Misinformation and scaremongering likely to undermine TNR efforts in Hawaii
If your social media feed looks anything like mine, you’ve seen multiple news stories during the past month decrying the tragic loss of three Hawaiian monk seals over the course of a single week in May. Early news accounts noted that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the agency overseeing the recovery of this endangered species, said that “at this time we do not have any reason to associate these deaths with a trend, pattern, or common threat.”
A month later, however, the story changed dramatically when all three deaths were attributed to the parasitic infection toxoplasmosis. In the weeks since then, news accounts have often veered away from the facts and moved in the direction of misinformation and scaremongering — especially where outdoor cats are concerned.
Ironically, this kind of media hype is likely to undermine trap-neuter-return (TNR) efforts in the Hawaiian Islands — and TNR is our best shot at humanely reducing community cat numbers.
The hype surrounding toxoplasmosis
The Toxoplasma gondii parasite can reproduce inside the digestive tract of domestic cats, and infected cats will shed the microscopic egg-like spores (called “oocysts”) for a short time (generally no more than a week) in their feces. Monk seals, like all mammals (including humans), can become infected. It’s thought that runoff, especially from heavy rains, transports the tiny oocysts from land to sea, but we don’t really know.
Over the past 18 years or so, just 11 of more than 200 monk seal deaths investigated by NOAA have been attributed to toxoplasmosis. If, as some suggest, the waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands are badly contaminated with the parasite, then why haven’t many more monk seals succumbed to infection? Again, we don’t know.
On the other hand, there’s much we do know about all of this. Unfortunately, it’s information that rarely makes it into news accounts following the death of one of these seals.
Monk seal success stories
Again, monk seal deaths attributed to toxoplasmosis account for just 5–6 percent of seal deaths investigated since 2001. This is approximately the same number of seals killed by fishing nets and hooks or other diseases, or because they were shot or beaten. Many more seals die from starvation, natural trauma and sharks, or because the relatively fragile newborn pups simply don’t make it.
Media accounts focused solely on toxoplasmosis grossly overstate this one threat.
The most compelling evidence that the threat is being badly exaggerated comes from various NOAA reports documenting the Hawaiian monk seal’s increasing numbers. As recently as 2015, the population was estimated to be about 1,100 seals; the 2017 estimate was 1,400. And according to a 2016 NOAA report, “there have been an increasing number of seal sightings and births in the main Hawaiian Islands since 1990,” where “people only rarely reported seeing monk seals … over most of recorded history.”
That’s right: The islands most heavily populated by people (and cats) are seeing an unprecedented increase in monk seal numbers. Yet this critical point is rarely mentioned in media accounts about monk seal deaths.
Smear campaign likely to backfire
At Best Friends, we value the lives of all animals. And we commend the tireless efforts of NOAA and other organizations dedicated to protecting the Hawaiian monk seal.
It’s deeply troubling to see outdoor cats targeted as a result of the three recent seal deaths attributed to toxoplasmosis, and not just for the most obvious reason. Pinning the blame on cats actually puts monk seals at risk, too — since it’s likely to divert public attention and precious resources away from more serious threats and undermine TNR efforts.
This last point should be of great interest to all of us (the animal welfare and conservation communities, as well as the general public) who want to reduce Hawaii’s population of community cats. However “successful” this campaign of misinformation and scaremongering might be, there are no winners.
Research and policy analyst
Best Friends Animal Society