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Alley Cat Allies Rebuttal to Junk Science and Sloppy News Reporting

There have been articles recently in the mainstream media (if there is such an entity anymore)  claiming that outdoor and feral cats are solely responsible  for the decline in bird populations in the US (so why are we kept awake all night by the screeching of starlings that have taken over our neighborhoods and poop on everybody's cars, for one example?)

Anyway, here's an article that was published in the most recent issue of The Pet Press....I posted this in Atheist Ailurophiles, too, please spread it around.


Alley Cat Allies Advocates To End ‘Junk’ Science Studies About Cats

By Becky Robinson

Newspaper articles and television programs labeling cats as mass killers and the reason for bird species declines have been all over the news, from The New York Times to The Washington Post, most recently reporting on research published in the online journal Nature Communications. Without questioning the integrity of this latest report, these and dozens of other news outlets have helped manufacture a fake debate that outdoor cats are the number one killer of birds and mammals in this country.

Of course, habitat destruction, pollution, and climate change are far and away the greatest threats to birds and wildlife. And bogus reports like this recent one funded by the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and sensationalized by the media, sidestep serious debate on the real threats to birds and wildlife and end up scapegoating cats.

This current “study” is not new. It is a literature review that looks at a variety of published papers and then speculates a conclusion that suits the researchers’ anti-feral (or outdoor) cat and anti-Trap-Neuter-Return agenda. In the past, Alley Cat Allies has picked apart some of the flawed studies included in the review, and we will continue to do so on this research piece.

Because the basic premise of this research is that no cats should be outdoors, a very real outcome to all of this could be more cats taken to animal shelters, where 7 out of 10 are killed.

In fact, “catch and kill” has been an ineffective standard operating procedure for animal control in the U.S. for more than a century. Yet attempts to permanently clear an area of cats have proven futile because of a natural and scientifically documented phenomenon known as the vacuum effect. Simply removing the cats will open up a vacuum in the habitat that attracts other cats.

Tens of millions of cats have been rounded up and killed in shelters, at staggering taxpayer expense, but with no reductive effect on outdoor cat populations. Where is the media in reporting on these deaths?

When outrageous extrapolations based on small study samples use the word “billions” to describe bird and small mammal deaths by cats, it makes people sit up and take notice. And pitting species against species sells papers. But we don’t need small local studies to point to the millions of animals’ lives lost in shelters each year — we already know that, nationally, more than 70 percent of all cats who enter shelters are killed there.

Catch and kill has been practiced for over a century. The evidence is in: it just doesn’t work. From animal protection experts to individual caregivers, from mayors of small towns to city councils of large cities, people have had enough of this culture of killing — they’ve had enough of the wasted dollars and the wasted lives. They’re turning to Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR).

The best response to feral cats, who aren’t socialized to people and can’t be adopted, TNR is a program through which feral cats are humanely trapped, neutered at a veterinary clinic, and then returned to their outdoor homes to live out their lives. Because TNR is proven to stabilize and reduce cat populations over time, it is fast becoming the predominant approach to feral cat management in the United States. 

More than 300 communities across the country have passed laws or enacted policies supporting the practice of TNR. This does not include the thousands of community groups and the hundreds of thousands of individual caregivers conducting TNR privately.

Major cities — including San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and dozens more — have embraced TNR. Enlightened animal control and public health officials have endorsed it, calling it common-sense and effective. TNR reduces calls into municipal agencies, keeps cats out of shelters, encourages spay/neuter practices, and saves tax dollars.  Since Alley Cat Allies first helped bring TNR to the U.S. from the U.K. and Western Europe, where it is accepted and common practice, every mainstream animal protection organization in the U.S. has embraced TNR.

Unfortunately, TNR is often hindered by fundamental misunderstandings and inaccurate portrayals in the media. It is further complicated by the fringe conservationists who imply the easiest way to save birds is to round up and kill outdoor cats. (Or, they suggest unrealistic ideas such as “confining” the millions of outdoor cats.) Yet, while their “studies” are based largely on questionable extrapolations, not field work, their accusations have been widely reported as fact.

It’s time for the funders of this latest study to disavow the research, stop funding junk science, and turn their attention to remediating the real threats to wildlife populations. Scapegoating cats may seem like the easy answer, but in reality, killing more cats will not save populations of birds or small mammals.

And it’s time for the national media to start reporting on the thinly-veiled agenda of these researchers: their proposed “solution” really endorses the continued mass killing of cats. In a nation of professed animal lovers where cats are by far the top companion animal of choice, why attack TNR when it makes sense both practically and ethically?

Alley Cat Allies celebrates and protects cats, but we’re also lovers of all animals. And we agree that wildlife protection needs serious consideration, but let’s not think killing millions of cats is going to somehow abate the true threats to birds and wildlife.

A policy of more killing is never the right answer.

(Becky Robinson is president and co-founder of Alley Cat Allies, the only national nonprofit dedicated to the protection and humane treatment of cats. The organization is based in Bethesda, MD.  For more info visit www.alleycat.org)


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    Steph S.

    Thanks so much sk8eycat. This is so very important. I'm so glad you posted that here.

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      Joan Denoo

      sk8eycat, your message is an important one, especially as I, and I assume others, observe the numbers of bird species declining. I have bird feed stations at the south end of my property hanging high in trees on weak branches or the feeders protected by wire so cats cant get to feeding birds; birds have a chance to get away. 

      Because I am in my garden almost all day every day, not working, just reading, writing, tending to small chores and enjoying the living things, I see patterns. For example, starlings do put their eggs into other species of birds and starlings grow in number. I no longer have titmouse, very few chickadees, an occasional goldfinch and many sparrows. I attract other birds in with playing recordings of birds, getting seeds they favor, and providing fresh water from high in trees, and having a lot of shrubs surrounding their habitat. 

      Every day neighbor cats come over, as if on routine, and feast upon the birds they catch. I do everything I can to prevent this splendid dining room for cats. We put bells on collars and even put belled-collars on one  of them. I see no feral cats in my yard. If they do come in the neighbor cats chase them away. Cats do take a heavy toll on birds. Hawks come often and aggressively run down birds through the shrubs.

      The cats of Herekopare Island, New Zealand; their history, ecology ....

      Cats protecting birds: modelling the mesopredator release effect.

      Given that I have lost many species of birds in the 38 years I owned this property, and given there are many domestic cats I observe catching birds, and given there are no feral cats that I know of, there is something more I have to do to preserve what birds I have and to attract bird species back. Any ideas are very welcome. 

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        James M. Martin

        As a cat lover, I must say I have watched the animals interact with birds for years and can relate at least anecdotal evidence on this issue.  As a quick aside Sk8, the majority of birds in the cities are corvines, and especially grackles.  They've ruined the paint on my Toyota in spots.  The corvines are the smartest birds in their family: the only way to gauge a bird's intelligence, the animal trainer for Hitchcock's The Birds told me in an interview, is how adaptable they are in feeding themselves.  The corvines had the good sense to migrate away from rural areas into cities, where "the pickin's are good."  But I must say that cats fail absolutely miserably in the bird hunter department.  In fact, I love to watch them hunt for them.  Each time they miss a bird they act as if they weren't really hunting for it all along.  And if they catch a bird (rarely), they are doing what is instinctive.  To the "scientists" who did the statistics in your story, I say, "How 'bout we rid you of your sexual instincts?" Now, if only that tapping, gently rapping, would stop at my chamber door....