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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Posts Tagged ‘outdoor cats’

Sorry, Cat Lovers, TNR Simply Does Not Work

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 10, 2017

“Cat eating a rabbit” (Photo: Eddy Van 3000)

While this site is on a bit of a hiatus, I am re-posting this 2014 piece on the feral cat fight.

by Richard Conniff

Various estimates say that anywhere from 20 to 100 million feral cats roam the United States. Together with pet cats that are allowed to wander free, they kill billions of birds, mammals, and other animals every year.

Every time I write about the need to deal with this rapidly worsening problem, certain readers argue for a method called TNR, which stands for “trap, neuter, and release,” or sometimes “trap, neuter, and return.” So let’s take a look at how it might work.

TNR is an idea with enormous appeal for many animal welfare organizations, because it means cat shelters no longer have to euthanize unwanted cats: They just neuter and immunize them, then ship them back out into the world. It’s a way to avoid the deeply dispiriting business of putting animals down, not to mention the expense of feeding and caring for the animals during the usual waiting period for a possible adoption. And it enables animal shelters to put on a happier face for donors: “We’re a shelter, not a slaughterhouse.”

TNR advocates generally cite a handful of studies as evidence that this method works. The pick of the litter is a 2003 study that supporters say shows TNR enabled the University of Central Florida to reduce the feral cat population on its Orlando campus by 66 percent. On closer examination, though, what that study showed was that

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Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | 8 Comments »

When Animal Rights Sabotage the Natural World

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 8, 2016

Deer-herd-web-2-26-06My latest for Takepart.com:

There are times—too many times, in truth—when understanding and protecting the natural world demands that we band together to stop the killing: The macho practice of shooting wolves in the American West comes to mind as an example. So does the relentless slaughter of elephants and rhinos in Africa. But at other times, protecting the natural world requires us to kill, and this is the painful reality some animal rights activists refuse to understand.

It’s not a failure to communicate. Animal rights groups are often brilliant at communicating. It’s a failure to reason in the face of scientific evidence, and it comes up almost endlessly for people who do the real work of protecting the natural world.

The latest case happened in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The city wanted to cull a booming deer population that is destroying the forest understory, damaging local landscaping, and causing car accidents (88 last year, double what it was just five years ago). Then both the Humane Society of the United States and the local chapter of the Humane Society—two separate entities—showed up to cry, “Cruelty!”

But, hang on, why should the rest of us care about Ann Arbor, a university town of 113,000 people 45 minutes west of Detroit? It matters, says Christopher Dick, a plant ecologist at the University of Michigan, because “HSUS is pitting its huge resources and cherry-picked science against every small town in the eastern U.S. that is having deer overabundance issues and considering lethal options.”

Activists put on a reasonable face when they come into town to

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Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues, Food & Drink | Tagged: , , , , , | 27 Comments »

The Fake Science That Keeps Cats on the Streets

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 31, 2015

“Cat eating a rabbit” (Photo: Eddy Van 3000)

This is a piece I wrote a while ago. I read it again today and realized that it still makes an awful lot of sense, especially because the fake science of TNR is still alive in the world and at least some eager-to-please politicians are gullible enough to buy it:

Various estimates say that anywhere from 20 to 100 million feral cats—an introduced and heavily subsidized predator—now roam the United States. Together with pet cats that are allowed to wander free, they kill billions of birds, mammals, and other animals every year. Every time I write about the need to deal with this rapidly worsening problem, certain readers argue for a method called TNR, which stands for “trap, neuter, and release,” or sometimes “trap, neuter, and return.”

So let’s take a look at how it might work.

TNR is an idea with enormous appeal for many animal welfare organizations, because it means cat shelters no longer have to euthanize unwanted cats: They just neuter and immunize them, then ship them back out into the world. It’s a way to avoid the deeply dispiriting business of putting animals down, not to mention the expense of feeding and caring for the animals during the usual waiting period for a possible adoption. And it enables animal shelters to put on a happier face for donors: “We’re a shelter, not a slaughterhouse.”

TNR advocates generally cite a handful of studies as evidence that this method works. The pick of the litter is a 2003 study in which TNR enabled the University of Central Florida to reduce the feral cat population on its Orlando campus by 66 percent. On closer examination, though, what that study actually showed Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , | 11 Comments »

Governor Vetoes Bill Pretending Outdoor Cats are Wildlife

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 28, 2015

Adorable but deadly (Photo: Richard Conniff)

Adorable but deadly (Photo: Richard Conniff)

Thank common sense for this week’s decision by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to kill this bit of misguided legislation.  It would have treated cats as wildlife and wasted public money on a methodology (Trap, Neuter, Release) that does nothing to control outdoor cat populations.  It would also have worked to the detriment of genuine wildlife, including birds and small mammals.

Here’s the press release from the American Bird Conservancy:

(Washington, D.C., October 28, 2015) This week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo vetoed legislation that would have used public funds to support statewide Trap, Neuter, Release (TNR) programs for feral cats. The decision came on Monday, Oct. 26, after a lengthy public debate.

Under the proposed legislation (A 2778/S 1081), up to 20 percent of the state’s Animal Population Control Program Fund, which is supported by dog license fees, could have been allocated to TNR programs and away from the fund’s original purpose: to support low-cost spay/neuter of dogs and cats for low-income owners.

A diverse coalition of stakeholders, including American Bird Conservancy, Audubon New York, New York birders, animal welfare organizations, and sportsmen’s groups, rallied to oppose the TNR legislation, submitting numerous letters, emails, and phone calls expressing serious concerns.

“By vetoing this proposed legislation, Governor Cuomo has acted with

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Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | 7 Comments »

How Outdoor Cats Mess Up Our Minds

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 19, 2015

Toxoplasmosis from outdoor cats makes major changes in the brain's most common and critical cells, called astrocytes.  (Image: Indiana University School of Medicine)

Toxoplasmosis from outdoor cats makes major changes in the brain’s most common and critical cells, called astrocytes.
(Image: Indiana University School of Medicine)

Neuroscientists are coming closer to understanding how cat-borne Toxoplasmosis messes with the brains of mice, men, and women.

With apologies, the press release could be a lot more clear in describing a new study showing how this parasite affects the brain.  But I’m on another deadline, and want to post this now because it’s important for pet-owners to get the message: We endanger ourselves when we allow our pet cats to wander outdoors:

Rodents infected with a common parasite lose their fear of cats, resulting in easy meals for the felines. Now Indiana University School of Medicine researchers have identified a new way the parasite may modify brain cells, possibly helping explain changes in the behavior of mice — and humans.

The parasite is Toxoplasma gondii, which has infected an estimated one in four Americans and even larger numbers worldwide. Not long after infecting a human, Toxoplasma parasites encounter the body’s immune response and retreat to a latent state, enveloped in hardy cysts that the body cannot remove.

Before entering that inactive state, however, the parasites

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Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Brain-Manipulating Parasite: A Gift From Your Outdoor Cat

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 16, 2015

Adorable but deadly (Photo: Richard Conniff)

Adorable but deadly (Photo: Richard Conniff)

Two professors from Indiana University School of Medicine have a disturbing story in Scientific American about the threat to human health from outdoor cats.  Here’s the lead:

Imagine a world without fear. It might be empowering to go about your daily life uninhibited by everyday distresses. You could cross highways with confidence, take on all kinds of daredevilry and watch horror flicks without flinching. Yet consider the prospect a little more deeply, and the possibilities become darker, even deadly. Our fears, after all, can protect us.The basic aversion that a mouse has for a cat, for instance, keeps the rodent out of death’s jaws. But unfortunately for mice everywhere, there is a second enemy with which to contend, one that may prevent them from experiencing that fear in the first place. A unicellular organism (a protozoan), Toxoplasma gondii, can override a rodent’s most basic survival instincts. The result is a rodent that does not race away from a cat but is instead strangely attracted to it.

Toxoplasma‘s reach extends far beyond the world of cat and mouse. It may have a special relationship with rodent and feline hosts, but this parasite also infects the brains of billions of animals on land, at sea and in the air. Humans are no exception. Worldwide, scientists estimate that as many as three billion people may be carrying Toxoplasma. In the U.S., there is a one-in-five chance that Toxoplasma parasites are lodged in your neural circuits, and infection rates are as high as 95 percent in other countries.

For most people, this infection appears asymptomatic, but recent evidence shows that Toxoplasma actively remodels the molecular landscape of mammalian brain cells. Now some researchers have begun to speculate that this tiny single-celled organism may be tweaking human health and personalities in stealthy, subtle ways.

What the cat dragged in

Researchers first discovered T. gondii in 1908, and by the end of the 20th century they had a good grasp on how people could pick up this parasite. The story starts with cats: for reasons that scientists have yet to unravel, Toxoplasma can sexually reproduce only in the feline gut. The parasite breeds within its feline host and is released from the feline’s tail end. Cats are such obsessive groomers that it is rarely found in their fur. Instead people can become infected from kitty litter or by ingesting it in contaminated water or food.

Within a new host the parasite begins Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , | 8 Comments »

The Evil of the Outdoor House Cat

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 21, 2014

(Illustration: Ginette Lapalme )

(Illustration: Ginette Lapalme)

My latest for The New York Times:

Once upon a time I had a cat named Lucky, and the name fit. She turned up on our doorstep as a stray and stayed with us for 10 years, until her rather gruesome demise. (More about that later.) I liked her because she was a free spirit, and a survivor, going out for two, three, even five days, in all seasons. She’d show up when it suited her, waiting in the dark before dawn till I came downstairs and turned on my desk lamp. Then she’d make her presence known by rising up on her hind legs and gently scratching with her forepaws on my window.

Sometimes, without stopping to say hello, she’d leave us tattered offerings, with little starbursts of coagulated blood, on the front walk. The birds were disturbing, the moles and deer mice not so much.

Jane, the older woman who lived two doors down, mentioned that Lucky sometimes lurked near her bird feeder, but she didn’t seem to think much of it, and neither did we. We put a bell on Lucky, but it didn’t last a week before she shed it in some bush.

If all this sounds lackadaisical, particularly in someone who writes about wildlife, I should note that Lucky, who died in 2008, was our last outdoor cat.

We were about to become early adopters in the trend that is beginning to make outdoor cats as socially unacceptable as smoking cigarettes in the office, or leaving dog droppings on the sidewalk.

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Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: , | 45 Comments »