Thinking Inside the Box

It’s difficult to determine how these things get started—how the results of a well-documented experiment conducted nearly 40 years ago become twisted into the frequently made—and widely-accepted—claim that “even well-fed cats hunt.”

This would appear to be a case of validity through repetition: repeat a claim often enough and, eventually, people will come to believe it’s true—never bothering to check the original source. (Pro Tip: For added efficacy, click the heels of your ruby-red slippers together while repeating the claim.)

This, it should go without saying, is not how science is supposed to work. Read more

The Annotated Apocalypse Meow

In the current issue of The Washingtonian, senior writer Luke Mullins provides the most comprehensive profile yet of former Smithsonian researcher Nico Dauphiné, convicted last October of attempted animal cruelty. Most telling are his conversations with her unwavering supporters, who—in spite of the evidence, her well-documented history, and her miserable performance on the stand—continue to make excuses for her.

In the five months since she was convicted of attempted animal cruelty, former Smithsonian researcher Nico Dauphiné has enjoyed a respite from the largely unflattering media spotlight. All that changed in the past few weeks, though—first with Conservation magazine’s “Cat Fight,” and now with a 6,100-word feature in the April issue of The Washingtonian.

In “Apocalypse Now,” senior writer Luke Mullins digs into Dauphiné’s DC court case, as well as her previous “community service” in Athens, GA. The Nico Dauphiné that emerges is a far cry from the sympathetic character portrayed in “Cat Fight”—where, for example, writer John Carey laments: “Unfortunately, the strange case of the accused cat poisoner didn’t end well.” [1]

Although Mullins was unable to speak with Dauphiné for the piece, his conversations with people close to Dauphiné—as well as many who observed her mistreatment of cats—are illuminating. Read more

It’s Not the Media, It’s the Message

To hear The Wildlife Society’s staunch opponents of TNR tell it, the media’s just not interested in stories about “the impacts of free-ranging and feral cats on wildlife.”

“This January when thousands of blackbirds fell from the sky in Arkansas, articles about mass extinctions and bird conservation were a dime-a-dozen. When the Deepwater Horizon oil spill killed 6,000 birds between April to October 2010, news organizations ran ‘Breaking News’ about the negative impacts on the environment. Meanwhile it is estimated that one million birds are killed everyday by cats, and the only news organizations covering it are small, local branches. The bigger problem is being shuffled to the backburner for more sensational news.”

According to The Wildlife Society (TWS), however, “the bigger problem” is “greater than almost any other single-issue.”

In their effort to get the issue on the front burner, TWS has “gathered the facts about these cats, and published them in the Spring Issue of The Wildlife Professional in a special section called ‘The Impact of Free Ranging Cats.’” (available free via

Thus armed, readers are expected to, as it says on the cover, “Pick One: Outdoor Cats or Conservation”

Back Burner or Hot Topic?
Before we get to the “facts,” it’s worth looking back over the past 15 months to see just how neglectful the media have been re: “the bigger problem.”

  • January 9, 2010: Travis Longcore, science director for the Urban Wildlands Group, tells Southern California Public Radio: “Feral cats are documented predators of native wildlife. We do not support release of this non-native predator into our open spaces and neighborhoods, where they kill birds and other wildlife.”
  • January 17, 2010 Longcore, whose Urban Wildlands Group was lead plaintiff in a lawsuit aimed to put an end to publicly supported TNR in Los Angeles, tells the L.A. Times: “It’s ugly; it’s gotten very vicious. It’s not like we’ve got a vendetta here. This is a real environmental issue, a real public health issue.” In the same story, American Bird Conservancy’s Senior Policy Advisor, Steve Holmer, tells the 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.”

  • September 30, 2010: “Scientists are quietly raging about the effects that cats, both owned and stray, are having on bird populations,” claims Washington Post columnist Adrian Higgins. “It’s not an issue that has received much attention, but with an estimated 90 million pet cats in the United States, two-thirds of them allowed outdoors, the cumulative effect on birds is significant, according to experts.” Higgins’ story is riddled with misinformation, courtesy of the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), The Wildlife Society, and Dauphine and Cooper’s 2009 Partners in Flight paper.

“Palmer said one of the most ‘heartbreaking’ scenes during filming was at a volunteer spay-neuter clinic in Los Angeles that sterilized 80 ferals a day. She said most of the cats had infections that never healed, as well as broken bones, large abscesses around their teeth and mange.” (A claim easily discredited, if only the reporters had bothered to check.)

  • January 2011: Utah Representative Curtis Oda sponsors HB 210, which would permit “the humane shooting of an animal in an unincorporated area of a county, where hunting is not prohibited, if the person doing the shooting has a reasonable belief that the animal is a feral animal.”

Yet, the folks at TWS would have us believe that “the only news organizations covering [the cat-bird issue] are small, local branches.” As is often the case, their story doesn’t hold up well alongside the facts.

Indeed, other than when Higgins got Executive Director/CEO Michael Hutchins’ name wrong, it’s hard to see what TWS has to complain about.

The Art of Selling Science
“After years of arguments,” laments Nico Dauphine and Robert Cooper, recalling last year’s decision by Athens, GA, to adopt TNR, “the vote was cast: 9–1 in favor of the ordinance, with an additional 7–3 vote establishing a $10,000 annual budget to support the TNR program.”

“How could this happen in a progressive community like Athens, Georgia, home to one of the nation’s finest university programs in wildlife science? The answer is a complex mix of money, politics, intense emotions, and deeply divergent perspectives on animal welfare… If we’re going to win the battle to save wildlife from cats, then we’ll need to be smarter about how we communicate the science.” [1]

Something tells me this “smarter” communication doesn’t allow for much in the way of honesty and transparency—attributes already in short supply.

Old Habits
“The Impact of Free Ranging Cats” has given its contributors the opportunity to revive and reinforce a range of dubious claims, including the ever-popular exaggerations about the number of free-roaming cats in the environment.

According to Dauphine and Cooper, “The number of outdoor pet cats, strays, and feral cats in the U.S. alone now totals approximately 117 to 157 million,” [1] an estimate rooted in their earlier creative accounting. Colin Gillin, president of the American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians, who penned this issue’s “Leadership Letter” (more on that later), follows suit, claiming  “60 million or more pet cats are allowed outdoors to roam free.” [2]

The American Pet Products Association 2008 National Pet Owners Survey, though, indicates that 64 percent of pet cats are indoor-only during the daytime, and 69 percent are kept in at night [3]. Of those that are allowed outdoors, approximately half are outside for less than three hours each day. [4, 5]

This information is widely available—and has been for years—yet many TNR opponents continue to inflate by a factor of two the number of free-roaming pet cats.

And it only gets worse from here.

Dense and Denser
Not content to inflate absolute cat numbers, Dauphine and Cooper go on to misrepresent research into population demographics as well. “Local densities can be extremely high,” they write, “reaching up to 1,580 cats per square kilometer in urban areas.” [1] In fact, the very paper they cite paints a rather different picture. For one thing, there’s quite a range involved: 132–1,579 cats per square kilometer (a point recognized by Yolanda van Heezik, another contributor to the special issue [6].)

Also, this is a highly skewed distribution—there are lots of instances of low/medium density, while high densities are far less common. As a result, the median (417) is used “as a measure of central tendency” [7] rather than the mean (856). So, although densities “reaching up to 1,580 cats per square kilometer in urban areas” were observed, more than half fell between 132 and 417 cats per square kilometer (or 51–161 cats per square mile).

Even more interesting, however, are what Sims et al. learned when they compared bird density and cat density: in many cases, there were more birds in the very areas where there were more cats—even species considered especially vulnerable to predation by cats. It may be, suggest Sims et al., that, because high cat density corresponds closely to high housing density, this measure is also an indication of those areas “where humans provide more supplementary food for birds.” [7]

Another explanation: “consistently high cat densities in our study areas… and thus uniformly high impacts of cat populations on urban avian assemblages.” [7] (Interestingly, the authors never consider that they might be observing uniformly low impacts.)

The bottom line? It’s difficult enough to show a direct link between observed predation and population impacts; suggesting a causal connection between high cat densities and declining bird populations is misleading and irresponsible. (Not that Dauphine and Cooper are the only ones to attempt it; recall that no predation data from Coleman and Temple’s “Wisconsin Study” were ever published, despite numerous news stories in which Temple referred to their existence in some detail [8–10].)

Predation Pressure
Dauphine and Cooper make a similar leap when, to buttress their claim that “TNR does not reduce predation pressure on native wildlife,” [1] they cite a study not about predation, but about the home ranges of 27 feral cats on Catalina Island.

While it’s true that the researchers found “no significant differences… in home-range areas or overlap between sterilized and intact cats,” [11] this has as much due to their tiny sample size as anything else. And the difference in range size between the four intact males and the four sterilized males was—while not statistically significant—revealing.

The range of intact males was 33–116 percent larger during the non-breeding season, and 68–80 percent larger during the breeding season. In his study of “house-bound” cats, Liberg, too, found differences: “breeding males had ranges of 350–380 hectares; ranges of subordinate, non-breeding males were around 80 hectares, or not much larger than those of females.” [12]

All of which suggests smaller ranges for males that are part of TNR programs. What any of this has to do with “predation pressure on native wildlife,” however, remains an open question.

On the other hand, Castillo and Clarke (whose paper Dauphine and Cooper cite) actually documented remarkably little predation among the TNR colonies they studied. 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” [13] prior to beginning their research), Castillo and Clarke “saw cats kill a juvenile common yellowthroat and a blue jay. 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” [13].

Another of Dauphine and Cooper’s “facts”—that “TNR does not typically reduce feral cat populations”—is contradicted by another one of the studies they cite. Contrary to what the authors suggest, Felicia Nutter’s PhD thesis work showed that “colonies managed by trap-neuter-return were stable in composition and declining in size throughout the seven year follow-up period.” [14]

Indeed, Nutter observed a mean decrease of 36 percent (range: 30–89 percent) in the six TNR colonies they studied over two years. By contrast, the three control colonies increased in size an average of 47 percent. [15]

Additional TNR success stories Dauphine and Cooper fail to acknowledge:

  • Natoli et al. 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]
  • As of 2004, ORCAT, run by the Ocean Reef Community Associa­tion (in the Florida Keys), had reduced its “overall population from approximately 2,000 cats to 500 cats.” [17] Accord­ing to the ORCAT Website, the population today is approximately 350, of which only about 250 are free-roaming.

Toxoplasma gondii
In recent years, Toxoplasma gondii has been linked to the illness and death of marine life, primarily sea otters [18], prompting investigation into the possible role of free-roaming (both owned and feral) cats. [19, 20] But if, as the authors claim, “the science points to cats,” then it does so rather obliquely, an acknowledgement Jessup and Miller make begrudgingly:

“Based on proximity and sheer numbers, outdoor pet and feral domestic cats may be the most important source of T. gondii oocysts in near-shore marine waters. Mountain lions and bobcats rarely dwell near the ocean or in areas of high human population density, where sea otter infections are more common.” [21, emphasis mine]

Correlation, however, is not the same as causation. And not all T. gondii is the same.

In a study of southern sea otters from coastal California, conducted between 1998 and 2004, a team of researches—including Jessup and Miller—found that 36 of 50 otters were infected with the Type X strain of T. gondii, one of at least four known strains. [22] Jessup and Miller were also among 14 co-authors of a 2008 paper (referenced in their contribution to “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats”) in which the Type X strain was linked not to domestic cats, but to wild felids:

“Three of the Type X-infected carnivores were wild felids (two mountain lions and a bobcat), but no domestic cats were Type X-positive. Examination of larger samples of wild and domestic felids will help clarify these initial findings. If Type X strains are detected more commonly from wild felids in subsequent studies, this could suggest that these animals are more important land-based sources of T. gondii for marine wildlife than are domestic cats.” [20, emphasis mine]

Combining the results of the two studies, then, nearly three-quarters of the sea otters examined as part of the 1998–2004 study were infected with a strain of T. gondii that hasn’t been traced to domestic cats. (I found this to be such surprising news that, months ago, I tried to contact Miller about it. Was I missing something? What studies were being conducted that might confirm or refute these finings? Etc. I never received a reply.)

As Miller et al. note, “subsequent studies” are in order. And it’s important to keep in mind their sample size was quite small: three bobcats, 26 mountain lions, and seven domestic cats (although the authors suggest at one point that only five domestic cats were included).

Still, a recently published study from Germany seems to support the hypothesis that the Type X strain isn’t found in domestic cats. Herrmann et al. analyzed 68 T. gondii-positive fecal samples (all from pet cats) and found no Type X strain. [23] (It’s interesting to note, too, that only 0.25 percent of the 18,259 samples tested positive for T. gondii.)

This is not to say that there’s no connection between domestic cats and Toxoplasmosis in sea otters, but that any “trickle-down effect,” as Jessup and Miller describe it, is not nearly as well understood as they imply. There’s too much we simply don’t know.

Money and Politics
I agree with Dauphine and Cooper that science is only part of the TNR debate—that it also involves “a complex mix of money, politics, intense emotions, and deeply divergent perspectives on animal welfare.” And I agree with their assessment of the progress being made by TNR supporters:

“Advocates of TNR have gained tremendous political strength in the U.S. in recent years. With millions of dollars in donor funding, they are influencing legislation and the policies of major animal-oriented nonprofit organizations.” [1]

What I find puzzling is Dauphine’s rather David-and-Goliath portrayal of the “cat lobby” (my term, not hers) they’re up against—in particular, her complaint, “promotion of TNR is big business, with such large amounts of money in play that conservation scientists opposing TNR can’t begin to compete.” [24]

The Cat Lobby
In “Follow the Money: The Economics of TNR Advocacy,” she notes that Best Friends Animal Society, “one of the largest organizations promoting TNR, took in over $40 million in revenue in 2009.” [24] Fair enough, but this needs to be weighed against expenses of $35.6 million—of which $15.5 million was spent on “animal care activities.”

But Dauphine’s got it wrong when she claims that Best Friends “spent more than $11 million on cat advocacy campaigns that year.” [24] Their financials—spelled out in the same document Dauphine cites—are unambiguous: $11.7 million in expenditures went to all “campaigns and other national outreach.” Indeed, there is no breakdown for “cat advocacy campaigns.”

Dauphine does a better job describing Alley Cat Allies’ 2010 financials: of the $5.2 million they took in, $3.3 million was spent in public outreach. But she’s overreaching in suggesting that their “Every Kitty, Every City” campaign is nationwide. For now, at least, it’s up and running in just “five major U.S. cities.”

Echoing Dauphine’s concerns, Florida attorney Pamela Jo Hatley decries ORCAT’s resources: “At a meeting hosted by the Ocean Reef Resort in June 2004,” recalls Hatley, “I learned that the ORCAT colony then had about 500 free-ranging cats, several paid employees, and an annual operating budget of some $100,000.” [25]

What Hatley fails to mention is how those resources have been used to make ORCAT a model for the rest of the country—using private donations. Hatley doesn’t seem to object to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shelling out $50,000—of tax dollars—in 2007 to round up fewer than 20 cats (some of which were clearly not feral) along with 81 raccoons (53 of which were released alive) in the Florida Keys. [26, 27]

Following the Money
According to their 2008 Form 990, ORCAT took in about $278,000 in revenue, compared to $310,000 in expenses. How does that compare to some of the organizations opposing TNR? A quick visit to helps put things in perspective.

  • In 2009, ABC took in just under $6 million, slightly more than their expenses.
  • TWS had $2.3 million in revenue in 2009, which was more than offset by expenses of $2.5 million.
  • Friends of the National Zoo, which oversees the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, showed $15 million in revenue, just exceeding their 2009 expenses of $14.7 million. (The Smithsonian Institute topped $1 billion in both the revenue and expense categories.)
  • And the National Audubon Society took in $61.6 million in 2008 (the most recent year for which information is available). And, despite expenses in excess of $86 million, finished the year with more than $255 million in net assets.

These numbers clearly don’t reflect the funding each organization dedicates to opposing TNR—but neither do they offer any evidence that, as Dauphine argues, “conservation scientists opposing TNR can’t begin to compete.”

Intense Emotions
Nobody familiar with the TNR debate would suggest that it’s not highly emotional. How can it be otherwise? Indeed, the very idea of decoupling our emotions from such important discourse is rather absurd.

Having an emotional investment in the debate does not, however, make one irrational or stupid.

“On the surface,” suggest Dauphine and Cooper, their tone unmistakably condescending, “TNR may sound reasonable, even logical.” [1] Gillin, for his part, bemoans the way the TNR debate “quickly shifts from statistics to politics to emotional arguments.” [2]

What’s particularly fascinating about all of this—the way TNR supporters are made out to be irrational (if not mentally ill—as in a letter to Conservation Biology last year, when several TNR opponents, including four contributors to “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats,” compared TNR to hoarding [28])—is just how emotionally charged the appeal of TNR opponents is.

Witness the “gruesome gallery of images,” for example, in which “one cat lies dead with a broken leg, one lies dying in a coat of maggots, and another suffers as ticks and ear mites plague its face.” [1] The idea, of course, is that these cats would have been better off if they’d been rounded up and killed “humanely.” A preemptive strike against the inevitability of “short, brutal lives.” (This phrase, which I first saw used by Jessup, [28] has become remarkably popular among TNR opponents.)

But is it that simple? Applying the same logic (if that’s what it is) to pelicans covered in oil, for instance, would we suggest that these birds should either be in captivity or “humanely euthanized”? Obviously not.

Divergent Perspectives on Animal Welfare
While I disagree that “the debate is predominately about whether cats should be allowed to run wild across the landscape and, if not, how to effectively and humanely manage them,” [29] I tend to agree with Lepczyk et al. when they write:

“It’s much more about human views and perceptions than science—a classic case where understanding the human dimensions of an issue is the key to mitigating the problem.” [29]

But, like Dauphine and Cooper, Lepczyk et al. seem more interested in broadcasting their message—loudly, ad nauseam—than in listening. “We need to understand whether people are even aware,” they write, “of the cumulative impact that their actions—choosing to let cats outdoors—can have on wildlife populations.” [29]

Although it’s packaged somewhat “softly,” we’re back to the same old speculative connections between predation and population impacts (familiar terrain for Lepczyk, who tried to connect these same dots in his PhD research). But how much of a connection is there, really? In their review of 61 predation studies, Mike Fitzgerald and Dennis Turner are unambiguous:

“We consider that we do not have enough information yet to attempt to estimate on average how many birds a cat kills each year. And there are few, if any studies apart from island ones that actually demonstrate that cats have reduced bird populations.” [30]

While the tone used by Lepczyk et al. is very much “we’re all in this together,” their prescription for “moving forward” suggests little common ground. (They actually cite that 2010 letter to Conservation Biology [28]—not much of an olive branch.)

“One approach is exemplified in Hawaii,” explain the authors, “where we’ve become part of a large coalition of stakeholders working together with the shared goal of reducing and eventually removing feral cats from the landscape.” [29] So, who’s involved?

“Our diverse group includes individuals from the Humane Society of the United States, the Hawaiian Humane Society, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, and the University of Hawaii. Our team also regularly interacts with other groups around the nation such as regional Audubon Societies and the American Bird Conservancy. Several stakeholders in the group have differing views, such as on whether or not euthanasia or culling is appropriate, or whether people should feed feral cats.” [29]

Other than the Humane Society organizations (whose position on TNR I don’t take for granted, considering they were early supporters of ABC’s Cats Indoors! campaign [31]), I don’t see a real diversity of views in this coalition.

I suppose it’s easy to make room at the table when you’re offering so few seats.

For Dauphine, though, any such collaboration approaches treason. Or selling out, at least.

“In some cases,” she explains, “conservation groups accept funding to join in efforts promoting TNR. The New Jersey Audubon Society, for example, had previously rejected TNR but began supporting it in 2005, acknowledging funding from the Frankenberg and Dodge Foundations for collaboration with TNR groups.” [24]

Dauphine doesn’t go into detail about the amount of funding, and it’s not clear what, if any, role it played in the decision by NJAS (which took in $6.8 million in 2008) to participate in the New Jersey Feral Cat-Wildlife Coalition—the kind of collaborative effort that should be encouraged, not derided:

“From 2002 to 2005, NJAS had actively opposed the practice of TNR in New Jersey. Despite this opposition, municipalities continued to adopt TNR ordinances. In 2005, NJAS, American Bird Conservancy, Neighborhood Cats and Burlington Feral Cat Initiative began exploratory dialogue about implementing standards to protect rare wildlife vulnerable to cat predation in towns which have already adopted TNR programs.” [32]

Message Received, Loud and Clear
Rather than wringing their hands over how to “better communicate the science” [1] or how to better facilitate “legal or policy changes, incentives, and increased education,” [29] TNR opponents might want to reconsider the message itself.

What they are proposing is the killing—on an unprecedented scale—of this country’s most popular pet.

I don’t imagine this tests well with focus groups and donors, of course, but there it is.

These people seem perplexed by a community’s willingness to adopt TNR (“In the end,” lament Lepczyk et al., referring to the decision in Athens, GA, “the professional opinion of wildlife biologists counted no more than that of any other citizen, a major reason for the defeat.” [29]) but fail to recognize how profoundly unpalatable their alternative is.

And, unworkable, too.

Which may explain why it’s virtually impossible to get them to discuss their “plan” in any detail. (I was unsuccessful, for example, in pinning down Travis Longcore during our back-and-forth on the Audubon magazine’s blog and couldn’t get Jessup or Hutchins to bite when I asked the same question during an online discussion of public health risks.)

In light of what’s involved with “successful” eradication programs, I’m not surprised by their eagerness to change the subject.

  • On Marion Island, it took 19 years to eradicate something like 2,200 cats—using disease (feline distemper), poisoning, intensive hunting and trapping, and dogs. This on an island that’s only 115 square miles in total area, barren, and uninhabited. [33, 34] The cost, I’m sure, was astronomical.
  • On the sparsely populated (fewer than 1,000, according to Wikipedia) Ascension Island (less than 34 total square miles), a 2003 eradication effort cost nearly $950,000 (adjusted to 2009 dollars). [35]
  • A 2000 effort on Tuhua (essentially uninhabited, and just 4.9 square miles) ran $78,591 (again, adjusted to 2009 dollars). [35]
  • Efforts on Macquarie Island (also small—47.3 square miles—and essentially uninhabited) proved particularly costly: $2.7 million in U.S. (2009) dollars. And still counting. The resulting rebound in rabbit and rodent numbers prompted “Federal and State governments in Australia [to commit] AU$24 million for an integrated rabbit, rat and mouse eradication programme.” [36] (To put this into context, Macquarie Island is about one-third the size of the Florida Keys.)

These examples represent, in many ways, low-hanging fruit. By contrast, “the presence of non-target species and the need to safely mitigate for possible harmful effects, along with substantial environmental compliance requirements raised the cost of the eradication.” [37] Eradicating rodents from Anacapa Island, “a small [1.2-square-mile] island just 80 miles from Los Angeles International Airport, cost about $2 million.” [38]

Now—setting aside the horrors involved—how exactly do TNR opponents propose to rid the U.S. of it’s millions of feral cats? [cue the sound track of crickets chirping]

I think the general public is starting to catch on. Even if they fall for the outlandish claims about predation, wildlife impacts, and all the rest—they don’t see anything in the way of a real solution. As Mark Kumpf, former president of the National Animal Control Association, put it in an interview with Animal Sheltering magazine, “the traditional methods that many communities use… are not necessarily the ones that communities are looking for today.” [39]

“Traditional” approaches to feral cat management (i.e., trap-and-kill) are, says Kumpf, akin to “bailing the ocean with a thimble.” [39]

For all their apparent interest—22 pages in the current issue of The Wildlife Professional alone—TWS might as well be handing out thimbles to its members. Although Gillin’s “Leadership Letter” invites “dialogue among all stakeholders,” it offers nothing substantive to advance the discussion:

“If removal and euthanasia of unadoptable feral cats is not acceptable to TNR proponents, then they need to offer the conservation community a logical, science-based proposal that will solve the problem of this invasive species and its effect on wildlife and the environment.” [2]

So much for leadership.

Literature Cited
1. Dauphine, N. and Cooper, R.J., “Pick One: Outdoor Cats or Conservation.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 50–56.

2. Gillin, C., “The Cat Conundrum.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 10, 12.

3. APPA, 2009–2010 APPA National Pet Owners Survey. 2009, American Pet Products Association: Greenwich, CT.

4. 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.

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

6. van Heezik, Y., “A New Zealand Perspective.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 70.

7. Sims, V., et al., “Avian assemblage structure and domestic cat densities in urban environments.” Diversity and Distributions. 2008. 14(2): p. 387–399.

8. Wilson, M. (1997). Cats Roaming Free Take a Toll on Songbirds. Boston Globe, p. 11.

9. Seppa, N. (1993, July 22). Millions of Songbirds, Rabbits Disappearing. Wisconsin State Journal, p. 1A.

10.  Wozniak, M.D. (1993, August 3). Feline felons: Barn cats are just murder on songbirds. The Milwaukee Journal, p. A1.

11. Guttilla, D.A. and Stapp, P., “Effects of sterilization on movements of feral cats at a wildland-urban interface.”Journal of Mammalogy. 2010. 91(2): p. 482–489.

12. Liberg, O. and Sandell, M., 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. 1988, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge; New York. p. 83–98.

13. 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.

14. 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.

15. Stoskopf, M.K. and Nutter, F.B., “Analyzing approaches to feral cat management—one size does not fit all.”Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1361–1364.

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.

17. 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.

18. Jones, J.L. and Dubey, J.P., “Waterborne toxoplasmosis – Recent developments.” Experimental Parasitology. 124(1): p. 10-25.

19. Dabritz, H.A., et al., “Outdoor fecal deposition by free-roaming cats and attitudes of cat owners and nonowners toward stray pets, wildlife, and water pollution.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2006. 229(1): p. 74-81.

20. Miller, M.A., et al., “Type X Toxoplasma gondii in a wild mussel and terrestrial carnivores from coastal California: New linkages between terrestrial mammals, runoff and toxoplasmosis of sea otters.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2008. 38(11): p. 1319-1328.

21. Jessup, D.A. and Miller, M.A., “The Trickle-Down Effect.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 62–64.

22. Conrad, P.A., et al., “Transmission of Toxoplasma: Clues from the study of sea otters as sentinels of Toxoplasma gondii flow into the marine environment.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2005. 35(11-12): p. 1155-1168.

23. Herrmann, D.C., et al., “Atypical Toxoplasma gondii genotypes identified in oocysts shed by cats in Germany.”International Journal for Parasitology. 2010. 40(3): p. 285–292.

24. Dauphine, N., “Follow the Money: The Economics of TNR Advocacy.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 54.

25. Hatley, P.J., “Incompatible Neighbors in the Florida Keys.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 52–53.

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

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

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

29. Lepczyk, C.A., van Heezik, Y., and Cooper, R.J., “An Issue with All-Too-Human Dimensions.” The Wildlife Professional. 2011. 5(1): p. 68–70.

30. Fitzgerald, B.M. and Turner, D.C., Hunting Behaviour of domestic cats and their impact on prey populations, in The Domestic Cat: The biology of its behaviour, D.C. Turner and P.P.G. Bateson, Editors. 2000, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, U.K.; New York. p. 151–175.

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

32. Stiles, E., NJAS Works with Coalition to Reduce Bird Mortality from Outdoor Cats. 2008, New Jersey Audubon Society.

33. 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.

34. 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.

35. Martins, T.L.F., et al., “Costing eradications of alien mammals from islands.” Animal Conservation. 2006. 9(4): p. 439–444.

36. 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.

37. Donlan, C.J. and Heneman, B., Maximizing Return on Investments for Island Restoration with a Focus on Seabird Conservation. 2007, Advanced Conservation Strategies: Santa Cruz, CA.

38. Donlan, C.J. and Wilcox, C., Complexities of costing eradications, in Animal Conservation. 2007, Wiley-Blackwell. p. 154–156.

39. Hettinger, J., Taking a Broader View of Cats in the Community, in Animal Sheltering. 2008. p. 8–9.

Keys: To the Future

Below is a slightly reformatted version of the comments I submitted in response to the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex Integrated Predator Management Plan/Draft Environmental Assessment. A PDF version is available here.

•     •     •

To Whom It May Concern:

I am writing to comment on the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex Integrated Predator Management Plan/Draft Environmental Assessment. As I point out below, the IPMP/EA proposed by FWS fails to adequately address—or overlooks entirely—several key issues. Only now, for example—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]

How can FWS even put forward its IPMP/EA without this critical information in hand? One would expect, under the circumstances, that population estimates and scat analysis, for in­stance—along with whatever additional research might better inform any proposed action by FWS—would form the basis of such an IPMP/EA.

In addition, the IPMP/EA fails to address risks inherent with the improper management of free-roaming cats in the Keys. The plan proposed by FWS is unlikely to result in the removal of cats at a rate sufficient to keep pace with reproduction—a situation exacerbated greatly by its insistence on banning the feeding of feral cats and Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs. Consequently, the population of feral cats may very well increase. And even if FWS is successful at removing cats from some locations, the IPMP/EA fails to take into account the risk of meso­predator release—the inevitable spike in non-native rodent populations—and its impact on the native species the IPMP/EA aims to protect.

For these reasons (each of which is outlined in detail below), I strongly encourage FWS to revise its IPMP/EA, especially as it pertains to the removal of feral cats.

Justification for Action
After a thorough reading of the Draft Environmental Assessment (EA) for the Florida Keys Na­tional Wildlife Refuges Complex (FKNWRC) Integrated Predator Management Plan—along with several supporting documents (as described below)—I am struck by how inadequately the IPMP/EA addresses several critical issues. Indeed, the Plan’s Justification for Management Action suggests that FWS has an insufficient and/or largely incorrect understanding of the impacts of feral and free-roaming cats on native wildlife and the environment.

Among the studies FWS cites to support its claim that “free-roaming cats have been shown to be a major cause of 33 native species extinction globally,” [1] 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.” [2]

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. In fact, 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. [3]

Another of the papers cited by FWS has nothing to do with extinctions at all. As the authors 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.” [4]

Also listed among the “evidence” of island extinctions were studies that—in addition to having nothing to do with extinctions—were not conducted on islands. Coleman and Temple’s 1993 sur­vey, for example, involved rural Wisconsin residents and their outdoor cats, [5] while Churcher and Lawton surveyed residents of a small English village. [6]

Threatened or Endangered Species
FWS’s assertion that “many of the species impacted by free-roaming cats are federally listed threatened or endangered species and federally protected migratory birds” [1] is, while probably true, also largely meaningless. According to the 2009 State of the Birds report, published by the De­partment of the Interior:

“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.” [7]

That translates to approximately 31 percent of all birds in this country being species of concern. FWS makes it sound as if perhaps the cats are targeting these birds; in fact, it’s obvious that all forms of mortality pose an acute threat to these vulnerable populations.

Disruptions to Native Ecosystems
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 [8] and Jessup. [9]

But Hawkins’ dissertation work is 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,” [8] for example. A closer look reveals that five of the nine ground-feeding birds in his study showed no preference for either area of the study site (a fact Hawkins downplays con­siderably). Without any explanation for why these vulnerable bird species were indifferent to the presence of an opportunistic predator, Hawkins is in no position to make the causal connections he does.

Jessup cites some well-known predation studies, but his concern is not the (presumed) impact on wildlife, per se, but rather the wholesale condemnation of “trap, neuter, and reabandon,” [9] as he calls it.

Birds and Cats
FWS claims 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 the 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, frankly, Stallcup gets most of that wrong. Mainly, 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.” [10]

Stallcup goes on to suggest that gardeners “…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.” [10]

Another of the studies cited by FWS—a 2008 paper by Sax and Gaines—isn’t about cats at all. Or even invasive animals. Although the authors do mention “the extinction of many native animal species on islands” [11] 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.” [11, emphasis mine]

Nevertheless, the assertion—made by FWS and many others, too—that “cats kill at least one billion birds every year in the U.S.” deserves careful scrutiny. Such aggregate figures can typically be traced to small—often flawed—studies, the results of which are subsequently extrapolated from one habitat to another, conflating island populations with those on continents, combining common and rare bird species, and so forth. Perhaps the most famous example of such pseudosci­entific manipulation is the infamous “Wisconsin Study” by Coleman and Temple.

Actually, there was no Wisconsin Study, in the scientific, peer-reviewed-publication sense. The often-cited “estimates”—which have, over the past 15 years, taken on mythical status—were nothing more than back-of-the envelopes guesses. Indeed, co-author Stanley Temple himself admitted that their figures weren’t “actual data,” though many—including the FWS—continue treating these figures as if they were actual data. “That was just our projection to show how bad it might be,” noted Temple. [12]

But Temple wasn’t as forthright about was the origin of their “estimates.” The authors’ “inter­mediate” figure of “38.7 million birds killed by rural cats” [13] is based on the results of a study involving just four “urban” cats and one rural cat in Virginia [14, 15] (this, in addition to Coleman and Temple’s several flawed assumptions). And their high estimate was even less valid.

Something else often left out of the debate: predation—even at high levels—does not automati­cally lead to population declines. In fact, some studies [16, 17] have shown that birds killed by cats are, on average, significantly less healthy than those killed through non-predatory events (e.g., collisions with buildings).

In the end, enormous “estimates” of annual predation rates are utterly meaningless—useful only as a sensational talking point by organizations interested in vilifying free-roaming cats. Such figures are routinely “sold” to a mainstream media and public unfamiliar with the larger context.

Threats to Public Health
Citing the Centers for Disease Control website, FWS argues:

“…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]

In fact, 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.”

False Premises
The numerous misrepresentations, oversights, and errors outlined above suggest quite clearly that FWS either lacks a sufficient grasp of the critical issues involved—or that it’s not interested in being forthright with the public. This is not an academic issue; nor should my detailed criticism be considered nitpicking. After all, it’s quite clear that FWS intends to eliminate free-roaming cats on public—and, if possible, also private—land throughout the Keys. As “justification for ac­tion,” the IPMP/EA falls well short of what is required; as a public record, it is wholly unaccept­able—and, to be very candid about it—an embarrassment to the agency and the people involved. Simply put, any subsequent action taken by FWS on the basis of this IPMP/EA can, I think, rightfully be considered unjustified.

Moreover, in its attempt to focus on the impacts of cats, FWS overlooks some key factors. As a result, implementation of the IPMP/EA may very well increase the threat to the Keys’ native wildlife.

Mesopredator Release
In its IPMP/EA, FWS refers to two often-cited papers [18, 19] 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.” [18]

For Soulé et al., 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 non-native rats becoming the mesopredators. [20–23].

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.” [21]

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.” [23]

Mesopredator Release in the Keys
But FWS doesn’t even mention the risk of mesopredator release in its IPMP/EA, despite the fact that—should the population of free-roaming cats be sufficiently reduced—the situation in the Keys suggests that such an outcome is actually quite likely. (Because the population and diet of these cats is poorly understood in the Keys, the degree of reduction that would trigger a mesopredator release, too, is unknown.)

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 South Florida Multi-Species Recovery Plan (MSRP) warns of these rabbits coming into contact with pesticides and “poisons used to control black rats.” [24]

“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.” [24]

Again, there’s no consideration whatsoever in the IPMP/EA for how the Lower Keys marsh rabbits—the protection of which was a key factor in the creation of the IPMP/EA in the first place—will be protected from increased predatory pressure by non-native rats. Yet, based on the evidence presented by FWS, it’s quite clear that the elimination of free-roaming cats in the Keys will very likely have a negative impact on their numbers—and may very well lead to the extirpation of marsh rabbits from any Key where these rats are present.

The same may be true of the Key Largo cotton mouse [25, 26], Key Largo woodrat [27, 28], and silver rice rat [29, 30], all of which are identified as species of particular concern in the IPMP/EA, and which are threatened—either through predation or competition—by non-native rats such as the black rat.

According to FWS, “the Proposed Action is a fully integrated range of nonlethal and lethal predator management strategies that would be available for implementation on the FKNWRC, depending on the status, distribution, and extent of predation by targeted predator species.” [1] Where feral cats are concerned, however, the “Proposed Action” is nothing more than the “tradi­tional” trap-and-kill approach—this, despite the fact that FWS lacks sufficient data concerning the distribution of, and extent of predation by, feral cats.

FWS is less than forthright on this point, however. According to the IPMP/EA:

“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]

It’s no secret what happens to nearly every feral cat 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.” [31]

I asked Connie Christian, Executive Director of the Florida Keys SPCA about this last month. “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.

(As I understand it, there was a no-kill shelter available at the time of the stakeholder meetings, thus buy-in from those concerned for the welfare of these cats. However, as this is no longer the case (again, this is my understanding of the situation), FWS cannot assume that the same level of buy-in exists today. And in any case, the suggestion of a no-kill shelter or sanctuary as a solution to the Keys’ feral cat issue is at best disingenuous.)

Removing Cats
Setting aside for the moment the issues mentioned above, the IPMP/EA offers little to suggest that FWS will actually be able to remove the free-roaming cats from the Keys. The fact that the agency has no idea how many cats there are is only the beginning. Reports indicate that FWS has a rather poor track record when it comes to trapping cats. Its 2003 contract with USDA, for example, yielded just 23 cats over 31 days of trapping. [32]

In 2007, FWS “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.” [33] Unofficial reports (I’m told nothing official has been issued yet) suggest that fewer than 20 cats were caught—some of which were clearly not feral—along with 81 raccoons, 53 of which were released alive. [34]

I think it’s safe to say that the Keys’ wildlife reaped little or no benefit from either effort. Had the 2007 funding been used for TNR, on the other hand, the impact could have been substantial.

Eradication Efforts
As I’m sure FWS is aware, numerous eradication efforts—the horrors of which are spelled out in some of the papers cited in the IPMP/EA—have been used to successfully remove cats from islands:

  • 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.” [35]
  • 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.” [2]
  • 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.” [35] 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.” [36] (By way of comparison, the Keys are approximately 137 square miles in total area.)

As FWS notes in its IPMP/EA, such methods are “not… socially acceptable” and “inconsistent with the points of consensus developed by the stakeholder group.” While I agree completely that these methods are unacceptable, the “fully integrated range of nonlethal and lethal predator man­agement strategies” proposed by FWS strike me as nothing more than business as usual. How will this be any different (other than perhaps in terms of scale) than the failed efforts of the past?

If implemented as-planned, it seems clear that FWS will not be able to remove the cats quickly enough to keep up with reproduction rates. 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. [37] This model has its flaws (some of which are described in “Reassessment”) but 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 in the absence of TNR, it won’t be long before that’s the norm) cats continuously in order to achieve a modest 10 percent annual reduction in overall numbers.

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

If the feeding of feral cats and TNR are eliminated (to whatever extent possible) throughout the Keys, these cats will simply “go underground.” That means no more monitoring—and steriliz­ing—by the “foot soldiers” who currently care for them.

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

In other words, the most likely outcome of the IPMP/EA put forward by FWS is an increase in the number of feral cats in the Keys—and, of course, a corresponding increase in the negative impacts they have on the area’s wildlife and environment.

In contrast to the IPMP/EA—with its risk of mesopredator release, on the one hand, and poten­tial to inadvertently drive up the numbers of feral cats, on the other—TNR offers the potential to more carefully manage the population of feral cats in the Keys. Indeed, given the precarious nature of wildlife in the Keys, TNR may actually be the best approach to fulfill the purpose of the IPMP/EA:

“…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]

The fact that TNR was “considered but dismissed from further evaluation,” again, suggests that FWS failed to adequately analyze all of the available predator management alternatives. And, similar to its “justification for action,” FWS’s rationale for dismissing TNR doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

FWS argues, for example, that TNR “does little to reduce cat predation on native wildlife.” Al­though few predation studies have examined the hunting behavior of cats belonging to managed colonies, those that have are revealing. Reporting on their study of free-roaming cats in Brook­lyn, Calhoon and Haspel write: “Although birds and small rodents are plentiful in the study area, only once in more than 180 [hours] of observations did we observe predation.” [38]

And Castillo and Clarke (though highly critical of TNR) actually 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” [39] prior to beginning their research), Castillo and Clarke “saw cats kill a juvenile common yellowthroat and a blue jay. 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.” [39]

“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.” [40] And, as of 2004, ORCAT, run by the Ocean Reef Community Associa­tion, had reduced its “overall population from approximately 2,000 cats to 500 cats.” [41] Accord­ing to the ORCAT website, the population today is approximately 350, of which only about 250 are free-roaming.

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.” [42] Nothing in the IPMP/EA suggests that such stabilization will be achieved in the Keys.

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.”

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.” [43] 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.” [43]

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 its opposition to TNR in Los Angeles).

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

In its attempt to eliminate free-roaming cats from the Keys, FWS overlooks several important factors, thereby imposing a greater risk to the very native wildlife it aims to protect.

The IPMP/EA proposed by FWS fails to adequately address (1) the presumed impacts of free-roaming cats on native wildlife in the Keys, and (2) the risks inherent with the improper man­agement of these cats. 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—this promises to be a dismal 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?

I strongly encourage FWS to revise its IPMP/EA, paying particular attention to these two issues, and to give further consideration to TNR in light of these and other important factors outlined in this letter.


Peter J. Wolf
Independent Researcher/Analyst

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. 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.

3. Kirkpatrick, R.D. and Rauzon, M.J., “Foods of Feral Cats Felis catus on Jarvis and Howland Islands, Central Pacific Ocean.” Biotropica. 1986. 18(1): p. 72-75.

4. 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.

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

6. Churcher, P.B. and Lawton, J.H., “Predation by domestic cats in an English village.” Journal of Zoology. 1987. 212(3): p. 439-455.

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

8. 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

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

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

11. 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.

12. Elliott, J. (1994, March 3–16). The Accused. The Sonoma County Independent, pp. 1, 10.

13. Coleman, J.S. and Temple, S.A., On the Prowl, in Wisconsin Natural Resources. 1996, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: Madison, WI. p. 4–8.

14. Coleman, J.S. and Temple, S.A., How Many Birds Do Cats Kill?, in Wildlife Control Technology. 1995. p. 44.

15. Mitchell, J.C. and Beck, R.A., “Free-Ranging Domestic Cat Predation on Native Vertebrates in Rural and Urban Virginia.” Virginia Journal of Science. 1992. 43(1B): p. 197–207.

16. Baker, P.J., et al., “Cats about town: is predation by free-ranging pet cats Felis catus likely to affect urban bird populations? Ibis. 2008. 150: p. 86-99.

17. Møller, A.P. and Erritzøe, J., “Predation against birds with low immunocompetence.” Oecologia. 2000. 122(4): p. 500-504.

18. 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.

19. Crooks, K.R. and Soulé, M.E., “Mesopredator release and avifaunal extinctions in a fragmented system.” Nature. 1999. 400(6744): p. 563–566.

20. Fitzgerald, B.M., Karl, B.J., and Veitch, C.R., “The diet of feral cat (Felis catus) on Raoul Island, Kermadec group.” New Zealand Journal of Ecology. 1991. 15(2): p. 123–129.

21. Fan, M., Kuang, Y., and Feng, Z., “Cats protecting birds revisited.” Bulletin of Mathematical Biology. 2005. 67(5): p. 1081–1106.

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.

23. 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.

24. n.a., Multi-Species Recovery Plan for South Florida: Lower Keys Rabbit. 1999, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Atlanta, GA. p. 151–171.

25. n.a., Multi-Species Recovery Plan for South Florida: Key Largo Cotton Mouse. 1999, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Atlanta, GA. p. 79–96.

26. n.a., Key Largo Cotton Mouse (Peromyscus gossypinus allapaticola) 5-Year Review: Summary and Evaluation. 2009, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Southeast Region, South Fiorida Ecological Services Office: Veero Beach, FL. p. 19.

27. n.a., Multi-Species Recovery Plan for South Florida: Key Largo Woodrat. 1999, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Atlanta, GA. p. 195–216.

28. n.a., Key Largo Woodrat (Neotomafloridana smalli) 5-Year Review: Summary and Evaluation. 2008, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Southeast Region, South Fiorida Ecological Services Office: Vero Beach, FL.

29. n.a., Multi-Species Recovery Plan for South Florida: Rice Rat. 1999, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Atlanta, GA. p. 173–194.

30. n.a., Rice rat (Oryzomys palustris natator) 5-Year Review: Summary and Evaluation. 2008, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Southeast Region, South Florida Ecological Services Office: Vero Beach, FL.

31. Winograd, N.J., Redemption: The myth of pet overpopulation and the no kill revolution in America. 2007: Almaden Books.

32. n.a., Feral and Free-Ranging Cat Trapping by the USDA, APHIS, Wildlife Services (WS) on North Key Largo. 2004, U.S. Department of Agriculture

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

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

35. Nogales, M., et al., “A Review of Feral Cat Eradication on Islands.” Conservation Biology. 2004. 18(2): p. 310–319.

36. 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.

37. 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.

38. 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.

39. 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.

40. 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.

41. 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.

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

43. Hatley, P.J., Feral Cat Colonies in Florida: The Fur and the Feathers Are Flying. 2003, University of Florida Conservation Clinic: Gainsville, FL.

Adult Supervision Required

“Have you seen this already? This is awful.”

That’s what somebody posted on the Vox Felina Facebook page late last night—along with a link to an MSNBC news story. The headline was an attention-getter, no doubt about it: “Report: Kill feral cats to control their colonies.”

But beyond that, MSNBC had practically no details. A little digging around, however, led me to New England Cable News (NECN), which has the complete story.

“The report began in an undergraduate wildlife management class, with students writing reports on feral cats based on existing research. The students’ professor and other [University of Nebraska] researchers then compiled the report from the students’ work.” [1]

“Feral Cats and Their Management” claims, straightforwardly enough, to provide “research-based information on the management of feral cats.” [2] Management, in this case, meaning—as is so often the case in such contexts—killing, extermination, eradication, and so forth. Detailed advice is provided (e.g., “Body-gripping traps and snares can be used to quickly kill feral cats”).

And research? In this case, nothing more than a cursory review of all of the usual suspects: Coleman and Temple, Pamela Jo Hatley, Cole Hawkins, The Wildlife Society, Linda Winter. In other words, lots of Kool-Aid drinking.

It’s Like Science, Only Different
Among the research misinterpreted and/or misrepresented (none of which is cited in the text):

“As instinctive hunters, feral cats pose a serious threat to native wildlife, particularly birds.”

It’s no surprise that the authors of the report offer no evidence to support such a sweeping claim. “There are few if any studies,” write Mike Fitzgerald and Dennis Turner in their contribution to The Domestic Cat: The biology of its behaviour, “apart from island ones that actually demonstrate that cats have reduced bird populations.” [3]

Biologist C.J. Mead, reviewing the deaths of “ringed” (banded) birds reported by the British public, suggests that cats may be responsible for 6.2–31.3% of bird deaths. “Overall,” writes Mead, “it is clear that cat predation is a significant cause of death for most of the species examined.” Nevertheless, Mead concludes, “there is no clear evidence of cats threatening to harm the overall population level of any particular species… Indeed, cats have been kept as pets for many years and hundreds of generations of birds breeding in suburban and rural areas have had to contend with their predatory intentions.” [4]

The German zoologist Paul Leyhausen (1916–1998), who spent the bulk of his career studying the behavior of cats, found that cats, frustrated by the difficulties of catching them, “may soon give up hunting birds.” [5]

“During years in the field,” wrote Leyhausen, “I have observed countless times how cats have caught a mouse or a rat and just as often how they have stalked a bird. But I never saw them catch a healthy songbird that was capable of flying. Certainly it does happen, but, as I have said, seldom. I should feel sorry for the average domestic cat that had to live solely on catching birds.” [5]

“Cats kill an estimated 480 million birds per year (assuming eight birds killed per feral cat per year).”

Fitzgerald and Turner (whose work is not referenced in the report) argue that “we do not have enough information yet to attempt to estimate on average how many birds a cat kills each year.” [3] Though, of course, many studies have tried to do exactly that—few, it should be said, involve feral cats.

Unfortunately—and as I have pointed out time and time again—such work typically suffers from a range of methodological and analytical problems (e.g., statistical errors, small sample sizes, and inappropriate/baseless assumptions).

And—as with the UNL report—obvious bias.

“Estimates from Wisconsin indicate that between 500,000 and 8 million birds are killed by rural cats each year in that state…”

How anybody could misquote the numbers from the Wisconsin Study—easily the most widely circulated work on the subject—is a mystery. (On the other hand, the figures were, as Stanley Temple has said, “not actual data” [6] in the first place, so I suppose that does allow for some rather liberal interpretation.)

“The diets of well-fed house-based cats in Sweden consisted of 15 percent to 90 percent native prey, depending on availability.”

How important is it that the prey of feral cats is native, versus non-native? That’s a point of some debate—but not in this case. See, what Liberg actually wrote was this: “Most cats (80-85%) were house-based and obtained from 15 to 90% of their food from natural prey, depending on abundance and availability of the latter.” [7, emphasis mine] He was merely drawing the distinction between food provided by humans and any prey that cats might eat as food.

Liberg goes on to point out that the predation he documented did not, justify a conclusive assessment of the effects of cats on their prey populations, but… indicate[s] that cats by themselves were not limiting any of their prey.” [7] Even high rates of predation do not equate to population declines.

“In California, 67 percent of rodents, 95 percent of birds, and 100 percent of lizards brought home by cats were native species, and native birds were twice as likely to be seen in areas without cats.”

What looks to be truly damning evidence loses much of its impact when it’s seen in context. The reference to Crooks and Soulé’s 1999 paper, for example, omitted the sample size involved: “Identification of 68 prey items returned by cats bordering the fragments indicated that 67% of 26 rodents, 95% of 21 birds and 100% of 11 lizards were native species.” [8] It’s important to note, too, that these researchers asked residents to recall what kind of prey their cats returned—no prey items were collected—thereby raising questions about the accuracy of species attribution.

Furthermore, the cats involved with Crooks and Soulé’s study were all pet cats. How their habits compare with those of feral cats is an open question. Merritt Clifton of Animal People, an independent newspaper dedicated to animal protection issues, suggests, “feral cats appear to hunt no more, and perhaps less, than free-roaming pet cats. This is because, like other wild predators, they hunt not for sport but for food, and hunting more prey than they can eat is a pointless waste of energy.”

The second portion of the quote refers to Cole Hawkins’ PhD dissertation. Hawkins’ research methods and analysis are so problematic that the suggestion of a causal relationship between the presence of cats and the absence of birds (native or otherwise) is highly inappropriate (indeed, Hawkins scarcely investigates predation at all).

Among the key issues: Hawkins had no idea what the “cat” area of his study site was like before the cats were there; he merely assumes it was identical to the “no cat” area in terms of its fauna (though the two landscapes are actually quite different). It’s also interesting to note Hawkins’ emphasis on “the preference of ground feeding birds for the no-cat treatment” while downplaying the fact that five of the nine ground-feeding species included in the study showed no preference for either area. (For a more comprehensive analysis, please see my previous post on the subject.)

“…cats are the most important species in the life cycle of the parasite responsible for toxoplasmosis, and in 3 separate studies, most feral cats (62 percent to 80 percent) tested positive for toxoplasmosis.”

While cats are the “definitive host,” it’s important to note that “wild game can be a source of T. gondii infection in humans, cats, and other carnivores. Serologic data show that a significant number of feral pigs, bears, and cervids are exposed to T. gondii.” [9]

“Humans,” write Elmore et al., “usually become infected through ingestion of oocyst-contaminated soil and water, tissue cysts in undercooked meat, or congenitally. Because of their fastidious nature, the passing of non-infective oocysts, and the short duration of oocyst shedding, direct contact with cats is not thought to be a primary risk for human infection.” [10]

Toxoplasma gondii has been linked to the illness and death of marine life, primarily sea otters [11], prompting investigation into the possible role of free-roaming (both owned and feral) cats. [12, 13] It’s generally thought that oocysts (the mature, infective form of the parasite) are transferred from soil contaminated with infected feces to coastal waterways by way of freshwater run-off. [13]

However, a 2005 study found that 36 of 50 sea otters from coastal California were infected with the Type X strain of T. gondii [14], a type linked to wild felids (mountain lions and a bobcat, in this case), but not to domestic cats. [13] A recently published study from Germany seems to corroborate these findings. Herrmann et al. analyzed 18,259 fecal samples (all from pet cats) for T. gondii and found no Type X strain.  (It’s interesting to note, too, that only 0.25% of the samples tested positive for T. gondii). [15]

[NOTE: Please see follow-up post for additional information about cats and T. gondii.]

“Predation by cats on birds has an economic impact of more than $17 billion dollars [sic] per year in the U.S. The estimated cost per bird is $30, based on literature citing that bird watchers spend $0.40 per bird observed, hunters spend $216 per bird shot, and bird rearers spend $800 per bird released.”

According to this bizarre form of accounting, hunters value an individual bird more than 500 times as much as a birdwatcher does—suggesting, it seems, that dead birds are far more valuable than live birds. This is the kind of estimate that can be developed only through university (or perhaps government) research efforts.

Public Indecency
Stephen Vantassel, a wildlife damage project coordinator who worked on the study, said researchers were aware that some people would be ‘very offended that we offered any type of lethal control method.’ But he said the report was written for public consumption and wasn’t submitted to any science journals for publication.” [1]

For the record, Dr. Vantassel, I’m more offended by the way you’ve allowed such sloppy, grossly irresponsible work to pass for “research.” And the idea that such an undertaking is somehow acceptable because it’s meant for a mass audience is simply absurd!

Naturally, the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) embraced the report immediately, “with one official calling it ‘a must read for any community or government official thinking about what to do about feral cats.’” [1]

“‘Not surprisingly, the report validates everything American Bird Conservancy has been saying about the feral cat issue for many years—namely, TNR doesn’t work in controlling feral cat populations,’ Darin Schroeder, vice president of the Conservation Advocacy for American Bird Conservancy, said Tuesday.”

But validation requires far more than this report provides—beginning with a real interest in scientific inquiry and some basic critical thinking skills. And while we’re at it, a refresher in ethics wouldn’t hurt, either.

*     *     *

In my previous post, I’d indicated that my next post—this post—was going to focus on The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation. Obviously, something came up. Anyhow, the book will keep for a few more days…

Literature Cited
1. n.a. (2010) Report: Kill feral cats to control their colonies Accessed December 1, 2010.

2. Hildreth, A.M., Vantassel, S.M., and Hygnstrom, S.E., Feral Cats and Their Managment. 2010, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension: Lincoln, NE.

3. Fitzgerald, B.M. and Turner, D.C., Hunting Behaviour of domestic cats and their impact on prey populations, in The Domestic Cat: The biology of its behaviour, D.C. Turner and P.P.G. Bateson, Editors. 2000, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, U.K.; New York. p. 151–175.

4. Mead, C.J., “Ringed birds killed by cats.” Mammal Review. 1982. 12(4): p. 183-186.

5. Leyhausen, P., Cat behavior: The predatory and social behavior of domestic and wild cats. Garland series in ethology. 1979, New York: Garland STPM Press.

6. Elliott, J. (1994, March 3–16). The Accused. The Sonoma County Independent, pp. 1, 10

7. Liberg, O., “Food Habits and Prey Impact by Feral and House-Based Domestic Cats in a Rural Area in Southern Sweden.” Journal of Mammalogy. 1984. 65(3): p. 424-432.

8. Crooks, K.R. and Soule, M.E., “Mesopredator release and avifaunal extinctions in a fragmented system.” Nature. 1999. 400(6744): p. 563.

9. Hill, D.E., Chirukandoth, S., and Dubey, J.P., “Biology and epidemiology of Toxoplasma gondii in man and animals.” Animal Health Research Reviews. 2005. 6(01): p. 41-61.

10. Elmore, S.A., et al., “Toxoplasma gondii: epidemiology, feline clinical aspects, and prevention.” Trends in Parasitology. 26(4): p. 190-196.

11. Jones, J.L. and Dubey, J.P., “Waterborne toxoplasmosis – Recent developments.” Experimental Parasitology. 124(1): p. 10-25.

12. Dabritz, H.A., et al., “Outdoor fecal deposition by free-roaming cats and attitudes of cat owners and nonowners toward stray pets, wildlife, and water pollution.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2006. 229(1): p. 74-81.

13. Miller, M.A., et al., “Type X Toxoplasma gondii in a wild mussel and terrestrial carnivores from coastal California: New linkages between terrestrial mammals, runoff and toxoplasmosis of sea otters.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2008. 38(11): p. 1319-1328.

14. Conrad, P.A., et al., “Transmission of Toxoplasma: Clues from the study of sea otters as sentinels of Toxoplasma gondii flow into the marine environment.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2005. 35(11-12): p. 1155-1168.

15. Herrmann, D.C., et al., “Atypical Toxoplasma gondii genotypes identified in oocysts shed by cats in Germany.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2010. 40(3): p. 285–292.

Garden Tool

The timing was uncanny. Four days after my post “Inside Job,” Washington Post columnist Adrian Higgins reported incorrectly that two-thirds of pet cats are allowed outdoors. Higgins doesn’t mention where he got that figure, but considering the sources he used for the piece—including the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), The Wildlife Society, and Dauphiné and Cooper’s 2009 Partners in Flight paper—it’s not hard to sort out.

Ditto for his matter-of-fact assertion that “the cumulative effect on birds is significant, according to experts.” Higgins relies on Dauphiné and Cooper for estimates of both the number of “stray and out-and-out feral cats” (“there may be as many as 100 million such cats in the country”) and birds killed by free-roaming cats (“at least one billion birds are killed by cats annually, ‘and the actual number is probably much higher.’”). [1]

Higgins’ column appeared exactly one week after the release of Charles Seife’s book Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception. Proofiness, writes Seife, is “the art of using bogus mathematical arguments to prove something that you know in your heart is true—even when it’s not.” [2]

Many—perhaps most—of the scientific claims made by opponents of free-roaming cats/TNR are textbook cases of proofiness. Nevertheless, they are often accepted at face value by the media, which—simply by passing them along for public consumption—gives these assertions unwarranted credibility.

Pete Marra
The central character in Higgins’ story is Pete Marra, a fellow gardener and a research associate at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Marra’s name rang a bell.

Sure enough, this is the same Peter P. Marra who, along with nine others (including Dauphiné and Cooper), authored a comment in Conservation Biology earlier this year, entitled “What Conservation Biologists Can Do to Counter Trap-Neuter-Return: Response to Longcore et al.” (the publication of which prompted a series of Vox Felina posts, beginning with this one).

What Marra and his co-authors penned is an unapologetic call to action:

Proponents of TNR are well organized and push for TNR-friendly policies in communities and shelters around the United States, often with little opposition from the conservation biology and wildlife ecology communities… Regardless of why the scientific and management communities have remained relatively silent, it is imperative that we now begin speaking out. [2]

As I have argued, the silence that so frustrates Marra and the others may simply reflect the fact that so much of the work he and his colleagues defend is largely indefensible. Indeed, “What Conservation Biologists Can Do” is, in its own way, representative. Consider the authors’ comparison of TNR with hoarding:

The animal welfare community opposes “cat hoarding,” whereby people care for more pets than they can adequately support, because it is considered inhumane. Trap-neuter-return is essentially cat hoarding without walls. Considering that most communities have laws banning animal hoarding, we should consider the same standard for outdoor cats as those that are in a person’s home. [3]

But their interest in using the law to put a stop to TNR doesn’t end there. Marra and his colleagues continue:

…it may become incumbent upon us to take legal action against colonies and colony managers, particularly in areas that provide habitat for migratory birds or endangered species. [3]

The authors quote a 2003 article written by Linda Winter, the former director of the ABC’s Cats Indoors! campaign, for the Hawaii Audubon Society newsletter:

“…releasing cats into the wild and supporting feral cat colonies is a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act, as well as laws prohibiting animal abandonment.” (her emphasis, not mine) [4]

As a frequent critic of Winter’s writing, I was eager to read the newsletter (which can be downloaded here). It turns out Winter was referring to a 2003 report submitted by Pamela Jo Hatley—then a student in the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law and part of its University of Florida Conservation Clinic—to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Winter—and by extension, Marra and his colleagues—are unambiguous on this point: TNR is a clear violation of both the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act. But, of course, law students don’t make legal decisions; that’s what we have courts for (which might explain why, years later, Travis Longcore and his Urban Wildlands Group took a rather different approach in their TNR-related lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles).

But back to Hatley—there’s another familiar name. In fact, I’d seen it right beside Marra’s earlier this year. See, Pamela Jo Hatley is one of the 10 co-authors of “What Conservation Biologists Can Do.”

So why didn’t the authors just cite Hatley’s work directly, rather than turning to Winter’s version of it? Simply put, Winter’s version is a better story—short and sweet, and brimming with certitude.

But if Marra and the others—Hatley included—wanted to distance themselves from the original, it’s understandable. Though her legal arguments are somewhat compelling, Hatley’s report is a minefield of misrepresentations, flawed estimates, and unsubstantiated claims where the science is concerned (e.g., extrapolating the Wisconsin Study to Florida, and then suggesting that “the actual number [of birds killed by cats in the state] may be much higher” [5]). In other words, more proofiness.

Its title, Feral Cat Colonies in Florida: The Fur and the Feathers Are Flying, is a good indication of how seriously the report—ostensibly a formal document submitted to a federal agency—should be taken.

Getting Dirty
To read Higgins’ column in the Post, one gets the idea that he and Marra are merely fellow gardeners, perhaps having bumped into each other at the local nursery or hardware store. And that’s where the story began. It could be.

But there’s a sentence in “What Conservation Biologists Can Do” that’s been bothering me ever since I read Higgins’ piece:

Conservation biologists have just as much opportunity to make their points at local meetings, through the news media, and at outreach events as do TNR proponents. (emphasis mine) [2]

I have no idea whether Higgins and Marra knew each other before Higgins began work on his column, or how Higgins feels about cats. And I’m not one to go in for conspiracy theories, either.

What I am sure of is that Higgins—as a journalist—should have done his homework. He did not. (To be fair, Higgins did speak with Alley Cat Allies; but “equal time” is a poor substitute for accuracy.) And the consequences of his carelessly scattering a few figures around a column devoted to gardening are considerable: the seeds of proofiness!

Maybe readers don’t expect Higgins to know (or care, even) how many free-roaming cats there are in the U.S. Or how much time pet cats spend outdoors. Still, though, Higgins is an avid gardener—he, of all people, should be able to recognize bullshit.

*     *     *

SPECIAL THANKS to Louise Holton, founder of Alley Cat Rescue, who brought the Washington Post article (along with countless other news items over the past few months!) to my attention. She and Maggie Funkhouser, ACR’s Director of Communications and Public Relations, have become invaluable resources.

Literature Cited
1. Higgins, A., Bird lovers see roaming cats as a major threat to many species, in The Washington Post. 2010: Washington, DC.

2. Seife, C., Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception. 2010: Viking Adult.

3. Lepczyk, C.A., et al., “What Conservation Biologists Can Do to Counter Trap-Neuter-Return: Response to Longcore et al.” Conservation Biology. 2010. 24(2): p. 627-629.

4. Winter, L., “Popoki and Hawai’i’s Native Birds.” ‘Elepaio: Journal of the Hawaii Audubon Society. 2003. 63(6).

5. Hatley, P.J., Feral Cat Colonies in Florida: The Fur and the Feathers Are Flying. 2003, University of Florida Conservation Clinic: Gainsville, FL.

False Confessions

Whether the latest iteration of reality TV— Animal Planet’s Confessions: Animal Hoarding—is more education, entertainment, or exploitation is a matter of debate. But it’s a safe bet that by streaming “an unflinchingly honest look at a human condition that affects people and animals” into living rooms across the country, a problem too rarely acknowledged (not to mention taken seriously) is now receiving unprecedented attention.

Even if I were a cable subscriber, though, I don’t think I’d be tuning in. Although I was nowhere near the “front lines” of the Great Kitty Rescue, I’ve seen and heard plenty where animal hoarding is concerned. But in reading about Confessions, I was reminded of some remarks included in a comment published earlier this year in Conservation Biology. There, Christopher Lepczyk, Nico Dauphiné, David M. Bird, Sheila Conant, Robert J. Cooper, David C. Duffy, Pamela Jo Hatley, Peter P. Marra, Elizabeth Stone, and Stanley A. Temple compared TNR to animal hoarding:

“The animal welfare community opposes ‘cat hoarding,’ whereby people care for more pets than they can adequately support, because it is considered inhumane. Trap-neuter-return is essentially cat hoarding without walls. Considering that most communities have laws banning animal hoarding, we should consider the same standard for outdoor cats as those that are in a person’s home.” [1]

This strikes me as almost desperate—the latest volley in the kitchen-sink/something-for-everybody approach taken by some TNR opponents. Nevertheless, the analogy—however incongruous—is not new. In 2004, David Jessup made essentially the same comparison:

“Some people are compelled to own and care for excessive numbers of cats. This psychological illness is referred to as ‘collectors psychosis.’ How is the person who must save 25 to 30 cats in their home different from the person who sees themselves [sic] as the savior of 25 to 30 cats in a park? Some ‘cat people’ may be ‘collectors,’ and it is possible that TNR is enabling and supporting some people who need psychologic counseling and assistance.” [2]

Jessup doesn’t burden himself or his audience with even the slightest support for his assertions; his claims are as much conjecture as anything else, his question largely rhetorical. Five years later, Dauphiné and Cooper revisited Jessup’s query, but—despite a handful of references—do no better in terms of its resolution:

“In many cases, the characteristics and behavior of people involved in TNR are suggestive of the psychiatric disorders described in problematic animal hoarding [3]. When presented with alternatives to TNR, such as enclosed sanctuaries, no-kill shelters, and traditional animal control, many such people can be “fiercely protective, retaliatory, and uncooperative,” [4] and will subject public officials and other citizens opposing TNR to harassment and threats [5, 6].” [7]

Animal Hoarding
Dauphiné and Cooper’s argument presupposes that enough is known both about “people involved in TNR” and “the psychiatric disorders described in problematic animal hoarding” for a valid comparison to be made. In fact, very little is known about either one. Randy Frost, whose 2000 article the authors cite, begins by noting, “almost no psychiatric literature exists on this topic.” [3] A year earlier, Gary Patronek (a collaborator of Frost’s, whose work Frost cites throughout his paper) observed: “Unlike the hoarding of inanimate objects, which may be linked with a variety of psychiatric conditions, animal hoarding has not yet been linked with any specific disorder.” [8]

Nevertheless, both Patronek and Frost describe—based on some of the earliest research on the subject—some common characteristics of, and explanatory models for animal hoarding. And provide this definition:

“someone who accumulates a large number of animals; fails to provide minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation and veterinary care; and fails to act on the deteriorating condition of the animals (including disease, starvation and even death) or the environment (severe overcrowding, extremely unsanitary conditions), or the negative effect of the collection on their own health and well-being and on that of other household members.” [8]

This seems to have been the framework for the definition adopted by the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (with which Patronek and Frost were involved), which places greater emphasis on two key elements: denial, and accumulation and control:

  • Having more than the typical number of companion animals;
  • Failing to provide even minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, shelter, and veterinary care, with this neglect often resulting in illness and death from starvation, spread of infectious disease, and untreated injury or medical condition;
  • Denial of the inability to provide this minimum care and the impact of that failure on the animals, the household, and human occupants of the dwelling;
  • Persistence, despite this failure, in accumulating and controlling animals.

“Saving” 25 or 30 cats, then—whether in one’s home or in the park—does not constitute animal hoarding. As Patronek pointed out during a recent interview on NPR’s Radio Times, “numbers alone don’t define hoarding… you’ve got to have these functional deficits and denial, in combination with the numbers.”

Opponents of TNR (and of free-roaming cats in general) will likely seize upon that second point, arguing that feral cat colonies—by definition—lack adequate care. But the very fact that these cats are part of a TNR program means they’ve been evaluated by veterinary professionals, requiring a concerted effort—sometimes bordering on the heroic—on the part of the trappers and caregivers involved. Some programs perform vaccinations (that this is not standard practice, is, admittedly, a controversial issue); at a minimum, cats deemed too sick to be returned are euthanized.

A 1999 survey of survey of “101 individuals or couples who cared for 132 colonies of free-roaming cats in north central Florida” illustrates the importance caregivers place on health:

“More than a third of the caretakers reported that they had provided some kind of veterinary care (not including being neutered at the TNR clinic) for the cats in the past or would provide veterinary care if it was necessary in the future. This type of care included booster vaccinations, parasite control, antibiotic treatment, ear medication, veterinary examinations, and emergency treatment.” [9]

In addition, 96% provided food, and 75% provided shelter. It’s important to note, too, that these numbers are conservative relative to the care received by the cats, in that (1) some caregivers were responsible for multiple cats, and (2) respondents to the survey were not necessarily the individuals who provided food, shelter, and so forth.

Such findings are certainly consistent with my own experience. The TNR networks I’m tapped into (mostly by way of e-mail or online bulletin boards) are typically buzzing with requests from, and recommendations to, caregivers committed to maintaining and improving the health of feral cat colonies.

On the other hand, it’s not clear from Dauphiné and Cooper’s paper that their reference to animal hoarding has anything to do with the behavior’s defining characteristics at all. More than anything else, the authors seem to be suggesting that resistance to TNR “alternatives” constitutes some psychiatric disorder—a possible reference to animal hoarders’ “reluctance to remove any animals, even when adequate homes were available.” [3]

Alternatives to TNR
Respectable sanctuaries, as I’ve already discussed, are few and far between, and typically at operating at capacity. In any case, such environments are not in the best interest of unsocialized cats. No-kill shelters, too, are scarce, and—recognizing realities Dauphiné and Cooper (and veterinarian Christine Storts, whose letter they cite) overlook or ignore—generally endorse TNR as their feral cat management approach. [10]

And as for “traditional animal control,” that’s nothing more than a rather cowardly euphemism for trap-and-kill.

What about the harassment and threats? Here, Dauphiné and Cooper cite Paul Barrows’ 2004 article “Professional, Ethical, and Legal Dilemmas of Trap-Neuter-Release,” and Pamela Jo Hatley’s 2004 paper, “Will Feral Cats Silence Spring in Your Town?” “During the past several years,” writes Barrows:

“as debate regarding abandoned and feral cats has become more heated, concerns have emerged regarding the extent to which some activists will go to promote their cause. Those supporting trap and removal of abandoned and feral cats, rather than TNR, have reported verbal abuse, personal threats, disruption of public forums, and interference with the conduction of their businesses.” [5]

Dauphiné and Cooper buy into Barrows’ account without bothering to check out his source (actually, these two make a shameful habit of such shortcuts throughout their paper, thereby raising questions about their numerous assertions, and, more problematically, their capabilities and integrity as researchers). In fact, Barrows cites a 2002 Wall Street Journal story in which exactly one of “those supporting trap and removal”—Frank Spiecker, of Garden State Pest Management—was interviewed:

“…property managers, fearing health complaints or lawsuits, hire Mr. Spiecker to trap and remove stray cats… Cat jobs have gotten him screamed at, threatened and jostled. His truck has been jumped on and pounded, his traps run over, and his trapped cats freed… To cat lovers, he abets feline mass murder, since most of the cats he traps end up dead.” [11]

All of which seems remarkably flimsy for describing and condemning—as Dauphiné and Cooper do—the behaviors of “many such people.” Until it’s compared to the even flimsier “evidence” provided by Hatley:

“Many citizens and public officials have voiced concerns about the public health issues and wildlife issues involved in hoarding large numbers of cats in the wild. Some who have resisted the extreme efforts by proponents of TNR and cat colonies have been subjected to verbal abuse and threats.” [6]

Dodgy research practices aside, the notion that one’s preference for TNR over “enclosed sanctuaries, no-kill shelters, and traditional animal control” is indicative of some psychiatric disorder remains a mighty hard sell. Dauphiné and Cooper’s so-called alternatives are simply not—in a very literal sense—viable options.

*     *     *

To compare TNR to animal hoarding betrays either a profound lack of knowledge about either one, or a desperate attempt to taint the former by association with the latter. I suspect that, like the most despicable political strategists, Jessup, Dauphiné and Cooper, and Lepczyk et al., threw it out there just to see if it would stick—the connection they’re attempting to make certainly has nothing to do with science.

I’ve a friend who jokes that the only thing feral cats aren’t being blamed for these days is climate change. Well, not yet, anyhow.

Literature Cited
1. Lepczyk, C.A., et al., “What Conservation Biologists Can Do to Counter Trap-Neuter-Return: Response to Longcore et al.” Conservation Biology. 2010. 24(2): p. 627-629.

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. Frost, R., “People Who Hoard Animals.” Psychiatric Times. 2000. 17(4).

4. Storts, C.M., “Discussion on TNR programs continue (letter).” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2003. 222: p. 711–712.

5. 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.

6. Hatley, P.J. (2004) Will Feral Cats Silence Spring in Your Town? Accessed August 8, 2010.

7. 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.

8. Patronek, G.J., “Hoarding of animals: An under-recognized public health problem in a difficult-to-study population.” Public Health Reports. 1999. 114(1): p. 81–87.

9. Centonze, L.A. and Levy, J.K., “Characteristics of free-roaming cats and their caretakers.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2002. 220(11): p. 1627-1633.

10. Winograd, N.J., Redemption: The myth of pet overpopulation and the no kill revolution in America. 2007: Almaden Books.

11. Sterba, J.P., Tooth and Claw: Kill Kitty?, in Wall Street Journal. 2002: New York. p. A.1