Media man Daniel Clarke got more than he bargained for when he started asking questions about monk seals during a Hawaii vacation.
The quest for marine mammal footage sent him chasing feral cats “down a rabbit hole” the Rhode Island filmmaker says he never imagined and led to the creation of the documentary FERAL, which looks at how Hawaii’s wild cat populations are affecting endangered species and at the controversy that surrounds the narrative.
“I set off to make a film that presented the various mitigation techniques from an unbiased perspective,” Clarke said. “I genuinely had little to no knowledge of feral cats prior to stumbling into this story.”
As he started digging, what Clarke found were conflicting viewpoints, clashing perspectives and a fierce debate about the impact of wild cats in Hawaii and the correct response methods — varying views on everything from how they impact the spread of disease to the toll they take on endangered populations.
“My belief is that the conflict has risen to such a level that many organizations and government officials that could seriously help are scared to touch it,” Clarke said.
Toxoplasmosis and its potentially deadly impact on monk seals is the main issue Clarke discovered through connecting with Hawaii Marine Animal Response while on vacation.
“I asked why the seals were endangered and what (were) the major threats to their survival. They listed three factors, the third being cats. From there I learned more about the situation in general,” Clarke said.
The parasite, known as Toxoplasma gondii, uses only the feline digestive system in order to reproduce and can cause deadly infections in mammals, including monk seals and humans according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Death in seals is caused by inflammation and dysfunction in the heart, liver and brain. Compromised immune systems and brain functions are also symptoms.
NOAA points out the parasite can create cysts in muscle tissue and organs of fish, birds and other mammals, but T. gondii doesn’t always cause disease symptoms and some organizations, like the Kauai Community Cat Project, say it’s not really negatively impacting monk seal populations.
Basil Scott, of Kauai Community Cat Project, agreed to be in the film in order to “create more realistic dialogue on this issue.”
“Toxoplasmosis is not impacting the monk seal species, or people,” he said.
He and others at KCCP think the impacts of the parasite are exaggerated by “anti-cat coalitions” and point to the recovery of both nene goose and monk seal populations as proof.
He also points to a lack of evidence in humans are dealing with the parasite and says it is becoming a “disease of the 20th century, not the 21st.”
“We looked at toxoplasmosis in people as part of the feral cat task forces, and found that since 2009, there have been zero reported cases on Kauai,” Scott said.
While there have been no reported cases of toxoplasmosis on Kauai since 2009, reporting the parasite to the state isn’t mandatory.
Endangered species preservation is the crux of the documentary. To explain cats’ impact on Newell’s shearwater and other endangered seabird populations, Clarke touched base with Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project and the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.
“We were happy to be part of the discussion,” said Andre Raine, of KESRP. “Cats, indeed all introduced predators, represent an important conservation threat to our native and endangered wildlife.”
He pointed to a May 17 report of a breeding Hawaiian petrel being dragged out of its burrow and killed by a cat on Kauai as evidence.
It was the first cat attack of the 2018 Hawaiian petrel breeding season, and Raine said it probably won’t be the last.
“No matter how remote or seemingly protected an area is, introduced predators — be they cats, rats or pigs — are present across the landscape,” Raine said. “Cats in urban and coastal areas are also killing large numbers of native Hawaiian songbirds and waterbirds.”
The difference between mountain and urban cats is a point Scott feels is necessary to emphasize, because he says they’re different kinds of animals. He says blurring the line between them confuses the issue.
“Mountain-living cats fully meet the definition of feral, and those cats live as a fully self-sustaining population that sticks to wild areas,” he said.
Scott continued: “Cats that KCCP works with live in human-populated areas and do not meet the definition of feral, nor do they have any significant impact on endangered species at the species level.”
The full documentary, which sits at just about 50 minutes in length, isn’t yet out and a date for release hasn’t been set, but those involved with DLNR and KESRP say the trailer looks like a fair approach to the issue.
Scott says he cooperated with Clarke, but didn’t add his opinion on the trailer.
“From what we have seen it looks like it explores the issue, bringing in all viewpoints,” Raine said.
He continued: “Sadly, the issue of cats typically comes across as an ‘us versus them’ issue. Everyone, on all sides of the debate, are animal lovers and all of us work hard to protect other living things.”
Sheri Mann, Kauai branch manager for DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife said the goal was to contribute to rational and balanced reporting and said it “seemingly really wants to help facilitate discussions that might lead to solutions.”
The documentary explores human euthanasia, sterilization and Trap-Neuter-Release programs, and sanctuaries as potential solutions to Hawaii’s ample feral and community cat populations.
“I want to elevate the conversation because it is a dire situation,” Clarke said.
He continued: “At the end of the day, not enough is being done to reduce the numbers of feral cats, and more importantly there is so little cohesion in the efforts that if we continue this way, the problem is going to get worse.”
The trailer for FERAL is available at Clarke’s media platform, Escape The Zoo (www.escapethezoo.com), and on Youtube.
Jessica Else, environment writer, can be reached at 245-0452 or at email@example.com