White Coat Waste Project challenges Veterans’ Administration studies, while Aussie scientists question value of their own cat-killing experiment
WASHINGTON D.C., PERTH, Australia––Cat experiments conducted by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Cleveland, Louisville, and Los Angeles, and by Australian researchers at the Charles Darwin Reserve, 225 miles north of Perth, might be said to have nothing in common, except that they seem to be killing cats for what Charles Darwin himself called “mere damnable and detestable curiosity,” leading to no end except dead cats.
The questionable value of the Department of Veterans Affairs research has recently been called into question by the White Coat Waste Project, which describes itself as “a taxpayer watchdog advocacy group” and might most accurately be described as a politically conservative anti-vivisection society.
The Charles Darwin Reserve research, aimed specifically at finding ways and means of more efficiently killing feral cats, has demonstrated itself––as the researchers themselves now acknowledge––to be proceeding from dubious premises. This, however, is unlikely to stop the Australian obsession with trying to purge cats to preserve native species which are threatened most by global warming and habitat loss.
“CATS Act” introduced in “lame duck” session
The White Coat Waste Project hopes to stop the Department of Veterans Affairs cat studies through the “Cat Abuse in Testing Stops Act” (CATS Act), introduced with 23 co-sponsors on December 3, 2020 by Congressional Representatives Dina Titus, a Nevada Democrat, and Brian Mast, a Florida Republican.
Mast, a 10-year U.S. Army veteran, lost both of his legs and part of his left index finger on September 19, 2010 while clearing mines in Kandahar, Afghanistan. This would in theory make Mast a potential beneficiary of the Department of Veterans Affairs studies, a notion he vehemently rejects.
“The VA’s continued use of taxpayer dollars to conduct painful and wasteful experiments on cats and kittens is unacceptable,” said Mast through a White Coat Waste Project media release.
“These tests are barbaric, unnecessary and do nothing to actually help veterans,” Mast added.
Assigned bill number HR 8867, the CATS Act was referred to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, where it is likely to die with the end of the 116th Congress.
The CATS Act does, however, have an extreme long-shot chance to be added as a late amendment to a pending budget bill, and meanwhile may help to build support for similar legislation which might be proposed in the incoming 117th Congress, to be inaugurated in January 2021.
A billboard posted in Cleveland by the White Coat Waste Project in support of the then-yet-to-be-introduced CATS Act did on November 13, 2020 attract the attention of WJW Fox 8 reporter Maia Belay.
The billboard shows a cat sitting on a toilet, reading a newspaper.
“The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Research and Development reports two types of cat research approved at the Cleveland Veterans’ Administration [hospital],” Belay summarized, “aimed at treating health issues related to the bladder and colon, including research involving electronic stimulation of the colon.
“Tell VA to cut the crap”
“Kittens between the ages of six to 12 months were used in a series of procedures and surgeries called electrode implantation, [involving] spinal cord transection, a spinal cord injury,” ending in terminal procedures, “according to records from 2015,” Belay finished.
“The billboards basically tell the VA to cut the crap and stop wasting tax dollars on constipation experiments on cats,” White Coat Waste Project spokesperson Justin Goodman explained to Belay.
Added White Coat Waste Project founder Anthony Bellotti, “Taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to pay for the VA to buy healthy and friendly kittens, maim them, drill into their skulls, and videotape their abuse in archaic experiments.”
While the Veterans’ Administration has issued pro forma statements defending the cat studies in broad general terms, it has yet to explain exactly how any of the cat experiments are likely to benefit wounded veterans like Mast.
Aussie scientists question value of their own experiment
Meanwhile, also on December 3, 2020, Australian researchers Tim S. Doherty, Michelle Hall, Ben Parkhurst, and Vanessa Westcott posted to https://ecoevorxiv.org/nygu7/ their paper “Experimentally testing the response of feral cats and their prey to poison baiting,” summarizing six years of field studies.
The paper confirms that feral cats are not easily poisoned, that the attempt to poison them is equally likely to poison cat predators and native Australian wildlife, and that the net effect of cat poisoning on native wildlife abundance in open mainland habitat, unlike reported effects on small islands, is essentially negligible.
Opened Doherty et al, “Effectively reducing cat populations to protect wildlife is challenging because cats have a cryptic nature,” which means they tend to avoid human notice, “high reproductive rate,” which is why cat sterilization projects invariably accomplish more to lastingly reduce cat populations than killing cats, except on small islands, “and strong re-invasion ability.”
Eradicat poison baiting program
Explained Doherty et al, “We experimentally tested the response of feral cats and their native prey to an Eradicat poison baiting program at a conservation reserve.”
Eradicat and another cat poison, Curiosity, both developed with Australian government funding, “are small sausage-style baits comprised of kangaroo meat, chicken fat, and digest and flavor enhancers,” described Doherty et al.
As kangaroos are not normally among feral cat prey, while chickens are scarce in the Outback, the baits might not be as attractive to cats as the developers suppose. The notorious pesticide Compound 1080, the use of which is banned or severely restricted in much of the world, is injected into the Eradicat baits, while Curiosity baits “contain a hard capsule of para-aminopropiophenone,” Doherty et al said.
Both Eradicat and Curiosity “are also readily consumed by dingoes and introduced red foxes,” Doherty et al acknowledged. Both dingoes and red foxes are cat predators, so poisoning these species can enhance cat survival rates.
Cats, dingoes, & foxes
Doherty et al found that cat populations were actually reduced in only two of the six years in which they distributed Eradicat to poison cats at the Charles Darwin Reserve, “a property managed for conservation by Bush Heritage Australia,” Doherty et al mentioned.
“Cats are common in the study area and dingoes less so, whereas foxes are comparatively rare,” Doherty et al reported.
Specifically, Doherty et al said, camera traps detected feral cats at 72% of the experimental locations, dingoes at 56%, and foxes at 7%.
Following the cat poisoning experiment, both dingoes and foxes might be presumed to have become even scarcer relative to cats, at least temporarily.
“Bait availability was reduced by non-target interference, with 73% of baits for which fate could be determined being removed by non-target species,” Doherty et al said. “We found no evidence for persistent changes in small mammal or reptile capture rates in the baited area relative to the unbaited area over the life of the project.”
Emus, ravens, hopping mouse & grey currawong
Further, found Doherty et al, “Of the baits removed by non-targets, 47% were removed within three days of being laid and 90% within seven days. This means that the window of bait availability to cats is very narrow and when combined with the already low propensity of cats to consume baits, the chances of bait uptake are very low.”
What other animals might have been poisoned?
“Twenty baits were either eaten or taken away by emus, seven by ravens, and one each by a fox, hopping mouse, and grey currawong,” Doherty et al reported, based on the camera data.
Concluded Doherty et al, “Ground baiting using Eradicat was mostly ineffective at reducing cat occupancy [of the Charles Darwin Reserve habitat].”
In the two of six years that the cat population was reduced, moreover, the “absolute decreases in occupancy of 35% and 26%” were substantially less than the minimum 57% reduction reported by previous Australian researchers as necessary to accomplish any lasting reduction at all.
“Ultimate aim should be positive outcomes” for threatened species
“Controlling predators is only a means to an end,” Doherty et al concluded, “and the ultimate aim of any invasive predator control program should be to produce positive outcomes for the target asset, such as increased species richness, abundance, or threatened species survival. Small mammals and reptiles, along with rabbits, are the major components of cat diets in our study area,” as established in previous research reported by Doherty himself in 2015).
“We found no consistent differences in capture rates of small mammals and reptiles between baited and unbaited areas over the life of this project,” Doherty et al said.
“Although there are many studies demonstrating reductions in cat activity or density in response to baiting,” Doherty et al finished, “there is very little evidence available regarding the outcomes for prey populations. We recommend that control programs for cats, and other pest species more generally, incorporate clear objectives and monitoring programs for the species they are trying to protect.”
“Experimentally testing the response of feral cats and their prey to poison baiting” appears at first read damning toward efforts to restore depleted Australian wildlife by killing cats, and for that matter by killing any introduced “pest species.”
Aussie government hopes cats will lick themselves to death
However, Ted O’Brien, the Queensland member of Parliament who chairs the Australian House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy, reiterated in September 2020 to Krystal Gordon and Kelly Butterworth of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that he is “determined to find a way to wipe two million feral cats from the landscape,” a goal set in 2015 but still nowhere in sight.
On November 12, 2020, Liz Bell of the Gippsland Times reported that “the Felixer, a robotic grooming trap that sprays a toxic gel onto targeted animals,” is to be tested against feral cats and foxes “in eastern Victoria [state] in 2021-2022, after proving effective in New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory.”
Explained Bell, “The Felixer, developed by Australian ecologist John Read, uses the cat’s natural grooming instinct against it, relying on sensors to confirm its presence and administer a lethal dose of poison that the cat then tries to lick from its fur.”
Cats allegedly eat lizards & frogs
Read argues that cats and foxes will groom themselves, even if they cannot be persuaded to ingest poison baits.
“Felixers fire a measured dose of poison gel onto the flank of a cat or fox and uses an arrangement of sensors to not fire on most wildlife, including quolls, bandicoots, possums,” Read told Bell.
Wrote Bell, “According to widely-publicized data, Australia’s cats are eating a total of 649 million native Australian reptiles––mostly lizards and frogs––and 377 million birds every year.”
Feral cats’ primary prey, however, are mice, rats, and rabbits, also blamed for out-competing Australian native wildlife.
The alleged cat toll, meanwhile, is dwarfed by the estimated 2020 Australian bushfire toll of more than a billion vertebrate animals, including cats, mice, rats, and rabbits as well as native species.