|MF: Mike Fry |
BN: Beth Nelson
PW: Peter Wolf
MF: I’m anxious to get into our next conversation. We’ve got Peter Wolf from Vox Felina on the line. I love free-roaming cats, community cats, feral cats, whatever you want to call them, because they fill this unusual kind of niche in our society. They’re somewhere in between wild animals and domestic pets. I’m fascinated with both, and they are something that’s in between is always kind of fun for me, but the issues around them are always interesting and complex. Peter keeps his fingers on all the policies, the practices, the conversations.
BN: We’re always glad to talk to you, Peter Wolf. Welcome to Animal Wise Radio.
PW: Thank you for having me. Happy New Year to both of you.
BN: We have to just brag on you a little bit more. We do really appreciate the work that you do in that world of keeping an eye on what’s being reported, what’s being published by science journals, by policymakers, by some of those people who are really proponents of TNR, and trying to take a look in really quite a balanced way, which is not always easy to do, and to dig into the science a little bit. I’ve never seen a blog with so many notations as yours.
MF: It’s so funny – oh, surprise, some of the cat people can be really emotional, some of the bird people can be really emotional. When the conversations get started, having somebody who can just say, “Let’s look at the facts. Let’s look at the data and the science,” it’s just absolutely a breath a fresh air.
One of the things we’re here to talk about are your Trap Liner awards for 2012. I just want to start by saying I’m guessing off the top of my head that a Trap Liner award is not necessarily an accolade you’d want to have.
PW: It’s true. It’s hard to imagine anybody printing this out and putting it up on their wall at home or something. It’s not a point of pride. A little background – I’m sure you both know, and I’m sure many listeners know as well, when folks go out doing trap neuter release/return (TNR) they typically line the traps with newspaper or something like that and then put food in the live traps. That’s just standard practice.
MF: The newspaper ends up being fairly soiled.
PW: I was just going to say, you can imagine these don’t generally stand up very well to the conditions of a cat being kept overnight in the trap.
BN: Who’s not so happy to be in the trap.
PW: Exactly. Sometimes they just stay put. Other times, they absolutely shred it. In addition to using it as a litter box, they absolutely shred it as well. The origin of the name actually came from a friend of mine whose husband when he used to get frustrated with their local newspaper, he would say this is useful for only lining the bird cage, and that was part of the origin.
The other part of it was inspired by Nathan Winograd’s Phyllis Wright award – again, not an award you would want to receive. I started this last year, and again the gist of it is this is for either an individual (and it’s only been two years, so it’s not that well defined) but individual, organization, publication, who has knowingly or not contributed in a major way to degrading or corrupting the debate about free-roaming cats.
BN: One of the things that’s been clear to me as I’ve followed your blog, and even as I’ve watched some of the mainstream news and there comes to be some piece done about new kitty cam research, or what are we saying about how deadly outdoor cats might be, if you actually take the time to watch one of those segments, it’s really a whole lot of thing that usually shows a cat stalking prey. There’s nothing that’s full-bodied about the story. There’s nothing that proves that any research occurred. I would think that as you try to represent some of that data, you would find it pretty frustrating that just the prevailing winds in our media culture are very much about how cats are bad, birds are good, and there’s nothing in the middle.
MF: We’re going to have to take a break, but when we come back we’ll talk more about the Trap Liner awards. I’m guessing you had a lot of opportunity to look at potential recipients.
PW: It’s true. It was a particularly fierce competition this year, no doubt about it.
BN: Yes, that was my feeling, too.
MF: The good news and the bad news about cats is they’re fascinating animals, but they require a level of depth and complexity and understanding that is not typically the strong suit of many of our media. We’ll be back with more of that when we come back from this.
MF: On the line we’ve got Peter Wolf, who blogs at www.voxfelina.com, which is all things about free-roaming community cats, feral cats, however you want to refer to them. Even if you’re not into trap-neuter-return or trap-neuter-release with cats, if you like cats at all, it’s a fascinating bunch of work.
I would argue even if you are really into birds, it would be a really fascinating place for you to read, because one of the things you do is you keep your finger on the pulse of the science and the policy around these animals. As we talked about in the first segment, every year you have started these Trap Liner awards. I want to get into talking about who some of the recipients were for 2012. You said you had a lot to pick from, and the competition was stiff, so I’d like to go there. Tell us who your winners were.
PW: Sure. I should first say as well that yes, the competition was fierce and I appreciate your kind words regarding keeping my finger on the pulse. I have to say, it’s a great challenge to keep up with this stuff, and I’m incredibly grateful to my many readers who send me news stories and other items for me to chase down.
Mike, you hit on a really good point before the break about the complexities of the issue, and the fact that complexity is not what mainstream media is good at. We get a lot of bumper sticker science courtesy of the mainstream media these days, and that put a lot of these folks in contention for the Trap Liner award.
In some cases, the organization, the publication putting this stuff out is a very credible science-related organization like National Geographic. This was actually something posted on their website Christmas Day, in fact. It was pitched as an interview. This was the second in a series with Michael Hutchins, who is the former CEO and Executive Director of the Wildlife Society and a staunch opponent of TNR. I’ve been critical of his work virtually from the outset. It’s very mutual when he was at the Wildlife Society, he was very critical of my work as well.
When National Geographic, this contributing editor interviewed him for this piece, he essentially just gave them an open mike, so what readers get is sort of a compilation of what Michael Hutchins used to post on his blog for the Wildlife Society, and it’s all of the misrepresentations about free-roaming cats and predation, and the threat of diseases, and all the rest. Of course, the worrisome part there is this is on the National Geographic website, so you’re getting this in the context of a very reputable organization.
BN: And they’re supposed to know about animals, right?
PW: One would expect. One of my big criticisms was the writer frames the whole article, which was about invasive species – it wasn’t all about free-roaming cats – but he framed that section of the discussion. He acknowledges this is a contentious issue, but there’s no evidence that there was any followup; understanding that it is a complex, contentious issue, he didn’t ask any very good questions.
BN: He wanted it to fit on a bumper sticker, as you said.
MF: It’s kind of funny – I’m glad you picked National Geographic. I think it was this last year that Beth and I were going through National Geographic online, and they had a cover story on bondage and S&M.
BN: I thought I had mistyped something. I was like, “Really?!?”
MF: We said, “Wow! National Geographic is changing. It’s like a whole new website now!”
PW: This is how I framed the post about the Trap Liner awards this year, with this quote from this journalist who had left the Times Picayune down in New Orleans and was sort of lamenting the fact that this is where journalism has gone when it’s become about content as opposed to reporting. You need to get eyeballs so that you can sell advertising and feed the beast.
It’s interesting that one of my colleagues had pointed out that fact. I thought it a little bit odd, but I had not made the connection. This particular post on National Geographic was on Christmas Day, which you have to think is a pretty darn slow news day. Who but me and a handful of other folks are looking at the National Geographic website on Christmas Day? That may be telling that they need to post stuff all the time. When that’s the driving force rather than an interest in explaining the complexities of the issue or something like that, I think unfortunately we’re seeing more of that.
MF: I would think just doing an article on so-called ‘invasive species’ if those terms are even used, I have a visceral reaction to that term, because I think it’s a misnomer. None of these species are ‘invasive’ – they’re introduced. Humans brought them here.
BN: Maybe on the sole of their shoe, maybe in a crate.
MF: It’s not like there was a line of kitties over the Canada border who just came infiltrating with machine guns, but that’s what they make it sound like when they even use that term. Then, when they talk about that in terms of cats, they say, “they kill birds” but they forget to mention that 90% of the birds are house sparrows, grackles, European starlings – also introduced species. Those complexities get completely lost in the conversation.
PW: Right. You make a really important point there. To the writer’s credit, to Michael Hutchins credit, that was where the discussion started. The nuance in the language of invasive versus introduced and all the rest of it, and they do acknowledge some of that.
One of the things that I find most interesting in that discussion is how often virtually everything grown or raised on the farm is not native here. There’s great concern right now about the colony collapse with honeybees, which are not native, but that doesn’t mean we’re not concerned about them. We’re greatly concerned about the colony collapse disorder. It seems that it’s not handled very consistently in terms of if you have some sort of grievance against free-roaming cats, then you’re more likely to make a big issue out of the fact that they’re not native to North America. I would argue if tomorrow some incredible evidence was found that sure enough, domestic cats had been here for many thousands of years, it probably wouldn’t make a great deal of difference to the debate. The focus would just shift to another issue.
BN: Yes. We better highlight a couple of these other winners. Tampa Bay Times …
PW: Yes. Tampa Bay Times – and again this is ongoing, the story pops up periodically in different forms – but there are of course down in the Florida Keys a number of threatened and endangered species. There’s been a little bit of research done – it’s getting kind of old now – but a little bit of research done as to what impact free-roaming cats might have on the population.
As I said, there’s very little research, and it’s pretty old, and it wasn’t the smoking gun that it’s often made out to be. In this particular story, there’s a lot implied, and very little is supported with any sort of evidence. The usual culprit down there is called ORCAT. This is the Ocean Reef Club. It’s a private club down in that area. There’s an enormous TNR program, incredibly effective, well managed. It becomes a matter of proximity. These endangered wood rats, for example, are nearby, so the reporter just says, that’s why the reintroduced wood rats haven’t done well. But again, he can't point to anything concrete to say that the cats had anything to do with this.
BN: You state in your blog at that the end of the day, there was an area where the wood rats were release where there weren’t feral cats, and within a month nearly half were dead, gobbled up by other predators. Once of those little nuances that we do have acknowledge when we’re talking about predation, when we’re talking about introduced species …
MF: Prey species; it’s one of the things I have an issue with people when they say, “Cats eat songbirds.” Guess what? Song birds are prey species. They make extra. They will have two nests and clutches of eggs per year, and oftentimes three to four eggs per clutch. They can't all live.
BN: I’d like to skip ahead to the Mother Jones award, one of these publications that … I’m kind of a little bit of a hippie at heart, and I was kind of sad to see what a job they did on their article, “Faster Pussycat – Kill, Kill!”
PW: Mother Jones – and I’ll say that I still read it; I have a lot more good to say about it, but I’m really appalled the way they’ve covered this particular issue. In this case, both articles are by the same senior editor, Kiera Butler. I don’t know that that’s a reflection wholly on the magazine, though it shows up in print with their name on it. There is some culpability there.
BN: Yes; a little culpability.
PW: The “Faster Pussycat” one last year, and then the same writer, Kiera Butler, wrote something summarizing some recent study this year. It was much of the same. It’s borrowing far too much instead of really driving down into the research – borrowing far too much from press releases put out by the American Bird Conservancy, which certainly a publication like Mother Jones you expect fairly rigorous reporting, so when it’s largely summary derived from a press release of an organization with a pretty shoddy record on this particular issue, that’s really disappointing to see from Mother Jones.
BN: Right; and it gets perpetuated and spread. If you say it enough times, it becomes more true.
PW: Especially again an organization like that, where rightfully so I think they have this reputation deservingly, but we maybe don’t scrutinize those reports so much because we do see the Mother Jones masthead across the top of it.
BN: The little gem from your blog about that one is the hyperbole of the title and of the article that was published in Mother Jones doesn’t really match with the researcher’s admission that cats aren’t as bad as biologists thought, and this is what you’re trying to help us all see and I think is a perfect segue into another of my favorite blogs that you wrote from last year, which was a conversation that you had with a fellow who’s a bird fancier, he’s a fan of wild bird watching, and yet he also has some skin in the game when it comes to TNR. Could you talk a little bit about that post?
PW: Yes. This conversation with Walter Lamb – after a year-and-a-half, I had the great pleasure of finally meeting Walter in L.A. in a conference in the beginning of December. He was everything I’d expected. Just really bright, warm, energetic. We had this great conversation, and I could have set the conference aside and just spent all day talking to Walter.
As you say, he is one of these really rare individuals in that he really has a foot in each camp. He’s an avid bird watcher. If I’m not mistaken, he actually travels to do some of his bird watching. This is not a causal, backyard birdfeeder sort of hobby for Walter, and yet he has really taken the TNR effort as well in his neighborhood with great success, and near as I can tell (this is how Walter takes everything) he takes it very seriously. He jumped in with both feet, and again has been very successful.
He reached to me about a year-and-a-half ago by way of email, and we’ve been corresponding ever since. He often beats me to the comments on these online news stories. His are just these great, very tempered voice of reason. Again, he speaks with a credibility that frankly I don’t have as somebody who’s not a bird watcher. It’s just wonderful to see him interacting this way, and this conversation that we had, this blog post, was entirely Walter’s idea. I was kind of negligent getting it posted, in fact, but he was very patient with me.
I received numerous emails actually about this. Just like you said, people were thrilled to see this, because here’s somebody saying, “I’m very interested in bird watching and the health of bird populations, but at the same time have seen how effective TNR can be.” Walter is also critical of some claims made by TNR groups as well. He’s very fair-minded that way.
BN: He’s asking some questions that proponents should be asking themselves.
MF: It’s a nice place to wrap it up, because I really do believe that when you really look at free-roaming cats and you look at birds or other wildlife issues, the fact of the matter is the cats are here. No matter what side of the argument you’re on, the TNR is the middle ground that everybody should be able to get behind. It’s good for the cats, if you want there to be fewer of them and have them impacting wildlife less, then TNR is a great alternative.
I would say TNR is the great middle ground. It should be the bridge-builder between all of those things, and it’s oftentimes the thing in the conversation that gets lost. That’s one of the reasons we appreciate your blog so much, Peter, is that you do such a nice job of dealing with that and covering it.
Again, if people want more information about Peter, they can check out his blog at www.voxfelina.com.
BN: I would really encourage folks to go and take a look at this particular blog about Walter Lamb too. If you’re in the throes of trying to promote TNR in your community, it’s a good read. If you’re a bird watcher who is hating on the idea of having cats outside at all, it’s a good read, and it might make you more open to how it can work most effectively from all sides. Peter, regrettably we are running out of time, but once again you can find him at www.voxfelina.com.