Two wildlife issues have collided in Hawaii, pitting one group of animal defenders against another in an impassioned debate. The point of contention? Deadly cat poop and the feral felines that produce it.
Federal researchers believe feces from the legions of feral cats roaming Hawaii is spreading a disease that is killing Hawaiian monk seals, some of the world’s most endangered marine mammals. Some conservationists advocate euthanizing those cats that no one wants, and that’s got cat lovers up in arms.
“It’s a very difficult, emotional issue,” said state Sen. Mike Gabbard, chairman of a committee that earlier this year heard and then abandoned a proposal to ban the feeding of feral cats on state land after an outcry. “It struck a nerve in our community.”
The problem stems from a parasite common in cats that can cause toxoplasmosis, a disease that killed at least five female Hawaiian monk seals and three males since 2001, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“While eight seals may not sound like a lot of animals, it actually has pretty large ramifications for an endangered population where there’s only about 1,300 seals in existence at this point in time,” said Michelle Barbieri, veterinary medical officer for NOAA’s Hawaiian monk seal research program.
Scientists believe monk seals become exposed to toxoplasmosis by ingesting contaminated water or prey.
Felines are the only animals that can shed Toxoplasma gondii eggs, or oocysts. The parasites enter their digestive tract through infected prey then multiply in the small intestine and produce the eggs. Outdoor cats excrete the eggs in their feces, which researchers say washes into the ocean.
The eggs accumulate in invertebrates that live along the sea floor, where monk seals often feed. They can survive in fresh water, saltwater and soil for up to two years.
Any warm-blooded animal can become infected. California sea otters have died from toxoplasmosis, and it’s one of the major reasons the Hawaiian crow, alala, is extinct in the wild. Toxoplasmosis is rarely problematic for people with healthy immune systems, but it’s why doctors advise pregnant women not to handle kitty litter.
Many cities struggle with feral cats, but the problem is particularly acute in Hawaii because of its sensitive ecosystem and at-risk native species, experts say. Only two mammals are native to Hawaii: the hoary bat and the Hawaiian monk seal.
“Everything else here_ deer, sheep, goats, cats, mongoose _ they’re all invasive, they’re all introduced,” said Angela Amlin, NOAA’s acting Hawaiian monk seal recovery coordinator, adding cats have no predators in Hawaii to control their population.
Marketing research commissioned by the Hawaiian Humane Society in 2015 estimated some 300,000 feral cats roam Oahu alone.
Marine debris, climate change, predation and human interaction all threaten the survival of Hawaiian monk seals. But feral cats present their greatest disease concern, Amlin said.
“As conservationists, what we really have to look at is this is what Hawaii’s native ecosystem includes, and cats are unfortunately not part of that,” Amlin said. “When it comes to the feral cat population, there should be a program in place to bring in these animals, adopt the ones that are adoptable and humanely euthanize those that are not.”
Others take offense to that notion.
Classifying animals with labels such as native and invasive creates a “hierarchy in which the protection of certain animals comes at the suffering of others,” Hawaiian Humane Society President and CEO Pamela Burns wrote in a letter opposing the state Senate bill that would have banned cat-feeding on state land. She contended the 300,000 figure overstates the problem because the study looked at how many cats people were feeding and might have missed instances where multiple people fed the same outdoor cat.
Those who care for stray cats advocate trapping, neutering and spaying to help control their population.
The University of Hawaii’s Manoa campus, in Honolulu, started a feral cat management program _ with authorized feeders trained in tasks like trapping and feces disposal _ after the stench and mess from hundreds of cats prompted complaints, especially when children at a campus daycare center got flea bites, said Roxanne Adams, director of buildings and grounds.
The program started in 2011 and appears to have reduced the number of felines, she said.
Euthanizing cats is unacceptable unless they’re extremely sick, said Alicia Maluafiti, board president of animal welfare group Poi Dogs and Popoki.
“I totally disagree with the … generalization that cat people love cats more than these endangered species,” Maluafiti said. “What we just don’t advocate is the wholesale killing, the extermination, of one species … for one.”
When it comes to cats, those meows mean … well, a lot of things.
With each purr, yowl or even blink, felines are saying, “Hello,” “Let’s snuggle” or “Beat it, Dad.”
For the increasing number of pet owners who want to connect with their often-aloof fur babies, experts say there’s something to gain from those attempts at communication.
Cats are independent, and so they are easily misunderstood, said Dr. Gary Weitzman, president and CEO of the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA and author of the new National Geographic book “How to Speak Cat.”
He aims to unravel the mystery by helping people discern what cats are trying to convey.
Crafty kitties can make 16 meow sounds and usually only unleash them when people are around, he said.
Meows can be their way of saying feed me, pet me or let me out, and hardly ever get exchanged between cats.
That’s because cats learn they can get something desirable from people if they meow, said Dr. Bonnie Beaver, executive director of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and a professor at Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. She wrote the 2003 textbook “Feline Behavior.”
The meaning of a scratch or a hiss is pretty clear, but cats can talk in more subtle ways — with their eyes and tails.
A slow blink from a feline, for example, is like a wink between friends, Weitzman said.
“Blinking is like a kitty kiss,” he said.
And extending their tails straight up equates to a human handshake, he said. A cat perks up that appendage as it approaches to show it’s happy to see you.
Susan McMinn, 55, of Tryon, North Carolina, was eager to try the slow-blinking exercise with her Siamese cat, Jade, after reading the book.
“I sat and blinked slowly at my cat and she blinked right back. I know she loves me, of course, but now I feel I understand her communication even more,” McMinn said.
McMinn has owned Jade for 10 years and has had six cats over her lifetime, but she says it’s clear she still has a lot to learn.
“And I thought I was an expert!” she said.
Even ear and whisker movements signify something worth listening to. If a cat’s ears are flat, don’t get close because it’s scared or facing a fight, Weitzman said.
A kitty is happy, calm or friendly when its whiskers are naturally out to the side. Twice as thick as a human hair and rooted three times as deep, the whiskers guide them, help them with prey and show how they are feeling.
Learning to communicate with cats becomes even important for those who adopt a pet based only on the color or breed they want versus a connection with the animal.
At Happy Cats Sanctuary in Medford, New York, a potential owner might ask for a “white cat with fluffy fur,” said Melissa Cox, director of communications and development.
She tells them not to go by looks alone because the true indicator of compatibility is spending time with a cat and getting to know it.
For McMinn, she says she isn’t done with the book and plans to use some of its training tips.
But now she knows “what to look for in her (cat’s) tail and ear movement, whisker positions and in her eyes.”
A University of Wisconsin-Madison cat research lab that was the focus of protests by animal-rights groups and a Hollywood actor quietly closed more than a month ago, a university spokesman said.
Neuroscience professor Tom Yin had run the lab for nearly 40 years, and said it closed Dec. 1 when his research funding ran out.
Yin said he is on a path to retirement and did not apply to renew his research grant from the National Institutes of Health. Yin researched how auditory and visual stimuli affect the brain.
Four of the five cats that remained in the lab were adopted, animal research department spokesman Chris Barncard said, and the fifth was euthanized.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals launched an ad campaign in Madison two years ago criticizing the lab, taking out 100 city bus ads with photos of a cat with metal implanted in its head. The ad copy said, “I am not lab equipment.”
That same year, actor James Cromwell was charged with disorderly conduct after he held up large signs and shouted about the cats’ treatment during a Board of Regents meeting. Cromwell, who was nominated for an Academy Award for the 1995 film “Babe” and starred in “L.A. Confidential” and “The Green Mile,” eventually pleaded no contest and was ordered to pay $263 in forfeitures.
The Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare surveyed the lab in 2013 as part of an investigation prompted by PETA members. The office concluded the researchers had not violated any regulations.
“PETA’s campaign and the intense public pressure it brought to bear on UW-Madison have ended this horrendous laboratory’s legacy of cruelty at last,” PETA’s director of laboratory investigations Justin Goodman said in a statement.
The university issued a statement that said the closure had nothing to do with PETA. Yin said he simply decided to retire for personal reasons.
“That was actually a regret I had when I decided to retire, that they would think they had forced me to close down,” Yin said of PETA. “Nothing could be farther from the truth.”
Jackson Galaxy, author and host of Animal Planet’s My Cat From Hell, is the definition of a cat whisperer. Since the show premiered in 2011, the cat behaviorist has come to the aid of many cat owners, assisting them in working out various cat-astrophes and bringing harmony to homes with sparring feline frenemies. Galaxy’s new book Catification, written with feline environment designer Kate Benjamin, takes a paws-on approach to renovating your house into a cat-friendly home.
I spoke with Galaxy shortly before his book’s release earlier this month.
Did you have pets when you were a kid? I grew up with a dog. We had a family dog. That’s it, no cats. It wasn’t until I started working at animal shelters in the early ’90s that I began taking an interest in cats.
In Catification, you say the cat and dog populations in U.S. households are 95.6 million and 83.3 million, respectively. Is that because more of the cat households have multiples? Yes, that is part of the statistic. I think it’s 30 percent or so of all homes that have cats have multiples.
Were there ever other titles for Catification under consideration? Not even one. As a songwriter, I always wrote from the title down. I would start with the title and then write the song. The same thing with the book. The book was Catification and then it was written from there.
How and where did you learn about cats in such detail? It was … book learning and street learning. Back in the early ’90s, there just weren’t that many resources out there in terms of the inner lives of cats. It’s almost like when you’re stranded on a desert island and you have one book with you and you read the hell out of that book for however long you are stranded. I had a couple of really important books with me and I just tore through them. I would develop theories back then. I had a hundred cats back there (in the animal shelter), and I thought, “I’m going to go back there and start working with these guys to see if I can get consensus from these cats if it works for them or not.” That’s how this all came about. Almost every process that I use now was all formed from that era.
In many ways, Catification is a workbook, with an emphasis on homework. There is a lot of carpentry involved in the process. Do you think the average cat guardian is capable of creating such living spaces — or are you aware of carpenters who specialize in catifying? If I did my job right, this book should appeal to people like me, who can’t even hammer a nail without breaking their hand. There are projects in there that we call “No Excuses Catification.” As long as you can go through your garage and find a planter, you can do something. As long as you have a bookcase that you can put a bed on top of, you can make it happen. You don’t need to make it look like it does in the book, but if you do, all the power to you. There’s not a lot of catification contractors out there.
Before becoming a cat behaviorist, you were a musician. Do you still find time to play? Unfortunately, not a whole lot. I’m still trying to find that balance. When I moved to LA, I broke up my last band because obviously we weren’t going to travel. I decided I would come here and do more studio work, cutting songs that had been sitting around and get them out there. Then the show happened and I am working all the time. I basically come home, spend some time with my wife and the animals, and go to bed.
What does hosting My Cat From Hell mean to you? It means that we are continuing to elevate the status of cats in the worldview, which means that more cats get adopted and less cats die. That’s the bottom line for everything I do. At the end of the day, if the animals win, I keep doing it. Every year since my book Cat Daddy came out, I’ve been doing book tours, and we’re about to launch my next one. Every time I go out there, the feedback I get is that this TV show has saved lives.
Does your driver’s license read Jackson Galaxy? Of course it does. What else would it say?
What is the genesis of the name? Back in the day I thought, if somebody could be Ziggy Stardust, I could be Jackson Galaxy. I just did it. It was literally an impulse. It was one of those things where I thought, “That sounds cool.” Done. I can be a little impulsive sometimes.
Jackson Galaxy will appear at 7 p.m. on Oct. 19, at the Pabst Theater, 144 E. Wells St., Milwaukee. Tickets are $29.50 and include an autographed copy of Catification. Call 414-286-3663 or visit pabsttheater.org to order.
A House committee has approved a bill to outlaw eating cats and dogs in Hawaii, a measure supported by animal lovers who lobbied lawmakers with their pets.
The House Judiciary Committee advanced the bill (SB 2026) late last week. It also bans trafficking cats and dogs for slaughter and consumption.
Supporters of the change say pet owners shouldn’t have to worry that lost animals may end up on a dinner table.
In some countries, eating meat from cats in dogs is culturally accepted. Other countries frown on the common American practice of eating meat from pigs and cows.
The bill now goes to the House floor for a vote.