Update, 3/25/13: The media are starting to take note of Williams’ suspension. See the article and the list of links below for more coverage of this story.
Veteran conservation journalist Ted Williams, who for years has penned the Incite column for Audubon magazine, has been suspended and had his name removed from the publication’s masthead, after he wrote a column on controlling feral cats for the Orlando Sentinel.
Williams was punished for an online opinion piece that restated his previously published conclusion that feral cats decimate wildlife populations, including endangered species. But he also included a paragraph near the end that spelled the end, at least temporarily, of Williams’ tenure with Audubon magazine (scroll down for Audubon’s statement):
There are two effective, humane alternatives to the cat hell of [Trap, Neuter, Return (TNR)]. One is Tylenol — a completely selective feral-cat poison. But the TNR lobby has blocked its registration for this use. The other is trap and euthanize. TE is practiced by state and federal wildlife managers; but municipal TE needs to happen if the annihilation of native wildlife is to be signiﬁcantly slowed.
The column, but primarily that paragraph, resulted in a campaign by Alley Cat Allies to get Audubon to dismiss Williams.
The group, “the only national advocacy organization dedicated to the protection and humane treatment of cats,” said Williams had “recommend[ed] that feral cats should be poisoned with Tylenol.”
“Ted Williams’ Sentinel column is full of hate and devoid of facts, but far worse, it represents the latest in a string of outrageous attacks and encouragement of cruelty aimed at cats. Williams should be fired for these blatantly irresponsible comments,” said Becky Robinson, president and co-founder of Alley Cat Allies.
Williams’ column cited the recent Smithsonian/USFWS paper, whose authors estimated that each year, free-ranging domestic cats kill between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds, and between 6.9 and 20.7 billion mammals. (Full text of study, published in Nature)
“Un-owned cats, as opposed to owned pets, cause the majority of this mortality,” the study says. “Our findings suggest that free-ranging cats cause substantially greater wildlife mortality than previously thought and are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic mortality for US birds and mammals. Scientifically sound conservation and policy intervention is needed to reduce this impact.”
The Sentinel removed the first two sentences of the offending paragraph, which mentioned the over-the-counter medication and the fact it had not been registered for use on cats. In addition, its Audience Engagement Editor wrote an apologetic column, and Williams wrote an addendum, in which he did not back down from his opinion but said he should not have appeared to advocate that people take the law into their own hands. Here’s the full addendum:
In my recent op-ed I reported that a common over-the-counter drug, an effective and selective poison for feral cats, had not been registered for this use because of pressure from feral-cat advocacy groups. While the statement was not inaccurate, it was unwise because readers might construe it as a suggestion to go out and start poisoning feral cats. What’s more, the statement could be, indeed was, manipulated by feral-cat advocates into something I didn’t write or intend. I should have used the generic, lesser-known name. Further, I should have explained that this feral-cat poison, if registered, would be applied only by the state and federal wildlife managers who are widely, legally and lethally (but not effectively) controlling feral cats with rifle, shotgun and trap. I urge people not to take the law into their own hands. They should leave it to professionals. Finally I should have explained, as was later explained by the Sentinel, that “editor-at-large” of Audubon magazine was a freelance, not salaried, title. I regret this slovenliness.
Alley Cat Allies proclaimed itself satisfied with the magazine’s action after the announced suspension.
So far, the suspension of a man considered by many to be the best conservation journalist in the country has received scant media attention. A writer for Outdoor News, however, decried what he called a “spineless” decision by Audubon magazine, and the website 10,000 Birds also criticized the decision as “sad, stupid and short-sighted.”
“When one of the leading organizations for bird conservation in the United States caves to the pressure of the crazy cat people, that is just disgusting,” wrote Corey Finger. “Feral cats kill birds by the billions in the United States and the only real solution to the problem is removal and euthanasia, along with heavy fines for those caught dumping cats.”
“Ted Williams is one of the few reasons I read Audubon Magazine. I see very little reason to continue doing so if his writing no longer appears there.”
Williams released his own statement, which expressed disappointment with Audubon but recognized that it is within its rights to take the action it did.
The Audubon Facebook post pretty much tells it all. As you’ll recall, it reads in part: “Audubon magazine today suspended its contract with Mr. Williams and will remove him as ‘Editor at Large’ from the masthead pending further review.”
Not much I can add except to point out that I undertook the op-ed for the Orlando Sentinel at Audubon’s suggestion and for no pay because its Florida staff was too busy to respond to an op-ed touting trap, neuter and release of feral cats. I was trying to help, but obviously failed.
The feral-cat community seized upon a reference I’d made to Tylenol, a selective poison unregistered for feral cat control. The sentences, quickly struck by the Orlando Sentinel on the online version (there was no print version) because of comments from feral-cat support groups, read as follows: “There are two effective, humane alternatives to the cat hell of TNR. One is Tylenol (the human pain medication) — a completely selective feral-cat poison. But the TNR lobby has blocked its registration for this use.”
Lethal control of feral cats is widely and legally undertaken by state and federal wildlife managers to protect imperiled birds and mammals. But because poisons like Tylenol are not registered, control is largely ineffective. Cats have to be trapped, and they quickly learn to avoid traps. This, as the recently released Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute study revealed, is why each year in the U.S. somewhere between 1.4 billion and 3.7 billion birds and between 6.9 billion and 20.7 billion wild mammals are killed by feral and free-ranging cats. I think that’s too bad.
At any rate, a group called Alley Cat Allies fired off a release to its members and other feral-cat support groups urging that they write Audubon demanding my immediate dismissal because I had “published a major newspaper editorial calling on the public to kill millions of cats by poisoning them with Tylenol.” This untruth went Ebola viral, and Audubon received thousands of emails from feral-cat advocates demanding that I be fired. The result is the Audubon Facebook post you have seen.
While I am of course disappointed in Audubon’s response, I recognize that I’m a seller of copy and Audubon is a buyer and that it has a perfect right to do business or not do business with anyone it pleases.
“Whether you support trap-neuter-release programs or not, you have got to hand it to the cat lovers for getting the job done with the unpleasant Ted Williams,” wrote Irene Nolan in her “editor’s blog” for the Island Free Press, which covers Hatteras and Ocracoke islands.
“Even without Audubon magazine, he surely will continue his unfounded and often inaccurate attacks against the use of ORVs at the seashore,” she added. “But at least he’s been knocked down a notch.”
- Writer’s Call to Kill Feral Cats Sparks Outcry (National Geographic)
- Distortion crowd takes down a hero (Moscow-Pullman (Idaho) Daily News, 3/23/2013)
- National Audubon Society caves to the cat crazies and Why Did the National Audubon Society End its Contract with Ted Williams? (10,000 Birds)
- Shooting the Bird in the Hand, Cat Lazaroff (Resource Media)
- NAS suspends Williams for cat comments (Eat more cookies blog, 3/20/13)
- The Crazy Cat Lobby (Stephen Bodio, 3/23/2013)
- Cat People and Bird People at War (Bensozia, 3/21/13)
- Cat Fight in the Birdhouse (Wickersham’s Conscience, 3/20/13)
- Audubon feral cat fight has claws in Pennsylvania (3/21/13) and Birds, Cats and Audubon
- The Deadliest Predator, Ronnie Blackwell, The Sun-Herald (Biloxi, Gulfport, Miss., 3/23/2013)
- Williams’ blog on Fly Rod + Reel
- A Ted Williams archive
- Q&A with Williams
- Audubon’s special report takes aim at the wrong target (Laura Erickson’s Birding Blog, on Williams’ take on the Deepwater Horizon spill)
- Outdoor Cats: Single Greatest Source of Human-Caused Mortality for Birds and Mammals, Says New Study (American Bird Conservancy press release, 1/29/2013)
- Alley Cat Allies calls study “sensational, distorted science that relies on old or discredited research” (Press release, 1/30/2013)
- Garbage in, garbage out (VoxFelina blog on the Smithsonian/FWS study)
- Inflated cat stats panic birders (Merritt Clifton, AnimalPeopleOnline)
- Alley Cat Allies slams Audubon editor for encouraging cat poisoning
- Thank Audubon Society for Suspending Author that Advocated Cat Poisoning (The Petition Site)
Toxoplasmosis in Feral Cats: Health Risks to Humans and Wildlife (The Wildlife Society)
- Feral cats and their management (American Bird Conservancy)
Full statement from Audubon
The National Audubon Society is unequivocal on the important issue of cat and bird safety: We reject the idea of people taking matters into their own hands in ways that can harm neighbors’ pets – or any cats.
Audubon strongly believes that cats belong indoors. That’s safer for them and for the birds. Feral and free-roaming cats are subject to injury, disease, and predation. We urge communities around the country to adopt effective measures to counter problems suffered and caused by cats and to vigorously enforce existing rules and procedures.
Ted Williams is a freelance writer who published a personal opinion piece in the Orlando Sentinel. We regret any misimpression that Mr. Williams was speaking for us in any way: He wasn’t. Audubon magazine today suspended its contract with Mr. Williams and will remove him as “Editor at Large” from the masthead pending further review.
Mr. Williams is not an Audubon employee. He is a freelance writer and a conservationist who has written for Audubon for 33 years. He writes for numerous publications.
We fully understand the gravity of the issue of the threats cats present to birds. Cats – particularly feral cats – are a leading cause of bird deaths. National Audubon Society has long supported a “Cats Indoors” campaign urging pet owners to keep their cats indoors for the safety of both their pets and birds. Audubon has guidelines on how to keep both birds and cats safe at www.audubon.org
We’ve had this guidance on our web site for years and we think it’s good, common sense.
A recent report by Smithsonian scientists and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that cats kill an estimated 2.4 billion birds each year, underscoring the need for effective solutions to protect wild birds and cats alike.
But backyard poisoning isn’t the answer and we want to make it absolutely clear we don’t support that idea.
More information about Audubon’s work to create healthy habitat for birds and pets is available on our website.