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On Arguing about Feral Cats

March 25, 2013

Please pardon the inaction on this blog for the last week. I’d been working a nature camp all last week and there is little that exhausts me more than chasing elementary-aged kids around the woods all day. It was all I could do to keep the ABA Blog running in light of little content from others and I had nothing left for this site. Honestly, the break was kind of nice…

Anyhow, the birding internet was rocked – rocked!!! – this week by a recent editorial in the Orlando Sentinel by Audubon firebrand Ted Williams on the subject of addressing the feral cat issue. That editorial was in response to a terrible bill in the Florida legislature that would make establishment of feral cat colonies easier, and Audubon asked Williams to make a statement. What followed is well-known now. A throw-away line by Williams mentioned the use of Tylenol as a means to lethally manage cat colonies, dung and fan were one, and because Williams was identified as an editor for Audubon’s magazine the organization was beset upon by hordes of feral cat advocates, most publicly on their Facebook wall, and Audubon suspended Williams pending review of the whole situation. In doing so Audubon angered not only cat people who thought that the organization was going to go door to door to round up their pets, but they angered birders who are tired of seeing organizations roll over on those bird welfare issues that turn out to be controversial.

Admittedly, Audubon was put in a no-win situation here. How they should have handled the fallout is absolutely up for debate, and better covered elsewhere in my opinion, so that’s not what this post is about.  I want to address the hand-wringing about how we, as birders, have this conversation again and again. And what we need to do finally make an impact in the war of ideas.


photo from wikipedia

Let’s review the facts. Several studies have been released in the last few years, many by the Smithsonian, that look to put the lie to the idea that Trap/Neuter/Release (TNR) is an effective means of dealing with feral cat colonies. The idea that well-fed cats less inclined to catch wild food is a lie. The argument that they are apt to defend their territories from interlopers is proven false by the fact that they gather in unnatural concentrations in the first place. If the stated goal of TNR is to eliminate feral cat colonies, than the fact that, so far as I know and have been able to determine, there have been zero feral cat colonies that have naturally died out as a result of practicing TNR should be a testament to the complete and utter failure of the practice. Even PETA, by no means a organization known for its dispassionate views on animal welfare, realizes that the reality of TNR does not often square with the ideal. Undoubtedly more evidence needs to be amassed, but it’s not for nothing that all the evidence that has passed through the peer-review process suggests strongly that feral cats are a significant cause of bird mortality, at least on a local level, worldwide.

In many places the problem has gotten so bad that something – anything – needs to be done, and the unfortunate truth is that the only effective way of dealing with it is to euthanize these colonies. No doubt this is an unpopular solution, cats are cute after all, but management of wildlife is often a case of making the least bad decision and the welfare of wild, native species should be prioritized over the welfare of non-native, introduced predators. This should be self-evident to anyone who claims to care about wild birds and their welfare.

There are few arguments that engender the kind of bile that any discussion of the effects feral cats have on the environment, and as the Williams debacle proved there are cat advocacy groups who think nothing of assaulting well-meaning organizations and individuals with waves of irrational members looking to shout down the opposition. Let’s not mince words here. This is bullying. This is an attempt to influence the discussion in their favor, and in the face of the existing evidence, by overwhelming the resolve of even the most patient responder. But if anything, this discussion has managed to turn into a circular firing squad with birders taking aim at each other, explaining why we shouldn’t wield the facts of this matter forcefully and confidently in the face on an onslaught by a determined, often incoherent, and intentionally misleading opposition. And for the life of me I cannot figure out why this is happening.

Perhaps this is because birders are not inherently confrontational people (except amongst ourselves it seems), and many of us tend towards the naturally collaborative, seeking common ground instead of needless antagonism. These traits serve us well in our own community, but maybe I’m long jaded by battles with ORV advocates about the Outer Banks when I say that there comes a time when you have to draw a line in the stand and decide that you are not going to take it. One look at the Audubon’s Facebook wall or at the masses that came down on 10,000 Birds in response to a recent cat related post, is enough to turn the stomach. These are not potential allies in the fight for equitable and fair-minded treatment of pet animals and wild birds. These are people who seek to sow discord, to drive organizations who do good work into the dust. They are not looking for cooperation, they are looking for scalps. I make no apologies for using every single rhetorical tool in my toolbox, up to and including sarcasm and mockery, to point that out.

These are bullies. And I hate bullies, particularly those who attempt to take advantage of communities of people who are doing the right thing for very little personal gain.

Audubon is not coming for pet cats. They do not advocate the euthanization of every single feline. They do not want private citizens to lace cat food with Tylenol. In fact, no one is advocating these things, yet these are the arguments coming from this crowd. I ask honestly, are these the people we want driving the conversation? Because barring any forceful repudiation and marginalization of these asinine conspiracy theories, this is where the conversation will start. Every. Single. Time. Either you come out swinging and clear the field or your argument is drowned in a sea of bullshit.

Maybe some birders are uncomfortable tackling an issue that is seen as polarizing. Maybe they wish that all this ugliness would just go away. But it’s critical to realize that this issue is not polarizing because people on both sides engage strongly. The issue is polarizing because your opposition is telling people that birders want to kill their pets.

So long as there is an organization in Alley Cat Allies that is all too happy to perpetuate that myth to keep themselves relevant and solvent, and so long as that organization is treated as a reasonable and honorable partner, nothing is going to change. And I’m telling you that so long as we have the empirical data at our disposal, we have the upper hand. I can tell you that these flame-throwers are not used to having their arguments rebutted in detail. They’re used to rolling the opposition. I can tell you that most people do in fact want to believe in things that are true and that arming yourself with facts and, yes, sarcasm, is a tried and true way of making people reevaluate their positions. Not necessarily immediately, but down the road.

And I can tell you that there are many, many, people on our side of the issue that appreciate someone, anyone, taking a firm stand against the dishonest, bullying tactics of feral cat advocates.

It just shows that what we need are more people willing to engage, not more people willing to criticize. So let’s cool it with the hand-wringing.

  1. March 26, 2013 6:51 am

    Thank you for a wonderful post! I don’t understand a basic concept regarding feral cat colonies. NO ONE tolerates “feral dog colonies” – we know dogs running loose would be a big problem for native mammals. (And yes, humans and pets are in danger if a pack of feral dogs find them.) Feral dogs are rehabilitated or (usually) euthanized. So why do “feral cat colony” wardens get away with this nonsense? Why aren’t laws in place to protect wildlife from wild (domestic) cats, just as we have laws to protect wildlife from wild (domestic) canines?

  2. March 27, 2013 11:56 pm

    spot on post!

  3. March 28, 2013 10:51 am

    I told the neighbors long ago that I set raccoon traps baited with cat food on my property.

  4. Ted Williams permalink
    March 29, 2013 11:52 am

    Well, it was a long week for Audubon and me, but I think we did the right thing. Go to:

  5. April 2, 2013 9:45 am

    I think I found a perfect solution for those who don’t want to take more direct and more effective measures. Anyone who has criminally irresponsible cat-lovers in their area need only plant lilies on their properties. Cat-lovers always want their more responsible neighbors to grow plants around the perimeter of their properties that will repel their cats (from the cat-owners’ own negligent behaviors and values). Well now you can brighten up your yard AND repel cats naturally! — Permanently.

    Google for: lily toxicity cats

    It has been reported that a cat even licking a little bit of Lily pollen from their fur will be fatal in short order.

    Everyone happy! You get to have the kinds of plants that you want, they get to have the kind of pets that they want — if they take care of it like any responsible grown-up would. Or are cat-lovers now going to demand that you can’t plant flowers on your own property? That would be their next and usual move, wouldn’t it.

    A perfectly natural solution to an invasive species animal that didn’t evolve with lilies around. Plus it’s a good incentive plan for cat-lovers to finally educate themselves all about ecology, native species, and evolution. 🙂

    Doing a little research on ASPCA’s toxic plants lists (Family: Liliaceae).

    Lilies (Lilium species) that are deadly toxic to cats ONLY, in even small quantities (even the pollen will do):

    Asian Lily (Asiatic Lily) | Scientific Name: Lilium asiatica

    Easter Lily | Scientific Name: Lilium longiflorum

    Red Lily | Scientific Name: Lilium umbellatum

    Rubrum Lily | Scientific Name: Lilium speciosum cultivar

    Stargazer Lily | Scientific Name: Lilium orientalis

    Tiger Lily | Scientific Name: Lilium tigrinum

    Wood Lily | Scientific Name: Lilium umbellatum

    (not of the Lilium species)

    Orange Day Lily | Scientific Name: Hemerocallis graminea

    Lilies (Lilium species) that may be toxic to dogs if the dog ingests enough:


    Just be sure they are from the Liliacea Family, has “Lilium” on the plant label or are common N. American Day Lilies. On further investigation I found out that all plant-parts, the blossoms and pollen being the most toxic, if harvested and dried (for year-round use) are just as deadly toxic to cats (if not more-so because of the unknown toxin being concentrated), and the drying makes them even more palatable to cats. What a great mulch for gardens!

  6. April 20, 2013 9:32 pm

    Best post ever. Thanks Nate for pointing out that we do have the upper hand with facts on this issue. And for pointing out that the other side really has no interest in reasonable compromise.


  1. Endangered Species & Wetlands Report » Audubon writer Ted Williams suspended, pulled from masthead, for Orlando Sentinel column on feral cats

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