March 27, 2013

Writer's cat poisoning idea spurs fury

Nature can be harsh and unforgiving; so too can nature writing.

Nature can be harsh and unforgiving; so too can nature writing.

On March 15, the National Audubon Society suspended a longtime magazine columnist and bird lover after he wrote a column for another publication identifying Tylenol as an effective poison for feral cats.

After a 10-day dispute that has consumed segments of the journalism and wildlife communities, the society on Tuesday reinstated Ted Williams, a freelance writer for the society for the past 33 years, and said that his column would return in the magazine's July-August issue.

David Yarnold, president and chief executive of the National Audubon Society, announced in a statement that, after extensive review of the matter, the society did not find a "larger pattern of missteps that would warrant further disciplinary action."

Williams apologized on Audubon's website on Tuesday, saying his reference to Tylenol had been "irresponsible."

His original column, which ran in the Orlando Sentinel, thrust Williams directly into the long-simmering feud between bird lovers and cat lovers. Cats, both domesticated and feral, have long been identified as the chief threat to birds: A recent analysis from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that cats kill a median of 2.4 billion birds in the continental United States every year.

Yarnold said Williams' comments in his column did not reflect the views of the Audubon Society.

The controversy erupted on March 14 when the Orlando Sentinel published an online column by Williams describing the dangers of feral cats and criticizing the "trap, neuter and return" approach used to try to improve their lives and reduce their number. Williams detailed how many diseases are spread by feral cats and how they have killed billions of birds each year.

He argued that instead of the "trap, neuter and return" policy, groups should consider a "trap and euthanize" approach. He said using over-the-counter medications, including Tylenol, would be a humane way to poison cats. He also cited his reporting for Audubon Magazine to bolster his arguments.

It didn't take long for the cat community to register its outrage. The editorial quickly drew 137 comments on the Sentinel's website. But the biggest reaction came from the Alley Cat Allies, a national advocacy group on cat management, which on March 15 encouraged its members to contact the Audubon Society. The group said its members voiced their concerns in 33,420 emails or posts on social media sites.

The next day the Audubon Society issued a statement saying it had put Williams on probation. The society also said that while cats were still "a leading cause of bird deaths," it did not endorse Williams' suggestions. "Backyard poisoning isn't the answer and we want to make it absolutely clear we don't support that idea," according to the statement.

Still, the controversy did not fade. On Friday, Mike Lafferty, opinions editor at the Orlando Sentinel, wrote, "It's true that you can find bomb-building plans on the Internet, but you won't find them on the Orlando Sentinel's website. Neither should you find specific information on which drugs make effective feral cat poisons, especially considering the risk that could pose to common house cats."

Throughout the debate, members of the journalism community defended Williams and cited his long career reporting on these subjects.

"The name Ted Williams evokes more than a famous baseball player. It identifies arguably the finest and most effective wildlife investigative reporter and journalist America has ever known," David Peterson wrote in an article in the Huffington Post.

In the statement he posted on Tuesday, Williams apologized for hurting the reputation of Audubon and distanced himself from the society by emphasizing that he worked as a freelancer. He said he regretted committing "bad journalism," but he said his actions stemmed from an enthusiasm he shared with many Audubon members.

"Like you, I am passionate about protecting birds," Williams said. "I let my passion get the best of me, calling into question the scientific credibility of Audubon and squandering some of my own."

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