The Whac-A-Mole Approach to Conservation

Marion Island, home to the greatest cat eradication “success story” is now apparently overrun with “killer mice.”

Hunting for cats on Marion Island. Source: unknown. (Indeed, it’s not even clear that this is truly Marion Island, although that’s certainly implied from the accompanying news story.)

It took 19 years to exterminate approximately 2,200 cats from barren, uninhabited Marion Island, which is roughly the size of Omaha, Nebraska, and located in the sub-Antarctic Indian Ocean. The methods employed included poisoning, hunting and trapping, dogs, and the panleukopenia virus (i.e., feline distemper). [1, 2]

In 1991, eradication of cats from Marion Island was complete. [2] Twenty-fours years later, it remains the largest island from which cats have been successfully eradicated.

But according to a news report published last weekend, “killer mice” have overrun the island, “which was declared a Special Nature Reserve in 1995,” and are “eating rare and endangered seabirds.”

As one of my colleagues often says, never bet against irony.

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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.

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Vox Felina’s Five-Year Anniversary

It’s difficult for me to believe now, but when I first created Vox Felina five years ago, I worried that I would one day run out of material to blog about. Today, 314 blog posts, 850 subscribers, 4,028 likes on Facebook, and 1,028 Twitter followers later, I can see my concerns were completely unwarranted. Which, of course, is a shame. Like just about everybody else involved in animal welfare, I would like very much to put myself out of business.

As I explained in my first blog post, I see the hijacking of science by TNR opponents as a significant barrier to developing sound public policy. I’ve spent a great deal of energy over the past five years trying to set the record straight, and remain committed to that mission. There is, as regular readers will surely recognize, much work to be done.

There’s also work to be done on the blog itself. Five years on, the layout is looking rather dated; a new look with additional functionality (e.g., responsive theme for easy reading on phones and tablets) is long overdue. And, maybe it’s time to allow comments on each post, too—something I’ve been reluctant to do from the start.

So, stay tuned—and thank you all for your ongoing support.

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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…

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Prank Culls

Recent research from Australia finds that lethal methods might actually backfire, increasing an area’s population of free-roaming cats.

While evidence of TNR’s effectiveness continues to mount, the case for the “traditional” approach to community cat management (i.e., complaint-driven impoundment typically resulting in death) grows increasingly indefensible. Of course, the very fact that the debate over “the feral cat problem” persists illustrates the point: if trap-and-kill worked, the evidence would be plentiful by now, and the debate would have ended.

Nevertheless, there are those who cling desperately and inexplicably to the perverse hope that we might be able to kill our way to a day when there are simply no more outdoor cats (including pets). A recently published Australian study, however, challenges such wishful thinking with unusually compelling findings.

Indeed, the researchers involved found that the “low-level culling of feral cats” [1] led not to a population decrease, but an increase in their numbers. And, because the number of cats being trapped decreased over time, it appeared the lethal efforts were actually effective.

Don’t expect a press release from the American Bird Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, PETA, or any of the other organizations that continue to promote the senseless killing of outdoor cats.

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Operation Catnip Launches National Training Program

Although no TNR effort can be successful without the ongoing commitment of veterinary professionals, this is especially true of high-volume clinics, where 100 surgeries per day is not unusual. This specialized work requires training well beyond what’s taught in a typical veterinary medicine program.

Soon, however, such training will be more accessible than ever before—as Operation Catnip, one of the most respected TNR programs in the country, makes their training program and materials available to veterinarians, veterinary students, and veterinary technicians nationwide.

According to a press release issued Tuesday, all of this was made possible because of an educational grant from PetSmart Charities, Inc.

“Our vision is to train an army of veterinarians to spay and neuter America’s community cats,” said Julie Levy, Operation Catnip founder and director of the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine.

“This approach, along with vaccination, will allow us to reduce cat population, control infectious diseases, and improve the lives of the cats.”

Since the project was launched in 1998, the Operation Catnip staff and volunteers have cared for more than 45,000 cats (nearly 2,700 last year alone), and established themselves as leaders—not just as practitioners, but as teachers and mentors (and game-changers).

In other words, just the sort of team we need to scale up TNR efforts across the country.

To learn more about Operation Catnip, or to sign up for one of their upcoming training sessions, visit their website.

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Recent Research Demonstrates the Effectiveness of TNR


Sophisticated population modeling provides theory to explain a wealth of empirical evidence.

For those of us who have watched colonies of sterilized cats decrease in size over time, the findings of recent population modeling work will hardly come as a surprise. Still, the publication of “Simulating Free-Roaming Cat Population Management Options in Open Demographic Environments” must be recognized as an enormously important contribution to the body of literature concerned with the management of unowned free-roaming cats in general, and TNR in particular.

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The (Ig)Noble Pursuit of Public (Dis)Service

Two new public service campaigns from the American Bird Conservancy fly in the face of science, public opinion, and common sense.

For nearly 20 years now, it seems the people at the American Bird Conservancy have been willing to say whatever they thought they could get away with to promote the lethal roundup of “feral” cats. Unburdened by the constraints of integrity, PR ought to be easy for ABC. Two recent public service announcements, however, suggest otherwise.

Indeed, ABC’s latest salvo in their war on cats suggests that the organization’s grasp of effective messaging is no better than their grasp of science. (And this, as every regular reader will understand immediately, is saying something.)

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One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?

Just two days after the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources’ Office of Oversight and Investigations released a damning review of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (mis)use of science in determining whether or not various plant and animal species should be protected under the Endangered Species Act, the Department of the Interior announced a new policy likely to make matters worse.

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Investigation Reveals Failures at U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Among the numerous eleventh-hour actions taken by the 113th Congress was the publication of a report, released Monday, by the House Committee on Natural Resources’ Office of Oversight and Investigations. Under The Microscope: An examination of the questionable science and lack of independent peer review in Endangered Species Act listing decisions (PDF) is, as the name suggests, a rather damning review of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service practices where ESA listings are concerned.

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Thanks a Million (Cat Challenge)!

Maybe I’m being naïve, but yesterday’s launch of the Million Cat Challenge felt like something historic—as if we’ve entered into a new era of animal sheltering where cats are concerned. This ambitious campaign promises to be a game-changer not just for the million cats it aims to save (over the next five years), but for sheltering itself.

As I say, maybe I’m being naïve,* but there’s good reason to think the Million Cat Challenge will fulfill its promise. To begin with, just consider the people behind it: Dr. Julie Levy, director of Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida, and Dr. Kate Hurley, program director of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at the University of California, Davis.

These two women are, simply put, rock stars in their field. Which helps explain the funding and other support** the campaign attracted even before yesterday’s big announcement.

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Rabies in Cats Continues to Decline

Well, this must be awkward—for some, anyhow. In particular, the people who continue to overstate the threat of rabies, leveraging whatever fear they can muster in their ongoing campaign to undermine community cat programs and TNR efforts.

Awkward or not, though, it’s a fact: the number of cats testing positive for rabies in the U.S. declined for the second year in a row.

The 2013 data, compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published November 15th in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association, show a decline of 10 cases (3.9 percent) from the 257 cases reported in 2012—which represented a rather dramatic decline of 15.2 percent from 2011’s total of 303 cases.

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11 Signs of the American Bird Conservancy’s Desperate Struggle for Relevance

As most readers are undoubtedly aware, today is National Feral Cat Day. And at the risk of stating the obvious: NFCD has clearly become, to borrow a trendy phrase from social media, “a thing.” Now in its 14th year, there are hundreds of events going on around the country to mark the occasion.

All of which must be terribly frustrating for TNR-deniers. Thus, their increasingly desperate attempts to oppose, any way they can, TNR and community cat programs.

Witness, for example, Cats, Birds, and People: The Consequences of Outdoor Cats and the Need for Effective Management (PDF), a presentation by Grant Sizemore—who may or may not be the American Bird Conservancy’s Director of Invasive Species Programs. (As we’ll see shortly, it’s surprisingly complicated.)

It’s not clear exactly who these 33 slides are intended to help. After all, to anybody even remotely familiar with the issue, it’s immediately apparent that Sizemore’s claims—the “consequences” mentioned in the presentation’s title—are flimsy at best.

Equally apparent: Sizemore and ABC are not—though ABC’s been on this witch-hunt for 17 years now—about to provide any solutions.

Not only is the presentation available on ABC’s website, Sizemore’s now taking the show on the road. Last month, for example, he was in Ellenton, Florida, as part of a Coyotes and Feral Cats forum, hosted by the Suncoast Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area.

No doubt, most readers will miss such opportunities. Here, then, are 11 of the presentation’s “highlights”—my humble gift on National Feral Cat Day 2014.

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National Feral Cat Day 2014

National Feral Cat Day is just around the corner—October 16th. This year, celebrate in style with Feral Cat Mafia* gear!

Among the many items available from the Vox Felina shop are hoodies and long-sleeve t-shirts, perfect for fall! Better hurry if you want them in time for the big day, though, as expedited shipping is not available.

*Curious what prompted this idea? Check out my March 14, 2013 blog post.

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American Bird Conservancy Fails Statistics 101

For those of you who might have missed my letter to The Baltimore Sun, published Saturday in response to a recently published letter by Grant Sizemore, Director of Invasive Species Programs for the American Bird Conservancy, here it is as it appeared in Saturday’s paper:

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She/It Happens

In Citizen Canine, which I blogged about a couple weeks ago, author David Grimm, “trace[s] the evolution of dogs and cats from wild animals to quasi-citizens.” [1] As Grimm explains, the first of the book’s three sections, Family, “uncovers how pets became our virtual children, trekking the long—and often tortuous—path from feral animal to family member.” [1]

For some, however, that path has apparently been too easy, the trek too quick. Or perhaps it’s the destination to which they truly object. Witness, for example, the American Bird Conservancy’s recently revised Cats Indoors Brochure (PDF).

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Say Anything

Considering I’ve never donated one cent to the American Bird Conservancy, the organization has been very generous to me—at least in terms of blog content, courtesy of the various misrepresentations, red herrings, and outright lies used to rationalize and promote their ongoing witch-hunt against outdoor cats.

The latest example (there are so many, it’s all I can do to keep up anymore) was actually brought to my attention (unintentionally) by an organization using (without acknowledging the fact) ABC’s standard talking points. “One long-term TNR study,” it was explained in a letter to elected officials, “concluded that TNR was a waste of ‘money, time, and energy.’”

As the accompanying citation indicated, the quote was taken from a 2006 paper published in Preventive Veterinary Medicine. It was also taken, I knew, out of context.

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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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