Expert has Never Heard of Merritt Clifton

I have had a strong interest for some time regarding the population dynamics of feral cats in various settings to establish a framework for effective management techniques needed to stabilize and decrease that population and the number of cats being killed in the shelters. Dogs do much better than cats once in the shelters, often have half the death rate even when more dogs are impounded that cats, and despite a policy of not accepting feral cats into the shelter.

I am convinced once we better grasp population dynamics in small areas, we can better attain effective solutions within small areas and generalize what is necessary for a larger area solution, such as a County or even a region within the country.

As of now we really don’t know how effective TNR and S/N are in terms of decreasing impounds. We have guesstimates of S/N efforts needed in ferals, such as coming out of ABC or from Merritt Clifton, but with no real data to support their guestimates. Ditto S/N certificates.

Just for example S/N efforts have increased dramatically by both LAAS and private organizations over the last 5 years, but impounds have remained flat.

This past year LAAS impounded 20,100 cats and 5 years ago impounded 21,130. In the meantime, over the past 6 years, impounds have stayed in the range of 20-22,000, and for the last 5 months, impounds have actually increased to earlier levels.

So TNR and S/N have not much proven effective in reducing impounds and more of the same may not work either compared to that same money put into other projects and methods.

That is, we do not know within the City of LA for example, how effective is $5,000,000 spent on TNR vs. the same amount spent of S/N certificates, vs. that same amount spent of free S/N within the shelter system combined with private spending, such as spaymobiles. Since neither of these have proven to be that effective, where can we better spend that money?

Since Ed Boks and many shelter directors around the country accept Merritt Clifton’s numbers, and I don’t, I decided to contact Professor Swihart at Purdue, who has authored scores of papers on the alteration of animal populations, distributions and travel based on urban incursions.

I thought he might have some grasp of ways to get this information on ferals, or know of researchers in this area.

Below is my inquiry and his reponse.

As I stated before, I think Clifton makes wild, simplistic assumptions and comes to conclusions that seem, from my point of view, gross underestimates, given that census figures and estimates based on street level experience of colony tenders and the various animal regulation entities, yield far higher numbers.

This is my query to Swihart followed by his response. Notice that Swihart has never heard of Clifton:

Dear Dr. Swihart,

Do you know of anyone who could help me get a handle on feral cat population dynamics?

Baltimore's shelter director estimated 185,000 ferals in the city and Cook County estimated 800,000 in Cook County.

LA City is trying to get an estimate to present to Council to validate the need for expanded spay/neutering and TNR programs.
The data and models I have seen are laughable when it comes to feral cats or street dogs.

The climates and breeding cycles are different from LA to Cook Co. or Baltimore.

Baltimore's estimates may be based on 1990 Census data re "housed" cats with an associated estimate of ferals. There is an assumed 5%"leak" rate of housed cats into the feral population.

There are lots of other assumptions that make any guess, a guess.
There is a guy, Clifton Merritt from Animal People, who many shelter administrators consider gospel. I have seen his models and methods and they are extremely primitive, with no supporting evidence.

You know this is a big problem with cities all over the country trying to calculate resources to humanely deal with ferals and ways to end shelter deaths.

Swihart’s response:


I am not familiar with any individuals currently doing work on population estimation for feral cats, although I recall some work done several years ago by the CDC on feral dogs in the Caribbean. There are several methods that could be used to estimate abundance, but all would be labor intensive. I suspect that is why folks have resorted to “primitive” methods with simplifying assumptions.

The book “Analysis and management of animal populations” by B. K. Williams et al. is a good source of methods worth exploring.
Good luck,

Rob Swihart, Professor and Head of the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, Purdue University. PH: 765-494-3590

My commentary:

Labor intensive does not mean wild speculations based on studies done decades apart in different regions. Clifton uses very simplistic assumptions about feral cat numbers based on ridiculous models such as guessing at cat populations based on garbage in Calcuta verus garbage in Baltimore, and that there are three cats for every street dog. This is insane.

By labor intensive, Swihart is talking about actual counting of animals and then generalizing based on mathematical models and assumption, not not relying on 40 year old, faulty studies.

We may have many programs to control the feral cat population but we don’t know the effectiveness of any of them on stabilizing feral cat numbers, nor the ultimate impact on the number of cats impounded.

And, after being impounded, we don’t know how effective dollar and manpower resources are to getting the animals out alive. We are SOL without this research and just throwing money at the problem will not work. We need to know WHERE to throw that money and resources.

I don’t think Boks has spent 10 cents on basic research. He has resisted my repeated suggestions/demands that it take place.
If he has done any basic research, he has not shared it. I ask Ed to share any fundamental research knowledge with the animal community so we better and coordinate our efforts to the common goal of ending shelter deaths.

Found Animal Friends has recently announced a low budget investment in fundamental research, but it is conducted with very little resources for a very short time, using part-time researchers with no grasp on the local situation. We need a much larger and more extensive amount of dedicated research.



Anonymous said...

Superb theory; any practice in the pipeline?

Ed Muzika said...

What do you mean superb theory? I have no theory whatsoever. I am saying we need research in order to reach good theory, i.e., models that work.

And, we cannot know which models work without checking.

There is a lot of work here, but as it is we may be throwning millions of dollars into "solutions" that are costly but ineffective.

I have seen Ed make no efforts to get research going or encoutaging other organizations to do joint research.

I know from the Chameleon data I got, and knowing it is avbailable shelter by shelter, there is a lot that can be done just knowing where more un-sterilized cats are being impounded.

County figures indicate as few as 18% of the cats impounded are sterilized.

All kinds of info may be gleaned.