Sunday, May 09, 2010

Statesman Embraces "Whacking" Baby Kittens... On Mother's Day

Austin American-Statesman's Outdoors Editor Mike Leggett likes to kill animals. He gets a "thrill" out of killing deer. He enjoys killing fish. And Mikey likes to kill birds too; boy, does he: Mikey likes to kill quail. He thinks talk of killing doves is funny. And he just loves killing turkeys. In fact, he's mad as heck that the lefties who craft the State of Texas hunting guidelines are reducing the "joy" he gets from killing turkeys.

Mike Leggett likes killing animals so much that you're just going to have to forgive us for rolling our collective eyes when he waxes philosophical about how "necessary" it is to kill the kittens a momma cat brought into his buddy's garage because they may one day grow up and turn into the kind of efficient bird hunter he is. And you'll also have to forgive us for being unable to let go unnoticed the blatant hypocrisy in Leggett opining that (1) it's okay to "whack" kittens because they might one day hunt birds (like he does), and (2) his friend feeding birds in his backyard even though it attracts feral cats (and squirrels, presumably) is perfectly natural, normal, and defensible, but the lady he saw feeding a colony of feral cats is messing with God's will.

Putting aside Leggett's alarming lack of perspective, however, let's focus on the "science" he uses to justify "whacking" kitties in order to save birds (presumably, so that he can whack them later). To support his argument, Leggett relies on two allegations: (1) that a "study" proved that cats kill 39 million birds in Wisconsin alone; and (2) that a "published . . . article" demonstrated that the humane alternative to "whacking" cats--- trapping them, spaying or neutering them, and releasing them ("TNR")--- doesn't work. Both are illogical, unpersuasive, and wrong.

The first "study" that Leggett relies on is, in fact, not a study. It is an essay in a non-peer-reviewed magazine published in 1996 by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (or maybe it was a similar essay published by the Wisconsin Parks & Wildlife Department). In the essay, the authors assume out of thin air that there are 1.7 million free-roaming cats in Wisconsin. They assume (based on un-cited and unnamed "other studies") that cats in rural areas kill 91 animals each year. And they assume (again, based on un-cited and unnamed "other studies") that 25% of the animals killed by cats are birds. Multiply all of those together--- 1.7 million x 91 x 25%--- and you get roughly 39 million bird deaths in Wisconsin. This is not a "study," Mr. Leggett. It is not peer-reviewed. It is not replicable. There is no way to double-check unnamed findings, and one of the key factors is based on a guess.

Had Leggett analyzed the essay, he would have easily figured out that the number was nothing more than a guess--- it was not a study and is was not intended to be one. In fact, had Leggett spent even a few moments on Google to determine whether the numbers were accurate, he would have discovered this quote from the essay's author himself:

"The media has had a field day with this since we started. Those figures were from our proposal [for a study]. They aren't actual data; that was just our projection to show how bad it might be."
Plus, had Leggett bothered to look, there are, in fact, a large number of published studies concluding that the feral cat population does not significantly affect the population of American birds. This is a list provided by the nation's preeminent animal-sheltering expert, Nathan Winograd, from the same source as the last quote:

Roger Tabor found that cats have low success as bird hunters and that the bulk of their diet is garbage, plants, insects, and other scavenger material. In short, cats are not impacting bird populations on continents. Fitzgerald & Karl found that "cats suppress populations of more dangerous predators such as rats and thus allow denser populations of birds than would exist without them." Robert Berg found that cats were not impacting quail population in San Francisco even though quail nest on the ground. Mead found no evidence that cats are impacting overall bird populations. Colemand & Brunner concluded that "The common belief that feral cats are serious predators of birds is apparently without basis." A Worldwatch Institute 1994 Study found that birds are in decline due to drought, habitat loss, overtrapping, and water pollution. Cats are noticeably absent as factors. A 1988 study by the University of Georgia blamed forest fragmentation across Southern U.S. for decimating songbirds. A Colorado Wildlife Dept. study in 1994 blamed drought. National Geographic lined declines to poisons in environment, particularly lawn care products."

Leggett could have figured this out. It's not that complicated. But we think he was too busy trying to justify his friend "whacking" the kittens in his garage. Or, perhaps, he didn't care.

The next "article" upon which Leggett relies to justify his friend's cat "whacking" is even less persuasive. To support his argument that "trap-neuter-release" does not work, Leggett cites an article about a small TNR operation on an ecologically sensitive area on Catalina Island that demonstrated that spayed and neutered cats roamed just as far as non-spayed and non-neutered cats. That's right-- the study concluded that unaltered cats roam just as far as altered cats. But what Mr. Leggett did not point out (probably intentionally) is that the study concluded that the program would work to eliminate the feral-cat species on the island in about 10 years. It did not conclude that TNR was ineffective at reducing the feral cat population; it concluded the opposite. Mr. Leggett citing this study to disprove the efficacy of TNR is like the birthers pointing to President Obama's Hawaiian birth certificate as evidence that Obama was born elsewhere. It makes no sense at all.

In the end, none of the science mattered to Leggett or the Statesman. His article wasn't about that. Instead, it was about his need to figure out how to justify his buddy killing the kittens that a momma cat mistakenly brought into his garage. But you know what, Mr. Leggett? Not every act of killing can be justified--- even if performed by your buddy.