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Must Cats Die So Birds Can Live?

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Illustration by Bigshot Toyworks   

The latter are the result of a contest held by the Feral Cat Initiative, a program of the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC Animals, which promotes TNR mainly by creating awareness. “The real work,” says Jane Hoffman, a former consultant who founded the Mayor’s Alliance in 2003 to curb the number of animals killed in shelters, “is done by individuals, out of their own pockets.” You can see how this sounded like a good deal to the Bloomberg administration.

“My husband thinks I’m having an affair,” Debi Romano, a fortysomething in a zebra-striped top, jokes to the group crowded into the Queens Library. Every night, Romano spends at least four hours driving around the outer boroughs, providing food and water to the 40 colonies of cats she manages. Romano runs a foundation called Save Kitty, and this Sunday morning, she and a partner are teaching a group of concerned citizens the basics of TNR: How to use a humane trap and how to calm the cat when it realizes it’s in a trap (throw a blanket over it); where they can take it to be spayed or neutered (the ASPCA, the Humane Society) and given an “ear-tip” (an Evander Holyfield–style slash across the ear indicating it belongs to a colony); and where to put it while it recovers (a garage, a bathtub). Afterward, the room buzzes with feel-good energy.

TNR is instinctively appealing: It seems logical, humane. Unlike previous methods of animal control—like rounding up strays and drowning them in the East River—it feels like a solution for the kind of people we believe ourselves to be now. “A compassionate people,” as Robinson puts it. “A nation of animal lovers.”

Of course, that’s only one way to look at it. “That is, if you’ll pardon my French, complete bullshit,” says Ed Clark, Virginia accent booming across the Upper East Side bistro he’s stopped at on the way to Greenwich, where he’s giving a talk to donors to the Wildlife Center of Virginia, the animal hospital at which he sees, on average, 250 cat-inflicted injuries a year. “Have you ever seen a cat kill a bird?” he asks. “They slice ’em right down the middle.” He traces a line up his stomach. “Whoosh.”

Clark, the voluble onetime host of Animal Planet’s Wildlife Emergency, is part of a group of conservationists who have watched the popularity of TNR escalate with horror. To him and his cohort, its supporters have made a terrible Sophie’s choice: By enabling feral cats to live outside, they’re condemning other creatures to horrific deaths. “They’re wearin’ blinders and whistlin’ in the dark,” he says. “They’re absolving themselves of culpability because they don’t have to see it. They just let it happen outside.”

Early on, Clark thought groups like Alley Cat Allies might be convinced that TNR wasn’t the answer if they were aware of the number of birds felled by felines. After all, they were animal lovers. So he invited National Geographic into the hospital’s morgue to shoot a year’s worth of avian corpses for a documentary, The Secret Life of Cats. But the sight of the hundreds of tiny bodies, laid out like victims in Pol Pot’s killing fields, did not have the chilling effect he hoped. Subsequent documentation of cat-on-bird violence, like National Geographic’s “Kitty Cams” project, in which tiny cameras attached to their collars caught pet cats in the act of murder, also failed to have an impact.

Clark understands the power of the cat. He owns several himself, and gets why birds don’t generate the same passion. “People don’t have relationships with birds like they do with cats,” he says. “The human condition is such that we appreciate animals that appreciate us.” But the cat lobby’s palpable lack of appreciation for their peers in the animal community rankled, and Clark has become embittered. “They say they love all animals. Well, no, ya don’t,” he glowers, taking a swig of Scotch. “With them, cats come first. Everything else comes second. Including people.”

Over the years, Clark, along with members of Fenwick’s American Bird Conservancy, the Wildlife Society, and the Audubon Society, among others, have waged a steady counter-campaign against TNR. Compared with what one conservationist calls “the powerful cat lobby,” this group is smaller and mostly male. “We’re like the underdog,” says author Jonathan Franzen, who serves on the American Bird Conservancy board. But they’ve become a thorn in the side of cat groups, who resent their undermining and rightly suspect them of trying to reinstitute a practice they believe is unacceptable: aggressive euthanasia.

“The bird community’s position is, we need to get rid of the feral cats, and that means cats must die,” Franzen says. “We feel bad about that, but we can morally justify that position, with all of the birds that they are indirectly killing.”


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