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Happy National Feral Cat Day, 2016!

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Gentle readers:

 I don't usually post book reviews on this blog.  I don't use it for advertising or political purposes. I don't tout anything but stuff I make myself (books, notecards, puzzles and stuff) or the stuff I just happen to love (plants, some jewelry, heated dog dishes, for example). This is a highly personal journal, probably 99% of it a simple celebration of all I find beautiful.

But today, according to Alley Cat Allies, is National Feral Cat Day. Nationwide, events are being planned to celebrate the presence of feral cats in our communities and rural areas. It's OK if you need to read that last sentence twice. All right. So I am celebrating, as an avian rehabilitator and unabashed celebrant of natural diversity. My celebration of National Feral Cat Day might proceed a bit differently than some people's.

I just read a book called Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer by Peter Marra and Chris Santella. And while I was flying to and from South Africa, I had something like 34 hours to work on my review, which was commissioned by a major national newspaper. I had read the book carefully at home, but had yet to write the review. I started it over Newfoundland on the outbound leg, and finished it somewhere over Cameroon on the way home.  Well, it came out too long and my editor couldn't figure out how to cut it without gutting it, so he had to pass on it. That's OK. There will be other books to review.

So, in honor of National Feral Cat Day, I'm going to publish it for the first time right here.

My painting of the cat that took the power of flight from Vanna, the savannah sparrow who bounced around a cage in my studio for 17 1/2 years.

Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer. Peter P. Marra and Chris Santella. Princeton University Press.

It’s not often that the word “important” floats up as a descriptor for a new book, but Cat Wars amply qualifies; in its treatment of a subject nobody wants to embrace, this fast-paced, gritty and occasionally terrifying book could sit comfortably on the shelf beside Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Ornithologist Peter Marra, director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, plunks study after scientific study on the table, while popular writer Chris Santella, author of the Fifty Places series, pulls back for the long view, then zooms in with anecdote, constantly changing both scene and topic. The resulting narrative pulls the reader in like a cat to a laser pointer.

The wake-up call to conservationists and cat owners alike began in 1989 with Stanley Temple and John Coleman’s University of Wisconsin study, which attempted to quantify the number of birds killed by free-ranging rural cats in that state. Through direct observation of radio-collared cats, fecal analysis, and analysis of stomach contents of live-trapped (unharmed) cats, they established what their subjects were eating: primarily small mammals and birds. Using extremely conservative modeling, Temple and Coleman determined that at least 7.8 million birds die annually at the claws of cats in the state of Wisconsin alone. Subsequent studies by others refined the counts of cats as well as birds, taking aim at a nationwide figure. Even with the charitable guess that only one in ten free-roaming cats takes a bird per day, ornithologist Rich Stallcup arrived at the estimate of 4.4 million birds per day, or over one billion birds taken annually by owned cats in the United States. In his analysis, Stallcup didn’t even address the problem of feral cats, which is likely much larger.

“Along the California coast it is common to see 10 to 15 during a day’s outing (and these are nocturnal animals.) Certainly, there are many million, country wide. What do they eat? Wildlife. Nothing but wildlife.”

Scott Loss and colleagues used two independent pet owner surveys to come up with a mean figure of 84 million owned cats in the U.S. as of 2013. Using eight independent studies, Loss was able to estimate that more than half of these are allowed outdoors, and about two-thirds of those animals hunt. An additional 60-100 million unowned cats likely roam the nation, and every one of them hunts to survive. Median estimates of the yearly national toll on wildlife run to 2.4 billion birds per year, 12.3 billion mammals, around 200 million amphibians and more than 600 million reptiles. This study points at cats as responsible for more bird deaths than all other anthropogenic (wind turbines, window collisions, car collisions, pesticides) factors combined. These figures, sickening as they are, are conservative. They do not, as cat enthusiasts claim, represent a subjective, emotional vendetta against cats. Nor would any scientist deny that habitat loss is a major factor in rapidly declining songbird populations. Direct mortality from cats is real, and it is preventable. This book sounds an alarm too long silent.

Cat Wars could serve as a textbook for its clear explanations of subjects such as the processes of extinction, island biogeography, and population modeling, as cat impacts on wildlife are discussed. But the book hits its stride in illuminating the rarely discussed and truly terrifying role of domestic cats as vectors for zoonotic disease in humans. What more perfect vehicle could zoonotic diseases employ than an animal that kills and eats sickly wildlife, then defecates around and inside human homes? Black plague, carried by rodent fleas, but now thought to spread through aerosol transmission, killed one third of Europe’s population, starting in China the 1300’s. It’s still present in eight western states, infecting small rodents, the cats who eat them, and (rarely) the people who own those cats. 

Far more common, and now taking hold in managed feral cat colonies in Maryland and elsewhere, is rabies. The baffling double standard where dogs and cats are concerned is here thrown into sharp relief. Dogs are registered, licensed, confined with fencing and leash; vaccinated yearly, and annual U.S. cases of rabies in dogs had dropped to 59 in 2014--a 34% decrease from 2013. Cats, on the other hand, roam freely; are not licensed and are often unvaccinated; and 272 rabid cats were reported nationwide in 2014, a 10 % increase from the 247 reported in 2013 (CDC data). While people managing colonies with TNR (trap-neuter-release) vaccinate the cats against rabies on first capturing them, cats are clever. Once caught, a cat will very rarely enter a trap again, meaning they do not receive rabies boosters.  About 13,000 post-exposure rabies treatments are given annually in the U.S. due to cat exposures, which is approximately 1/3 of all rabies exposures (Gerhold and Jessup, 2012).

Black plague and rabies are rare. There is a cat-specific parasite which is extremely common; which finds its way into soil and drinking water; which works in silent, seemingly calculated concert with rodents, cats, and humans alike, and has been recently found to have public health implications undreamt of. Toxoplasma gondii reproduces wildly in the digestive tracts of felines and is shed in oocysts in their feces; most people recall warnings that pregnant women should not clean cat boxes, as the parasite can cause birth defects in people. Rodents pick the oocysts up through contact with contaminated soil and water. And from here, it gets stranger and stranger. Controlled experiments with Toxoplasma-infected rats have shown that the parasite alters the limbic regions of their brains such that the rodents lose their fear of cats, and the smell of cat urine, which repels them when they’re healthy, becomes irresistible. Seeking out cat urine, of course, helps ensure that the parasite-laden rodents end up in the guts of cats, where T. gondii reproduces and is shed in feces to start the cycle again. Most disturbing are findings that people are similarly affected by toxoplasmosis. It is the most common parasitic infection in humans, affecting up to 22 percent of the U.S. population. Outdoor cats defecating in children’s sandboxes and the loose garden soil and mulch around homes present a concentrated risk of human and cat infection. Even more insidiously, the hardy cysts of Toxoplasma can persist for years, finding their way into streams, rivers and marine environments, as well as drinking water. Toxoplasmosis kills endangered monk seals in Hawaiian waters; sea otters and seals elsewhere.

Recent studies have shown that humans bearing Toxoplasma antibodies show some of the same behavioral changes as rodents, including decreased anxiety and an attraction to the smell of cat urine. If you actually like that smell, having more and more cats around you is a good thing. Along with these changes come a stringer of others, including tendencies toward severe depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and even schizophrenia. Toxoplasma-positive individuals were 2.7 times more likely to develop schizophrenia than uninfected people. Wait. 22% of the U.S. population is Toxoplasma-positive??

In the face of scientific evidence that cats take a shocking toll on wildlife; that they are frighteningly efficient vectors of zoonotic diseases, some of them real doozies, it is puzzling that society has turned a blind eye to the impact of their largely unregulated, unchallenged, omnipresence in our ecosystems. Cats kept indoors for life are vastly less likely to come into contact with diseased animals, and transmit disease to their owners. They don’t kill birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, and are safe from cars, dogs, fights with other cats, and persecution by people who take exception to their presence. Indoors, they are graceful, loving, amusing pets. Left free to roam they are, collectively, a disaster for already-struggling songbird and small vertebrate populations.

A strong and vocal segment of the population lobbies for the “rights” of feral cats, such that municipalities nationwide have been convinced to sanction the maintenance of cat colonies in their midst. Over and over, TNR (trap-neuter-release) has been shown not to reduce cat numbers, but rather to provide obvious dumping places for unwanted pets, which go on taking prey as cats naturally do, subsidized with food and shelter or not. Yet, because it is presented to municipalities as a solution, however imperfect, for addressing the feral cat problem, TNR is endorsed, as a less politically repugnant option than advocating the removal of the animals once and for all. Cat Wars gives cat lovers and pro-cat lobbyists a chance to be heard, profiling several devoted colony caretakers who work tirelessly to feed, water and care for street cats, and give them the best lives possible under the circumstances. It is clear that, along with the belief that free-roaming cats have a place in communities, goes denial at their real impact. The most vocal cat advocates hold the "right" of this domestic species to live free and kill wildlife above any concern for affected wildlife, and stridently question the validity of the studies cited. Calling any work--no matter how exhaustive, careful or conservative--that counters their conviction "junk science" is a defensive pose that looks all too familiar to scientists and citizens speaking out, for example, about climate change.

Ironically, it is a microbe—Toxoplasma gondii—which has been predicted to “dethrone” malaria as the protozooan most dangerous to humans—that may hold the key to changing hearts and minds. In the end, the multiple public health threats that roaming cats present look to be the only force that could propel any real initiative to reduce free-ranging cat populations.  Cat Wars gathers together an ironclad case for action over emotion; for a turnabout in public policy that in many municipalities literally supports the perpetuation of an introduced domestic predator of dwindling native wildlife; for an overhaul of the lassiez-faire attitude of more than half of America’s cat owners. If we would have cats in our midst, we must learn to keep them inside, for they create nothing but havoc—and countless more cats--when they slip out the door.

If you'd like to do something about all this, please send donations to American Bird Conservancy, whose Cats Indoors educational campaign is the most effective I've seen. You can donate here. Please tell them Zick sent you, on National Feral Cat Day.

You can purchase Cat Wars here. And pay no mind to the stack of one-star "reviews" from cat enthusiasts who haven't read the book. They flooded in before it was even released. Read the five-star reviews now rolling in, then get your hands on this book! It's a beautifully constructed and paced page-turner...I literally couldn't put it down. Thank you.

Happy National Feral Cat Day, 2016!


Thanks so much for sharing this. I'm a cat lover who strives to at least get feral cats out of the environment. The new discoveries of how they may be changing our minds is very worrisome as well. I shared this post and hope all your other followers do so as well and start a conversation with their friends and city authorities.

Glad you decided to 'publish' your article here so that I could enjoy it. So hard to change public opinion. Thank you, Julie.

Would your book review be suitable for The Verge linked to writers guidelines here?
I mention it because Peter Marra will be in San Francisco this week at a bookshop book signing, so this book review would be very timely for The Verge, which is loosely based in SF.

Can I share your post with my Invasive Species class? We just read the Smithsonian article about cats killing endangered woodrats in Florida. My students had many of the same concerns that you express here - and in fact, your name came up as an advocate of wildlife.

Posted by Katy Lustofin October 16, 2016 at 10:50 AM

Good review and you're right - an 'important' topic. Thanks for sharing Julie!

Excellent review. Not at all too long! It's sad that people can't see the sense in keeping their cats indoors.

Except, FACTS:

Posted by Anonymous October 16, 2016 at 12:38 PM

Thank you Julie, this is a wonderfully written review of the book! You're a brave woman for taking on this topic. It breaks my heart that people can't see the very clear reasons to keep their cats indoors and insist on "TNR - trapping, neutering and re-abandoning". Why don't they love their pets enough to want to protect them?

Thank you, Julie. It's amazing how much emotion governs the beliefs and attitudes of even those who claim to be open-minded and science-based, and who eschew those who blindly follow sans fact or careful thought (at least when it comes to politics!) . I'm going to share this on my FB page, if for no other reason, in the interest of angering nearly every one of my FBF's at one point or another.... :)

Thank your for this review. I keep trying to educate about the dangers in balloon releases and fire lanterns and free roaming cats, and I am getting nowhere. I have the book as my next read.

Wow...another review of a book filled with bad science. Funny how those who blame cats for all this destruction never take a minute to blame deforestation and polution...which are all human issues.

And that, dear friend, is why I keep our 3 cats inside. The only birds and small animals they track are on the other side of a glass door.

Cat people will never be swayed; they think their little darlings can do no wrong. Personally, I think that if dogs must be licensed and given regular shots, so should cats. Dogs can be picked up by animal control if they are running loose... it should be the same for cats. If you want a cat as a pet, that is your choice. But please do not inflict your pet on me, which you do by letting it run loose. I have a fenced-in yard, yet cats still find their way into it and stalk the birds that visit my feeders. Sometimes I just chase them, but if they are persistent, I set out a humane trap and take them to the pound. I don't care if they are somebody's pet. They are not my pet, so they need to stay the hell out of my yard.

Oooo... this subject just raises my hackles! Sorry, cat lovers, but feral cats are NOT part of the ecosystem. If it were any other species reproducing in large numbers, the Department of Fish and Wildlife would declare hunting season on them.

I'm glad you posted your is excellent and prompted me to buy Cat Wars. Thank you.

Excellent review! I love cats, and one of our two rescue cats is purring happily on my desk as I type this. But spaying/neutering, then releasing feral cats does nothing to stop the spread of disease and the killing of shocking numbers of songbirds. Cats who are not feral also cause the same kinds of very serious problems when their humans irresponsibly allow them to roam outdoors. Cats indoors are a joy. Cats outdoors truly are a non-native, invasive species.

If the numbers quoted in Cat Wars were anything like realistic, then all songbirds would have been wiped out long ago. Why is it that people cannot bear to place blame for declining bird populations where it belongs - with human activity. Development, habitat destruction, climate change, all these are decimating wildlife to a much greater extent than predation by cats. If everything claimed by the authors of Cat Wars and their equally unscientific colleagues is true, then why does the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the UK not only fail to support their findings, but do not even call for cats to be kept indoors? Check out their website, FB, Twitter - not a mention of cats, or of this supposedly groundbreaking book.

you MUST BE joking? you birders always blame cats, who have been on earth longer than us humans.. besides predatory birds ,and pesticides ,,try blaming these as well,,,my god you people can get annoying. > killers of birds are >>Power lines, collisions and electrocutions: 25 million
Collisions with houses or buildings: 25 million
Vehicle collisions: 14 million
Game bird hunting: 5 million
Agricultural pesticides 2.7 million
Agricultural mowing: 2.2 million young birds, equivalent to one million adult birds
Commercial forestry: 1.4 million nests, equivalent to 900,000 adult birds
Communications towers: 220,000....try adding this to your knowledge...then look into the mirror...your to blame as well! as old age is......TNR helps in multi ways...try solving the problem rather than blaming cats alone...try writing a truthful book?..cats are part of a balance of nature, you understand yet?

The part about the toxci... is being sent around on FB with your picture. I knew that style of painting looked familiar.
I love cats...indoors. I hate seeing them out in fields miles away from any house or those huge groups in towns that people with such good hearts feed.
Our dogs often tree cats at night. We would never know there were feral cats around here if they didn't because they are roaming at night. A sad situation.
I don't know why cats aren't to be licensed and vaccinated like dogs. An injustice. A lack of common sense.

Great review! I have the book and am about 2/3 through it. The information provided is informative and important. While I doubt it will change the minds of the devoted cat advocates (They seem to be in the same league as the climate change deniers and the anti-vaccers when it comes to science), I'm hopeful that those who hadn't given it much thought will realize what a problem feral and free-roaming cats are.

Thank you for highlighting this book!

Feral cats?
Kill them all.

You can be against deforestation and pollution and feral cats. Ferals are also a human problem with a human solution.

Those are all tiny compared to the 1 billion or more birds killed by cats every year. All of those things are problems that need to be addressed but so are ferals.

Thank you for sharing, this was very informative! Keep up the great posts :)

"cats are a part of a balance of nature" - Yes, they are. In the US, those are bobcats, lynx, cougar, perhaps a few ocelots. Domestic cats did not evolve naturally and do not belong in nature.

Posted by Gail Spratley October 18, 2016 at 6:02 PM

What a disappointment to read your review. I'm outta here and not coming back.

Folks, put your money where all your hate is: Neuter your pets & donate a few bucks to local rescue. They can use all the help they can get!

Terrific review of an honest, important book. Thanks for this, Julie! I've ordered a copy for myself, and will recommend it (and this fine review) to others. Thanks again, and give the American gentleman a kiss and a hug for me!

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