Employees of a parks agency in California’s Bay area killed almost four out of every 10 cats that may have strayed close to protected wildlife areas, newly released documents show.
The East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD), an independent government district that manages parks in Contra Costa and Alameda counties, found itself at the center of a growing controversy earlier this month after admitting its employees were shooting cats they claimed could be a threat to local wildlife.
When more than a dozen cats went missing, several local volunteers who care for colony cats in the area contacted the EBRPD for an explanation. Staff at the EBRPD initially told the caretakers they’d trapped the cats and brought them to local shelters.
But when Cecilia Theis, one of the cat caretakers, contacted staff at nearby rescues and shelters, they said they hadn’t taken in any strays from the EBRPD.
“I immediately stopped what I was doing and searched for them,” Theis wrote in a letter to the EBRPD. “The cats I cared for were never taken to the shelter. [An EBRPD employee] even described the cats.”
It wasn’t until KGO, the local ABC news affiliate, began asking questions that the EBRPD admitted its “conservationists” had shot and killed the cats, claiming the stray felines ventured too close to a protected marshland where endangered bird species migrate for the winter. The marshland is located within the Martin Luther King Jr. Shoreline, a regional park managed by the EBRPD.
News of the district’s cat culling first broke on Dec. 8 when KGO aired a segment on the controversy. The EBRPD told the news agency that it had the right to cull animals that represent a threat to wildlife, per an old policy that local rescues, shelters and colony managers weren’t aware of.
District staff eventually admitted they killed 18 cats in 2020.
Despite press enquiries and public records requests, the district still has not provided details about the cat culling. It’s not clear how the district’s staff determines whether an individual cat represents a threat to local wildlife, whether there are protocols or standards governing the use of lethal force against stray domestic animals, or even what kind of firearms were used.
“I was heartbroken,” Ann Dunn of Oakland Animal Services told KGO. “Yeah, I was heartbroken, just knowing that that there’s no reason that that needed to happen.”
“We certainly didn’t realize they were doing what they were doing, otherwise we would have reached out sooner,” Dunn added.
The EBRPD has not responded to public records requests by KGO. Government agencies in California are required by law to respond to public records requests within 10 days. If they decline to release the requested records, they must provide a compelling reason why the information cannot be shared with the public, per open records laws and government transparency best practices.
Open records laws are arguably the most crucial tool used by media organizations, public interest groups and regular people who want to keep tabs on what their tax dollars are used for and how government offices are run.
Additionally, records provided by the EBRPD are incomplete. A document that is supposed to provide a full accounting of animals killed, trapped and caught by the EBRPD over the past three years is missing details on many of the incidents, and the numbers don’t add up with the district staff’s public statements.
The data was obtained through a public information request by Theis and shared with this blog. Additional public information requests are pending.
DOCUMENTS: PDF of the East Bay Regional Parks District records on cat culling: (Click to view full size)
Between 2018 and mid-December of 2020, the EBRPD dealt with 62 incidents involving cats. The district’s records say its “conservationists” shot and killed 24 of those cats. The remaining 38 were caught or trapped, meaning 39 percent — about four in 10 — of cats identified as potential threats to local wildlife were shot rather than trapped or caught by hand.
However, the documents list only 14 cat shootings in 2020, and only 13 during the time period when officials say they killed 18 strays. The documents list one cat shot in 2018 and eight cats shot in 2019.
Others have noticed the discrepancies as well. A Change.org petition started by Cassidy Schulman has almost 46,000 signatures and includes statements urging the EBRPD to come clean on the controversy.
“How can they claim that they communicate openly and honestly with the public they serve when they (separately and on more than one occasion) told Cecelia and another colony caretaker that they had not killed the cats, but had taken them to shelters in Oakland and Dublin?” Schulman wrote on the petition page. “Most of the colony cats were not only spayed, neutered and vaccinated – they were also microchipped by Fix Our Ferals. Had even a single one arrived alive at any shelter or veterinary hospital, they would have immediately been scanned for chips, and the organization would have been notified.”
In her letter to the EBRPD, Theis complained that a staffer there “even went so far as to pretend she was looking for paperwork” when pressed about what happened to the colony cats. Another employee told Theis the paperwork hadn’t been sent to the shelters because of COVID restrictions. That same employee told Theis four cats “had to be shot” because they were sick.
But those explanations were abandoned by the EBRPD when KGO’s reporters began asking about the fate of the cats. That’s when the staff admitted they’d killed 18 cats, including 13 at the Martin Luther King Jr. Shoreline.
“The Park District appreciates all animal life but is required by law to protect threatened and endangered wildlife living in District parklands,” EBRPD spokesman Dave Mason 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.”
The EBRPD’s cat-killing policy — and similar efforts by states and municipalities in the US and other countries — are influenced by a series of studies claiming cats are one of the biggest factors leading to the extinction of endangered species of birds and small mammals.
However, the claim that cats are a major contributor to bird extinction is controversial.
“Conservationists and the media often claim that cats are a main contributor to a mass extinction, a catastrophic loss of species due to human activities, like habitat degradation and the killing of wildlife,” a trio of academics wrote this summer. “As an interdisciplinary team of scientists and ethicists studying animals in conservation, we examined this claim and found it wanting.”
There is no direct evidence that felis catus — domestic cats — are a major driver of extinction. A handful of studies that purport to show a connection are not based on observational or even secondary data. Instead, they rely on guesswork and numbers cobbled together from unrelated studies.
Most of the studies use aggregate data taken from earlier studies that did not measure the ecological impact of stray, feral and outdoor cats. For example, one paper used GPS data from an earlier study in which cats had devices affixed to their collars to track their movements.
But that earlier study did not include any information about the cats’ hunting activities, so the authors of the meta-analyses handed out questionnaires to cat owners asking them to rate their cats’ hunting skills on a five or 10-point scale.
The authors took the GPS data and the questionnaire results, calculated an estimated number of prey animals killed per cat annually, then extrapolated that data based on an estimate of more than 100 million stray/feral cats living in the US, even though that number could be off by as much as 80 million.
The result — a claim that cats kill up to 20 billion birds and small mammals in the US each year — is based on so much guesswork and arbitrarily plugged-in numbers that it’s worthless from a practical perspective. Yet that hasn’t stopped credulous press outlets from reporting the numbers as fact, or authorities from using such studies to justify extreme measures against stray and feral cats.
Because lives hang in the balance, and public policies are directly influenced by these studies, cats deserve better than guesswork.
Wildlife conservationists are worried, and they have a right to be.
In addition to the billions of animals we humans kill every year in our ruthless exploitation of life on this planet, our pet cats have their own separate impact, killing birds and small mammals in significant numbers.
Yet conservationists aren’t making headway with cat lovers, primarily because their approach frequently relies on shaming and drastic, often cruel proposals: Some Australian states are outright culling cats, offering $10 a head for adults and $5 for kittens, for example, while a pair of academics from the Netherlands advocate criminally prosecuting cat owners who let their pets outside combined with a policy of euthanizing millions of cats. Extremists in the US are pushing for similar measures, arguing that TNR (trap, neuter, return) isn’t an effective way of managing cat populations.
Something has to be done, and a few smart conservationists are realizing the accusatory, Richard Dawkins-style of engaging “the enemy” just causes people to withdraw, not to listen and cooperate.
“I get quite sick of the conflict focus of some conservation biologists,” Wayne Linklater, chairman of the environmental studies department at California State, tells New Scientist. “The solutions lie with the people who care most about cats, not with the people who don’t care about them.”
Great. Now there are a few things conservationists should know as they engage with people who care for cats:
Most of us want what you want: We want cat owners to keep their pets inside. Cats aren’t wild animals. They have no “natural habitat” and contrary to misconceptions, they don’t belong outside. They’re not equipped to provide for themselves, and they face dangers from traffic, predators like coyotes and mountain lions, fights with other cats, and perverse humans who kill and torture them for fun. Strays and ferals live short, brutal lives (living to an average of 3.5 years) while indoor cats live 17 years on average. The “cats belong inside” angle is common ground from which to start a dialogue.
Come get your people: Peter Marra is one of the co-authors of the bunk 2013 Nature Communications study with the above oft-cited numbers, and he’s also the author of the shrill Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer. Marra is an advocate of using taxpayer money to kill millions of cats. He also says that anyone who questions his claims about cats — a group that includes major animal rescues, welfare organizations, and many academics — is tantamount to climate change deniers and tobacco companies that denied for decades that cigarettes have a negative effect on health. Marra’s major contributions amount to sowing misinformation, polarizing the issue and inflaming opinions on both sides. Everything about his behavior indicates he wants to sell books and promote himself, not save wildlife from predatory domestic cats. He should not be taken seriously and his research should not be reported as fact.
Cat lovers are, by definition, animal lovers. They’re people who care about wildlife and domestic animal welfare. It shouldn’t be difficult to engage with them.
At the same time, cat advocates need to purge the crazies out of their ranks as well. Sending death threats to scientists (see the New Scientist link up top) is way out of order, it’s inhuman behavior and it only hurts the legitimacy of our cause.
A good first step toward reconciliation could involve enlisting cat owners in an effort to properly study feline impact on small wildlife, producing reliable data to facilitate a measured, fact-based approach that doesn’t begin and end with the notion that cats are hellspawn.
If all sides engage in good faith, there’s no reason why we can’t protect wildlife and cats.
Concerned Protector. These are people who keep their cats indoors to keep them safe from the world. Their main worries are cats being stolen, lost or killed. They don’t have strong feelings about hunting behaviour and wouldn’t keep their cats indoors solely to stop them hunting.
Freedom Defenders believe cats should be able to roam where they please, like wild animals. Cats hunting is a good sign of normal behaviour and helps control the rodent population. They oppose any restrictions of cat access to the outdoors.
Tolerant Guardians believe that the benefits of roaming outweigh the risks of the cat being injured or lost. They love wildlife and cat hunting is the least attractive part of cat ownership, but it is just what cats do. They’re not sure how cat owners can effectively reduce hunting behaviour.
Conscientious Caretakers believe cats should have access to the outdoors but they don’t oppose some containment. Hunting by cats really bothers them, and they particularly worry about birds. They believe owners should have have some responsibility managing their cat’s hunting behaviour.
Lasseiz-faire landlords believes it’s natural for cats to want to go out into the natural world and if they fall foul of it (dogs, bigger cats, SUVs) that’s natural too. They’ve never seriously thought about the effects of cats on wildlife populations. They’d be more likely to manage their cat’s hunting behaviours if it was killing things all the time.
You can take a short quiz (16 multiple choice questions) to find out what kind of cat caretaker you are. For what it’s worth, the quiz says I’m a “conscientious protector,” which sounds about right.
In his mind, of course, Buddy is a fierce, powerful feline and a mighty hunter. In reality he’s hilariously inept at the hunting games we play, and no matter how many times I’ve brought him outside on his harness, he goes into sensory overload every time, spending the first 20 minutes nervously huddled before he relaxes, his tail shoots up and he starts to enjoy the new sights and smells.
Fortunately I don’t have to deal with a cat who pines for the outdoors. Bud has no desire to go out there on his own, and he won’t even step onto the balcony if it’s too hot, too cold, raining, snowing or especially windy.
Most of all it’s too dangerous out there between traffic, potential predators like coyotes, train tracks, other cats and people who will abuse or kill cats just because they can. I don’t want to lose my little Bud.
Dear readers, if you take the test, please let us know which category it placed you in.
What would you do if you encountered a hungry, injured feral cat hiding under a car near your home?
If your first thought is to help the poor little one, enlist the aid of a local rescue and get the cat some much-needed veterinary attention and food in its belly, congratulations: You’re a human being with a conscience.
One New York Times columnist, however, thinks the solution is to indulge in a fantasy about murdering the innocent animal, of using a weapon she doesn’t own and soundly disapproves of to wipe it from existence.
When Margaret Renkl saw the “ragged, battle-scarred tom, thin but not emaciated, with one eye that didn’t open all the way,” her first thought was to kill it, not help it.
“If I owned a gun, I swear I would have shot that cat,” Renkl wrote in her Aug. 3 column, titled “Death of a Cat. “I would have chased that hissing cat out from under the car without a thought and shot it as it fled.”
Imagine: An effete, 60-something, morally self-satisfied woman playing Charles Bronson, standing over the corpse of a cat and slipping a still-smoking pistol into its holster before heading back inside to tweet-lecture the unwashed masses on civil rights, COVID etiquette and respect for wildlife.
The staff of the New York Times really seems to be working overtime to prove it’s tone-deaf and hypocritical: It wasn’t so long ago that a Times columnist tut-tutted those who disapprove of breeding and selling $20,000 designer cats while millions of homeless animals are euthanized annually.
Times columnist Alexandra Marvar even went so far as to praise people who use their wealth and connections to flout laws against poaching illegal wildlife, reminiscing about the days when “wild cat companions were were associated glamour, class and creativity.”
“Salvador Dalí brought his ocelot to the St. Regis. Tippi Hedren lounged with her lions in her Los Angeles living room. Josephine Baker’s cheetah, collared in diamonds, strolled the Champs-Élysées. In their time, these wild creatures made chic pets,” Marvar wrote.
While Marvar romanticizes wild animal “ownership,” the reality is sadly less glamorous: Instead of Josephine Bakers leading “chic” diamond-collared cheetahs on idyllic walks through Paris, it’s Texans prodding confused and depressed tigers into tiny backyard enclosures at taser-point, insisting that “muh freedoms” guarantee them the right to treat the world’s iconic megafauna like toys.
So why does Renkl hate cats? Because she’s read bunk scientific research that claims cats kill billions of birds and small animals every year:
I was thinking of the first nest the bluebirds built this spring, the one in which not a single baby survived. I was thinking of the gravid broadhead skink who would lie on our stoop every afternoon, warming her egg-swollen body in the sun. She disappeared one day to lay her eggs and guard her nest, I assumed, but now I wasn’t sure. I was thinking of the chipmunk who lives in a tunnel under our stoop and of the little screech owl, its feet holding down some small prey, its eyes glowing in the infrared light of our trail camera.
The more I thought about those vulnerable creatures, already crowded out by construction and starved out by insecticides, the angrier I got at the feral tom. In truth, I would never kill a cat, but I can surely hate one with a murderous rage. A person who has spent a quarter-century trying to create an oasis for wildlife can go a little mad when a cat shows up in the photos on her trail camera.
Note that Renkl didn’t actually see the starving cat kill those birds or squirrels. She simply assumes that a bird who doesn’t return to her glorious backyard oasis has been gobbled up by evil felines. Her rage is prompted by emotion and assumption, not fact.
She doesn’t have a negative word to say about the construction and pesticide industries either, reserving her “murderous rage” for a raggedy cat just trying to survive because she read studies claiming cats are furry little Adolf Hitlers, exterminating birds one bloody feather at a time.
We’ve talked about those cat-blaming studies here on Pain In The Bud: They’re sloppy meta-analyses of earlier studies using plugged-in, arbitrary data and dubious numbers from questionnaires to arrive at the conclusion that cats kill as many as 20 billion small animals in the US alone.
It’s cherry-picking at its worst, beginning with a pretedermined conclusion and inventing, massaging and selecting “data” to support that conclusion rather than doing the hard work of collecting authentic data and honestly interpreting the results.
The researchers who published those studies should be mortified to have their names attached to them. They’re engaging in activism, not science.
We’re not the only ones who have a problem with the aforementioned studies. A team of scientists and ethicists examined the claims and “found them wanting,” blaming the sloppy science of those studies for the claim that “cats are a zombie apocalypse for biodiversity” and the subsequent war on cats in countries like Australia, where some states offer $10 a scalp for people who kill adult cats and $5 a scalp for kittens.
What kind of twisted logic compels people to kill kittens in the name of protecting animals?
The primary and most-cited studies claiming cats kill billions of animals “take specific, local studies and overgeneralize those findings to the world at large,” the critics wrote. The studies ignore “ecological context,” bury contrary evidence and ignore mitigating factors, like the fact that cats often prey on other animals that kill birds.
In other words, they start with a pre-determined conclusion and shape the dubious data to fit, as I wrote above.
And so the claim that cats kill billions of birds and small mammals is repeated as fact by an unskeptical press, and ostensibly serious people, like the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Pete Marra, advocate a “nationwide effort to rid the landscape of cats.” That’s a nice way of saying he wants to kill hundreds of millions of innocent domestic cats because he doesn’t want to see the glaring flaws in studies about the species’ ecological impact. (Marra also compares feral cat advocates to tobacco companies and climate-change deniers, which is an astounding claim from a man whose name is synonymous with manipulating research data to support his views.)
This is absurd stuff, akin to the extermination of cats in the Dark Ages prompted by stories alleging cats were the agents of Satan, witches and heretics, and central figures in devil-worshiping ceremonies. The only difference is the people of the Dark Ages, who didn’t know better, were driven by religious belief. Their modern day counterparts are driven by religion masquerading as science.
These people don’t seem keen on thinking about how they justify the callous culling of hundreds of millions of domestic cats — intelligent, sentient animals who have feelings — in an unproven effort to protect birds and rodents.
Renkl ends her column by telling us she got her wish, in a way. A few days later, a neighbor’s kid came to her for help after some wildlife-loving do-gooder poisoned the poor animal. As she watched the tomcat convulse and twitch in an agonizing death, Renkl stopped to take pity…on herself.
“For weeks I have been trying to understand my own tears in the presence of a dying cat I did not love,” she wrote.
To her credit, by the end of the column Renkl does acknowledge her rage is misplaced, generously allowing that a cat trying to survive isn’t evil. But that concession comes after several hundred words painting cats as the driving force behind the destruction of wildlife and presenting flawed studies as credible science.