Managing cats - the need for a meeting of the minds

On Tuesday, I had a meeting with Suzanne Case, Chair of Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), and Lisa Fowler, CEO and President of the Hawaii Humane Society (HHS).  The topic?  Cats and cat management in Hawaii.

I am humbly aware of my shortcomings here.  First, look who is in the room!  Suzanne Case, born and raised in Hawaii, was the Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy in Hawaii from 2001-2015.  She knows the issues, the location, and the politics.

Suzanne Case, Chair, DLNR

Likewise, Lisa Fowler has a great deal of experience, coming to the HHS after a stint as Executive Director of the Hawaii Island Humane Society.  Her organization has spayed or neutered tens of thousands of cats in the last 2 decades, in addition to facilitating new homes for cats and dogs, and helping reunite lost pets with their companions.

Lisa Fowler, CEO, HHS

And then there is me.

Me, lost in the woods, Napali Coast State Wilderness Park - Hanakapiai, between the beach and the falls.

What do I bring to the table?  It's certainly not the practical, real-world experience of Case and Fowler in Hawaii (by the way, I flipped a coin to determine the order of the names of these 2 executives).  I guess I bring an independence, in that I work for neither organization but have a great interest in the missions of both.  In addition, I have a strange pedigree that includes:

•  Certified Wildlife Biologist
•  PhD in Ecology
•  Past President of 3 different local Audubon Societies
•  Past President of the Western Section of The Wildlife Society
•  Past Chair of the Vertebrate Pest Council
•  Past President of the National Animal Damage Control Association
•  Past member, National Wildlife Services Advisory Committee, USDA
•  Emeritus member, Society of Mammalogists
•  Acting Assistant Deputy Administrator for USDA-APHIS-Wildlife Services
•  Taught graduate courses in Wildlife Damage Policy; Human Dimensions of Wildlife Management
•  Taught undergraduate courses in Wildlife Damage Techniques; Living With Wildlife
•  Numerous presentations and peer-reviewed publications dealing with wildlife-human conflicts
•  Graduate advising for students working with gray wolf, island cats, coyote, and human dimensions issues

Preparing students for shooting exercise for one of my courses.

If you notice me using the word "past" a lot, well, I'm partially retired!  Then there is the other part of me that defines me as somewhat "undefinable":

•  I was one of the first people who started publishing papers to the wildlife management community dealing with humane issues (starting with Schmidt, R. H., and J. G. Bruner. 1981. A professional attitude toward humaneness. Wildlife Society Bulletin 9(4):289-291)
•  Reviewer, PAACO Standards for Certification of Animal Welfare Audit Instruments & Processes
•  Member, Humane Society of the US working group on wildlife euthanasia
•  Assisted Maryland State Police with animal euthanasia guidelines
•  Appointed by the American Veterinary Medical Association to panel for revising euthanasia guidelines
•  Graduate advising for students working on attitudes of wildlife managers, USDA-ADC employees (now Wildlife Services), and the general public toward wildlife damage management strategies and techniques
•  Taught undergraduate courses, Why Bad Things Happen to Good Animals; Environmental Advocacy and Action; Environmental Problem-Solving
•  Article in Lab Animal on gunshot as euthanasia
•  Articles in the Wildlife Society Bulletin on traps and trapping, and public attitudes toward traps and trapping
•  Invited to present summary, International conference, The Outdoor Cat – Science and Policy from a Global Perspective, 2012
•  Article, Cat Fight!  The TNR Wars
•  Past Board member and volunteer, Cache Humane Society
•  Past member of USU's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee
•  Member Scientific Committee, Animal Welfare Institute

I've lined these cats up to be spayed or neutered at a local clinic in Utah.

The meeting began with a number of folk in the room:  Case and Fowler, myself, Curt Cottrell (Administrator of the Division of State Parks), Steve Thompson (Resources Management Branch Parks Program Manager, Division of State Parks), Ed Underwood (Administrator of the Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation), Meghan Statts (Small Boats Harbors Oahu District Manager, Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation), Richard Zwern (Board of Directors, HHS), and Karen Huffman (HHS supporter).

My first observation was that all of these people spoke with confidence, professionalism, and without rancour toward cats.  They've all seen the parks and harbors, or worked to provide better lives for cats, or both.

In summary, the parks staff are frustrated with the nuisance issues resulting from the presence of cats in many of their parks, particularly with cat food (dry and canned) being broadcast or left on the ground in areas convenient for the feeder but at the same time very visible to other park users.  The maintenance staff works hard to keep restrooms clean, landscaping maintained, and trash removed, and having to deal with the additional work of cleaning up after cats (food containers, remaining food, cat feces) is not time that is budgeted.  They recognize the "emotional investment" of cat caregivers, but over time the relationship between park staff and cat caregivers is more negative than positive.

Impressively, Curt Cottrell distributed a draft spreadsheet for state park facilities on Oahu, Hawaii, Kauai, and Maui with estimated numbers of "feral" cats (certainly these numbers include abandoned, socialized cats as well).  On Oahu, for example, for the facilities with cats, the numbers ranged from 8 (Wahiawa Ridge State Recreation Area, SRA) to over 100 (both Sand Island SRA and Keaiwa Heiau SRA).  This was a draft, and the numbers were only estimates, but data like this is extremely helpful for assessing the effectiveness of various cat management programs.

The draft spreadsheet also noted that there were estimates of 6-12 cats on the Napali Coast State Wilderness Park - Hanakapiai, between the beach and the falls, but I did not see any cats there last week.  I look for cats, and this is an indication that these cats can be furtive, especially when there is a great deal of vegetation. I assume a major attraction for these cats is food left by the hikers to the beach.

The boating division staff noted the difficulties with cats at their Oahu facilities.  In addition to easy access for feeders, some sites tend to have additional food for cats in the form of discarded fish and fish scraps.  When the Keehi headquarters building was under construction, the contractor complained about cat feces, smell, and cats on vehicles.  I sensed this myself on a recent visit.  [As an aside, there is a man named Don Phillippi who feeds cats at Keehi and has been public and active in conversations about cat management there.]  Staff expressed frustration with the HHS's policy of allowing people to post the Keehi Boat Harbor (as well as other state sites) as either the owner or the location for cats that had been microchipped (and spayed or neutered), so that trapped cats would continue to be released back at Keehi.  Lisa Fowler noted that by _____________ (law? policy? regulation? contractual obligation?) HHS is required to return trapped cats to the owners (not any location) noted on the microchip, and (if I got this right) the details on the microchip are provided by the person claiming "ownership."  In addition, the HHS is not the only organization or clinic providing microchip identification services, so Fowler couldn't speak for these other providers.  The only other estimate of cat numbers in a state harbor brought up at this meeting was 60-80 cats at Haleiwa.  

A spayed cat lounging under mailboxes at Keehi Boat Harbor.

Overall, as with parks, the chief concern was nuisance-related.  This is not to say that there were no concerns about cat impacts on wildlife (there are).  However, it is in parks and harbors that cats are particularly visible, the cause of complaints, affect the duties and morale of staff, and in high densities (real or perceived).

I was asked for comments.  I noted that I don't consider myself a "cat expert," but my professional background is in resolving or managing human-wildlife conflicts, and feral cats are of interest because they are the "un-wildlife," not falling into the laws and policies regarding protected wildlife, yet not falling clearly in laws and policies regarding pets.

I commented that, although discussions on cat management tended to focus on the extremes of zero or existing numbers, there was room in the middle, based on biological and social carrying capacity.  Although I suggested that an allowable number of cats be assigned for each location, this idea was not acceptable by some in the room.

I also noted my belief that advances in reproductive inhibition technologies would result in very effective sterilization strategies in the future.  That future could be 10, 20, or even 50 years down the road.  So there should be a prioritization of sites.  What sites, if not managed to reduce cat numbers RIGHT NOW, would result in irrevocable loss or harm?  Which sites can wait 1 year?  Which can wait 10?  Focus should be on the most critical sites, and when the cat management debates conflate the critical with the "merely nuisance," the conversation is muddied and important decisions can be delayed.

Finally, I commented that we had, in the room, the major players (DLNR and HHS) in cat management on Oahu, and if there could be a "meeting of the minds," life would be good! 

My recommendations:

1.  The HHS should provide a flowsheet/decision tree to DLNR staff regarding what happens, what can happen, and what doesn't happen when a cat on state lands is either seen or trapped.  This would provide clarity to DLNR staff about what happens when a cat is taken from their facility to HHS, as well as other issues that might come up. 

2.  DLNR and HHS should work to develop a few demonstration or pilot sites that could act as showcases of effective cat management.  After discussion, it was suggested, informally, that these sites on Oahu be the Keehi Harbor on Sand Island (9+ cats), and the Nuuanu Pali State Wayside (50+ cats).  Maintaining precise records is important here, both of cats and of cat-related problems.

3.  DLNR and HHS should each appoint a primary contact person for the projects noted above.  These relationships are key and must allow for the development of trust (Schmidt, R. H. 2002. Playing with fire: trust and the credibility of the profession. Proceedings of the Vertebrate Pest Conference 20:3-6).

4.  The observation that park (and presumably harbor) staff have, over time, developed an antagonistic relationship with cat feeders (key stakeholders), means that HHS staff or volunteers may be particularly useful in developing relationships and agreements with these feeders.

5.  Although the long-term goal is zero cats on state lands, short-term goals should be:

•  no new kittens being born
•  cat feeders identified and brought into the management process
•  refuse (food packaging and food uneaten by cats) eliminated
•  cat feeding locations assigned and strictly followed

6.  Over the longer term, the highest quality TNRM program available should be used.  I suggest a checklist be developed by HHS for use by DLNR and cat feeders so they are all on the same page. I have some ideas on the matter (Schmidt, R. H. 2013. Cat fight! the TNR wars. Proceedings of the Vertebrate Pest Conference 25:89-94). 

7.  Removal (for adoption or euthanasia) should be a joint decision of HHS veterinary staff and DLNR managers.

Signage at Hawaii Kai Park'n Ride.

Any errors or omissions to my notes are my responsibility.  Corrections are yours.

2/26/18 addendum: Suzanne Case stated in recent testimony (2/14/18) against HB 2593, "The Department supports cat management options that combine humane treatment when possible with the ecological reality of mammalian predators existing on islands with threatened and endangered wildlife. Sociable cats should be adopted into homes wherever possible, and the Department is aware and supportive of options, such as cat sanctuaries or outdoor enclosures (called "catios") that allow cats to live outside of homes but remain separated from Hawaii's native wildlife. However, any realistic approach to the feral cat problem in Hawaii must include euthanasia for animals that cannot be placed into homes or sanctuaries. Implementing a TNR program would only increase the problems Hawaii faces from feral cats, while exposing the State to potential lawsuits under the ESA." 

This testimony was submitted the day after our meeting.


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