Shooting the bird in the hand

March 22, 2013

Is it possible to love cats and birds at the same time? Of course it is; I do it every day. But apparently, that’s not true for everyone.

I have a cat named Brutus. I adore this cat. When Brutus catches a mouse in the kitchen, I applaud him as though he’s just won a Nobel prize. (Of course, he then generally lets the mouse go, and I have to recapture it and release it in the woods.)

I don’t, however, let my cat outdoors. I’m lucky to have a big yard that’s frequented by countless songbirds, rabbits, deer, opossums, the occasional box turtle, a beautiful red fox, and a pair of spectacular red-shouldered hawks. I’d prefer that Brutus not become part of the local food chain, either as a meal, or as a killer – as he very likely would, new research shows.

A study released in January 2013 by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that free-roaming cats kill between 1.4–3.7 billion birds and 6.9–20.7 billion mammals a year, figures that are two to four times higher than past studies (like the one fabulously illustrated by The Oatmeal) have shown.

This makes cats “likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic mortality for U.S. birds and mammals.” That’s right: Kitty killings beat out collisions with cars, buildings and windmills, pesticides and poisons, in raining death down on birds and other wildlife.

Yet Audubon magazine recently distanced itself from the great nature writer and rabble-rouser Ted Williams because of an op-ed he wrote for the Orlando Sentinel about the threats that feral cats pose to native wildlife like birds and small mammals, a topic he had written about several times before in Audubon and elsewhere. The issue is complicated by Ted’s unfortunate referral to Tylenol as “a completely selective feral-cat poison,” a line that has now been cut from the Sentinel piece.

Predictably, legions of cat lovers promptly called for Ted’s head. Less predictably, Audubon apparently has capitulated: according to National Geographic Daily News and several other sources, the magazine posted the following statement (which I could not find myself) on their Facebook page:

“Ted Williams is a freelance writer who published a personal opinion piece in the Orlando Sentinel. We regret any misimpression that Mr. Williams was speaking for us in any way: He wasn’t. Audubon magazine today suspended its contract with Mr. Williams and will remove him as “Editor at Large” from the masthead pending further review. Mr. Williams is not an Audubon employee. He is a freelance writer and a conservationist who has written for Audubon for 33 years. He writes for numerous publications.”

For decades, Ted’s writing has been at the forefront of battles to safeguard wildlife and the environment. I learned of the controversy over the Sentinel op-ed the day after reading a wonderful Incite column by Ted in Audubon about the Florida grasshopper sparrow, a bird that is likely headed for extinction. Columns like this educate me, provoke me, push me to do more to make a difference in the world. Without Ted’s Incite column, Audubon would be a poorer place.

I think I’m probably pretty representative of Audubon’s core audience: Bird lover. Wildlife lover. Deeply concerned about the environment. Willing to do what it takes to protect that environment – including keeping my cat indoors and supporting efforts to reduce the numbers of free-roaming cats. I’m hopeful that Audubon will ultimately remember who they’re really talking to, and not cave to the klaxon cries of animal lovers who would turn a blind eye to the billions of birds and mammals which our beloved cats are killing.

UPDATE: On March 26, Audubon reinstated Ted William’s Incite column and published this explanation of their decision, along with an apology from Ted.

Cat Lazaroff