South Orange Board of Health’s Illogical Quest to Eliminate Community Cats

Earlier this summer, the South Orange Board of Health made their case for opposing TNR in the Village. During the presentation, the Board of Health harped on diseases that are virtually never transmitted from feral cats to people, such as toxoplasmosis, rabies, cat scratch fever and ringworm. Ironically, the South Orange Board of Health claims they are cat lovers and favor “trap and adopt” when they know very well many community cats are essentially wild and cannot live in a home (i.e. trapped feral cats are killed). The South Orange Board of Health stated they would entertain other ideas, but took the extreme position that the risk of one person catching a disease is worth killing massive numbers of cats. Furthermore, the South Orange Board of Health asserted cats are decimating wildlife. Are the Board of Health claims about the risks feral cats pose to people and the environment correct?

Misleading Rabies Hype

The South Orange Board of Health’s assertion that feral cats are a significant rabies risk does not match the evidence. During the presentation, the South Orange Board of Health used two recent cases of raccoons in South Orange contracting rabies as a reason for their opposition to community cats and TNR. Furthermore, the Board of Health stated vaccinating feral cats multiple times over their lifetimes is difficult. While re-trapping feral cats is not easy, the rabies vaccine most likely, as with most vaccines, lasts for far longer than the stated 3 year protection period since that figure is based on studies only lasting for 3 years. A leading researcher in the field believes these vaccines provide protection for 7 years at a minimum and is conducting a study on this very topic. For example, this researcher found other common vaccines provide protection for 9 years. The fact that no person has contracted rabies from any cat, let alone a feral cat, in the United States in the last 40 years proves feral cats transmitting rabies to people is not a serious public health concern.

The Board of Health also mislead the public by stating 90% of domestic animal rabies cases involve cats. Cats making up 90% of domestic animal rabies cases sounds bad right? However, 90% of a small number is nothing to get alarmed about. Obviously, dogs will have fewer rabies cases since most are vaccinated and don’t roam. Thus, the only domestic animals that have any real chance of getting rabies are unvaccinated cats (which are vaccinated under a TNR program) making the Board of Health’s assertion misleading.

Virtually all rabid animals are wild animals. In 2014, the New Jersey Department of Health found only 6% of all rabid animals in New Jersey were cats (which were certainly not vaccinated). In fact, 10 times more raccoons contracted rabies than cats last year in our state. Additionally, outdoor cats have lived in close proximity to humans for centuries and it seems odd that cats all off a sudden became a major public health threat. Thus, the South Orange Board of Health’s obsession with cats makes little sense from a public health perspective.

Toxoplasmosis Hype Has No Basis in the Real World

The South Orange Board of Health asserted people contracting toxoplasmosis from feral cats is a major public health concern, but real world evidence contradicts this claim. During the presentation, the South Orange Board of Health stated cats going to the bathroom outside could cause people with compromised immune systems to catch the disease. However, a person would have to not only touch these feces, but also ingest it as well to catch toxoplasmosis from an outdoor cat. In addition, cats who have this disease are only contagious for a few weeks. No wonder studies showed most toxoplasmosis cases in people come from eating undercooked meat and pregnant women, which are among the most likely people this parasite would infect, are unlikely to catch toxoplasmosis from a cat. Thus, the South Orange Board of Health exaggerated a health risk from feral cats.

Ironically, the South Orange Board of Health hypes the risk of zoonotic diseases much like anti-wolf groups in the Rocky Mountain states. These groups advocate, and even celebrate, the killing of wolves. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rightly responded that these diseases rarely are contracted by people and are not a significant risk. Sadly, the South Orange Board of Health sounds more like anti-conservation nuts than a respected government agency.

Cats Do Not Negatively Impact Prey Populations in Natural Areas

The South Orange Board of Health claimed community cats are an ecological disaster and are decimating songbird populations. In particular, one of the South Orange Board of Health members stated this personally hurt him because he likes seeing birds in the park. Additionally, the South Orange Board of Health took PETA’s position that it is better to kill feral cats than let them live outside since such cats are suffering. So what does the evidence state about cat impacts on bird populations and the health of feral cats?

Indoor/outdoor owned cats primarily live and hunt in disturbed ecosystems within human developments. In a study on the island of Corvo, where no competing predators or large scale TNR programs exist to limit cat movements, found owned cats virtually never roamed more than 800 meters from their home. A study taking place in Albany, New York where coyotes existed, and which also live in South Orange, showed cats on average only roamed through the yards of four homes and almost never entered a forest preserve adjacent to the area (only 2 of 31 hunts occurred more than 10 meters into the forest). Thus, owned cats that roam outside primarily hunt within human developed habitats where the ecology and the mix of wildlife species are already disturbed.

Feral cats also primarily live in human developed areas rather than native animal habitats when coyotes are present. A study conducted in the Chicago Metropolitan area found coyotes primarily inhabited natural areas while feral cats were almost entirely confined to residential locations. Furthermore, the study found feral cats were generally healthy and had survival rates at the upper end of the range of wild carnivores. Therefore, this study contradicted the South Orange Board of Health’s claims that feral cats are decimating native wildlife and are suffering living outside.

Another extensive study confirmed the fact that feral cats do not spend much time in native animal habitats when coyotes are present. The study, which was conducted in 2,117 locations in 6 states, found cats virtually never spent time in native animal habitats where coyotes existed. Below is the author’s summary of these findings:

“Given the fact that we know domestic cats kill a lot of native wildlife, if cats are getting in our natural areas, it’s a big conservation concern,” says Kays. “That’s not what we found. There were basically no cats in 30 of the 32 protected areas we surveyed, and the one consistent variable was the presence of coyotes. The pattern was obvious and striking.”

“Basically no cats” means that over the course of the study, 16 parks had zero cats, and in 14 of the protected areas, a single cat was detected. Cameras were set up in state and national parks in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, and in 177 sites in small forested patches and suburban areas around Raleigh, N.C.

Thus, feral cats in our area, which has coyotes, cannot significantly impact native animal populations since these cats virtually never go to the places where native wildlife populations primarily live in.

Flawed Cat Predation Impacts

The studies purporting to support cats decimating native wildlife lack the basic requirements of reputable predator-prey research. To negatively impact prey populations, predators must remove a significant percentage of those prey populations. However, most of these studies purportedly showing cats decimating native wildlife populations, particularly those in continental locations like South Orange, do not quantify how significant these predation numbers are relative to the sizes of the prey populations. The author of the cat study from Albany, New York cited above clearly describes this as follows:

While a number of researchers have extrapolated kill rates from a few cats into huge estimates of prey killed by cats over large areas (e.g. free-ranging cats kill as many as 217 million birds/year in Wisconsin (Coleman, Temple & Craven, 1997) and 220 million prey/year in the UK (Woods et al., 2003)), these are rarely contrasted with similar estimates of potential prey populations over the same scales. Unfortunately, biologists have rarely sampled both cat and prey populations in such a way that direct effects on prey populations can be shown (e.g. house cats reduce scrub breeding birds: Crooks & Soule, 1999; cat colonies reduce grassland birds: Hawkins, 1998).

The study’s author also explains how cat predation studies conducted on islands and other parts of the world, which are commonly cited as a reason to exterminate outdoor cats, are not applicable in the northeast:

First, harsh New York winters probably function to not only restrict IOHC movement for much of the year (George, 1974; Churcher & Lawton, 1987), but also they may limit the suitability of the area for true feral cats compared with warmer climates. Second, the native potential prey species in mixed coniferous/deciduous forests of northeastern North America may be less vulnerable than other areas because it includes few lizards or low-nesting birds. For example, the scrub nesting birds hunted by IOHC in suburban southern California (Crooks & Soule, 1999) might be expected to be more vulnerable than small mammal or canopy nesting bird populations simply because their low nesting habits are more easily exploited by scansorial cats (i.e. an evolutionary trap: Schlaepfer, Runge & Sherman, 2002). Finally, the nature preserve around these neighbourhoods includes enough forest to support populations of cat predators including coyotes (Canis latrans) and fishers (Martes pennanti: Kays, Bogan & Holevinski, 2001). The presence of these predators probably functions to limit feral cat numbers, as well as the movement of any IOHC into the forest preserve (Crooks & Soule, 1999).

Additionally, not all predation events have the same impacts on prey populations. Ecologists classify predation as either additive or compensatory. Additive predation, as the name suggests, means that killing a prey animal adds mortality and reduces the prey species’ population. On the other hand, if a predator kills a prey animal that is unlikely to survive long and/or breed, then the predation event is labeled compensatory and will not decrease the prey population. For example, if a cat kills a very young bird that fell from a tree or a very sick bird, then the cat is simply killing an animal that was going to die anyway. Given cats in TNR programs are fed, cats will have little incentive to work hard to kill healthy prey. Thus, the South Orange Board of Health’s review of the “evidence” failed to consider this critically important factor.

The South Orange Board of Health also ignored potential factors positively increasing songbird populations in developed areas. For example, bobcats are native to New Jersey and prey on birds, but this predatory species no longer lives in South Orange. Therefore, community cat predation on songbirds may partially compensate for native bobact predation no longer taking place. Additionally, people feed birds which may artificially increase populations of birds cats prey on.

The South Orange Board of Health also did not consider how people feeding birds negatively impacts native bird populations. A recent study in New Zealand found humans feeding birds increased non-native species numbers at the expense of native birds. In addition, another study found bird feeding resulted in many more birds catching serious diseases. A study conducted in Canada, reported bird collisions with house windows nearly doubled after bird feeding was started. Another study from Northern Ireland found winter feeding caused one bird species to lay its eggs too early in the spring when ample food was not yet available, and supplemental winter feeding could favor nonmigratory species over migratory species not receiving the extra food. Additionally the study stated bird feeding was disturbing the natural ecology of these species:

It seems highly likely that natural selection is being artificially perturbed, as feeding influences almost every aspect of bird ecology, including reproduction, behavior, demography, and distribution.

Thus, the South Orange Board of Health ignores the very real dangers of residents feeding birds, but instead focuses on community cats which have little to no impact on native birds in the area.

Eradicating feral cats also has other negative unintended consequences. On Macquarie Island, which is a United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (“UNESCO”) World Heritage Site, feral cat eradication efforts led to an increase in rabbit and other rodent populations. The increased rabbit populations devastated the island’s vegetation and likely negatively impacted many native birds dependent on these natural habitats. In New Zealand, another study documented a feral cat eradication program causing the rat population to increase. The rat population subsequently reduced the breeding success of the Cook’s petrel, which is a native sea bird species. Thus, the South Orange Board of Health’s cat eradication goal may negatively impact native wildlife.

South Orange Board of Health’s Desire to Eliminate Cats May Increase Lyme Disease and Other Infections

Lyme disease is a potential crippling disease. The disease, which is most commonly spread by the deer tick, can cause chronic fatigue, pain and other nervous system disorders if not effectively treated early on. Unfortunately, signs of the disease are not always easily seen soon after a tick bite and the disease can virtually destroy the quality of a person’s life.

Lyme disease has reached epidemic levels in New Jersey. The Center of Disease Control reported New Jersey had around 4,600 new cases in 2009 alone. While the number of people in the state contracting Lyme disease dropped since then, people are now starting to becoming infected in urban areas. Thus, public health officials must consider the potential impact of all policies on this epidemic.

People are far more likely to contract Lyme disease in areas with large populations of small mammals. While most people believe deer are responsible for Lyme disease, a recent study suggests the white footed mouse, eastern chipmunk and two species of shrews are the culprits. Specifically, the deer tick catches Lyme disease from these small mammals rather than deer. Thus, large numbers of these small mammals result in more infected ticks that can transmit Lyme disease to people.

New research suggests Lyme disease is far more common in areas where few natural predators exist. Scientists at the Cary Institute of New York found wooded patches of 3 acres or less, which are common in suburban areas like South Orange, contain 3 times as many deer ticks as larger more pristine wooded areas. Furthermore, 80% of the deer ticks carry Lyme disease in these small wooded lots and these ticks are 7 times more likely to harbor the disease than ticks in larger wooded tracts. In addition, other emerging tick-borne diseases, such as Babesiosis, Anaplasmosis and Powassan encephalitis, may also be more common in these wooded areas.

The high incidence of Lyme disease infected ticks coincides with larger populations of small mammals commonly found near residential areas. In smaller wooded tracts, ecological diversity decreases as competing species find it difficult to find enough resources to survive. Furthermore, predators of these species are less common due to altered habitats and threats from people.

The South Orange Board of Health’s desire to eradicate outdoor cats may have the unintended consequence of increasing Lyme disease rates. Cats are essentially the only predator of small mammals in the very small wooded lots harboring Lyme disease close to where humans live. Despite the hype about cats decimating songbird populations, cats mostly prey on small mammals. For example, the study conducted in Albany, New York cited above found 86% of cat prey were small mammals, most of which were mice. While scientists would need to conduct extensive scientific studies to determine if differing cat population numbers impact Lyme disease rates in people, logic would suggest eliminating cats could only cause more humans to contract Lyme disease or have no effect. In addition, fewer cats could result in more instances of other diseases carried by rodents, such as Hantavirus, Bubonic plague and Salmonellosis. Thus, the South Orange Board of Health may exchange eliminating non-existent health risks (i.e. rabies, toxoplasmosis, etc.) for increasing the chance of residents contracting other serious chronic diseases.

Furthermore, the South Orange Board of Health ignores the emotional distress killing massive numbers of cats has on animal loving residents. Given excessive stress has a tremendous negative impact on all aspects of one’s physical health, one has to wonder if the South Orange Board of Health considered this factor.

TNR Will Alleviate the Very Issues Raised by the South Orange Board of Health

In reality, TNR will achieve the very goals the Board of Health seeks to achieve. While I do believe we very much need cats to maintain a healthy balance in our human altered ecosystems, a large scale and well-run TNR program will more effectively reduce cat populations and limit cat ecological impacts than trap and kill policies. In a recent computer modeling study taking into account cats both migrating in and out of colonies, the authors found, in contrast to the South Orange Board of Health’s claim that all feral cats must be spayed/neutered to reduce the feral cat population, TNR programs only need to sterilize 30% of the reproductively active feral cat population to decrease colony size over the long term. While catching and killing would only require removing 20% of the reproductively active feral cat population, such efforts are much more difficult as few in the community would help trap or donate money to catch and kill cats. Additionally, the study found focusing sterilization efforts on females, if say financial resources are limited, could decrease the population with a lower sterilization rate. Unsurprisingly, despite the South Orange Board of Health’s assertion that TNR does not reduce community cat populations, multiple studies found TNR programs reduced feral cat populations. As a result, large scale and well-run TNR programs certainly can decrease the size of feral cat populations.

TNR also limits cat predation, roaming and nuisance behaviors. Specifically, altering the animals, particularly males, reduces roaming and the loud noises associated with fights males have over females. In addition, regular feeding reduces the distance feral cats range in search of food and decreases their desire to hunt. As a comparison, catch and kill policies do not remove enough cats to reduce the feral cat population and those cats are more likely to roam further, hunt more, and make loud noises fighting over mates. In addition, well-run large scale TNR programs have active conflict resolution procedures, often times performed by volunteers, to reduce nuisance complaints. Thus, TNR is a no-brainer based on the very claims the South Orange Board of Health makes.

South Orange Board of Health Proposes More Polices to Kill Even More Cats at Taxpayer Expense

The South Orange Board of Health proposed the following polices that will result in impounding and killing more cats:

1) Mandatory licensing and microchipping for all cats

2) Increase enforcement of public pet limit and cat feeding ban laws

3) “Educate” people on the dangers of outdoor cats

In a bizarre statement, one Board of Health member stated the town’s Animal Control Officer would go door to door to force residents to get their cat licensed and presumably give people a choice – kill or license your cat. That sure sounds like a wonderful way to educate people about an issue – threaten to kill their cat and then tell them that their beloved family member is a filthy disease carrying animal that should never leave their home unless the cat is on a leash or in a maximum security prison like enclousure. In addition, to reach a significant number of homes, South Orange taxpayers will have to pay for more ACOs or accept slower response times from their existing ACO. Additionally, the South Orange Board of Health’s trap and kill policy will lead to increased animal control costs due to the impounding of more unadoptable cats. Thus, the South Orange Board of Health’s proposed policy will be ineffective and costly to South Orange’s taxpayers.

South Orange Residents and Animal Loving People from Elsewhere Must Make Their Voices Heard 

The South Orange Board of Health will hold a meeting on their anti-community cat policies on September 17 at 7:30 PM in the South Orange Performing Arts Center (1 SOPAC Way, South Orange, NJ 07079). All animal loving people should attend this meeting and make the case for TNR in an intelligent and fact based manner.

As a back-up strategy, people should lobby the South Orange Village Council to not reappoint Board of Health members opposing TNR and also provide pro-TNR replacement Board of Health members. Four of the seven members terms expire within the next year. Simply put, if the South Orange Board of Health insists on killing massive numbers of cats at taxpayer expense, these people must go.

References

Rabies Vaccination Duration Research:

http://healthypets.mercola.com/sites/healthypets/archive/2011/06/21/expert-proof-most-pets-are-vaccinated-way-too-often.aspx

Other Domestic Animal Vaccine Protection Period:

http://www.rabieschallengefund.org/education/age-and-long-term-protective-immunity-in-dogs-and-cats

Rabies Animal Cases in New Jersey:

Click to access rabcases2014.pdf

Feral Cat Disease Risks to Humans:

http://www.alleycat.org/FeralCatHealth

Owned Cat Roaming Study on the Island of Corvo:

Hervías, S., Oppel, S., Medina, F. M., Pipa, T., Díez, A., Ramos, J. A., Ruiz de Ybáñez, R. and Nogales, M. (2014), Assessing the impact of introduced cats on island biodiversity by combining dietary and movement analysis. Journal of Zoology, 292: 39–47. doi: 10.1111/jzo.12082

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jzo.12082/abstract

Cat Predation and Roaming Study in Albany, New York:

Kays, R. W. and DeWan, A. A. (2004), Ecological impact of inside/outside house cats around a suburban nature preserve. Animal Conservation, 7: 273–283. doi: 10.1017/S1367943004001489

Click to access 15128.pdf

Cat Roaming Study in Metropolitan Chicago Area:

Gehrt SD, Wilson EC, Brown JL, Anchor C (2013) Population Ecology of Free-Roaming Cats and Interference Competition by Coyotes in Urban Parks. PLoS ONE 8(9): e75718. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075718

http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0075718

Cat Roaming Study in 6 State Area:

Roland Kays, Robert Costello, Tavis Forrester, Megan C. Baker, Arielle W. Parsons,Elizabeth L. Kalies, George Hess, Joshua J. Millspaugh, William McShea Journal of Mammalogy Jun 2015, DOI: 10.1093

http://jmammal.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2015/06/24/jmammal.gyv100.abstract

New Zealand Study Showing Bird Feeding Negatively Impacting Native Birds:

http://conservationmagazine.org/2015/05/beware-of-the-backyard-bird-feeder/

Canadian Study Documenting Increased Bird Collisions into Windows Due to Bird Feeding:

http://birdswindows.biology.ualberta.ca/bird-feeders-and-their-effect-on-bird-window-collisions/

Northern Ireland Study Documenting Negative Impacts to Birds from Bird Feeding:

http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2008/04/07/should-you-feed-the-birds/

Macquarie Island Feral Cat Eradication Study Detailing Negative Effects on Native Flora and Fauna:

Bergstrom, D. M., Lucieer, A., Kiefer, K., Wasley, J., Belbin, L., Pedersen, T. K. and Chown, S. L. (2009), Indirect effects of invasive species removal devastate World Heritage Island. Journal of Applied Ecology, 46: 73–81. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2008.01601.x

Click to access Bergstrom_2009.pdf

New Zealand Study Documenting Feral Cat Elimination Negatively Impacting a Native Bird Species:

Spatial heterogeneity of mesopredator release within an oceanic island system PNAS 2007 104 (52) 2086220865doi:10.1073/pnas.0707414105

Click to access 20862.full.pdf

Study Showing Small Mammal Prey of Cats is Primary Cause for Increase in Lyme Disease:

Deer, predators, and the emergence of Lyme disease PNAS 2012 109 (27) 10942-10947; doi:10.1073/pnas.1204536109

Click to access 10942.full.pdf

Research Reporting Increased Lyme Disease in Small Wooded Areas with Few Natural Predators:

http://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/ecoinf/lyme.jsp

Diseases Transmitted to People from Rodents:

http://www.cdc.gov/rodents/diseases/direct.html

Computer Modeling Study Reporting the Percentage of Sterlized Feral Cats Needed to Reduce the Population:

Simulating Free-Roaming Cat Population Management Options in Open Demographic Environments. PLoS ONE 10(3): e0119390. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0119390

http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0113553

Bear Hunt Supporters Exploit a Tragedy to Push for More Killing

Last September, a black bear killed a young man named Darsh Patel in West Milford’s Apshawa Preserve. This incident, which occurred a few miles from where I live in a park I enjoy hiking in, really hit home for me. My deepest condolences go out to the victim’s family and friends.

Bear hunt supporters immediately pointed to the incident as a reason to kill more bears. Predictably, anti-animal Star Ledger opinion writer, Paul Mulshine, who recently defended Hunterdon Humane Animal Shelter’s President charged with animal cruelty, demanded that New Jersey expand its bear hunt. Even worse, the Star Ledger Editorial Board agreed with Mulshine and supports reducing restrictions on the bear hunt based on supposed public safety reasons. Sadly, the West Milford Town Council voted by a 4-2 margin to ask the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife to expand the bear hunt for public safety reasons. Are black bears a serious danger to humans? Does bear hunting increase public safety? Do non-lethal solutions provide a better alternative to increase public safety?

Fatal Bear Attacks Are Exceedingly Rare

Black bears rarely kill people especially in places like New Jersey. From 1900 to 2009, 63 people in North America were killed by black bears in 59 attacks. However, nearly 80% of these incidents took place in remote areas of Alaska and Canada, which are vastly different environments than New Jersey (i.e. bears infrequently encounter people and may be more likely to perceive humans as prey). Only 3 of these fatal attacks occurred in the eastern United States and none took place in New Jersey. While 63 fatalities initially sounds like a large number, it is quite small when you consider approximately 950,000 black bears and over 350 million people live in North America. According to black bear biologist Lynn Rogers, only one in a million black bears would try and kill someone. Assuming New Jersey has 2,800 bears based on recent population estimates and the average black bear lives 15 years, a black bear would kill a person in New Jersey once every 5,357 years. As a comparison, groups advocating hunting admit that around 100 people each year are killed in hunting accidents in the United States. Typically, black bears, which are much more timid than brown bears in western North America, flee or simply ignore people. Thus, the risk of a black bear killing a person in New Jersey is extremely low.

Tragic Bear Incident in West Milford Was Avoidable

Reports from witnesses detail the chain of events leading to the death of Darsh Patel. The black bear initially encountered and stalked, but did not attack, a male and female hiker. The two hikers warned five young men, which included the bear attack victim, not to proceed on the trail due to an aggressive bear. Instead of taking the advice, the five young men approached the bear and took photos with their cell phones from approximately 30 yards away. The bear subsequently slowly followed the young men and the group fled in separate directions. The victim lost his shoe, appeared exhausted and the bear was five feet from Mr. Patel when witnesses last saw him.

Human error caused this bear to transform from an aggressive to a deadly bear. Speaking as someone who has hiked in Apshawa Preserve, the park typically has plenty of hikers. This bear must have encountered many people before, such as the man and woman just prior to the deadly incident, and never initiated such an attack. Additionally, Dr. Steven Herrero’s research on fatal black bear attacks showed 91% of such incidents occurred when people hiked in groups of only 1-2 members. As such, the group of five young men, which should have been an unlikely target, clearly acted in a manner that provoked an attack. For example, approaching a black bear they knew was acting aggressively put themselves in danger. Also, the act of running from the bear likely triggered its prey drive much like a dog. In fact, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife specifically warns not to take these two actions (i.e. approaching and running away from a bear). Finally, Mr. Patel’s loss of his shoe and exhaustion likely made him appear highly vulnerable to the bear. As a result, the group’s actions likely turned a potentially dangerous bear into a deadly bear.

Venturing into wild places means one has to assume risk. Police and emergency medical services personnel have a difficult time reaching someone in these locations. Ironically, just two days after the West Milford bear attack, a woman fell off a cliff and suffered serious injuries while hiking in nearby Sparkill, New York. In a one month span, two people died from falls off the same Catskills hiking trail in Hunter, New York. Yet, none of these hiking fatalities received anywhere near the press coverage as the “bear kills man” story.

That being said, we need to take every dangerous and potentially dangerous incident seriously. While only one in a million bears would ever attack someone in this manner, a bear presenting a serious safety risk to people should be placed in a sanctuary or humanely killed if such sanctuary is not available.

New Jersey should revise its law limiting pepper spray to “one pocket-sized device” and build more signs on how to act around bears at trail heads. Bear spray, which is essentially a large canister of pepper spray, is highly effective and even more so than a gun. While I think bear spray is not needed for black bears in New Jersey, it may provide people the peace of mind they need. Additionally, building more signs at trailheads about how to act around a bear may have prevented the behavior that led to the fatal West Milford attack.

Public safety concerns surrounding black bears should focus on more common rather than fluke events. Frankly, fatal black bear attacks are too rare to drive black bear management decisions. However, other incidents, such as bears breaking into homes, occur more frequently and black bear management policies should focus on reducing these conflicts.

New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife Cannot Be Trusted to Implement Proper Bear Management Policies

The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife supports hunters and not the general public’s interests. Like most state fish and wildlife agencies, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife is mostly supported by hunting tag fees. While such fees could go to general government uses, these fees are instead specifically used to support wildlife management programs. Even worse than the financial incentive for the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife to act in hunters interests, is the actual composition of the Fish and Game Council governing the agency. Specifically, the Fish and Game Council through an archaic 1945 law must have the following members:

1) 3 farmers recommended to the Governor for appointment by the agriculture convention

2) 6 “sportsmen”(i.e. hunters and fishers) recommended to the Governor for appointment by the New Jersey State Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs

3) 2 commercial fisherman

One look at the Fish and Game’s composition shows 100% of its members come from group’s exploiting animals. Notably absent are any members focused on maintaining healthy ecosystems or animal welfare. In fact, the New Jersey State Federation of Sportsmen’s clubs, which appoints a majority of the Fish and Game Council, specifically states they support sport hunting and trapping. Even worse, New Jersey hunters only comprise approximately 1% of the state’s population, but hunters represent as many as 55% of the Fish and Game Council members. Thus, the Fish and Game Council is not an unbiased body making wildlife management decisions.

Highly Questionable Claims of Bear Hunt Increasing Public Safety

The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife has long argued bear hunting was needed for public safety reasons. In 1997, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife called for a hunting season to “control” black bear numbers for “public safety” purposes despite New Jersey having less than 20% of the number of bears we have today. Even worse, the agency wanted to reduce the number of bears to around 300 in the entire state or around 10% of the number of bears we currently have. This policy would effectively eliminate the black bear’s critical ecological functions, which includes preying on overly abundant deer, and wildlife watchers, which far outnumber hunters, ability to view these magnificent creatures. Thus, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife has long proposed draconian bear management policies.

The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife’s data supporting bear public safety concerns has significant flaws. NJ Advance Media, which provides analyses to the Star Ledger, used the agency’s data to argue the bear hunt is working despite reported serious bear complaints increasing the last two years when bear numbers decreased due to hunting.

The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife places bear complaints into the following groups:

1) Category 1: Bears posing a serious threat to people or property. Bears are killed as soon as possible.

2) Category 2: Nuisance bears which are not a threat to public safety or property. Use aversive conditioning methods, such as rubber bullets, to encourage bears to leave area.

3) Category 3: Bears exhibiting normal behaviors and not causing a nuisance or a threat to public safety. Generally provide advice to residents, but no action taken against bears.

Category 1 bear complaints are the only serious incidents potentially affecting public safety. However, most Category 1 complaints, which are used by the agency to argue for bear hunts, do not in fact represent public safety concerns. Specifically, agricultural damage claims exceeding $500 (i.e. bears eating crops, livestock kills, etc.), which farmers can take actions to stop, result in bears being classified as Category 1 and sentenced to death. For example, only 33 or 31% of Category 1 incidents in 2013 actually related to public safety. Similarly, only 52 or 31% of incidents from through October 20, 2014 actually posed a risk to human safety. Thus, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife inflates the “public safety” Category 1 incidents and uses those incidents to kill bears posing no risk to people.

The methods the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife uses to compile bear incidents are also flawed. Specifically, bear experts from the Fourth International Human-Bear Conflicts Workshop agreed using phone calls to measure bear incidents, which the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife does, is a terrible choice. For example, one reason New Jersey bear complaints may have increased over the last decade is due to greater use of cell phones rather than a real increase in bear incidents. Also, surges in public reporting of bear complaints may be due to more awareness of the issue rather than an increase in actual incidents. State wildlife agencies may in fact drum up fear and cause increased reporting of conflicts. Additionally, Dr. Edward A. Tavss, a Chemistry professor from Rutgers University, analyzed the the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife’s surge in incidents from 1999-2009 and found serious complaints actually decreased when data collection methods were standardized. Specifically, the agency used additional data sources, which included counting the same incidents twice, to collect data during the years bear complaints surged. Even worse, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife added a data collection source in 2003 which increased reported complaints and led to a bear hunt. As a result, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife’s data lacks credibility.

The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife and NJ Advance Media’s claims that the bear hunt increased public safety are inconsistent with a number of studies. Pennsylvania, which has 18,000 black bears and 116,000 bear hunters, found bear hunts killing as much as 50% of the bear population did not reduce serious bear incidents and if anything may have increased conflicts. Similarly, Wisconsin also reported increased killing of bears during hunts had either no effect on or actually increased the number of serious bear incidents. Back in 2005, Dr. Edward Tavss reviewed a number of studies from different states, such as Virginia, New York, Minnesota and Ontario, Canada, and found bear hunting either increased or had no impact on the number of bear complaints. Most interestingly, Dr. Tavss noted Northeastern Pennsylvania, which is next door to and connected to New Jersey’s core bear population, reported more bear complaints despite more bears killed during hunts. Thus, the notion New Jersey’s bear hunt somehow has a completely different result is highly unlikely in my humble opinion.

The bear hunt may not increase public safety for a number of reasons. Logically, on the surface one would think fewer bears results in less human-bear interactions and lower numbers of complaints. Mark Ternent of the Pennsylvania Game Commission “found nuisance bears got killed equally as often as non-conflict bears” despite measures taken to encourage hunting near residential areas. Killing a resident bear who is not causing conflict opens up the territory for another bear who may cause problems. Additionally, hunting predators creates social chaos and typically results in younger populations. Like teenage humans, such bears are more likely to get into trouble. For example, an adolescent bear, who normally may not survive due to dominant bears occupying territories, may choose to raid garbage cans or invade homes due to the bear lacking skills to forage naturally. Thus, hunting bears may in fact increase rather than reduce conflicts with people.

Black bear hunting does not make bears fear people. The Star Ledger Editorial Board argued the bear hunt is necessary to make bears fear people. However, Dr. Stephen Stringham, who studied both brown and black bears in Alaska, Montana, California, New York and Vermont, refutes that point of view. Specifically, Dr. Stringham states bears shot by hunters usually die and therefore can’t learn to fear people. Furthermore, bears learn fear more from being stalked, which can be done by non-hunters, such as photographers. The New Jersey hunt will induce even less fear due to hunters being allowed to shoot bears eating bait, such as jelly doughnuts. Most bears shot will be killed and will require little to no stalking. Furthermore, the West Milford fatal bear attack occurred after several hunting seasons. While the attack occurred in a very small area where hunting is prohibited, the male black bear who killed Darsh Patel certainly would have had a home range encompassing adjacent areas where bear hunting is allowed. As a result, the bear hunt will not make bears fear people to any significant degree and increase public safety.

Black bear hunting reduces public safety by increasing the risk people are accidentally shot. Public safety is quite an ironic argument bear hunt supporters use. Each year around 100 people are killed by hunters in the United States while only 63 people were killed by black bears in both the United States and Canada over a 110 year period. During hunting season in New Jersey, hikers flock to the few protected areas where hunting is prohibited or significantly limited. These very same areas, such a Pyramid Mountain Natural Historic Area, have large bear populations. If hikers were more concerned with black bears than hunters, the hikers would go to the areas filled with hunters. People rightly are more concerned with the much higher risk of being shot by a hunter. Thus, the bear hunt likely reduces public safety by increasing the risk people are accidentally shot by hunters.

Effective Garbage Control is the Only the Solution to Human-Bear Conflicts

Scientific studies consistently show effective garbage control is key to reducing black bear conflicts with people. Dr. Edward A. Tavss conducted a review, which was mostly based off peer-reviewed scientific studies, in 2005 showing effective garbage control policies significantly reduced bear conflicts with humans. Specifically, garbage control decreased conflicts in Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, Great Smoky National Park, Juneau, Alaska, Elliot Lake, Ontario, Nevada’s Lake Tahoe Basin and New Jersey from 1999-2005 when non-lethal efforts were focused on. Also, additional communities implemented these programs since then. Logically, this makes sense as easily accessible garbage provides bears, which require large amounts of food to survive winter hibernation, far more calories with much less effort than naturally foraging. The garbage therefore encourages bears to leave the woods and hang out in developed areas. Unfortunately, bears, like many food-habituated animals, may lose their fear of people and become a risk to public safety. Additionally, the extra calories bears obtain from unsecured garbage allow sows to have larger litters and greater numbers of those cubs to survive. As a result, unsecured garbage in bear country increases the number of bears and encourages bears to hang out in developed areas.

New Jersey does not effectively prevent bears from accessing garbage and other human sources of food. While New Jersey has a law that prohibits intentional feeding of bears, the law is not enforced. Many times I’ve driven through neighborhoods bordering protected areas with dense bear populations and seen flimsy garbage containers or loose bags of trash. Similarly, Susan Russell of the League of Humane Voters of New Jersey shared photos of readily accessible garbage in West Milford’s bear country. Despite the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s nonsensical claim that there is 99% compliance with New Jersey’s guidelines for restaurants to secure garbage, News 4 New York found dozens of unsecured garbage containers in Allamuchy, Liberty and Independence townships on the first day of the 2010 bear hunt. Furthermore, New Jersey deer hunters leave over 1 million pounds of food as bait for deer each year in the state’s forests. Additional amounts are also left by bear hunters as well. Thus, New Jersey has much to do to reduce the availability of human foods to bears.

Preventing bears from accessing garbage also makes efforts to keep bears away from humans easier. Aversive conditioning, which consists of such things as shooting bears with rubber bullets, using specially trained dogs to harass bears, and loud noises, attempts to encourage nuisance bears to leave residential areas. Research indicates aversive conditioning efforts are far more effective if bears are not food conditioned. As a result, preventing bears access to food helps efforts to encourage bears to leave residential areas.

Effective Garbage Control is Cheap

A recent peer reviewed study showed bear proof garbage cans significantly reduced black bear conflicts with people. The study, which was published in the Southeastern Naturalist, took place in Florida and compared bear incidents and interactions in two areas before and after bear proof garbage containers were provided to residents. Researchers gave residents a common bear proof garbage container, which costs about $150 more than a regular trash can, in one area and provided a regular garbage can with a $20 bear proof modification to people in another location. The study’s key findings on the more expensive bear proof garbage container were as follows:

1) The percentage of respondents reporting bears in their garbage decreased from around 75% before bear proof garbage cans were used to around 10% a year after bear proof garbage cans were used

2) The percentage of respondents reporting a bear in their yard decreased from 85% before bear proof garbage cans were used to 32% a year after bear proof garbage cans were used

3) The percentage of respondents reporting seeing a bear at least every few days decreased from 28% before bear proof garbage cans were used to 3% a year after bear proof garbage cans were used

4) The percentage of respondents reporting not seeing a bear increased from 5% before bear proof garbage cans were used to 39% a year after bear proof garbage cans were used

5) 90% of respondents felt the bear proof cans were effective and 97% would recommend them to someone else

The study also found the $20 modified bear proof garbage containers also reduced bear conflicts as follows:

1)  The percentage of respondents reporting bears in their garbage decreased from around 60% before the bear proof garbage cans were used to less than 5% a year after bear proof garbage cans were used

2) The percentage of respondents reporting a bear in their yard decreased from 41% before bear proof garbage cans were used to 16% a year after bear proof garbage cans were used

3) The percentage of respondents reporting seeing a bear at least every few days decreased from 47% before bear proof garbage cans were used to zero a year after bear proof garbage cans were used

4) The percentage of respondents reporting not seeing a bear increased from 38% before bear proof garbage cans were used to 68% a year after bear proof garbage cans were used

5) 72% of respondents felt the bear proof cans were effective and 91% would recommend them to someone else

Furthermore, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported a 69% decrease in bear incidents reported in the two areas after the bear proof garbage cans were used. Additionally, other sources of human food provided to bears, such as pet food and bird/wildlife feeding, were not eliminated and doing so could have further decreased the number of bear-human interactions. As a result, bear proof garbage containers as cheap as $20 can significantly reduce bear conflicts to manageable levels.

Black Bear Hunting Makes So Sense from Ecological or Animal Welfare Perspectives

Hunting predators makes no ecological sense. In the natural world, adult large carnivores, such as black bears are not preyed on by other animals except for fluke incidents. However, most states, such as New Jersey, institute hunting seasons on these animals resulting in unnaturally low carnivore numbers. Biologist, hunter and former hunting guide, George Wuerthener, persuasively argues that state wildlife agencies, such as the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, consistently ignore the ecological role predators play and the social composition of carnivores. Black bears are key seed dispersers. For example, bears consume berries and spread the seeds elsewhere when they defecate. Additionally, bears break up logs while searching for insects and help the process of decay. Also, black bears may help limit overly abundant whitetail deer populations through their predation on fawns. Furthermore, hunting tends to skew the population to less experienced animals, who may have less foraging knowledge, and therefore may less effectively fulfill their ecological role as mature animals. Thus, the bear hunt artificially depresses the bear population and results in less healthy forests.

The bear hunt also makes no sense from a moral point of view. While an argument could be made human hunters make up for extinct native carnivores which preyed on New Jersey whitetail deer, such as red wolves and cougars, the same argument cannot be made for New Jersey black bears who have no natural predators. Recent research on populations of heavily hunted gray wolves, who also have no natural predators, show these wolves have elevated levels of stress hormones that potentially have significant negative evolutionary and human conflict effects. Furthermore, black bear hunting at current levels likely will result in few black bears living anywhere close to their natural lifespan without hunting. Additionally, New Jersey’s black bear hunt under the guise of “population control” allows slob hunting practices, which violate ethical hunting concepts such as fair chase. For example, bears can be shot over bait, such as jelly doughnuts, and the New Jersey Division of Wildlife actually encourages hunters to shoot mothers with cubs and cubs as well. This line of thinking is supported by a recent study by two biology professors, including the world famous Isle Royale Wolf Project researcher John Vucetich, who persuasively argue that predator hunting is not justified from a biological, moral or ethical point of view. Thus, the New Jersey bear hunt should not take place based on a moral argument as well.

The tragic incident in West Milford should not be the basis to implement a terrible bear policy with even worse consequences. We should not respond in anger with a pitchfork mentality that will reduce rather than increase public safety. Instead, we should use the increased attention to get serious on reducing conflicts we have control over. At the very least, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife can start providing people in high density bear areas the $20 modification to make garbage cans bear proof. In the end, we have to act rational and not in a knee jerk manner. New Jersey residents by and large are compassionate and smart. Let’s act in a way that fits with who we are as a people. I’m confident if we do that we will implement the proper bear policy.