In Defense of Cats, Geese, and other D.C. Inhabitants


Washington, D.C. is not only considering a plan to round up and kill thousands of cats, but it is proposing a wholesale slaughter of geese and other animals, as well as trees and plants. On September 18, a City Council committee will take the issue up and my letter, written on behalf of the No Kill Advocacy Center, opposing the plan is here:

The Honorable Mary M. Cheh, Chair,
And Members of the Committee on Transportation & the Environment
John A. Wilson Building
1350 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W. Suite 108
Washington, D.C. 20004

Re: DOEE Draft 2015 District of Columbia Wildlife Action Plan

Dear Council Member Cheh and Members of the Committee,

Before the Committee is a draft Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE) Wildlife Action Plan that unfairly implicates cats and other animals in the perceived decline of local “native” wildlife. Among various other proposed harms, the plan asks the Committee to revisit the District’s support for programs to sterilize and re-release community cats who are not social with people. Not only would doing so result in the round up and killing of these cats, including people’s beloved companions, but it would increase the number of free roaming cats in the District. This would work at cross purposes with the stated goal of the proposal. On behalf of the District members of the No Kill Advocacy Center, we respectfully request that you reject these policies, strip the draft Wildlife report of blame for cats and other species, and affirm a commitment to protect all animals, regardless of whether they are legally classified as “wild” or “domestic,” “native” or “introduced.” As currently written, the Wildlife Action Plan is far from being a vision for a better future; in seeking to scapegoat, disparage, and kill animals for human-caused activities, it  is firmly wedded in an unethical past distinguished by the willful infliction of animal suffering and death.

The Draft Plan Unfairly Maligns Cats

As to cats, the current proposal is costly, short-sighted, inhumane, and at odds with the values of the cat-loving residents of the District,[1] hardly surprising as the drafters of the plan proceeded “at the expense of empirical observation” and “reasoned consideration” with “arguments based on opinion and emotion rather than scientific evidence.”[2] Unbiased scientific studies were not included, animal welfare organizations with a mission of protecting cats were not consulted, and true reasons for wildlife decline were ignored. Indeed, only groups hostile to cats were invited to participate in the drafting of the plan, while those who work to protect cats were not, including the Washington Humane Society, the animal control authority for the District and the agency which carries out the TNR program at no cost to taxpayers.[3]

Indeed, by sterilizing and rereleasing cats, groups like the Washington Humane Society, are working in tandem, rather than at cross purposes, with those who care about all animals and they do this by humanely reducing the number of free-living cats. Study after study has confirmed that the sterilization and release of community cats is effective at reducing the number of community cats over time. This is important for cats living in communities where entering the local shelter would otherwise be a death sentence. These studies show that the numbers of cats decline when only 30% of the population is sterilized on a sustained basis.[4] Even accepting the false argument that cats are adept hunters of birds and other wildlife, which simply isn’t true, TNR is effective at both reducing the number of cats and reducing roaming by cats, thus reducing the number of chance encounters with wildlife.[5]

By contrast, in order to achieve similar declines through lethal methods, over 80% of the population has to be rounded up and killed.[6] Not only is this inhumane, but it is not achievable given public opposition, resource constraints, and repopulation through ongoing births due to a lack of sustained sterilization, and migration.[7] As such, what the DOEE proposes has no hope of achieving the desired end. No matter how many community cats (and, as called for in the report, other so-called “non-native” animals and plants) are killed, the goal of total eradication can never be reached. To advocate for the eradication of community cats is not only cruel and unethical, it is to propose a massacre with no hope of success and no conceivable end.

It is also nothing more than a rehash of plans already thoroughly rejected by your counterparts in other cities, such as San Francisco. In 1993, for example, following months of research and public testimony, the San Francisco Commission on Animal Control and Welfare voted down a call to round up and kill community cats in City parks based on arguments similar to those made in the DOEE draft plan. In 1997, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors likewise voted unanimously to remove language from the City’s Sustainability Plan—before it was approved as a document for San Francisco’s future—that falsely called cats a major threat to biodiversity and would have led to their round up and killing. And again in 2000, backed by predation studies on four continents (13 studies in Europe, 12 in North America, nine in Australia, and one in Africa) that exonerated cats for the decline in songbird and other wildlife populations, the Board of Supervisors unanimously rejected language proposed by ideologues on the San Francisco Commission on the Environment attempting for the third time to kill cats based on this kind of misinformation.

Put simply, the idea that community cats are a danger to wildlife in the continental United States is without scientific foundation.[8] To the extent that wildlife is declining in the District of Columbia, the reasons why are not hard to ascertain. The District of Columbia is a heavily congested, urbanized, largely man-made construct. To suggest that cats or other “introduced” species are upsetting the natural ecosystem is nonsensical since the District itself is no longer part of the “natural” ecosystem and has not been for well over a century. In order for plants and animals that existed in the region when it was largely forest and swampland to exist in a biologically healthy manner the following attributes must be present: First, the “natural” areas must be large enough to support a population that in itself contains enough individuals to maintain genetic diversity (i.e., inbreeding must be kept to a minimum). Second, there must be genetic continuity with other members of the species (immigration), which is one of the ways genetic diversity within the population is maintained. Third, the habitat must provide the species in question with available foraging and breeding sites as well as refuge, patchy environments, dispersal barriers, and alternative food sources. The District, as it pertains to “native” wildlife, falls short in all these respects. This should come as a surprise to no one. The District of Columbia is not only the most congested metropolitan area in the United States; it continues to grow at a rate three times faster than the average U.S. city. As a result, even if all cats were removed from the District, it would not benefit “native” wildlife. Therefore, any killing of innocent animals would be done in vain, and at great cost, without achieving the desired results.

At the same time, it would put District policy on the wrong side of history. The last three decades have seen the meteoric rise in acceptance of TNR by animal shelters, health departments, and local governments. Indeed, in terms of effectiveness in reducing numbers, impounds, deaths and unnecessary suffering, and public animal control costs, TNR is moving beyond controversy or comment.[9] The Wildlife Action Plan threatens to undermine that success, paid for using private philanthropic dollars, and do so against the public will[10] and at taxpayer expense.

The Draft Plan Substitutes Pejorative Labels for Scientific Ones

Cats, however, aren’t the only ones to be targeted for slaughter in the name of a futile attempt to return the environment to some mythic, unreachable past—a past that is sought in service to a cruel, discriminatory philosophy based on a perverse inversion of moral priorities: that the willful infliction of death and great suffering on the now living is justified in the name of increasing numbers of other animals who do not yet exist. Across the country, the animals targeted for eradication under this plan have been joined at different times and in different places by swans, foxes, gulls, cowbirds, sea lions, coyotes, horses, ducks, and more. Referred to as “garbage animals,” “alien” species, “weeds,” and “vermin,” these creatures have become scapegoats for the massive habitat destruction, environmental degradation, and species extinction caused by one species and one species alone: humans.[11] Indeed, the DOEE draft plan also targets other plants and animals they similarly deem unworthy and worthy of killing.

This view comes from a troubling belief that lineage determines the value of an individual animal and is part of a growing and disturbing movement called “Invasion Biology” which is increasingly under attack by the most progressive and forward thinking environmentalists.[12] In the United States, Invasion Biologists believe that certain plants or animals should be valued more than others if they were at a particular location “first,” although the exact starting point varies, is difficult to ascertain and, in many cases, is wholly arbitrary. Indeed, all plants and animals were introduced (by wind, humans, migration or other animals) at some point in time. But regardless of which arbitrary measure is used, Invasion Biologists ultimately make the same, unethical assertions that “introduced” or “non-native” species are not worthy of life or compassion.

Nature, however, cannot be frozen in time or returned to a particular past, nor is there a compelling reason why it should be. To claim that “native” species are somehow preferable than “introduced” species equally or better adapted to a changing environment ignores the inevitable forces of migration and natural selection. All animals have a right to live, regardless of how and when they arrived or were “introduced.” Their rights as individuals supersede our own human-centric preferences, which are often based on arbitrary biases, subjective aesthetics, or narrow commercial interests. We need a kinder, gentler, and more tolerant way of viewing the world and the distribution of animals upon it. We also need one more firmly grounded in science.

Each species on Earth, writes Biology Professor Ken Thompson, “has a characteristic distribution on the Earth’s land surface: But in every case, that distribution is in practice a single frame from a very long movie. Run the clock back only 10,000 years, less than a blink of an eye in geological time, and nearly all of those distributions would be different, in many cases very different. Go back only 10 million years, still a tiny fraction of the history of life on Earth, and any comparison with present-day distributions becomes impossible, since most of the species themselves would no longer be the same.”[13]

This never-ending transformation—of landscape, of climate, of plants and animals—has occurred, and continues to occur, all over the world, resulting from a variety of factors: global weather patterns, plate tectonics, evolution, natural selection, migration, and even the devastating effects of impacting asteroids. Close your eyes and randomly stick a pin on any location in a map, then do a Google search of that region’s history and what you will invariably find is that at some point in time, that location looked very different than it does today, as did the plants and animals who resided there. Over 10,000 years ago, a sudden burst of monsoon rains over the vast Sahara desert transformed its dunes into a savannah which could sustain life, including people and giraffes who migrated into the area which today is once again a barren expanse of sand. Roughly 74 million years ago, Tyrannosaurs, Ceratopsians, and Sauropods roamed the continent of North America which was divided down its middle by a vast, ancient sea. In the distant past, the now frigid polar regions of the Earth were moist, temperate and blanketed by forests. The geographic and fossil records tell us that there is but one constant to life on Earth, and that is change.

Embracing Tolerance for all of the District’s Inhabitants

Because the ultimate goal of the environmental movement is to create a peaceful and harmonious relationship between humans and the environment, in order to be authentic, this goal must include respect for other species who share our planet. And yet, given its alarming embrace of Invasion Biology, the environmental movement has violated this ethic by targeting species for eradication because their existence conflicts with the world as some humans—those schooled in this particular, very narrow and by no means widely shared world view—would like it to be. Condemning animals to death because they violate a preferred sense of order does not reject human interference in the natural world as they claim; it reaffirms it.

Over the last 250 years, the story of humanity has been the story of the human rights movement—of overcoming our darker natures by learning tolerance for the foreign and respect for the diverse. In the early 21st century, these are the cherished ideals to which humanity aspires in our treatment of one another. Yet when it comes to our relationship with other species, these values are turned on their head, and the drafters of the Wildlife Action Plan—the very people who should be promoting tolerance and compassion for all Earthlings regardless of their antecedents—are instead teaching disdain for some, leading the charge to kill them and turning the District’s parks, open spaces, and waterways into war zones and battlefields. We need a different, more humane and more responsible way of seeing the world and our place in it, one that both respects and builds upon, rather than contradicts and erodes, the great moral progress our nation has been making when it comes to the treatment of our fellow Earthlings.

We must reject the notion that “native” is by definition better, that such a label carries any relevant distinction, and that it is fair to the other species who share our planet to hold them to a standard we refuse to ourselves obey. Likewise, we must reject as unjust and deeply ungenerous the notion that the few open spaces free of human encroachment and filled with plants and animals merely following the dictates of nature should now also be subject to our narrow, human-centric preferences. When the vast, developed lands surrounding such places have been intensively manipulated to suit human needs without any regard for maintaining their “native” appearance or the impact that development has upon the welfare of the animals who likewise reside there, how can we morally justify efforts to now declare war on those areas set aside by our ancestors for the specific purpose of providing plants and animals refuge from our often ruthless environmental manipulation? Must the animals who share our planet have no place free of human dominion? No place free of human interference? No place where their lives and needs are not subjugated to humanity’s often selfish and myopic desires?

We must reject the idea that it is wise to declare a hopeless war on that which we can never change: change itself. Otherwise, we will be struggling to save our wild places from these assaults in perpetuity, always debating merely the catastrophic means but never the catastrophic ends.

“Non-native” and “invasive species” are terms that have entered the lexicon of popular culture and become pejorative, inspiring unwarranted fear, knee-jerk suspicion, and a lack of thoughtfulness and moral consideration. They are language of intolerance, based on an idea we have thoroughly rejected in our treatment of our fellow human beings—that the value of a living being can be reduced merely to its place of origin. And when we speak these words, repeat them and pay lip service to their perceived implication that we must revere the familiar and disdain the foreign, we should not only be ashamed to do so, but realize that we are opening the floodgates of expression to our darker natures and our most base instincts—impulses which have been responsible for the most regrettable moments in human history.

We must reject the myopia, illogic and bad science of invasion biology in favor of reason, common sense and a broader understanding and appreciation of the changing nature of life on Earth. And we must replace the language of biological xenophobia with the language of tolerance and compassion. It is time to drive the terms “invasive species” and “non-native” into a well-deserved extinction.

Very truly yours,

Nathan J. Winograd

[1]Over 80% of Americans surveyed think community cats should be left alone if the alternative is impound and killing in “shelters” and three-fourths believe it should be illegal to kill cats (and dogs) if they are not suffering. Chu, K., U.S. Public Opinion on Humane Treatment of Stray Cats (2007). Also (2012).

[2]Litster, A., Operation Catnip: Working together to reduce free-roaming cat populations ethically and effectively, The Veterinary Journal, Volume 201, Issue 3, pp. 239-240, DOI: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2014.05.043 (2014).

[3] In fact, TNR reduces animal control costs overall. In a study of a San Jose, CA, TNR program, cat intake was reduced by 29% despite only sterilizing a modest number of cats relative to the size of the population. At the same time, killing declined 67%. Assuming an average cost of $106 to impound, hold, and kill a cat, the savings was significant. Rates of upper respiratory infections in sheltered cats also declined by 99%, resulting in a healthier cat population allowing the shelter to increase revenue (from adoptions) and reduce costs (from treatment, holding, and killing).Johnson, K., Study of the effect on shelter cat intakes and euthanasia from a shelter neuter return project of 10,080 cats from March 2010 to June 2014, Veterinary Medicine, PubMed 25374785 (2014).

[4] Miller, P., Simulating Free-Roaming Cat Population Management Options in Open Demographic Environments, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0113553 (2014).

[5] In a study in San Jose, California, the number of cats picked up dead on arrival declined by 20%, both because there were fewer cats and, as prior studies noted, neutered cats roamed less. Johnson, K., Study of the effect on shelter cat intakes and euthanasia from a shelter neuter return project of 10,080 cats from March 2010 to June 2014, Veterinary Medicine, PubMed 25374785 (2014).

[6]McCarthy, R., Estimation of effectiveness of three methods of feral cat population control by use of a simulation model, Journal of the American Veterinary Association, Vol. 243, No. 4, pp. 502-511 ( 2013).

[7]Levy, J., Effect of high-impact targeted trap-neuter-return and adoption of community cats on cat intake to a shelter, The Veterinary Journal, Volume 201, Issue 3, pp. 269-274, DOI:10.1016/j.tvjl.2014.05.001 (2014), and Litster, A., Operation Catnip: Working together to reduce free-roaming cat populations ethically and effectively, The Veterinary Journal, Volume 201, Issue 3, pp. 239-240, DOI: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2014.05.043 (2014).

[8] Any alleged “cat predation must be examined in the context of habitat destruction, since cats have not been shown to be the primary cause of the loss of native species on mainland continents.” Litster, A., Operation Catnip: Working together to reduce free-roaming cat populations ethically and effectively, The Veterinary Journal, Volume 201, Issue 3, pp. 239-240, DOI: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2014.05.043 (2014).

[9]In 2003, a ground-breaking 11-year evaluation of nearly a dozen community cat programs showed a 66% reduction in the number of cats in the field; In 2002, three researchers analyzed six years of data both before and after a shelter began sterilizing community cats and found deaths dropped 18%, complaints dropped 25%, and taxpayer costs dropped $655,949; San Francisco’s field impoundment of cats dropped 65% within 10 years of the program’s launch; and the New York State Department of Health encourage these kinds of sterilization programs in order to reduce numbers, impounds, costs, while benefiting public health.

[10]A Harris Interactive poll shows that 81% of Americans believe that leaving a “stray” cat outside is more humane than having the cat “caught” and “put down.” Chu, K., U.S. Public Opinion on Humane Treatment of Stray Cats (2007).

[11] In calling, either explicitly or implicitly, for the round up and killing of cats, proponents are not only blaming cats for damage to wildlife caused by humans, but they also engage in a great hypocrisy: forcing onto cats a standard they refuse themselves to obey. Anti-cat advocates are also “non-native” to North America generally and the District specifically. They belong to a species that is the most “invasive” the planet has ever experienced, causing virtually all of the environmental destruction and alteration. And yet for reasons based entirely on narrow self-interest, they do not hold their own actions to the same standards which they impose upon cats: they do not force themselves to live exclusively indoors, they do not move back to the continent where humans first evolved, they do not stop eating birds, and they do not impose upon themselves or their fellow humans discriminatory standards which judge the worth of an individual based solely on the lineage of their ancestors.

[12] See, e.g., Thompson, K., Where Do Camels Belong?: The Story and Science of Invasive Species (2014); Pearce, F., The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation (2015); and Orion, T., Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration (2015).

[13]Thompson, K., Id.


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