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Vermont Newsguy

by Jon Margolis

Killer Cats

April 26, 2013
    The next sound you hear will be from one of the world's more ferocious animals, an invasive species in these parts, a vicious killer responsible for the predation of billions of wild birds:


    Meow" As in, the meow that is so often the response to "here kitty, kitty""

    Yup, that meow. The call of the house cat, "felis catus" to the scientist, beloved companion to millions of Americans, including hundreds of thousands of Vermonters. The cats that crawl onto their owner's laps in the evening in front of the fire, purr when scratched behind the ears, and make children laugh by leaping about.

    And kill birds.

    How many birds" Billions, roughly 2.4 billion a year nationwide, says a new study by credentialed scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service writing in a prestigious, peer-reviewed journal.

No way, says a cat-lovers organization.

"This doesn't appear to be research for research's sake." said Becky Robinson, co-founder and head of Alley Cat Allies. Not only do the "extreme numbers seem quite exaggerated." she said, but the authors wanted to "further their agenda to kill more cats."

Whether or not the study -- "The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States" " is part of it, there is an agenda of sorts here, a low key but unmistakable campaign being undertaken by environmentalists in alliance with federal and state (including Vermont) agencies to spread awareness about bird predation by cats.

There are no TV ads, speeches, or mass meetings in this campaign. But government natural resource agencies have been encouraging the discussion. In February, for instance, the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department issued a statement quoting fish and wildlife biologist John Buck saying that "cats pose a threat to Vermont's songbirds, such as robins, bluebirds and cardinals, (and) may even restrict the statewide recovery of some rare birds. The whip-poor-will, which is a state threatened species, can easily fall prey to roaming cats during their nesting season."

    Buck didn't suggest killing more cats, but Becky Robinson was not entirely wrong. Though it hardly advertises it, one of the aims of this quiet campaign really is to kill more cats.
"Unless adoptions increase, it's hard to avoid euthanasia" as one possible option in the effort to protect birds, said Rosalind Renfrew, a conservation biologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. Even more bluntly, the respected (if often controversial) environmental writer Ted Williams wrote that the most "effective, humane alternative" for both birds and cats was 'to trap and euthanize."

No, not little Tabby sitting on a lap in front of the fireplace. That's a pet, an "owned cat." in the jargon of this discussion. No one wants to kill him or her.

The cats effectively marked for death by this persuasion campaign are the strays, the wild or feral cats that are responsible for 70 per cent of the cat-caused bird deaths according to that disputed study.

In Vermont, at least, pet cats would seem to outnumber their feral cousins. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, Vermonters are more likely to have a cat than the residents of any other state. Seventy percent of Vermont households have a pet, the Association said, with just about half the households owning one or more cats.

Though pets don't kill as many birds as feral cats, the bird-protectors have advice " or perhaps it's more like a command " for their owners..

"Keep your cat indoors." said Mark Labarr, a conservation biologist at Vermont Audubon, echoing the message of the Fish & Wildlife Department and other environmentalists.

    Not only will a cat kept inside not kill birds, LaBarr said, "it will probably live longer." Inside, a cat cannot be run over by a car or eaten by an owl or coyote. LaBarr said research shows a cat kept inside is likely to live four or five times longer than one allowed outdoors.

    The authors of the report " actually a compilation and assessment of earlier research " published in January in "Nature Communications" an on-line scientific journal, acknowledge that their figures are not exact. "The magnitude of mortality"remains speculative." they say, but their 'systematic review" of all the available evidence leads to the "estimate that free-ranging domestic cats kill (between) 1.4 (and) 3.7 billion birds"annually."

What this means, the authors conclude, is that cats "are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic (human-caused) mortality for US birds."

Robinson, who said habitat loss reduces bird populations more than does predation by cats, said her organization hired an "independent" statistical analyst, Gregory Mathews of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, to review the report.  Mathews found "numerous major flaws in the statistical analysis."

But "Nature Communications" has a transparent and apparently rigorous editing and peer review process. The study by the Smithsonian and Fish and Wildlife scientists was submitted in September, but not accepted until mid-December. Other organizations, including the American Veterinary Medical Association, are treating its results as valid.

It is hardly news that cats kill birds. But why, all of a sudden, would they be killing so many that this predation has become a problem"

Perhaps, suggests Rosalind Renfrew, because there are so many more cats. Recent research, she said, showed that "40 years ago there were 30 million pet cats in (American) homes. It's tripled. There are now about 90 million."

What makes this more dangerous for birds, she said, is that "birds did not evolve with cats." So while other animals eat birds, those animals and the birds reached natural population equilibrium. Cats are not part of that process. They were brought here by people, with the potential to upset the equilibrium.

    "It's what cats do." said Renfrew, explaining that making sure a cat is well-fed before letting it out won't keep it from trying to catch birds.

    Mark LaBarr acknowledged that convincing cat owners to keep their "revered pets" inside can be "a tough one. It's difficult to talk to some people about that, even though it means they'll have lower vet bills."

Experts say that city and suburban cats probably kill more birds than do their rural counterparts. In rural areas, more birds are likely to stay in the forests, where cats rarely wander. Rural cats might also stay closer to home because they are in more danger from predators.

    But the standard Vermont barn cat cherished by so many farmers as rodent control agents qualify as "free-ranging domestic cats" that feed on birds.  According to Anne Ward of the Central Vermont Humane Society in Montpelier. those barns are home to the typical Vermont feral cat colony. The way to control them, she and other cat-lovers insist, is TNR " trap, neuter, replace. As the sterilized cats die off, the colonies should dwindle.

    Here is the crux of the scientific debate. Most environmentalists find that TNR has been a failure. "It has largely been unsuccessful." said LaBarr. And Ted Williams called TNR "a dangerous, cruel, and illegal practice" harmful to both cats and wildlife.

    But Joanne Bourbeau,  the former Vermont Director of the Humane Society of the Untie States, insists TNR is working in Vermont, where  "fewer and fewer cats are being brought into shelters."

    Becky Robinson insisted that it is euthanasia that has failed.

    "We've been catching and killing for a century." she said, "wasting millions of dollars of taxpayers" money. TNR works."

    But even TNR advocates acknowledge that it will only work if pet cats cease "migrating" to the feral colonies, and Anne Ward noted that in Vermont 'there's a lot of dropping off of non-feral cats in those barns" instead of taking them to shelters.

    TNR has been practiced for about 20 years, Robinson said. Considering that a cat in the wild has a life span of only a few years, if TNR were as successful as it supporters claim, most feral cat colonies would be almost gone by now.

    Though they are reluctant to say so this bluntly, the bird protectors believe that euthanizing the invasive feral cats " many of them disease-ridden and malnourished " is a small price to pay to protect and preserve native wildlife.

    In an animal-loving country, that's not an easy argument to make.
    What do you think" Are you for the birds or the cats" Or do you think they can all get along"

Does Vermont Need More Gun Control?

February 20, 2013

When it comes to firearms and Vermont, everybody knows:

(1) The typical Vermonter owns guns and opposes any effort to regulate them;
(2) with almost no violent crime in the state, there's no point to more gun control.

After all, isn't hunting so deep-seated in Vermont's culture that the opening of the November deer season is effectively a state holiday" Isn't Vermont's murder rate just about the lowest in the nation" Wasn't the Majority Leader of the State Senate forced into a hasty withdrawal of his bill to ban semi-automatic weapons lest it taint the entire Democratic Party"

Yes, yes, and yes.

Deer season is a big deal. Vermont has the second lowest violent crime and murder rates in America. Politicians are spooked by the perceived power of the "gun lobby."

But dig a little deeper and it turns out that, as is common with other conclusions "everybody knows," "everybody" might be wrong.

Using actual evidence rather than simple supposition, here are some facts: Most Vermonters do not hunt; at most, half the households own a gun; most people " including a majority of those who do hunt or own guns " favor stronger gun control laws; while it's true that those laws can't do much to make safe Vermonters much safer, they might make folks safer in Massachusetts and New York, where guns used in violent crime often come from Vermont.

"Vermont is part of a bigger whole." said Rep. Linda Waite-Simpson, the Essex Junction Democrat who is sponsoring a gun control bill " one that has not been withdrawn " in the Legislature.

That sponsorship earned Waite-Simpson the warning that she was being 'targeted" for defeat by gun rights defenders.  The warning was typical gun politics, illustrating something else "everybody knows" about the gun debate: it's angry and confrontational, with neither side willing to compromise or even try to understand the other.

Dig a little deeper, and this doesn't seem true, either. Not that there isn't some anger on both sides of the divide. But not everybody responds in kind. Targeted a few years ago after sponsoring another gun-related bill (which fizzled, largely because lawmakers were frightened by gun rights activists), Waite-Simpson decided to learn more about guns and their owners. She bought a pistol, learned how to use it, and would like to find common ground with gun owners.

"I"m not opposed to law-abiding citizens possessing all the weapons they want." she said.

Nor is every gun enthusiast hostile to all gun control suggestions. As the former president and now secretary of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs and a devoted competitive shooter, Chris Bradley of Northfield certainly qualifies as a gun enthusiast. As such, he's wary of restrictions on the use or possession of firearms.

In general, he said, 'the firearm owning community is exceedingly leery of any legislation that affects firearms.  All indications are that we do not enforce the firearms laws we have on the books now, federal or otherwise, so the general feeling is:  Why do we want, or need, more "feel-good" laws that will go unenforced or are otherwise unenforceable""

But he also said he did not think convicted felons or people with serious mental illness should be permitted to own guns and "absolutely no problem" with the provisions of Waite-Simpson's bill (H. 124) that would harmonize state law with federal statutes banning felons from owning firearms, or require officials to report the names of some mental health patients to the National Instant Criminal Background System.

Which is not to say that cooperation and good will looms in Vermont's gun debate. First of all, not everyone on either side is as flexible as Waite-Simpson and Bradley. Besides, there are real differences between the two sides, differences of attitude as much as opinion.
As Bradley indicated, gun owners worry that the slaughter of children at Newtown, Connecticut last year inspired some Vermonters to "do something" even though gun crime is not a major problem in Vermont.

But according to law enforcement officials, Vermont guns are a real problem in other states. An analysis of government data by Mayors Against Illegal Guns showed that Vermont had the 16th highest rate of "crime gun exports" in the country. A "crime gun export" is a gun brought in from another state and used in a violent crime.  The analysis showed that in 2010 41 guns originating in Vermont were recovered after crimes committed in New York State and 35 in Massachusetts.

The Mayors group, headed by Mayors Michael Bloomberg of New York and Thomas Menino of Boston, does not even claim to be objective in the gun control debate. But its figures come from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and have not been refuted. They appear to demonstrate that Vermont is a "go-to" state for some criminals to obtain guns.

Is this because Vermont has weaker gun control laws than other states"

Yes, says Vermont's U.S. Attorney, Tristram Coffin.

"People we see coming up here to get guns come from states that have significant levels of state gun laws and regulations." he said. In  Massachusetts, someone trying to find a 'straw buyer" to purchase a gun for him "would have to find somebody who has a hand gun permit." Coffin said. In addition, the 'straw buyer" in Vermont could buy several firearms at once, which Coffin said would be more difficult in most nearby states.

Vermont has only one of the 10 state gun control laws recommended by the mayors group. State law does not impose criminal penalties for buying a gun for another person who is not eligible to buy one, or for buying a gun with false information. It does not require that lost or stolen guns be reported to law enforcement.

For years, this laissez-faire attitude has been attributed both to the relative lack of crime in the state, making gun control seem superfluous, and to the political clout of hunters and gun owners.

That clout is real. The "gun rights" constituency is not tiny, and it is single-minded; some gun-owners will vote for or against a candidate on that issue alone.

But it is by no means a majority. In 2011, the Fish & Wildlife Department reported, 57,548 adult Vermonters bought hunting licenses. That's less than 12 percent of the state's  495,866 eligible voters. Obviously, not all gun owners are hunters. Some are competitive target shooters, many own a gun for self-defense, and thousands of Vermonters own guns they rarely if ever use, having inherited them from parents and grand-parents who lived in a more rural state.

Exactly how many people in any state own guns is not easy to gauge. In a 2001 poll taken by the pro-gun group USACarry (as reported last year by the web site, 42 percent of Vermont households reported owning a firearm. That was the 20th  highest rate in the country, but with only 1.7 percent more gun-owning households than 25th-ranked Georgia.

 In polling, that's margin-of-error territory. When it comes to gun ownership, Vermont appears to be in or near the middle of the pack. In the new poll from Castleton Polling Institute, 50 percent of respondents said there was a firearm in their household.

But not all hunters and gun-owners oppose stronger gun control laws. A new poll conducted by the Castleton Polling Institute at Castleton State College will show that, on the contrary, even a majority of the hunters and gun-owners want some of those laws strengthened, as do a majority of all Vermonters. Details of the poll will be released Thursday, February 21.

There are two gun-related bills before the Legislature this year:

The other one, H. 243, sponsored by Rep. Alison Clarkson, a Woodstock Democrat, doesn't control guns. It would impose penalties on any adult in whose home a "child is likely to gain access to the firearm without the permission of the child's parent or legal guardian; and"obtains access to the firearm and uses it to cause death or serious bodily injury to any person."

This is similar to the bill Waite-Simpson sponsored back in 2010, the one legislators were afraid to touch, It is in response to the reality that while Vermont has low rate of violent crime, it has a relatively high rate of one violent act " suicide, and especially teenage suicide " usually by gun.

It was specifically in response to the suicide of Aaron Bing Xue, a 15-year-old freshman at Essex High School, who killed himself with a handgun another student had taken from his father's gun collection.

It's impossible to say with certainty that a Child Access Prevention (CAP) law would have prevented Aaron's death. Or that it would not have prevented it. The conventional wisdom in Montpelier holds that H. 243 is considered is unlikely to pass. But Chris Bradley, while questioning "just how big the problem really is in Vermont." added that "I personally have no serious objection to it."

- Jon Margolis 

Suicide in Vermont

January 4, 2013
To its pride, Vermont rates higher than most other states when it comes to health, safety, a clean environment, and good schools. Test scores of Vermont students are among the highest in the country. The crime rate is low, relatively few people lack health insurance. Compared to most other states, the air and water are clean.

But here's a less happy statistic: the suicide rate is high.

According to statistics compiled by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, in 2010, the last year for which information is available, 106 Vermonters killed themselves. That's a rate of 16.9 per hundred-thousand people, the 12th highest rate in the country. A study from the Health Department from 1999-2005 cites suicide as the 9th ranking cause of death in the state. Over that period there was an average of 80 suicides a year, or 1.5 every week. Is Vermont doing something wrong"

Maybe not. Vermonters are more likely to be older than the residents of other states, and older people are more likely to commit suicide. According to the state's Mental Health Department, from 1985 through 2006, "Vermont's age-adjusted suicide rates varied between a high of 17.9 per hundred thousand residents in 1988 to a low of 10.3 per hundred thousand in 1999."

By those measurements, the Department reported, Vermont is right in the middle of the national pack, "25th from the highest and 26th from the lowest among states (including the District of Columbia) in overall age-adjusted suicide rates during 2006."

Even by this measurement, though, Vermont's suicide rate has been steadily higher than the national average for more than a decade, and is the highest in the Northeast, though only a little higher than neighboring New Hampshire and nearby Maine.

As to whether there is something in the state's culture, laws, or policies that might help explain the high suicide rate, experts differ.

Charles Biss, Director of the Child, Adolescent and Family Unit of the Vermont Department of Mental Health, thinks not.

"Suicide is a public health problem," said Biss. This means, he said, that "it can be prevented," and that there might be no identifiable reason why Vermont's suicide rate is higher than its neighbors. People commit suicide, he said, when they feel "isolated and disconnected. I don't thank that's a situation peculiar to Vermont."

But others, including Dr. Sandra Steingard, the medical director of the Howard Center, think there could be one reason Vermont's suicide rate is high.

"A ready access to guns," could play a role, said Dr. Steingard, noting that in general, "access to lethal means is a major factor" in high suicide rate areas.

The connection between the easy availability of guns and high suicide rates seems incontrovertible. Several academic studies cited by "Means Matter," a web site maintained by the Harvard School of Public Health show that suicide rates tend to be much higher in areas where gun ownership is more common.

But the evidence by no means proves that Vermont has a high suicide rate because guns are readily available. In fifteen other states, higher percentages of people live in homes with firearms, and while some of those states have the highest suicide rates in the country (Alaska, Montana, Wyoming), in several others, suicide is rarer than it is in Vermont. Getting a gun is easier in Vermont than in neighboring Massachusetts and New York, where the suicide rates are much lower. But there are lots of other differences between those states and Vermont, which is more rural and less diverse.

Somewhat surprisingly, suicide statistics show that with the exception of American Indians, racial minorities are less likely to kill themselves than are non-Hispanic whites. Life may be tougher for blacks and Hispanics, but they choose to end it less frequently. That appears to be one reason Vermont, where blacks and Hispanics together comprise less than three percent of the population, has a higher suicide rate than states with large minority populations.

Less surprisingly, suicide is more common in rural areas.  Guns are more common there than in the cities and suburbs, but so is that isolation and sense of feeling disconnected Charles Biss cited as the root cause of suicide. In fact, he said, the evidence shows that some people move to rural areas precisely because they feel disconnected and want fewer people around them.

Even within Vermont, rural residents are most likely to kill themselves. Mental Health Department data show that the lowest suicide rate is in Chittenden County, the highest in the rural areas to its north and east and in sparsely populated Orange County.

Suicide is also more common in northern states (and countries), perhaps because long, cold, winters can exacerbate those feelings of isolation and abandonment. But a Vermonter is more likely to commit suicide in the summer, according to the Mental Health Department.

In Vermont as elsewhere, men and boys are more likely to commit suicide, but women and girls are far more likely to think about it and to attempt it. One report by the Mental Health Department showed that for each suicide in 2006, as many as five suicides were attempted, two-thirds of them by women.

Here guns clearly help explain the difference. Women, said Dr. Steingard, are more likely to use pills or to cut themselves, giving them, in many cases, the chance to change their minds.

"You can cut yourself deeply and seriously," and still recover, she said, or overdose on pills but then "pick up the phone" to call someone who will arrange for emergency medical treatment. Men, she said, use "more lethal means," such as shooting or hanging themselves or jumping from high positions. In those cases, turning back is close to impossible.

Though suicide rates are highest among older people, mental health officials are increasingly concerned about an increase in suicide by teenagers and young adults. In Vermont, suicide is the second leading (after automobile accidents) cause of death among teenagers. As with the rest of the population, most of the youth suicides were males, and most of them used a gun. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 1987 and 2006, 2.12 of every hundred-thousand Vermonters under the age of 19 shot themselves to death. Maine's rate was almost as high, but in the other New England states the rate was substantially lower. New Hampshire's was 1.71.

One reason could be that though for the most part New Hampshire's gun control laws are similar to Vermont's, unlike Vermont and Maine, New Hampshire is one of 28 states that have a Child Access Prevention (CAP) law, requiring firearm owners to lock their weapons away from children when they know minors might have access to them.

Here again the evidence is inconclusive. A study of Florida's CAP law published in 2000 by the journal "Pediatrics" found that the law "was associated with a 51% reduction in unintentional firearm death rates among children," but there was "no significant combined or state-specific law effects" in other states with CAP laws.

The scholars speculated that Florida's law worked better because it was tougher, allowing felony prosecution of violators.

In 2009, 15-year-old Essex High School freshman Aaron Xue, a shot and killed himself using a gun and ammunition a classmate had taken from his father's unsecured weapons cache. Aaron's mother, University of Vermont Professor Ge Wu, tried to get the Legislature to pass a CAP bill. It went nowhere.

An analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by Jill M. Harkavy-Friedman, the Senior Director of Research and Special Projects for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention found that in 2010, 11 Vermonters between the ages of 10 and 30 killed themselves with guns. That was a rate of 6.75 per hundred-thousand, the highest in the Northeast, though Maine (6.26) and New Hampshire (6.25) were not much lower.

Charles Bass said that the total youth suicide rate could be higher than the statistics indicate.

"The medical examiners tell us some auto accidents (in which young people die) could really be suicides," Bass said.

One myth about suicide, Dr. Steingard said, is that those who attempt it once will keep trying until they succeed. In fact, she said, the suicidal impulse is often spontaneous and fleeting, and not repeated. "If we can intervene at the moment, we can have a big impact," she said.

At its core, suicide is a problem of public mental health. Among young people especially, suicide and attempted suicide are more prevalent among racial minorities, gays and lesbians, and others more likely to feel scorned.

In Vermont, officials are not merely playing defense.  Bass said young people can be taught "emotional compensatory skills" to offset their feelings. In addition, both officials and advocacy groups are trying to educate parents, teachers, and neighbors, to be on the lookout for warning signs that indicate young people may be at risk for attempting suicide.

All that, of course, requires more mental health services, and like the rest of state government, the Mental Health Department faces relentless budget challenges these days, and faces them without the help of a powerful lobby to fight in its behalf. The "isolated and disconnected" don't have a lot of political clout.
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