Operation Catnip Launches National Training Program

Although no TNR effort can be successful without the ongoing commitment of veterinary professionals, this is especially true of high-volume clinics, where 100 surgeries per day is not unusual. This specialized work requires training well beyond what’s taught in a typical veterinary medicine program.

Soon, however, such training will be more accessible than ever before—as Operation Catnip, one of the most respected TNR programs in the country, makes their training program and materials available to veterinarians, veterinary students, and veterinary technicians nationwide.

According to a press release issued Tuesday, all of this was made possible because of an educational grant from PetSmart Charities, Inc.

“Our vision is to train an army of veterinarians to spay and neuter America’s community cats,” said Julie Levy, Operation Catnip founder and director of the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine.

“This approach, along with vaccination, will allow us to reduce cat population, control infectious diseases, and improve the lives of the cats.”

Since the project was launched in 1998, the Operation Catnip staff and volunteers have cared for more than 45,000 cats (nearly 2,700 last year alone), and established themselves as leaders—not just as practitioners, but as teachers and mentors (and game-changers).

In other words, just the sort of team we need to scale up TNR efforts across the country.

To learn more about Operation Catnip, or to sign up for one of their upcoming training sessions, visit their website.

Thanks a Million (Cat Challenge)!

Maybe I’m being naïve, but yesterday’s launch of the Million Cat Challenge felt like something historic—as if we’ve entered into a new era of animal sheltering where cats are concerned. This ambitious campaign promises to be a game-changer not just for the million cats it aims to save (over the next five years), but for sheltering itself.

As I say, maybe I’m being naïve,* but there’s good reason to think the Million Cat Challenge will fulfill its promise. To begin with, just consider the people behind it: Dr. Julie Levy, director of Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida, and Dr. Kate Hurley, program director of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at the University of California, Davis.

These two women are, simply put, rock stars in their field. Which helps explain the funding and other support** the campaign attracted even before yesterday’s big announcement. Read more

Feline Shelter Intake Reduction Program FAQs

The timing was perfect—almost.

Not 10 minutes after I published yesterday’s post, I noticed a link posted by my friends at Stray Cat Alliance on the organization’s Facebook page. Beside the link was this not-so-subtle endorsement:


As I say, not so subtle. On the other hand, I couldn’t agree more. Read more

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. www.avma.org/avmacollections/rabies/javma_235_6_676.pdf

2. n.a., Problems with Trap-Neuter-Release. 2011, The Wildlife Society: Bethesda, MD. http://joomla.wildlife.org/documents/cats_tnr.pdf

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. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/pdf/10.2460/javma.237.6.646

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. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6TBK-4M33VSW-1/2/0abfc80f245ab50e602f93060f88e6f9


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. http://www.carnivoreconservation.org/files/thesis/nutter_2005_phd.pdf

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. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2003.222.42

8. Yoshino, K. (2010, January 17). A catfight over neutering program. Los Angeles Times, from http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-feral-cats17-2010jan17,0,1225635.story

Columbia, MO

When the Columbia, MO, city council meets July 5th, they’ll be voting on “Amending Chapter 5 of the City Code relating to animals and fowl.” Many of the proposed amendments are found in Article VI, which addresses issues related to feral cat colonies and the numerous requirements being proposed for their caretakers—including two-year permits and yearly FeLV/FIV testing.

While it’s encouraging to see city officials debating this important issue, Columbia’s proposed ordinance (PDF) is likely to do more harm than good—for the cats, their caretakers, and for the community as a whole.

* * * Readers interested in contacting city officials will find contact information here. * * *

Article VI reads as follows:

Sec. 5-111. Feeding a feral cat colony without a permit.

No person shall provide food, water or other forms of sustenance to a feral cat colony without a feral cat colony caretaker permit.

Sec. 5-112. Feral cat colony caretaker permit.

(a) Any organization or individual over the age of eighteen (18) may submit an application to the department for a feral cat colony caretaker permit. The application shall be on a form provided by the department and shall provide the following information:

  1. A detailed description of the cats in the colony;
  2. Proof that the feral cats in the colony have been ear tipped and microchipped, neutered or spayed and vaccinated against rabies or are spaying and vaccination against rabies;
  3. The address of the private property where the colony will be maintained;
  4. Written permission from the private property owner to maintain the colony at such address; and
  5. Contact information for the applicant and any other information that may be required by the department.

(b) Feral cat colony caretaker permits shall be issued for a period of two (2) years.
(c) A permit fee of twenty-five dollars ($25.00) shall be paid when the original application is submitted and biannually for permit renewals.
(d) An animal control officer may inspect the private property where the feral cat colony will be maintained.
(e) No feral cat colony caretaker permit shall be issued for a feral cat colony located on public property.

Sec. 5-113. Requirements for care of feral cat colonies.

Every person issued a feral cat colony caretaker permit shall comply with the following requirements:

  1. Regularly feed the cat colony, including weekends and holidays.
  2. Annually trap each cat over the age of eight (8) weeks in order to comply with requirements (3) through (6).
  3. All cats must be spayed or neutered.
  4. All cats must be tested annually for feline leukemia and feline immune deficiency virus. Those cats testing positive must be humanely euthanized or isolated indoors.
  5. Identify all trapped cats by tipping their ears and insertion of a microchip.
  6. Have all cats vaccinated for rabies in addition to any other vaccinations or immunization requirement imposed by the state.
  7. Maintain records on the location and size of the colonies as well as the vaccination, microchipping, ear tipping and spay and neuter records of the colony cats.
  8. Take all reasonable steps to a) remove kittens from the colony after they have been weaned; b) place the kittens in homes or foster care; and c) capture and spay the mother cat.
  9. Obtain medical attention for any colony cat that exhibits illness, signs of rabies or unusual behavior and remove the cat from the colony to prevent disease or injury to other cats in the colony.
  10. If possible, report number of cats that died or otherwise ceased to be a part of the colony and the number of cats placed in animal shelters or permanent homes as companion cats.

Sec. 5-114. Revocation of permit.

(a) The director may revoke the feral cat colony caretaker permit of any permit holder for any of the following reasons:

  1. Conviction of any violation of this chapter or any other animal statute or ordinance.
  2. Failure of the permit holder or property owner to permit an animal control officer to inspect the property at which the feral cat colony is located.
  3. Failure or inability of the permit holder to provide care for the feral cat colony as required by Sec. 5-113.
  4. The size of the feral cat colony has increased to such numbers that the colony is a health hazard or interferes with the peace or quiet of any Columbia resident.

(b) Within sixty (60) days of the revocation of permit, the former permit holder shall relocate the colony to the care of one or more feral cat colony permit holders.

•     •     •

Nancy Peterson, Cat Programs Manager, Companion Animals, Humane Society of the United States addresses several of the flaws in Columbia’s proposed ordinance in her letter to city officials. I share Peterson’s concerns—the expenses associated with permits and microchipping, for example, which would unnecessarily burden caretakers (and divert precious funding from sterilization efforts).

Among the issues I’d like to address in detail are Article VI’s overly broad language, its requirement for FeLV/FIV testing, and its restrictions on feeding feral and stray cats.

Vague Language
Although permit applicants would be required to provide “a detailed description of the cats in the colony,” there’s no mention of which details are to be included. (Presumably, the application will be more specific.)

Similarly, caretakers are required to “maintain records on the location and size of the colonies as well as the vaccination, microchipping, ear tipping and spay and neuter records of the colony cats.” But records from low-cost, high-volume vet clinics—upon which most TNR programs depend—often omit the kinds of detailed information routinely included for pet cats. (I’ve seen paperwork that includes nothing but trap number and sex, for example.)

And when it comes to the location and size of a colony, what sort of records will be sufficient? Considering the potential consequences involved—revocation of a caretaker’s permit—more precise language is in order.

Perhaps the most unsettling language, though, is Article VI’s provision for inspection of “the property at which the feral cat colony is located.”

It’s not clear what circumstances would justify such an inspection, or whether caretakers would be given notice (or, as far as that goes, even allowed to be present). Do animal control officers have such far-reaching authority when it comes to inspection of private property housing pet cats (or dogs)? As Peterson suggests, this provision may very well run up against search and seizure protections and privacy laws.

FeLV, FIV, and Rabies
Article VI requires all cats to “be tested annually for feline leukemia and feline immune deficiency virus. Those cats testing positive must be humanely euthanized or isolated indoors.”

Given the impracticalities involved with isolating a feral cat, of course, a “failed” test is essentially a death sentence.

And, of course, the testing poses significant challenges for caretakers, both logistically and financially (easily $60 or more per cat, a local clinic tells me). Indeed, the only TNR programs likely to satisfy this requirement are those participating in formal research studies—and therefore provided with additional resources.

What’s more, there’s no justification for such a provision in the first place—because there’s no reason to expect infection rates among colony cats to be any different from those of pet cats.

A study of 1,876 colony cats (733 cats from a Raleigh, NC, TNR program and 1,143 cats from a Gainesville, FL, program) revealed a 4.3 percent rate of FeLV prevalence, and a 3.5 percent rate of FIV seroprevalence—“similar to infection rates reported for owned cats.” [1]

So why single out feral cats? If city officials are truly concerned about FeLV and FIV infection among Columbia’s cat population, why aren’t the owners of all cats allowed outdoors required to have their pets tested annually?

In fact, sterilization—required of colony cats but not of pet cats—reduces the spread of FeLV and FIV—both directly (“kittens are much more susceptible to [FeLV] infection than are adult cats”) and indirectly (“aggressive male cats are the most frequently infected [with FIV]”).

Furthermore, Article VI addresses the issue of sick cats directly, requiring caretakers to “obtain medical attention for any colony cat that exhibits illness, signs of rabies or unusual behavior and remove the cat from the colony to prevent disease or injury to other cats in the colony.”

And while Article VI is clear that colony cats must either be “vaccinated against rabies or… actively being trapped” in order to be vaccinated, it’s not clear whether this is a one-time requirement or not.

It’s also not clear whether booster shots are beneficial. July 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.”

Feeding Restrictions
Article VI prohibits residents from providing “food, water or other forms of sustenance to a feral cat colony without a feral cat colony caretaker permit.” Which, it seems to me, is just a step away from an outright feeding ban (which would effectively outlaw TNR altogether).

While I agree with the apparent intent here, the idea that the people feeding feral and stray cats are part of the problem is misguided. Indeed, these same people can be an integral part of the solution.

In a 2007 survey of 703 Ohio households, Linda Lord found that “only 42 of the 184 (22.8 percent) participants who reported feeding free-roaming cats had ever taken any of these cats to a veterinarian for any type of veterinary care.” [2] More intriguing than the figures, though, is the root cause.

“One reason,” suggests Lord, Associate Dean for Student Affairs at Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, “may be the lack of affordable resources, particularly low-cost spay-neuter services, for free-roaming cats.” [2]

“Only 79 (11.2 percent) participants in the present study reported that they were aware of a trap-neuter-return program in their community. Although 296 (42.1 percent) reported they did not know whether such a program existed in their community, it is likely that there is limited access to these types of programs in many parts of Ohio.” [2]

Rather than outlawing “feeding without a permit,” then, Columbia should be developing and promoting community-based services that better connect with residents concerned for the welfare of homeless cats—ultimately increasing sterilization rates.

Caretaker permits, and the bureaucracy that invariably goes with them, are likely to have just the opposite effect, deterring community participation—thus driving down overall sterilization rates.

And finally, the underlying premise here—essentially, that handouts from well-meaning residents increase the population of feral cats—warrants a few comments as well.

A review of 29 studies revealed that, although the population density of cats correlates fairly well with the population density of humans (i.e., a greater density of cats in urban areas), these high densities do not require provisions by “cat lovers.” Indeed, “garbage bins” and “market refuse” proved sufficient to support some of the highest population densities. [3]

Similarly, researchers in Brooklyn found that “supplemental feeding” had no “significant effect on population density,” because available food supplies—again, mostly garbage—already exceeded what the cats required. [4]

All of which confirms a point I made in my previous post: we’re not likely to starve our way out of the “feral cat problem” (Marion Island being a rather dramatic case study [5, 6]).

•     •     •

As I say, I’m pleased to see officials in Columbia tackling this important issue. But the city’s proposed ordinance (years in the making, I’m told) falls well short of what’s necessary to make a significant, positive impact. Indeed, its various provisions—which, taken together, are onerous enough to drive caretakers “underground”—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.

Whatever the case, this is not just a missed opportunity; the proposed ordinance actually reads as if it were drafted by people dead-set against TNR but unwilling to make their position known publicly. 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.

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. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2002.220.620

2. Lord, L.K., “Attitudes toward and perceptions of free-roaming cats among individuals living in Ohio.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2008. 232(8): p. 1159-1167. http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/javma_232_8_1159.pdf

3. Liberg, O., et al., Density, spatial organisation and reproductive tactics in the domestic cat and other felids, in The Domestic Cat: The biology of its behaviour, D.C. Turner and P.P.G. Bateson, Editors. 2000, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

4. Calhoon, R.E. and Haspel, C., “Urban Cat Populations Compared by Season, Subhabitat and Supplemental Feeding.” Journal of Animal Ecology. 1989. 58(1): p. 321–328. http://www.jstor.org/pss/5003

5. Bloomer, J.P. and Bester, M.N., “Control of feral cats on sub-Antarctic Marion Island, Indian Ocean.” Biological Conservation. 1992. 60(3): p. 211-219. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6V5X-48XKBM6-T0/2/06492dd3a022e4a4f9e437a943dd1d8b

6. Bester, M.N., et al., “A review of the successful eradication of feral cats from sub-Antarctic Marion Island, Southern Indian Ocean.” South African Journal of Wildlife Research. 2002. 32(1): p. 65–73.


Operation Sisyphus

The draft environmental assessment (EA) for the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex Integrated Predator Management Plan (download PDF), released last week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), aims to eliminate free-roaming cats in the Keys. Not that this is anything new—FWS (along with USDA, and some state agencies) has been trying to do this for years now.

Plans include the trapping/removal of free-roaming cats—owned and unowned alike—from refuge lands and other public lands nearby, as well as from other land (including private property) where cats may be considered a threat to vulnerable native species. TNR has been dismissed as an option, and FWS proposes to prohibit the feeding of feral cats wherever possible.

Unfortunately, the proposed plan is unlikely to be any more successful than previous efforts. There’s plenty to dislike about the FWS plan—including the risk that it may set a dangerous precedent nationwide. The deadline for public comments (see Plan for details) is February 3.

Justification or Rationalization?
In a section of the document called Justification for Management Action, FWS lays out their numerous grievances against “non-native species and human-subsidized populations of native predators.” [1] As a review of the relevant literature, the sub-section on domestic cats leaves much to be desired is a train wreck.

In fact, if this were a college-level term paper, it would likely receive a failing grade—followed, perhaps, by disciplinary action. (And, if it were allowed under the law, maybe a drug test, too.)

Among the references cited here (about three-quarters of which I’m familiar; the rest I’m still chasing down) is, admittedly, some rather damning evidence. For example:

  • The near-extirpation of rock iguanas from Pine Cay in the Caicos Islands during the 1970s. “The decline, from an estimated adult lizard population of nearly 5,500, was due primarily to predation by domestic dogs and cats introduced to the island simultaneously with hotel construction.” [2] (Strangely, FWS cites Iverson’s paper not as an example of a near-miss, but of a global extinction. This, however, pales in comparison to the “strangeness” of many of their other citations.)
  • On Little Barrier Island, off the coast of New Zealand, cats “were considered to have been the sole cause of the local eradication of North Island saddleback and to have contributed to the extinction of the Little Barrier snipe, and to threaten, by their continued presence, grey-faced, black, and Cook’s petrels. Cats probably also contributed to the decline of tuatara and the 12 lizard species known to be present on Little Barrier Island.” [3]

On the other hand, much of the FWS’s evidence is, at best, circumstantial. Among the studies cited to support their claim that “free-roaming cats have been shown to be a major cause of 33 native species extinction [sic] globally,” is a 1987 paper by Cruz and Cruz, in which the authors, studying Galápagos Petrels, found that cats were hardly the only culprits:

“They are threatened by introduced rats, which attack eggs and young chicks… dogs and pigs which prey on eggs, nestlings and adults. Introduced goats, burros and cattle destroy nesting habitat and trample nests. A different combination of these pests and predators exists at each of the petrel nesting sites, while three of the islands are plagued by all of them.” [4]

And, as with the rock iguanas, the FWS would have the public believe the Galápagos Petrel is among those 33 extinctions. In fact, the birds are still there, though they are listed as Critically Endangered.

The story is similar for the 1986 paper by Kirkpatrick and Rauzon, another purported link between free-roaming cats and species extinctions. Kirkpatrick and Rauzon found that more than 90 percent of the diet of free-roaming cats on Jarvis Island and Howland Island was made up of Sooty Terns, Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, and Brown Noddies—each of which is listed as a species of Least Concern.

Another of the papers cited by FWS has nothing to do with extinctions at all. As the authors themselves describe it, their study was an evaluation of “whether a collar-worn pounce protector, the CatBib, reduces the number of vertebrates caught by pet cats and whether its effectiveness was influenced by colour or adding a bell.” [5]

FWS argues that “many of the species impacted by free-roaming cats are federally listed threatened or endangered species and federally protected migratory birds.” While probably true, this statement is also largely meaningless. According to the 2009 State of the Birds report, published by the Department of the Interior (which oversees FWS):

“The United States is home to a tremendous diversity of native birds, with more than 800 species inhabiting terrestrial, coastal, and ocean habitats, including Hawaii. Among these species, 67 are federally listed as endangered or threatened. An additional 184 are species of conservation concern because of their small distribution, high threats, or declining populations.” [6]

That translates to approximately 31 percent of all birds in this country being species of concern. FWS makes it sounds as if perhaps the cats are targeting these birds; in fact, they could just as easily have claimed that many of the species impacted by all forms of mortality are federally listed threatened or endangered species and federally protected migratory birds of these birds.

Hang in there, though—it gets better. I mean worse.

Also listed among the evidence of island extinctions were Coleman and Temple’s 1993 survey of rural Wisconsin residents about their outdoor cats [7], and Churcher and Lawton’s “English Village” study [8]. (While England is an island, it’s quite a stretch to suggest that Felmersham’s House sparrows are at risk of extinction.)

When it comes to the disruption caused by cats to “the abundance, diversity, and integrity of native ecosystems,” FWS turns to, among others, studies by Hawkins [9] and Jessup. [10]

As I’ve discussed previously, Hawkins’ dissertation work was plagued with problems that raise serious doubts about his rather triumphant conclusions—“the preference of ground feeding birds for the no-cat treatment was striking,” [9] for example. A closer look reveals that five of the nine ground-feeding birds showed no preference for either area of the study site. One could, based on Hawkins’ findings, just as easily conclude that more than half of the ground-feeding species studied were indifferent to the presence of cats.

Jessup cites some well-known predation studies, but his concern is the condemnation of “trap, neuter, and reabandon,” [10] as he calls it (“Abandonment of animals cannot be morally justified and is illegal under state humane laws… If it is illegal to abandon a cat once, how can it be legal to do it a second time? How can veterinarians justify being party to abandonment, an illegal act of animal cruelty?” [10])

FWS suggests that “free-roaming cats kill at least one billion birds every year in the U.S., representing one of the largest single sources of human-influenced mortality for small native wildlife,” [1] supporting their assertion with just three sources, one of which is Rich Stallcup’s 1991 article from the Observer, a publication of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory. But “A Reversible Catastrophe” is very light on science—and Stallcup gets most of that wrong. Mostly, the article is Stallcup’s manifesto regarding neighborhood cats:

“If you have a garden, why not proclaim it a wildlife sanctuary and protect it from non-native predators? If roaming cats come into your sanctuary to poach the wildlife under your stewardship, you have the right and perhaps even the duty to discourage them in a serious way.” [11]

Discourage them? Among Stallcup’s suggestions: “…try a B-B or pellet gun. There is no need to kill or shoot toward the head, but a good sting on the rump seems memorable for most felines, and they seldom return for a third experience.” [11]

No feral cat witch hunt would be complete without some public health threat fear-mongering, and FWS’s plan is no different:

“According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), free-roaming cats not only threaten wildlife through direct predation but also serve as vectors for a number of diseases including rabies, cat scratch fever, hookworms, roundworms and toxoplasmosis. Some of these diseases can be transmitted to other domestic animals, native wildlife, and in some cases, humans.” [1]

But the CDC site makes no mention of cats being a threat to wildlife. And humans? “Although cats can carry diseases and pass them to people, you are not likely to get sick from touching or owning a cat.” And, notes the CDC, “People are probably more likely to get toxoplasmosis from gardening or eating raw meat than from having a pet cat.”

There’s even a link to another page on the CDC’s site, called “Health Benefits of Pets.”

And finally, there’s the paper by Sax and Gaines. If the previous examples miss their mark, this one’s a full-blown non-sequitur. Though the authors do mention “the extinction of many native animal species on islands” [12] briefly in their introduction, the purpose of the paper is, as the authors state plainly enough, to “show that the number of naturalized plant species has increased linearly over time on many individual islands.” [12, emphasis mine]

•     •     •

FWS intends to eliminate free-roaming cats from the Florida Keys, and this is the best they can do? If so, well, perhaps they ought to be doing something else. If this is their “justification for action,” then any subsequent action can, I think, rightfully be considered unjustified.

Predator Management
Among the animals to be monitored throughout and/or removed from the four refuges that make up the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex (National Key Deer Refuge, Key West National Wildlife Refuge, Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, and Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge) are non-native reptiles and rodents, native raccoons, and, of course, the cats.

“Presence of exotic non-native iguanas, lizards, and large-bodied snakes will be detected through reports, incidental sightings, and the community-based interagency ‘Python Patrol’ network. Exotic reptiles will be immediately dispatched in accordance with AVMA guidelines for humane euthanasia.” [1]

“Any non-native opossum, armadillo, or rat caught incidentally in the live traps targeted for cats on Refuge lands will be immediately dispatched in accordance with the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) guidelines for humane euthanasia. All native species will be immediately set free.” [1, emphasis mine]

“Raccoons trapped incidentally in live traps targeted for cats or other non-native predators will be released alive at the trap location… Raccoons that exhibit severe disease or other serious health issues will receive appropriate evaluation, which may include care by a state-certified wildlife rehabilitator or euthanasia as recommended by a qualified veterinarian or animal control services provider… If field studies and monitoring indicate that raccoon populations are having a negative impact on endangered species, the USFWS will reevaluate the need to implement more direct control by removal of raccoons from sensitive habitats. Removal could include, but not be limited to, transfer to a wildlife park or zoo, a state-certified wildlife rehabilitator, or euthanasia. Any decision by the Service to use lethal control measures on raccoons will trigger additional public notification and an amendment to this EA.” [1]

Free-roaming Cats
But, as I say, the cats are the real focus here: “The USFWS will remove all free-roaming cats found on Refuge lands through live trapping,” at which point, the cats will become of the responsibility of any one of three (currently, two; a third contractor is currently being sought) Monroe County animal control providers.

“The Monroe County animal control service provider will have the authority to determine the final disposition of the trapped cats according to county ordinances and standards, which may include returning to owner, adopting out, relocating to a long-term cat care facility on the mainland, or euthanizing.” [1]

Of course, it’s no secret what happens to the vast majority of feral cats brought into shelters. As Nathan Winograd writes in his book Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America, “there is no other animal entering a shelter whose prospects are so grim and outcome so certain.”

I asked Connie Christian, Executive Director of the Florida Keys SPCA, about this last week. “Every cat brought to our facility is assessed to determine their disposition,” Christian told me via e-mail. “Every attempt is made to return ‘non-feral’ cats to their owners or place for adoption.”

“Unfortunately,” she continued, “we do not have an outlet for feral cats that are brought to us without a request for return.” Which would likely be the case for cats unlucky enough to be trapped by FWS. (Interestingly, FKSPCA is involved with TNR, which FWS wants to eliminate—more on that in a moment.)

What about that “relocation to long-term facilities on the mainland” option? There was some discussion of this option during stakeholder meetings that took place in 2008. And local papers carried stories suggesting the possibility. [13, 14] Now it looks like FWS is dumping this is the laps of Monroe County animal control providers.

I guess they can say they tried.

Expanding Territory
But FWS isn’t stopping at their property line—and the four refuges included in the plan already make up, according to my calculations, more than 28 percent of the Keys’ total land mass. According to the South Florida Multi-Species Recovery Plan (MSRP), FWS has plans to use land acquisition and conservation easements or agreements to protect the endangered Lower Keys marsh rabbit. [15]

The MSRP, excerpts of which are included in the EA, also spells out FWS’s intention to “remove nuisance feral cats” from land “near rabbit habitat” in the Lower Keys. [1] Additional plans include deed restrictions “to prohibit free-roaming cats” [1] in areas where they might be a threat to the rabbits, the Key Largo Woodrat, or the Key Largo Cotton Mouse. And to “enforce deed restrictions of cat control in Ocean Reef Club and other areas.” [1]

The Ocean Reef Club, of course, is home to ORCAT, perhaps the best known—and certainly one of the most successful—TNR programs in the country. According to their website, ORCAT has reduced the island’s population of cats from approximately 2,000 cats, in the early 1990s, to about 350 today, “about 100 of which reside at the Grayvik Animal Care Center.”

Frankly, I’m not sure what FWS means by “enforce deed restrictions” (one of many follow-up items on my to-do list). Other aspects of their plan, however, are straightforward:

“Feral cat colonies and feeding stations on Refuge lands will be identified and removed. The USFWS will also coordinate with county and state agencies to assist in the identification and removal, where feasible and legal, cat colonies and feeding stations on other public properties that are adjacent to or near Refuge lands. Extensive public outreach will be conducted to encourage people who feed free-roaming cats to cease doing so, and to promote trapping and relocating those animals to long-term facilities on the mainland where they will no longer be a threat to Refuge’s wildlife.” [1]

Something else that’s clear: FWS is going after pet cats, too. The MSRP includes plans to “establish a program to license domestic cats, implement leash laws, eliminate cat-feeding stations, implement spay and neuter program, increase awareness through educational material, test diseases, and remove nuisance feral cats.” [15]

Is this mandatory spay/neuter (which has been shown to fail when implemented in the absence of adequate low- and no-cost services)? Does the FWS plan to test pets for, say FIV and FeLV? Lots of unanswered questions here, obviously.

It’s no surprise, then, given their plan for the removal of feeding stations—and cats—that FWS is staunchly opposed to TNR, which, they argue “does little to reduce cat predation on native wildlife.” [1]

Success Stories
“In addition,” argues FWS, “the TNR method has little valid scientific support for claims that it actually reduces cat colony numbers over time and often has been shown to attract people to release new cats into an area.” [1]

Ironically, some of the greatest TNR success stories are right there in the papers cited by FWS. Natoli, for example, reported a 16–32 percent decrease in population size over a 10-year period across 103 colonies in Rome—despite a 21 percent rate of “cat immigration.” [16]

Castillo and Clarke, though highly critical of TNR documented remarkably little predation in the two Florida parks they used for their study. In fact, 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” [17] prior to beginning their research), Castillo and Clarke “saw cats kill a juvenile common yellowthroat and a blue jay.” [17]

“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.” [17]

Any TNR program contends with the unfortunate (and illegal) dumping of cats. Still, it’s difficult to imagine that the presence or absence of a nearby TNR program would affect a person’s decision to abandon his/her pet cat(s). (If any studies had demonstrated such a connection, TNR opponents would surely cite them!) 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—as well any impacts to wildlife and the environment.

Moreover, FWS ignores the value of population stabilization. Julie Levy, Maddie’s Professor of Shelter Medicine in the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and one of the country’s foremost experts on feral cats, argues that “wildlife benefits when populations of cats that are trending rapidly upwards are at least stabilized” [18].

Among the more perplexing aspects of FWS’s argument is their claim that “TNR practices are prohibited on National Wildlife Refuges, and violate the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) because they may result in the direct harm of protected species.” [1]

This is an argument that’s been thrown around since at least 2003, when Pamela Jo Hatley, then a law student, suggested the possibility. But that’s all it was—and, apparently, is—a possibility.

“It is quite obvious that cats can be lethal to birds,” writes Hatley, “and if the death of a migratory bird can be traced to a cat, or a cat colony, which can be further traced to an individual or organization, there may be strict liability for that person under the MBTA.” [19] Hatley’s argument for violations of the Endangered Species Act is similarly speculative: “…persons who release cats into the wild or who maintain feral cat colonies could be found liable for a take under section 9 of the ESA if maintenance of feral cats in the wild is found to kill or injure wildlife by degrading habitat.” [19]

It’s been nearly eight years now—a period during which TNR has undoubtedly increased substantially across the country—so where are all the court cases? If this were as black-and-white as FWS makes it sound, there wouldn’t even be a discussion about TNR (and the Urban Wildlands Group would likely have taken a very different tack in Los Angeles).

Finally—perhaps in a desperate attempt to appear as though their plan has the support of animal welfare organizations—FWS gives PETA a plug.

“Some animal advocates therefore often agree that traditional TNR programs are not the most appropriate choice, especially where cats are released near designated wildlife areas and at-risk wildlife populations (see the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ Animal Rights Uncompromised fact sheets at www.peta.org/about/why-peta/default.aspx). For these reasons, TNR was considered but dismissed from further evaluation.” [1]

PETA, of course, is also opposed to caged birds, crating dogs, and zoos. When PETA is the only “animal advocate” you can get to endorse your approach, it’s time to rethink it.

Operation Sisyphus
The purpose of FWS’s Plan/EA “is to conserve and restore federally-listed species and protect all native fauna and flora on the [refuges] from population decline and potential extirpation or extinction due to predation by non-native species and human-subsidized populations of native predators.” [1]

Will the plan work? Only time will tell, of course—but there’s plenty of reason for skepticism. If their “literature review” is any indication, FWS either doesn’t have a particularly strong grasp of the issues involved—or they’re not interested in sharing that understanding with the public.

Nitpicking? I don’t think so. In their attempt to focus—however carelessly—on the impacts of cats, FWS overlooks some key factors.

Mesopredator Release
FWS refers to two often-cited papers [20, 21] as evidence of cats disrupting native ecosystems, but fails to acknowledge the larger point made by the authors: the mesopredator release phenomenon. “In the absence of large, dominant predators,” write Soulé et al., “smaller omnivores and predators undergo population explosions, sometimes becoming four to 10 times more abundant than normal.” [20]

In Soulé’s example, coyotes were the dominant predators, while cats were the mesopredators. In other contexts, however, cats have been shown to play the dominant predator role with rats becoming the mesopredators.

Mathematical modeling of the mesopredator release phenomenon illustrates the complexities involved in eradication efforts, even on small islands. As Courchamp et al. explain, “although counter-intuitive, eradication of introduced superpredators, such as feral domestic cats, is not always the best solution to protect endemic prey when introduced mesopredators, such as rats, are also present.” [22] Fan et al. warn of the risks involved with such eradication efforts: “In some cases, it may cause a disastrous impact to managed or natural ecosystems.” [23]

Macquarie Island, located roughly halfway between New Zealand and Antarctica, offers a well-documented example of such a disastrous impact. In 2000, cats were eradicated from this United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site in order to protect its seabird populations. The resulting rebound in rabbit and rodent numbers, however, has had its own disastrous impact. “In response, Federal and State governments in Australia have committed AU$24 million for an integrated rabbit, rat and mouse eradication programme.” [24]

Could something like this happen in the Florida Keys?

According to FWS, non-native rats are already “prevalent in residential and commercial areas.” [1] Should the removal of cats create a spike in their numbers, FWS suggests that they’re prepared to remove the rats, too: “Noticeable population increases based on reports, road kill, or other specific or auxiliary data may initiate targeted control and eradication efforts in addition to incidental capture…” [1]

But controlling these rats is complicated considerably by the need to protect Lower Keys marsh rabbits. The MSRP warns of these rabbits coming into contact with pesticides and “poisons used to control black rats.” [15]

“In a 1993 Biological Opinion, the FWS investigated the effects of vertebrate control agents on endangered and threatened species and determined that several chemicals (e.g., Pival) would jeopardize the continued existence of the Lower Keys marsh rabbit. Chemicals—such as Pival—a rodenticide used to kill rats, are lethal if ingested. The FWS also concluded that if development in the Keys continues to increase, the potential for these animals to come in contact with such chemicals also increases, as does the potential for their extinction. Based on these findings, the FWS believes the continued use of such chemicals will result in the deaths of Lower Keys marsh rabbits. Given that the majority of occupied habitat is adjacent to urbanized areas, and that urbanization continues to expand into their habitat, then it can reasonably be predicted that the use of such chemicals has had a negative impact upon the Lower Keys marsh rabbit that may prevent its recovery.” [15]

Removing Cats
It’s also not clear that FWS will be able to remove the free-roaming cats from the Keys. For one thing, they have no idea how many are there. Only now—after years of struggling with this issue—does FWS propose to “implement monitoring and conduct further research as needed to determine abundance and distribution of free-roaming cats throughout the Refuge, document effectiveness of management actions taken or not taken on cat populations, and determine the impacts on the ecosystems and native species to aid in the adaptive management process.” [1]

Plus, FWS has a rather poor track record when it comes to actually trapping cats.

In 2007, they “received $50,000 to remove cats from federal refuges on Big Pine Key and Key Largo, and to protect endangered marsh rabbits, silver rice rats and other animals and birds that call the refuges home.” [25] Reports (from what I can tell, nothing official has been issued) suggest that fewer than 20 cats were caught—some of which were returned to their owners (kudos to FWS and USDA)—along with 81 raccoons, 53 of which were released alive. [26]

I think it’s safe to say that the Keys’ wildlife reaped little or no benefit from this effort. Had that same money been used for TNR, on the other hand…

So what’s different this time around?

Déjà Vu
All the while I’ve been doing the research for this post, I’ve been haunted by two quotes I’ve used rather extensively in the past. Actually, the first is not a quote as such, but the title of Merritt Clifton’s excellent article: Where cats belong—and where they don’t. [27]

The second comes from Gary Patronek, who argues that “the release of cats into an environment where they would impact endangered or threatened species, or even into wildlife preserves or refuges, is inexcusable.” [28] Patronek, the 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, continues:

I do not believe that this is being advocated by cat protectors who see urban, managed colonies as an imperfect but still preferable alternative to the euthanasia of healthy animals. Abandoned pet cats whose own habitat has been reduced to colonies, and the wild species endangered by clear-cutting or beachfront development, are casualties of the same callous disregard for the lives of animals. I see little justification for shifting the role of cats to that of scapegoat.” [28, emphasis mine]

Well, isn’t this precisely what I’m advocating? I honestly don’t know.

Here’s what I do know:

There is no doubt that the Florida Keys are immensely valuable for their diversity of animal and plant life, some of which can be found nowhere else in the world. Due to a wide range of factors (most of them human-caused), this habitat has become quite fragile, with some animal and plant species on the brink of extinction. And, in such habitats, it’s been shown that free-roaming cats can have a significant negative impact.

I also know that where cats have been eradicated, the process is a horror. In fact, it’s spelled out in some of the papers cited by FWS (though, understandably, they don’t draw attention to that):

  • Nogales et al., describing the “success” of Marion Island, note, “it took about 15 years of intense effort to eradicate the cats, combining several methods such as trapping, hunting, poisoning, and disease introduction… The use of disease agents or targeted poisoning campaigns hold promise for an initial population reduction in eradication programs on large islands—such an approach may save effort, time, and money.” [29]
  • Cruz and Cruz point out that, of all the non-native mammals there, cats were “the most difficult to control or eliminate on Floreana Island.” Although “hunting with dogs was the single most effective method employed and it gave a sure body count,” the authors warn that “the method was costly and with the limited manpower available was only useful over small areas. Both poisoning and trapping were effective and the combination of the three methods is probably the most effective approach, as well as being the best use of time and materials.” [4]
  • Veitch describes efforts on 11-square-mile Little Barrier Island as “a determined [cat] eradication attempt” involving “cage traps, leg-hold traps, dogs and 1080 poison were used, but leg-hold traps and 1080 poison were the only effective methods.” [3] Four cats were also infected with Feline enteritis, but “because of the poor reaction to the virus no other cats were dosed and none were released… Altogether, 151 cats were known to have been killed before the eradication was declared complete. Important lessons learnt can be transferred to other feral cat eradication programmes.” [3] (By way of comparison, the Keys are approximately 137 square miles in total area.)

I know that ecosystems—especially those as fragile as the Keys—are incomprehensibly complex, and that tinkering with them is incredibly risky. And there’s plenty we simply do not know, and cannot—despite our best efforts—predict.

But I know, too, that time is short. And that we’ll never have all the answers we’d like to have before the need for action precludes further inquiry.

Put another way: I’ve given this issue a lot of thought—and, here’s what I’m afraid will happen in the Keys:

FWS will proceed with their plan, rounding up cats—ferals and pets alike—on and “near” public lands. The pet cats will mostly be returned, but some mistakes—the risk of which will likely increase in an atmosphere of mass trapping—will surely be made. Feral cats will be killed.

Progress will move slowly, as these things often do—far too slowly to keep up with reproduction rates. If feeding and TNR are eliminated (to whatever extent possible) throughout the Keys, the cats will simply “go underground.” No more monitoring—and sterilizing—by the “foot soldiers” who currently care for colonies of cats.

Indeed, it’s quite likely that feral cat complaint calls to Monroe County, FWS, and the USDA would taper off considerably, as it becomes clear that such a call is essentially a death sentence. Thus, the cats become that much more difficult to locate—and sterilize. The population, therefore, increases.

Using a population model, Andersen, Martin, and Roemer have suggested that, in the absence of a sterilization program, 50 percent of cats would have to be removed in order for a colony to decrease 10 percent annually. [30] By contrast, the authors suggest that 75 percent of cats would need to be sterilized to achieve the same result.

This model has its flaws, as I’ve explained elsewhere, but the study is one many researchers are familiar with. And, frankly, it’s convenient for my purposes here.

Even if Andersen et al. are off by a factor of two, FWS would need to “remove” 25 percent of the free-roaming, unsterilized (and once they chase away the colony caretakers, it won’t be long before that’s the norm) cats continuously in order to achieve a 10 percent reduction in overall numbers.

Does anybody really think that’s going to happen? Where’s the evidence to suggest that it’s even possible?

FWS has—it seems—taken off the table the unspeakable methods so often employed on small, uninhabited islands.

“While lethal control is allowed by Refuge System policy, it is not a socially acceptable approach and is inconsistent with the points of consensus developed by the stakeholder group. This alternative would likely not be logistically feasible on a FKNWRC-wide basis and would not allow for adaptive management under a strategic habitat conservation approach.” [1]

But they’ve also taken TNR off the table. So, what’s left? We’re back to doing what we’ve been doing for years now—which, of course, is how we got into this mess in the first place.

From what I can tell, the FWS plan is nothing more than a warmed-over version of old-school trap-and-remove, an approach Mark Kumpf, president of the National Animal Control Association President from 2007 to 2008, describes as “bailing the ocean with a thimble.” [31] (There’s a metaphor that ought to resonate with people in the Keys!)

If so, it’s easy to imagine the losers in the deal—the cats, obviously, but also all of the wildlife FWS wants to protect. And the taxpayers, too, of course—not much of a return on investment for all of us, no matter what our position might be on feral cats, wildlife conservation, and the like.

The question is, where are the winners?

Literature Cited
1. n.a., Draft Environmental Assessment: Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex Integrated Predator Management Plan. 2011, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: Big Pine Key, FL.

2. Iverson, J.B., “The impact of feral cats and dogs on populations of the West Indian rock iguana, Cyclura carinata.” Biological Conservation. 1978. 14(1): p. 63–73. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6V5X-48XKN72-1NN/2/bff9bfdeecb8ff6cec68527221b99a97

3. Veitch, C.R., “The eradication of feral cats (Felis catus) from Little Barrier Island, New Zealand.” New Zealand Journal of Zoology. 2001. 28: p. 1–12. http://www.royalsociety.org.nz/publications/journals/nzjz/2001/001/

4. Cruz, J.B. and Cruz, F., “Conservation of the dark-rumped petrel Pterodroma phaeopygia in the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador.” Biological Conservation. 1987. 42(4): p. 303–311. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6V5X-48XKMBP-17J/2/f81b57e317f217802d9aca8b6927a88c

5. Calver, M., et al., “Reducing the rate of predation on wildlife by pet cats: The efficacy and practicability of collar-mounted pounce protectors.” Biological Conservation. 2007. 137(3): p. 341-348. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6V5X-4NGBB7H-3/2/456180347a2c3916d1ae99e220dd329e

6. n.a., State of the Birds, United States of America, 2009. 2009, U.S. Department of Interior: Washington, DC. p. 36.

7. Coleman, J.S. and Temple, S.A., “Rural Residents’ Free-Ranging Domestic Cats: A Survey.” Wildlife Society Bulletin. 1993. 21(4): p. 381–390.

8. Churcher, P.B. and Lawton, J.H., “Predation by domestic cats in an English village.” Journal of Zoology. 1987. 212(3): p. 439-455. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7998.1987.tb02915.x

9. Hawkins, C.C., Impact of a subsidized exotic predator on native biota: Effect of house cats (Felis catus) on California birds and rodents. 1998, Texas A&M University.

10. Jessup, D.A., “The welfare of feral cats and wildlife.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1377-1383. http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/javma_225_9_1377.pdf

11. Stallcup, R., “A reversible catastrophe.” Observer 91. 1991(Spring/Summer): p. 8–9.

12. Sax, D.F. and Gaines, S.D., Species invasions and extinction: The future of native biodiversity on islands, in In the Light of Evolution II: Biodiversity and Extinction,. 2008: Irvine, CA. p. 11490–11497. www.pnas.org/content/105/suppl.1/11490.full

13. n.a. (2007, March 29). Key Deer Refuge wants to control feral cats: A plan to round up feral cats in the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine and No Name keys has animal-rights groups and area cat owners upset. The Reporter.

14. Busweiler, R. (2008, December 1). Feds begin drafting rabbit protection plan—BIG PINE KEY. The Key West Citizen.

15.  n.a., Multi-Species Recovery Plan for South Florida: Lower Keys Rabbit. 1999, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Atlanta, GA. p. 151–171. www.fws.gov/verobeach/images/pdflibrary/lkmr.pdf

16. 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. www.kiccc.org.au/pics/FeralCatsRome2006.pdf

17. Castillo, D. and Clarke, A.L., “Trap/Neuter/Release Methods Ineffective in Controlling Domestic Cat “Colonies” on Public Lands.” Natural Areas Journal. 2003. 23: p. 247–253.

18. Levy, J.K., Personal communication, 2010.

19. Hatley, P.J., Feral Cat Colonies in Florida: The Fur and the Feathers Are Flying. 2003, University of Florida Conservation Clinic: Gainsville, FL. www.law.ufl.edu/conservation/pdf/feralcat.pdf

20. Soulé, M.E., et al., “Reconstructed Dynamics of Rapid Extinctions of Chaparral-Requiring Birds in Urban Habitat Islands.” Conservation Biology. 1988. 2(1): p. 75-92. http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/2027.42/74761/1/j.1523-1739.1988.tb00337.x.pdf

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

22. Courchamp, F., Langlais, M., and Sugihara, G., “Cats protecting birds: modelling the mesopredator release effect.” Journal of Animal Ecology. 1999. 68(2): p. 282–292. http://deepeco.ucsd.edu/~george/publications/99_cats_protecting.pdf

23. Fan, M., Kuang, Y., and Feng, Z., “Cats protecting birds revisited.” Bulletin of Mathematical Biology. 2005. 67(5): p. 1081-1106. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bulm.2004.12.002

24. Bergstrom, D.M., et al., “Indirect effects of invasive species removal devastate World Heritage Island.” Journal of Applied Ecology. 2009. 46(1): p. 73-81. http://eprints.utas.edu.au/8384/4/JAppEcol_Bergstrom_etal_journal.pdf

25. O’Hara, T. (2007, April 3). Fish & Wildlife Service to begin removing cats from Keys refuges. The Key West Citizen.

26. n.a., Lower Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Comprehensive Conservation Plan. 2009, U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service: Atlanta, GA.

27. Clifton, M. Where cats belong—and where they don’t. Animal People 2003.  http://www.animalpeoplenews.org/03/6/wherecatsBelong6.03.html.

28. Patronek, G.J., “Letter to Editor.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 1996. 209(10): p. 1686–1687.

29. Nogales, M., et al., “A Review of Feral Cat Eradication on Islands.” Conservation Biology. 2004. 18(2): p. 310-319. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2004.00442.x

30. Andersen, M.C., Martin, B.J., and Roemer, G.W., “Use of matrix population models to estimate the efficacy of euthanasia versus trap-neuter-return for management of free-roaming cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(12): p. 1871-1876. http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/javma_225_12_1871.pdf

31. Hettinger, J., Taking a Broader View of Cats in the Community, in Animal Sheltering. 2008. p. 8–9. http://www.animalsheltering.org/resource_library/magazine_articles/sep_oct_2008/broader_view_of_cats.pdf

Sanctuary In Name Only

Although Vox Felina was launched in April of this year, its origins can be traced back to 2007 and the town of Pahrump, Nevada. There, 748 cats were abandoned in the summer heat—left sick, starving, and dehydrated by the very people who claimed to be their rescuers. Were it not for the heroic efforts of Best Friends Animal Society and a tireless team of volunteers (local and from across the country), nearly all of those cats would have died.

Within the organization operating the Pahrump sanctuary—For the Love Of Cats and Kittens, or FLOCK—there was nothing but finger-pointing. Earlier this year, the case against FLOCK’s former board members was dismissed on a technicality—the result of the case having been badly botched from the outset by the Nye County District Attorney’s Office. Anybody familiar with the story knows of D.A. Robert Beckett’s incompetence and questionable judgment (e.g., in a six-hour period, Beckett once rolled two cars—one of which belonged to the county—resulting in a citation for DUI). Then, last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that Beckett’s under investigation for dipping into County funds.

All of this got me thinking—not of Beckett or the D.A.’s Office, but of FLOCK. The organization is still around (although I’m told the leadership has changed). And a few months ago there were reports—which I have been unable to confirm—that FLOCK might be establishing a new sanctuary, this time in neighboring Clark County.

Another FLOCK sanctuary would be a recipe for disaster, and not just because of that organization’s abysmal record. Many cat sanctuaries are overcrowded, underfunded, and—lacking any kind of contingency plan, as is often the case—prone to collapse. And they can be used to cover up institutional hoarding.

Sanctuaries as Alternatives to TNR?
Cat sanctuaries were among the topics discussed at the American Veterinary Medical Association’s 2004 Animal Welfare Forum, “Management of Abandoned and Feral Cats.” Among those suggesting that sanctuaries are a viable alternative to TNR were Linda Winter, former director of the ABC’s Cats Indoors! program:

“Cat sanctuaries, such as those run by Best Friends in Utah, Rikki’s Refuge in Virginia, the Humane Society of Ocean City in NJ, the CCC in California, the Delaware Humane Association in Delaware, and the Habitat for Cats Sanctuary in Massachusetts, keep cats sheltered, safe, and well fed; provide access to routine veterinary care; protect wildlife; and reduce health risks for cats and people. The ABC strongly supports sanctuaries for stray and feral cats as an alternative to TNR that is more humane to both cats and wildlife.” [1]

Former Chief of the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps, Paul Barrows, was another participant in favor of sanctuaries as an alternative to TNR:

“Whether adopted; placed in a confining sanctuary; judiciously used in research, training, or education; or euthanized, removal and not return seems to be the most responsible course of action.” [3]

David Jessup, Senior Wildlife Veterinarian with the California Department of Fish and Game, also weighed in with his own enthusiastic endorsement:

“Recently, another option has become available: enclosed sanctuaries where cats can live out their lives protected from weather and most injury. Large and well-known cat sanctuaries exist in Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Virginia, and several places in California. Others are being built and operated by individuals and organizations on small and moderate scales similar to other sanctuaries, as described by Winter. This is happening simply because people sense it is the right thing to do. Hopefully, we can all agree this is one thing that truly serves the welfare of both cats and wildlife.” [2]

However, this is the same article in which Jessup alleges—without so much as a single reference to support him—that there are “60–100 million feral and abandoned cats in the United States.” [2] Clearly, there isn’t nearly enough sanctuary space for the number of cats; in fact, sanctuaries are “another option” for only a tiny fraction of the stray, abandoned, and feral cats out there (even when more accurate estimates are considered).

Indeed, in their contribution to AVMA’s 2004 Animal Welfare Forum, Julie Levy and Cynda Crawford suggest as much: “most sanctuary programs that permanently house feral cats are filled to capacity almost immediately after opening.” [5]

And yet, years later, sanctuaries are still being marketed as alternatives to TNR. The ABC, for example, echoes Winter’s 2004 comments in its brochure “Managed” Cat Colonies: The Wrong Solution to a Tragic Problem, and in its short film Trap, Neuter, and Release: Bad for Cats, Disaster for Birds. In the film, produced last year, Steve Holmer, the ABC’s Director of Public Relations, suggests:

“A better solution is to trap, neuter, and remove feral cats, and then relocate them to enclosed cat sanctuaries or shelters, or to adopt them out to safe and comfortable homes.”

Sanctuaries: The Realities and Impacts
Alley Cat Allies opposes sanctuaries for feral cats, citing as concerns the inherent economic and medical challenges, as well as the overall lack of capacity—factors that too often prove insurmountable:

“A number of sanctuaries are forced to close their doors every year due to insufficient funds or an inability to properly care for the cats in the existing confined space.”

FLOCK was a case study, demonstrating in horrific detail that the sanctuary option—even when it’s available—is not always in the best interest of the cats. As one of my Best Friends contacts who was involved in the FLOCK clean-up effort told me, “I’ve got one of the Pahrump cats… I would rather see that cat back on the streets of Vegas, looking for food in Dumpsters, than be where they were at FLOCK.”

Indeed, the FLOCK story is all too familiar to people involved in such large-scale rescue efforts. Consider some of the more dramatic—and therefore “story-worthy”—incidents in recent years:

  • Voice of the Animals Sanctuary (Blanchard, ID, 2006)
    “Disaster responders from The HSUS, working alongside the Idaho Humane Society, found more than 400 cats, and a number of dogs, goats and chickens. Many were in extremely poor health and had to be euthanized.”

    “The animals were housed in and around nine dilapidated mobile homes on the property, according to published reports. Inside the trailers, investigators found that the walls were soaked in urine and the floors caked with feces and filth. Veterinarian and IHS executive director Dr. Jeff Rosenthal described the cats as all being ‘infested with fleas and ear mites. The majority were also in an emaciated state and suffered with upper respiratory illnesses, chronic diarrhea and abscesses,’ among other ailments.” (source: www.Pet-Abuse.com)

  • Tiger Ranch (Tarentum, PA, 2008)
    “All told, 380 living cats and 106 dead ones were discovered during a police raid at Tiger Ranch in Frazer Township, which owner and operator Linda Bruno billed as a pet adoption center and Hospice. Since then, many of the cats have died.”

    “‘It’s a death camp,’ said [Howard] Nelson [director of the Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania SPCA, which orchestrated the raid], speaking by cell phone as he helped gather emaciated and diseased cats crammed into trailers and other outbuildings across the 30-acre property. ‘I see cats that can’t walk, and dead cats in litter boxes and lying by food bowls.’” (source: www.Pet-Abuse.com)

  • Cats with No Name (Pine Grove Township, PA, 2009)
    “SPCA volunteer Beth Hall said the condition the 148 cats and 10 other animals were found in was unspeakable. ‘Our opinion is that it was heinous. In my opinion, it was like a kitty concentration camp,’ she said. ‘We just don’t understand.’ Mary Ellen Smith, president of the Steinert SPCA board, said the animals were subjected to ‘obvious cruelty and neglect.’”

    In addition, the couple responsible was “accused of stockpiling donated cat food and reselling some of it at auctions to finance drug binges while leaving dozens of animals to go hungry.” (source: www.Pet-Abuse.com)

  • 10th Life Sanctuary (LaBelle, FL, 2009)
    “The final statistics tell a story of success and sadness. The closure of the 10th Life Sanctuary represents one of the largest cat rescues in US history. A total of 110 cats were euthanized in the first days of medical triage due to critical medical illnesses, including 17 that were euthanized immediately following the unannounced inspection. Of the remaining 485 cats, 75 of the ferals were euthanized when new placements could not be found for them. This 15% euthanasia rate for the savable cats is in stark contrast to the vast majority of large-scale feline cruelty impoundments in which mass euthanasia is the most common outcome.” (source: Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program, University of Florida)

*     *     *

To be clear, I’m not opposed to sanctuaries as such. Indeed, I’m a supporter of Best Friends and Shadow Cats Rescue. What I am opposed to is sanctuaries being oversold—generally to an audience that has no knowledge of such matters—as a viable alternative to TNR. To suggest anything of the sort is, at best, disingenuous. Sanctuaries are no more an alternative to TNR than zoos are to the protection of endangered species.

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. Jessup, D.A., “The welfare of feral cats and wildlife.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1377-1383.

3. Barrows, P.L., “Professional, ethical, and legal dilemmas of trap-neuter-release.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1365-1369.

4. Dauphiné, N. and Cooper, R.J., Impacts of Free-ranging Domestic Cats (Felis catus) on birds in the United States: A review of recent research with conservation and management recommendations, in Fourth International Partners in Flight Conference: Tundra to Tropics. 2009. p. 205–219

5. Levy, J.K. and Crawford, P.C., “Humane strategies for controlling feral cat populations.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1354-1360.