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The right idea, but poorly executed

Posted by WalterLamb on 07 Sep 2012 at 08:33 GMT

It is encouraging to see more studies attempting to find common ground and mutually acceptable solutions with regard to the highly polarized issue of feral cats. There is also a good deal of useful information in this study. Ironically, however, the authors seem not to have heeded their own advice as there is no indication that they solicited any feedback from feral cat advocates in the design of their study. As a result, they make many of the same arguments and cite many of the same sources that cat advocates have aggressively disputed for many years. Likewise, the empirical questions seem tailored to demonstrate the cognitive bias of cat advocates and make no attempt to uncover the cognitive bias of wildlife advocates. For instance, it would have been interesting to know how many wildlife advocates believe that traditional animal control eliminates feral cat colonies, but this question was not asked.

The authors are certainly on the right track by exploring the impact of identity politics on stakeholders policy positions, but I believe they miss the point by arguing that this identity politics can lead cat advocates to pursue policies detrimental to wildlife and wildlife advocates to adopt policies detrimental to cats. Identity politics can actually lead cat advocates to adopt policies that are bad for cats and wildlife advocates to adopt policies that are bad for wildlife. The focus on moral imperatives (i.e. "it is wrong to euthanize cats" or "it is wrong to care for invasive predators in outdoor environments") makes it difficult to find mathematically practical solutions that can actually reduce the number of homeless cats.

This is what led the American Bird Conservancy to argue strenuously for many years that communities should address the problem of feral cats by building cat sanctuaries, in the model of Chico, California. ABC eventually realized the mathematical absurdity of this proposal when the Chico shelter filled to capacity while remaining unsterilized cats continued to breed in local parks.

I hope the authors will follow up by recognizing the need to follow their own advice. By asking cat advocates to participate not just as survey respondents, but collaborative partners in the design of the study, they will have a much greater chance of affecting real change.

Walter Lamb

No competing interests declared.

RE: The right idea, but poorly executed

Nils replied to WalterLamb on 07 Sep 2012 at 14:02 GMT

Our recommendation to engage cat colony advocates in design and evaluation of research was a conclusion that emerged from our study. Accordingly we could not follow the advice during the design phase of our project (the study had yet to generate the recommendation). We did engage the leading cat colony advocate in the nation during the data collection process and while developing conclusions. The the process certainly rounded out our perspective and arguably made the ultimate conclusions more balanced than previous research on related topics. This particular recommendation also has links to scale. It is important to note that our paper does not recommend making local decisions based on large national level studies. The "right" decision probably depends on local ecology and social systems. It's hard to imagine a global or international solution to cat colony management that fits across the board. Thus our recommendation about engaging stakeholders in the research process it primarily targeted at the local scale studies needed to inform local decisions. Lamb is correct that future research focusing more on the cognitive biases of conservation biologists is warranted. The research may actually help practitioners more effectively conserve biodiversity in addition to addressing Lamb's questions about whether similar biases exist within both groups.

No competing interests declared.

RE: RE: The right idea, but poorly executed

WalterLamb replied to Nils on 07 Sep 2012 at 16:52 GMT

I do recognize the "chicken and egg" nature of my complaint, however, I think it is still relevant for several reasons. First, Dr. Christopher Lepczyk, who I realize only joined your study after the design and data collection, published conclusions very similar to yours back in Spring 2011 in The Wildlife Professional magazine (cited by this study). Unfortunately, he also made the curious choice to acknowledge that both sides of this debate suffer from polarized thinking but then proceeded to list examples only of cat advocates being affected. Stoskopf and Nutter (also cited by this study) concluded in 2004 that "Individuals holding different views on feral cat management must find ways to work together in a rational
atmosphere of cooperation." It seems reasonable to think that some basic background research of this issue would provided all of the clues needed to include one or more of the researchers who have been published in peer-reviewed journals suggesting that trap-neuter-return may have some place in the management equation.

Even putting those earlier papers aside, however, the concept of collaboration between stakeholders of differing values is certainly not a novel one, and it is hard to imagine that this would have come as a surprise to researchers with specific expertise in the field of human dimensions and wildlife. So it certainly seems fair to categorize this approach as an unfortunate oversight, even if my "follow their own advice" wording may not have been chronologically accurate.

Again, it is encouraging that the authors at least express the desire to broaden the discussion past the polarizing sound bites that have prevented meaningful progress on this issue for many decades. Rather than the traditional light switch that can be set only to on or off (or in this case "TNR good" or "TNR bad") we need a more sophisticated control panel to address this complex issue, one that factors in the many variable factors that determine the success or failure of any method of control, whether lethal or non-lethal. For instance, this study suggests that many wildlife professionals see little room for compromise because they would never allow TNR on public lands. This misses the point that many TNR projects are taking place in urban alleys or suburban residential neighborhoods. TWS, ABC and other groups make no distinction relative to settings or other factors. Their opposition to TNR is universal. In fact, even though Dr. Lepczyk has collaborated with groups like the Humane Society of the U.S., the CEO of the Wildlife Society, Micheal Hutchens has called that group "wild bird executioners."

Clearly there is much more to this issue than belongs in the comments section of a web site. Time will tell whether wildlife scientists are really willing to explore other ways to address this problem or whether they will double down on mistaking opposition to one ideologically undesirable form of control as a plan for actually reducing the number of cats.

I hope that this study represents a small first step in the right direction.

No competing interests declared.

RE: RE: RE: The right idea, but poorly executed

Nils replied to WalterLamb on 07 Sep 2012 at 17:47 GMT

This is an interesting discussion, but has moved into areas well beyond the scope of our paper (e.g., positions of the Humane Society, TWS, personal history of authors, the scientific community, whether TNR is a viable management tool, etc.). I would like to note the core questions addressed in the paper: 1) what are the opinions of cat colony caretakers and bird conservation professionals, and 2) what predicts those opinions. Findings such as 86% of cat colony caretakers disagree with the idea that cats carry diseases or group membership, gender, and education drive opinions are central results of this study. Our central findings are not about collaborative process design, how research should be conducted, whether various professional societies are biased, or whether TNR should be part of cat colony management. Rather, the findings have implications for such topics. Also, our recommendations for collaboration are more nuanced than ‘collaboration between diverse people is good’ and are based on the specific opinions discovered during the research.

No competing interests declared.