An Open Letter To The Cornell Lab Of Ornithology

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Dear Cornell Lab of Ornithology,

Cornell University recently hosted a discussion about Cat Wars: The Deadly Consequences of a Cuddly Killer (Princeton University Press, 2016) by Peter Marra and Chris Santella. Marra is head of the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center. His co-author, Chris Santella, is a travel writer and marketing consultant. The book claims that cats are a mortal threat to biodiversity and ought to be removed from the landscape by any means necessary — a reference to the lethal management strategies of traditional wildlife conservation, e.g., hunting, trapping, and poisoning cats. Not surprisingly, this has generated quite a bit of controversy.


Marra’s lecture at Cornell was sponsored by your unit, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a venerable institution in the birding world. In conjunction with Marra’s lecture, Cornell Lab posted a FAQ which repeats and justifies Marra’s views, and allows for reader comments.

See my Flipboard magazine, Outdoor Cats for these and other resources.

I and others have written in opposition to idea that cats pose a mortal risk to native wildlife everywhere. Generally, we argue that because the scientific evidence is flawed and contradictory, it is a shaky scaffold on which to build an argument. As important is the absence of serious moral reflection on our responsibilities to animals, wild and domestic, and what that means for wildlife and sustainability

So like others, I posted a response to the FAQ pointing these matters out, and linking to one of my articles with resources for readers to explore. But unlike many others, my post was censored. It has disappeared multiple times like a dissident in an authoritarian regime. As of today — 13 December 2016 and 4 days after first posting — the comment is still no where to be seen.

Might this have something to do with the fact that I call-out Marra and Santella for misusing my work on ethics to justify a war on cats?


Below is what I tried to post as a comment, and forms the core of this open letter.

“As the ethicist whose work is wrongly used by Marra and Santella to justify their war against cats, I find it regrettable that The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is participating in this scapegoating. Several problems bedevil such a position.
The first is the shaky science based on over-generalizations about the impact of cats on biodiversity. The second is the missing ethics of managing outdoor cats. The third is promoting a book like Cat Wars that is based on shaky science and an absence of moral reasoning. I discuss these issues in “Cat Wars: The Moral Shame of Conservation.” The Huffington Post, 10 October 2016, Links from within the article will lead readers to further resources.
The larger point is this. The sixth great extinction is upon us, and we must act very soon on the big threats to wildlife, e.g., direct human depredation, habitat destruction, and climate change. Doing “something” at the expense of cats is not a solution but a diversion. It only contributes to the victimization of cats for a problem of our making, the causal factors of which have little to do with cats themselves.
I am not someone who denies the impact of cats in specific instances. Nor do I object to doing right by cats via the reduction of feral populations. I do object, however, to railroading the public with lurid tales of threats to public health and biodiversity. I also object to the unvoiced but implicit goal behind this campaign — the widespread killing of outdoor cats as a matter of public policy. The notorious phrase that has come to characterize Marra and Santella’s book — ridding the landscape of cats “by any means necessary” — is not accidental and speaks directly to this intention.
Why are conservation organizations undertaking a crusade against cats? The roots of this lie not in science, but an implicit worldview that emphasizes lethal wildlife control, biological purity with respect to native versus invasive species, and a moral prejudice against individual animals. This worldview is widely contested on its scientific and ethic rigour.
The solution to all these problems is surprisingly simple. First, be more humble about one’s scientific claims about cats. Second, be more responsible in addressing the ethics of cats and biodiversity. Third, use science and ethics jointly to developing a rigourous instead of alarmist approach to outdoor cat management”.


I do understand that what to do now poses a dilemma for Cornell Lab.

On the one hand, ignoring the critique of someone familiar with the scientific and ethical issues allows you to carry on as if there is no reasonable opposition to your position. On the other, responding appears to dignify the ideas of those you see in opposition. After all, if someone is not a crank, why deny them a small voice in the debate?

Yet the norms of civil, political, and scholarly discourse provide good guidance for such a dilemma.

A full range of warranted views are crucial to individual reflection and public deliberation on important matters of public policy. It is undoubtedly fair to say that the vast majority of people would regard a discussion — scientific or otherwise — that might result in the mass killing of cats as an important matter of public policy. Such mass killings are already underway in Australia. As Cat Wars illustrates, they are also the subject of less overt discussions in the United States and North America as well.

So my recommendation to you is to let my comment go. When it comes to matters of science, ethics, and public policy, we are all better informed when we are allowed to speak freely.

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter.

Sincerely, Bill Lynn