There has been a lot of media recently about toxoplasmosis causing the deaths of Hawaiian monk seals and spinner dolphins. Unfortunately, their reporting is loaded with inaccuracies.
Our Vice President, Martha Girdany, a biologist specializing in infectious disease, wrote the following rebuttal to Mary Vorsino, who produced the Hawaii News Now article May 3, 2016 on this very subject.
This email is followed by a previous email she sent to Chris Tanaka, also of Hawaii News Now, who wrote a similarly inaccurate piece about monk seal deaths caused by toxoplasmosis. This email included a short research paper she did on toxoplasmosis that was provided to the Feral Cat Task Force in early 2014.
There has been no reply from either Mary Vorsino OR Chris Tanaka regarding our objections to their irresponsible and inaccurate reporting. We are disheartened that Hawaii News Now focuses more on sensationalism and creating panic within the community, than they are doing the research needed to find out what the real facts of the matter are.
May 3, 2016
Aloha, Mary. I am writing concerning the article you produced yesterday regarding a spinner dolphin that died in the shallow waters of the Big Island, from the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis.
I am forwarding the email I wrote to Chris Tanaka in November of last year, regarding the purported death of a monk seal from toxoplasmosis. I am currently the Vice President of the Kauai Community Cat Project, a non-profit on Kauai dedicated to the care and welfare of Kauai’s community cats. Please take a few moments to read the information I sent to Chris in November 2015.
Not much has changed in regards to toxoplasmosis research since that time. There have been NO published scientific papers, with actual scientific evidence, showing that more than ONE monk seal death has been caused by toxoplasmosis. I hasten to point out that the January 2016 monk seal recovery plan notes there is UNPUBLISHED data on monk seals dying from toxoplasmosis. Kauai Community Cat Project has sent in a freedom of information act (FOIA) request to get the data on these monk seal deaths so that we can review it, but that information has not yet been forthcoming from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Note that the January 2016 monk seal recovery plan also stated that additional research needs to be conducted to learn how the toxoplasmosis parasite gets into monk seals.
Therefore, I am hopeful that you will consider changing, or making corrections to, the story you did yesterday: eight monk seals have definitely NOT been know to have died from toxoplasmosis. If NOAA states that additional research is needed to determine how the toxoplasmosis parasite gets into monk seals, how then can it be stated with certainty that this parasite caused the death of those monk seals?
Please feel free to contact me at this email address should you have any additional questions. As per my previous email to Chris Tanaka, I have cc’d Basil Scott, our president.
November 23, 2015
Aloha, Chris. I’m writing about the story you had on Hawaii News Now regarding monk seal deaths caused by toxoplamosis.
I am a biologist by training, with an MS in Virology from Carnegie Mellon University, in 1979. I am NOT a veterinarian, but I do understand biological science and infectious disease and parasites, including Toxoplasma gondii, the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis.
Full disclosure: I am a cat lady. I am the treasurer of Kauai Community Cat Project, a non-profit on Kauai dedicated to the welfare of outdoor/feral/community cats. Kauai County set up a Feral Cat Task Force two years ago to look at the issue of feral cats and problems they cause with endangered birds and other animals. I am attaching. a short research paper I did on toxoplasmosis, that I provided to the Feral Cat Task Force in early 2014.
The following important items should be noted with regard to the short paper I wrote. First of all, I talked extensively to Dr. Jitender Dubey, THE U.S. expert on toxoplasmosis; he works at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I reviewed his literature and asked him a number of questions. Second, I spoke to Michelle Barbieri, the NOAA/Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center veterinarian for the the Hawaii Monk Seal Research Program, on two occasions. As you will see from the short paper I attached, Dr. Barbieri told me that she was certain that monk seal deaths had been caused by toxoplasma parasites. The research articles on the 5+ anecdotally-reported monk seal deaths have not ever been published. Dr. Barbieri did not contact me, as per her promise mentioned in my paper. However, I was part of a teleconference with her organized by Inga Gibson and the Hawaii Chapter of the Humane Society of the United States later in 2014. At that time, Dr. Barbieri, responding to questions from me, stated that there had been NO causality established between the presence of toxoplasma parasites in monk seals AND run-off of these parasites — presumably from deposits of cat feces on land — from the environment into the ocean. As far as I know, this reserarch has not still not been done.
I therefore find it astounding that Dr. Barbieri et al. are now saying that monk seals deaths are the result of feral cat deposition of feces in the environment. The release I saw on Facebook the other day, on the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program page, talked about “attributing” monk seal deaths and illness to feral cats and toxoplasma parasites. In science, attribution is a non-entity, what is needed is a determination of cause and effect, and that research simply has not been done. If you speak to Dr. Babieri, you simply must ask her if the research to establish causality from feral cat feces deposits into the environment, into run-off into the ocean, and then to causing disease in monk seals has been done. If she is honest, she will tell you this rigorous science has not been done yet. Of course, I am biased here. But I think the language used on the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program Facebook page was very carefully chosen to say “attibution” vice proof or causality. And that is simply because the public does not understand the difference.
As an example, we could say that intravenous drug use can be ATTRIBUTED to childhood consumption of milk: nearly all intravenous drug users drank milk as children. Obviously, drinking milk does not CAUSE a person to become an intravenous drug user. To extrapolate to the monk seal case at hand: monk seals have become sick and have died from toxoplasma parasites (although I might dispute this because I have only read one research paper that provided scientific evidence, while other instances are anecdotal). The reason for coming to this conclusion is that there are many outdoor cats defecating in the environment, and that it makes sense that the parasites in the feces run-off into the ocean and then get into monk seals. While this argumentation makes sense, there is quite a lot more scientific research that needs to be done to prove that the toxoplasma parasites that infected monk seals actually come from run-off.
Thanks for reading this long email. I would prefer to keep my name out of news, because there are many bird and other conservationists here on Kauai who detest cats, and I do not want to be receiving hate mail or calls — I’m in the phone book. But if it’s necessary, so be it. I have cc’d Basil Scott, president of Kauai Community Cat Project, on this email.
Vice President, Kauai Community Cat Project