Everybody has that neighbor (OK, some of you are that neighbor) whose heart bleeds for all the stray cats in the hood. Cat Lady or Cat Dude leaves paper bowls full of Meow Mix all over the sidewalks, and the scraggly, fiercely independent kitties go tomcatting all over town.
You might think your local Cat Lady is really sweet or maybe eccentric. But you know who really hates the Cat Lady? Bird lovers.
Nationwide, a massive fight is under way between cat lovers and bird lovers (who say wild cats are nonnatural predators threatening bird species and other critters). The battle has become especially heated in Florida, where pending legislation could affect the way feral cat colonies are managed. This month, the issue caused problems at two recognizable publications after an Audubon writer wrote a shocking op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel.
Colonies of feral cats thrive all over the world -- under the 17th Street bridge in Fort Lauderdale or in stately Palm Beach -- and this creates problems for municipalities that must decide how to deal with them.
Cat lovers generally support a policy of "TNR" -- Trap, Neuter, and Release. It calls for cats to be captured, taken to a vet, implanted with a chip, neutered, then freed. Theoretically, this lets the current generation of wild cats roam free but ensures they can't produce heirs.
But the cat-loving crowd took a hit in January when a report was released, based on the work of scientists at the Smithsonian and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The report said that free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.4 billion to 3.7 billion birds and 6.9 billion to 20.7 billion mammals every year.
Cat lovers decried this report as fear-mongering, anti-cat PR, but in Florida, the report could influence a piece of legislation that's kicking around Tallahassee. This year, Florida House Bill 1121, also known as the "Community Cat Act" was written by an attorney with Best Friends Animal Society and introduced in the House. It would establish that community cat programs that practice TNR would not be guilty of abandonment or unlawful release. The bill is supported by the Humane Society but opposed by the Florida Veterinary Medical Association. Last week, it passed the agriculture committee in the House by a 14-0 vote. A companion bill has been filed in the Senate.
On March 14, an Audubon writer and accomplished environmental journalist named Ted Williams contributed a column in the Orlando Sentinel describing TNR as a "dangerous, cruel, and illegal practice." He said that "In Florida, where rabid cats attack people," most wild cats have a feline form of AIDS. Feral cats infect Florida panthers with feline leukemia, he wrote, and they kill migratory birds and endangered species including lower Keys marsh rabbits and silver rice rats.
Then he wrote that there are "two effective, humane alternatives to the cat hell of TNR. One is Tylenol (the human pain medication) -- a completely selective feral-cat poison. But the TNR lobby has blocked its registration for this use. The other is trap and euthanize. TE is practiced by state and federal wildlife managers; but municipal TE needs to happen if the annihilation of native wildlife is to be significantly slowed."
After cat lovers of course called for Williams' head (and also pointed out that Orlando Sentinel editors were dumb to have let this tacit endorsement of cat murdering slide), Audubon initially announced that it had "suspended its contract" with Williams.
But in a blog post Tuesday, the CEO of the National Audubon Society wrote that Williams would stay on with the magazine. David Yarnold wrote that although Williams' op-ed "raised serious questions of judgment" and Audubon "absolutely reject[s] the notion of individuals poisoning cats or treating cats in any inhumane way," they forgave the writer.
Yarnold linked to Audubon's official resolution on feral cats, which describes the felines as "exceptional and prolific predators" and asserts that TNR does not reduce feral cat colonies. The resolution calls for governments to regulate feral cats and recommends neutering -- but not euthanasia.
In the meantime, the online version of Williams' article on the Orlando Sentinel has been toned down to omit the bit about Tylenol. Williams added a disclaimer at the top, saying:
"I reported that a common over-the-counter drug, an effective and selective poison for feral cats, had not been registered for this use because of pressure from feral-cat advocacy groups. While the statement was not inaccurate, it was unwise because readers might construe it as a suggestion to go out and start poisoning feral cats. What's more, the statement could be, indeed was, manipulated by feral-cat advocates into something I didn't write or intend. I should have used the generic, lesser-known name. Further, I should have explained that this feral-cat poison, if registered, would be applied only by the state and federal wildlife managers who are widely, legally and lethally (but not effectively) controlling feral cats with rifle, shotgun and trap. I urge people not to take the law into their own hands. They should leave it to professionals.Lastly, he clarified that his position as "editor-at-large" of Audubon magazine, which he had used in his original piece, was "a freelance, not salaried, title. I regret this slovenliness."