Dear Mayor

The American Bird Conservancy takes its plea for anti-TNR policies and feeding bans to the mayors of the country’s 50 largest cities. Just when cities are struggling to pay for essential services, animal control expenses would skyrocket.

Desperate times, it’s said, call for desperate measures.

Hence, the American Bird Conservancy’s latest stunt: calling “on the mayors of U.S. cities to stop the epidemic spread of feral cats that threaten national bird populations as well as scores of other wildlife.”

This, of course, follows ABC’s letter, sent over the summer, to Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, “urg[ing] the development of a Department-wide policy opposing Trap-Neuter-Release and the outdoor feeding of cats as a feral cat management option, coupled with a plan of action to address existing infestations affecting lands managed by the Department of the Interior.”

ABC is, it would seem, pulling out all the stops—which is what you do when you have neither public opinion nor the facts on your side.

Mayors Letter
The letter (PDF), signed by Darin Schroeder, ABC’s Vice President for Conservation Advocacy, and sent October 26 (just in time for some big-city mayors to be packing their things), begins this way:

“On behalf of American Bird Conservancy (ABC), I respectfully call your attention to the threat posed to birds and other wildlife in your city by feral and free-roaming cats. Given the well-documented impacts of cat predation on wildlife, ABC urges you to oppose Trap-Neuter-Re-abandon (TNR) programs and the outdoor feeding of cats as a feral cat management option.”

(The term Trap-Neuter-Re-abandon would seem to originate with a 2004 paper by David Jessup [1], just the latest example of ABC’s lack of originality (to say nothing of integrity). A month prior to sending out the “mayors letter,” ABC put out a media release lifted mostly from The Wildlife Society’s Rabies in Humans and Wildlife “fact sheet.”)

“Cat overpopulation,” Schroeder continues, “is a human-caused tragedy that affects the health and well-being of cats, our native wildlife and the public.”

“Numerous, published, scientific studies have shown that outdoor cats, even well-fed ones, kill hundreds of millions of wild birds and other animals each year in the U.S., including endangered species. Birds that nest or feed on the ground are especially vulnerable to cat attacks.”

Facts vs. “Facts”
Not surprisingly, Schroeder doesn’t go into detail about those “numerous, published, scientific studies” (caught up, as he is, in his disingenuous assertion that “TNR is not humane to the cats or the wildlife”).

Perhaps Schroeder’s expecting the letter’s recipients, their curiosity piqued, to go to ABC’s website for further information. In which case, they’re liable to find the recently updated version of Domestic Cat Predation on Birds and Other Wildlife (PDF), ABC’s idea of a fact sheet.

Unfortunately, the most substantial change to the 2011 incarnation of Domestic Cat Predation involves the typefaces used (a notable improvement—but, really, there was nowhere to go but up in this regard). Among the “classics” from the previous version are Cole Hawkins’ PhD dissertation, Carol Fiore’s master’s thesis, and, of course, the infamous Wisconsin Study—though the high “estimate” of “217 million birds a year” has been left out this time around. [2] (It’s a move straight out of Travis Longcore’s playbook: defend your reference to study that was never actually conducted by emphasizing its low “estimate.”)

And ABC is still claiming that 20–30 percent of the animals killed by cats are birds—this, based on “extensive studies of the feeding habits of free-roaming domestic cats have been conducted over the last 55 years in Europe, North America, Australia, Africa, and on many islands.” [2] This wasn’t true when ABC published its first “fact sheet” in 1997 as part of its Cats Indoors! campaign, and it wasn’t true when Ellen Perry Berkeley untangled the underlying science in her 2004 book, TNR Past Present and Future: A history of the trap-neuter-return movement. [3]

And guess what? It’s no closer to the truth today.

New to the 2011 version are references to the second edition of Frank Gill’s Ornithology (“cats kill between 500 million and one billion birds” [2]), in which Gill blindly endorses Rich Stallcup’s absurd, back-of-the-envelope predation “estimate,” and to the equally absurd $17 billion “annual economic loss from feral cat predation on birds in the United States.” [2]

And, not to be outdone, ABC refers to their own book, released last year, claiming: “After loss of wildlife habitat and fragmentation due to human development, scientists now list invasive species, including cats, as the second most serious threat to bird populations worldwide.” [2] (This reference to scientists is seriously undermined by ABC’s failure to cite sources in The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation.)

ABC is nothing if not predictable, so it’s no surprise to see them once again playing the ESA/MBTA card.

“Federal, state, and local governments,” writes Schroeder, “have responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to conserve birds, and must also carry out their paramount mandate of protecting public’s health. Failing to do so can result in legal penalties and civil liability.”

Again, no specifics. Why? To my knowledge (and I’ve asked many others who’ve been at this far longer than I have) there has been no such legal action; it’s just another of ABC’s scare tactics.

Policy Plea
Schroeder wraps up his plea by urging mayors “to issue a policy directive opposing TNR and halt city funding if any is currently being expended”—suggesting, I suppose, that the traditional trap-and-kill approach is cost-effective.

And the evidence of that? Like their scientific and legal claims, ABC can’t be bothered with the details. (Of course, Schroeder does invite inquiries: “If you have any questions please feel free to call Anne Law at 202/234-7181, or email”)

Now, Schroeder doesn’t say so, but what ABC is actually calling for is the killing—on an unprecedented scale—of this country’s most popular pet (the inevitable consequence of policies prohibiting TNR and outdoor feeding). And we know a thing or two about what’s involved with “successful” eradication efforts.

On Marion Island, for example, it took 19 years to exterminate approximately 2,200 cats—using feline distemper, poisoning, hunting and trapping, and dogs. [4] Just 115 square miles in total area, this barren, uninhabited South Indian Ocean island is the largest from which cats have been eradicated.

I’ve been unable to find cost figures for the project, but if the Ascension Island effort is any indication, it must have been astronomical. On Ascension, roughly one-third the size of Marion, it cost the equivalent of $1.1 million to eradicate approximately 635 cats over 27 months. [5] (Nearly 40 percent of the island’s pet cats were accidentally killed in the process, which, as one report noted, “caused public consternation.”)

Is it any wonder ABC ignores island eradications—arguably the greatest “successes” for lethal control methods—in their talking points? Even if policy makers (and the public, to whom they are accountable) were willing to fund such unspeakable horrors with our tax dollars, there’s no evidence to suggest that such measures can be scaled up for use across the country.

•     •     •

I agree that “cat overpopulation is a human-caused tragedy,” but see nothing in Schroeder’s letter to suggest that ABC is part of the solution.

On the contrary, the record is quite clear: for years now, ABC has been promoting erroneous and misleading information in their tireless effort to vilify free-roaming cats. Indeed, no organization has been more effective at working the anti-TNR pseudoscience into a message neatly packaged for the mainstream media, and eventual consumption by the general public.

This seems to be changing, though, as people begin to see through ABC’s bogus claims—and, just as important, their lack of an alternative to TNR. Like their colleagues at The Wildlife Society, ABC needs to focus less on getting their message out and more on the message itself.

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

2. ABC, Domestic Cat Predation on Birds and Other Wildlife. 2011, American Bird Conservancy: The Plains, VA.

3. Berkeley, E.P., TNR Past present and future: A history of the trap-neuter-return movement. 2004, Bethesda, MD: Alley Cat Allies.

4. 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.

5. Ratcliffe, N., et al., “The eradication of feral cats from Ascension Island and its subsequent recolonization by seabirds.” Oryx. 2010. 44(01): p. 20–29.