The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

August 17, 2016

August 17, 1951

Jonathan Franzen (August 17, 1959) has been touted as the author of The Great American Novel. His iconic status informs the article we excerpt from New York magazine, titled "Must Cats Die So Birds Can Live? Inside an animal-lover civil war."

....[Peter Marra in his] years as a research scientist at the Smithsonian Zoo’s Migratory Bird Center... had produced many studies on different threats to bird life, like glass buildings and wind turbines, but none received as much attention as those featuring cats. Since its publication in the January [2013] issue of the journal Nature Communications, his team’s paper, “The Impact of Free-Ranging Domestic Cats on Wildlife of the United States,” which placed the number of birds felled by felines at 1.4 billion to 3.7 billion per year, had been picked up by most major media outlets, including the New York Times. ....

[Some background to the story:]

Perhaps because the sight of a cat slinking around on its own is so common, a surprising number of cat owners feel free to abandon them when they become a burden. At the end of each semester, college towns regularly see an uptick in the number of cats on the streets, and economically depressed areas are literally crawling with them. “After the housing market dropped, we found a lot of abandoned cats,” says Ken Ross of the SPCA in Putnam County, which is currently struggling with a large population of feral cats. Ferals are the homeless of the feline population, the down-and-out counterparts to the purebreds peering out from behind lace curtains. Wild and unsocialized, they survive by their wits and the kindness of strangers.
No one knows exactly how many ferals there are in the United States, but the ­ASPCA places the population at 70 million....“The population has tripled over the past 40 years. Tripled,” says George Fenwick. Wild of eye and George Lucas of hair, Fenwick runs the American Bird Conservancy, an organization he founded back in the early nineties after watching his neighbor’s cat decimate his backyard bird population. .... “For every cat on the street, 200 birds are killed annually,” says Fenwick, a font of such information. Sitting in the ABC office above a Chinese restaurant in Washington, he rattles off types at risk: ground-nesters like California least terns, cardinals, house wrens, endangered species like piping plovers. “The important thing to remember is that even when they are fed, they still kill,” he adds. “They kill for fun.” Fenwick likens cats, who were introduced to the environment by humans, to invasive species like kudzu in the Northeast or pythons in Florida. “It’s an immense ecological problem,” he says.

It’s a problem without an easy solution, especially when more and more animal shelters are embracing the “no kill” philosophy, in which strays are rehabilitated and put up for adoption.... Euthanasia was never that effective, so as long as people abandon cats and let them run around unsterilized, the population will keep refreshing itself.

......[Becky] Robinson, who is tall and lanky with a ruffled pixie haircut. [founded] Alley Cat Allies advocate on behalf of what she calls “the forgotten ones,” largely through promoting a practice called “Trap, Neuter, Return.”

As its name suggests, Trap, Neuter, Return—TNR for short—consists of capturing stray cats, having them sterilized, and returning them to the “colony” whence they came. There, they are overseen by volunteers who provide food, water, and handmade shelters. The hypothesis is that once the procreation cycle is curbed, the colony will die out naturally......

...[O]ver the past two decades, Alley Cat Allies has persuaded the ASPCA, the Humane Society, and sundry nonprofit organizations to officially endorse TNR. Additionally, “at least 300 municipalities have passed some kind of law that embraces it,” she says. Including New York City, which in 2011 passed Local Law 59, sanctioning TNR as a method of feline population control. ....

TNR is instinctively appealing: It seems logical, humane. Unlike previous methods of animal control—like rounding up strays and drowning them in the East River—it feels like a solution for the kind of people we believe ourselves to be now. “A compassionate people,” as Robinson puts it. “A nation of animal lovers.”

Of course, that’s only one way to look at it. “That is, if you’ll pardon my French, complete bullshit,” says Ed Clark, ...

Clark, the voluble onetime host of Animal Planet’s Wildlife Emergency, is part of a group of conservationists who have watched the popularity of TNR escalate with horror. ....

Early on, Clark thought groups like Alley Cat Allies might be convinced that TNR wasn’t the answer if they were aware of the number of birds felled by felines. After all, they were animal lovers. ...
[But]... documentation of cat-on-bird violence, like National Geographic’s “Kitty Cams” project, in which tiny cameras attached to their collars caught pet cats in the act of murder... failed to have an impact...

Over the years, Clark, along with members of Fenwick’s American Bird Conservancy, the Wildlife Society, and the Audubon Society, among others, have waged a steady counter-campaign against TNR. Compared with what one conservationist calls “the powerful cat lobby,” this group is smaller and mostly male. “We’re like the underdog,” says author Jonathan Franzen, who serves on the American Bird Conservancy board. But they’ve become a thorn in the side of cat groups, who resent their undermining and rightly suspect them of trying to reinstitute a practice they believe is unacceptable: aggressive euthanasia.

“The bird community’s position is, we need to get rid of the feral cats, and that means cats must die,” Franzen says. “We feel bad about that, but we can morally justify that position, with all of the birds that they are indirectly killing.”

This proposal has received support from an unlikely ally, PETA, whose president, Ingrid Newkirk, argues TNR is more about making people feel good than cats. “It’s not a kindness, it’s a fantasy,” she says. “Homeless cats, they don’t die of old age. They get hit by a car, they drink antifreeze, somebody slings a brick or a rock at them. Why not, when you knock them down, just have them never wake up again? It’s a horrible decision, but it’s a nicer decision.”
Cat advocates say there are greater threats to wildlife than cats, like habitat loss, and that conservationists are only targeting them because of a deep hatred of cats. “It’s like speciesism, racism, whatever other -ism,” says Becky Robinson.

Conservationists say cat advocates are bullies who prey on people’s emotional attachment to cats in order to promote a practice that is detrimental to the environment and public health. They point to studies like California professor Travis Longcore’s “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap–Neuter–Return” as evidence that TNR doesn’t really work, and brandish reports about dolphins in Florida and otters in California infected by toxoplasmosis as proof of harm resulting from their irresponsible insistence on it. “This is not about bad animal behavior,” Fenwick says. “This is about bad human behavior.”

Cat advocates say the conservationists have wildly exaggerated the numbers in hopes of fulfilling a hate-filled agenda. “.... They point to instances where they say TNR has worked, like on the campus of the University of Central Florida.

“That’s not a study,” sneers Ed Clark. “That’s a letter home from summer camp.”
[Others argue against TNR saying:] “Cats are not native species.”

Robinson takes equal umbrage at this argument, which to her sounds frankly un-American. “What does that even mean, native species?” she demands. “Like the white man? Are we native?” she asks, gesturing at the space between us. “If we got rid of all the native species, all that would be left is Indians. And we did a good job of annihilating them.”
In Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom,[2010] one of the main characters, a birder, becomes so enraged watching his neighbor’s cat kill birds he kidnaps the animal and drives it to a shelter to be euthanized. The character’s indignation was so over-the-top that when the book came out, people assumed it was satire. In fact, an embarrassed Franzen admits, it was a “purely realistic” portrayal of the rage that wells up in the hearts of bird lovers when they find themselves pinned down, like the creatures they defend, by the stronger and more beloved species.

....This was the sentiment that rippled throughout the bird community this spring, when bird people became aware of a bill Alley Cat Allies was trying to get passed in Florida that would protect TNR volunteers from charges of cat abandonment—an action that lent credence to bird people’s suspicion that the cat groups were more interested in what Fenwick terms “open-air cat hoarding” than an overall culling of ferals. In a fevered editorial in the Orlando Sentinel, Ted Williams suggested that Tylenol, which is poisonous to cats, be deployed on the local population. Much to the chagrin of cat people, the bill not only failed to pass, but Williams was only briefly suspended.

The most high-profile cat-killing case in recent memory is that of Nico Dauphine, a 39-year-old research fellow at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Dauphine was already known in both the bird and cat communities when she arrived in D.C. in 2011, after a video presentation she’d done, “Apocalypse Meow!” ....

Dauphine was arrested [after a] neighbor had found a “whitish-yellowish” substance on the food [for ferals] and called the Humane Society, which had it tested and found traces of rat poison. An investigation uncovered security-camera footage of Dauphine approaching the area. It looked like she was taking something out of her bag.

A cat-poisoning case would have generated outrage under any circumstances, but Dauphine’s position in the pro-bird firmament made it a full-blown scandal. To cat people, the incident was proof of what they’d been saying about the bird agenda all along, and they seized on her arrest with righteous glee. “....Alley Cat Allies was front and center of the news coverage, providing journalists with quotes and background on Dauphine’s anti-TNR writing, .... Dauphine arguably made matters worse by hiring celebrity lawyer Billy Martin, the lawyer who’d unsuccessfully defended Michael Vick in his dogfighting case. [She was convicted and given community service.]

.....[W]hen Peter Marra’s “The Impact of Free-Ranging Domestic Cats on Wildlife of the United States” was released, cat advocates—who instantly dubbed it the “Killer Cat Study”—pointed to a passage in which Marra cites Dauphine’s work. Alley Cat Allies immediately mounted a petition demanding that the Smithsonian stop funding studies such as Marra’s, not least because of its reliance on the work of “disgraced researcher” Dauphine.

“I don’t really want to talk about Nico at all,” Marra says, sitting miserably in an interview accompanied by a publicist from the Smithsonian at the height of the furor. “I will say she is a wonderful person. And the evidence was far from conclusive,” he adds, with a sidelong glance at the publicist. “But this,” he says, placing a hand on the study, “has nothing to do with that. This is science.”

One would think that the bird community would have mourned a study placing avian mortality figures in the billions, but they were ecstatic at the opportunity it provided to reclaim their moral rectitude. “People were surprised, and relieved, to find the number was larger than anything previously thought of,” says Jonathan Franzen.

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