussion—from Fleishman:

Thanks for the detailed explanation. I think it would be best to pursue publication of your review in a different journal. Good luck and again thank you for considering Conservation Biology.

Perhaps I will follow her advice and submit a similar proposal to another journal. For now, though, it’s all going right here. Indeed, many of the next several posts will draw on the main points I made in my first letter to Conservation Biology.

Nibbling at the Margins—Part 1

Since I first became involved with the Great Kitty Rescue, I’d begun slowly compiling journal articles and news stories related to feral cat management, and in particular, TNR. As a newcomer to the world of cat rescue, I was struggling to sift through the many claims made—on both sides of this highly controversial issue—regarding its efficacy and potential impact.

When I came across the essay “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” (Conservation Biology, Volume 23, No. 4, 887–894). I thought I’d struck gold. Here, I naively assumed, was what I’d been looking for, all neatly complied in a single document (complete with an extensive list of references, allowing me to chase down all of the original research as well). As it turned out, the discovery of this essay proved to be a turning point—but not in the way that I expected. Instead of answering my questions, this paper (the details of which will be the focus of many future posts) raised many more. This “critical assessment,” authored by Travis Longcore, Catherine Rich, and Lauren M. Sullivan—with its glaring omissions, numerous misrepresentations, and obvious bias—revealed for me the ugly side of the feral cat/TNR debate.

So I did what any writer in my position would do: I wrote a letter to the editor.

I was then invited by outgoing editor Gary Meffe (who had been at the helm when the original essay was published) to submit a letter for possible publication in the journal. The letter, suggested Meffe, was “to be substantive and shed more light than heat. In other words, if it is simply a difference of opinion it will not be suitable. I always look for letters to be substantive critiques of a paper.”

Which, I maintain, is precisely what I delivered. Meffe, however, disagreed, and—to his credit—explained in detail his reasoning:

I am not saying it is unimportant to conservation, but it is a fairly narrow and specialized topic. Publication of the Longcore et al. paper was nibbling at the margins to begin with, but I and the reviewers felt that it had enough relevance and interest for us to publish it. I am reluctant to further engage the topic in the journal in great detail, so any responses to it need to be very focused and address specific errors in the paper. Your critique gets into assessment of the broader literature on the subject and its use by Longcore et al. I don’t think this is the format to do that. You are really critiquing the overall literature in the area and pointing out its complexities, problems, and uncertainties; one could do that for almost any topic in conservation and probably for many papers that are published. If this cat TNR literature really is problematic then it calls for a much more comprehensive critical assessment in a thorough review paper. Thus, if you would like to prepare a comprehensive review paper on cat TNR that thoroughly examines the literature and its complexities and problems, then perhaps that could be of interest to this journal.

Not the response I was hoping for, obviously—but I’d already invested too much to give up so easily. Perhaps my next letter would be more successful…