BY TED WILLIAMS
When Ashley Schroeder asked me to recount my recent adventures with the feral-cat lobby, I told her I preferred to write about what it does to wildlife than what, with my help, it did to me. But she perceived possible lessons; so herewith, a combination craft-conservation piece.
- Even if you think you’re speaking for your employer, clearly state that your opinions are your own. At the suggestion of the National Audubon Society, I wrote an op-ed for the March 14, 2013, Orlando Sentinel newspaper in opposition to a horrible bill promoting maintenance of feral cats in Florida’s wildlife habitat. By neglecting to state that my position of editor-at-large was freelance, not salaried, I dragged the society into a fight it hadn’t started. I feel badly about that. In less than a day the CEO’s computer choked on 33,000 emails from feral-cat advocates requesting that I be fired. I got dropped from the masthead and suspended.
- If you write for a house organ and want to keep the outlet, take Michael Corleone’s advice and “never go against the family.” I didn’t contact media and offered nothing to media that contacted me save a prepared statement I’d shown the society.
That statement read in part: “A group called Alley Cat Allies fired off a release to its members and other feral-cat support groups urging that they check a box ‘to donate at least $5’ and 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.’” What I had really written was: “There are two effective, humane alternatives to the cat hell of Trap, Neuter and Release (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.”
- So when you take on animal-rights activists, never underestimate their commitment, energy, resources and duplicity.
- When you step in it, remember that nothing stops charging head hunters dead in their tracks like a mea culpa comprehensive to the point of redundancy. Apologize for every indiscretion, real or imagined, and the attack hits a brick wall. Once I’d done this, Audubon announced that my suspension would be for only one issue, and the caterwauling from the feral-cat groups fell to intermittent grumbling about how “shocked” and “dismayed” they were at this decision.
- Be thankful for your friends. Within 48 hours, support from OWAAers went more viral than the nastygrams. I was humbled and touched by your articles, blogs and letters, all of which finally got the feral-cat problem before the American public. The story even made it to The New York Times.
While the Times piece contained an excellent message about feral cats, it juxtaposed quotes, obliging me to write the editor as follows:
I need to correct an implication, unintended by the Times and the National Audubon Society. It reads: “‘We absolutely reject the notion of individuals poisoning cats,’ Mr. Yarnold said.” And: “The society also said that while cats were still a leading cause of bird deaths, it did not endorse Mr. Williams’s suggestions. ‘Backyard poisoning isn’t the answer and we want to make it absolutely clear we don’t support that idea,’ it said.” Among my lapses of judgment in the Orlando Sentinel op-ed, suggesting “backyard poisoning” by “individuals” was not one. Lethal control of feral cats would be (and is) conducted strictly by wildlife professionals and not in backyards.
- When space is tight, avoid hot-button words. I should not have used “humane,” and “selective” without further explanation. I’m not sure any poison can be called “humane,” but I am sure that any poison is more humane than maintaining feral colonies of domestic animals ill equipped to survive in the wild. At feral-cat feeding stations I’ve seen cats with cloudy eyes, missing eyes, oozing abscesses, gimpy legs, nonfunctional legs and infected ears.
No poison is completely “selective.” But feral-cat poisons, used widely in Australia which has a far higher ecological literacy rate than the U.S., are more selective than most. More importantly, they’re deployed in bait stations that exclude other animals. Feral cats learn quickly to avoid traps and guns. If our wildlife managers can’t use poisons, the battle is lost.
I have never understood why, when the subject is feral cats, people start talking about pet cats. Of course pet cats should be kept indoors, but prescribing that as a solution to the horrendous loss of birds and small mammals from feral cats is like telling people to control Asian bittersweet by not putting it in Christmas wreaths. On the big island of Hawaii, where there are one million feral cats, I saw the last of the endangered palilas, one of dozens of bird species feral cats are ushering into extinction. I doubt they’ll last the decade. Yet TNR is widely practiced in Hawaii.
Ironically, the national catfight issuing from the op-ed with which I embarrassed myself and my employer accomplished something we’d both hoped for. That horrible feral-cat bill had sailed unanimously through the Florida House, but it’s now DOA in the Senate. The feral-cat lobby is blaming “cat haters” for the recent barrage of “anti-cat” articles, blogs and letters. Mea culpa. ◊
A member since 1975, Ted Williams is from Grafton, Mass. He is a freelance writer
specializing in conservation and environment. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.