The explosive issue of free-roaming cats — feral and domesticated — and their killing of birds and other wildlife erupted recently in a most unusual way.
The brouhaha involving the National Audubon Society, a famed environmental writer and cat advocacy groups pitted cat lovers against bird lovers. It also underscored the raw emotions in a long-simmering debate over what should be done with an estimated 30 million to 80 million feral cats nationwide and the unknown percentage of the 80 million pet cats allowed to roam outside, where they can prey on wildlife.
The controversy came in the wake of a recent Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute study that found an estimated 2.4 billion birds and 12.7 billion small mammals are killed by feral and free-ranging cats yearly. Cat supporters called the report “junk science” and bogus.
Here’s what happened:
Ted Williams, a well-known freelance environmental writer and columnist for Audubon Magazine for 33 years, wrote an opinion piece for a newspaper about the feral cat problem and the trap, neuter and release of feral cats practiced in some communities, including St. Paul, and advocated by some groups as an alternative to euthanizing feral cats.
Williams also mentioned that Tylenol was an effective poison for feral cats, though he noted registration for that use has been blocked by groups that support trap, neuter and release of feral cats.
Both sides outraged
Cat groups and supporters went wild, saying Williams was suggesting people poison cats. One national group, Alley Cat Allies, which supports trap-neuter-return programs, said it sent 31,000 e-mails to Audubon CEO David Yarnold urging Williams’ dismissal. On March 15, Audubon suspended Williams and removed him as editor-at-large, saying he wasn’t speaking for Audubon when he wrote the piece.
That action stunned some Audubon members and longtime readers of Williams and made news. Critics said it appeared that Audubon, a group committed to birds, was caving in to cat advocates, whom they said had distorted Williams’ words.
“I consider him the finest environmental writer in the country, and the most courageous,” said Mike Furtman, an outdoor writer, author and photographer who lives in Duluth. “You don’t fire him at the whim of people who clearly misinterpreted or lied about what he wrote.”
Last week, responding to the furor, Audubon reinstated Williams after he apologized for his imprecise wording and said it wasn’t his intent to encourage people to poison cats.
Audubon’s Yarnold issued a statement, clarifying Audubon’s position.
“We absolutely reject the notion of individuals poisoning cats or treating cats in any inhumane way,” he wrote. “Audubon’s long-standing view, strongly supported by the best available science … is that cats, particularly feral cats, are a leading cause of bird deaths. Audubon strongly believes that cats belong indoors. That’s safer for them and for birds.”
It’s unclear whether Williams’ suspension has damaged the reputation of the Audubon Society, a 100-year old conservation group. Furtman said it has.
“You couldn’t have generated more bad publicity for your organization if you had intended to do so,” he said. “I think it absolutely hurts.”
Don Arnosti, policy director for Audubon’s Minnesota chapter, said there haven’t been membership cancellations or outcries. But he said he contacted Audubon’s president to offer input.
“We think resolving [the issue] with Ted Williams being strongly associated with Audubon is a good idea,” he said.
And he said at least the controversy shined some light on the feral cat issue, “and that’s really the important issue here.”
Issue remains contentious
But there remains a major rift between Audubon’s views on trap-neuter-release and the views of cat advocates, who don’t accept the recent Smithsonian report examining wildlife damage cause by cats.
“The figures they are putting in are just made up to come up with bogus conclusions,” said Mike Fry, executive director of Animal Ark, a no-kill animal shelter in Hastings that sterilizes and releases feral cats in St. Paul and elsewhere in Minnesota. “They hate cats.”
He said the trap-neuter-release method has been proven to reduce feral cat populations. And he said there are other basic problems with Audubon’s position.
“Every time a bird is killed, they assume it’s a bad thing, but birds are a prey species,” Fry said. “Something is supposed to eat them. Before humans moved into cities, fox, coyotes, skunks, weasels and a host of other predators ate those birds.”
Cats have replaced many of those predators in cities, he said.
And, Fry noted, most of the birds being eaten by cats are non-native species, including English house sparrows, house finches, European starlings and pigeons.
The issue could arise in Minneapolis, where City Council Member Cam Gordon wants to scrap the current catch-and-euthanize program in favor of the trap-neuter-release approach. About 270 cats were euthanized last year.
“The catch-and-kill approach has been the law of the land for 150 years in Minneapolis, and it isn’t working,” Fry said.
Local Audubon officials disagree.
“We are against trap, neuter and release because it has been proven ineffective,” said Joanna Eckles of Minnesota Audubon.“We are obviously concerned from a wildlife perspective.”
Meanwhile, Arnosti said there is no rift between cat lovers and bird lovers, because often they are one and the same. Audubon members own cats at a higher percentage than the general public, he said. Six of the eight staff members at Minnesota Audubon — including Eckles — own cats.
“We don’t let it go out unless it’s on a leash,’’ she said.
Doug Smith firstname.lastname@example.org