L.A. Audubon President Renews Commitment to Shelter Killing

Promoting the Culture of Killing can’t be easy, what with public opinion strongly opposed to the lethal roundups of community cats [1, 2] and, more generally, the use of lethal methods as a shelter’s means of population control. [3] Nevertheless, there are those who persist.

Witness, for example, Travis Longcore’s comment on the Vox Felina Facebook page, left in response to my April 14th blog post, in which I argued that the injunction prohibiting the City of Los Angeles from supporting TNR—the result of a lawsuit in which Longcore’s Urban Wildlands Group was lead petitioner—is increasing the risks to the very wildlife and environment he claims to protect.

Longcore’s bar chart and references to statistics, extrapolation, and property rights were, I can only assume, intended to give the impression of a well-reasoned, comprehensive rejoinder. It was, in fact, nothing of the sort. Indeed, even a cursory examination suggests that Longcore’s reasoning is no better than his arithmetic. Read more

L.A. Audubon President Puts Wildlife at Risk

Below is a letter I wrote in response to a recent L.A. Weekly story. Unfortunately—especially since I learned this only after compiling and submitting my comments—the paper doesn’t seem to publish any letters, despite providing an online form for precisely this purpose.

Seems a shame to let it go to waste… Read more

Game On!

Be prepared for the next news story, media release, position statement, local ordinance, House or Senate bill, or government report that (intentionally or not) misrepresents free-roaming cats’ impact on wildlife and the environment, public health threat, etc. with Feral Cat Witch-hunt Bingo!

Downloadable PDF includes four bingo cards and 120 chips.

Impaired Vision

Opponents of trap-neuter-return are long on rhetoric, but short on alternatives—at least ones they’ll discuss openly.

We just want the cats gone.

Yeah, well, I want a pony.

I don’t actually say that, of course. Not usually, anyhow—in part, because the two wishes are hardly comparable. If I really wanted a pony, I’d simply go buy one (a rescue, of course; or, as an alternative, contact the Bureau of Land Management, which began its most recent brutal roundup of wild horses and burros in Nevada last year). End of story.

“Removing” cats—a euphemistic reference to an often-fatal course of action—on the other hand, is not the end of the story at all (except, as I say, for the particular cats involved). Where there is adequate food and shelter—and island eradication efforts have demonstrated rather dramatically just how little human assistance the domestic cat requires in this regard—there will very likely be cats. If not today, then it’s very likely only a matter of time.

And still, the call for their “removal”—accompanied by this naive wish that such a move will be a one-time occurrence—is, it seems, continuous.

Last week, Loews Hotels in Orlando, FL, made headlines nationally when the self-described “pet-friendly hotel brand” reversed its position on TNR and on-site managed colonies. Among the news stories brought to my attention this week: the Waco, TX, Lions Club is demanding that Heart of Texas Feral Friends, whose volunteers have been sterilizing and caring for cats in a park owned by the Lions Club, discontinue feeding. According to KXXV News, the cat food “could attract bigger animals that could bite children playing at the park.”

In Harvey Cedars, NJ, 51-year-old Mark Rist has been, according to the Asbury Park Press, “charged with feeding feral cats,” the result of a two-month investigation. According to the paper, Rist was feeding 63 cats in one area—despite what Police Chief Thomas Preiser describes as the community’s “ongoing effort to control feral cats.’’ “It has cost the borough over $5,800 in fees to have cats trapped and taken to the animal hospital,” said Preiser. “This is on top of the over $3,000 the borough pays just for animal-control services.’’ (An online petition advocating that the charges be dropped has been started, and has more than 1,650 signatures already.)

And, less than 60 miles away, in Manalapan, NJ, health department officials have announced that they’ll begin trapping a managed colony of cats located at the Bridge Plaza office complex on February 1. As Michael Volovnik, president of the property association, explained to the Asbury Park Press, the cats are using a playground sandbox as a litter box, and could also cause a traffic accident in the complex parking lot. (I thought I’d heard all the “reasons” for killing outdoor cats, but this one’s new to me.)

Take away their food—or the cats themselves—and the problem’s solved, right? End of story.

Um, no. Not even if you click together the heels of your ruby slippers three times, repeating as you do: “We just want the cats gone.”

And yet, this is precisely what TNR opponents would have us believe. In fact, they often go much further. When, for example, the American Bird Conservancy sent a letter (PDF) to the mayors of the 50 largest U.S. cities last October, urging them “to oppose Trap-Neuter-Re-abandon (TNR) programs and the outdoor feeding of cats as a feral cat management option,” their stated objective was to “stop the spread of feral cats.”

How’s that supposed to work, exactly?

Darin Schroeder, ABC’s Vice President for Conservation Advocacy, and author of the letter, hasn’t bothered—either in his original, well-publicized mass-mailing, or in response to my inquiries—to explain the mysterious cause-and-effect relationship underlying the claim. (Or, while we’re at it, ABC’s projections regarding the number of recipients who would surely be alienated by a letter that so grossly insults their intelligence.)

As I’ve pointed out previously, common sense—and science, which ABC claims to have firmly in its camp on this issue—tells us that such policies (assuming they could be enforced, of course) would only drive population numbers upward. (Indeed, there is plenty of evidence from island eradication efforts. On Marion Island, to take one of the more spectacular examples, the population of cats was estimated to be about 2,200 in 1975, just 26 years after they were introduced to the 115-square-mile, barren, uninhabited South Indian Ocean island. [1] If there were any efforts to sterilize these cats, I’ve not read about it. And the only “handouts” they received were “the carcasses of 12,000 day-old chickens” [1] injected with poison, as part of the 19-year eradication program.)

Now, if, as Schroeder claims, there are “well-documented impacts of cat predation on wildlife,” how could the inevitable increase in the free-roaming cat population possibly be a benefit? Or—again, if Schroeder is right about the impacts—be aligned with ABC’s vision of “an Americas-wide landscape where diverse interests collaborate to ensure that native bird species and their habitats are protected, where their protection is valued by society, and they are routinely considered in all land-use and policy decision-making”?

Such contradictions are, as anybody who’s been paying attention has surely noticed, hardly uncommon in ABC’s anti-cat messaging.

ABC didn’t do any better with their letter (this one, more of a low-key affair) to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, sent last summer. (DOI oversees the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which, as I’ve pointed out repeatedly, has been an eager, taxpayer-funded participant in the witch-hunt against free-roaming cats.) In that letter, ABC, along with several signatories, aimed to “call [Salazar’s] attention to the threat being posed to wildlife by feral cats.” (Once again, ABC referred to “the well-documented impacts of cat predation on wildlife,” this time citing the work of, among others, former Smithsonian researcher Nico Dauphine, convicted in October of attempted animal cruelty for trying to poison neighborhood cats. It’s not entirely clear, but I have to think the letter was sent just prior to her arrest, after which ABC hasn’t, to my knowledge, expressed the slightest support for Dauphine.)

Signatories to the letter “urge[d] the development of a Department-wide policy opposing Trap-Neuter-Release and the outdoor feeding of cats as a feral cat management option, coupled with a plan of action to address existing infestations affecting lands managed by the Department of the Interior.” (This would include much of the Florida Keys, of course. Regular readers will recall that ABC enthusiastically endorsed the deeply flawed Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex Integrated Predator Management Plan/Draft Environmental Assessment, issued a year ago.)

This “plan of action” is something I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to for some time now. And not just as it relates to “existing infestations” on DOI-controlled land; I’m interested in the big picture here. These folks are hell-bent on a future in which the feeding of outdoor cats is prohibited, one in which TNR is banned.

What I want to know is this: What happens if they get their way?

Alternatives to TNR?
One might expect that ABC, promoters for 15 years now of Cats Indoors!, would have an answer. Indeed, I brought up the subject during a December 2010 webinar celebrating the launch of their book The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation. “What we recommend,” offered Michael Parr, Vice President of ABC, “as an alternative to [TNR], is not abandoning cats in the first place.”

“Other options would be to house those cats in shelters, or outdoor sanctuaries which could be managed. Clearly, it’s a huge problem, and the solutions to this are going be things we going to have to work together on for a long period of time, but certainly that would be my first reaction to that question.”

After 14 years (at that time) of staunch opposition to TNR, this is the best ABC can do? Well, yes. (One wonders if ABC officials are truly so out-of-touch and/or flat-out delusional that they really think nobody’s noticed.)

The Wildlife Society
ABC is not alone, of course. The Wildlife Society, which signed onto the DOI letter, in its position statement (issued in August 2011) on Feral and Free-Ranging Domestic Cats (PDF), calls for “the humane elimination of feral cat populations,” as well as “the passage and enforcement of local and state ordinances prohibiting the feeding of feral cats.”

And in November, TWS sponsored the USFWS workshop, Influencing Local Scale Feral Cat Trap-Neuter-Release Decisions , at its annual conference. According to TWS, the “workshop [was] designed to train biologists and conservation activists to advocate for wildlife in the decision making process by providing the best available scientific evidence in an effective manner.” (Ah, yes: “best available scientific evidence.” It’s the same expression ABC and USFWS like to throw around. The critical term here is available. It seems all the science contradicting their steady stream of bogus claims is locked in the same filing cabinet, and the key’s been “lost.”)

But TWS hasn’t done any better than ABC when it comes to connecting the dots between our current situation and a future free of feral cats.

When, in his November 14 blog post, TWS Executive Director/CEO Michael Hutchins drifted off-message, conceding that “TNR alone is not the ultimate solution,” (emphasis mine) I used the opportunity to press him on the issue. Referring to the recently issued TWS position statement, I told Hutchins, “it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect a well-established and influential organization such as TWS to propose a plan to accompany such a vision.”

“On the contrary, it’s exactly what your membership should expect from their leadership—and what those of us who care for the cats you’re targeting demand.”

And Hutchins’ response? Cue the crickets (native species only, of course).

(Hutchins did, however, spend a good deal of time backpedaling: “I haven’t changed my position at all, and neither has The Wildlife Society, an organization now representing more than 10,600 wildlife professionals.” It now appears that the post itself has been modified to reflect his “corrected” position on the subject.)

Urban Wildlands Group
In January 2010, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge handed down an injunction prohibiting the City of Los Angeles from supporting TNR. Under the provisions of the injunction (in its revised version, filed with the court in March 2010), the City, its Board of Animal Services Commissioners, and its Department of Animal Services are prohibited from “promoting TNR for feral cats and encouraging or assisting third parties to carry out a TNR program.” [2]

According to the original petition—filed by the Urban Wildlands Group, Endangered Habitats League, Los Angeles Audubon Society, Palos Verdes/South Bay Audubon Society, Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society, and ABC—implementation of TNR in L.A. “can cause significant adverse environmental impacts by causing proliferation of rats and raccoons and creating water pollution problems.”

It’s important to recognize that the very premise of the petition—brought under the California Environmental Quality Act—is a red herring, nothing more than a roundabout way to go after TNR (in part, by restricting the funding to key organizations integral to L.A.’s various TNR programs). Setting that aside for the moment, though, the question remains: If TNR isn’t the answer, then how are we to reduce the population of stray, abandoned, and feral cats?

Travis Longcore ought to have an answer. Indeed, as head of the Urban Wildlands Group, current president of the Los Angeles Audubon Society, and author of the well-circulated “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” (a compilation of cherry-picked “facts,” misrepresentations, and glaring omissions, which I’ve critiqued in some detail), Longcore (who, I suspect, is the same “Travis” whose comment brought Hutchins back from the brink in November) would seem to be the go-to guy on this topic.

In fact, he doesn’t seem to have any plan, either.

In a December 2010 exchange on the Audubon magazine blog, The Perch (in which senior editor Alisa Opar blindly endorsed the infamous University of Nebraska-Lincoln paper as if it were actual research), Longcore twisted himself in a knot avoiding the question.

“You’ve been very straightforward about your desire to see TNR and the feeding of feral cats outlawed.” I wrote. “But then what?”

“I’ve yet to hear from you—or anybody on your side of the issue—spell it out. We all know the cats won’t disappear in the absence of TNR/feeding. We can argue about rates of population growth, carrying capacity, etc.—but let’s keep it simple here. Under your plan, there are these feral cats—an awful lot of them—that no longer have access to the assistance of humans (other than scavenging trash, say). OK, now what?”

Longcore’s response, in a nutshell, advocated for mandatory spay/neuter, and “cat licensing so that cats are no longer treated as second class, disposable pets.” (It’s difficult to see how their wide-scale killing will get them bumped up to first-class, but such illogical leaps have long been the norm among TNR opponents.)

Whatever his misgivings about disclosing a feasible alternative to TNR, Longcore was more than willing to diagnose the mental health of TNR supporters:

“TNR advocates… aren’t actually interested in reducing feral cat numbers. TNR is something that they ‘sell’ to their jurisdiction so that they are allowed to keep feeding ‘their’ cats. They appear to prefer that the problem persist so that they can validate their sense of self worth by being rescuers.”

There’s an irony to Longcore’s allegation, of course. If, as he implies, he and his fellow petitioners are “actually interested in reducing feral cat numbers,” then why not lay out the way forward?

“You failed to answer the question posed,” I pressed.

“Let me rephrase it, then: Throw in mandatory spay/neuter (if and only if adequate low/no-cost S/N is provided to the community—a rarity, as I’m sure you know), as you suggest. And let’s say there are—again, just to simplify matters—no roaming pet cats. The problem remains: many, many feral cats. And even if Animal Control had the resources to round up every one of them that triggers a complaint, it’s a drop in the bucket. And once you’ve outlawed TNR, there’s no way even one of these cats is going to be sterilized. So, the next step here is what, exactly?”

Longcore’s reply, not surprisingly, was a laundry list of “policies needed to control feral cats,” the majority of which—either directly or indirectly—simply lead to more killing: mandatory spay/neuter, pet limits, prohibitions on roaming, and prohibitions of “feral cat feeding unless on feeder’s property, or with permission of property owner and nearby owners/residents.” Oh, and “euthanasia” (not to be confused with euthanasia). Among the non-lethal solutions: “adoption or other nonlethal removal (e.g. the few sanctuary spaces),” and “outdoor enclosures for ferals where property owners are willing.”

“If you want to go out and sterilize and release feral cats in your back yard under this scenario, go ahead, but recognize that doesn’t then mean your neighbor can’t then trap and remove them. If you want feral cats to have a good life, adopt them and treat them like real pets. If you aren’t going to, then it is my strong belief the appropriate thing to do is to euthanize them.”

As for how this mass “euthanasia” would play out—you know: budget, time line, population projections, examples of successful models, etc.—Longcore had no more to say than did Schroeder or Hutchins.

Visions of the Future
Is it really so unreasonable to expect TNR opponents—especially those individuals and organizations pushing so hard for policy changes—to present a feasible alternative to TNR? Or even, as a start, to address directly comments made by Mark Kumpf, former president of the National Animal Control Association, who compares the traditional trap-and-kill approach to “bailing the ocean with a thimble”?

“There’s no department that I’m aware of that has enough money in their budget to simply practice the old capture-and-euthanize policy,” explains Kumpf in a 2008 interview with Animal Sheltering magazine. “Nature just keeps having more kittens.” [3]

Those budgets are very likely even tighter today. Now, take away TNR—along with all the “free” resources that come with it—and you’re wishing you had a thimble with which to bail the ocean.

As I explained to Hutchins, those of us advocating and caring for our communities’ stray, abandoned, and feral cats demand better answers than they’ve provided. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that supporters of various organizations opposing TNR are beginning to feel the same way. In part, because—and this, too, is becoming increasingly clear—a position opposed to TNR and the feeding of outdoor cats often, in fact, runs counter to an organization’s stated vision.

Either that, or their “concerns” about outdoor cats are really little more than fear-mongering (a tried-and-true fundraising technique, of course).

The way I see it, there are really only four possible scenarios in play here:

1. No TNR + No Feeding = Fewer Cats
As I’ve pointed out, this one simply doesn’t add up. And heaven knows, if there were evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of such policies, ABC, TWS, the Urban Wildlands Group, et al. wouldn’t be shy about it. That’s not to say they don’t try to suggest as much, of course.

In its TNR “fact sheet” (PDF), TWS, for example, holds up Akron’s 2002 ordinance—which requires the city’s animal control wardens to “apprehend” and “impound” any cats “running at large”—as both humane and cost-effective. Last summer, I took an in-depth look at the impact of Akron’s “cat ordinance,” and found that it’s been far more costly than TWS suggests. And if it’s done anything to reduce the population of the city’s stray, abandoned, and feral cats, nobody’s documented it. (Again, this would seem to be a “success story” in the making for TNR opponents.)

2. No TNR + No Feeding = More Cats—Oops!
What if all this rabid campaigning against outdoor cats has blinded participants to the inevitable consequences of their actions? You know, a careful-what-you-wish-for scenario.

Again, there’s no evidence to suggest that the “plan” will work. And yet, the drumbeat only grows louder. I tend to think that, generally speaking, the leadership at ABC, TWS, the Urban Wildlands Group, et al. is—despite various failures, of which I’ve been highly critical—smart enough to realize this simple fact. On the other hand, I have colleagues—people with far more experience and a much broader perspective—stop me cold when I say so.

3. No TNR + No Feeding = More Cats—But That’s OK
In the 22 months since launching this blog, I’ve been at pains to expose the flimsy nature of most complaints regarding the alleged impacts of free-roaming cats on wildlife and the environment. Much of that effort has involved the untangling of predation estimates based on indefensible sampling and extrapolation, and—more important—decoupling the implied relationship between predation and population-level impacts. Among the evidence I’ve presented (which would seem to be locked tightly inside the aforementioned filing cabinet, thus rendering it “unavailable” to TNR opponents):

Mike Fitzgerald and Dennis Turner’s thorough review of 61 predation studies, in which the authors conclude rather unambiguously: “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.” [4]

Also: two very detailed studies supporting a widely understood (though only rarely acknowledged among TNR opponents) pattern of predators: cats tend to prey on the young, the old, the weak and unhealthy. [5, 6] Or, as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds makes puts it: “It is likely that most of the birds killed by cats would have died anyway from other causes before the next breeding season, so cats are unlikely to have a major impact on populations.” [7]

It may be that leaders of the TNR opposition do, in fact, recognize the implications of the well-documented science on the subject (though never publicly, of course), whether that concerns predation, rabies, toxoplasmosis, or any number of other aspects of the debate. Such an understanding would allow them to continue pushing for policies that would, despite their claims to the contrary, actually increase the number of free-roaming cats—but still have little or no significant consequences for the wildlife these organizations claim to protect.

Donors are happy, wildlife’s happy—what’s not to like, right? (Actually, all this unwarranted attention on cats is, I’m sure, diverting scarce resources from the real issues—so maybe the wildlife will, in the end, lose anyway.)

4. No TNR + No Feeding = More Cats. Exactly.
File this one under “A” for Apocalyptic. Or Armageddon, maybe.

What if more cats—lots of them—is not only OK, but the goal? At some point, their numbers become so great that popular opinion undergoes a tidal shift, favoring lethal control methods. The bigger the problem becomes, the more drastic the measures considered.

If some wildlife suffers for the cause, well, it’s a small price to pay. If you want to make an omelet, you have to be willing to break a few eggs, right? No free lunches here. Collateral damage. Etc.

Wild conspiracy-theory talk? Maybe so. I mean, it’s a bit like suggesting that our esteemed Smithsonian Institution hired a cat-killer to conduct research on pet cats. As I often tell my colleagues: you can’t make this stuff up. So.

•     •     •

TNR opponents have, for years, misled policymakers and the public—not only about the “threats” posed by free-roaming cats, but about their plan going forward (again, assuming they actually have a plan). They’re advocating for the extermination—in the tens of millions—of this country’s most popular companion animal, without ever proposing any feasible alternative to TNR. (Ironic, isn’t it? These same people claim to have the “best available science” on their side, but either cannot or will not describe or discuss what exactly they’ve got in mind for a solution to the “feral cat problem.”)

Once again, I’m reminded of that famous quote from Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants, electric light the most efficient policeman.” Public scrutiny and a demand for transparency, Brandeis recognized, can bring about significant social change.

We need to start asking better questions—and demanding better answers—of TNR opponents. And we must do so repeatedly and publicly—in town halls, letters to the editor, and any number of online venues; and by contacting local, state, and federal representatives and government agencies.

No TNR? No feeding of outdoor cats? What’s your plan, then?

As the sunlight Brandies spoke of reveals the fatal flaws underlying the anti-TNR rhetoric, it helps light the way forward.

Literature Cited
1. 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.


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

3. Hettinger, J., “Taking a Broader View of Cats in the Community.” Animal Sheltering. 2008. September/October. p. 8–9. http://www.animalsheltering.org/resource_library/magazine_articles/sep_oct_2008/taking_a_broader_view_of_cats.html


4. 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.

5. 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. http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/bsc/ibi/2008/00000150/A00101s1/art00008

6. Møller, A.P. and Erritzøe, J., “Predation against birds with low immunocompetence.” Oecologia. 2000. 122(4): p. 500–504. http://www.springerlink.com/content/ghnny9mcv016ljd8/

7. n.a. (2011) Are cats causing bird declines? http://www.rspb.org.uk/advice/gardening/unwantedvisitors/cats/birddeclines.aspx Accessed October 26, 2011.

Putting the “Nation” in FixNation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

City agencies are no longer allowed to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.

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

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. http://www.fws.gov/nationalkeydeer/predatormgmt.html


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. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6V5X-48XKMBP-17J/2/f81b57e317f217802d9aca8b6927a88c

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. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2388365

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. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6V5X-4NGBB7H-3/2/456180347a2c3916d1ae99e220dd329e

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. http://www.jstor.org/pss/3783408

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. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7998.1987.tb02915.x

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


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. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15552312


10. Stallcup, R., “A reversible catastrophe.” Observer 91. 1991(Spring/Summer): p. 8–9. http://www.prbo.org/cms/print.php?mid=530


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. www.pnas.org/content/105/suppl.1/11490.full


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. http://dnr.wi.gov/wnrmag/html/stories/1996/dec96/cats.htm

14. Coleman, J.S. and Temple, S.A., How Many Birds Do Cats Kill?, in Wildlife Control Technology. 1995. p. 44. http://www.wctech.com/WCT/index99.htm

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. www.vacadsci.org/vjsArchives/v43/43-1B/43-197.pdf

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. http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/bsc/ibi/2008/00000150/A00101s1/art00008

17. Møller, A.P. and Erritzøe, J., “Predation against birds with low immunocompetence.” Oecologia. 2000. 122(4): p. 500-504. http://www.springerlink.com/content/ghnny9mcv016ljd8/

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. http://www.jstor.org/pss/2386274


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

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. http://www.feral.org.au/the-diet-of-feral-cats-felis-catus-on-raoul-island-kermadec-group/


21. Fan, M., Kuang, Y., and Feng, Z., “Cats protecting birds revisited.” Bulletin of Mathematical Biology. 2005. 67(5): p. 1081–1106. http://www.springerlink.com/content/p0h5854n56183874/

22. Courchamp, F., Langlais, M., and Sugihara, G., “Cats protecting birds: modelling the mesopredator release effect.” Journal of Animal Ecology. 1999. 68(2): p. 282–292. http://dx.doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-2656.1999.00285.x


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. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2664.2008.01601.x/abstract


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. http://www.fws.gov/verobeach/index.cfm?Method=programs&NavProgramCategoryID=3&programID=107&ProgramCategoryID=3


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. http://www.fws.gov/verobeach/index.cfm?Method=programs&NavProgramCategoryID=3&programID=107&ProgramCategoryID=3


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. http://ecos.fws.gov/speciesProfile/profile/speciesProfile.action?spcode=A086


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. http://www.fws.gov/verobeach/index.cfm?Method=programs&NavProgramCategoryID=3&programID=107&ProgramCategoryID=3


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. http://ecos.fws.gov/speciesProfile/profile/speciesProfile.action?spcode=A087


29. n.a., Multi-Species Recovery Plan for South Florida: Rice Rat. 1999, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Atlanta, GA. p. 173–194. http://www.fws.gov/verobeach/index.cfm?Method=programs&NavProgramCategoryID=3&programID=107&ProgramCategoryID=3


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. http://ecos.fws.gov/speciesProfile/profile/speciesProfile.action?spcode=A083


31. Winograd, N.J., Redemption: The myth of pet overpopulation and the no kill revolution in America. 2007: Almaden Books. http://www.nathanwinograd.com/?page_id=164

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 http://keysnews.com/archives

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. http://www.fws.gov/nationalkeydeer/


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

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. http://www.royalsociety.org.nz/publications/journals/nzjz/2001/001/


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. http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/default.asp


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. http://www.jstor.org/pss/5003

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


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. http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/default.asp


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. http://www.animallaw.info/articles/arus18jlanduseenvtll441.htm


Conversation Killer

Over the weekend, a comment (criticizing, once again, the recently released University of Nebraska-Lincoln “report”) I posted on Audubon magazine’s blog, The Perch, drew fire from Travis Longcore.

Longcore, of course, is the lead author of the widely circulated paper, “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” and Science Director for the Urban Wildlands Group, the lead plaintiff in the case that led to the TNR-related injunction in Los Angeles earlier this year (under which City-funded spay/neuter vouchers for feral cats and shelter-based TNR promotions have been halted; TNR, however, continues), a decision currently making its way through the appeal process (I heard just this afternoon that “Round 2” was decided in favor of the plaintiffs).

After a weekend of back-and-forth debate about the science surrounding the UNL report and, more broadly, feral cats and TNR, I posed the following question to Longcore:

You’ve been very straightforward about your desire to see TNR and the feeding of feral cats outlawed. But then what?

I’ve yet to hear from you—or anybody on your side of the issue—spell it out. We all know the cats won’t disappear in the absence of TNR/feeding. We can argue about rates of population growth, carrying capacity, etc.—but let’s keep it simple here. Under your plan, there are these feral cats—an awful lot of them—that no longer have access to the assistance of humans (other than scavenging trash, say). OK, now what?

Will it be like what was done on Marion Island, where—despite being only 115-square-miles in size, barren, and uninhabited—it took something like 16 years to eradicate 2,500 cats? Using disease (feline distemper), poisoning, intensive hunting and trapping, and—if I’m not mistaken—dogs.

And, while we’re at it, who will pay for this unprecedented nightmare?

These are not rhetorical questions. As I say, I’ve heard plenty of arguments against TNR over the past year or so. I’ve yet to hear a single counter-proposal. Not one.

Trap-and-remove? That’s not a proposal—that’s a bromide. I want to hear about how all this would play out. And this seems like an appropriate venue, given the original topic and your role in the L.A. injunction.

So, Travis, what would you do?

Two days later, no word from Longcore. a well-considered reply, but still no answer to the question posed.

Available: Resources

As some of you may have noticed, I’ve added a new tab to the Vox Felina site. Resources is where you’ll find printer-friendly documents adapted from Vox Felina content.

The first, “Reassessment: A Closer Look at ‘Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return,’” is a brief review of the essay “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” by Travis Longcore, Catherine Rich, and Lauren M. Sullivan. It’s based on a four-part series of posts from May. Download PDF

Feeding Bans: Policy Hungry for Science

A recent news item from Alley Cat Allies reports “a disturbing and increasing trend of feeding ban proposals as a way to ‘eradicate’ cats from their outdoor homes.” Among the reasons cited for opposing such bans:

  • Cats don’t magically disappear when you stop feeding them—there’s an abundance of garbage available (from households, restaurants, supermarkets, etc.) as an alternative food source. Wherever you find people—and their trash—you’ll also find cats.
  • TNR requires regular feeding schedules. No feeding means no TNR—and no sterilization means more cats, not fewer.
  • Punishing concerned citizens is bad policy, and bad for communities.

I’d like to add one more: The concerns that prompt such proposals are, more than likely, based on erroneous, exaggerated, and/or misleading claims—all made in the name of science.

I’ll bet if I contacted officials in Brookhaven, NY, Wheaton, IL, and Benzie County, MI (communities listed in the Alley Cat Allies story), they’d tell me all about the numerous “threats” posed by free-roaming cats—wildlife killed and injured, rabies, toxoplasmosis, etc. And if pressed, they would almost certainly produce the Travis Longcore/Urban Wildlands Group article from Conservation Biology, some reference to the Wisconsin Study, a clipping of the L.A. Times story from January, or some comparable (read: dubious) bit of “evidence.”

Which is precisely what Longcore et al. are pushing for:

Conservation scientists and advocates must properly identify the environmental implications of feral cat management and actively engage this issue to bring scientific information to the attention of policy makers. [1]

I’ve got nothing against scientists getting involved with policy making—on the contrary, I think we need more of it. But from what I’ve seen, too many scientists involved in feral cat/TNR research are putting the cart before the horse. They’re shaping public policy before properly identifying any environmental implications. Too much interest in active engagement, not enough interest in active science.

1. Longcore, T., Rich, C., and Sullivan, L.M., “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap–Neuter–Return.” Conservation Biology. 2009. 23(4): p. 887–894.

A Critical Assessment of “Critical Assessment”—Part 4

The fourth in a series of posts that breaks down my critique of the essay “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” (Conservation Biology, Volume 23, No. 4, 887–894) by Travis Longcore, Catherine Rich, and Lauren M. Sullivan.

In the past few posts, I’ve addressed their claims regarding the numbers of birds killed by cats, and alleged wildlife impacts. Now I’d like to focus on some of their claims regarding TNR. While I agree with the authors that there is a need for additional research into the effectiveness and impact (environmental and otherwise) of TNR, I’m not sure any subsequent findings would satisfy the standards—some of which border on the absurd—suggested by Longcore et al.

To begin with, the authors challenge the efficacy of TNR, noting—correctly—for example, that where TNR has proven effective at reducing the size of colonies, success has been “derive[d] in part from intensive efforts to remove cats for adoption as part of the TNR program.” [1] Shouldn’t this appeal to Longcore and the Urban Wildlands Group? Adoptions lead to fewer free-roaming cats, right?

It’s unclear how a successful adoption program lessens the efficacy of TNR; indeed, such efforts are integral to any TNR program. For Longcore et al., however, it’s as if adoptions constitute cheating.

Researchers vs. Volunteers
Another of their assertions, that “programs implemented by researchers are likely to be much more thorough than programs implemented exclusively by volunteers,” [1] could be applied to virtually any conservation effort. Of course the results will be better when the experts are involved directly!

Indeed, while compiling data for the Atlas of Breeding Birds of Maryland and the District of Columbia, researchers found Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) in 46% of the areas surveyed, while volunteers reported only a 14% occurrence of this “secretive species that requires special effort.” [2] Here, the experts “performed” more than three times better than well-meaning volunteers with less experience and/or training. Should we discontinue all efforts that include volunteers, then? Or shut down these programs until the volunteers perform as well as experts? Obviously not.

Anecdotes of Success
Longcore et al. criticize supporters of TNR for their “anecdotes of success” and “assertions of colony declines often… supported only by reference to Web sites.” [1] By calling the data “anecdotal,” the authors dismiss it out of hand. So, what measures of success would be acceptable?

In general, caretakers of feral colonies—as providers of food, water, shelter, and, often, healthcare—know their cats quite well. Yet, Longcore et al. suggest that their reports are not to be trusted—trusted to a lesser degree, in fact, than the reports generated by members of the public recruited to watch and listen for birds. Breeding Bird Surveys “annually engage tens of thousands of participants,” and these efforts are now beginning to leverage the power of the Internet via Web-based programs such as eBird. [3] All of which sounds very anecdotal. So, do the authors question the validity of this work as well?

Prevailing Conditions
Citing a 2006 study from Rome, [4] Longcore et al. chose to focus not on TNR’s rather remarkable success, but on its greatest challenge: “Ten years of TNR in Rome showed a 16–32% decrease in population size across 103 colonies but concluded that TNR was ‘a waste of time, energy, and money’ if abandonment of owned cats could not be stopped.” [1] It must be recognized that TNR is part of a larger mission that includes adoptions (as mentioned above), sterilization of owned cats, and the burgeoning no-kill movement (which may reduce the number of abandoned cats).

In any case, what rescue/conservation work isn’t “a waste of time, energy, and money” when considered in the harsh light of what the authors call “prevailing conditions”? We could, for example, say the same about efforts to save songbirds faced with the elimination and fragmentation of habitat, increased levels of pollution, and the like (indeed, endangered and threatened species are, by definition, the victims of prevailing conditions). Or, to take a very timely example, the work being done to save the wildlife affected by millions of gallons of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico even as I write this.

The fact that such efforts are uphill battles may say something about their underlying moral imperative—but very little about their efficacy.

*     *     *

Common Ground
Essentially, the argument put forth by Longcore et al. in this part of their essay boils down to these three points:

  • TNR can and does work, though not always as well as one would like.
  • Adoptions are critical, as is training and rigorous tracking.
  • Abandonment of pet cats—which is, in any case, illegal—should be stopped.

So, how is this any different than what TNR advocates are promoting? Here at least, we would seem to have some common ground. Apparently, what’s really at issue is not how success is defined, but by whom:

For many TNR advocates, success is not defined by elimination of feral cats in an area, but rather by the welfare of the cats… conservation scientists and wildlife veterinarians measure success of a feral cat management program by the decline and elimination of free-roaming cats. [1]

All of which leaves me wondering: How much time have the authors spent with people who practice TNR? Of course practitioners are interested in the welfare of the cats—just as any animal lover is interested in the welfare of the animals they enjoy. But they’re also thrilled when “kitten season” comes and goes without any new arrivals in their colonies.

More common ground? It would seem so—but if that’s the case, one is left to wonder why the Urban Wildlands Group sued the City of Los Angeles to put an end to publicly supported TNR. (Or at least I am left to wonder, as Longcore has not responded to my inquiries.) One thing that does seem certain: more cats are reproducing as a result of the injunction. And no doubt more are dying, too. Hard to imagine the wildlife and environment being any better off, either. There are lots of losers here—where are the winners?

1. Longcore, T., Rich, C., and Sullivan, L.M., “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap–Neuter–Return.” Conservation Biology. 2009. 23(4): p. 887–894.

2. Robbins, C.S. and Blom, E.A.T., Atlas of the breeding birds of Maryland and the District of Columbia. Pitt series in nature and natural history. 1996.

3. Sullivan, B.L., et al., “eBird: A citizen-based bird observation network in the biological sciences.” Biological Conservation. 2009. 142(10): p. 2282-2292.

4. 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.

A Critical Assessment of “Critical Assessment”—Part 3

The third in a series of posts that breaks down my critique of the essay “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” (Conservation Biology, Volume 23, No. 4, 887–894) by Travis Longcore, Catherine Rich, and Lauren M. Sullivan.

As I’ve suggested previously, much of the “evidence” that Longcore et al. cite regarding cat predation is rather weak. The links between predation and declining wildlife populations (especially birds) are, not surprisingly, no better. According to Longcore et al., “Comparative field studies and population measurements illustrate the adverse effects of feral and free roaming cats on birds and other wildlife.” Let’s take a closer look at some of these studies…

In canyons in San Diego native bird diversity declined significantly with density of domestic cats (Crooks & Soulé 1999). —Longcore et al.

  • Longcore fail to mention the density of people here—the study site was a “moderately sized fragment (~20 ha) [approximately 49 acres] bordered by 100 residences.” [1]
  • It’s also not clear how sites such as this one, which the authors describe as, “undeveloped steep-sided canyons… habitat islands in an urban sea,” correspond to the environment overall. Don’t forget: when Longcore and the Urban Wildlands Group sued the City of Los Angeles last year, it was to put a stop to publicly supported TNR throughout the city.

In a comparative study in Alameda County, California, a site with a colony of feral cats had significantly fewer resident birds, fewer migrant birds, and fewer breeding birds than a control site without cats (Hawkins 1998). Ground-foraging species, notably California Quail (Calipepla californica) and California Thrashers (Toxostoma redivivum), were present at the control site but never observed at the site with cats. Native rodent density was drastically reduced at the site with cats, whereas exotic house mice (Mus musculus) were more common (Hawkins 1998). —Longcore et al.

Hawkins’ dissertation [2] is so problematic—and cited frequently enough as “evidence” of the impact of cats on wildlife—that it warrants a post of its own. Here, I’ll touch on just a few issues.

  • Hawkins describes the “cat” and “no-cat” sites as being similar enough that a valid A-B comparison is appropriate. But a closer look at the study suggests otherwise. Much of the cat site bordered the park’s lake and marina, not far from a number of picnic sites. Hawkins notes that there were more people in the cat area, but doesn’t even admit to the possibility that their presence may have influenced the numbers of birds and rodents he observed there.
  • In addition, the presence of pesticides may have played a role. According to a 2002 report (the earliest I was able to find) from the East Bay Regional Park District, “The focus of Lake Chabot’s weed control efforts are vegetation reduction within the two-acre overflow parking lot, picnic sites and firebreaks around park buildings, corp. yard, service yard, and the Lake Chabot classroom.” [3] Now, Hawkins’ fieldwork was done in 1995 and 1996, but if there was any pesticide use going on during the study period, it may have affected the results—especially if the pesticide was distributed differently across the two sites.
  • Hawkins writes, “The preference of ground feeding birds for the no-cat treatment was striking; for example, California quail were seen almost daily in the no-cat area, whereas they were never seen in the cat area.” What’s more striking to me, though, is the fact that five of the nine ground-feeding species included in the study showed no preference for the cat or no-cat area—a point Hawkins downplays, and Longcore et al. ignore entirely.
  • Finally, it’s not clear how this study constitutes an experiment at all. Hawkins chose two sites, one where cats were being fed, and another (approximately two miles away) where cats were not being fed. We have no idea what the cat area was actually like prior to the cats being fed there—Hawkins merely assumes the populations of birds and rodents would have been identical to those found at the no-cat site. We also have no idea what effect the feeding had—what if the cats were present but had to fend for themselves? And we don’t know if the cats were sterilized, or what impact that might have had on the study. In other words, Hawkins doesn’t actually know enough about what’s going on at the two sites to conclude, as he does, that “it is not prudent to manage for wildlife and allow cat feeding in the same parks.”

In Bristol, United Kingdom Baker et al. (2005) calculated that the predation rates by cats on 3 bird species in an urban area is high relative to annual productivity, which led the authors to suggest that the area under study may be a habitat sink. —Longcore et al.

  • Also, Longcore et al. fail to mention that Baker et al. concede an important point: “collectively, despite [cats] occurring at very high densities, the summed effects on prey populations appeared unlikely to affect population size for the majority of prey species.”
  • In addition, a subsequent study (also conducted in Bristol) involving two of the authors, suggests that much of the predation observed was compensatory rather than additive. That is, many of these birds would have, for one reason or another, died anyhow, whether the cats were present or not. Specifically, the authors found that “birds killed by cats in this study had significantly lower fat and pectoral muscle mass scores than those killed by collisions.” [6] Baker at al. are cautious about these findings, suggesting, “the distinction between compensatory and additive mortality does… become increasingly redundant as the number of birds killed in a given area increases: where large numbers of prey are killed, predators would probably be killing a combination of individuals with poor and good long-term survival chances.” But once again, their estimates of birds killed by cats are inflated by a factor of 3.3, as described above—thereby raising doubts about any level of “redundancy.”
  • Another study to investigate compensatory vs. additive predation was more conclusive. Møller and Erritzøe compared the average spleen mass of birds killed by cats to that of birds killed in collisions with windows found that, “small passerine birds falling prey to cats had spleens that were significantly smaller than those of conspecifics that died for other reasons,” concluding that the birds killed by cats “often have a poor health status.” [7] In other words, the birds killed by cats were among the population least likely to survive anyhow.

Clearly, this is a complex—not to mention contentious—issue. But Longcore et al. make it out to be remarkably straightforward. The “adverse effects of feral and free roaming cats on birds and other wildlife,” they seem to suggest, are widely accepted common knowledge.

*     *     *

Then, too, there are those—and there are many—who have disputed the broad-brush claims about the impact of cat predation on wildlife. Consider, for example, the following studies:

  • Biologist C.J. Mead, reviewing the deaths of “ringed” (banded) birds reported by the 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.” But the relationship between bird deaths and population declines is complex. In fact, Mead concludes that “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.” [8]
  • Mike Fitzgerald and Dennis Turner come to essentially the same conclusion. (Their contribution to The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour is a must-read for anybody interested in the subject.) “We consider that we do not have enough information yet to attempt to estimate on average how many birds a cat kills each year,” write Fitzgerald and Turner. “And there are few, if any studies apart from island ones that actually demonstrate that cats have reduced bird populations.” [9]
  • Martin, Twigg, and Robinson conclude more broadly, “it is not possible to make any inferences concerning the real impact of feral cats on prey populations from dietary studies.” [10]

Given the scope of their essay, perhaps it’s understandable that Longcore et al. were unable to cover each aspect of this rather broad topic in a comprehensive manner. Nevertheless, the amount of research into cat predation and declining bird populations—a critical piece of the puzzle, to be sure—that was omitted, glossed over, and/or misrepresented suggests a clear agenda. Read carefully, their essay comes across as not as scientific discourse, but as fodder for a marketing campaign. (And, given the number of wildlife conservation/bird advocacy groups that have posted it on their websites—not to mention the L.A. Superior court decision—it’s been effective.)

*     *     *

Many proponents of TNR will acknowledge that the practice is not appropriate for all environments. Crooks and Soulé’s work in San Diego’s canyon country (cited previously), writes Ellen Perry Berkeley, “suggests to even the most ardent TNR advocate that such a landscape might not be the best place for TNR… The world is a complicated place.” [11] Gary J. Patronek, the former Director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, and one of the founders of the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, goes further: “the release of cats into an environment where they would impact endangered or threatened species, or even into wildlife preserves or refuges, is inexcusable.” [12]

This, I worry, is a slippery slope. Given the current nature of the cat debate, how long would it be before every alley, Dumpster, and abandoned property is deemed a wildlife preserve? And, given the number of endangered and threatened species—and their wide range—would there be any environment left for cats? Nevertheless, Patronek’s larger point is an important one:

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

For Longcore and the Urban Wildlands Group (and others, too, of course), though, there’s simply no place for TNR anywhere. But there’s something even more troubling with their argument: they’re asking the wrong questions. As Patronek puts it so eloquently:

If the real objection to managed colonies is that it is unethical to put cats in a situation where they could potentially kill any wild creature, then the ethical issue should be debated on its own merits without burdening the discussion with highly speculative numerical estimates for either wildlife mortality or cat predation. Whittling down guesses or extrapolations from limited observations by a factor of 10 or even 100 does not make these estimates any more credible, and the fact that they are the best available data is not sufficient to justify their use when the consequence may be extermination for cats… What I find inconsistent in an otherwise scientific debate about biodiversity is how indictment of cats has been pursued almost in spite of the evidence, and without regard to the differential effects of cats in carefully selected, managed colonies, versus that of free-roaming pets, owned farm cats, or truly feral animals. Assessment of well-being for any is an imprecise and contentious process at best. Additional research is clearly needed concerning the welfare of these cats.

In a future post, I’ll get into the ways Longcore et al. would have us measure the success of TNR.

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

2. 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.

3. Brownfield, N.T., 2002 Annual Analysis of Pesticide Use East Bay Regional Park District. 2003, East Bay Regional Park District.

4. Baker, P.J., et al., “Impact of predation by domestic cats Felis catus in an urban area.” Mammal Review. 2005. 35(3/4): p. 302-312.

5. Kays, R.W. and DeWan, A.A., “Ecological impact of inside/outside house cats around a suburban nature preserve.” Animal Conservation. 2004. 7(3): p. 273-283.

6. 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.

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

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

9. 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. p. 151–175.

10. Martin, G.R., Twigg, L.E., and Robinson, D.J., “Comparison of the Diet of Feral Cats From Rural and Pastoral Western Australia.” Wildlife Research. 1996. 23(4): p. 475-484.

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

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

A Critical Assessment of “Critical Assessment”—Part 2

The second in a series of posts that breaks down my critique of the essay “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” (Conservation Biology, Volume 23, No. 4, 887–894) by Travis Longcore, Catherine Rich, and Lauren M. Sullivan.

Like so many others interested in blaming cats for declining bird populations, Longcore et al. refer to a 1996 article in Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine [1], in which the authors estimate that 8–219 million birds are killed annually by “free-ranging rural cats” in the state. More than any other work, the “Wisconsin Study” (which is actually a series of articles, the first being published in 1993 [2]) has been used as “evidence” against advocates for free-roaming cats in general, and TNR in particular.

In my previous post, I referred only briefly to Coleman and Temple’s work; in fact, careful scrutiny is in order. Among the study’s more notable flaws:

  • Its “estimate that 23 percent of [cats’] diet consists of birds” is well above the 7–10.5% figure suggested by Fitzgerald, [3] one of the world’s foremost experts on the subject (for a detailed account, see Ellen Perry Berkeley’s 2004 book, TNR Past present and future: A history of the trap-neuter-return movement [4]). In fact, Coleman and Temple cite Fitzgerald’s work, making the error all the more egregious.
  • Coleman and Temple assume that all cats hunt; in fact, it has been suggested that only 35–56% of cats are hunters. [5,6]
  • Their figures for cat density, too, have been challenged. [7]

For a more complete critique of the Wisconsin Study, download the 2003 report by Laurie D. Goldstein, Christine L. O’Keefe, and Heidi L. Bickel at Stray Pet Advocacy.

Now 14 years old, the Wisconsin Study has achieved mythical status—but not in a good way. I suppose it’s because the numbers are so impressive. Forget the fact that they’re essentially fictitious—they’re simply too tempting for people who see cats as the primary reason for declining bird populations. James Tantillo, a Lecturer in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is right on the money when he refers to Coleman and Temple’s estimate as an example of a “‘mutant statistic’ whose origins and genesis have been greatly lost to the people who cite it.” [8]

*     *     *

Among those who cite it are, of course, Longcore et al. But they failed to cite an important follow-up comment by one of the authors of the Wisconsin Study. In a 1994 interview, an “exasperated” Temple told The Sonoma County Independent:

The media has had a field day with this since we started. Those figures were from our proposal. They aren’t actual data; that was just our projection to show how bad it might be. [9]

More than the media, however, it’s been the wildlife conservationists and bird advocates who have had a field day with the Wisconsin Study. Here are just a few examples:

  • The American Bird Conservancy refers to the study in its brochure Domestic Cat Predation on Birds and Other Wildlife. But ABC goes one step further, pointing out that Coleman and Temple’s estimate was for rural cats, and that “suburban and urban cats add to that toll.” [10]
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cites the study’s “intermediate” estimate of 39 million birds in its Migratory Bird Mortality Fact Sheet.
  • A recent article in Audubon Magazine suggests “cats were annually knocking off somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 million birds just in rural Wisconsin.” [11] To the magazine’s credit, they used Coleman and Temple’s low estimate (a surprise given the overall tone of the piece). Still, none of the numbers from the Wisconsin Study are scientifically sound (indeed, one can make a strong argument that none of the work constitutes actual research).

For Longcore et al. to cite the Wisconsin Study without even a mention of its numerous flaws, or the rather public admission by one of its authors that their estimates “aren’t actual data,” casts serious doubt on the entire paper. Either they didn’t know how flimsy Coleman and Temple’s work was, or they knew and ignored the facts. Neither approach makes for good science, of course.

*     *     *

Estimating the number of birds killed by cats is difficult enough; demonstrating that their predation is the cause of declining bird populations is an even greater challenge. Nevertheless, Longcore et al. suggest the evidence is both plentiful and compelling. I’ll lay out an argument to the contrary in my next post

1. Coleman, J. S., & Temple, S. A. (1996). On the Prowl. Wisconsin Natural Resources, 20, 4–8. http://www.dnr.state.wi.us/wnrmag/html/stories/1996/dec96/cats.htm

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

3. Fitzgerald, B. M. (1988). Diet of domestic cats and their impact on prey populations. In D. C. Turner & P. P. G. Bateson (Eds.), The Domestic cat: The biology of its behaviour (1st ed., pp. 123–147). Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

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

5. Baker, P. J., Molony, S. E., Stone, E., Cuthill, I. C., & Harris, S. (2008). Cats about town: is predation by free-ranging pet cats Felis catus likely to affect urban bird populations? Ibis, 150, 86-99.

6. Goldstein, L. D., O’Keefe, C. L., & Bickel, H. L. (2003). Addressing “The Wisconsin Study.” http://www.straypetadvocacy.org/html/wisconsin_study.html

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

8. Tantillo, J. A. (2006). Killing Cats and Killing Birds: Philosophical issues pertaining to feral cats. In J. R. August (Ed.), Consultations in Feline Internal Medicine Volume 5 (5th ed., pp. 701–708). St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Saunders.

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

10. American Bird Conservancy (undated). Domestic Cat Predation on Birds and Other Wildlife. The Plains, VA. www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/materials/predation.pdf

11. Williams, T. (2009). Felines Fatale. Audubon Magazine. http://www.audubonmagazine.org/incite/incite0909.html

A Critical Assessment of “Critical Assessment”—Part 1

The first in a series of posts that breaks down my critique of the essay “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” (Conservation Biology, Volume 23, No. 4, 887–894) by Travis Longcore, Catherine Rich, and Lauren M. Sullivan.

How many birds are killed by cats? It’s a fair question. And if Longcore et al. are to be believed, we actually have a pretty good handle on this issue:

Feral and free-roaming cats are efficient predators, and their abundance results in substantial annual mortality of wildlife. Churcher and Lawton (1987) concluded that cats were responsible for 30% of the mortality of House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) in an English village. May (1988) extrapolated their results to an estimated 100 million birds and small mammals killed per year in England. Although this extrapolation is often criticized for the limited geographic scope and number of cats studied, Woods et al. (2003) confirmed and refined this result with a larger sample size and geographic area that included England, Scotland, and Wales. From a survey of cat owners that documented prey returned by 696 cats, Woods et al. (2003) estimated that the 9 million cats in Britain kill at least 52–63 million mammals, 25–29 million birds, and 4–6 million reptiles each summer. In North America Coleman and Temple (1996) developed estimates of cat densities in Wisconsin and associated mortality of 8–217 million birds per year.

The relationship between cat predation and bird populations is highly complex, and our understanding quite limited—something Longcore et al. only hint at. It doesn’t help matters that results of small, isolated studies are often extrapolated from rural to urban environments, from one region to another, and so forth. In 1995, Churcher himself cautioned against making such leaps: “I’d be very wary about extrapolating our results even for the rest of Britain, let alone America,” he told Catnip, a newsletter published by the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

Actually, Churcher went much further: “I don’t really go along with the idea of cats being a threat to wildlife. If the cats weren’t there, something else would be killing the sparrows or otherwise preventing them from breeding.” [1] Although Longcore et al. seem eager to cite Churcher and Lawton’s now-classic work as “evidence” of the damage cats can do, they make no mention of Churcher’s later comments (just one of many examples of their tendency to “cherry pick” from the literature only the bits and pieces that fit neatly into their argument).

But back to the number of birds killed by cats. Many of the studies on the subject—including those cited by Longcore et al.—are quite flawed. Among the numerous issues that call into question their estimates are assumptions regarding the number of cats that actually hunt, the number of cats allowed outdoors, the number of cats that live in a particular area, and so forth. And then, of course, there are the risks inherent in estimating population numbers and characteristics based on a small sample size.

(In fact, Woods et al. go to some lengths to emphasize the limitations of their study, conceding, for example, that they “may have focused on predatory cats.” [2] This is just one of many reasons the authors cite for requesting that their work be treated “with requisite caution”—a request apparently ignored by Longcore et al.)

By referring uncritically to such studies, Longcore et al. give far greater importance to this work than is warranted. Repeating—and therefore reinforcing—figures known to be erroneous and/or misleading is simply irresponsible.

The fact that the “English village” study and “Wisconsin Study” have been so thoroughly discredited (see, for example, the comments of Nathan Winograd, director of the No Kill Advocacy Center, and a report by Laurie D. Goldstein, Christine L. O’Keefe, and Heidi L. Bickel) raises some unsettling questions about their inclusion in a paper billed as a “critical assessment.” For example: Are the authors interested enough in rigorous scientific inquiry to look beyond “the usual suspects” in their assessment of the key issues?

One might also wonder: Given the important literature that Longcore et al. choose to overlook, ignore, or dismiss (to be addressed in detail in future posts), what is their motivation for writing the essay in the first place? Actually, this question was answered in January, two months after the paper’s publication, when L.A. Superior Court Judge Thomas McKnew decided in favor of an injunction against publicly supported TNR in Los Angeles (LASC BS115483). The Urban Wildlands Group (for which Longcore serves as Science Director, and Rich as Executive Officer) was the lead petitioner in the case.

If “Critical Assessment” is any indication, the case had much more to do with politics, PR, and marketing than with science.

1. n.a. (1995). What the Cat Dragged In. Catnip, 4–6.

2. Woods, M., Mcdonald, R. A., & Harris, S. (2003). Predation of wildlife by domestic cats Felis catus in Great Britain. Mammal Review, 33(2), 174-188.

Works cited in “Critical Assessment” excerpt:

• Churcher, P. B., & Lawton, J. H. (1987). Predation by domestic cats in an English village. Journal of Zoology, 212(3), 439-455.
• Coleman, J. S., & Temple, S. A. (1996). On the Prowl. Wisconsin Natural Resources, 20, 4–8.
• May, R. M. (1988). Control of feline delinquency. Nature, 332, 392-393.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Dauphiné, N. and Cooper, R.J., Impacts of Free-ranging Domestic Cats (Felis catus) on birds in the United States: A review of recent research with conservation and management recommendations, in Fourth International Partners in Flight Conference: Tundra to Tropics. 2010. p. 205–219

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Things People Say (or Don’t)—Part 1

Wildlife/bird advocates opposed to TNR are eager to talk to the press, so why won’t they reply to my e-mail?

Just about the time I was writing my response to “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap-Neuter-Return” (Conservation Biology, Volume 23, No. 4, 887–894), its lead author, Travis Longcore, began showing up in the news. The Urban Wildlands Group, for which Longcore serves as science director, was the lead petitioner in the case that would eventually lead to an injunction against publicly supported TNR in Los Angeles.

Given the obvious bias and overall tone of Longcore’s paper, I was hardly surprised to read what he told the press. There’s this, for example, from an interview with Southern California Public Radio:

“Feral cats are documented predators of native wildlife,” said Travis Longcore, science director for the Urban Wildlands Group. “We do not support release of this non-native predator into our open spaces and neighborhoods, where they kill birds and other wildlife.”

Hardly the stuff of controversy, at least at first glance. Who can argue with the fact that cats kills birds and other wildlife? That’s what predators—including cats and a number of other species, too, of course—do. Nobody’s debating that. What impact this predation has on birds and wildlife is another matter altogether—one Longcore doesn’t address here. (I’ll be addressing this issue repeatedly in future posts, starting with a critique of Longcore’s essay in Conservation Biology).

What’s more interesting is Longcore’s reference to cats as “non-native” and wildlife as “native.” It’s a recurring theme in the feral cat debate: native is inherently good; non-native is inherently bad (even worse is invasive non-native, another term often used to demonize cats). Never mind the fact that the cats are here because we brought them here, or the hypocrisy of the native/non-native argument. We routinely protect non-native species from native predators—consider, for example, the current controversy over livestock and wolves. Again, a topic to delve into more deeply in the future.

A week later, Longcore was quoted in the Los Angeles Times:

“It’s ugly; it’s gotten very vicious,” said Travis Longcore of the Urban Wildlands Group, one of the organizations that sued the city on behalf of the birds. “It’s not like we’ve got a vendetta here. This is a real environmental issue, a real public health issue.”

No vendetta? Maybe not, but Longcore’s essay in Conservation Biology has an agenda that takes priority over the science (hardly surprising in retrospect—given the timing of its publication, it must have been written while Longcore was preparing for the L.A. case). His apparent concern for the environment and public health strike me as largely disingenuous.

Also from the Times:

Those cats, Longcore said, often are diseased. And when colonies are fed, the practice often attracts more cats, either from around the neighborhood or because people dump new cats.

Let’s set aside for the moment Longcore’s assertion about colonies attracting cats, feral or dumped (I’ll get to that in another post). What about his suggestion that “these cats are often diseased”? In his own paper, Longcore acknowledges a rate of only 5–12% overall for feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and/or feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). In the largest of the studies he cites, more than 12,000 cats were tested for FeLV and FIV, revealing an overall rate of infection of 5.2%, which, noted the researchers, “is similar to results previously reported for feral cats and for pet cats.” [1]

What about rabies? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “approximately 1% of cats… tested for rabies were found positive” in 2008, the last year for which statistics are available.

It’s difficult to see how these rates of infection would lead anybody to suggest that free-roaming cats are “often diseased.” And I don’t expect to get any clarification from Longcore. While he seems eager to talk to mainstream media, which accepts his claims at face value (and passes them along as accurate to the public), he has yet to respond to my e-mail inquires.

I realize that taking issue with Longcore’s comments will no doubt strike some people as nitpicking. But such statements—which put PR before science—only impede any honest discussion of the issues.

[1] Wallace, J. L., & Levy, J. K. (2006). Population characteristics of feral cats admitted to seven trap-neuter-return programs in the United States. Journal of Feline Medicine & Surgery, 8, 279–284.