Shotgun-wielding biologist took home $182,951, left dead cats in dumpsters
OAKLAND, California––East Bay Regional Park District biologist David “Doctor Quack” Riensche may have been paid more per feral cat he allegedly killed than the $3,000 that “Joe Exotic” paid to Frank Allen Glover in his foiled plot to murder Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin.
This admittedly crude estimate is derived from dividing the $56,050 in overtime pay Riensche received in 2019, believed to include “overnight hours spent shooting animals in EBRPD’s parks,” according to the blogger who dug up the pay data, by the number of feral cats––13 to 18––whom Riensche reportedly killed in 2020.
The East Bay Regional Park District in the last days of 2020 instituted a policy change that is expected to take feral cats off the hit list, at least temporarily.
But “Joe Exotic” got prison
But “Joe Exotic,” the former roadside zookeeper Joseph Schreibvogel Maldonado Passage, did not get any actual bang for his bucks. Instead, Glover testified against him, and “Joe Exotic” on January 23, 2020 was sentenced to serve 22 years in prison.
The only visible consequence for Riensche, so far, appears to be having become the subject of an extensive exposé by https://littlebuddythecat.com/tag/california/, a blog site maintained by a nationally known investigative journalist who told ANIMALS 24-7 that he writes the blog anonymously “to keep my professional and personal worlds from colliding.”
The source documents for the exposé, however, are “available to readers with one click,” the blogger added. “No one can attack the messenger, so to speak, when the story is based on the East Bay Regional Park District’s own records. It took many hours of requesting the documents and combing through them,” the blogger said, “to gather the background material, and the result is an air tight account of what happened.”
Compared gulls to Charles Manson
The feral cat shootings leading to the exposé and the East Bay Regional Park District policy change were not the first time Riensche became controversial for aggressive end-justifies-the-means alleged use of a shotgun in the name of wildlife conservation.
Back in July 2013, seven years before Riensche allegedly shotgunned a feral cat colony between a couple of parking lots, across a ditch from East Bay Regional Park District protected habitat, on land believed to be owned by the Pacific Gas & Electric Company, Riensche raised eyebrows even among some local birders for likening California gulls to one of the state’s most notorious serial killers.
“Individual birds have a learned behavior. They become specialist predators — Charles Manson gulls,” Riensche reportedly told Bay Area News Group writer Paul Rogers.
“If you remove them, problem solved. It’s like in the schoolyard. If you remove the bully, the other kids don’t learn that behavior,” Riensche continued.
Defended multi-year gull killing
Riensche in that context was defending a multi-year massacre of California gulls.
“When 150 California gulls descended on a colony of endangered least terns at Hayward Regional Shoreline Park in 2005 and 2006 to feast on their eggs,” Rogers recounted, “the terns abandoned their nests. But East Bay parks officials fought back, securing a permit to kill up to 45 gulls a year.
“Wildlife Service officials used shotguns,” also Riensche’s favored weapon against cats, “to kill 20 of the most aggressive gulls a year on average from 2007 to 2011,” wrote Rogers. “Now the park is home to the second-largest least tern colony in [the San Francisco Bay area].
“With the worst gulls gone, he [Riensche] said, last year the park district only needed to kill two gulls,” Rogers finished.
Both gulls & terns were recovering from DDT
But did the East Bay Regional Park District really “need” to kill any California gulls at all, interfering in the natural predator/prey relationship?
California gulls were among the most frequent victims of food chain accumulations of the pesticide DDT, exposed and deplored by marine biologist Rachel Carson in her 1962 opus Silent Spring.
After DDT was de-registered for most common uses by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1972, California gulls began a long, slow comeback.
Many other species, including terns, who were also severely depleted by DDT, lived for many generations without learning to cope with predation by California gulls. Evading gulls, especially in choosing nesting sites, had previously been among the terns’ most important life lessons.
Gradually, wrote Rogers, the San Francisco Bay population of California gulls “exploded from 24 birds in 1980 to more than 53,000,” including a 41% rise between 2005 and 2007, by which time the gulls could be considered to have fully recovered from the DDT debacle.
Shot cats “under cover of night”
Riensche, who in other contexts as a birder and bird advocate might be described as a bit of a publicity hound, “used a 12-gauge shotgun under cover of night to shoot the cats, documents obtained from the EBRPD show,” wrote the LittleBuddytheCat blogger.
Riensche and the East Bay Regional Park District “knew the felines were part of a colony near the Oakland Coliseum managed by Cecelia Theis, a local woman who provided them with veterinary care, food, and water and conducted trap, neuter, return services to prevent the colony’s population from growing,” LittleBuddytheCat charged.
The cats were shot without warning to Theis.
Riensche, in an email sent on November 18, 2020 to two East Bay Regional Park District staff members, boasted that, “I recently cleaned up more than a ‘bakers dozen’ of party favors [cats] in this resource protection area. With the conclusion of this wildlife management action, I am seeing some really good birds starting to re-colonize the area with the limiting factors now removed. Have a great week.”
Noted LittleBuddytheCat, “Riensche, who disposed of the dead cats in trash bags that he tossed into a bin, signed off the email about the dead cats with a smiling emoji.”
Riensche did not define what he meant by “good birds,” but presumably did not mean California gulls.
“When Theis asked the East Bay Regional Park District about the whereabouts of the colony cats,” LittleBuddythe Cat continued, “a district staffer told her the East Bay Regional Park District wasn’t involved and didn’t remove any cats. The East Bay Regional Park District then amended its response, saying it had trapped the cats and brought them to local shelters.
“But none of the local shelters had any records of taking cats from the East Bay Regional Park District, nor did they have the missing cats in their care.
KGO television news reporter Laura Anthony eventually elicited from the East Bay Regional Park District an admission that “one of its employees — later identified in documents as Riensche — had shot the cats as part of the ‘predator management program,’ LittleBuddytheCat summarized.
Cats don’t swim after waterfowl
“Riensche shot the colony cats over a series of nights, returning to the park in the late hours with a shotgun to kill two or three at a time,” LittleBuddytheCat added.
After allegedly ignoring public records requests from KGO, “a spokesman for the district defended the cat culling,” wrote LittleBuddytheCat, “saying it was necessary to protect endangered birds who winter in the nearby marshlands.”
Left unexplained was just what birds of which species these purportedly amphibious cats might have jeopardized, since as LittleBuddytheCat pointed out, “An office park, electric car charging station, at least three parking lots and a substantial body of water are between the cat colony’s home and the marshland. That’s a distance considerably longer than most stray and feral cats range from their homes, and domestic cats are notoriously averse to water or getting themselves wet.”
Show us the money
Riensche, denouncing cats for decades, was employed by the Chabot-Las Positas Community College District from 2012 to 2018, paid $49,803 in 2018 for teaching science.
In 2019, the most recent year for which salary data is available for public employees in California, Riensche was paid $182,951 in salary and benefits by the East Bay Regional Park District, including a base salary of $90,239 plus the $56,050 in overtime.
LittleBuddytheCat recalled that Galveston Ornithological Society founder James M. Stevenson “admitted killing dozens of cats on private and public property after coming to believe the cats were killing piping plovers, shorebirds who commonly nested in the area.”
Stevenson was charged with cruelty to animals, but “The case ended in a mistrial,” LittleBuddytheCat noted.
Nico Dauphiné Arcilla
LittleBuddytheCat also remembered that Smithsonian National Zoo Migratory Bird Center ornithologist Nico Arcilla, then known as Nico Dauphiné, was in 2011 convicted of cruelty for attempting to poison feral cats in Washington, D.C.
“Arcilla wasn’t just a prominent birder and anti-cat campaigner — she is a co-author of several frequently-cited studies claiming cats kill billions of birds in the U.S. each year,” wrote LittleBuddytheCat.
“Riensche has repeatedly cited Arcilla’s work in public and private documents arguing that cats are primarily responsible for declines in bird populations,” LittleBuddytheCat mentioned, though Arcilla’s papers are conspicuous for “a lack of hard data,” with “arbitrary numbers plugged in to estimate both the national cat population and the felines’ impact on birds.”
Philosophical bastards of Edward Howe Forbush
Both Riensche and Arcilla appear to owe a considerable debt for inspiration to Edward Howe Forbush (1858-1929), whose 1916 tract The Domestic Cat: Bird Killer, Mouser & Destroyer of Wild Life; Means of Utilizing and Controlling It has for more than a century furnished the quasi-scientific foundation for cat purges worldwide.
Forbush produced his anti-cat screed shortly after he and fellow ornithologists G. K. Noble and Howard H. Cleaves in 1913-1914 failed to identify the behavior of herring gulls and black-backed gulls when they discovered the dismembered remains of hundreds of thousands of roseate terns on Muskeget Island, off Nantucket.
Egg hunting in the 17th and 18th centuries, followed by plume hunting in the mid-19th century, had pushed roseate terns to the brink of extinction, but after a brief recovery in the early 20th century, their numbers again crashed.
Failed to recognize gulls as tern predators
“There are no trees on the island,” Forbush wrote, “therefore hawks and owls do not nest there, and do not remain there during the nesting season of the birds. There are no predatory mammals except the cat, and the indigenous short-eared owl was exterminated years ago. Therefore the cat is practically the only enemy with which the gulls and terns have to contend.”
But Forbush overlooked––or neglected to mention––that roseate terns were and are common prey of laughing gulls and herring gulls , the east coast cousins of the California gulls targeted by Riensche before he trained his gunsight on cats.
Investigators belatedly realized that laughing gulls and herring gulls were killing the Muskeget Island terns about 80 years after Forbush’s blunder, by which time roseate terns were again almost lost.
Both lethal and non-lethal gull control were introduced to nearby islands in 1998. Non-lethal gull control was extended to Muskeget in 2000.
The roseate tern population doubled in the next five years, and remains higher than at any time since 1920.