Category: environment

The Most Important Cat Study Ever Has Been Completed, And The Results Are In

The last decade has seen something of a renaissance in cat-related research, with insightful studies about feline behavior coming from researchers in the US and Japan.

On the other hand there’s been a glut of research into feline predatory impact and public policy, and the majority of those studies have been deeply flawed. They’re based on suspect data and tainted by the interests of people who are more interested in blaming cats for killing birds than they are in learning about the real impact of domestic felines on local wildlife.

Those studies have all taken extreme shortcuts — using data that was collected for entirely different studies, for example, or handing out questionnaires that at best lead to highly subjective and speculative “data” on how cats affect the environment.

Several widely-cited studies that put the blame on cats for the extirpation of bird species have relied on wild guesses about the cat population in the US, estimating there are between 20 million and 120 million free-roaming domestic cats in the country. If you’re wondering how scientists can offer meaningful conclusions about the impact of cats when even they admit they could be off by 100 million, you’re not alone.

No one had ever actually counted the number of cats in a location, much less come close to a real figure — until now.

When leaders in Washington, D.C., set out to tackle the feral cat problem in their city, they knew they couldn’t effectively deal with the problem unless they knew its scope. They turned to the University of Maryland for help, which led to the D.C. Cat Count, a three-year undertaking to get an accurate census with the help of interested groups like the Humane Society and the Smithsonian.

DC Cat Count
An image from one of 1,530 motion-activated cameras deployed for the D.C. Cat Count. Credit: D.C. Cat Count

The researchers approached each of their local shelters and rescues for data, then assembled a meticulous household survey to get a handle on how many pet cats live in the city, and how many have access to the outdoors.

Finally — and most critically — they used 1,530 motion-activated cameras, which took a combined 6 million photos in parks, alleys, public spaces, streets and outdoor areas of private residences. They also developed methods for filtering out multiple images of individual cats, as well as other wildlife. And to supplement the data, team members patrolled 337 miles of paths and roads in a “transect count” to verify camera-derived data and collect additional information, like changes in the way local cats move through neighborhoods.

DC Cat Count
A cat who looks a lot like the Budster was captured in this 2019 photo from a motion-activated camera with night vision. Credit: DC Cat Count

Now that all the data’s been collected and analyzed, the D.C. Cat Count finally has a figure: There are about 200,000 cats in the city, according to the study.

Of those, 98.5 percent — or some 197,000 kitties — are either pets or are under some form of human care and protection, whether they’re just fed by people or they’re given food, outdoor shelter and TNR.

“Some people may look at our estimate and say, oh, well, you know, you’re not 100% certain that it’s exactly 200,000 cats,” Tyler Flockhart, a population ecologist who worked on the count, told DCist. “But what we can say is that we are very confident that the number of cats is about 200,000 in Washington, D.C.”

The study represents the most complete and accurate census of the local cat population in any US city to date, and the team behind it is sharing its methods so other cities can conduct their own accurate counts. (They’ll also need money: While the D.C. Cat Count relied on help from volunteers and local non-profits it was still a huge project involving a large team of pros, and it cost the city $1.5 million.)

By doing things the hard way — and the right way — D.C. is also the first American city to make truly informed choices on how to manage its feline population. No matter what happens from here, one thing’s certain — the city’s leaders will be guided by accurate data and not creating policy based on ignorance and hysteria painting cats as furry little boogeymen.

DC Cat Count
Not all the photos captured images of cats, and not all the felines were little: In this 2019 night image, a bobcat wanders in front of a trail camera. Credit: DC Cat Count

Cat Alcatraz: Brazil’s Island of Abandoned Felines

In 2012, veterinarian Amélia Oliveira started a program to trap and neuter hundreds of cats who had been abandoned at Ilha Furtada, an island about 20 miles west of Rio de Janeiro.

Known as Ilha dos Gatos — island of the cats — the island was teeming with starving former pets and their feral offspring. Ilha Furtada has no natural source of drinking water, Oliveira said, and cats without hunting skills would quickly starve.

ilhafurtada3
Ilha Furtada became a curiosity for boaters and fishermen, and a sore spot for cat advocates trying to stop people from dumping animals there.

With the help of others, Oliveira began a program to end the misery on what’s been called “Cat Alcatraz”: The group managed to neuter more than 380 cats. Former pets were adopted out to new homes, but the ferals would need to remain on the island, so volunteers began feeding them and bringing fresh water on a regular schedule.

With the cooperation of local authorities, the group put up signage around the island and the coast warning that abandoning pets is illegal and asking people not to interfere with the island cats. There were plans for an official survey to quantify the feline population, an initiative to use cameras to dissuade people from dumping their pets on the island…

…and then came the Coronavirus pandemic.

Whatever gains Oliveira and company made over eight years have now been erased as Brazil — one of the countries hardest hit by the virus — has suffered more than 450,000 deaths officially (and likely much more uncounted) and an economy wrecked by waves of infection and lockdown.

ilhafurtado
A “feline shantytown” on Ilha Furtada.

Many owners could no longer afford to feed themselves or their cats while others died, leaving their cats at the mercy of relatives and landlords. Once again, people began abandoning their pets on Ilha Furtada.

“If you don’t take them, they’re going out to Island of the Cats,” people would tell shelter operators, a veterinarian told the Washington Post’s Terrence McKoy.

While the feline population of Furtada Island increased, resources dwindled as lockdowns prevented volunteers from delivering food and water as often as they had in the past.

Now the island has “the appearance of a feline shantytown,” dotted with dilapidated and hastily-constructed shelters for its resident felines.

I recommend reading the entire story, one of just a few highlighting the toll the pandemic has taken on pets.

Brazil Cat Island
Volunteers from Animal Heart Protectors fill a dispenser with food for cats on Furtada Island, popularly known as “Island of the Cats,” in Mangaratiba, Brazil, Credit: AP/Silvia Izquierdo)

Can You Spot The Cat? Mountain Lion Edition!

This is the real deal, friends. Not a cheesy low-res photo or an intentionally obtuse shot with three pixels of a tail visible.

There’s a cat in this photo — a puma to be exact — and finding it is a good reminder of how awesome these elusive felids are, as well as how well they hide themselves from humans and fellow wildlife alike:

Hidden mountain lion in Nevada
Credit: John Tull, US Fish and Wildlife Service

The photo comes courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Services and eagle-eyed photographer John Tull, who spotted the well-hidden cat in rural Washoe County, Nevada.

Mountain lions are the second-largest cats in the Americas behind jaguars, and although they look like lionesses, they pose little danger to humans. About 15 people have died in conflicts with mountain lions over the past 100 years. Dogs, by contrast, kill between 30 and 50 people a year.

Mountain lions are also known as pumas, cougars, catamounts and panthers, among other names. The word “panther” is a nonspecific word for large cats and is often used in association with jaguars and leopards.

Known scientifically as puma concolor, these mysterious cats are more closely related to small cats (felis) than big cats (panthera), and have the distinction of being the largest cats who can meow.

After Massive Backlash, Government Agrees To Stop Shooting Cats

State employees in California have agreed to temporarily stop shooting cats after stories about their actions prompted an overwhelming backlash.

Employees with the East Bay Regional Park District have shot at least 18 cats this year, including a dozen in the past month. A spokesman for the state agency, which manages park land in nine California counties and major cities like San Francisco, claimed the cats were a threat to birds in a marshland not far from a business park where the felines lived.

But the East Bay Regional Park District has repeatedly lied about the cats’ fates, failed to work with local rescues and shelters, and refused to honor public records requests about the cat-killing program, according to animal rights advocates and local media.

Dave Mason, a spokesman for the East Bay Regional Park District, described the situation as “an out-of-control feral cat colony of at least 30 cats.” By contrast, staffers at local rescues, as well as the people who managed the colony, said most of the cats were strays, some were former pets, and they rarely entered the nearby protected marshlands.

“[East Bay Regional Park District] came out most likely at night, and shot and killed the cats we had cared for. We spent countless hours getting the majority of these cats fixed. Countless hours!” one local caretaker fumed on Facebook. “These cats were vaccinated, microchipped and healthy. We pulled kittens out when they presented themselves. We pulled adult cats out on many occasions. Some of which we believe were dumped there. We were constantly doing work there.”

Mason painted a very different picture of the situation.

“The Park District appreciates all animal life but is required by law to protect threatened and endangered wildlife living in District parklands,” he told SFGate. “It is imperative that the public understands that feral cats are not part of a healthy eco-system and feeding them only serves to put endangered wildlife at risk.”

willow
Willow, one of the strays in the eliminated cat colony, is missing. Colony caretakers believe she was shot by state employees.

Now the agency’s supervisory board has pulled the plug on killing cats, according to the local ABC affiliate, after receiving a flood of angry messages and phone calls about the policy. Dee Rosario, the board’s incoming president, told KGO she plans to have the practice ended permanently.

Board members also promised the public will get answers after the EBRPD ignored public records requests from journalists at KGO.

“The board will be asking some tough questions, and we want to get a report of exactly what happened,” said Ellen Corbett, who sits on the board. “And that’s why we’ve asked for an investigation.”

It’s worth noting there’s no evidence to support culling cats as an effective way to protect birds. Several studies, however, indicate TNR (trap, neuter, return) programs do have a measurable impact on local cat populations, and thus limit the number of birds and small mammals killed by free-roaming cats. The majority of animal welfare specialists — as well as groups like the SPCA and Humane Society — urge people to keep their pet cats indoors, and to get them spayed or neutered.

Initially, employees of the state agency claimed they’d trapped the cats and placed them in local shelters, colony caretaker Cecelia Theis said. But after staffers at local shelters said the East Bay Regional Park District did not drop off any cats, and a local TV news station began calling, the agency backtracked and admitted a team of “conservationists” shot the cats.

“There is a pile of bags and a hole in the fence near where I fed these babies every night. Those jerks hunted them and killed them,” Theis wrote on Facebook.

Later she told SFGate: “I’m looking out at the park crying their names.”

A Change.org petition urging the EBRPD to “honor its values” and cease shooting cats had accumulated almost 5,000 signatures in three days.

Cat advocates were particularly incensed that the EBRPD did not notify them before making the decision to kill the cats and didn’t reach out to local shelters for help finding a better solution.

“While we understand and fully support the need to safeguard protected wildlife and habitats from nonnative and predatory species, this tragic outcome did not need to happen,” said John Lipp, director of the Friends of Alameda Animal Shelter.  His group and other local rescues “could have worked together to humanely rehome or relocate these cats had we been notified in advance.”

Despite the pledge to stop killing cats, advocates aren’t taking any more chances. They’ve trapped the remaining strays. Some will be put in foster homes, and four will be available for adoption in the near future.

Local Gov. Employees In California Are Shooting Cats To ‘Protect Wildlife’

In a sickening story out of California, state government employees have admitted to shooting 18 cats and say they can’t rule out shooting more who venture too close to a marshland where thousands of birds migrate for the winter.

The cats were shot by employees of the East Bay Regional Park District, a government agency that manages parks in the Bay Area, including San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Palo Alto and dozens of other cities and towns in a nine-county area.

They’re operating under a broad mandate that allows them to kill any cats “that may pose a danger to wildlife,” according to a report by Bay Area ABC affiliate KGO.

It’s 7:30 at night in an East Oakland office park, Cecelia Theis is trying to trap what’s left of the colony of cats she’s cared for over the past year. She tells the I-Team, “I really want to get them out of here.”

After Theis came here to work for the county, training poll workers in the last primary election, she began helping others feed the feral cats. She fell hard for them, including the little one who climbed on her hood waiting for food, and the first cat she befriended.

“Each of them had a personality and helping them was a priority for me,” Theis said.

She found homes for their kittens, took the adults to be spayed and neutered; the colony was stable at 30 cats. But over the past month, most of them have disappeared.

Theis finally got East Bay Regional Park officials to admit, their staff shot and killed several of the cats that had wandered into a nearby marsh.

Her heartbreak spilled out on social media, “It’s not okay to shoot these beings; some of them were pets that were abandoned.”

The state employees who shot the cats did so without notifying the public, without talking to locals who manage and care for cat colonies in the area, and without asking for the help of local shelters and rescues whose staffers say they could have easily trapped the cats and relocated them.

In fact, the East Bay Regional Park District lied when first asked about the fate of the cats: Employees there initially told Theis and another colony manager that the cats were trapped and taken to shelters in Oakland and nearby Dublin, according to a day-old Change.org petition that already has almost 500 signatures.

3C25179C-2597-4D77-87CD-2FB9A007E358

The state employees only came clean about killing cats when Theis went to KGO and they realized their actions would be detailed in media reports. They’re still obfuscating: KGO journalists filed public records requests for documents related to the cat killings, but the agency has not fulfilled the requests.

That’s illegal according to state and federal law, which dictate that government agencies have 30 days to respond and, if they deny the open records request, must provide a compelling reason why. As a career journalist who has filed my own share of Freedom of Information Act requests over the years, I cannot fathom any valid excuse for withholding those documents from the media and thus, the public.

Policies like this one are a direct result of the dangerous misinformation peddled by a handful of academics who advocate for the extermination of cats, and claim domestic cats kill more than 20 billion birds and small mammals in the US annually.

Despite serious and deep flaws in their methodology — and the fact that the authors invented data rather than trying to gather it — the findings of those studies are reported as fact in the press, without any skepticism, despite push back from other scientists who have been sharply critical of the studies and their conclusions.

5F8F6039-255A-4706-8A34-9E7DF8DEF7C2

The result has been a panic over cats and their impact on smaller wildlife. The studies and the subsequent panic are directly responsible for policies like those adopted by some Australian regional governments, who have an open bounty on domestic cats, paying $10 for adult pelts and $5 for kitten pelts. They also fuel rhetoric of the type we witnessed in the New York Times this August, when a columnist was so incensed by reports of cats killing birds that she admitted to fantasizing about shooting a hungry, sickly stray who showed up in her neighborhood.

We have a serious problem if, on the cusp of 2021, we have government employees shooting cats and paying bounties for kitten pelts, based on the misguided idea, not supported by evidence, that violently killing small domestic animals is somehow an effective way to protect birds.

Cats are sentient creatures who feel pain, fear, anxiety, sadness and the full range of primary emotions. Moreover, they’ve been molded into companion animals who bond closely with humans. According to Theis and KGO, several of the cats who were shot were former pets.

A manager with the East Bay Regional Park District downplayed the shootings, saying there was a “communications breakdown” between his team and local rescues as well as colony caretakers.

“We feel horrible about this, you know, this is really one thing that’s just really sad,” Matt Graul, “chief of stewardship” for the agency, told KGO. “And we really don’t want to ever have to take this step. You know, we are compassionate, and love all wildlife. And many of our staff have cats as pets.”

Despite that, Graul would not rule out killing more cats and his agency has not complied with state public records law, nor did he say why the agency lied to colony caretakers about the fate of the strays. We hope Bay Area media organizations are getting their lawyers involved and working with the state’s open government office to force the East Bay Regional Park District to obey the law and release its records on the cat shootings.

This is unacceptable, and it should be stopped before government officials with too much zeal and too little skepticism enact similar policies in other states.

94744672-DA95-48BA-92AC-A0C6518D9619