Purges pursued with religious fervor
(See also What to call cats, & why their name matters.)
WORCESTER, Massachusetts––Named Australia’s first “threatened species commissioner” in July 2014, Gregory Andrews in July 2015, a year later, announced a five-year plan to exterminate feral cats.
“Australian Environment Minister Greg Hunt “is declaring war on feral cats, and he’s asked me to take charge of that program,” Andrews told the world via live radio broadcast. “By 2020, I want to see two million feral cats culled.”
Conflict of faiths
While friends of cats rose in protest, and birders and ecological nativists applauded, Clark University research scientist in ethics and public policy William Linn recognized behind the familiar furor a conflict of faiths, having more in common with disputes rooted in religious values than most disputes over science.
Linn in his October 7, 2015 essay for TheConversation.com, entitled “Australia’s war on feral cats: shaky science, missing ethics,” never used the words “religion,” or “faith.”
Neither did Linn ever link the “scientific” arguments for purging cats voiced in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries to the cat-purging ailurophobia that repeatedly swept medieval Europe in the name of fighting Satan––and escalated the spread of the Black Plague, carried mostly by fleas on rodents.
Tweety & Sylvester
But Linn underscored that values and beliefs, not data, drive most of the “Tweety & Sylvester” debate.
“There is little doubt,” Linn conceded, “that under particular geographic and ecological conditions, outdoor cats can threaten native species.”
Yet the same is true of many other species introduced by humans. Few of those species have ever been persecuted with the sustained zeal directed at cats. Other than cats, the most aggressively persecuted species tend to be mice, rats, and rabbits––who are cats’ usual prey.
“Scientists often refer to species as native, exotic or invasive,” Linn wrote. “While there are historical criteria that play a role in making this determination, it is primarily a value judgment about where a species comes from, and whether it has a positive, neutral or destructive impact on the environment.
Matter of context
“Cats are indeed an exotic species outside their ancestral home (Europe and North Africa), and they interact with the natural environment in myriad ways,” Linn acknowledged. “However, whether cats are judged destructive is really a matter of context. Isolated Pacific islands that have never seen a cat are a far cry from cities where they are a normal element of urban ecology.
“Of course we might say the same about humans,” Linn pointed out, but “Outside of extremists’ debates over politics and immigration, we do not advocate the mass slaughter of other people. We recognize this to be unethical.
“Some conservationists claim that cats are the single largest threat to biodiversity regardless of ecological context,” Linn continued. “One oft-cited study [published by] Nature Communications claimed that 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds and 6.9 to 20.7 billion small mammals are killed by cats every year in the United States alone. Yet the scientific case for this claim is shaky at best.”
Explained Linn, “Virtually every study of outdoor cats assumes that because cats in some habitats threaten biodiversity, they are a threat across all habitats everywhere. This is a projection from a small set of localized case studies to the world at large. In other words, a guesstimate. This is why the ranges of birds and mammals preyed upon that are cited above are so wide. Such guesstimates are neither descriptive nor predictive of the world.”
In Australia, Linn noted “Even the authors of the scientific report used to justify the war on cats admit there is no scientific basis for estimating the number of outdoor cats in Australia. Similar uncertainties apply to guesstimates about feral cats in Europe and North America. They exemplify the term ‘urban legend.’
So scientists really have no idea how many feral cats are in Australia or North America. What’s more, they have a poor grasp of how much of a real impact feral or nonferal cats make on wildlife.”
“All about ethics”
Asked Linn, “If the science about cats and their impact on biodiversity is this unreliable, then why is Australia talking about a war against feral cats? Why are conservationists in North America in such a lather about instituting similar lethal control programs?
“The answer: it is all about ethics. While rarely voiced, many conservationists hold unarticulated moral norms about repairing the damage done to Mother Earth by human civilization.”
Examining the conservationist fervor to kill feral cats as an expression of their “unarticulated moral norms,” Linn found that “This worldview suffers from a number of blind spots,” beginning with failure to recognize “the moral value of individual animals,” now almost universally accepted worldwide and recognized by the existence of anti-cruelty laws.
“We have ethical responsibilities to cats as well as to biodiversity,” Linn argued, “and need to do a better job of balancing the well-being of both.
“Blaming the victim”
“The second blind spot,” Linn identified, “is blaming the victim. Are cats any more of an invasive species than human beings? What about cats who “fit” into urban ecologies, taking the place of otherwise absent predators and contributing ecological services in the form of pest control?”
That brought Linn to perhaps his most controversial point, “the questionable moral legitimacy of lethal management. Traditional conservation,” originating from the practice of gamekeeping, conserving species to be hunted for sport, “likes to think of lethal measures, such as hunting, trapping and poisoning,” Linn pointed out, “as an unproblematic tool for achieving management goals.”
Intrinsic moral value
This outlook, Linn pointed out, “rests on the assumption that only people and/or ecosystems, not individual animals, have intrinsic moral value.
“As an ethicist,” Linn concluded, “I care about both native wildlife and cats. It is time to stop blaming the victim, face up to our own culpability and seek to rewild our world with an eye to the ethics of our actions. There is no justification for a war on outdoor cats – feral or otherwise – based on shaky science and an absence of ethical reasoning.”
The “shaky science” and “absence of ethical reasoning” that Linn identified in TheConversation.com were soon illustrated in media reports about feral cat purges and the rationalizations behind them from Australia, Israel, and the states of New York, Georgia, California, and Hawaii.
Cats vs. bilbies
“When Pintupi hunters from the Kiwirrkurra community in the Gibson Desert in central Australia catch a feral cat, they have two tasks,” reported Guardian correspondent Calla Wahlquist on October 27, 2015.
“The first,” Wahlquist continued, “is to lop off a bit of the tail to give to Central Desert Native Title Services in exchange for a $100 bounty. The second is to cut out the stomach to await the attentions of ecologist Rachel Paltridge, who sifts through the stomach contents looking for clues to the cat’s distribution and hunting habits in the entrails, as well as any remnants of threatened species, such as the bilby.”
“Don’t often find any”
Paltridge has found little, however, to warrant the “war on cats” waged by the Australian government.
“We don’t often find any bilbies in cat stomachs in central Australia,” Paltridge admitted, “but that partly reflects the low numbers of bilbies in the area – we’d have to be lucky to get the one cat that ate a bilby. Other threatened species like the great desert skink we find a bit more.”
But Paltridge showed no inclination toward wanting to talk herself out of a job.
“I am sure that they are eating bilbies – at least the young ones,” Paltridge said.
Beyond that, Paltridge and the Pintupi hunters have turned up no evidence that cats more than sparsely inhabit the study region.
“In the first 18 months of the scheme, bounty has been claimed for 18 cats,” reported Wahlquist.
Meanwhile on the mountain
On almost the far side the world, Israel agriculture minister Uri Ariel, a member of the Jewish Home party, on October 15, 2015 wrote to environment minister Avi Gabbay that sterilizing cats violates traditional Jewish law, an interpretation almost unique to himself, and that therefore Israel should either “transfer feral cats from one gender (all males or all females) to a foreign country,” or use deodorants to keep tomcats from smelling queens in heat.
The Yediot Aharonot daily newspaper disclosed the correspondence on November 2, 2015.
No fix in New York
Goofy as Ariel’s recommendations were, they were not much more peculiar than New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s reasoning when in the fourth week of October 2015 he vetoed Assembly Bill 2778, which would have directed up to 20% of the state Animal Population Control Fund to subsidize sterilization of feral cats. Currently the money, coming mostly from a surcharge on dog licenses, subsidizes only sterilizations of shelter animals offered for adoption.
Cuomo’s veto came nearly four months after AB 2778 cleared the New York state senate by a vote of 49-11, after winning unanimous approval from the state assembly, 139-0.
Wrote Cuomo, “I cannot support diverting funds from existing programs that have already proven effective for humanely controlling feral cat populations,” which AB 2778 would not actually have done.
Claims TNR is illegal
“Second,” Cuomo said, “a central tenet of TNR (trap/neuter/return) programs is the release of feral cats into the wild. However, that conflicts directly with Agriculture & Markets Law section 374(5), which makes the release of such animals a misdemeanor offense, and would create uncertainty as to the legality of releasing trapped animals.”
Cuomo’s interpretation of Agriculture & Markets Law section 374(5) has not been upheld by New York state courts. New York has had prominent neuter/return programs for feral cats for decades, and is home of Neighborhood Cats, one of the most influential organizations teaching neuter/return technique, founded in 1999 by then-Manhattan residents Bryan Kortis, Ruth Sharp and Shirley Belwood.
“Third,” Cuomo continued, “the prevailing science suggests that TNR programs are not guaranteed to reduce feral cat populations, and, even if they do, may take many more years to do so than existing programs,” a non-sequiteur in view that the only other approach to feral cat reduction, catch-and-kill, has had no demonstrable success anywhere, ever, in a mainland habitat.
“Finally,” Cuomo concluded, “the return of feral cats to the wild must be balanced against the impacts these cats can have on wildlife,” which impacts are most limited if feral cats are not reproducing, including rapidly breeding back up to the carrying capacity of habitats from which cats have been removed and killed.
Commented Vox Felina blogger Peter Wolf, “No doubt Audubon New York, the New York Sportsmen’s Advisory Council, and PETA—all of whom opposed the bill—are celebrating Cuomo’s veto as a victory. But it’s difficult to see any winners here.”
Cuomo, consistent in accepting poorly documented arguments from Audubon New York and the New York Sportsmen’s Advisory Council, also for the second year in a row vetoed a bill which would have declared a moratorium on mute swan eradication. Mute swans, considered “invasive” by ecological nativists, have long been blamed for the failure of trumpeter swans to recover to huntable abundance, but––as the pioneering field guide author and illustrator Roger Tory Peterson (1914-1996) repeatedly pointed out––the limited numbers and distribution of mute swans suggests that their actual influence on the much more widely distributed trumpeter swan population is negligible.
Meanwhile, in the U.S. as in Australia, the most recent scientific information indicates that the case against cats as predators of native wildlife is often grossly overstated, even on islands.
Reported Carrie Arnold for National Geographic, “Cats reign over Jekyll Island, a small barrier island off the coast of Georgia. The island is home to 150 free-ranging cats, about one cat for every five people.”
As migratory tropical birds often stop at Jekyll Island, University of Georgia wildlife biologist Sonia Hernandez outfitted 31 feral cats on the island with collar-mounted video cameras and recorded their hunting activity for a year.”
Only 18 of the 31 feral cats turned out to be active hunters. What they hunted turned out to be mostly “large insects and frogs,” Hernandez told Arnold.
Sea otters & monk seals
As the alleged evidence that feral cats are a major threat to wild bird populations evaporates, ailurophobes have amplified claims that free-roaming cats are to blame for outbreaks of the parasitic protozoan infection Toxoplasma gondii that were first found to afflict California sea otters in 2002,” causing about 17% of identified deaths, and have killed at least eight Hawaiian monk seals in 2015 alone.
Both California sea otters and Hawaiian monk seals are endangered species. And cats were the first species in which Toxoplasma gondii was found to complete its entire life cycle, albeit that Toxoplasma gondii––like many other parasites––can spread from host to host and persist for years without completing a full life cycle. Toxoplasma gondii in humans spreads mainly through consumption of undercooked tainted meat.
Cats often acquire Toxoplasma gondi from each other, but may also be infected by eating rodents and birds who have themselves become infected. Gulls, in particular, are among the major rodent predators along the California coast, and are themselves frequent prey for sea otters who stalk them from underwater, as well as scavenging fresh gull carcasses.
Among this and other possible sources of infection, the case that cats infect either California sea otters or Hawaiian monk seals has never been strong. California sea otters are found mostly along the most arid, most sparsely populated portion of the California coast, where there are relatively few cats and few streams flowing even part of the year to carry Toxoplasma gondii oocysts out to sea. Hawaiian monk seals occur mostly around the most remote of the Hawaiian islands, far from any cats, albeit that dead and dying monk seals wash up at times on the more populated islands.
“Sentinels of a dirty ocean”
Writing in the December 2015 edition of the International Journal for Parasitology: Parasites and Wildlife, U.S. Geological Survey scientist Kevin D. Lafferty bluntly challenged “the hypothesis that sea otters are sentinels of a dirty ocean,” and “in particular, that pet cats are the main source of exposure to Toxoplasma gondii in central California.”
Lafferty started out believing from review of previous published literature that “infectious disease was preventing the recovery of sea otters, and the most likely source of infection of Toxoplasma gondii was terrestrial runoff containing oocysts defecated by cats,” but when he and colleagues tagged 135 California sea otters in 2009 and followed them for four years, they found that “Counter to expectations, sea otters from unpopulated stretches of coastline,” around Big Sur, are less healthy and more exposed to parasites than city-associated otters,” from the Monterey Bay area, who have more exposure to fecal matter from cats.
City sea otters live longer
“The Monterey sea otters are bigger, live longer, and have a higher population growth rate,” Lafferty summarized, while “contrary to past results” reported by others, “infectious disease was not a particularly common source of death in the small sample of 17 tagged sea otters that were found dead during the study.”
Suggested Lafferty, “Another compelling explanation is that the pet cat hypothesis blamed the wrong cats. Though pet cats are rare in unpopulated Big Sur, there is pristine habitat for thousands of bobcats and mountain lions. These wild cats have a high prevalence of infection and maintain a sylvatic cycle of Toxoplasmosis gondii dominated by the North American type X haplotype that commonly infects sea otters today.
“This is not to say that domestic cats are not a source of infection for city otters,” Lafferty hedged. “A cluster of the less pathogenic ‘domestic’ [strain of Toxoplasma gondii] occurs in central Monterey Bay otters, near where this haplotype is also common in domestic cats. But it seems that domestic cats, by themselves, are not a substantial source of infection. What about other sea otter parasites? Shorebirds and diving ducks are the final hosts for the acanthocephalans that can cause peritonitis in sea otters,” Lafferty mentioned, hinting at one possibility for further study.
“While many believe fresh water runoff contaminated with cat feces is to blame, there is no definitive science on the source of infection,” California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo lecturer Gloeta Massie told the 108th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in June 2008. “How are marine mammals from the Arctic Circle to Australia infected by a parasite that is spread primarily through the consumption of infectious cat feces and infected meat?”
Massie determined through laboratory experimentation that about two-thirds of northern anchovies who were exposed to Toxoplasma gondii oocysts became infected. As anchovies are among the most abundant and widely distributed prey of marine mammals, this suggested yet another avenue for California sea otter and Hawaiian monk seal infection.
Or sea lions?
Anchovies, intensely fished off the California coast, entirely within current California sea otter range, were first canned and marketed as cat food circa 1930. The use of anchovies for cat food grew explosively with the rise of keeping pet cats from the mid-1950s on. The association of toxoplasmosis gondi with cats was confirmed in the early 1960s.
“This is not my area of expertise, so I can only speculate,” Laffery told ANIMALS 24-7. “The orthodoxy is that felids are the only important final host for Toxoplasma gondii. And genetic work suggests that this is an old and ubiquitous association. So I would be surprised if anchovies spread Toxoplasma to cats. Are there other hosts besides cats? Some have speculated that sea lions are worth looking at as final hosts, especially due to the preponderance of reports of Toxoplasma in marine mammals. But there is no published evidence despite people looking. If it were the case, it would greatly change the way people think about Toxoplasma. There are other land-based pathogens like Sarcosystis (from opossums), that have a similar host range in marine mammals.”