Editor-at-large Ted Williams suspended, then reinstated
WASHINGTON D.C.––National Audubon Society president David Yarnold on March 26, 2013 announced that Audubon magazine editor-at-large Ted Williams had been reinstated after a 10-day suspension for allegedly urging the use of the over-the-counter pain reliever acetaminophen to poison feral cats.
Though the alleged recommendation was later withdrawn, it received national publicity that has humane societies and veterinarians on alert for cat poisonings.
Attacking neuter/return feral cat control in a March 14, 2013 op-ed column for the Orlando Sentinel, Williams wrote, “There are two effective, humane alternatives to the cat hell of TNR [trap-neuter-return]. One is Tylenol (the human pain medication)—a completely selective feral cat poison. But the TNR lobby has blocked its registration for this use. The other is trap and euthanize. TE is practiced by state and federal wildlife managers; but municipal TE needs to happen if the annihilation of native wildlife is to be significantly slowed.”
Used to poison snakes
Tylenol, a brand name of acetaminophen, also sold as paracetamol, is not actually selective at all. “Cats are seven to 10 times more susceptible to acetaminophen toxicity than dogs,” VetStreet.com warns, but cautions against giving acetaminophen to any pet “without being instructed to do so by a veterinarian.”
Presumed to be potentially toxic to any carnivore, acetaminophen can also be lethally toxic to humans who take high doses, and has been used to poison snakes.
Amid protest from both cat advocates and opponents of distributing toxic materials in the environment, including more than 34,400 e-mails and web postings attributed to members of Alley Cat Allies, the Orlando Sentinel later deleted the four sentences at issue from Williams’ column.
“You can find bomb-building plans on the Internet, but you won’t find them on the Orlando Sentinel web site. Neither should you find specific information on which drugs make effective feral cat poisons,” explained Sentinel opinion editor Mike Lafferty.
Added Williams in a March 21, 2013 preface added to the original column, “In my recent op-ed I reported that a common over-the-counter drug, an effective and selective poison for feral cats, had not been registered for this use because of pressure from feral-cat advocacy groups.
“While the statement was not inaccurate,” Williams wrote, “it was unwise because readers might construe it as a suggestion to go out and start poisoning feral cats…I should have explained that this feral-cat poison, if registered, would be applied only by the state and federal wildlife managers who are widely, legally and lethally (but not effectively) controlling feral cats with rifle, shotgun and trap. I urge people not to take the law into their own hands. They should leave it to professionals. Finally I should have explained, as was later explained by the Sentinel, that ‘editor-at-large’ of Audubon magazine was a freelance, not salaried, title. I regret this slovenliness.”
“No larger pattern of missteps”?
After “extensive fact-checking and a look at Ted’s work for other publications,” National Audubon Society president David Yarnold said, “we’re satisfied that there is no larger pattern of missteps that would warrant further disciplinary action.”
Responded Vox Felina blogger Peter Wolf, “I suppose we can argue over what constitutes a pattern, but it’s clear that the Sentinel op-ed wasn’t the first time Williams promoted the use of acetaminophen. Responding to comments (now removed) from a September 2011 blog post for Fly Rod & Reel Online, Williams describes the “task of euthanizing feral cats” as neither “difficult” nor “joyless.” Williams wrote then that, “So far the cat mafia has prevented [acetaminophen] from being approved for use; but this will change.”
Yarnold reinstated Williams after prominent birding bloggers rallied readers against his suspension. Earlier, said a National Audubon Society prepared statement, “Ted Williams is a freelance writer who published a personal opinion piece in the Orlando Sentinel. We regret any misimpression that Mr. Williams was speaking for us in any way: He wasn’t. Mr. Williams is not an Audubon employee. He is a freelance writer and a conservationist who has written for Audubon for 33 years. He writes for numerous publications.”
“We absolutely reject the notion of individuals poisoning cats or treating cats in any inhumane way,” Yarnold added.
The immediate backdrop to Williams’ Orlando Sentinel column was the advance of a Florida bill, HB 1121, which would establish that release of sterilized and vaccinated feral cats “is not abandonment or unlawful release,” and would provide that veterinarians participating in neuter/return programs are “immune from criminal and civil liability for any decisions made or services rendered… except for willful and wanton misconduct.”
HB 1121 on March 20, 2013 won unanimous approval from the Florida House Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee. Inaccurately claiming that “The Florida House passed H.B. 1121 on Wednesday, March 20,” American Bird Conservancy publicist Robert Johns in a media release called it “legislation that would authorize the public hoarding of cats by feral cat activists, in the face of potential public health and property value impacts,” which would make it “easier for irresponsible people to dump unwanted cats in hoarding areas without penalty, suspending liability for individuals who maintain the hoarding areas.”
Endorsed by Alley Cat Allies, the Best Friends Animal Society, and the Humane Society of the U.S., HB 1121 is also opposed by PETA, which opposes neuter/return, and by the Florida Veterinary Medical Association.
Observed Best Friends cofounder Francis Battista, “It is not unusual to find that state veterinary medical associations are often at odds with the best of their membership and the first to oppose progressive programs that include reduced-cost spay/neuter services, which effective high-volume TNR efforts do. This is not one of the reasons cited by the FVMA in opposing the Community Cat Act, but when explanations fail to explain and rationales are not rational, then the most logical explanation can usually be found by following the money.”
Cats & dogs
Williams, 72, a longtime resident of Massachusetts, was born in 1941, the same year that late Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams became the last .400 hitter in the major leagues.
Ted Williams the hunting and fishing writer is not related to the ballplayer. But Ted Williams the writer facially resembles Ted Williams the ballplayer, a resemblance enhanced by the baseball cap he wears in photos and drawings accompanying much of his work.
Ted Williams the writer has acknowledged that the well-known enthusiasm of the ballplayer for hunting and fishing probably helped his own career.
Williams has since 1991 made common cause with animal advocates in opposition to hunting captive wildlife, for example in a 2010 Audubon article entitled “Real Hunters Don’t Shoot Pets,” which concluded with a link to the “Wildlife Abuse” page at the HSUS web site.
Williams blamed cats for dog attacks on shearwaters
But Williams has often before been vehemently critical of neuter/return, mangling facts along the way. In a September/October 2009 Audubon article entitled “Felines Fatales,” for instance, Williams wrote that “On Maui, where, at last count, the public maintains 110 feral cat colonies, two cats killed 143 wedge-tailed shearwaters in one night.”
As reported by Nelson Daranciang of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, the alleged incident was discovered on November 7, 2006 at Kaena Point, on Oahu, not on Maui. And cats were not involved.
“State-hired hunters shot and killed four of five dogs suspected of killing more than a hundred fledgling wedge-tailed shearwater chicks in the Kaena Point Natural Area Reserve,” Daranciang wrote. “They are searching for the fifth dog.”
“There was clear evidence that the dogs attacked the birds,” said Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources director Peter Young.
“This was not the first time dogs killed shearwaters at Kaena,” Daranciang noted. “In 1996 a dog killed 40 nesting shearwaters in one night. In 2005 a dog killed about 20 shearwaters.”
Such rampages by packs of fed pet dogs are relatively common, but are rarely accurately traced to street dogs, who eat what they kill. Sustained killing rampages are beyond the capabilities of cats, who lack the lung capacity to continue intense physical activity for more than a few minutes.
Whereas most dogs are natural endurance athletes, cats are built for sprinting, leaping, and climbing, not for prolonged exertion, and typically rest after making a kill, even if additional potential prey are nearby.
Williams in “Felines Fatales” asserted that there are “something like 150 million free-ranging house cats wreaking havoc on our wildlife,” a claim with no foundation in actual cat population studies.
However, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute ornithologists Scott Loss and Peter Marra and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Tom Will on January 29, 2013 used similar numbers in a Nature Communications article alleging that domestic cats in the U.S. kill up to 3.7 billion birds and as many as 20.7 billion mice, voles, and other small mammals.
Citing Loss, Will, and Marra, American Bird Conservancy president George Fenwick in a Baltimore Sun op-ed column urged local governments to “act swiftly and decisively to gather the 30 million to 80 million unowned cats…[and] euthanize those cats that are not adoptable.”
This was the same George Fenwick who on July 15, 2011 “hailed the decision by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources” to approve the first mourning dove hunting season in Iowa since 1918, because while allowing 20,000 hunters to shoot up to 15 doves per day during a nine-day season, the Iowa DNR initially prohibited the use of lead shot. The lead shot ban was later rescinded.
Inflated estimates vs. data
The claim that there are 80 million feral cats in the U.S. appears to have originated in a 1934 Nature article, which also projected a pet cat population of about 40 million, more than twice as many as any actual survey would find before 1950. The combined total of 120 million cats was derived not by counting cats, but by simply guessing that two-thirds of all cats might be feral, and then multiplying the number of U.S. households by 1.25.
Skeptical of the math, the American Humane Association in late summer 1934 surveyed five neighborhoods in Albany, New York, finding just one cat per 10.7 households.
Taking over the project, National Family Opinion Survey founders Howard and Clara Trumbull, writing as “John Marbanks,” reported that as of 1937 the total U.S. cat population was about 35 million.
The Trumbulls continued their research in 1947-1950, finding that by 1950 the cat population had increased to about 50 million, paralleling the post-World War II increase in the number of households. Their surveys found about 13.2 million barn cats, 6.5 million other rural cats, 7.0 million cats in urban homes, and 23 million ferals––at least 42 million cats outdoors, more than any actual surveys of cat populations, roadkills, or animal control intake have projected within the past 20 years.
The Trumbulls also compared their findings to six studies of cat predation done by conservation biologists between 1936 and 1951, mostly by investigating the stomach contents of dead cats. “All tended to indicate the same thing––cats have been badly and unjustifiably maligned,” they wrote in the June 1953 edition of The National Humane Review.