Canine Citizens and Community Cats

You know what they say about judging a book by its cover. Well, don’t be fooled by the title of Citizen Canine—as its subtitle indicates, this book is about “our evolving relationship” with both dogs and cats. Using a combination of rigorous research and on-the-ground reporting, author (and online news editor of Science) David Grimm traces the journey of cats and dogs from domestication (such as it is, in the case of cats) through beloved family pet and into the present-day movement toward personhood.

All of which makes for very compelling reading, even for those of us who work in animal welfare and are therefore familiar with most of the material. For other readers—and I hope there are many—Citizen Canine will likely be their introduction to contemporary hot-button animal welfare issues such as breed-discriminatory laws and TNR. And even the “insiders” among us might be surprised to learn, for example, of dogs with attorneys and the details of the Uniform Trust Code, which allows people (in some states) to include their pets (and perhaps their colony cats, too—I don’t know) in their wills.

Plenty of good stuff for all of us, in other words.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like David’s book tour will make it to Phoenix (and I missed him in L.A. last month!). I was, however, lucky enough to get a few minutes with him recently via e-mail, and asked him a few questions about his book.

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American Bird Conservancy “Encouraged By” Government Overreach

From a member message sent last week by the American Bird Conservancy:

We were encouraged by [the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s] recent statement from an FWS field office on free-roaming cats, a thoughtful and science-based letter to Escambia County, Florida. The letter expressed strong opposition to free-roaming cats within the U.S. ‘due to the adverse impacts of these non-native predators on federally listed threatened and endangered species, migratory birds, and other vulnerable native wildlife.’ It also opposed trap-neuter-release (TNR) programs that maintain feral cats in outdoor colonies.

Trouble is, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has no official position on free-roaming cats. Yet here’s this letter (PDF) written by USFWS staff, on official letterhead, explaining that the “agency strongly opposes free-roaming, domestic or feral cats in the U.S.,” and hinting that there may be legal repercussions if the county were to implement a TNR program. Which is why Best Friends Animal Society (my employer since May 2013) called out USFWS publicly, first with a national action alert and then with a blog post.

As I’ve pointed out previously, USFWS has been back and forth on this for some time now, acting (when it suits their purposes) as if they do have a policy regarding free-roaming cats, and then backpedaling when they’re called on the carpet.

So why not just issue an official policy and proceed accordingly?

Because these things typically require a degree of transparency with which USFWS is apparently uncomfortable, as well as considerable public input (e.g., notification and a commenting period). This, then, is what ABC is endorsing: inappropriate action from a federal agency clearly contradicting its own official statements and violating the public’s trust.

Not that this is anything new, of course. It was just a year ago that ABC was publicly endorsing similar behavior from—and a similarly too-cozy relationship with—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dare we ask—which government agency will ne next?

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You Can’t Get There from Here: A Response to Lohr and Lepczyk

The following comments were submitted by Frank Hamilton, president of the Animal Coalition of Tampa, Martha Girdany of the Kauai Community Cat Project, and myself, in response to Conservation Biology’s publication of “Desires and Management Preferences of Stakeholders Regarding Feral Cats in the Hawaiian Islands.”

Unfortunately, our critique of this badly flawed work was rejected by the journal. As editor-in-chief Mark Burgman explained, “the reviewers and handling editor have substantial concerns … the reviewers noted important and consistent concerns, the most significant of which is that the methodological issues raised in the comment were not sufficient to warrant publication.” Not surprisingly, my co-authors and I strongly disagree, and regret that Cheryl Lohr and Christopher Lepczyk were not required to defend their work (a trivial undertaking if, as the reviewers suggest, our concerns were off-base or overblown).

One often hears that science is self-correcting. The present case, however, supports the assertion, made in a 2012 Atlantic article, that self-correcting science is largely a myth.

•     •     •

In “Desires and Management Preferences of Stakeholders Regarding Feral Cats in the Hawaiian Islands,” authors Cheryl Lohr and Christopher Lepczyk [1] report, based on their analysis of survey results, that “live capture and lethal injection was the most preferred technique and trap-neuter-release was the least preferred technique for managing feral cats” in the Hawaiian islands. As we will demonstrate, however, a variety of flaws with the authors’ survey, sampling, and analysis undermine these claims. The study’s shortcomings, both technical and philosophical, are too numerous to address here; we will focus our attention, therefore, on the factors that contribute most significantly to Lohr and Lepczyk’s results, conclusions, and recommendations.

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Thinking Inside the Box

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

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

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

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Killer App

A couple months ago, I heard about a slick browser plugin (sadly, available only for Chrome) that replaces the word literally with figuratively for websites, articles, etc. I (literally?) cannot describe just how appealing this is to my inner (and sometimes outer) language bully. Indeed, the thought of the enormous satisfaction sure to follow was almost (but not quite) enough to get me to switch browsers.

More than anything else, though, the story got me thinking of a plugin not yet (so far as I know) developed: Euthanasia.

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It Takes a Village

After spending nearly all of Saturday “on standby,” it had become clear by late afternoon: the mother cat, though she’d carefully relocated two siblings, wasn’t coming back for this little one. So, after a quick trip to PetSmart to stock up on supplies, I drove to the home of a former colleague who’d been keeping watch over the family for the previous few days, and, just like that: I had my first bottle baby.

Here’s this tiny kitten, three weeks old at most, in the hands of a complete novice. What could possibly go wrong? I didn’t even want to consider the possibilities.

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Three Cats Lost in Fire at Animal Coalition of Tampa Clinic

I should have been working on a blog post to mark the four-year anniversary of Vox Felina—something light and, more likely than not, a little bit snarky. Instead, I found myself staring in disbelief at my laptop screen late Saturday evening, as the news slowly registered: three cats were killed in an early-morning fire at the Animal Coalition of Tampa clinic.

While a dog had apparently managed to escape, a post on ACT’s Facebook page explained that the fire took the lives of “our beloved Jazz, Boy, and Mama.”

Arson is suspected.

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O (Environment) Canada!

In “Estimated Number of Birds Killed by House Cats (Felis catus) in Canada,” published late last year in Avian Conservation and Ecology, Environment Canada research scientist Peter Blancher estimates that cats—owned and unowned—“kill between 100 and 350 million birds per year in Canada,” and suggests that this level of predation “is probably the largest human-related source of bird mortality in Canada.” [1]

I submitted the following comments to the journal in response to Blancher’s article, but retracted my submission upon learning that (1) the length is nearly twice as long as what is permitted, and (2) that I would be required to pay an “author fee” of about $340.

I’m not naïve enough to think that posting my comments here is comparable to having them published in ACE, but, given the considerable work involved—and, more important, the obvious policy implications of Blancher’s paper—I think it’s important that they be available.

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Faith Misplaced?

Old news: Richard Conniff’s March 23rd op-ed in the New York Times, in which he used his experience of losing a cat he cared for as an opportunity to misrepresent TNR, and vilify animal welfare organizations that support it. Although Conniff’s piece lacks the kind of focus one expects from an op-ed in the Times, it’s clear to anybody familiar with the issue: he’s using all the familiar “science” and scaremongering to justify lethal roundups.

And like so many others who have taken the same position, Conniff is happy to talk about anything except the evidence that lethal methods can do the trick.

The reason, of course, is because such evidence doesn’t exist.

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Lapse of Memory or Lapse of Reason?

Less than two weeks after American Bird Conservancy president George Fenwick explained in the Washington Post Magazine his organization’s position that killing cats is a moral imperative, ABC is giving a nudge to those who might be reluctant to get on board. “‘Remarkable’ deterioration in memory functions of seniors infected by common parasite found in free-roaming cats,” declared a press release issued yesterday.

Interestingly, the headline is far more accurate than ABC probably intended. Far more accurate than the rest of the release, to be sure—and more accurate than what the authors of the study suggest at times (and then contradict at other times), too. The findings reveal an association between Toxoplasma gondii infection in seniors subject to a “test battery for measuring memory functions” [1] and certain of those memory functions.

However, no causal relationship was found.

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Tough Sell, But a Good Bet

“We’re kind of a tough sell, but we’re a good bet.”

That’s the way Father Greg Boyle described Homeboy Industries, the organization he founded 26 years ago in Los Angeles, to NPR’s Arun Rath on All Things Considered Sunday. According to their website, Homeboy Industries “is the largest gang intervention program in the nation and has become a model for other organizations and cities.”

Through Homeboy Industries, where the motto is “Nothing stops a bullet like a job,” “Father G” works with15,000 former gang members each year. And, explained Rath, “his success rate is astounding. Seventy percent of people who walk through these doors don’t return to prison.”

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Book Buddies

No doubt some of you have already seen this photo—an adorable shot of young boy reading to a shelter cat nearly as big as he is—that lit up the Interwebs last weekend and into the early part of this week. It wasn’t until yesterday, though, that I learned of the story behind the picture.

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The Call for More Killing

By the time readers had the print version of last week’s Washington Post Magazine in their ink-stained hands, the online version of its cover story, “Is it more humane to kill stray cats, or let them fend alone?,” had already been revised.

Julie Levy, director of Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida,” reads the original, “estimates between 71 percent and 94 percent of the cat population must be neutered to bring the birth rate below replacement level.”

“In addition to TNR, she says, caregivers need to stop feeding free-roaming cats and keep pet cats inside for there to be ‘a humane, gradual reduction in cat numbers.’ At one university campus she studied, the feral cat population was reduced from 155 in 1991 to 23 in 2002 through a combination of adoption, euthanizing sick cats, natural attrition and neutering ‘virtually all resident cats.’” [1]

Sometime between Thursday, when the online version was posted, and Sunday, the second sentence disappeared from the Post website.

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Haters Gonna… Love?

Earlier this week the American Bird Conservancy launched a series of short public service announcements created in collaboration with the Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation, “calling on cat owners to care for their pets using ‘Cats Indoors’ approaches that are demonstrably better for cats, better for birds, and better for people.”

That same day, on the organization’s Facebook page, ABC declared, “We love cats! That’s why we want to keep them inside.”

Love?

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10 Most Important Community Cat News Stories of 2013

It’s that time of year again—time to take stock of the year’s milestones. Check out Rolling Stone’s 50 Best Albums of 2013, for example, or Fresh Air’s book, TV, movie, and music picks.

Not to be outdone, I’ve compiled a list of what I see as the year’s 10 most important community cat news stories—a number of which even the most avid readers may have missed. (Indeed, I’ve blogged about only a handful.)

Suffice it to say, others will disagree with my choices. In fact, I’d be very surprised if anybody agreed with the entire list.

That’s fine. Better than fine, actually—if it means my selections will spark a conversation, or even a debate. Maybe even inspire others to set to work on their own list for 2014.

Without further ado, then, my picks for the 10 most important community cat news stories of 2013…

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On Wind Farms and Witch-hunts

Here’s a tip for those in the bird conservation community who persist in their witch-hunt against free-roaming cats: be careful what you wish for.

For several years now, the National Audubon Society and American Bird Conservancy have co-opted, twisted, and misrepresented any scrap of published science they could find—however indefensible—suggesting that such cats might have an impact on bird populations. And, as I’ve demonstrated time and time again, there’s an audience out there for such propaganda.

But what if their campaign has been too effective—with the wrong audience?

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JAVMA Letter: A Trojan Horse

TNR opponents’ recent letter to the editors to JAVMA was just an excuse for promoting their witch-hunt agenda—supported, as has become their habit, with the kind of bogus “research” that fails to stand up to even moderate scrutiny. (And, I would bet, probably hasn’t actually been read by most of the letter’s co-authors.)

A recent letter to the editor, published last month in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (PDF available here), reminds me of one of the reasons I’ve never enabled comments on this blog: the likelihood that some commenters would surely hijack the conversation—pretty much any conversation, however marginally relevant—to take up their own agenda. Although I’m a proponent of open dialogue (the name of this blog is no accident), I have neither the time nor the patience for people intent on making my platform their platform.

Luckily, the JAVMA editors—dealing, as I’m sure they do, only with the most conscientious professionals—aren’t subject to such hijack attempts. Right?

Guess again.

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Tune in Sunday to Animal Wise Radio!

Tune in Sunday to Animal Wise Radio, when I’ll be on with hosts Mike Fry and Beth Nelson discussing a recently published paper declaring that “predation by house cats is probably the largest human-related source of bird mortality in Canada.”

For schedule, a list of local stations, or to listen online, check out the Animal Wise Radio website.

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National Feral Cat Day 2013

I had this year’s National Feral Cat Day post all worked out—which is to say, I’d given myself something like 24 hours to round up the various materials needed (the easy part), assemble what I think we can all agree is a brilliant prop (also easy), and then photograph my cats with the aforementioned prop (what was I thinking?).

As the photos below illustrate, the concept was rock-solid. It was the execution that suffered from (1) a rushed schedule, (2) poor-quality photography, and (3) a lack of assistants.

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Montgomery County, VA: Then and Now

In answering one question, other more interesting questions sometimes emerge. That’s exactly what happened when I followed up on a claim made in “Rabies Prevention and Management of Cats in the Context of Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Release Programmes,” recently published in Zoonoses and Public Health (and critiqued in some detail in my August 3rd post).

As evidence of both the threat of free-roaming cats and the need for lethal roundups, the authors—five from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the other, George Fenwick, president of the American Bird Conservancy*—cite a 1992–1996 study of Montgomery County, VA, rabies exposure reports.

“Most striking, a study in Montgomery County, VA, attributed 63 percent of [post-exposure prophylaxis] recommendations to stray cat exposures compared with only 8 percent for wild animal contact. In this community, the high rate of PEP due to cats resulted in part from the lack of a county animal shelter facility for cats, illustrating the need for removal of feral and stray cats as a means of rabies control and PEP reduction.” [1]

A review of the work cited confirms that, indeed, 24 of 38 exposures requiring PEP (63 percent) over the course of the 55-month study period were related to stray and feral cats. [2] So far, so good.

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