Opinions from the Front Lines of Cat Colony Management Conflict

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  September 2012:

RALEIGH,  N.C.–About 80% of feral cat colony caretakers believe feral cat management can be done in a manner that accommodates the concerns of birders, but only 50% of bird conservation professionals share this view, according to a study published on September 6, 2012 by the online science journal PLOS One.Opinions from the Front Lines of Cat Colony Management Conflict, by North Carolina State University wildlife mangement professor Nils Peterson and four colleagues, “began as a class project in Peterson’s “Human Dimensions of Wildlife” course last year,” reported Jay Price of the Raleigh News & Observer.  “The researchers surveyed nearly 600 Americans who identified themselves as cat colony  caretakers or bird conservation professionals affiliated with groups such as the Audubon Society and American Bird Conservancy,” Price summarized.

Peterson and colleagues concluded that cat colony caretakers could be convinced to partner with bird conservation professionals if the latter make more effort to educate the former about the effects of cat predation on birds and the role of cats in transmitting disease.  But evaluations of Peterson’s survey questions and other data input done separately by ANIMAL PEOPLE and Vox Felina blogger Peter Wolf, a science educator, suggest that many cat colony caretakers have a more accurate understanding of ecological issues involving feral cats than Peterson and the bird conservation professionals he surveyed.

Anti-cat bias

Opens Opinions from the Front Lines of Cat Colony Management Conflict, “Outdoor cats represent a global threat to terrestrial vertebrate conservation.”  This has never actually been shown by any study sponsored by any organization or agency which had not already taken a position against feral wildlife.  Most conservationist concern about cats centers on predation of birds,  but as Wolf pointed out, “In their contribution to The Domestic Cat: The Biology of Its Behaviour,” a standard reference often cited by bird conservation professionals, “Mike Fitzgerald and Dennis Turner thoroughly reviewed 61 predation studies, concluding rather unambiguously that ‘There are few,  if any studies apart from island ones that actually demonstrate that cats have reduced bird populations.’

“Something else to keep in mind,” Wolf continued, is that “predators-cats included-tend to prey on the young, the old, the weak and the unhealthy.  At least two studies,” by A.P. Moller and J. Erritzoe in 2000 and P.J. Baker in 2008, “have investigated this in great detail, revealing that birds killed by cats are on average significantly less healthy that birds killed through non-predatory events,” such as collisions with windows or cars.  “As the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds notes, ‘Despite the large numbers of birds killed, there is no scientific evidence that predation by cats in gardens is having any impact on bird populations U.K.-wide.  It is likely that most of the birds killed by cats would have died anyway from other causes before the next breeding season.'”

Continues Opinions from the Front Lines of Cat Colony Management Conflict, “Most cat colony caretakers [surveyed] held false beliefs about the impacts of feral cats on wildlife and the impacts of neuter/return.”  Among these alleged false beliefs, only 9% of cat colony caretakers believed feral cats harm bird populations, 70% believed that neuter/ return eliminates cat colonies, 18% disagreed with the statement that feral cats fill an ecological niche otherwise filled by native predators, and supposedly only 6% believed feral cats carried diseases, although vaccination against rabies and usually a suite of other diseases is part of the standard neuter/return protocol.

“I was in contact with Nils Peterson last year when I first saw his questionnaire,” Wolf told ANIMAL PEOPLE.  “I think they’re misinterpreting the responses because of the wording of the questions.  For example, 40% of the cat colony caretakers agreed that, ‘Feral cats only harm wildlife on islands.’  I don’t think for a minute that these people are unaware of a cat’s ability to injure and/or kill wildlife-indeed, as the authors note, ‘most cat colony caretakers see direct evidence of cats killing wild animals.’  Rather, I think what we’re seeing in the data is respondents weighing the extent of the impact.”

Peterson et al called “empirically false” the belief that “Feral cats are eventually eliminated by neuter/return.”  Wolf countered by citing a string of peer-reviewed published studies showing that neuter/return does eliminate feral cat colonies,  when done according to standard protocols and sustained over several years.  “If we want to discuss time frames, ‘normal’ rates of decline, etc.,  that’s one thing,”  Wolf said,  “but one can’t call this a ‘false empirical statement’ when there is compelling evidence to support it.”

Peterson et al suggested that bird conservation professionals’ skepticism that conflict with cat colony caretakers can be resolved to their “awareness that wildlife conservation agencies will not provide decision space for options endorsing neuter/return anywhere on public or private land designated as endangered species habitat.”

Misinformation Responded Wolf, “Might I suggest another factor?  Bird conservation professionals have been fed a steady diet of misinformation for years now suggesting that the situation for virtually all birds everywhere is dire, and that cats are a significant risk to them.”

Peterson et al  noted that the Audubon Society,  the Nature Conservancy, the American Bird Conservancy,  and the Wildlife Society have sought to remove legal protection of feral cats, encourage pet keepers to keeping cats indoors, prohibit neuter/return, and achieve the “eventual removal of feral cat colonies from the landscape,” while organizations representing cat colony caretakers, such as Alley Cat Allies and Alley Cat Rescue, have “lobbied against lethal management of cat colonies in favor of no-kill options.”

But Peterson et al overlooked that eliminating feral cat colonies through the conscientious practice of neuter/return is the focal goal of Alley Cat Allies, Alley Cat Rescue, and all other humane organizations endorsing neuter/return.  Peterson et al also overlooked that for more than 40 years every major national humane society has encouraged pet keepers to keep cats indoors.

Bias of Peterson et al in favor of killing cats appeared in their view that “neither neuter/return nor less expensive and more efficient lethal control methods are possible on a large scale without cooperation of key stakeholders.”  Empirically false in this analysis is that feral cat colonies have ever been lastingly removed from any mainland habitat by means of extermination, at any level of investment.

“Although it may be tempting to conduct legal lethal management secretively to avoid the need for involving the public,” Peterson et al continued, “when even small scale cases [of covert cat killing] are discovered the media attention and public scrutiny can create a backlash preventing effective feral cat management.”

Education Noting that feral cat colony caretakers and bird conservation professionals “had diametrically opposing beliefs regarding the empirical statements about impacts of feral cats and wildlife and the efficacy of neuter/return,” Peterson et al concluded that, “Education is the obvious tool for addressing data conflicts, but given the highly divergent normative beliefs identified in this study, traditional educational outreach would likely fail.  In contexts where lack of agreement about data rather than lack of data prevents agreement about empirical facts, conservation biologists should engage stakeholders in prioritizing data needs, devising means to collect data, and developing shared criteria for judging data.  This approach to science can help overcome elements of data conflict rooted in different views of data relevance and validity by giving stakeholders ownership of empirical findings and a deeper understanding of evidence for empirical claims being made.”

Answered Wolf, “I find this remarkably arrogant. Where does the education of conservation biologists come into it?  Consider again the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ statement about the impact of free-roaming cats.  How is it that the RSPB comes to such a different position on the issue, compared to the U.S. organizations?  Education is critical, I agree-but it’s not the unidirectional undertaking the paper’s authors suggest.”

ANIMAL PEOPLE, from 1992 to 2007, made more than a dozen attempts to organize formal comparison of cat and bird data from monitored neuter/return projects in the vicinity of sites included in the annual Christmas bird surveys sponsored by the National Audubon Society and the North American Breeding Bird Surveys sponsored by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and the Canadian Wildlife Service.  No bird conservation professional ever responded positively.

But Peterson et al incorporated into Opinions from the Front Lines of Cat Colony Management Conflict gross overstatements of the North American free-roaming cat population and predation by feral cats that such a study would help to disprove: that “50-150 million [cats] roam freely in North America alone,” and that “Estimates of wildlife mortalities attributed to free-roaming cats range from millions to billions.”

A wealth of studies and surveys of cat-keeping, cat-feeding, animal control intake, and roadkills demonstrates that the U.S. feral cat population is not greater than 12 to 16 million each year at the summer peak, and that only about a third of the U.S. pet cat population are allowed to go outdoors.

The usual range of bird deaths caused by cats found in data-based studies is from about 100 million, projected by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service ornithologist Albert Manville, to about 134 million, projected by Carol Fiore of the Wichita State University Department of Biological Sciences –and Fiore estimated that approximately twice as many pet cats are allowed to roam as pet-keeping studies show.

KittyCam project The tendency of U.S. bird conservation professionals to inflate claims about cat predation was illustrated a few weeks before publication of Opinions from the Front Lines of Cat Colony Management Conflict in a joint media release issued by the American Bird Conservancy and the Wildlife Society entitled “KittyCam Reveals High Levels of Wildlife Being Killed by Outdoor Cats.”

Summarized Wolf, “The KittyCam project was conducted by Kerrie Anne Loyd, a doctoral candidate in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia.

As her advisor, Dr. Sonia Hernandez, explains on her web site, Loyd ‘analyzed hunting and risk behaviors,’ such as crossing roads, encountering predators, and contact with other cats, ‘to address questions related to predation of cats on native wildlife.’ Noted Wolf, “Loyd was among those whom former Smithsonian researcher and fellow Warnell alumnus Nico Dauphiné thanked in her 2009 paper “Impacts of Free-ranging Domestic Cats (Felis catus) on Birds in the United States.”  Dauphiné was convicted in October 2011 of trying to poison feral cats outside a Washington D.C. apartment house.

“Cats aren’t as bad as biologists thought,” Loyd conceded in describing her findings to CBS/Atlanta in April 2011.  But the American Bird Conservancy and the Wildlife Society trumpeted that “bird kills constituted about 13% of the total wildlife kills” that the KittyCam project documented.

Asked Wolf, “Thirteen percent of how many?  As the Athens Banner-Herald reported in April, ‘just five of the cats’ 39 successful hunts involved birds.’  That’s right: five.

Fifty-five cats, 2,000 hours of video-and just five birds.  Which species of birds are we talking about?  Common?  Rare?  Native? Non-native?  It’s curious that the American Bird Conservancy and Wildlife Society are not troubled by such details.  Interestingly, the only avian casualty documented on the National Geographic and University of Georgia Kitty Cams Project website is an injured phoebe.  As the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology website explains, ‘Eastern Phoebes are common and their numbers are stable or increasing in most areas.’  Actually, it’s not even clear whether the cat behind the camera was responsible for the phoebe’s injury. None of the 13 posted video clips documents a cat coming into contact with a bird.”

The American Bird Conservancy and the Wildlife Society claimed, “based on these results,” that “cats kill far more than the previous estimate of a billion birds and other animals each year.” Countered Wolf, “Nobody claiming to have the slightest regard for science would extrapolate from five birds killed in Athens, Georgia, for the purposes of developing a nationwide ‘estimate.'”

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