Fred Grimm

Zoo Miami’s Ron Magill caught up in a feral cat fight

Remember Ron Magill?

Poor Ron. Used to be a folk hero hereabouts. A world renowned conservation crusader. Not just Zoo Miami’s, but all of Miami’s goodwill ambassador. About as beloved as anyone in this town.

Then Magill found himself engulfed in the fearsome politics around feral cat colonies. Suddenly, Miami’s famed champion of endangered animals, forever remembered for rescuing zoo animals from the destruction wrought by Hurricane Andrew, has been recast as a kitty-hating villain.

Zoo Miami and the county parks department have been trying to trap and relocate (but not actually murder) the feral colony that cat advocates feed (flouting park regulations) in Larry and Penny Thompson Park, with 270 acres bordering the zoo. The cats carry toxoplasmosis, a disease that zoo vets say has already killed four spider monkeys and a red kangaroo, and that threatens a variety of other zoo animals.

My colleague Douglas Hanks reported this week that so far 19 cats have been trapped and taken to the county animal shelter. Only two, both diagnosed with leukemia, were euthanized.

But the cat people, the most narrowly focused of animal advocates, have gone berserk. “To say the response has been intense is an understatement,” Magill told me. “I have been called a variety of less than complimentary names and it was even suggested that I should be trapped and euthanized.”

Anyone on the county commission, anyone on any city or county commission who has dealt with the feral cat issue, could have warned Magill what he was up against. Elected officials all over the country, rather than endure the fury of the cat champions, regularly embrace scientifically dubious trap-neuter-and-release-back-into-the-wild cat policies. Hanks reported that last year, Miami-Dade County Animal Services re-released about 10,000 neutered feral cats back into their former haunts.

Plenty of peer-reviewed scientific research indicates that these feral predators are wreaking extraordinary havoc on other wildlife, not just on zoo animals. A 2013 study in Nature Communications stated, “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.”

But the feral cat crowd, with the kind of logic employed by global warming deniers, dismisses study after study as the stuff of cat-hating liars. Their stubborn reaction validates another paper published last year in the journal Ecology and Evolution that queried cat lovers about cat-rendered ecological damage and found that no amount of scientific argument “is likely to alter their attitudes.”

It’s like trying to reason someone out of their religion.

“For most of them, I believe it’s their love for animals — in this case cats — that causes them to often act irrationally and with such contempt,” the beleaguered Magill wrote in his email. “The reality is that we all want the same thing — for these cats to have a safe home.

“Unfortunately,” he added, “that cannot be done at the expense of the zoo collection and the surrounding endangered pine rockland habitat.”