Category: environment

The New York Times Is Back To Spread Misinformation About Cats

Prompted by the recent news that Polish scientists have added cats to a list of invasive alien species, the New York Times ran an enterprise story on Tuesday titled “The Outdoor Cat: Neighborhood Mascot Or Menace?”

I’m highly critical of print media stories on animals because I’ve been a journalist for almost my entire career, and I know when a reporter has done her homework and when she hasn’t. Unfortunately it looks like Maria Cramer, author of the Times story, hasn’t.

Her story identifies the stray cats of Istanbul as “ferals,” cites bunk studies — including meta-analyses based on suspect data — and misrepresents a biologist’s solutions “to adopt feral cats, have them spayed or neutered and domesticate them.”

Doubtless the biologist understands cats are domesticated, but Cramer apparently does not, and her story misrepresents the domestication process.

Individual animals can’t be domesticated. Only species can. It’s a long, agonizingly slow process that involves changes at the genetic level that occur over many generations. Domestication accounts for physical changes (dogs developing floppy ears while their wolf ancestors have rigid ears, for example) and temperamental ones. A hallmark of domestication is the adjustment to coexisting with humans.

agriculture animal beautiful cat
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In other words, if cats were wild animals it would take hundreds of years to fully domesticate them, and I’m sure no one’s suggesting we wait hundreds of years to solve the free-ranging cat problem.

Ferals can be “tamed,” but the majority of cats living in proximity to humans are strays, not ferals. The difference? Strays are socialized to humans and will live among us, while ferals are not and will not. Strays can be captured and adopted. In most cases ferals can’t, and the best we can hope for is that they become barn cats.

To her credit, Cramer does make efforts to balance the story and quotes the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the U.K., which places the majority of the blame squarely at the feet of humans, noting “the decline in bird populations has been caused primarily by man-made problems such as climate change, pollution and agricultural management.”

Even our structures kill billions of birds a year. That’s the estimated toll just from the mirrored surfaces of skyscrapers, and no one’s suggesting we stop building skyscrapers.

Indeed, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al Saud (MBS), the de facto ruler of Saudi Araba, has been busy commissioning science fiction city designs when he’s not murdering journalists critical of his policies. The design he’s chosen for his ultra-ambitious future city, which he hopes will rival the pyramids in terms of lasting monuments to humanity’s greatness, is a 100-mile-long mirrored megacity called Neom, which is Arabic for “Dystopian Bird Hell.” (Okay, we made that up. Couldn’t resist.)

Take a look:

The point is, of the many factors driving bird extinction, humans are responsible for the majority of them, and if we want to save birds we have to do more than bring cats inside. Additionally, sloppy research portraying cats as the primary reason for bird extinction has resulted in cruel policies, like Australia’s effort to kill two million cats by air-dropping poisoned sausages across the country.

This blog has always taken the position that keeping cats indoors is the smart play, and it’s win-win: It protects cats from the many dangers of the outdoors (predators like coyotes and mountain lions, fights with other neighborhood cats, diseases, intentional harm at the hands of disturbed humans, getting run over by vehicles), ensures they’re not killing small animals, and placates conservationists.

At the same time, we don’t demonize people who allow their cats to roam free, and we recognize attitudes vary widely in different countries. Indeed, as the Times notes, 81 percent of pet cats are kept indoors in the US, while 74 percent of cat caretakers allow their pets to roam in the U.K.

We have readers and friends in the U.K., and we wouldn’t dream of telling them what to do, or suggest they’re bad people for letting their cats out.

Ultimately, tackling the problem depends on getting a real baseline, which Washington, D.C. did with its Cat Count. The organizers of that multi-year effort brought together cat lovers, bird lovers, conservationists and scientists to get the job done, and it’s already paying off with new insights that will help shape effective policies. To help others, they’ve created a toolkit explaining in detail how they conducted their feline census and how to implement it elsewhere.

Every community would do well — and do right by cats and birds — by following D.C.’s lead.

What’s The Difference Between A Puma, Mountain Lion, Cougar, Panther and Catamount?

The puma goes by a lot of names. So many, in fact, that it holds the Guinness world record for the mammal with the most names, with more than 40 monikers in English alone.

Add the puma’s various appellations in Spanish and the indigenous tongues of south north America, and the large golden cat has probably had at least 100 names by a conservative estimate.

Cougar, panther, mountain lion, catamount, Florida panther, Carolina panther, ghost cat, gato monte, cuguacuarana, painter, screamer — they’re all names for puma concolor, a felid with the size of big cats in the panthera genus but genetics more closely related to non-roaring “small” cats, including felis catus.

Indeed, although pumas are famously capable of the wild cat “scream,” they’re able to purr just like house cats and their small- to medium-size wild relatives.

Why does the puma have so many monikers?

Mostly it’s because the adaptable, elusive feline has a vast range that historically covered almost the entirety of two continents:

Cougar_range_map_2010
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Even today cougars exist in healthy numbers across most of South America and the western United States. They’re wanderers, with pockets of smaller populations in places like Florida and the midwest, and individual mountain lions have been spotted as far east as New York and Connecticut. (The New York region known as the Catskills, derived from “cat creek” in Dutch, was named after pumas when the area was part of their regular range.)

Throughout their history they’ve been familiar to a diverse group of human civilizations, societies, nations and peoples, from the Aztecs, Inca and Mayans, to the indigenous tribes of North America and the First Nations of Canada, to the inhabitants of modern-day countries like the US, Panama, Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.

Puma
A puma with her cubs. Credit: Nicolas Lagos

But the name confusion doesn’t just stem from the puma’s many monikers bestowed by people of different cultures across space and time. The puma is also one of three cat species that are regularly called panthers. The other two, jaguars (panthera onca) and leopards (panthera pardus), are true “big cats.” That means they’re members of the genus panthera and they can roar but not purr.

Pumas are easily distinguishable from the other two: They have smooth golden fur without adornments, while jaguars and leopards both have blotches called rosettes.

It’s difficult to tell jaguars from leopards, but the biggest giveaway is the fact that jaguars have solid dot-like markings within their rosettes while leopards do not. In addition, leopards have much longer tails than jaguars or pumas, as they need the counterbalance provided by their tails to help them climb trees and balance themselves on tree limbs.

Jaguars are excellent climbers as well, but they don’t need to be as adept at living off the ground — they are the apex predators in the Americas, while leopards coexist with lions and other large animals like Cape buffalo that present a danger to the big cats even if they’re not predators.

Which brings us to our last point: Our many-named friends, the pumas, may be big and they may look dangerous, but they’re not. There have been 27 humans killed by the elusive cats in more than a century in the U.S., according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, compared to about 3,000 deaths from dog bites over the same period. Between 30 and 50 people are killed by dogs each year.

Most confrontations between humans and pumas happen when the latter are threatened and cannot escape, or when a female is protecting her cubs.

So if you live in an area where you have a chance to see these beautiful cats, admire them and keep your own kitties indoors, but don’t freak out — the puma you see one second will be gone the next.

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A captive puma. Credit: Pexels.com

Letting Your Cat Outside Could Cost You $50k In This German Town

Elected leaders in Walldorf, Germany, are worried about the crested lark — so much so that they’ve decreed cats must be kept inside, with prohibitively painful fines for anyone whose cat harms one of the birds.

According to the decree, anyone who allows their cat(s) to roam outside from now until August will be fined €500, which is about $527. But if a cat kills or injures one of the European songbirds, Walldorf’s local government will fine the cat’s caretaker up to €50,000, almost $53,000 in USD.

That’s an eye-watering amount of money, especially in light of the fact that the crested lark is listed as a species of “least concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Experts say humans, not cats, are the biggest threat to the bird.

Officials in Walldorf — a town of about 15,000 people more than 600 kilometers southwest of Berlin — cited the same thoroughly-debunked studies that claim cats kill some 25 billion birds and small mammals annually in the US alone. They say they’re worried because the crested lark nests on the ground, making the birds, their eggs and their chicks particularly vulnerable to predators like domestic cats.

If you’re skeptical that local government officials — a mayor and town councilmen, essentially — are qualified to legislate on matters of conservation, you’re not alone. The decree has been met with pushback from animal rights advocates and feline fans.

“Suddenly preventing cats that are used to going outside from doing so, means immense restrictions and stress for the animals,” German animal welfare group Deutscher Tierschutzbund wrote in a statement. “The negative influence of cats on the population of songbirds is in any case controversial and, to our knowledge, has not yet been proven for the crested lark in Walldorf.”

And that cuts to the heart of the matter, doesn’t it? Like politicians in Australia and parts of the US, Walldorf’s elected leaders aren’t making decisions based on studies or reliable information. They’re taking action based on emotion and deeply flawed meta-analyses that aren’t even applicable to Europe.

We’ve always taken the position here at PITB that cats are much better off indoors. They’re domesticated animals, meaning if they have a “natural habitat” it’s human living rooms. They live much longer, healthier lives indoors and can be happy and fulfilled with a little effort on the part of their humans.

But we also believe decisions impacting living creatures should be based on real information gathered by people who don’t have an agenda. The landmark Washington, D.C. Cat Count is a great example, with birders, conservationists and cat lovers working together to complete an accurate census of domestic felines within city limits.

Now that they’ve established how many cats live in D.C. (about 200,000) and how many are truly feral without anyone caring for them (about 3,000), they can enact sensible solutions that are much more likely to successfully protect wildlife and cats without hysteria, agendas or inhuman proposals like enacting “cat hunting season” (as one US politician proposed), killing millions of cats with poisoned sausages (as Australia has done), or outright gunning cats down, as a rogue conservationist in California’s Bay Area did last year.

Cats are thinking, feeling animals. They deserve better than becoming the victims of human policies based on ignorance.

Keeping Cats From Killing Local Wildlife May Be Easier Than We Think

For the past two decades, a handful of birders and “conservationists” have claimed cats kill as many as 3.7 billion birds and 22.3 billion small animals every year in the US alone.

Their claims, repeatedly credulously in the press, have been catastrophic to cats: Hyperbolic headlines have labeled them “stone cold serial killers,” “God’s perfect little killing machines,” and posed questions like “Is your cat a mass murderer?” The headlines, often running in otherwise respectable publications, envision brutal “solutions,” like this one in Scientific American: “Cats Are Ruthless Killers. Should They Be Killed?

Politicians, wildlife conservationists and birders read headlines like the examples above and come up with ruthless policies, like bounties offering $10 for cat scalps and $5 for kitten scalps, government employees stalking public parks with shotguns and literally gunning down strays, and an Australian program designed to kill millions of cats by air-dropping sausages laced with poison.

“They’ve got to taste good,” an Australian scientist who helped develop the sausage formula said. “They are the cat’s last meal.”

Now who’s the serial killer?

Sadly, few people have thought to question the studies that claim jaw-dropping numbers of birds and small mammals are slaughtered by cats every year.

How did the studies arrive at those numbers? Their formula hasn’t varied much from “study” to “study,” and more or less looks like this:

  • Assemble your data from old studies that have nothing to do with cats preying on wildlife, or hand out questionnaires to a handful of cat owners and ask them how many animals they think their free-roaming cats might kill.
  • Since you don’t know how many stray, feral and free-roaming cats exist in the US, invent an arbitrary number. Most of these “studies” put the number of cats anywhere between 25 and 125 million, but higher numbers are better because they make for more apocalyptic predictions and generate more credulous headlines.
  • Completely ignore the primary factors driving avian extinction in the world, which are human-caused: Habitat destruction, habitat defragmentation, wind turbines, pesticides, cars, high tension wires and windows, which are by far the biggest bird-killers.
  • Attribute all of the above to feral, stray and free-roaming cats.
  • Take your original “data” and, without making any adjustments for climate, regional variation, migration patterns, other predatory impacts — or anything else, really — simply extrapolate the total number of bird deaths by multiplying your small dataset by the total number of free-roaming cats in the US, which you invented back in Step 2.
  • Package the entire thing as a rigorous study by Serious Conservationists, write some apocalyptic press releases and hype up your claims in your abstracts, because you know the vast majority of web aggregators and overworked reporters will not have the time to take a deep dive into the text of your study.
  • Encourage activist groups and lawmakers to push for the mass culling of cats, based on your studies.

Please, don’t take my word for it. Read the text of any of the widely-cited studies that have been reported as gospel in the last 20 years. You’ll be astonished at what passes for rigorous scientific work, and how policies that determine the fates of millions of cats are largely shaped by these studies.

The D.C. Cat Count and the importance of a baseline

But there’s hope: A coalition of groups in Washington, D.C., spent more than three years methodically taking a “census” of that city’s cat population using a variety of methods.

They surveyed thousands of households within the city limits to find out how many cat owners allow their pets to roam free. They set up 1,530 trail cameras in wooded areas, ditches, alleys, alongside streams. The cameras are motion-activated and they produced more than five million images — including more than 1.2 million images of cats and more than four million images of local wildlife. The cameras captured photos of squirrels, coyotes, raccoons, possums, deer and even wild turkeys.

They assembled teams of dozens of volunteers to personally survey areas where cats are known to congregate. Then, when all the data was collected, they spent months sorting the results, carefully keeping tally, sorting duplicate sightings of individual cats and confirming data when necessary.

low angle view of cat on tree
Credit: Pixabay/Pexels

When all was said and done, after three years, $1.5 million and countless man-hours, the study determined there are some 200,000 cats living in Washington, D.C., and only about 3,000 of them are truly feral, meaning they’re not pets and not part of managed cat colonies.

The team — which brought together conservationists, bird lovers, cat lovers, shelter volunteers and others who would normally oppose each other on cat-related policies — also documented every step to provide a toolkit for other cities and local governments to conduct their own methodical head counts. They don’t have to reinvent the wheel to take D.C.’s admirable lead.

The leaders of the D.C. Cat Count went to all that trouble because they understood that without knowing exactly how many cats they’re dealing with, where they congregate and how they behave, any policies attempting to deal with their potential impact would be flawed and could end up doing more harm than good.

Making informed decisions about managing outdoor cats

Anyone who continues to cite the old, sloppy studies should be reminded, loudly and often, that they have led to years of failed policies, heartbreaking outcomes, enmity between cat lovers and birders, and widespread misunderstanding of how cats behave and the impact they have on wildlife.

Now the next phase begins: Dispensing with the hysteria and finding real, useful ways to minimize the predatory impact of cats on local wildlife populations.

One of the first follow-up studies to bear fruit comes, not coincidentally, from a research team in nearby Fairfax County, Virginia, and yields some surprising revelations about free-roaming cat behavior and impact.

The biggest takeaway: Because free-roaming cats almost always stick to small areas (spanning only 550 feet, or 170 meters), “cats were unlikely to prey on native wildlife, such as songbirds or small mammals, when they were farther than roughly 1,500 feet (500 meters) from a forested area, such as a park or wooded backyard. We also found that when cats were approximately 800 feet (250 meters) or farther from forest edges, they were more likely to prey on rats than on native wildlife.”

That’s it. In other words, small buffer zones are “the difference between a diet that consists exclusively of native species and one without any native prey,” the study’s authors wrote.

“Our findings suggest that focusing efforts on managing cat populations near forested areas may be a more effective conservation strategy than attempting to manage an entire city’s outdoor cat population,” wrote Daniel Herrera and Travis Gallo of George Mason University.

a cute cat looking up
Credit: Phan Vu00f5 Minh Ku1ef3/Pexels

In other words, minimizing the predatory impact of cats is likely a hyper-local affair, and not something that can be effectively managed on a one-size-fits-all city-wide or county-wide basis.

This is just a first step in the right direction, and follow-up studies will yield further insights that will hopefully lead to fine-tuning strategies in managing free-roaming cats.

We still feel keeping cats indoors — for their own safety, as well as the safety of other animals — is the right thing to do, and all the evidence supports that view.

But what these efforts have shown us is that there is a way forward, and it’s not the contentious, divisive and irresponsible work that has guided cat management policy for two decades. It’s not just possible, but necessary, for all sides to work together to find solutions.

Let’s hope more people realize that, and the old “studies” are relegated to the dustbin where they belong.

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