Changing names does not change issues
Part 4 of a four-part series by Merritt Clifton. See also: What to call cats, & why it matters: evolving terms; “Vagrant” or “feral” cats; and Feral cats & street dogs.
In October 2009 the Best Friends Animal Society marked National Feral Cat Day by announcing a campaign to rename yet again the animals who had been previously recognized as feral cats, stray cats, and alley cats.
“Best Friends believes that the needs of free-roaming cats and the issues surrounding them-which exist in every community-are best encapsulated in the term ‘community cats,'” asserted Best Friends “Focus on Felines” campaign specialist Shelly Kotter.
“These homeless cats are the result of a failure in the community–unneutered housecats who wandered away from home, cats abandoned when the family moved, or cats who have never been socialized to people,” Kotter said. “None would be on the streets if people had spayed or neutered their pets and kept their cats safe.”
Best Friends turned out to be unaware that their argument paralleled the arguments made against “alley cat” and in favor of “stray cat” more than half a century earlier.
Public health concerns
Of more serious concern, Best Friends also turned out to be oblivious to the established meaning of “community” as applied to animals by the public health sectora sector with frequent influential input into every hospital, most medical doctors’ offices, and political decision-making processes.
The USDA, when it recommended feral cat extermination in 1910, had a mere fraction of the reach and credibility that public health policy makers enjoy today. Indeed, the annual USA Today/Gallup polls rating the honesty and ethics of workers in 21 different professions found in 2008 that nurses, pharmacists, and medical doctors rated first, second, and fourth––and in 2014 found that they rated first, second, and third.
Fortunately for feral cats, the U.S. public health sector has in recent decades mostly not joined wildlife conservation agencies and advocacy groups in seeking cat extirpation from outdoor habitat, and has mostly been sympathetic toward efforts to ensure that feral cats are vaccinated and sterilized.
The sympathetic neutrality of the public health sector is no small consideration for neuter/return practitioners, since just one anti-feral cat organization, The Nature Conservancy, by itself receives annual donated income amounting to about half of the total income of the entire U.S. humane sector.
The U.S. public health sector is concerned about many diseases, besides rabies, which have recently been associated with feral cats and have killed people, especially the immune compromised. Among these diseases are Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, bubonic plague, the H5N1 avian flu, bartonella, caliciviruses, distemper, hantaviruses, toxoplasmosis, and a variety of nasty ailments carried by ticks.
Midway through 2016, all of these diseases have appeared in association with feral cats somewhere around the U.S., occasioning visibly more concern among public health agencies about cats at large than has previously been seen since the introduction of neuter/return coincided with the decline of the 1976-1991 Mid-Atlantic raccoon rabies pandemic.
Most of the human fatalities linked to contact with feral cats have occurred abroad, but U.S. public health policy makers are aware that the U.S. has far more cats per capita than most of the rest of the world, and there is some misapprehension––chiefly due to exaggerated activist claims––that the U.S. feral cat population is six to ten times larger than it really is.
Inherent in using the term “community cats” is the risk that some of the public health sector will understand the introduction of “community” in place of “feral” to mean that the formerly small, isolated, and scattered feral cat population has become a larger and more dangerous reservoir of potential disease vectors, like the “community” animals abroad.
Best Friends responds
“You make good and probably historically accurate points,” conceded Best Friends cofounder Francis Battista, when this was called to his attention, “but we have transited the point where public policy operates independently of public opinion, and unless cats start flying into jet engines like Canada geese, your nightmare scenario is about as likely as a return to population control by mass drowning. In the U.S.,” Battista claimed, “animal control agencies no longer operate outside the scrutiny of public watchdogs and pets enjoy significantly higher status than in countries where culling and poisoning are accepted.”
U.S. still kills more cats than any other nation
Yet, though the U.S. now kills only about a sixth as many homeless cats and dogs per year as 40 years ago, the U.S. still kills more than the whole of Europe, and more than India did at peak.
Indeed, “nuisance wildlife” trappers may kill more cats in the U.S. today than are killed for any reason by the public agencies of any other nation, albeit that this situation may change in Australia, whose government has announced a plan to exterminate as many as two million free-roaming cats.
“‘Community cats’ is an appropriate term,” Battista continued, “for precisely the reason that the cats do belong where they are, not because we say so, but because the residents of the communities concerned say so. In Jacksonville, Florida, for example, free-roaming cats are trapped, neutered, vaccinated, microchipped and returned to their colonies by animal control officers, not just feral cat caregivers. If they come back into the shelter system, they are returned to the colony identified on their chip. Community satisfaction surveys run at 90% positive. Rather than cause deaths,” Battista said, “the ‘community cat’ solution in Jacksonville has seen a 50% reduction in shelter cat deaths, simply because neuter/return has been owned at a community level.”
Added Best Friends chief executive and fellow cofounder Gregory Castle, “Why do you think it is that epidemiologists, who apparently use scientific methods, continue to buy into and promote anachronistic, fear-based ideas about zoonotic diseases being spread by cats? If there is any statistical evidence of this, it pales into insignificance compared to other, real public health threats. It would be better if they looked at facts rather than derive facts from terminology.”
Hoped F.X. Meslin of WHO, “If a human community accepts and partially even indirectly supports a population of feral spayed/neutered ‘wild’ cats, then those may be considered ‘community owned,’ rather than pests, as an integral part of that community’s environment, as are red foxes in many suburban areas of western Europe.”
But former Centers for Disease Control Prevention rabies control chief Charles Rupprecht agreed “in large measure” that introducing the term “community cats” may increase apprehension that cats at large are a disease vector.
“In practical terms ‘feral’ and ‘community’ are opposite ends of a length of string,” offered Louisiana State University epidemiology professor emeritus Martin Hugh Jones.
“I had no idea that Best Friends was so misguided,” said Texas A&M University professor Tam Garland, who advises the Department of Homeland Security about agricultural defense. “I completely agree with you,” Garland said, “regarding the problem this is going to bring down on all of us. It will change the dynamics of populations and result in a flurry of euthanasia, trapping and killing and a lot more panic about some diseases, such as rabies.”
“Term ‘feral cat’ needs to be rigorously used”
“I completely agree with you on this one,” echoed medical transcriptionist and cat rescuer Judith Webster, of Vancouver, British Columbia, who has a foot in both the epidemiological and animal advocacy worlds. “If ‘feral’ cats become ‘community’ cats,” Webster predicted, “this would have serious implications for disease control, given the many viral diseases cats harbor, or have been found to catch and potentially spread. The term ‘community’ positions feral cats in a high-profile role in relation to likelihood of interaction with domestic animals and people.
“‘Community cat’ is terminology conducive to lumping abandoned pet cats and feral cats in the same category,” Webster added, “which is probably the single biggest problem in negative perceptions of feral cats among normal people, not including conservation biologists. The term ‘feral cat’ needs to be rigorously used, not be confused with abandoned pets.”
In particular, Webster worried, to people outside the public health sector, “‘community cats’ sounds so positive. Therefore, it might encourage dumping and abandonment. If the community is supposed to care about ‘community cats,’ why worry if your cat is outside at night, or gets lost? Why even look? Your cat will at worst join other community cats, indeed be free at last, and the community will take care of her. Also, calling them ‘community cats’ to me seems as if they are being presented as a positive and welcome addition to a city or environment. It seems to me that this is losing sight of the goal of feral cat management, to eradicate the population by attrition in the most humane way possible.”
“If cats are loose, they are a community problem”
Alley Cat Allies chief executive Becky Robinson acknowledged the success of the Jacksonville program, but wondered whether the use of “community” would obscure the distinctions among true feral cats, outdoor pets, and strays.
“Some established national groups, from the beginning of neuter/return in the U.S.,” Robinson recalled, “wanted people to be forever responsible for colonies. Eventually caregiver and colony registration were advocated, requiring feeders and caregivers to be nothing less than owners, as if the cats were in their homes. We demonstrated and wrote about how some cats just live in an area, sometimes with a caregiver, but often not. Feral cats survive usually from our dumpsters and hunting small rodents.”
Cat rescuer Bonnie Carolin, of Putnam County, Florida, suggested to Best Friends and ANIMALS 24-7 that all of the positive connotations of “community” could be obtained, without running afoul of any history, by using the term “neighborhood cats” instead, a term popularized for a time by Neighborhood Cats founder Bryan Kortis, who later ran the “community cats” programs for PetSmart Charities.
But as virologist Charles H. Calisher told ANIMALS 24-7, “Redefining doesn’t change anything in the real world. If cats are on the loose they are a community problem,” the dimensions of which may be debated but not denied.