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Feral cats and a spineless decision from the Audubon Society

Posted on March 17, 2013

Rob DriesleinIn 2000, my wife and I visited Cape Cod with our year-old son. During the trip, Iā€ˆspent a day striped bass fishing with Massachusetts-based outdoors scribe Ted Williams. It was an honor to share a Mako with arguably the nation’s best conservation and environmental writer.

Williams has been one of the few outdoors scribes willing to report on issues many sportsmen ignore, which is why Outdoor News has reprinted some of his articles over the years. He cuts through the BS and tackles obvious abominations like the tribal black market in eagle feathers, feral cats (in Hawaii and on the mainland), climate change, exotic species, and lousy coldwater fisheries management.

Like the late, great outdoor communicator from South Dakota, Tony Dean, Williams has mentored and inspired other conservation writers around the country. His “Incite” column in Audubon magazine and his writing in fly-fishing publications regularly identifies good fights for sportsmen and environmentalists alike. He’s challenged citizens to look beyond their own political beliefs and maintain their guard against the true threats to hunting, fishing, and the environment.

This weekend, however, Audubon severed its ties with Williams, one of its magazine’s field editors, after the Orlando Sentinel printed his piece about the obvious dangers feral cats pose to wildlife. The original article can be found here.

Feral cat advocates predictably threw a tantrum, and Audubon actually capitulated to these people. You can read Audubon’s pathetic explanation here.

I’m not going to debate the damage that free-ranging domestic cats inflict on our environment. Outdoors users, naturalists, and bird watchers know it, Audubon knows it, and state and federal natural resources agencies know it. Feral cat colony proponents know it, too; they just don’t give a damn. Arguing this black-and-white topic with a free-ranging cat advocate is akin to debating Darwin with an evolution denier or the carcinogenic properties of cigarettes with a tobacco-industry lobbyist. I’m not doing that anymore.

That said, I still think the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state natural resources agencies should be shutting down feral cat colonies around the country. If these agencies grew a pair, they’d be charging folks who maintain these colonies with releasing exotic species onto the landscape. It’s no different than dumping Asian carp into public waters, and it’s disgusting that public servants sworn to protect the environment ignore this environmental blight.

Anyway, the point here is that Audubon threw one of the good guys under the bus. For decades on its behalf, Audubon has allowed Williams to step into the ring against corporate polluters, feral horse advocates, ORVs on bird-nesting grounds, Big Ag, and dumb, environment-damaging public works projects. But thanks to angry emails and Facebook posts from the free-ranging cat people, they’re all too happy to discard arguably their toughest and most sensible environmental writer.

Wrapping up this blog today, I explained the situation to my wife, who remembered Williams joining us for dinner 13 years ago. “It’s Audubon, right? Aren’t they about protecting birds?”

Yes, Audubon indeed looks ridiculous here. It terminated its affiliation with an environmental warrior because of protests from a group that openly advocates for exotic pests wiping out our native birds.

This is the low point in the history of Audubon, and its members should re-evaluate the organization. Writers like Williams have long advocated for sporting groups to unify with Audubon and other environmental groups to fight for the outdoors. How can I ask the hunters and anglers who read Outdoor News to take Audubon seriously when it puts the feelings of feral cat advocates ahead of actual birds? I can’t and I won’t.

Finally, bird watchers and the bird-watching media need to speak up. For too long, they’ve allowed old-school casters and blasters like Williams (and me) to fight feral cat madness. They need to step up today and fight for Williams, and against feral cat colonies.

Everyone can start by contacting Audubon and chastising the organization for this embarrassing decision. Audubon should be explaining legal and ethical ways to fight feral cat advocates and dismantle feral cat colonies, not firing a field editor carrying the organization’s banner.

Contact Audubon here.

Williams has been declining interviews, but offered the following statement to the media on Sunday:

“The Audubon Facebook post pretty much tells the story. Not much I can add except to point out that I undertook the op-ed for the Orlando Sentinel at Audubon’s suggestion and for no pay because its Florida staff was too busy to respond to an op-ed touting trap, neuter, and release of feral cats. I was trying to help, but obviously failed.

“The feral cat community seized upon a reference I’d made to Tylenol, a cat poison unregistered for feral cat control. The sentences, quickly struck by the Orlando Sentinel on the online version (there was no print version) because of comments from feral cat support groups, read as follows: ‘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.’

“Lethal control of feral cats is widely and legally undertaken by state and federal wildlife managers to protect imperiled birds and mammals. But because poisons like Tylenol are not registered, control is largely ineffective.  Cats have to be trapped, and they quickly learn to avoid traps. This, as the recently released Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute study revealed, is why each year in the U.S. somewhere between 1.4 billion and 3.7 billion birds and between 6.9 billion and 20.7 billion wild mammals are killed by feral and free-ranging cats. I think that’s too bad.

“At any rate, a group called Alley Cat Allies fired off a release to its members and other feral cat support groups urging that they write Audubon demanding my immediate dismissal because I had ‘published a major newspaper editorial calling on the public to kill millions of cats by poisoning them with Tylenol.’ This untruth went ebola viral, and Audubon received literally thousands of emails from feral cat advocates demanding that I be fired. The result is the Audubon Facebook post you have seen.

“While I’m of course disappointed in Audubon’s response, I recognize that I’m a seller of copy and Audubon is a buyer and that it has a perfect right to do business with anyone it pleases.”

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