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Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

Cat Fight

March 9, 2012

The strange case of the wildlife biologist turned cat poisoner is the latest round in a bitter battle over tens of millions of free-roaming feline hunters.

By John Carey

Small and slight, dressed in a slim gray suit, accused cat poisoner and wildlife biologist Dr. Nico Dauphiné stood in a Washington, D.C., courtroom in mid-December 2011. Earlier that year, a neighbor in Dauphiné’s Washington apartment building, suspecting that the biologist was tampering with the food left out for outdoor cats, called the Washington Humane Society cops. The Society’s law-enforcement team found poison on the food and dug up a surveillance video that seemed to show Dauphiné taking something from her purse as she passed near the food dish. And they learned that the biologist not only had been a vocal advocate of controlling outdoor cat populations to protect birds and other wildlife but also had sparked controversy as a graduate student in Athens, Georgia, for trapping free-roaming cats and taking them to the local shelter. “The Humane Society received hundreds of letters about issues with Nico in Georgia,” says Society law-enforcement officer Daniel D’Eramo, who gathered enough evidence over a month for an arrest warrant.

She didn’t poison the food, Dauphiné had insisted during the trial. But in October, Judge Truman Morrison III had found her guilty of attempted animal cruelty. Now she awaited her punishment, which included the threat of jail time. In a quavering and quiet voice, the wildlife biologist told the judge that she “felt deeply ashamed” for disappointing her supporters. Her sentence: 120 days of community service.

Justice done? It didn’t look that way to Dauphiné’s colleagues. “I am 100 percent confident she was not poisoning cats,” says University of Hawaii wildlife ecologist Christopher Lepczyk, who fears that she was convicted in part because of her articles about the cat-predation problem. “I don’t think anyone in the scientific community agrees that she is guilty.” Cat advocates were also aghast—for the opposite reason. They believed that a heinous criminal with a history of demonizing cats had gotten off far too lightly. A “low-life scumbag” who “lied her ugly face off,” Dauphiné “quite obviously is so far gone in both the morality and decency departments that she is beyond salvage,” fumed the Cat Defender blog.

Strong words—especially when the evidence against Dauphiné was circumstantial and no harm to cats was proven. But the case has highlighted just how high passions run when it comes to an increasingly vitriolic and high-stakes battle over what to do about tens of millions of outdoor cats. In scores of communities across the U.S., conservationists and scientists like Dauphiné are calling for greater controls, pointing to study after study documenting bloody carnage—including hundreds of millions of birds and small mammals felled by feline claw and tooth. “The numbers are mind-numbing,” says theologian and former professional trapper Stephen Vantassel, project coordinator for the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. But cat fanciers dispute those studies and are pushing for a policy of trapping and neutering (or spaying) free-roaming cats, then returning them to the outdoors. “It’s clear that cats are not an issue—and that misinformation is being heavily promoted,” says Becky Robinson, president and co-founder of Alley Cat Allies, a group “dedicated to protecting and improving the lives of our nation’s cats.” Meanwhile, players on each side in this bitter struggle have pointedly suggested that the other is in urgent need of psychological counseling.

One thing, however, is not in dispute: the number of cats is growing rapidly. The feline population in the U.S. has roughly tripled since the 1970s—to more than 90 million pets, according to pet industry data, plus an estimated 90 million free-roaming feral or “community” cats. (The exact number is fiercely disputed.) Hundreds of thousands of outdoor cats are captured and taken to shelters each year, where many are euthanized. In 2010, for instance, 3,399 cats were brought into the shelter in Alachua County, Florida, and slightly more than half of them were killed.

If the feline toll is horrifying, so is the harm to wildlife. In a landmark study in Wisconsin, Stanley Temple, now professor emeritus of forest and wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin, and his colleagues radio-collared free-ranging rural cats, watched the animals’ hunting behavior, and examined their stomach contents. (An inflammatory and inaccurate press report that implied that the researchers had killed the cats for the stomach contents—in fact, they used an emetic—led to death threats against Temple.)1,2 The study showed that each cat killed an average of 5.6 birds a year. With an estimated 1.4 million free-ranging rural cats just in Wisconsin, that’s nearly 8 million birds. Moreover, these numbers are virtually certain to be underestimates because the researchers didn’t count kills not directly observed. Plus, many more birds were probably killed than were eaten and thus were not detectable in the stomach contents: cats are hard-wired predators that hunt even when well fed.

In another study, a team led by Smithsonian wildlife biologist Peter Marra radio-tagged 69 gray catbird chicks and fledglings in the Washington, D.C., area.3 Predators nabbed nearly half the birds, and cats were the number one predator. The researchers witnessed six kills directly and inferred three more from characteristic patterns of damage to the dead fledglings. “We were very conservative assigning mortality to cats,” says Marra.

The debate centers on what these results mean and how they can be extrapolated to the bigger picture. Marra’s data suggest that cat predation can tip the population balance of some bird species from thriving to declining. Biologists also have used the studies from Marra, Temple, and a number of others to estimate the total U.S. death toll for birds due to cat predation as more than a billion per year. That’s the number Dauphiné cited in a paper she co-authored in the Spring 2011 issue of The Wildlife Professional.

Critics such as Peter Wolf, a lecturer in graphic design at Arizona State University, aren’t convinced. Wolf writes a blog, Vox Felina, which regularly excoriates wildlife biologists for what Wolf calls their “sloppy pseudo-science.” He charges that “the science in Dauphiné’s paper about cats was so horrific that she should have never made it out of graduate school” and that “Peter Marra is taking six bird deaths and predicting the Apocalypse.”

The question gets even more complicated when you consider habitat loss—which everyone agrees is the biggest overall threat to birds—along with other sources of human-caused deaths, such as wind turbines and glass windows.

And of course, it really matters which species are falling prey to cats. Jim Stevenson, executive director of the Galveston Ornithological Society, doesn’t much care when urban cats hunt nonnative species such as the common domestic rat or collared dove. But he does care fiercely about endangered species—so much so that, when he saw a feral cat stalking piping plovers at San Luis Pass in 2006, he first tried to catch the cat. When that failed, he got his .22 rifle and shot it.

For his vigilante justice, Stevenson was arrested and put on trial in 2007. The jury deadlocked, and the case was dismissed. “This was a crippled, starving cat killing an endangered species,” Stevenson says. “If I had to do it over again, I would do the same thing. The emails I got were nine to one in favor of me.”

Sometimes this fight seems like a war that will never end. Barre, Vermont, got a glimpse of the hardened positions on each side in 2010, when the town realized that its animal ordinances literally required all cats to be leashed outdoors—a position hardly anyone wanted to take. As the town went about revising the language, “the reaction was interesting,” recalls Mayor Thomas Lauzon. “We had 10 percent absolute cat-haters and 10 percent cat-lovers—and we heard from both of them.”

And yet, there are a few tantalizing signs of détente and progress. After all, each side cares about animals, even if the emphasis is different. In fact, all of the supposedly cat-hating scientists interviewed for this story have pet cats (save one, who used to have a cat). Stanley Temple even built an enclosure to allow his cats to safely enjoy the outdoors. And many cat advocates feed and enjoy birds. “I think we are really more on the same page than people want to believe,” offers Scott Giacoppo, chief programs officer at the Washington Humane Society.

A key first step on the path to common ground, conciliators say, is to stop fighting over irresolvable details. Cats aren’t always a serious threat to wildlife populations, as the most extreme rhetoric from scientists implies. But neither are they benign, as the cat extremists would argue—especially when the cats are in proximity to threatened species. “We should stop arguing about how many birds cats eat,” says Julie Levy, professor of shelter medicine at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. “We should just decide they eat a lot and agree we want fewer cats roaming the community—and then look at what our options are to make that happen.”

Which leads to the crucial question—how? Cat advocates have been forcefully pushing trap, neuter, and return (TNR). They claim that the returned cats will live in carefully tended colonies and their populations will gradually decline, since all the individuals are sterilized.

To wildlife advocates, though, this flies in the face of reason. Cats are prolific breeders. Drop off one pregnant cat at a strip mall, and in two years there can be a group of 20 dining in the dumpsters. Simple demographic modeling suggests that 70 to 90 percent of the free-roaming cats in a population must be trapped for TNR to actually reduce populations. “The proportion of a cat population that would have to be sterilized to produce a decline is typically higher than most trapping efforts could ever realistically hope to achieve,” says Wisconsin’s Temple.

For instance, in an intensive effort, Operation Catnip of Gainesville spays and neuters 3,000 cats a year county-wide. That sounds like a lot until you consider that the county is estimated to have 36,000 community cats. What’s more, one study widely cited by scientists showed that a TNR colony near Miami became a magnet for people to abandon more cats, under the assumption the animals would be cared for. “TNR sounds very compelling and seductive, but it has a real negative impact,” says Darin Schroeder, vice president for conservation advocacy at the American Bird Conservancy. Even PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is rabidly anti-TNR—because of what it means for cats. “Gruesome, horrible, unforgivable things happen to cats outdoors,” says Teresa Chagrin, animal care and control specialist at PETA.

What frustrates cat advocates, though, is that scientists rarely admit that TNR can indeed work—albeit on small scales. For TNR to be effective, all the cats in a colony must be captured and sterilized, volunteers must intensively monitor the group to spot and capture any new arrivals, and feeding must be done at a consistent time and leftover food quickly removed. Since 1991, for instance, a colony at the University of Central Florida dropped from 150 cats to 10 (with about half of them being adopted). In Newburyport, Massachusetts, Zorro—the last of a group of 300 wharf cats—died in 2010 after 18 years of intensive TNR.

But you don’t have to wait that long if you try an even more radical approach—collaboration. In Portland, Oregon, in the late 1990s, after a group of veterinarians formed the Feral Cat Coalition to push TNR, “I got calls from the media asking me to say why they were evil incarnate,” recalls Portland Audubon’s conservation director, Bob Sallinger. Sallinger has never backed down from a fight on behalf of birds and wildlife. As he says, “I’ve been referred to as the most extreme environmentalist in Portland.” But in this case, he decided to sheathe his sword and extend an olive branch to the group and its director, Karen Kraus.

In discussions over a couple of years, they agreed that the problem of cat predation on wildlife could be reduced by taking the simple step of moving feral cat colonies away from key wildlife areas. They also agreed to back an ordinance banning the feeding of outdoor creatures—with the exception of carefully monitored feeding of cat colonies once or twice a day. And they agreed on a shared larger message: since pet cats allowed outside are just as likely to slaughter wildlife as their feral cousins, all felines should be spayed or neutered, kept indoors or in outdoor enclosures, and cared for. And of course, no animal should be dumped or abandoned. “We can round up all the feral cats and kill them, or spay and neuter until the end of time,” says Sallinger. “But until we have more responsible pet ownership, we’re just putting Band-Aids on the problem—and engaging in this acrimonious debate that is turning people off.” Now, Sallinger is mapping the 75 to 100 natural areas in and around Portland that need to be protected from outdoor cats.

Portland’s collaborative efforts, and similar ones in New Jersey and Hawaii, haven’t always gone smoothly. They’ve been criticized by bird groups, who fear that working with cat activists will only accelerate the spread of TNR and increase the number of outdoor cats. Cat advocates, in turn, charge that the “keep cats indoors” message is a Trojan horse for a policy of rounding up feral felines. And while moving cat colonies away from areas that harbor threatened species is a no-brainer, it doesn’t always work. In Fortescue, New Jersey, a colony of feral cats was moved away from the shore of Delaware Bay in 2011 to help protect red knots, which stop there in huge numbers to gorge on horseshoe-crab eggs to fuel their long migration from the tip of South America to the Arctic. But after only a few months, cats were back.

Unfortunately, the strange case of the accused cat poisoner didn’t end well, either. The trial took a surreal twist when Dauphiné denied on the witness stand that the words published under her name describing the slaughter of birds by cats (in research papers and in a letter to The New York Times) were hers. Those words, she testified, were written by editors instead. To observers on both sides of the issue, Dauphiné’s stance was a mistake by her legal team, which at one point included Billy Martin, Michael Vick’s high-powered lawyer. (Dauphiné and her lawyers declined to be interviewed for this story.) Both sides argue she would have been better off saying: “Yes, as I stated in my articles, I believe strongly that cats are a huge problem for birds and other wildlife; but as an animal lover, I would never poison a cat.” Indeed, Judge Morrison found her guilty in part, he told the courtroom, because “her unwillingness to own up to her own professional writings . . . undermined her credibility.”

If, instead, Dauphiné and her lawyers had seized the moment to make the scientific case for the problems caused by outdoor cats, they might have gotten a better outcome in the trial—and also helped educate people about the issue. Indeed, scientists lament that the problem looms so large because they have failed to make the facts known to the larger public. As one of Dauphiné’s own articles says: “If we’re going to win the battle to save wildlife from cats, then we’ll need to be smarter about how we communicate the science.”

Sound familiar? Whether the issue is global warming, evolution, or cat predation, researchers tend to believe they’d win the debate if only they could better educate the masses. “There is this mythology about education,” says theologian Vantassel. “We keep thinking that if we can just pile the evidence up higher, we can convince people. But it doesn’t work.” Instead, the hard lesson from these great societal debates is that they are contested on a battleground of conflicting emotions, moral values, and ideologies. Facts alone rarely break up the fight. ❧

Veteran science and environment writer John Carey has served as a senior correspondent in Business Week’s Washington Bureau, as an editor for The Scientist, and as a writer for Newsweek, where he covered science, technology, and health.

1.    Coleman, J.S. and S.A. Temple.1993. Rural residents’ free-ranging domestic cats: A survey. Wildlife Society Bulletin 21:381-390.
2.    Coleman, J.S. and S.A.Temple.1995. How many birds do cats kill. Wildlife Control Technology:44.
3.    Balogh, A.L., T.B. Ryder, and P.P. Marra. 2011. Population demography of gray catbirds in the suburban matrix: sources, sinks and domestic cats. Journal of Ornithology doi:10.1007/s10336-011-0648-7.

N.B.: This story has been changed to correct the title of Becky Robinson of Alley Cat Allies and the fact that a press report following the Wisconsin study by Dr. Temple did not explicitly say that the researchers had killed the cats to examine their stomach contents.

Photo ©Vasiliy Vishnevskiy/123RF

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