Photo: Will Keightley/CC BY-SA 2.0

Jim Stevenson took up arms to protect the birds he loves. While watching piping plovers on the shoreline near Galveston, Texas, in 2006, he was distressed to see a cat stalking the endangered species. Stevenson, executive director of the Galveston Ornithological Society, tried—and failed—to catch the feral feline, one of a dozen or so living under the San Luis Pass bridge. The next day he returned with a .22 and shot and killed the cat.


“Piping plovers are tame, abiding little creatures. They roost in the dunes and can’t see or hear a cat creep up on them,” Stevenson told Bruce Barcott, reporting for The New York Times Magazine. “The American taxpayers spend millions of dollars to protect birds like piping plovers, and yet here are these cats killing the birds, and nobody’s doing anything to stop it.” 


John Newland sees the situation differently, as an article in People magazine shows:

On a clear, blustery day last November, toll-booth attendant John Newland was at his post on the lonely two-lane San Luis Pass bridge in a remote section of south Texas's Galveston Island. Suddenly he heard gunfire. Running down a grassy embankment underneath the bridge, Newland found the fatally wounded victim: a gray-and-white tabby named Mama Cat.

Newland—who for the past five years has lovingly tended Mama and the colony of her fellow strays—immediately suspected who the perp might be, and his instincts proved correct. The triggerman was his longtime nemesis Jim Stevenson, 54, a local naturalist and bird expert who freely admits that he did Mama in. “The cat dropped like a rock,” he says, recalling how he carefully aimed his .22 before firing. “I figured I’d killed it instantly, which was what I wanted. I don’t want to see any animal suffer.”

Though extreme, the case shows just how heated conflicts between bird advocates and cat fanciers can become. Around the country, the two factions frequently face off, engaging in small-scale skirmishes and lobbying for state legislation that regulates trap-neuter-release (TNR) in feral cat colonies. A new study in PLos ONE looks at why these two groups are so polarized and how they can find common ground.


The authors liken the rival groups to members of opposing political parties. “Cat people” and “bird people” sharply disagree on the effects of the 50 million free-roaming feral cats on wildlife and colony management.


“Members of both these groups feel they have concerns that have been ignored,” says Nils Peterson, an associate professor in North Carolina State University’s Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology Program. “This feeling of injustice is part of what leads them to identify with their groups.”


To figure out why management of free-roaming cat colonies is so rife with controversy, students in Peterson’s Human Dimensions of Wildlife Management course project surveyed 577 people nationwide: 338 identified as cat colony caretakers, and 239 bird conservation professionals from groups including Audubon, American Bird Conservancy, and The Nature Conservancy.


Among the most surprising findings, Peterson says, is that 84% of cat colony caretakers were unaware that felines are reservoirs for disease (including rabies, toxoplasmosis, and plague) and 60% didn’t know that cats contribute to native bird decline. Another misconception among the group is that TNR eventually eliminates feral cats.


While 98% of caretakers said colonies should be managed using TNR, only 21% of bird professions agreed.


Peterson was also surprised that 80% of colony caretakers thought conflict resolution was possible, but only half of bird conservation professionals shared that sentiment.


Interestingly, nearly half (45%) of bird conservation professionals owned cats, and most (57%) consider themselves “cat people.” Sixty-eight percent of cat colony caretakers considered themselves “bird people.”


The authors say a shared interest in caring for animals is one way conservationists can connect with cat caretakers, who generally mistrust—or lack knowledge about—scientific findings on feral cats. People aiming to protect birds should also involve cat colony caretakers in the management process—determining what kind of data to collect, for instance, and defining study and management areas.


The Audubon Society of Portland, for instance, has teamed up with the Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon (their motto is: It is not about birds versus cats; it is about protecting birds and cats.). And as part of the New Jersey Feral Cat-Wildlife Coalition, New Jersey Audubon works with TNR practitioners. 


“There are several [bird] groups in the U.S. that are trying to use mapping approaches to identify areas of high conservation value that are at risk of feral cats and then working with cat advocates,” says Christopher Lepczyk, of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.


Working together has its challenges. “One of the main issues is not going through the mapping work, but what happens when actual on-the-ground locations are found,” says Lepczyk. That’s when different views on management action emerge. For instance, cats on public lands must be removed. “But the cat colony folks are not always OK moving the colony, or have no where they can legally move them except to an animal shelter, where they may end up euthanized.”


Because management issues like this are so difficult to resolve, Lepczyk says “the ultimate goal should be reducing cats on the landscape, which at its heart means stopping the inflow of new cats.” That, in turn, requires public education, pet ownership laws, and indoor cat campaigns like the one in Portland.


Collaborative strategies could prove useful when birders butt heads with groups other than cat lovers. Take, for instance, off-road vehicle enthusiasts and piping plover conservationists at Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Recreational Area in North Carolina. (Peterson’s class previously looked into that battle (pdf).)  “In both cases, identity politics exacerbate the conflict,” Peterson says. “In both cases bird conservation groups have the upper hand, legally, on public lands, but public traditions and emotions make iron-fisted command-and-control conservation a dangerous strategy.”


In both cases, he adds, it’s possible to meet the needs of both parties—if they’re willing. Of course, as the deadly incident with Stevenson and Newland in Galveston shows, that’s easier said than done with such an emotionally charged subject.


Stevenson was charged with animal cruelty. After deliberating for more than eight hours, the judge was forced to declare a mistrial when it became clear that the jury was—fittingly, given the issue—deadlocked.


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