Tag: wildlife

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.

Did Pope Francis Really Say Caring For Pets Is ‘Selfish’?

Popes have a mixed record when it comes to cats.

Back in the 13th century Pope Gregory IX famously declared cats were at the heart of alleged Satanic rituals in Europe, relying on the account of one Konrad von Marburg, an author of massacres, church inquisitor and all-around idiot known for brutally torturing his victims to elicit “confessions” of heresy.

Von Marburg told the pope that Satanists had a ritual involving a black cat who would walk around backwards while the Satan-worshipers kissed its ass. The pope bought the risible story and believed von Marburg’s accounts of growing numbers of heretics, especially in Germany.

The resulting papal letter, Vox in Rama, did not declare cats were evil and didn’t ask Catholics to kill them, despite widespread claims to the contrary on the internet, but it did contribute to distrust of the animals a century ahead of the Black Plague, when people thought cats were carrying the disease.

The pope who loves cats

Then there’s the Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI.

Pope Benedict
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI with two kittens in 2017. Credit: The Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI Foundation.

Cat lovers around the world rejoiced when it was revealed Pope Benedict was a cat lover and had two pet felines of his own. Cardinal Roger Mahoney, the former archbishop of Los Angeles, said Benedict was wild about kitties.

“The street talk that the pope loves cats is incorrect,” Mahoney said in 2005. “The pope adores cats.”

Catholics petitioned Benedict to help with animal welfare causes and to lend his support to efforts to help the many stray cats of Rome.

Francis the Saint and Francis the Pope

That brings us to our current pope, Francis. The elevation of Francis was met with approval from animal lovers: His chosen papal name honors St. Francis of Assisi, a Radagast the Brown type figure who lived a life of luxury as a wealthy playboy and party-goer until he had a religious conversion, sold all his possessions and became a monk.

St. Francis believed true faith in God meant having a deep respect for animals. While it’s not clear what’s true and what’s apocryphal, there are stories of Francis preaching to birds, nursing various animals back to health and even convincing a wolf to stop attacking a village in Italy in exchange for the villagers feeding it. St. Francis was by all accounts gentle with animals and appreciative of nature.

St. Francis is revered in the Catholic church and beloved by groups like the Humane Society. He is the patron saint of animals, and on his feast day Catholics bring their pets to be blessed at church.

Pope_Francis
Pope Francis during a visit with former US Vice President Mike Pence. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Pope Francis continued his namesake’s work with Laudato Si, a papal encyclical which endeared him to animal lovers all over the world.

The encyclical was notable for the church’s strongest language yet in advocating for protecting and respecting animals. PETA made Pope Francis its person of the year in 2015, and the pope was feted by many other animal welfare groups across the world.

In Laudato Si, Francis explicitly rejected the idea that animals are resources for humans to exploit, asserted the Catholic view that animal life has intrinsic value, and called on human beings to be stewards of animals and the Earth. Abusing and exploiting animals is “beneath human dignity,” he wrote, and the associated desensitization and heartlessness of practices like factory farming are a stain on the human race.

Animals, the pope wrote, not only have souls but will “take their place” in heaven, “resplendently transfigured” in the presence of God. He also pointed out the disastrous effects we’re having on wildlife by destroying habitats, carving up the remaining land, over-fishing the oceans, poaching and hunting.

What Francis said about pets

So why are people suddenly upset with the pope?

He made some off-the-cuff remarks about people choosing pets over children, said it was “selfish” to choose the former, and brought up the plight of the world’s orphans. He pointed out that people collectively spend hundreds of billions on pet food and products while humans in the third world lack basic things like clean water, food and medicine. He also said “denying” motherhood and fatherhood leaves us spiritually poorer, as the experience brings us closer to God.

As usual any time a pope speaks, his statements are taken out of context and rehashed in the media. That’s expected, especially in the age of clickbait, the 140-character tweet and the 15-second news segment. Pope Francis gets himself into trouble by sometimes speaking too candidly when he should know his message will be garbled by gatekeepers and information filters, leading to strong reactions to things he didn’t actually say.

The pope wasn’t condemning keeping pets across the board, and he wasn’t saying all pet owners are selfish. His comments were made in the context of a larger discussion on universally declining birth rates in developed countries, specifically Europe’s “demographic winter,” also called a “demographic time bomb.”

In simple terms, Europe’s population is rapidly aging and birth rates are historically low. Populations are dying off, there are fewer people to care for the elderly, and there aren’t enough babies to replace the dead. The average age in Europe is 43, which is 12 years older than the average in the rest of the world.

COVID has compounded the problem, partly due to social distancing and partly due to economic uncertainty as a ripple effect of the virus. Of course it isn’t all that simple, and the demographic winter’s wider effects are complex and well beyond the scope of this blog.

It also helps to remember the Catholic Church has a strong social justice streak. Not the kind that involves writing snarky tweets and first world problems, but real social justice through charity, schools, scholarships, food banks, shelters, soup kitchens, hospitals and innumerable other efforts.

The pope’s background as a native of Argentina, a former janitor and chemist who became the first Latin American pontiff, also colors his outlook. He doesn’t hesitate to call out the hypocrisy of first-world nations, and although we don’t like to hear it, most of the time we need to. After almost two thousand years of popes existing in or near the world’s seats of power, for the first time we have a pope who grew up from the outside looking in.

That’s not to say I agree with everything Pope Francis had to say on the matter, but I think it’s also important to recognize that he didn’t just take shots at people who care for pets out of the blue, and he didn’t condemn people for caring for animals.

Buddy Spotted In Tanzania Attempting To Start His Own Pride

TANZANIA – A domestic house cat has been spotted living among lions in Tanzania’s Lake Manyara National Park, according to wildlife rangers and locals who have spotted the tiny feline sidling up to its larger brethren.

Eagle-eyed viewers identified the mysterious feline as Buddy the Cat after Dr. Olufemi Ugwemuhwem Osas, director of the Tanzanian Institute for Wildlife Studies, posted photos of the bizarre interactions on Instagram.

“That is DEFINITELY Buddy the Cat,” one reader wrote on Dr. Osas’ Instagram page. “I’d recognize that paste-eater anywhere.”

“Can confirm, that’s Bud,” another reader wrote. “But he doesn’t eat paste! Saw him in person last year and, man, he was RIPPED!”

The domestic shorthair, who was born and raised in New York, made headlines earlier this year after breaking into the tiger exhibit at the Bronx Zoo and infamously failing in his attempts to gain acceptance among the big cats in that enclosure. The 10-pound house cat was mistaken for a cub by one of the tigresses in the enclosure and was subjected to two weeks’ worth of tongue baths before animal rights activists finally persuaded reluctant zookeepers to rescue the tiny tabby from his predicament.

It appears the relentless feline was trying similar tactics on the Maasai Steppe, local rangers confirmed.

“In the beginning he was wandering around aimlessly, soliciting random lions to join his ‘pride’,” said Jean Jacques Remontoire, timekeeper for the Jambo Jambo Wildlife Preserve, which offers tours on the Maasai Steppe. “He was dragging a big sack of cans behind him, offering dozens of them as a ‘signing bonus’ for lions who agreed to join him and follow him as alpha.”

After a luckless streak that lasted more than a week, the gray tabby shifted tactics, approaching existing prides when the male lions weren’t present.

“What has that guy done for you lately?” Buddy asked a pair of lionesses who seemed to tolerate him while grooming their cubs. “I mean, you do all the hunting, then you drag the kill back, and who gets to eat first? He does! It’s not fair to you. But, just so you know, if I was alpha, I’d only eat like an ounce and a half, and you’d get to feast on the rest.”

One pride, whose lionesses said they were frustrated with their pride leader, seemed to conditionally accept Buddy’s offer if he could help them defend their territory against a powerful young interloper with designs on claiming the pride for himself.

“Definitely,” Buddy told the lionesses. “That dude is as good as dead, as soon as I have my nap.”

His run as pride leader was short-lived, however, after he hid behind the legs of one of the younger lions during the confrontation with the interloper, known locally as Leonidas the Earthshaker.

Witnesses reported the dusty house cat returning to civilization on Wednesday when he appeared at the Sustainable Safari Center of the Steppe and asked to use the phone, “So I can call Big Buddy to get me a plane ticket back home.”

“I didn’t ‘fail’ in my attempts to found my own pride,” Buddy later told reporters. “In fact, I was a pride leader for three hours, 14 minutes and 37 seconds. It’s just that, as I stared into the cold eyes of Leonidas the Earthshaker, I realized violence isn’t the way. Overall I’d say this expedition was a great success and I learned a lot about my heritage.”

Government Biologist Who Shot Cats Called Their Corpses ‘Party Favors’ In Email Celebrating Their Deaths

A California biologist who shot and killed 13 cats as part of a “predator management program” referred to the felines’ corpses as “party favors” in a celebratory email to colleagues, according to a copy of the email.

David “Doc Quack” Riensche, a senior wildlife biologist with California’s East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD), used a 12-gauge shotgun under cover of night to shoot the cats, documents obtained from the EBRPD show.

Riensche and EBRPD knew the felines were part of a colony near Oakland Coliseum managed by Cecelia Theis, a local woman who provided them with veterinary care, food, water and conducted TNR (trap, neuter, return) services to prevent the colony’s population from growing.

They did not warn Theis that they were going to cull the colony late last year, nor did they reach out to contacts in the area’s extensive local shelter and rescue network to trap and remove the strays, despite repeatedly stating that shooting cats is an absolute “last resort.”

“Good morning Lisa and Jeff,” the email from Riensche reads, dated Nov. 18, 2020. “I recently cleaned up more than a ‘bakers dozen’ of party favors in this resource protection area. With the conclusion of this wildlife management action, I am seeing some really good birds starting to re-colonize the area with the limiting factors now removed. Have a great week.”

Riensche, who disposed of the dead cats in trash bags that he tossed into a bin, signed off the email about the dead cats with a smiling emoji.

riensche_partyfavors
In an internal email to colleagues, Riensche referred to the dead cats as “party favors.”

Although Riensche uses coded language in the email, the district’s own records, Riensche’s overtime statements for overnight hours, timestamped audio of dispatch calls and EBRPD’s own timeline of the cat killings all line up with the date of Riensche’s email and a spreadsheet documenting when and where Riensche shot the colony cats.

David “Doc Quack” Riensche is a wildlife biologist with the East Bay Regional Park District. Credit: EBRPD

Tiffany Ashbaker, a volunteer with Alameda’s Island Cat Resource and Adoption, said she was horrified when she read Riensche’s email describing the dead cats as “party favors.”

“I was disgusted. Way beyond hurt,” said Ashbaker, who helped Theis trap, neuter, vaccinate and relocate the Oakland colony cats. “I find this to be unethical and he should be removed from his position at EBRPD because of it. I understand why we should try to have cats further away from the protected areas, but how they handled this was eye opening for sure.”

The cats lived between two auto dealerships in an industrial area separate from the MLK Jr. Regional Shoreline, a park in Oakland managed by the EBRPD. When Theis returned to the area to feed the cats on Nov. 3 2020, she realized several were missing. Over the following days more cats began to disappear, Theis and Ashbaker noted.

When Theis asked EBRPD about the whereabouts of the colony cats, a district staffer told her EBRPD wasn’t involved and didn’t remove any cats. EBRPD then amended its response, saying it had trapped the cats and brought them to local shelters.

But none of the local shelters had any records of taking cats from EBRPD, nor did they have the missing cats in their care.

EBRPD admits its biologist killed colony cats

Theis went to KGO, a local ABC News affiliate, and when a reporter began asking questions about the missing cats, a spokesman for the district finally admitted one of its employees — later identified in documents as Riensche — had shot the cats as part of the “predator management program.”

Theis said she felt “a horrible feeling in my gut” when she realized why the usually friendly strays and former pets of the colony were suddenly skittish. Riensche shot the colony cats over a series of nights, returning to the park in the late hours with a shotgun to kill two or three at a time.

Theis said she now understands why the remaining cats were so fearful and skittish when she came by for their regular feedings. One cat named Sherbert jumped on her car hood, and two others meowed insistently at Theis, “trying to tell me.”

“I feel this horrific feeling that they went through terror and were trying to tell me,” Their said. “They weren’t eating like they did usually.”

Some EBRPD board members have expressed sympathy for what happened, Theis said, but she described being “depressed” and worried because the district won’t give her any guarantees that it won’t kill more cats.

“We feel horrible about this, you know, this is really one thing that’s just really sad,” Matt Graul, the EBRPD’s chief of stewardship, told KGO in December, after the public first learned the cats had been shot.

Despite that, EBRPD ignored public records requests from the TV news station, and a spokesman for the district defended the cat culling, saying it was necessary to protect endangered birds who winter in the nearby marshlands.

Stray and feral cats “are not part of a healthy eco-system” EBRPD spokesman Dave Mason said, claiming his agency was protecting endangered wildlife in the area.

Public and animal rights groups demand an end to cat killing practice

After intense public backlash, including a petition with 70,000 signatures protesting EBRPD’s actions, several district board members were quoted in media reports saying they would end the practice of killing cats and would demand an investigation. Almost five months later, the district is instead moving ahead with a plan to contract cat-killing (and the culling of other animals like foxes and opossums) to a federal agency, and there has been no investigation.

Ashbaker, Theis, the non-profits In Defense of Animals and Alley Cat Allies, and local shelters have all demanded EBRPD stop killing animals entirely. District officials continue to argue it’s necessary to protect endangered birds, despite a lack of scientific evidence supporting the idea that arbitrarily shooting animals has any measurable impact on bird populations.

EBRPD has made one concession: It’s promised to reach out to rescues and shelters in the area for help removing cats before making the decision to deal with them lethally.

“While we’re pleased that the policy seems to be to work with local advocates as to prefer not to killing cats, we want to see a pledge that this never happens, ever again,” Fleur Dawes of In Defense of Animals said in February.

The district “should have been up front from the beginning, saying ‘This wasn’t what should have happened, [so] let’s make it right,'” Ashbaker said.

EBRPD has been unable to provide proof that the cats were killing birds on the marsh or that Riensche shot the cats on district property.

In response to a public records request for any documentation of cats preying on birds in the marshlands, EBRPD produced a single document from 1992, noting one incident with one cat about 35 miles south of the MLK Jr. Regional Shoreline where Riensche shot 13 cats in late 2020. During a survey some time before 1992, an EBRPD employee saw an example of “[California Clapper] rail predation” by “what we determined was a feral cat, in a marsh in the East Palo Alto area,” where it says “many cats are found.” The document mentions another cat that was sighted swimming “in flooded tidal salt marshes” in south San Francisco Bay, likely “foraging” for an endangered mouse species.

The district has not been able to produce any written guidelines or protocols describing how its employees determine if a cat should be shot instead of being relocated or brought to a local shelter, except for a vague summary of minutes from a 1998 meeting during which they claim the policy was approved.

EBRPD has been unable to produce copies of the cat-killing policy itself, despite several public records requests seeking that document.

In addition, in internal emails after a KGO reporter began asking questions about the cat killings, several EBRPD staffers questioned whether they have any documentation saying cat culling is an acceptable policy.

EBRPD internal discussion: Are we following our own rules?

In those same internal emails, which were obtained from EBRPD via public records requests, staffers wondered if the district was following its own rules requiring it to reach out to local shelter networks and receive approval from federal authorities to kill cats. One EBRPD official, assistant general manager of public affairs Carol Johnson, noted the document EBRPD used as justification “does not mention dispatching these animals,” and requires the district to “work with animal rescue organizations to help trap feral cats.”

“[The] question is, are we following the protocols listed in the document?” Johnson asked her colleagues in a Dec. 2 email. “I would argue we are minimally following through with the organizations and we have nothing to say lethal means is acceptable.”

No formal policy?
After telling local media that an old and little-known policy allowed the district to cull cats, EBRPD staffers could not locate a copy of the policy.

Internal correspondence among EBRPD staff, obtained via a public records request, show worried staffers searched in vain for a written policy on killing cats before using a Google search to find another agency’s policy. 

EBRPD finally produced a copy of minutes from a 1998 meeting with notes attached saying the cat-culling policy had been approved by the board, but if a copy of the policy exists, the district has been unable to produce it.

In December Mason said cats were only shot as a last resort and “[L]ethal removal only happens when feral cats are in the act of hunting wildlife on District property,” but none of the documents say the cats Riensche shot were hunting. Indeed, it would require an extraordinary stroke of luck for the biologist to find 13 cats preying on endangered birds in just a few nights.

Despite public records requests, the EBRPD was unable to provide proof that Riensche had consulted anyone before shooting the cats. Records indicate no one was notified until after Riensche killed the animals.

Cat colony location
The stray cats lived between Audi Oakland and Coliseum Lexus of Oakland. Credit: Google Maps

In addition, the cat colony sat some distance from the protected marshland: An office park, electric car charging station, at least three parking lots and a substantial body of water are between the cat colony’s home and the marshland. That’s a distance considerably longer than most stray and feral cats range from their homes, and domestic cats are notoriously averse to water or getting themselves wet.

Records line up with cat shootings

While Riensche uses coded language by referring to the cats he shot as “party favors” in his email to colleagues, it was sent on Nov. 18, the day after EBRPD’s own records show he killed the last of the colony cats. Internal documents from the EBRPD, obtained through public records requests, as well as the district’s own public timeline of events, show the dates the cats were killed line up with Riensche’s email. In addition, in audio recordings of his radio contact, Riensche advises dispatchers only after he’s fired the killing shots.

“Yeah this is Dave Riensche in wildlife at MLK, I just dispatched an animal down here, so if you get a call, it was me,” Riensche tells a dispatcher in one of the calls on Nov. 13 at 6:24 a.m.

EBRPD’s records show the only animals killed on that day were cats.

(Click the embedded audio to hear Riensche call dispatch on Nov. 13, 2020.)

Finally, according to EBRPD’s records, Riensche received overtime for working on nights that correspond to the same dates EBRPD says the cats were shot. [EBRPD document: TIMECARDS (REDACTED)]

Riensche, who has been employed as a biologist with the district for decades, is a prominent birder whose work involves protecting birds and other endangered species from predators wild and domestic. He penned a newsletter, Bird News, in the early aughts and is on record saying there’s “a wealth of evidence” that stray and feral cats are the primary danger to bird populations.

Shooting cats as a ‘first resort’

Riensche earned $182,951 in salary and benefits in 2019, the most recent year for which salary data is available for public employees in California. Riensche earned a base salary of $90,239 and $56,050 in overtime, including for overnight hours spent shooting animals in EBRPD’s parks.

An Oakland woman who wrote to the EBRPD after the district came clean about the cat killings related an anecdote about Riensche from 2019.

The woman worked with a local rescue that received a call from a parks employee who wanted help trapping and relocating a female cat and her young kittens who were living on or near an EBRPD park. The rescue volunteers were working with the EBRPD employee, making plans for the cat and her babies to be vaccinated and spayed/neutered, and even had homes lined up for some of the kittens, the woman wrote in a Nov. 25 email.

After visitors to the park saw the mother carrying a dead rabbit back to her kittens, “Doc Quack [Riensche] then reportedly told employees he was going to shoot the cats,” the volunteer wrote.

The mother cat “disappeared” and her fate was unknown, but the rescue was able to work with the EBRPD employees to get the kittens trapped. However, Riensche wasn’t happy with that outcome, she wrote.

“I was told later by an employee, that they were reprimanded for saving the cats and going outside of the EB Parks, to get this help,” the woman wrote in her letter to EBRPD. “Apparently, they should have just been quiet and let Doc Quack shoot the cat family.”

The connection between birders and cat killing

Cat killing isn’t unusual among birders. In 2007 a Texas man named James M. Stevenson — founder of the Galveston Ornithological Society — admitted killing dozens of cats on private and public property after coming to believe the cats were killing piping plovers, shorebirds who commonly nested in the area.

An article in the Los Angeles Times noted Stevenson wasn’t coy about what he’d been doing:

In a 1999 posting on an Internet bulletin board for bird lovers, Stevenson nonchalantly described killing many feral cats during his first year living on Galveston Island. He rationalized his acts as a way to restore the natural order.

“I’m sorry if this offends — but I sighted in my .22 rifle, and killed about two dozen cats,” Stevenson wrote in his message, titled “killer kitties; kittie killers.”

“This man has dedicated his whole life to birds,” Stevenson’s attorney said in his defense. The case ended in a mistrial.

In 2011, a wildlife biologist employed by the Smithsonian National Zoo’s Migratory Bird Center was found guilty of animal cruelty “for sprinkling poison atop cat food intended for feral cats living in Washington, DC.”

Nico Arcilla, then known as Nico Dauphiné, was well known as a birder and outspoken critic of cats. A group of people who cared for strays near Washington’s Meridian Hill Park contacted the Humane Society after noticing food they left out for the cats “would sometimes become covered by a white powdery substance overnight.”

After the Humane Society and Washington police tested the substance and verified it was poison, they set up a stakeout and had cameras trained on the food bowls. Footage, which prosecutors later exhibited on trial, was damning:

“Dauphiné [Arcilla] can be seen approaching the bowl, pulling something out of a small bag, reaching down toward the food twice, and then leaving the scene,” a sciencemag.org report reads. “The next morning, police found the food covered with the same white powder as before, which tested positive as poison.”

[Click here to see video of Arcilla poisoning the cat food.]

Arcilla wasn’t just a prominent birder and anti-cat campaigner — she is a co-author of several frequently-cited studies claiming cats kill billions of birds in the US each year. Those studies, which have been used to justify cat-culling policies around the world, are highly controversial, with critics blasting them for poor methodology, a lack of hard data, and arbitrary numbers plugged in to estimate both the national cat population and the felines’ impact on birds. For example, the authors estimate a national stray and feral cat population between 25 and 125 million, an estimate so vague that any extrapolations based on those numbers are virtually useless.

Riensche has repeatedly cited Arcilla’s work in public and private documents arguing that cats are primarily responsible for declines in bird populations.