Statistics hardly matter. When it comes to feral cats, emotion trumps science.
It hardly matters that peer-reviewed science indicates Miami-Dade County’s official policy of releasing hordes of free-roaming cats into the community amounts to songbird annihilation, a government-sanctioned massacre of birds, lizards and small animals.
“Un-owned and owned free-ranging domestic cats kill between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds and between 6.9 and 20.7 billion small mammals each year in the contiguous United States,” the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute scientists reported last year in Nature Communications.
The Smithsonian study said, “Our findings suggest that free-ranging cats cause substantially greater wildlife mortality than previously thought and are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic mortality for U.S. birds and mammals.”
So it was nearly shocking to read a Miami Herald report last week by Douglas Hanks that said Miami-Dade animal control workers, following the tenets of the County Commission, had released 3,138 feral cats into the community in 2013.
I suppose I knew that it would be difficult — more like impossible — persuading private citizens to refrain from feeding feral cat colonies and running unofficial Trap-Neuter-Return programs. People believe what they want to believe. But a government agency?
And not some podunk North Florida backwater county commission that disparages the science behind evolution and global warming and fluoride. No, this is Miami-Dade County … and Broward County … and Hillsborough County. Urban, sophisticated, progressive government entities? Choosing to ignore the darker implications their humane-sounding policies mean for wildlife?
Epidemiologists get no more respect than wildlife biologists when it comes to feral cats. It hardly matters that in 2012, the Florida Department of Health issued a report on rabies prevention, warning that “The concept of managing free-roaming/feral domestic cats is not tenable on public health grounds because of the persistent threat posed to communities from injury and disease.”
In 2010, public health officials blamed an outbreak of hookworm along the northern reaches of Miami Beach on a colony of feral cats. City officials posted signs along the sand — tourism officials must have been appalled — warning beachgoers to watch out for cat feces. Cat droppings, they warned, are also a source of toxoplasmosis, another virulent parasite that can cause neurological impairment, blindness and birth defects.
Nor does it matter that Miami-Dade, by releasing its own officially sanctioned free-ranging cat colonies back into the community, has assumed the legal liabilities associated with those various pathologies. As Eric Draper, executive director of the Florida Audubon Society, warned, when some kid gets rabies or some tourist contracts hookworm or a strain of toxoplasmosis that can be traced back to one of the county’s caught-and-marked-and-released feral cats, there will be expensive repercussions. There will be lawsuits.
The county risks other legal problems associated with an official trap-neuter-release policy. In 2003, the University of Florida Law School’s Conservation Clinic reviewed the legal ramifications of feral cat colonies and found that “a local government could find itself liable under the ESA [Endangered Species Act] for authorizing cat colonies that result in the illegal take by feral cats of an endangered species.”
The law review warned that “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.”
In this case, the “persons” violating Section 9 of the federal law happen to be Miami-Dade County employees.
Then there’s a small problem with Florida law, which declares: “It is unlawful to import for sale or use, or to release within this state, any species of the animal kingdom not native to Florida unless authorized by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.”
Cats, as Robert Johns of the American Bird Conservancy noted, aren’t native. “In 1492, there were no house cats in North America.”
State law also warns: “Any person who is the owner or possessor, or has charge or custody, of any animal who abandons such animal to suffer injury or malnutrition or abandons any animal in a street, road, or public place without providing for the care, sustenance, protection, and shelter of such animal is guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree, punishable as provided.”
Miami-Dade violated this statute 3,138 times in 2013.
None of this matters, of course. Scads of scientific studies issued before the Smithsonian findings also warned that feral cat populations were wreaking havoc on wildlife. Other studies found little to support claims of trap-neuter-release advocates that their efforts have reduced the population of wild cat colonies. Nor are the health concerns new.
Audubon Florida, the Florida Defenders of Wildlife and the Florida Veterinary Medical Association opposes the programs. So, too, does People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, which argues that the release of these animals brings them a shortened and miserable life on the streets. These are not animal-hating organizations.
But none of these groups can match the passion that feral cat supporters can bring to a city or county commission meeting. Last year, faced with so many angry cat advocates, Hillsborough County commissioners ignored the veterinarian chairman of their own animal advisory committee and initiated a trap-neuter-release program that promised to drastically reduce the number of unadopted cats euthanized at county shelters. Nor did the commissioners heed the executive director of the county’s veterinarian hospital association, who begged them to require a 1,000-foot zone between feral cat colonies and schools, parks and playgrounds. Just a few months before, a 2-year-old Hillsborough girl had been bitten by a rabid feral cat.
The commissioners simply withered before the cat zealots. “The cat people put elected officials into the position of either voting to support cats or kill the cats,” said Robert Johns of the American Bird Conservancy. “What’s amazing to me, there’s such sympathy for the plight of feral cats and absolutely zero sympathy for animals they obliterate — each cat kills 150 to 300 animals in a 12-month period.”
Trap-neuter-release champions seem convinced that vets, biologists, wildlife conservation groups are joined in some cruel anti-cat conspiracy. They simply refuse to accept data that do not support their position. And they conjure up what Julie Wraithmell, wildlife conservation director for Audubon Florida, calls boutique science — studies that have never withstood peer review critiques.
In 2010, PetSmart Charities, a major supporter of trap-neuter-release programs, funded a study that claimed they are a cost- effective method for governments to reduce feral cat colonies. Dr. David A. Jessup, a senior wildlife veterinarian with the California Department of Fish and Game, responded that the study “appears to be one whose design was determined by the conclusion desired. If you attach even a few dollars in value to the wildlife killed and considered the costs of trying to recover sensitive species, environmental cleanup, and human health impacts associated with outdoor feral cats, any hypothetical savings disappear and TNR becomes more expensive.”
But it hardly matters what veterinarians say. Or wildlife biologists. Eric Draper admitted that while plenty of the scientific research undermines TNR, policy decisions have been going in the opposite direction. Dozens of towns and counties across the country have sanctioned TNR. The fervor (and money) of feral cat advocates has beaten down the science. “Once someone’s locked into a belief or a point of view, it’s very difficult, almost impossible, to change their minds,” Draper lamented. He said it has become almost like talking someone out of their religion.
The feral cat debate has a vague resemblance to the national argument over climate change, in which the scientific consensus has gone one direction while public polling has gone another. But the cat’s hold on American hearts makes this an even tougher sell for science. Everyone would like to embrace a policy that ended the mass euthanization of unwanted cats at county shelters. No politician wants to face an emotional crowd and explain a complex ecology that values endangered but not particularly popular animals like wood rats or marsh rabbits or scrub jays over America’s most beloved pets. Even if those pets aren’t domestic house pets at all, but a pack of free-ranging skilled predators.
In the debate over TNR, wildlife biologists and public health officials lost out to political reality. Feral cat advocates lobbied government officials with something like religious zeal. Data never really mattered.