Two studies confirm skepticism of waiting for studies to confirm the obvious
LOS ANGELES––The unacknowledged takeaway lesson from two new studies of neuter/return feral cat control, published respectively by the City of Los Angeles and the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science, may be that by the time academia, the courts, and public policymakers catch up to what was already widely known about neuter/return more than 25 years ago, further discussion of it may be academic.
A new urban and suburban ecology in which cats have a much smaller place, already evolving for 30 years plus, will long since be the norm.
Neuter/return results were self-evident very early
Fortunately, at least two generations of neuter/return practitioners have not awaited either the studies, or court confirmation of the evidence and the public policy go-ahead. Tens of thousands of concerned citizens have already trapped and sterilized millions of feral cats, mostly at personal expense, usually returning the cats to their habitat if the habitat seemed viable.
Most of the neuter/return projects springing up since circa 1990 have been strictly local, poorly funded, haphazardly managed, seldom systematically evaluated, and sometimes done almost entirely backward.
Very little of the work and outcomes has been documented in academic journals, but that does not mean that the work has not been done, has not been documented by news reportage and public records, and has not had a huge cumulative impact on U.S. urban and suburban ecologies.
Effects of neuter/return over three decades of effort have included a net decline––achieved by 2000––of more than 75% in animal shelter cat and kitten admissions and population control killing; a comparable drop in roadkills of cats and kittens, confirmed by various counts, within another five years; and continuing findings in survey after survey that cats at large are far fewer, year by year, than were shown by any previous benchmarks.
Net effect of TNR on wildlife is positive
Meanwhile, urban wildlife censuses around the U.S. have consistently documented rising populations of coyotes, foxes, fishers, hawks, owls, and eagles, all of whom benefit from decreased competition from cats in pursuit of their mostly rodent prey base.
Rodent-eating snakes, including pythons, are among the wild beneficiaries in Florida, which has always had the most outdoor cats relative to humans of any state, having the most favorable habitat.
Of course coyotes, foxes, fishers, hawks, owls, eagles, pythons and alligators also opportunistically prey upon outdoor cats and kittens to some extent, but rodents not caught by cats are far greater parts of their diet––and this too has long since been confirmed by peer-reviewed science.
Los Angeles TNR program was blocked by birders
The newly published feral cat population management studies are City of Los Angeles Citywide Cat Program Environmental Impact Report, dated August 2019, and “A Long-Term Lens: Cumulative Impacts of Free-Roaming Cat Management Strategy and Intensity on Preventable Cat Mortalities,” appearing in the July 26, 2019 edition of Frontiers in Veterinary Science.
Of the two, the Citywide Cat Program environmental impact report appears most likely to meaningfully contribute to feral cat management.
Unlike “A Long-Term Lens,” the Citywide Cat Program environmental impact report is specifically intended to help expedite a municipally supported neuter/return campaign.
Indeed, the campaign already existed, officially endorsed by the Los Angeles Department of Animal Regulation in 2006. It appeared to be making demonstrable headway toward reducing the Los Angeles outdoor cat population when halted on December 9, 2009 by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Thomas McKnew.
Ten years later
McKnew ruled, on behalf of five organizations representing birders, that the Los Angeles Animal Services had violated the California Environmental Quality Act by issuing $30 sterilization vouchers to neuter/return practitioners, redeemable at five privately operated low-cost spay/neuter clinics and three mobile spay/neuter clinics that work under city contract.
Nearly 10 years elapsed after the McKnew verdict before the City of Los Angeles found the wherewithal to commission the Environmental Impact Report needed to comply with the law, and the multiple authors who compiled the data going into it, including more than 100 discussions of various aspects of cat poop.
Much of the data has nothing whatever to do with the proposed Citywide Cat Program––except that Judge McKnew was persuaded by the birders’ lawyers that the Citywide Cat Program could not proceed without, for example, detailed analyses of such matters as the possible impact, if any, of fixing feral cats on community energy use, public housing availability, and traffic and parking patterns.
Every point & paragraph meant to be litigated
Therein lies the reason why most of the City of Los Angeles Citywide Cat Program Environmental Impact Report may be useless as the proverbial tits on a tomcat, even if accurately compiled in complete good faith by the authors.
According to a flow chart included within the Citywide Cat Program environmental impact report, publishing the report actually puts Los Angeles Animal Services at only about the halfway mark toward securing all the approvals necessary to put the program into effect.
In theory, the impact report only needs to go through a public comment period and then be ratified by the Los Angeles City Council. In practice, though, every point and paragraph of it exists to be litigated, line by line, until the whole exercise becomes a moot point.
Forbush 90 years later
The American Bird Conservancy and co-plaintiffs, whose lawsuit brought the McKnew decision, are funded by appeals to ailurophobes, in the tradition of nineteenth century Massachusetts state ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush (1858-1929).
Holding that birds do not kill other birds, Forbush vehemently blamed nonexistent cats on cat-less islands for the depredations of gulls, crows, and even humans.
If the goal of the American Bird Conservancy had ever genuinely been to reduce cat predation on birds, it might have pushed neuter/return as vigorously as the national feral cat advocacy groups Alley Cat Allies and Alley Cat Rescue, and Los Angeles Animal Services––and millions more cats might have been fixed, sooner, all over the U.S. and the world, leaving fewer offspring to menace any prey.
Advocacy thrives on having an enemy
But the first interest of any advocacy organization is self-perpetuation. Advocacy thrives on having an enemy, who is never quite vanquished despite an endless string of small “victories” that persuade donors to give and keep giving.
For the American Bird Conservancy, founded in 1994, just as the first data from successful neuter/return programs began to circulate, neuter/return is the enemy. Any positive finding in the City of Los Angeles Citywide Cat Program Environmental Impact Report is likely to be challenged for as long as legal pretexts for a challenge can be found and donors are willing to fund the litigation. This, in theory, might continue indefinitely.
Therefore the real value of the City of Los Angeles Citywide Cat Program Environmental Impact Report is not so much that the proposed Citywide Cat Program may take effect at any time soon, but rather that in attempting to anticipate and respond to legal challenges, the impact report also challenges neuter/return practitioners to think about their work in a more far-sighted manner.
The Citywide Cat Program, the impact report explains, “would apply to all areas within the boundaries of the City of Los Angeles,” including 465 square miles, inhabited by 3.7 million people.
In so doing, the Citywide Cat Program would draw together under a single umbrella all of the presently scattered and uncoordinated neuter/return projects, so that what has already been done and what remains to be done could be monitored.
Practical features of the Citywide Cat Program would include, as well as helping to make “the spaying or neutering of cats more affordable,” “Declaring that TNR [trap-neuter-return] is the preferred method of dealing with the free-roaming cat population and the City’s official policy.”
Under the Citywide Cat Program, as proposed, Los Angeles Animal Services would “encourage that cats not be brought into local animal services centers, except if the cat is injured or sick, the cat has bitten someone, the cat’s welfare is in jeopardy, there is a public health hazard, or the potential exists for harm to people or companion animals.”
“How to trap responsibly”
Los Angeles Animal Services would also “create partnerships with third parties who offer free-roaming cat trapping training so people can learn how to trap responsibly.”
Trapping responsibly would mean in compliance with measures added to the proposed Citywide Cat Program in response to objections mentioned by many critics, but perhaps best summarized by California Department of Fish & Wildlife representative Betty Courtney, and Los Angeles County Public Health representatives Barbara Ferrer and Emily Beeler.
Expressing the view prevailing among wildlife management agencies since the Forbush era that “cats are “non-native” and a threat to wildlife,” Courtney argued that “the program may contribute to the persistence of free-roaming cats,” though any cats released would be incapable of reproducing.
“Feeding of free roaming cats is considered wildlife harassment, subsidizing cat colonies results in increased predation, [and] cat colonies compete with natural predators,” the impact study reported of Courtney’s written testimony.
That testimony made clear that the focal objection made to neuter/return on behalf of wildlife is not to neuter/return itself, in principle, but rather to feeder behavior that causes concentrations of cats to persist in sensitive wildlife habitat.
Courtney recommended “that an emphasis be placed on return to owner, adoption, and euthanasia, especially in sensitive areas.”
This was the pre-neuter/return approach, which in approximately 40 years of vigorous application in Los Angeles, 1950-1990, accomplished nothing to reduce the free-roaming cat population.
Ferrer and Beeler emphasized rising “complaints from residents experiencing flea-born nuisance,” and “concerns about wildlife attraction due to cat colony feeding, which could exacerbate flea issues.”
Ferrer mentioned that “Since 2006 Los Angeles County has had 176 reported cases of flea-borne typhus,” also noting that “toxoplasmosis, cryptosporidiosis, salmonella, and campylobacter are associated with cat feces and can be life-threatening to immuno-compromised persons.”
Relevant to those concerns are that while cats can be carriers of fleas, feral cats are also among the leading predators of mice, rats, voles, ground squirrels, and other small native mammals who commonly shed fleas in the Los Angeles area.
Further, unlike mice and rats, which often bring fleas into human homes, feral cats by definition want nothing to do with humans, and will not be around humans unless deliberately attracted by feeders.
Toxoplasmosis, cryptosporidiosis, salmonella, and campylobacter, meanwhile, are much less likely to be spread by feral cats if there are fewer cats at large.
Cats already “present throughout the area”
Explains the City of Los Angeles Citywide Cat Program Environmental Impact Report, “Domestic cats, including free-roaming cats in particular, are present throughout the study area,” meaning that the neuter/return issue is not a matter of introducing cats into habitat, but rather centers on managing the cat populations where they already exist
“Both pet and free-roaming cats are territorial,” the impact report adds, but “pet cats tend to stay near their homes and are closely associated with the humans they live with, while free-roaming cats center their territory (home range) around food, water, and shelter, which are typically found in higher abundance in human-dominated landscapes.
“Due to this behavior, domestic cats, regardless of owned status, are often found in highest densities in human-dominated landscapes. Free-roaming cat spatial distribution is highly variable and is largely dependent on resource availability. Free-roaming cats can survive in rural and undeveloped areas and in areas lacking human subsidies [feeding] by hunting natural prey and seeking natural shelter,” but “they are likely to exist at lower densities in these contexts relative to areas with higher human density or resource availability. Less-developed areas may also support a higher density of native predators, such as coyotes, that prey on cats.”
Where & when cats may be fed
The most controversial aspects of the City of Los Angeles Citywide Cat Program Environmental Impact Report, among neuter/return practitioners, are those pertaining to where and when cats may be released and/or fed.
States the impact report, “The City recommends release generally where cats are found, or as close as possible, but does not recommend release of free-roaming cats within one mile of [designated] Environmentally Sensitive Areas,” and prohibits feeding cats within one mile of an Environmentally Sensitive Area except when used for baiting traps for TNR purposes.
“Feeding should also not occur at locations where vulnerable human populations are present (children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems),” the impact report adds.
“To avoid attracting wildlife and discourage overfeeding, feeding should be supervised and limited to 30 minutes. No free access to any food should occur or be facilitated.
“Feeding times should only occur between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. to help avoid conflicts with nocturnal wildlife.
“Locations should be kept clean”
“Feeding locations should be kept clean so that no traces of food or refuse are left behind after feeding events.
“Fecal matter accumulation near feeding or shelter areas should be monitored and removed. Contaminated surfaces should be disinfected as needed to help maintain cleanliness and contain the potential spread of disease.”
All of this is exactly as ANIMALS 24-7 has recommended and practiced since helping to introduce the neuter/vaccinate return technique of feral cat population to the U.S., beginning in 1991.
Even then, ANIMALS 24-7 had determined through years of experimentation at a variety of sites that feeding feral cats is not necessary in order to trap them, since the cats would not be present without already having adequate food sources.
Concessions to feeders
As with feeding other wildlife, feeding feral cats tends to create an abnormal dependency among the animals on food handouts; may also attract rats & wildlife to the feeding stations; makes cats more easily visible to people who oppose their presence; and encourages cats to loiter in abnormal concentrations, where they can easily be shot, poisoned, or picked off by predators.
Further considerations include that it is much easier to trap a hungry cat than a full cat, and that it is no more necessary to feed cats in order to count and monitor them, than it is necessary to feed any other wildlife in order to count or monitor those species.
These considerations were initially included in most early guidelines for practicing neuter/return successfully, but were later discarded or downplayed by many organizations in order to attract participation from people who were already feeding outdoor cats, and were more concerned with keeping their outdoor pets, for whom they took only partial responsibility, than with preventing the births of feral litters.
“Environmentally Sensitive Areas”
The City of Los Angeles Citywide Cat Program Environmental Impact Report defines Environmentally Sensitive Areas as “areas in which plant or animal life or their habitats are either rare or especially valuable because of their special nature or role in an ecosystem and easily disturbed or degraded by human activities and developments.”
Among the designated Environmentally Sensitive Areas are the Simi Hills; the foothill regions of the San Gabriel, Santa Susana, Santa Monica, and Verdugo Mountains; and along the coastline between Malibu and the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
“Many of the outlying areas are contiguous with larger natural areas and may be part of significant wildlife habitats or movement corridors,” the impact report notes. “In contrast, the central and valley portions of the City contain fewer natural areas.”
Specific designated Environmentally Sensitive Areas include the Ballona Wetlands, El Segundo Dunes, Griffith Park, Harbor Lake Regional Park, Santa Clara River, and the Tujunga Valley/Hansen Dam.
Species of concern
Among the species of concern in trying to avoid conflict between feral cats and wildlife are “hummingbirds, swallows, sparrows, owls, hawks, lizards, skunks, raccoons, opossums, bats, coyotes, and monarch butterflies,” as well as endangered or threatened species such as the California coastal gnatcatcher, least Bell’s vireo, cactus wren, Swainson’s thrush, bobcat, El Segundo blue butterfly, “and various freshwater fish species such as the southern steelhead trout,” plus “a diverse assemblage of marine species found in the estuaries, intertidal zones, and pelagic zones along the coast.”
Maps included in the City of Los Angeles Citywide Cat Program Environmental Impact Report suggest that while the “no go” zones for neuter/return incorporate the most significant wildlife habitat around the city, the area where neuter/return can be practiced very likely include 95%-plus of the free-roaming cats.
“Horizon period of 30 years”
“The proposed project represents an initial 5-year implementation period and a horizon period of 30 years, with the City recognizing that the effects of the program will take time to ramp up and be fully realized,” the impact report concludes. “When compared to existing conditions at August 2017, the projected free-roaming cat population would include approximately 29,607 fewer cats at the end of the 30-year horizon period, an approximate 13% decrease.”
But the proposed Citywide Cat Program is not just about reducing the feral cat population by less than one half of one percent per year over 30 years.
The feral cat population is in truth just the smallest portion of the free-roaming cat population, most of whom are pets who are allowed to wander.
Little is said in the Citywide Cat Program impact report about increased efforts to encourage people to keep pet cats indoors, but a nationwide trend toward keeping pet cats indoors has continued for more than 70 years now and shows no sign of losing momentum.
Raising cat limit per household
The Citywide Cat Program does recommend that “In order to encourage more adoptions and meet the City’s no-kill goals,” currently more than a decade behind schedule, “the currently permitted number of cats per household would be changed from three cats to five.”
ANIMALS 24-7 determined in 1993, through a nationwide pet keeper survey funded by the North Shore Animal League America, that for pet limit laws to start out with maximum compliance and optimum enforceability, at a threshold below the most frequently encountered nuisance level, the number of dogs per household should be set at four and the number of cats set at six.
In other words, about 95% of pet-keeping households already have fewer than four dogs and six cats. Nuisance complaints tend to be few when pets are kept at those levels, but soar at more than four dogs and more than six cats.
“A Long-Term Lens”
Which brings us around, at last, to “A Long-Term Lens: Cumulative Impacts of Free-Roaming Cat Management Strategy and Intensity on Preventable Cat Mortalities.”
The City of Los Angeles Citywide Cat Program Environmental Impact Report starts off from the premise that neuter/return works to reduce feral cat populations and shelter intakes, but does not necessarily resolve all issues associated with the presence of outdoor cats.
Therefore the Los Angeles impact report seeks to identify and respond to whatever issues are either genuinely problematic or perceived to be problematic, recommending appropriate changes to neuter/return practice.
“A Long-Term Lens” just compares and contrasts “seven management scenarios, including: (1) taking no action, (2) low-intensity removal, (3) high-intensity removal, (4) low-intensity episodic culling, (5) high-intensity episodic culling, (6) low-intensity trap-neuter-return (TNR), and (7) high-intensity TNR.”
Similar studies have been done before
Logically this would be done to see what approach is most effective in first reducing the numbers of cats at large, and then keeping the numbers down.
In fact, similar studies have been done before, including by ANIMALS 24-7, using a comparable modeling method, but expressing the technique and the outcome in much more intelligible English.
Further, the need to do abstract modeling was superseded to some extent in the early years of the present century by the opportunity to compare real-life examples of similar-sized communities where each of the seven alternatives were attempted.
Quite predictably, the cities with the most vigorous neuter/return programs soon had fewer cats and kittens entering animal shelters than cities without neuter/return programs. Where anyone kept track, those cities also had fewer roadkills of cats and kittens, and more native wildlife.
Unfortunately, the advent of “return-to-field” and other programs meant to keep cats and kittens from ever being admitted to shelters in the first place, where they can be counted in a routine and systematic manner, has eroded the possibilities for real-life comparison, short of actually going out and doing a cat census in each example city.
Upside down & backward
But “A Long-Term Lens” turns the whole question of neuter/return efficacy upside down and backward.
Instead of looking at how many cats are left alive in a given habitat after X-number of years, “A Long-Term Lens” seeks “to estimate the impact of different management actions on free-roaming kitten and cat mortality over a 10-year period.”
In other words, “A Long-Term Lens” presumes that the goal of neuter/return is not simply to have fewer cats. Nor is the goal to have fewer “cat years” of cats at large, “cat years” being determined by multiplying the number of cats at large by their years of life.
Rather, the goal of neuter/return is presumed to be just to have fewer cats dying of whatever causes.
Confirmed Fibonacci, nearly 900 years later
“Our simulation results suggested that the cumulative number of preventable deaths over 10 years for an initial population of 50 cats is highest for a ‘no-action’ scenario, estimated at 1,000 deaths,” says “A Long-Term Lens.”
Working from the animal population logarithms developed by the twelfth century Italian mathematician Fibonacci of Pisa (1170-1240), the late California State University at Chico physics professor Lewis Robert Plumb (1923-2001) had doped that out before 1990.
Along the way, Plumb also debunked the popular notion of logarithmic dog and cat reproduction, illustrated by posters on the walls of thousands of animal shelters and veterinary clinics showing how only one pair of intact animals can breed up to millions within just a few years.
This notion started with a calculator logarithm of dog reproduction used by the Animal Protection Institute, just south of Chico in Sacramento, California, in a January 1968 press release.
The logarithm mysteriously picked up a zero by 1973, and about a decade later picked up another zero when first applied to cats, but never at any point was there any biological basis for it.
Correcting the model with real-life data
Starting from some of Plumb’s insights, ANIMALS 24-7 went on to refine his data by plugging real-life data into his model.
In fact, mammals have a maximum rate of sustained reproductive capacity of about 33% population growth per year, if the habitat supports the increase –– whether it is a wild habitat, a puppy mill, or any other type of environment.
Thus one female cat & her offspring, with normal mortality for outdoor cats, might produce a surviving population of 14 cats after seven years.
14 doesn’t sound like much at all, but 33% population growth per year is a cumulative rate of increase quite sufficient to explain all of the actualities of dog and cat population over the past 125 years, going back to the first publication of reliable pet-keeping and shelter flow statistics.
Plumb & 70%
Multiplying the fecundity of that one mother cat to 50 cats and correcting for interbreeding among the offspring, meaning that many of the cats would share ancestors, the numbers Plumb projected from Fibonacci’s logarithms ended up matching those projected in “A Long-Term Lens.”
Plumb helped his wife Charlotte to found the Promoting Animal Welfare Society spay/neuter program in Paradise, California, the same community that was nearly annihilated by wildfire in 2018.
Plumb then spent the last 10 years of his life trying to get the humane community to pay attention to his further finding that 70% is the minimum number of cats or dogs who must be sterilized to effect a population reduction. People finally began listening several months after his death.
“A Long-Term Lens” goes on to allege that “What is rarely considered is that changes in the numbers of births, deaths, and immigration events that may result from management efforts could have multiplicative consequences that—over time—outweigh the more obvious and immediate management impacts.”
ANIMALS 24-7 looked at length at those “multiplicative consequences,” as Plumb already had, as far back as 1992.
“Findings in the paper reveal through computer modeling that over the long-term (10 years), free-roaming cat populations managed using high-intensity TNR not only resulted in reduced population size, but also that there were over 30 times fewer preventable cat deaths,” ANIMALS 24-7 was informed in a media release promoting the “Long-Term Lens” findings.
This was exactly the same number that ANIMALS 24-7 projected in a 2011 model, except that the 2011 model started from a model of 100 cats instead of 50, so the outcome number was 60 instead of 30.
“What’s more,” we were told, “the study [A Long-Term Lens] reveals that kitten mortality makes up a large majority of preventable deaths in outdoor cat populations in both scenarios where lethal management is used, and with TNR.”
ANIMALS 24-7 would be embarrassed to claim credit for making such a bears-poop-in-the-woods discovery, but it is a matter of record that ANIMALS 24-7 reported this in 1992, based on a combination of veterinary literature review, a review of available animal shelter data, real-life findings from a 338-cat sample, and from a survey of cat rescuers nationwide.
Fortunately legions of neuter/return practitioners did not wait for a crew of piled-higher-and-deepers to report in an academic journal that feral cats poop in edge habitat.
Instead, working mostly on their own nickel, in volunteer time, neuter/return practitioners have among them fixed millions of feral cats over the past 30 years, markedly reducing both the volume of feral cat poop deposited, and the numbers of feral kittens born and dying at large.