Putting the “Nation” in FixNation

I’ve been a big fan of FixNation since contacting them, nearly a year ago, to clear up bogus allegations made in the Toronto Star by documentary filmmaker Maureen Palmer, who’d visited the clinic while filming Cat Crazed. The response I received was prompt and professional. And, it turns out, the beginning of an ongoing conversation.

Last month, while on a business trip to Los Angeles, I had the pleasure—finally—of seeing the FixNation operation for myself, beginning with their bimonthly Catnippers clinic, an all-volunteer community outreach/spay-neuter program now in its 12th year. A few days later, I toured the facility under “normal” conditions—meaning two veterinarians and seven staff sterilizing and vaccinating (and addressing a host of other health issues) 80­–90 cats each day (with an ease and efficiency that would put many manufacturing facilities to shame, to say nothing of our healthcare providers).

Since opening its doors in July 2007, FixNation has sterilized and vaccinated more than 60,000 cats (not including the 16,000 or so brought in through Catnippers), more than 85 percent of which were feral, stray, or abandoned—receiving services at no charge to their caretakers (owners of pet cats are charged a modest fee).

All of which would be impressive enough. But in L.A.—which has more or less become ground zero for the TNR debate since a January 2010 injunction put an end to City support of trap-neuter-return—what FixNation has accomplished is nothing short of heroic.

The Injunction
The original complaint—filed by the Urban Wildlands Group, Endangered Habitats League, Los Angeles Audubon Society, Palos Verdes/South Bay Audubon Society, Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society, and the American Bird Conservancy—was brought under the California Environmental Quality Act, with the plaintiffs arguing, for instance, that TNR “can cause significant adverse environmental impacts by causing proliferation of rats and raccoons and creating water pollution problems.”

(As for how the restriction—or elimination, as ABC has proposed—of TNR would benefit the wildlife these groups claim to protect is anybody’s guess, and a topic for another post.)

Under the provisions of the injunction (in its revised version, filed with the court in March 2010), the City, its Board of Animal Services Commissioners, and its Department of Animal Services are prohibited from “promoting TNR for feral cats and encouraging or assisting third parties to carry out a TNR program.”

City agencies are no longer allowed to:

  • “Assist or provide incentives for, or otherwise facilitate the capture, sterilization and release of feral cat;
  • Provide discounts or discount vouchers for spay or neuter surgeries for feral cats…
  • Release feral cats from shelters to TNR groups or individuals [if the cats will be placed into a colony].
  • Develop or distribute literature on the TNR program or conduct pubic outreach on TNR using press releases, fliers, or other media except in conjunction with the proposed [California Environmental Quality Act] process…
  • Knowingly referring complaints about feral cats to TNR groups or individuals who engage in TNR.” [1]

Nevertheless, TNR continues in L.A.—with many supporters more determined than ever. And I understand the City of Los Angeles is working (albeit far too slowly) to get the injunction lifted. Still, the loss of City-funded vouchers—which provided a substantial portion of overall revenue for many TNR programs—is taking its toll. According to founders Mark Dodge and Karn Myers, FixNation lost about $300,000 in annual revenue, more than 20 percent of its yearly budget.

The fact that they’ve been able to continue their community outreach and provide no-/low-cost spay/neuter services for the past couple of years is, as I say, truly heroic. But now, as Myers explains in a video released late last week, FixNation needs our help.

Today, We Are All Angelenos
Charity, it’s often said, begins at home. And I do what I can to support local TNR and low-cost spay/neuter programs. But the stakes are extraordinarily high in L.A.—in terms of lives saved or lost, but also in terms of the city’s symbolic value as a community committed to trap-neuter-return despite both the injunction and the faltering economy. Which is why I also support the organizations doing the heavy lifting there—among them, FixNation.

If you’re able to make a (tax-deductible) donation, I encourage you to do so. If not, please pass the word along to other TNR supporters.

Need a little more incentive? For the rest of the month, PetSmart Charities will match every “new donor” dollar up to $51,000. You can even turn your holiday shopping into a contribution: FixNation will receive 5 percent of December sales from Moderncat Studio, makers of beautifully designed cat toys, scratchers, and more.

Thank you.

Literature Cited
1. Urban Wildlands Group et al. vs. City of Los Angeles et al. (Case No. BS 115483). Stipulated Order Modifying Injunction. March 10, 2010. Los Angeles Superior Court.

The Things People Say (or Don’t)—Part 3

The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) is among the most visible organizations to oppose TNR—and put PR ahead of the relevant science (which ABC has been doing for years now).

ABC was one (along with the L.A. Audubon Society and Urban Wildlands Group) of several petitioners in the case that eventually led to an injunction against publicly supported TNR in Los Angeles. Following the court’s decision, ABC’s Senior Policy Advisor, Steve Holmer, told the Los Angeles Times:

The latest estimates are that there are about . . . 160 million feral cats [nationwide]… It’s conservatively estimated that they kill about 500 million birds a year.

Days later, I sent Holmer an e-mail, asking for details about his figure of 160 million feral cats (the number of birds killed could, I assumed, be addressed later). To his credit—and unlike the people I tried to contact at the Urban Wildlands Group and L.A. Audubon Society—Holmer actually replied, leading to a cordial but brief correspondence in which he directed me to the work of Nico Dauphiné and Robert J. Cooper.

Sure enough, just two pages into Dauphiné and Cooper’s article [1] (available for download via the ABC website):

There is therefore an estimated total of 117–157 million free-ranging cats in the United States.

But there are a number of significant problems with their estimate—which is calculated by combining an estimated number of feral cats with an estimated number of owned cats having outdoor access. Here, in a nutshell, is a breakdown of their calculation:

Dauphiné and Cooper start with 60–100 million “stray and feral (unsocialized) cats, nearly all of which range freely outdoors” a figure taken from a 2004 paper by David Jessup [2]. But, because Jessup didn’t cite his source(s), this is actually no estimate at all. At best, it’s a guess—and one intended to paint as stark a picture as possible.

Then, citing a 2004 paper (which in turn cites a study commissioned by ABC—the results of which are summarized here) by ABC’s Linda Winter [3], Dauphiné and Cooper suggest that “approximately 65%” of pet cats “are free-ranging outdoor cats for at least some portion of the day.” Taking 65% of 88 million—the number of pets cats estimated by the American Pet Products Association’s 2008 National Pet Owners Survey—the authors arrive at 57 million pet cats with outdoor access.

But what does that mean, to be free-ranging for at least some part of the day?

A 2003 survey conducted by Clancy, Moore, and Bertone [4] suggested that nearly half of the cats with outdoor access were outside for two or fewer hours a day. And 29% were outdoors for less than an hour each day. And a closer look at the study commissioned by ABC  indicates similar behavior: “35% keep their cats indoors all of the time” and “31% keep them indoors mostly with some outside access.” [5]

For Dauphiné and Cooper, though, these cats are no different from feral cats. For them to simply add the number of “part-time” outdoor cats to the population of “free-ranging outdoor cats” is highly misleading! The authors have no idea what impact these cats might have on bird populations—which is the stated purpose of their paper.

Note: For a closer look at the flaws in Dauphiné and Cooper’s paper, download “One Million Birds,” by Laurie D. Goldstein.

*     *     *

OK, back to Steve Holmer and the L.A. Times

Holmer’s estimate of 160 million is not a range, but the high limit of a seriously-flawed estimate (which is itself based on little more than wild guesses). And he refers specifically to feral cats—an error even Jessup, Dauphiné, and Cooper (none of whom, it seems, is likely to give feral cats even the slightest benefit of the doubt) don’t make.

Given the context of the discussion—TNR in Los Angeles—such an error was likely (perhaps intended?) to have serious consequences. To suggest that there are 160 million feral cats in this country—approximately one feral cat for every two human inhabitants—is irresponsible and manipulative. And it raises doubts about the integrity of ABC and its representatives. All of which I told Holmer. His reply read, in part:

We are doing are [sic] best to convey the facts as they become available. The 160 million figure was based on an earlier version of Nico’s latest paper and are now being updated in our materials which should now say:

There are currently 88 million pet cats in the U.S. according to a pet trade association, and that number is growing. In addition, it is estimated that there may be 60–100 million free-ranging feral cats in the U.S., and that these cats may collectively kill more than one million birds each day. Reducing this mortality even a small amount could potentially save millions of birds each year.

I haven’t checked the ABC website to verify Holmer’s claim. In any event, the damage was already done; ABC and the other petitioners had put a stop to publicly supported TNR in Los Angeles. And, from what I’ve seen (I’ve yet to wade through the thousands of pages of discovery documents in the case), they’d done so by selectively overlooking, ignoring, and misrepresenting the scientific research. Or, in the case of Holmer’s comment to the Times, simply “inventing” it.

By the way, I asked Holmer about his revised figure of “more than one million birds each day” killed by cats. He’s stopped replying to my e-mail.

1. 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. 2010. p. 205–219

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

3. Winter, L., “Trap-neuter-release programs: the reality and the impacts.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1369-1376.

4. Clancy, E. A., Moore, A. S., & Bertone, E. R. (2003). Evaluation of cat and owner characteristics and their relationships to outdoor access of owned cats. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 222(11), 1541-1545.

5. ABC. (1997). Human Attitudes and Behavior Regarding Cats. Washington, DC: American Bird Conservancy. Available at: http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/materials/attitude.pdf

The Things People Say (or Don’t)—Part 2

Like the Urban Wildlands Group, the Los Angeles Audubon Society seems eager to spread the word about the “threat” of feral cats. But, just like Urban Wildlands Group, what they’re saying doesn’t always add up.

The L.A. Audubon Society was (along with the Urban Wildlands Group) a petitioner in the case (LASC BS115483) that eventually led to an injunction against publicly supported TNR in Los Angeles. So it was no surprise to see a representative quoted in the Los Angeles Times:

“At San Pedro’s Cabrillo Beach, a feral cat colony resides near where snowy plovers nest, said Garry George, conservation chairman for the Los Angeles Audubon Society. At San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, George said, feral cats have wiped out the California quail population. And in San Diego, feral cats roam free near a habitat for the California least tern, which officials are trying to monitor and protect, he said.”

I’ve yet to look into George’s claims—and will reserve judgment until I have. That said, I think there’s reason to be wary. In February 2009, George had an article published in the online version of Los Angeles Magazine that raises questions about his ability to serve as a trustworthy spokesperson on the subject of feral cats. In “How to Make Your Yard a Bird Magnet,” George writes:

If feral cats are destroying your property, including your birds, you can use a Hav-a-Heart trap with a permit from Animal Services. They will spay or neuter the cats you trap and offer to find them a home.

To start with, it’s not clear that George’s bit of advice (including a link taking readers to the American Bird Conservancy’s Cats Indoors! campaign, a topic all its own) belongs in the article all. Then there’s his choice of words (to hear George tell it, you’d think real estate values in L.A. would be suffering for all the destruction wrought by feral cats!).

The real issue, though, is George’s assertion that L.A. Animal Services will sterilize and help find homes for the feral cats you trap. I’ve spoken with a representative at L.A. Animal Services, and was told—in no uncertain terms—that this is simply not the case. And it wasn’t true when George wrote it, either.

It’s hardly surprising—given how overcrowded L.A.’s shelters are with adoptable cats—that they’re not offering to find homes for feral cats (which often make for “difficult” adoption candidates). For George to suggest that these cats were headed for a happy ending is highly irresponsible. Either he didn’t know any better, or he intended his statement to be misleading and deceptive (he failed to respond to my inquiries on the subject). In either case, George had no business writing what he did. The fact that he did write it raises unsettling questions about his integrity and that of the organization he represents.

All of which begs another rather unsettling question: Do supporters of the L.A. Audubon Society fully understand what they’re supporting?