Hillsborough animal shelter plan dogged by controversy
Social media, foot traffic and a new emphasis on connecting lost pets with their owners are key parts of a bold new alternative to the mercy killing of stray animals that end up at the Hillsborough County animal shelter.
But one part of the 25-page plan appears to be holding up progress, polarizing members of a task force who otherwise share a deep regard for dogs, cats and other creatures.
It's called trap, neuter and release, or TNR, and Animal Services Director Ian Hallett calls it the only way to put a big dent in the number of unwanted cats that are euthanized.
In the 2012 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, only 19 percent of cats at the shelter had a “live outcome,” in animal control terms. About 8,000 of them were euthanized. That compares with 57 percent live outcomes for the shelter's dogs during that period.
Supporters say TNR has been tried in 90 communities nationwide, including Jacksonville, with little or no negative consequences.
“If we don't address the free-roaming cats, we're never going to get our live release above 50 percent,” said Gretchyn Melde, a member of the task force. “This community cat program that is the point of contention is really the key part to making Director Hallett's plan successful.”
But veterinarians oppose the practice. They argue that TNR has no reasonable chance of making significant reductions in the outdoor cat populations. What's more, they say recycling cats back into neighborhoods raises public health concerns and infringes on residents' property rights.
Katie Thompson, a veterinarian and member of the task force, says cats are the only known hosts for the parasites that cause a disease called toxoplasmosis. Although it is rare for humans to be infected with the disease by exposure to a cat, pregnant women and individuals with compromised immune systems are at higher risk. Pregnant women who are infected can pass it to their infants.
“Cat people will say toxoplasmosis comes from raw meat or vegetables,” Thompson said. “What do you think is contaminating the meat and vegetables?”
Cats also can spread rabies, Thompson said.
Wildlife advocates are also anti-TNR, saying exploding numbers of feral cats are taking a dramatic toll on the wild bird population.
A study released this year by scientists with the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates roaming cats kill 1.4 billion to 3.7 billion birds a year in the continental United States. About a third of the 800 species of U.S. birds are endangered, threatened or in significant decline, according to the American Bird Conservancy.
Cat lovers dispute such reports. They believe human activities, such as habitat destruction, poisonous pesticides and collisions with manmade objects are taking a bigger toll on birds than cats.
“I'm not going to deny that cats are predators and they hunt things, but there's no evidence they're making in impact beyond the normal,” said Melde who volunteers with the Cat Crusaders rescue group. “Cats have been here since the first Spaniards landed.”
Veterinarians have come up with their own plan as an alternative to TNR, called Trap, Evaluate, Neuter, Vaccinate, Adopt and Contain. Containing cats means restricting them through natural or artificial boundaries to certain areas that are at least 1,000 yards from schools and restaurants.
This alternative would make it illegal to dump food for wild cats near restaurants or residential areas — a common practice now, vets say.
Vets also want to see rules to encourage owners to keep their cats inside or contained as much as possible on their properties, rather than letting them roam.
“Why do dog people have to buy tags and keep them on leashes and cat people don't?” Thompson asked.
Hallett would not comment for this article because his report has not gone to county commissioners yet. It was on the agenda for the Wednesday commission meeting but Hallett pulled it, he said, after some members of the task force complained they hadn't had time to study the 60 recommendations.
Called “Be the Way Home: A Plan to Increase Live Outcomes,” the report now is scheduled for the commission's May 1 meeting.
The report concentrates on ways to decrease the number of animals entering the shelter and increase the number of adoptions.
It recommends greater use of social media and the Internet to increase adoptions, help people find lost pets and encourage more people to buy tags. Hallett estimated that through online registration and other strategies an additional $800,000 a year could be collected from increased dog tag sales.
Hallett also wants to boost public awareness of the department's work through an aggressive marketing plan.
Hillsborough //County// Animal Services is well-known locally and among national organizations for its animal control and cruelty investigations, Hallett said in the report. But relatively few people in the county know the department has hundreds of animals available for adoption every day and is the only place that accepts lost pets.
“The shelter must have significantly more foot traffic to ensure success of the other initiatives in this plan,” the report says.
Trap, neuter and release isn't the only recommendation to stir controversy.
For instance, Hallett advocates mandatory sterilization of animals when they're impounded at the shelter a second time. Owners who voluntarily agree to have their animals sterilized after the first impound would get a reduced price.
Hallett also implies in the report that Animal Services should make money by selling information from pet registrations to private companies. Animal Services, the report says, “has exclusive access to the most extensive list of people who love pets and spend money on them each year in Hillsborough County — a list that companies and non-profits would love to obtain.”
Estimated costs for what Hallett calls the “high priority” initiatives in the report are $440,000 the first year and $686,000 the second year.
County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, who brought the issue of reducing euthanasia at the shelter to the board's attention, said he not read the report as of Friday. Hagan said he knew trap, neuter and release would be divisive and he's prepared to listen to experts on both sides before the May 1 meeting.
“I am concerned we may not be able to reach my goal of minimum-kill counts without some form of community cat program,” Hagan said.
“Candidly, the status quo is unacceptable; that's why I initiated this task force last year … I wasn't satisfied with the senseless killing of so many innocent animals.'