At least a couple of times a year, there’s a kerfuffle about the dangers of feral cats, generally orchestrated by anti-cat organizations with huge PR budgets. The media typically grabs these hyperbolic arguments and runs with them, too. Even well-respected publications jump on the cat-hate bandwagon.
Where are the feral-cat-advocate voices in these stories? Typically, nowhere: The media doesn’t want to hear it. Besides, it’s hard for ordinary people to stand up and advocate for trap-neuter-release (TNR) when they’re countered by organizations that use their scientific cachet and “studies” to make their anti-TNR talking points.
Enter Peter Wolf. Through his blog, Vox Felina, he calls out the anti-feral campaigners and challenges the studies they use to support their beliefs. He uses his background in science and engineering to find out the truth behind the studies and give TNR advocates the information they need to make science-based counter arguments.
Although Wolf is a lifelong cat lover — in fact, he shares his home with 10 cats, seven permanent residents and three fosters — it wasn’t until December of 2007 that he got involved in rescue work.
That year, Nye County animal control officials gained access to the For the Love of Cats and Kittens (FLOCK) sanctuary in Pahrump, Nevada, and found a horrific sight: hundreds of sick and starving cats huddled in whatever shadows they could find to protect themselves from the blistering heat. In what quickly became known as the Great Kitty Rescue, Best Friends Animal Sanctuary sent a rapid response team, and volunteers from across the country descended on FLOCK to save the lives of the almost 900 cats who were trying to eke out a living there. Wolf was one of those people.
"The Great Kitty Rescue was, quite literally, a life-changing event for me," Wolf says. "It was my first introduction to TNR and the larger (and, as I was about to learn, contentious) issue of free-roaming cats."
"This extraordinary rescue effort was also my first real experience — however marginal my involvement — in the animal welfare community. For years, I’d been sitting quietly on the sidelines; now, that was no longer an option."
As Wolf became more involved in animal welfare work, he began to learn about the biases against feral cats and the research that TNR opponents were using as a basis for their claims about the dangers of free-roaming cats. Frustrated by what he calls the sloppy, biased, and dishonest work on the subject, and the fact that scientific journals and the mainstream media were promoting it, he decided he had to speak up.
"What opponents are lobbying for is the roundup and killing of tens of millions of stray, abandoned, and feral cats — though, of course, they never put it in such stark terms," Wolf says. "Free-roaming cats, they argue, pose a threat to other cats, to wildlife and to people, yet they offer no feasible alternatives to TNR. Nor do they seem to recognize that a ban on TNR would, by driving cats and caretakers underground, actually lead to more cats."
Thus, in April of 2010, Vox Felina was born. Since then, Wolf has been posting research notes, news stories, correspondence, and commentary about the claims made by TNR opponents and giving TNR advocates the information they need to help free-roaming cats.
Wolf is quick to admit that he’s not a biologist — he has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s in industrial design — but he says the technical and analytical skills he applies in his daily work enable him to understand research and good science. "In many cases, untangling the bogus claims made by these people involves nothing more than a little scholarly detective work," he says.
He’s been spreading the word with the help of other pet bloggers, too. In September of 2010, he worked with Kate Benjamin of Moderncat to create TNR Week, a series of posts about TNR issues, support, and resources.
Wolf serves on the board of FixNation, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides low-cost spay/neuter services for unowned and pet cats alike. He speaks about TNR and feral cat advocacy at conferences all over the country, including the 2011 Animal Grantmakers Conference and the 2012 No Kill Conference. Later this month, he will be at Best Friends’ No More Homeless Pets National Conference, where he will present a talk called “Taking It to the Street (Cats): Grassroots Advocacy for Community Cats,” with Laura Nirenberg, legislative analyst for Best Friends’ Focus on Felines campaign, and Lisa Tudor, director of development and outreach at the Foundation Against Companion-Animal Euthanasia (FACE). Wolf is also a regular guest on Animal Wise Radio and is occasionally quoted in Animal People.
Have Wolf’s labors been paying off? He hopes so. Recently a reader sent him a proposal that will soon be submitted to a county board of supervisors, which included citations from Vox Felina’s TNR Fact Sheets. "This is exactly why I put them online, and why I started the blog to begin with: to give TNR supporters some desperately needed resources for debating the issue on a local level," Wolf says.
"The outcome remains to be seen, of course, but perhaps I’ve done something to level the playing field for the folks in the trenches."
I’d argue that Peter Wolf has done a lot more than level the playing field. By injecting credible research into the discourse on feral cats and colony management, he’s given free-roaming cats and the people acting on their behalf a huge tool kit to aid them in their work.
Photos courtesy of Peter Wolf