There is much to like about the Hillsborough County Animal Services task force's preliminary report aimed at minimizing the number of lost or stray animals that are euthanized at the county shelter each year. It recommends, among other things, shelter animal adoptions be increased by keeping longer hours, aggressive marketing and keeping animals healthier. Most of the thoughtful recommendations, which the task force is set to finalize tonight, should be endorsed by the Hillsborough commission, scheduled to review the proposals next month. But a centerpiece proposal — to trap, neuter and then release stray cats — deeply troubles us.
This almost surely will result in the cats killing native wildlife and also could easily result in the strays spreading disease and becoming a nuisance for neighbors. The Florida Department of Health opposes the practice as does the Hillsborough County Veterinary Medical Society. The measure might even violate state law, which prohibits the release of non-native species into the wild. There is no question the goal is admirable: to save the lives of free-roaming cats. That is a tall order in a county with an estimated 200,000 feral cats. As the Tribune's Mike Salinero found, the county had to euthanize 8,000 last year, about 80 percent of those entering the shelter. Commissioner Ken Hagan has urged the county to adopt a “no-kill” policy. But neutering and releasing strays into areas will likely cause the death of many more animals. This is not a no-kill policy; it changes the victims and moves the killing from the shelter. A study by scientists with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that feral cats kill between 1.4 billion to 3.7 billion birds a year and 6.9 billion to 20.7 billion mammals a year. Many of these creatures are endangered. The cats, beyond their predatory skills, also can spread disease, including rabies and toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease passed in the cats' feces that can cause birth defects when contracted by pregnant women. Yes, the cats would be vaccinated and have their blood tested before being released, but as veterinarians point out, it is unlikely there would be sufficient continued medical care to prevent future infections. Animal Services Director Ian Hallett and Deputy County Administrator Sharon Subadan assure us this policy will not establish “cat colonies,” where neutered stray cats are released in one location, magnifying the impact on wildlife and increasing the likelihood of disease being spread. Such colonies also can become “dump sites” for unwanted cats. Under the task force proposal, the shelter would release no more than 2,000 cats a year, usually near where they were found. This would increase the odds of cats that were being cared for finding their way back home. Hallett emphasizes the county would not release large numbers of cats in one neighborhood. Strays would not be released near schools or conservation lands. He also points out that the Humane Society of Tampa Bay and Animal Coalition of Tampa already neuter and vaccinate about 10,000 cats a year that are released. We don't find that sufficient reason for the government to adopt a policy that poses environmental and public health risks. The trap, neuter and release policy may reduce the number of cats euthanized at the shelter, but it won't end the killing of these strays, who left on their own will fall victim to disease, cars and other animals, including other cats, dogs and coyotes. The veterinarians who oppose TNR endorse relocating strays to a contained area, where they could be tended. They understand such a strategy would be more costly than returning feral cats to the wild, and surely could not handle as many cats. But it better addresses the interests of the public, wildlife and cats. As a report endorsed by the Hillsborough County Florida Veterinary Medical Society and the Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation points out, an official trap-and-release policy would send a dangerous signal to the public. How, the report asks, can the county expect pet owners to behave more responsibly if it endorses “a program in which cats are left behind dumpsters and on city streets?” There are no good options here. We credit Hallett, Subadan and the task force for trying to cope with a mess caused by the irresponsible owners who dump unwanted cats. We respect their motives, but commissioners should see recycling feral cats — an overabundant domestic species that preys on native creatures and can pose a health threat — back into the community is not an appropriate public policy.