I can haz ecology?

There is a lot of debate about whether or not scientists should be advocates or not. My general feeling is that if one has expertise or knowledge that can help to better inform a solution to a problem, they should feel free to share that information. Sharing one’s knowledge does not bias the pursuit of that knowledge. On the other hand, if you’re collecting data with the intent to be an advocate for a cause, then I find that more troublesome (more on this in a future blog post).

Professionally, I’d never officially served as an advocate for any cause.  Yet, last night I found myself giving a short speech at the Los Angeles Animal Services Board Meeting about feral cats in the city. First of all, let me say that if you haven’t been to a local government board meeting, you are missing out. It’s a mix of Parks and Rec and The People’s Court and much better than any reality TV. People are passionate about animals and that passion comes through in lots of different emotional and entertaining ways.

Here’s the situation that brought me to this meeting. The city of Los Angeles used to provide Trap, Neuter, and Release (TNR) vouchers. So non-profit organizations, such as the Kitty Bungalow Charm School for Wayward Cats, could go out into neighborhoods with large populations of feral cats, catch the cats, take them to a vet, and use the city vouchers to pay for the neutering, before again releasing the cats. TNR offers a more humane way of controlling feral cat populations than rounding up and euthanizing feral cats. However, for five years, there has been an injunction against the City’s TNR program. I won’t go into the legal drama behind this, but the bottom line is that the City is not acting for fear of getting sued by a group that doesn’t approve of their plan. The City is sitting on the money set aside for the voucher program and essentially has no feral cat control program.

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I am far from the first to think about how to apply ecological principles to controlling feral cat populations, but it’s comforting to know that, despite all the complaints about ecology not being a predictive science, there are tools in an ecologist’s skill set that allow us to think about this problem. Cats are an invasive species and we have a huge amount of research about consequences of and strategies for controlling invasives. We can think about life tables and determining which parts of the life cycle contribute most to population growth, and targeting those stages. Whether the feral cat population is growing exponentially or logistically gives us some idea about how the population will respond to an increase in death rates or a decrease in birth rates. We know that cats interact with other species and an increase or decrease in their population size is likely to affect the ecosystem around them. A 2013 report in Nature Communications estimates that cats kill between 1 and 4 BILLION birds in the United States each year. On the other hand, the same cats kill between 6 and 22 billion mammals each year and many of these are invasive rodents. So despite their effect on the bird population, feral cats also contribute an important ecosystem service.

The point is that there are many concepts from ecology that can be brought to bear on this problem, and as with everything in ecology, the actual answer is complicated and context-dependent. Plus, any scientific arguments must be balanced with other sociological and humanitarian concerns. However, the reason I spoke at the Animal Board meeting is because, as I scientist, I am certain that doing anything to control the feral cat population (whether it be TNR or something else) is better than doing nothing about it. Those who want to protect bird populations want fewer cats. Those who want to protect cats also want fewer cats.

While writing a statement for this meeting, I found that whether or not to be an advocate is a tricky balance. I felt comfortable advocating as a professional that something needs to be done about the feral cat population. At the meeting, I introduced myself as an ecology professor from Cal State Northridge. However, if I were asked professionally to evaluate whether a TNR program is better or worse than a massive euthanization program, I would be unable to give a professional opinion without more research and data. I’m sure that there is an urban ecologist out there who is more qualified to speak about this issue with more authority than I am. I would be uncomfortable advocating as a scientist for one population control strategy over another. As a human being and animal lover, I would advocate for TNR over euthanization because I like cats and I don’t want a massive kitten slaughter. I would still feel comfortable conveying these opinions to the Board, but I would do so as a concerned citizen, and would not have introduced myself as a scientist. Different people draw the line between professional and personal advocacy in different places, but I think it’s an important ethical exercise to go through.

As both a personal and professional experience, I found this very rewarding. As I sit at my desktop and examine whether my AIC values suggest better fits for Gaussian or gamma distributions of my data on plant fitness, it’s nice to step back and look at the bigger picture of how we can apply ecological principles to everyday problems with real consequences in our local community.

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