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When Conservation Goes Astray

Updated on November 15, 2016
Sherry Thornburg profile image

Writer, photographer and birding enthusiast, Sherry Thornburg writes about birding and birding related topics.

Eastern Blue Bird
Eastern Blue Bird | Source

The use of words is how conservation programs sway public opinion. But, it is also possible for those words to be co-opted and used for other purposes. How we use words should be carefully considered and then carefully watched once they enter public discourse. This is a commentary on how environmental messages went astray in a big way.

During the Spring semester of 2013, I was in my last year of college and laid up with a severe cold. I was taking a course in public relations writing at the time and needed to find a presently running public relations campaign. I was told you could spot them sometimes as weird news, or a sudden abundance of articles about the same subject.

As I scanned the internet, I found what looked like two such campaigns rattling swords at each other. I saw several articles every day that stated, “Cats kill birds.” Some of these articles looked like carbon copies of each other as there were so many points common to each. That was another sign of a public relations campaign at work. The authors may be different, but like politicians in the news, they all used the same buzz words and talking points.

Conservation Groups at Odds

The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) was on one end of this debate. They are very serious about protecting birds. I found a number of articles during my confinement that advocated their Cats Indoors Campaign. All cats, by their way of thinking, should be kept indoors in order to protect birds. The Bird Conservancy also advocated Trap/Neuter and Adopt for feral cats. Well ok, who could argue against that?

That would be the second player in this debate running response pieces against ABC. Alley Cat Allies (ACA) was very busy debunking the ABC messages. They advocate trap/neuter and return. Adopt out those cats that could be, but return other ferals to the area they were captured. The ABC policy included putting down any cat that wasn't adoptable. The ACA policy is being advanced for animal control laws around the country. It is also advocated by Jackson Galaxy, the host of “My Cat from Hell.”

In voluntary efforts, this tactic for controlling feral populations has been used and said to work well to decrease and/or stabilize cat colony populations. The ACA also has environmental studies in their favor that demonstrate how feral population kills don’t decrease predication, as other predators (other species as well as other cat populations) simply move in to fill the vacuum. The ACA also tried to make the public understand that feral cats are not always good candidates for adoption when feral.

The Results of the Predication Study

Breakdown of prey caught by 60 cats.
Breakdown of prey caught by 60 cats. | Source

In Practice, Feral Cats are not Always Adoptable

The American Humane Society believes feral cats should be adopted too, but they also believe that many make bad house pets. Their own records from 2012 showed that 60% of cats that were brought to their doors did not make it out again. Ferals and other homeless cats that showed aggression or high stress in shelter captivity were put down as a matter of policy.

What seemed to have started the saber rattling this time was a recently released study on cat predication. Scientists attached critter cams on 60 house cats in Georgia to see what they hunted. After a year of watching, the results were gathered and published. The study showed little bird damage (only five kills out of 60 roaming cats over 365 days). ABC took the studies numbers and flooded the news with their calculated estimates on nation-wide bird kills. The ABC media campaign continued this over several months.

These headlines were what I saw as the Cat vs. Bird debate went viral.

Cat Killer Headlines

Inflamatory headlines about killer cats
Inflamatory headlines about killer cats | Source

Photos Used in Killer Cat Articles

Cats killing birds by the billions.
Cats killing birds by the billions. | Source
Cats Indoors
Cats Indoors | Source
Billions of animals killed by cats.
Billions of animals killed by cats. | Source

Analyzing Headlines

On the face of it, these inflammatory headlines are straight forward in their intentions. They want people to blame cats for the deaths of billions of birds. They use words that are more properly associated with human behavior than the actions of animals.

  • Ruthless
  • Stone cold killers
  • Murder
  • No. 1 Enemy
  • Cold Blooded Killer

These terms are used to equate the actions of animals with human criminal acts and motivation. It is an us verses them message suggesting either cats have to die or birds will. Such terminology targets a species as the enemy and prompts our emotions toward hatred for that enemy. In and of itself, that is misleading and manipulative on a grand scale. Any time such tactics are used, the public should view it with high skepticism.

Seeing the way they used graphics with these articles to visually promote their messages (cats pictured with devilish faces about to attack a bird or with one already in their mouths) was also a bit too much. If a picture is worth a thousand words, these pictures said a thousand times that cats are evil killers. Even pictures of a kitten rolling its tongue after a treat was made to appear sinister when coupled with inflammatory headlines.

It was the timing of these headlines, however, that said more. When I did my searches, I found that these 'Killer Cat' articles had been covering the news through much of 2012 and had renewed their vigor just after the Georgia Study had been published. What I wasn't seeing until I dug into the issue were articles concerning these events.

  • February 2012 - Scotts Miracle Gro admitted that it knowingly tainted bird seed with pesticides that are toxic to birds and otherwise miss-led pesticide regulators in the sales and labeling of more than 100 products.

  • February 1, 2012 - The National Wildlife Federation NWF released a statement that they would be ending the partnership in light of knowingly selling tainted bird seed.

  • Tuesday, 13 March 2012 - The Scotts Miracle-Gro company entered guilty pleas to all charges in U.S. District Court.

  • September 07, 2012 - the Justice Department handed down $12.5 million worth of fines and penalties against Scotts Miracle Gro.

Looking Deeper

Doing more research, I found that ABC's Cats Indoors campaign had used a tactic over time which took studies concerning cat predication to justify their point of view to the public. Each newly published study, completed by themselves or other groups, had been interpreted to degrade public attitude toward homeless cats and increase their stated damage to bird populations. How could they know that cats killed billions of birds? The numbers come through statistical methods some say aren't unjustified by science. Their own scientists have had to admit when questioned that there was no real way to know how many bird deaths cats are actually responsible for.

They were also at the root of labeling cats an invasive species. To understand the impact of using the term invasive species, see this article.

The American Bar Association’s Animal Law Committee even weighed in on this subject. They put out a statement (no longer available on the internet), warning that this sort of competing rhetoric presented a false choice which distracted the public from the real causes of the issue. One thought that caught my eye in their statement:

“Some (animal interest groups) insist that human activity (causing environmental problems) is too overwhelming to attempt to modify, and that instead, energies should be devoted to peripheral distractions.”

A Third Party Uses the Debate

This quote refers to reports of bird deaths across the mid-west.

“There were lots of people calling and emailing me directly and via the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and other people and organizations associated with birds, in 2007 through 2010, about dying feeder birds. I and just about everyone else thought this was due to disease outbreaks--I know I didn’t even consider the possibility of tainted seeds because the problem was so very widespread.” Laura Erickson – For the Birds, Radio Show

It was made in response to news about Scotts Miracle Gro, putting pesticides on their bird seed products to protect from losses in storage due to rodents and other pests. The poisons were deadly to birds. By the time this became public and the Justice Department became involved, there were 73 million poisoned products on the market. Only 2 million were ever recovered in recall efforts.

News-Jacking and How it Works

Scotts Miracle Grow needed to do damage control to keep the public perception of their company from suffering. Their public relations people saw the bird debate and chose to use what was handy. Taking an existing media story and twisting it to promote one’s own agenda is referred to in the media as News-Jacking. The Cat vs. Bird debate was in full swing. It was eye-catching for the general public and could be used as a different reason for the bird population losses. All they needed to do was keep the debate going on a larger scale to drown out the news concerning their guilty plea in court and the record breaking penalties they were facing.

The client source of several news articles I found were listed as George Fenwick, the President of ABC. The attached ads, however, point to these articles as being news releases published as purchased ads by Scotts Miracle Gro. Scotts Miracle-Gro used the Cat vs. Bird media conflict to cover up bad press involving their environmental wrong doing.

Green-washing and How it Works

Covering up wrong doing by saturating the news with a company’s conservation or public service efforts is called Green-washing. Scotts sponsored many environmental projects in their home state of Ohio as part of their settlement with Justice Dept. The courts ordered this to repair the damage Scotts did, but Scotts gladly agreed as it would give them good press while doing it.

Sponsoring the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) within weeks of the court case verdict was another such move to GREEN the company’s image. The sponsorship with NWF only lasted a month. Membership outrage caused it to be canceled. The organization’s membership was far more aware of the ongoing investigation of Scott’s for bird poisoning than the general public.

Green-washing in Action

The way green-washing works. Captured from
The way green-washing works. Captured from

Conservation Efforts and the Public Loses with Media Manipulation

When the media is manipulated by news-jacking or green-washing, we lose. Conservation interests can spend millions in donations to heighten awareness to an issue, but when groups bicker with each other and when other groups co-opt a debate to serve their own purposes; conservation issues can suffer.

I’m sure neither the American Bird Conservancy nor Alley Cat Allies ever wanted their advocacy messages to be used by Scotts in such a way. The American Bird Conservancy is passionate about protecting birds and Alley Cat Allies has no ill will toward birds. While the misdirection campaign put both organizations in the news for a very long time, possibly without the out of pocket expenses they might normally have incurred; was it really worth it to have their messages carried to the public when the purpose was to hide criminal actions so damaging to birds?

As one woman put it in response to the issue, "How many cats, who were seen with dying birds in their mouths, were blamed for Scott’s heinous behavior?"

Words can be skewed and used to mislead. Being very watchful of how your words are being used and promoting an informed public is the only way to combat this manipulation. We need more people like the National Wildlife Federation membership, who were vigilant to the use of such diversionary tactics.

© 2015 Sherry Thornburg


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