Thursday, January 31

Jonah Goldberg Agrees With You. 'Nuff Said.

I WAS raised a Protestant, and trained as a scientist, but I was born dyspeptic, and that's my real allegiance. I'm a cat owner, and animal lover, but I'm not a sentimentalist. I feed birds, squirrels, raccoons, opossums, rabbits, and I don't know how many other nearby animals. I'd never doubt the results of a study just because I didn't like them, but I wouldn't believe one just because it was in the Times. Aside from the requirements of cheap preteritio, I would never, ever try to impugn a study by mentioning the pointedly, and ironically, criminal behavior of the former Secretary of one of its sponsors. And I can recognize ripe possum shit even from upwind.
For all the adorable images of cats that play the piano, flush the toilet, mew melodiously and find their way back home over hundreds of miles, scientists have identified a shocking new truth: cats are far deadlier than anyone realized.
We are--please put on a hat so you can hold onto it--six whole paragraphs away from noting that the study "admittedly" comes with wide ranges and uncertainty, though who admitted this is not admitted. The fact that the study is a concatenation (sorry) of local surveys and pilot studies, as opposed to, say, observation, will actually turn up as, oh, the next sentence.

So, to begin with, if we expect the great cross-section of the American public to treat scientific evidence with respect, maybe we could start by reporting on it accurately. 

And maybe this is the place to stick in personal experience? Yes, cats are cute and cuddly, but if you don't realize they're the most efficient, and wanton, four-legged (ahem) predators on land then reading it in a newspaper ain't gonna help you.

I've been around cats for fifty years, and the only one in all that time who was an actual serial killer was my first pet, a stray we adopted at my insistence, who'd probably wandered off the farmland they were rapidly turning into suburban streets. He routinely brought home rabbits--full-sized rabbits--and all manner of rodent. Pretty sure his main hunting ground was the farm field across the street they were tearing up to build the new high school. When we moved away his kill rate dropped to almost nothing.

That was a long time ago, but I was a boy, with a boy's curiosity (we played out of doors in those days), and I don't remember finding birds, or parts of birds, in his wake. Probably because birds can fucking fly. We've been in our present house fifteen years. Six cats in that time, though only one was allowed to roam. Four bird kills, total, but only one was actually confirmed. In the meantime we've had three birds die from colliding with windows. So spay or neuter your glazier.  (There are more confirmed kills by hawks, Dr. Cat Hater.) They've killed plenty of voles, field mice, and chipmunks. That's because the place is fucking overrun with voles, field mice, and chipmunks. Take that up with the State of Indiana, which lets you gun down any varmint you see, at any season, day or night. 

There are at least four neighborhood cats allowed to roam who turn up at our house from time to time. Never had any evidence of any catching a bird. And that's hunting over seed. Birds can fucking fly. If we had a native penguin population in the Midwest it might be different.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, that's not the whole answer. Yeah, the study, or the people trying to publicize it, try to disavow the attack on pet cats, who are "only" 30% of the problem. This, in scientific parlance, is known as "lying your ass off for the greater good (grant money)". 
scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that domestic cats in the United States — both the pet Fluffies that spend part of the day outdoors and the unnamed strays and ferals that never leave it — kill a median of 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals a year, most of them native mammals like shrews, chipmunks and voles rather than introduced pests like the Norway rat.
Yeah. My cats haven't brought home any nutria, mute swans, zebra mussels, or Chinese honeysuckle, either.

Listen, the results of a study are absolutely nothing without we understand the methodology of the study, the details of peer review, and counter arguments. We're not getting those from the Times. We might get some from the original article itself, assuming we had thirty-two bucks to spend. [This, we might note, for a study funded by the Smithsonian (70% of operating funds from the government), and the (presumably U.S.) Fish and Wildlife Service (100%). ] I'd just steal the thing, but then some Federal prosecutor would hound me to my death. Why is it that professional journals could teach the Indianapolis Star a thing or two about privateering?

I'm not saying I don't believe y'all; I'm just saying that number sounds like maybe we should double check the math. I'm saying that I'd be a little more comfortable if you'd mention the uncounted billions killed by incontinent development and capricious habitat destruction, all of which requires opposable thumbs. North America, last time I travelled there, was a continent, not an island. And when you talk about how feral cats aren't hardscrabblers, like coyotes, I'm reminded of the number of people in these parts willing to shoot, trap, or poison coyotes because there's a rumor one of 'em killed the Widow Henderson's precious Fifi. Thanks for helping them load. 

Maybe we can stow the sensationalism, or save it for NASA's next funding push, which should be any day now. And maybe, if you can't handle predation, then bird watching is not your thing. I hear Norway rat tracking can be quite the amusing little challenge. 


robo said...

Had a cat once that took birds down while they were flying low. Fairly awesome skill, that.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

Our cat took a low flying bird a couple of times, too. It's not unheard of, although I agree it is unlikely to be an epidemic.

Of course, overlooked in this is that over the centuries that cats have co-existed with humans, they were prized FOR their ability to control pest populations. They are small, easy to maintain, and effective. Why would that change just because most of them are not living in agrarian communities anymore?

Robert M. said...

I'm okay with the study, but deeply suspicious of the Times article. We get all the way to graf 12 before the author admits her sleight of hand: the image of a bright-eyed, well-fed cat and the lede invoking housebound pets on YouTube have essentially nothing to do with the issue.

The study's conclusion is almost undoubtedly this: feral cats potentially have a much larger impact on wildlife than previously suspected, and the control of cat populations represents a legitimate issue for conservationists. Further research is needed to both reduce and clarify the sources of variance in the estimates.

Natalie Angier could have reported accurately and succinctly on it, but instead she padded it with spurious conversation about housecats and an attempt to create a narrative of conflict between conservationists and animal welfare organizations.

There are dozens of bad pieces of science journalism appearing every day... but it still pisses me off when I read one.

Kathy said...

I dunno. If cats are really killing 15 billion critters per year, they are probably doing us a favor. Otherwise we'd be overrun with... varmits, vermin, and the Bird Flu epidemic would have been much worse.

Anonymous said...

Mine, back when I had cats who I let roam, would routinely cath birds. She'd catch 'em, then bring them into the ^^@#%@$ house for a canned hunt which would inevitably end up with an explosion of feathers and bloody bits in the middle of the floor when she decided to go for the kill.

isabelita said...

Thanks for this lovely piece. I've had cats as pets for nigh on 60 years, all indoor/outdoor animals, and their kill count wasn't high. If we found the last two cats with anything dead, we figured they'd bought it off some other cat. They were klutzes.
I figure this recent attack on cats is just another rationalization for carrying assault weapons.

Calming Influence said...

We have a big house with lots of things to keep cats entertained, so we keep our 3 cats inside; we're in a heavily wooded area in the Pacific Northwest with lots of bald eagles and coyotes, who are generally hell on outdoor cats.

We just adopted a stray that had been hanging around our yard for about 3 months. After surveying the few neighbors within roughly 3/4 mile, it was clear he was a drifter and was taking care of himself. When we took him to the vet he weighed 15 pounds and was muscular as hell, sleek coat and only a mild worm problem. Definitely an efficient killing machine. But the only time I saw a pile of feathers in the yard, there was owl shit next to it.

And I have no problem with people trying to spay and neuter owls, as long as I can witness the attempt.

bjkeefe said...

All's I know is, I saw that article very shortly after it was posted, and it already had 589 comments. So, if by preteritio you mean troll bait, I'd say you've got a bit to learn from Ms. Angier.

I would also like to observe that in the day or four following publication, Ms. Angier competed for #1 on the Most Emailed List with that other tedious thing about taking daily showers being deadly. (Due to oldness, one finds out, only after one clicks.)

On the upside, those two helped wash away the scarring of yet another thumbsucker.

ygdrasl said...

Cats have allied themselves with the most successful predator species, and are poised to survive anihilation like nobody else. Just sayin'.

Woodrowfan said...

We have a small feral colony (6) on our suburban property. They're all fixed and vaccinated and we feed them regularly. They live in small cat shelters next to our deck. They do kill some birds, but I've seen more dead mice (and a few actual rats) than dead birds. Mostly they seem to rely on the squirrel population for fresh meat.

Weird Dave said...

Cats kill things. If you've got a problem with that you'll need to find a planet without predators.

whetstone said...

I think this can be filed along with that study or whatever about cat bacteria controlling your brain, which was the biggest thing on the internet for like six hours nigh on 2012. Then it turned out it was a mite overblown.

Being in the same business as Ms. Angier and the zillion other people who wrote about this without a hint of skepticism, I "get it," but also tend to lean towards encouraging critical thinking.

Anonymous said...

Isn't one of the more significant recent findings that "animals that a cat brings home/shows to its owners/is discovered with" is actually an entirely (and substantially) different number than "animals that cat kills"? And, in fact, it's a pretty huge difference?

"While the study didn't give a total number of prey killed by the house cats, about 49 percent of critters killed by house cats were left for dead, 30 percent were eaten and just under 25 percent were brought home.

Of the total critters killed, 41 percent were lizards, snakes, and frogs; 25 percent were mammals like chipmunks; 20 percent were insects and worms, and 12 percent were birds. In fact, house cats are one of the reasons that one in three American bird species are becoming endangered."

That would tend to punch a bit of a hole is any personal recollections of exactly how deadly particular cat was, no matter how well acquainted you were with it.

Kathy said...

I'd say habitat destruction by "developers", and the use of pesticides on farms kills a LOT more birds than cats do.

25yearsintheUSFWS said...

The sad part of the story was the idea that cats are deadlier than you think. Than who thinks?

The interesting part was about putting the video cameras on cats and seeing some of the killing they were doing. When we did that with Norway rats we just got a lot of video of cheese being stolen.

Cheer up and calm down, dude. Nobody is going to start asking for a national mental health background check system for cat owners. The victims are just dickey birds. The story is sort of interesting in an unthreatening way, if you don't worry much about the New York Times and aren't a cat person.

Li'l Innocent said...

I think the points in Doghouse's essay are (1) that this Times piece is an example of a very bad, incompetent, and misleading type of fluffed-up-to-get-clicks writing about scientific studies, (2) that there's no way to tell from this bad, incompetent article what the scientific validity of the studies cited may or may not be, and (3) it's the kind of bad, incompetent scare-headline piece that goes viral and then gets used as an excuse by yahoos who enjoy shooting things for fun.

Saying the cats' victims are "just dicky birds", if I read the meaning right, shows some ignorance about the sharp decline in the numbers of many bird species over, say, my lifetime, which is due to many causes, almost all human-generated. If you don't think birds are important, you aren't thinking about what "balance of nature" means. We humans are part of, and dependent upon, a huge three- and four-dimensional web of natural relationships, in which we've been ripping huger and huger holes for the last 300 years. If we keep it up, it won't end well.

It's not cats. It's us.

FWSlifer said...

"Almost all human-generated..."

Yet apparently some of it cat-generated, if you can believe the click-hungry New York Times.

Or those cat-cams.

I see what you did with that "fluffed-up" thing. Maybe subconsciously.

bjkeefe said...

Well said, L'il I.

Woodrowfan said...

Junk science. Some of the research is decades old. And they cite Nico Dauphine. She hated cats and was convicted in DC for trying to poison cats, and then she was fired from her job at the Smithsonian.

prairie curmudgeon said...

Please, just keep the freakin' killers indoors. Letting them run wild is irresponsible. Feral or non feral cats are indistinguishable and fair prey in the country.

Anonymous said...

On second thought I agree with Li'l Innocent "It's not cats. It's us."

My first thought was that someone's decided that it's time for a new round of the Black Plague.


hells littlest angel said...

So many comments! I hope this inspires Mr Riley to make cat-blogging a regular feature. I've got some video of a cute kitty playing Babalu on dried bird skulls you can use.

Xjmueller said...

Cheap shot at the Smithsonian. Small was not particularly well liked while he was there, and tried to close the organization that sponsored the research. I'm disappointed that you slimed the researchers by associating them with the former secretary. The science community at SI is not comprised of political hacks nor does it have an agenda other than research and "diffusion of knowledge". Question the study, the methodology, the findings, etc. those are fair game.

As you might guess, I have a connection to the Smithsonian. I'd link to the Wikipedia article on Lawrence M Small, but can't get the comments to accept a paste from another web page.