Hawaii’s Crazy War Over Zombie Cats
There is an evolutionary death match under way in Hawaii, where half a million feral cats, some of them infected with a terrifying zombie parasite, are wreaking havoc on endangered species. Some people call them the "kitties of doom." Others will do anything to save them.
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One Sunday afternoon last November, Michelle Barbieri, a wildlife veterinarian with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, received word of a Hawaiian monk seal in distress in a harbor near Oahu's Waikiki Beach. The animal was “logging,” or drifting aimlessly, rather than chasing fish, flopping around on the beach, or doing any of the happy-go-lucky things associated with a nearly two-year-old monk seal. Such reports were not unusual for Barbieri. As the chief medical staffer with NOAA’s Pearl Harbor–based Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, she monitors the health of the species’s 1,300 individuals, the most critically endangered marine mammals in the United States, all of them found in the waters around Hawaii. She receives updates from dozens of beach-roaming volunteers who serve as her eyes and ears across the islands.
Barbieri recognized the juvenile female logging in Ala Wai Harbor as RN36, the identifier on the tag attached to her tail flipper. But the volunteers called her Uilani, “Heavenly Beauty,” and she was something of a celebrity. The New Hope Canoe Club had adopted her as its unofficial mascot, both for her goofy antics and for her possible spiritual significance. When she appeared beneath a double rainbow at the club’s outrigger-canoe-blessing ceremony, some called her an aumakua, a deified ancestor providing the team good fortune.
Barbieri reviewed video of Uilani logging and considered the dangers monk seals face: Had someone fed her and made her ill? Had she swallowed a fishhook or been thwacked by a propeller? The next day, Barbieri’s team captured Uilani and trucked her to NOAA’s monk seal facility, where they took X-rays and drew blood. As Barbieri ruled out various maladies—no fishhook, no shark bite, no boat-related trauma—the vet began entertaining her worst fear: toxoplasmosis. The disease is caused by a parasitic protozoan, Toxoplasma gondii, and the resulting body-wide tissue inflammation means excruciating pain for the patient, followed by certain death. There is no treatment. Barbieri had flashbacks to RB24, another seal suffering from toxo a few months earlier. That case delivered a double blow to species conservation. Before triggering massive organ failure in RB24, toxo caused the pregnant seal to abort her late-term fetus.
Three days later, Uilani too was dead. A necropsy confirmed toxo.
The demise of Uilani rattled Barbieri and her boss, Charles Littnan, the program’s lead scientist. Her death was the third from toxo in 12 months—not counting RB24’s fetus—and the eighth since 2001. Those numbers are significant when your population is declining each year in the face of global warming and other perils. Now toxo was nailing females of pup-bearing age.
There was something else about toxo that made it especially creepy, in a Walking Dead kind of way. For starters, the perpetrating protozoa, T. gondii, can sexually reproduce only in the gut of a felid, a member of the cat family. An infected felid excretes the protozoa in the form of microscopic oocysts, and a single felid can poop out hundreds of millions of oocysts, although only one is needed to infect another animal. If a rat then consumes an oocyst, the protozoa can take over the rat’s brain and make it lose all fear of cats. Studies report toxo-infected rats cavorting in cat urine. Cats consume such rats easily, enabling T. gondii to replicate again.
Barbieri and Littnan had no evidence that toxo was zombifying monk seal brains. Rather, the seals seemed to be collateral damage in an evolutionary death match among cats, rats, and T. gondii. But that was another mysterious thing about toxo—plenty of insect, bird, fish, and mammal species could acquire and carry toxo oocysts without manifesting any symptoms whatsoever. Why toxo killed monk seals nobody really knew. Nor did they know why, beyond Hawaii, toxo killed sea otters, spinner dolphins, kangaroos, and even humans. An estimated 23 percent of Americans have had toxo, and in some countries that figure reaches 95 percent. Occasionally, it produces muscle aches and other flu-like symptoms, and even more occasionally it can cause blindness and epilepsy in newborns, behavioral changes in adults, and increased miscarriages in pregnant women. For people with compromised immune systems, toxo can be fatal.
When I meet Barbieri and Littnan in Honolulu after Uilani’s death, we discuss the fact that Hawaii has no native felids. What Hawaii does have is feral house cats, lots of them. By some calculations, Oahu alone has 350,000, but Littnan calls that a “gross underestimate.” His program struggles to accurately count 400-pound seals on the beach. “Cats are small, elusive predators living in the forest,” he says. “And there’s been no systematic effort to count them.” Whatever their number, they produce billions of oocysts, and these wash down watersheds and into the ocean, where seals consume them through the food chain. “There’s a lot we don’t know,” says Littnan. “What we do know is that cats poop and monk seals die. You’re only going to reduce toxo by reducing the definitive hosts—cats.”
It’s dusk when I pull into a county park on the island of Kauai, and cats materialize immediately. A gray tabby approaches warily from the shadows and parks itself 15 feet to my left. An orange cat squats off to my right, stares at me, then craps on the pavement. In seconds this pair becomes six cats, then ten. When Basil and Sue Scott arrive in a small SUV, even more cats slink forward. Basil works as an electrical engineer, and Sue is a retired graphic artist. But this evening they’re in volunteer mode for the Kauai Community Cat Project (KCCP), a nonprofit that cares for feral colonies on the island, with Basil serving as president. Sue, 71, has short red hair, and Basil, 61, has a salt-and-pepper beard and intense hazel eyes. We strap on headlamps, and Basil retrieves a five-gallon bucket of wet cat food from the vehicle. “Let’s go,” he says.
We troop across a field toward a stand of trees, Sue yelping, “Here, kitty kitty!” Glowing eyes appear everywhere. Had T. S. Eliot been juiced up on meth and YouTube cat videos, even he couldn’t have imagined the circus awaiting us in those woods: fat cats, skinny cats, black cats, spotted cats, darting in and out of the light, tearing through the undergrowth, rubbing against my jeans, sharpening claws on tree trunks, swirling about Basil. I count 50—no, 53. It’s hard to tell with all the coming and going. “There are 45 cats here!” Basil declares definitively, perturbed by my overestimation. How can he know? It’s raining cats. He and Sue begin spooning great globs of food onto plastic plates scattered about the forest. Cats swoop in, boxing each other out, hissing, gobbling up the smelly victuals as soon as the Scotts can slop them onto the plates. They introduce me around. I meet Forest and Badass. I meet Fluffy Tail. “This Siamese is new,” Sue says, examining a recent arrival that’s likely been abandoned. Grub distributed, we exit the forest with a dozen cats still swarming about our feet and parade to the next feeding station, 30 yards away, to shovel out more food.
There are an estimated 20,000 feral cats on Kauai, and Basil insists that the best way to manage them and reduce their numbers is through a practice called TNR—trap, neuter, return. TNR requires caregivers to feed a colony regularly and make sure all members are sterilized, which means trapping each one individually, having it fixed by a vet, then returning it to the colony. Over time, through natural attrition, a TNR colony should disappear or dramatically decrease in size, or so the theory goes. The great thing about TNR, Basil assures me as we schlep through the woods, is that it suppresses not only cat numbers but also cat predation on wildlife, since a fed cat is less likely to hunt. He reckons that 3,000 cats are under TNR management on Kauai. His organization monitors 25 colonies, and he says that 90 percent of those cats are fixed. “It’s hard to get them all,” he admits. “People are constantly abandoning cats. That’s the major problem.” (It might explain why Oahu, with nearly a million human residents, has substantially more feral cats than Kauai, which has just over 70,000 people.)
We visit a colony on the other side of the park, and Basil points to a nearby hotel. The parking lot there is a dumping ground for unwanted pet cats, and they keep streaming into his colonies. “The hotel won’t let us on their property,” he grumbles. “They say they want them gone. Well, they’d be gone if they’d let us spay and neuter!” He’s equally bitter about a grocery store that stopped him from feeding cats in the parking lot. Basil and Sue tried to attract those cats to a neighboring field, but locals ran them off, too. Now they feed the colony by luring cats through a hole in a fence behind an adjacent fast-food restaurant. Basil shakes his head. “These people just don’t get it.”
The other people who just don’t get it, apparently, are scientists.
Three weeks before I arrived, in March, state legislators held a hearing on a bill introduced by Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) that would have outlawed feeding feral cats on state land. Senate Bill 2450 received support from scientists and conservationists across the country. The case they made in favor of a ban seemed compelling. For starters, there’s not one scientifically verified instance of TNR ever eliminating a cat colony anywhere, not in more than 30 years of practice. Then you’ve got the peer-reviewed studies, lots of them, showing that cats continue to hunt even when fed. Add to that toxo’s deadly effect on monk seals and at least two species of Hawaiian birds. Plus, all of this is happening in Hawaii, where 78 percent of extinctions in the U.S. have occurred. More than half the state’s 130 native bird species are gone, and most of those that remain are endangered. “Approaches like TNR are ultimately designed to keep cats on the landscape, not to reduce their population,” wrote Chris Lepczyk, an ecologist at Auburn University, in an op-ed in the Honolulu Star Advertiser. “Cats are neither wildlife nor part of Hawaiian ecosystems; by any scientific standard, they are an invasive species.” And they should be managed, he argues, like rats, mongoose, and feral pigs, all introduced species that have devastated Hawaii’s native wildlife.
But rats, mongoose, and pigs don’t have well-funded support groups. Cats do. On the Facebook page of the Hawaiian Humane Society, TNR supporters called S.B. 2450 “evil” and insisted that its authors were “involved with the devil.” When state lawmakers invited public comment at a meeting in February, more than 100 cat advocates flooded the legislative hearing room and delivered two hours of emotional testimony. One woman explained that she lovingly cared for 400 feral cats. She didn’t want politicians starving her kitties to death. Lawmakers killed the legislation.
Had it become law, S.B. 2450 would have clarified the muddled legal situation regarding feral cats in Hawaii. On federal and state lands, officials have the authority to euthanize cats that harm wildlife, but with limited resources they target out-of-the-way wilderness areas abundant in high-priority species. They don’t focus on parks and beaches abundant in picnicking families. “You’ve got a big public interface at those places,” one state biologist told me. “You start talking about killing cats, people get upset.” At the municipal level, cities like Honolulu have ordinances against feeding cats in certain parks, but they’ve tolerated TNR colonies pretty much everywhere.
After the senate bill’s death, attention shifted from the statehouse on Oahu to Kauai, where an unusual process was unfolding. The island’s county council had decided to tackle its feral-cat problem head-on, assembling a task force to investigate the issue and then a committee to draft an ordinance based on its findings. With more species of endangered birds on the island than in the rest of Hawaii, species found nowhere else, Kauai has been dubbed Noah’s Ark. A lot was at stake. If Kauai got it right, the ordinance might serve as a model for the entire state.
I arrived on Kauai as the drafting of the ordinance, a year in the making, was careening toward an uncertain end. Everyone was pissed off, including Basil, the committee member at the center of the escalating vitriol. Before I part ways with him and Sue at the park, he tells me that, despite his best-faith efforts, the ordinance process has been a disaster, and the committee had it in for feral cats from the start. He’s not optimistic that TNR will be allowed to continue. But that doesn’t mean he’s giving up. “The alternative is killing cats, and that will build resentment and anger on this island,” he insists, before leaving me with this: “Believe me, there’s a bunch of junkyard dogs out there ready to pounce. We will bare our fangs and make life very difficult for them. My side is famous for that.”
The domestic cat, Felis catus, like all domestic species, has no native geographical range. It goes where we go, and ever since it evolved from the Near Eastern wildcat 9,500 years ago in the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent, it has been on the move. Cats spread across Europe with the expanding Roman Empire as both pets and mousers, and they reached China via the Silk Road 2,000 years ago. With the establishment of European trade routes and settlements in the 1700s, cats began crisscrossing the Pacific on rat-infested ships as indispensable crew members. By the 1800s, cats occupied islands throughout the Pacific. Prolific breeders, with females capable of producing two litters a year—up to six kittens per litter—they quickly metastasized. From the handful that reached Hawaii with European explorers, the population expanded so much that Mark Twain described their abundance in Honolulu in 1866 as “companies of cats, regiments of cats, armies of cats, multitudes of cats, millions of cats.”
This global diaspora has exacted a gruesome toll. Felis catus has contributed to 14 percent of modern bird, mammal, and reptile extinctions. In the U.S., where the number of feral cats is ultimately unknown (some scientists speculate that the population rivals that of pet cats, roughly 86 million), the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute estimated that cats kill 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals annually. The problem is most severe in warm-weather areas plentiful in endangered species, like California and Florida, although Hawaii’s situation dwarfs all others.
Toxoplasmosis has added a scary new dimension, and not just for monk seals. Starting in 1993, with only 12 Hawaiian crows, or alala, left in the wild, scientists released 27 captive-raised birds tagged for satellite tracking in a last-ditch effort to rejuvenate the population. But 21 of them died over the next five years, at least five from toxo. The remaining tagged birds were returned to captivity. The last known wild alala disappeared in 2002.
To fully appreciate how cats have affected every inch of Hawaii, I spend a day trudging up a ridge through the jungle in a steady drizzle with Andre Raine, the Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project coordinator. There’s not much of a trail, and we need ropes to traverse the mud-slicked vertical bits. But we arrive at the edge of a 4,000-foot cliff in the Hono O Na Pali Natural Area Reserve, one of the most inaccessible spots on the island. It is in these soaring cliffsides that Newell’s shearwaters, an endangered species numbering fewer than 40,000 birds, dig their six-foot-deep, subterranean burrows. Equally endangered Hawaiian petrels dig their burrows atop the ridgeline just above these cliffs. We install motion-activated video cameras at several of these holes, giving Raine the ability to monitor bird activity during the upcoming nesting season.
Later, in his office, we watch footage from last season. In one video, a gray tabby waltzes up to the camera, sniffs around, then dives into the burrow. It drags out a Newell’s chick and, pinning it with its front claws, rips it to pieces with its teeth. The next night it returns and similarly destroys an adult. At one point during this slaughter, the cat stops and looks directly into the camera for a second, its chin smeared with gore, feathers dangling from a corner of its mouth, kinda like, “What the fuck are you going to do about it?” Adding insult, the tabby later moved into the burrow and birthed four kittens. “I have footage of them going into other burrows,” Raine says. “She’s teaching them how to hunt.” In 2014 and 2015, Raine’s team discovered the bodies of 48 Newell’s shearwaters and Hawaiian petrels killed by cats in the reserve.
In backcountry areas like this, rangers target cats with fast-acting kill traps, or they live-trap and then shoot them in the head (methods deemed humane by the American Veterinary Medical Association). What’s never been attempted on Kauai, or anywhere in Hawaii, is an island-wide eradication effort, which isn’t to say that such efforts haven’t been successful on islands elsewhere. They have, on at least 83. Those campaigns rendered islands cat-free by employing some combination of leg-hold traps, cage traps, dogs, poison, hunting, fumigation in holes, and, according to one scientific article published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), “clubbing with sticks.” The article also notes that 19 campaigns did not succeed, listing such reasons for failure as “staff at the resort hid cats in their rooms” and “unable to kill animals faster than they reproduced.” After many of the successful campaigns, however, bird species returned or were reintroduced to the cat-free islands.
Unlike global warming, deforestation, or any of the intractable problems decimating global biodiversity, scientists actually view the feral-cat dilemma as low-hanging fruit, a potentially easy thing to fix that could help wildlife significantly. Unfortunately, even if Kauai’s rugged terrain didn’t make island-wide cat eradication nearly impossible, the IUCN article notes that, along with funding problems, “social issues appear to be the main factor limiting many eradications occurring.”
To comprehend Basil Scott’s pugnacious opposition to cat eradication, it helps to understand the rapidly expanding national TNR movement he desperately wants Kauai to join. There are an estimated 250,000 practitioners of TNR in the U.S. At least 430 municipalities have officially embraced the practice, including big cities such as Jacksonville, Florida, and San Jose, California. The crusade is led by several well-funded nonprofits like Alley Cat Allies and Best Friends Animal Society, the latter receiving $80 million in contributions in 2015, including donations from industry giants PetSmart and Petco. PetSmart Charities has given tens of millions to animal-welfare groups, and it has supported workshops on how to lobby local governments to adopt TNR.
The message pedaled by this movement can seem enticing to local governments looking to do right by their feral cats. Given that more than 1.5 million cats are euthanized in shelters each year, the mantra on the Best Friends website must seem heaven-sent: “In the long term, TNR lowers the number of cats in the community more effectively than trap-and-kill.” And it calls TNR “the humane alternative.”
Before Scott commandeered the TNR mantle on Kauai, the island’s main feral-cat advocate was a woman named Margaret Hanson, president of an organization called Kauai Ferals, to which both Basil and Sue belonged. In 2011, Hanson appeared before the Kauai County Council and urged members to endorse TNR. Not surprisingly, the council balked. Previously, the county had pled guilty in federal court to failing to protect Newell’s shearwaters, a plea that, among other things, led to a ban on nighttime high school football games, to the seething displeasure of almost everyone. (Stadium lights confuse Newell’s fledglings and cause them to fall from the sky, making them easy pickings for cats.) With those legal troubles fresh in their minds, the council members decided to consider more aggressive action.
The Kauai Feral Cat Task Force first met in 2013, and Hanson was asked to participate. Hanson, 59, a gracious and practical woman, quickly found common ground with wildlife advocates on the task force. This didn’t sit well with folks in her own organization. As it was, she already had philosophical differences with Basil and Sue. Hanson had come to view the Scotts’ approach to TNR as flawed. For the method to work, to make cat colonies disappear, Hanson felt that all new arrivals (abandoned cats, new litters of kittens) must be removed permanently. You had to take them to shelters, some of which practice euthanasia. “Over time, Sue grew more impassioned that every cat needs to be saved,” Hanson says. “She and Basil were running open-air shelters, not TNR colonies. They were stockpiling cats.” Hanson says their colonies were increasing in size, not decreasing.
At one point during this slaughter, the cat stops and looks directly into the camera for a second, its chin smeared with gore, feathers dangling from a corner of its mouth, kinda like, “What the f—k are you going to do about it?”
This tension culminated one day in a vote by the Kauai Ferals board on whether to remove newly abandoned cats from colonies and take them to the Kauai Humane Society, the island’s only shelter. As an open shelter, KHS accepts all animals and euthanizes cats that aren’t reclaimed or adopted. No-kill shelters, on the other hand, don’t euthanize, but they do turn animals away, which can lead to them cherry-picking the most adoptable cats. The no-kill movement works hand in hand with the TNR movement, with groups like Alley Cat Allies promoting no-kill. “Alley Cat Allies says you should remove newly abandoned cats from established colonies,” Hanson says. But “the dirty little secret,” she continues, is that many of those cats aren’t wanted by no-kill shelters. “What happens to old cats and sick cats if the shelter doesn’t take them?” Hanson voted in favor of taking cats to KHS. Everyone else on the Kauai Ferals board voted against. As a result, Hanson quit the organization she had founded. Basil Scott took over and renamed the group the Kauai Community Cat Project.
Meanwhile, the Kauai Feral Cat Task Force issued its final report in 2014. It recommended a goal of zero feral cats on the island by 2025. To get there, it advocated a robust, county-operated TNR program with all colonies registered and monitored by certified managers. New litters and arrivals would be promptly removed for adoption or euthanasia. Registered colonies on private land would need permission from the property owner. After 2020, all colonies would be relocated to private property and then fenced off completely.
The recommendations frustrated Scott. He blamed Hanson for capitulating to the wildlife crowd. “Margaret never argued a single point,” he says. Scott viewed Hanson as more than just a lousy advocate. In his view, she was one of the worst things a person can be—a cat murderer. After Hanson left the organization, Scott alleges that, out of spite, she trapped five cats from one of the colonies she was managing and brought them to the Kauai Humane Society, where four were euthanized. When I tell Hanson this, she produces a weary sigh and says: “Basil and Sue are going to say whatever they want. That’s what they do. I am not going down that hole with them.”
I agree to meet Basil Scott one morning for a run along Kauai’s east coast, although I have some trepidation. Scott’s not the type to do anything less than full bore, and despite middle age he’s trim and taut and competes in masters-level races around the country, having run cross-country for Duke University when he studied electrical engineering there in the 1970s. But he wants to show me something, so he keeps it in first gear as we hoof it south from the Kapaa public library along an ocean-side trail.
“This is all supposed to be critical bird habitat,” he scoffs as we run. “It’s a joke!” We lope past manicured lawns, past hotel gardeners with weed whackers, past ten women on yoga mats on a grassy rise, all of them in warrior pose, gazing out to sea. Scott stops briefly at a putting green. “Do you see any birds in those holes?” he asks, pointing at the miniature flags. “Wedge-tailed shearwaters nest in burrows in the ground. But I don’t see any wedge-tailed shearwaters, do you? Not in those holes. Ha!”
Scott unfolds a small color-coded map of Kauai entitled “Sensitive Bird Habitats 2015.” Included among such habitats is the area where we’re currently running. The map is the work of the committee Scott sits on, charged with drafting a county ordinance based on the findings of the Kauai Feral Cat Task Force (which, to be clear, Scott didn’t sit on, and whose recommendations he despises). The map indicates that most of Kauai is sensitive bird habitat, a notion that Scott finds preposterous. “The conservationists on the committee literally argue that the Walmart parking lot should be designated a wildlife conservation area,” he says. “It’s unreal.”
One of Scott’s main arguments is that feral cats living in remote areas are different than those living in or near towns. The well-fed “community cats”—as Scott calls them—in places like where we’re running simply aren’t the wildlife-destroying menace that their jungle cousins are. Sure, he says, remove the bloodthirsty kitties from remote mountaintops, but leave the town cats alone. If, through some fate of twisted mapmaking, town areas get labeled “sensitive bird habitat” (he acknowledges that our running route and the Walmart parking lot have been so labeled because they are fall-out areas for Newell’s shearwaters), then TNR is needed more than ever. That’s his other big argument—TNR works. Despite what Margaret Hanson says, Scott claims that his colonies have all decreased in size over the years. It’s hard to reduce them more than 50 percent, he admits, because of constant dumping, but you can’t blame that on TNR. “We need a public education campaign on responsible pet ownership,” he says, “not an eradication campaign.”
More curious is his next argument—cats aren’t the main driver of toxoplasmosis. “The parasite sexually reproduces in cats,” he concedes, “but it also asexually reproduces in other species.” For example, he tells me that a couple of years ago, a nearby sewage-treatment plant overflowed into the ocean. “Toxo was in it, because people have toxo,” he says. “That dumped at least a couple of years’ worth into the environment.”
The problem with Scott’s arguments—aside from the pet-abandonment issue, which everyone agrees needs addressing—is that the majority of the evidence doesn’t support them. “Basil’s an engineer, so he knows all the lingo,” says Bill Lucey, who heads up the Kauai Invasive Species Committee and also sits on the ordinance-writing committee with Scott. “But basically he takes a lie and he repeats it over and over. ‘TNR works, TNR works, TNR works,’ like if he says it enough it will come true.”
Consider one study that analyzed TNR in two Florida county parks for a year, “Trap/Neuter/Release Methods Ineffective in Controlling Domestic Cat ‘Colonies’ on Public Lands,” which appeared in Natural Areas Journal in 2003. Researchers found that reductions in cat numbers were offset by new arrivals, both abandoned cats and strays lured by the food. During the study period, they observed that 47 of 128 cats at the two parks were new arrivals, along with 36 dumped kittens. But rather than conclude that dumping had undermined TNR, the researchers determined that the “high number of cats and kittens that were dumped … confirms that the establishment of cat colonies on public lands with unrestricted access encourages illegal dumping of cats.” In other words, the TNR colony likely caused the dumping. TNR fails to reduce cat colonies, the researchers concluded.
Such studies are numerous. Research on a TNR colony in London showed no population decrease after four years. A study on a countywide program in San Diego showed no decrease after ten years. Scientists in Rome found a 16 to 32 percent decrease in population size across 103 colonies after ten years but concluded that TNR was “a waste of time, energy, and money if abandoned cats couldn’t be stopped.” In 2002, after determining that TNR doesn’t work and harms wildlife, the U.S. Navy outlawed feral colonies on all installations.
As for Scott’s contention that colonies near human habitation are relatively harmless, such cats are regularly accused of avian massacres on Kauai. In the summer of 2013, cats killed 60 wedge-tailed shearwaters near popular Shipwrecks Beach, the carnage stopping only after officials removed a nearby feral-cat feeding station. From 2012 to 2015, officials at Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge collected the cat-ravaged carcasses of 237 endangered waterbirds. Many were found at the northern end of the refuge, which is located across the street from a shopping center, a fire station, condos, and a population of strays fed by nearby residents. (Scott says there’s no hard proof linking colony cats to bird deaths in the Hanalei refuge.)
Finally, toxoplasmosis. Like evolution and global warming, there’s no legitimate debate here. Without cats, say scientists, toxo cannot harm monk seals. “Only cats release it in their feces,” says Barbieri, the NOAA veterinarian. “Infected humans, pigs, seals—whatever the species, if it’s not a felid, the infection exists only in the tissues of their body. It does not make eggs and isn’t excreted in the feces of any other species.” To sum up: if I had toxo, a monk seal could get it only by eating me, not my poop.
The Ph.D.’s and other wildlife experts on the ordinance-writing committee explained this to Scott repeatedly in meetings, to no avail. They all complained to me that Scott was clearly using a different playbook.
“He filibusters and obfuscates,” says Hob Osterlund of the Kauai Albatross Network.
“It’s the same strategy climate deniers use,” says Lucey.
“His initials are ‘B.S.,’ ” says Makaala Kaaumoana, of Hanalei Watershed Hui. “Don’t think we don’t use that.”
Scott denies employing any of these tactics. Nonetheless, he could have had a supporter on the committee in Penny Cistaro, director of the Kauai Humane Society and a TNR sympathizer, had he not helped lead a withering—yet unsuccessful—public campaign to have her fired from the KHS. Cistaro has the unfortunate task of overseeing the euthanizing of several hundred cats each year, which she finds gut-wrenching. But Scott, who wants the KHS to end euthanasia, calls her the “queen of kill.” “Basil has made my life hell,” Cistaro says.
In countering Scott’s argument that TNR is more humane than euthanasia, Cistaro and the rest of the committee had an unexpected ally—People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA loathes TNR. It views euthanasia as unfortunate but necessary. In graphic detail, its website lists the tragedies that have befallen feral cats across the country. In Doylestown, Pennsylvania, for example, a feral cat had to be put down after it was found with framing nails in the top of its head. In Elkhorn, Nebraska, a homeless kitten was discovered with its leg frozen to a storm drain. A vet had to amputate the limb. In Pittsburgh, a man was arrested after spraying bleach in the faces of two feral cats and then beating them to death with a hockey stick. This horror show continues on PETA’s website for 56 pages.
As the ordinance committee reviewed the evidence on TNR, Scott could see the writing on the wall. The committee determined that most of Kauai’s 57 known feral colonies were too close to sensitive bird areas. In fact, there seemed to be few places not on private land suitable to relocate a colony. The committee set about establishing the strict rules regarding where and how TNR could occur.
On Facebook, the cat supporters alleged that the Kauai Invasive Species committee could steal onto private property to confiscate peoples' pet cats. Mayhem ensued. “Over my dead body,” one declared. “Time to get a gun.”
Realistically, though, it didn’t matter if Scott lost on the science. All he needed to do was elicit outrage from his group’s members and those of other pro-cat organizations in Hawaii; ultimately, the county council would hold public hearings on the ordinance, probably in the fall. Perhaps in preparation for that, Scott began providing TNR groupies with red meat. One KCCP Facebook post compared conservationists to Hitler and the killing of “outdoor community cats” to the Holocaust. In a front-page story in Kauai’s daily newspaper, The Garden Island, Scott alleged that the ordinance-committee meetings were being “held in secret.” Although the committee chairperson explained that the group needed freedom to brainstorm ideas, the paper sided with Scott in a subsequent editorial and wondered if the committee was hatching “extreme, drastic ideas.” Then there was the KCCP post alleging that Lucey’s team, the Kauai Invasive Species Committee (KISC), could steal onto private property to confiscate peoples’ pet cats. Facebook mayhem ensued. “They have no idea of the passionate and dedicated cat advocate warriors they are dealing with!” howled one respondent. Others threatened violence. “They come on my property and there will be NO warning shot!!” posted one woman. Another declared, “Over my dead body. Time to get a gun.” That last response came from Martha Girdany, the vice president of the KCCP.
Lucey was furious. His crew works door-to-door across Kauai to identify and remove invasive species of all kinds, and he accesses private property only with owner permission. “These are violent threats from unstable people with guns,” he says. “We’re rolling into people’s yards in KISC trucks. If we get one of these cat folks who’s been up all night reading Basil’s posts, that’s a potentially dangerous situation.” At the next committee meeting he got in Scott’s face. “Don’t you dare threaten my people again, understand?” he said. “You take that post down.” The post is still up.
Scott insists that all this could have been avoided had the rest of the ordinance committee not conspired against him. He suggests that if I want to see how real collaboration works, I should contact Inga Gibson, policy consultant for the Humane Society of the U.S. in Hawaii. For years, Gibson headed a cat-wildlife group on Oahu. “She was able to get Fish and Wildlife and DLNR and cat people to sit down and say, ‘Cut the crap! Let’s talk in a constructive way,’ ” Scott says. “Unlike our group, it actually got some good things done.”
The idea of positive fellowship between cat people and conservationists seems refreshing, so I take Scott’s advice and seek out Gibson. Her informal group began meeting in Honolulu in 2009. There was no mandate, no pressure, just an effort to find consensus. “We didn’t have a facilitator,” says Gibson, who became the group’s ad hoc chairwoman. “But the meetings were rarely contentious or unprofessional.” For a while, members did find areas of overlapping interest. They agreed on the need for fewer cats on the landscape. They worked on a public-service video about responsible pet ownership.
Then, in April 2012, a biologist named Eric VanderWerf discovered two nests of an endangered forest bird, the Oahu elepaio, in a strawberry guava tree near the head of the Aiea Loop Trail, ten miles from downtown Honolulu. There are 1,200 Oahu elepaio left on earth, and the sparrow-size birds typically occupy Hawaii’s high mountain ranges. VanderWerf was thrilled to find a lower-elevation nest. He was less thrilled to find a cat colony 100 yards from that nest. When Gibson’s group learned about this, it adopted the situation as a case study.
The kumbaya quickly evaporated.
The cat people stressed that rats are the top threat to elepaio, not cats. True, said the wildlife people, but cats kill them, too. One cat advocate suggested feeding the cats more so they wouldn’t hunt. That’s a terrible idea, countered the wildlife people. Cats hunt; that’s what they do. The wildlife people suggested moving the colony closer to a nearby neighborhood. The neighbors might balk at that, argued the cat people, who instead pushed for a risk matrix—a probability model for discerning threat levels to the nest. Is the threat not crystal clear, asked the wildlife people? They wanted the cats removed. The cat people wanted TNR. No, said the wildlife people, TNR won’t work. So the group did nothing.
That July, VanderWerf found the remains of a predated chick in one of the nests, and he hasn’t seen the adults since. He can’t prove cats did it, but he figures there’s a decent chance. The episode infuriated him. “If we can’t agree that was not the place for a cat colony, a stone’s throw from highly endangered birds, then we can’t agree on anything,” he says. Adds Chris Lepczyk, an ecologist who was part of the group: “When it comes to a head, cat people always walk away. They want the status quo. We were used as patsies.” Gibson’s promising cat-wildlife group subsequently disbanded.
Curious, I decide to check out the Aiea Loop trailhead myself. I arrive at dusk. About 100 yards from the trailhead, near some picnic tables, I count 14 cats eating from plates hidden partially beneath bushes. At another spot, a couple hundred yards from the trailhead, I pull into a parking lot where seven cats are hoovering up fresh fish someone has dumped next to a pickup truck. The truck is occupied. I knock on the driver’s side. A woman slowly rolls down the window. She has a long blond braid and a deep tan, and looks to be in her forties. She’s wary. I’d be wary, too, if a stranger beat on my vehicle after sundown in a park. “I had some extra mahi-mahi,” she says, explaining the splattered fish at my feet. When I mention my interest in TNR, her demeanor changes. She becomes chatty.
Her name is Julie Anderson. For 15 years she practiced TNR regularly and quit only recently. She had to. She was spending $300 a month on pet food. She was paying for mange and lice treatments. Her traps cost $90 apiece, and she had 15 of them. She was spending $5 a pop on spay-neuter, and she had trapped and fixed some 500 cats. “It’s super addictive,” she says. “I was on a mission.” She kept thinking that if she could just trap one more cat, the colony would be completely fixed, and it would eventually disappear. Her work would be done. “But there’s never just one more. People would dump more cats. It was overwhelming.” Her partner financed everything. “After a while he couldn’t pay the mortgage,” she says. “We lost the house.” He moved in to her condo. “We thought we would lose the condo, too, unless we pulled ourselves together. All the money was going to the cats.”
Not surprisingly, the questionable behavior of some TNR advocates has caused at least one member of Kauai’s ordinance committee to point to toxo. Research has linked toxoplasmosis to all manner of psychological issues, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, neuroticism, and suicidal tendencies. Toxo increases production of the neurotransmitter dopamine, scientists say, which can promote reward seeking and risk taking. A study this year found that adults with intermittent explosive disorder, which involves impulsive outbursts of verbal or physical aggression, were twice as likely to be infected with toxo. Makaala Kaaumoana, of Hanalei Watershed Hui, says that before serving on the task force and the ordinance committee, she wasn’t familiar with TNR advocates. “Some display very bad behavior,” she says. “Why would perfectly reasonable people in other aspects of their life act like that?” For his part, Scott says that he has tested negative for toxo. He’s simply a fighter, he insists. “I’m like Rocky in those committee meetings,” he says. “But it’s like one Rocky fighting seven Apollo Creeds.”
By the end of the summer, the fight had only escalated. Scott had joined with five national TNR groups to help draft an altogether different, TNR-centric ordinance, one he submitted to the county. Wildlife advocates, on the other hand, had linked their cause to arguably the most powerful cultural force on the island—the return of Friday-night high school football. If banning TNR and removing feral cats successfully lowered colony numbers, the argument went, then maybe stadium lights could shine again. There’d be far fewer cats waiting to pounce on fallen Newell’s fledglings.
One afternoon I visit Scott at his home. He and Sue live with 36 cats—12 indoor, 12 free-roaming, and 12 inside a backyard “cat-zebo,” a ten-by-twelve-foot shelter constructed of wood, chicken wire, and corrugated plastic, with a pastel paint job. Cats lounge on perches and hammocks. Behind the cat-zebo, Scott is constructing a larger “enclosed rescue area,” a fenced facility capable of holding 40 cats. He says that he and others are setting up shelters like this across Kauai. They’re not surrendering the fight, he explains, but they do want a fallback strategy to save as many cats as possible in a worst-case scenario. “You’ve got colony cats that someone has spent his life caring for,” he says. “We can take those cats. Then we’ll tell the county, ‘Now it’s your turn to manage the situation. We tried. Now it’s on you.’”
Contributing editor Paul Kvinta wrote about human-Kangaroo conflicts in December 2015.