TAMPA — A program aimed at sterilizing large numbers of feral cats to reduce mercy killings goes before county commissioners today for a final vote.
Commissioners voted twice this year in favor of the program, called trap, neuter and release. Both votes — the most recent two weeks ago — were 6-1 in favor of the program.
Trap, neuter and release is a response to the continuing high euthanasia rates at the county animal shelter. More than 600 cats and kittens are killed there each month.
By trapping, sterilizing, vaccinating and releasing feral cats back into their neighborhoods, animal advocates say cat colony populations will first stabilize then shrink. The cats that are trapped and taken to the county or some other shelter to be sterilized will have one ear clipped for easy identification.
Today, commissioners will vote on amending the county animal ordinance to exempt cats with “tipped” ears from licensing and confinement requirements applied to “owned” cats. No sick cats will be released, and most will have unofficial caretakers who live in the same neighborhoods, said Sherry Silk, executive director of Humane Society of Tampa Bay.
“Hundreds of communities are doing this across the county and they’ve seen a significant reduction in the number of cats turned in to Animal Services,” Silk said. “Even if you hate cats and love birds, you should support this program because the animals are going to be sterilized and they’re not going to add to the tens of thousands of cats in our county.”
Many local veterinarians remain opposed to the policy, however, and intend to speak at today’s meeting. The vets’ opinions are unlikely to reverse the tide, however, which seems to be running in favor of TNR.
“Probably commissioners have already decided,” said Dr. Mike Haworth, a veterinarian who also serves on the county’s animal advisory committee.
Still, Haworth said vets have a responsibility to voice their concerns that TNR will expose the public unnecessarily to cat-borne diseases. Though the trapped cats will be vaccinated against rabies as well as sterilized before they are released, Haworth said there is no provision for them to be revaccinated. Two cats in the county have tested positive for rabies this year after biting humans.
Cats can also spread toxoplasmosis, Haworth said, a disease caused by parasites that grow in cats. The parasites are present in cat droppings.
Animal advocates counter that rabid cats are rare. According to the Hillsborough Health Department, just 13 cats have tested positive for rabies in the county in the past 13 years. During that same period, 57 rabid raccoons were identified.
“Raccoons are really the big problems,” said Steve Huard, spokesman for the county Health Department. “Apparently, feral cats don’t live long enough to make much of an impact.”
The TNR cats will be vaccinated for rabies, which most experts agree gives at least three years protection.
As for toxoplasmosis, it is rare for humans to contract the disease from cats. Toxoplasmosis is more likely spread by eating under-cooked meat or unwashed vegetables.
“If you are worried about rabies and worried about toxoplasmosis and worried about killing birds, you should support this program because it’s the only thing that’s going to mean less cats,” Silk, the Humane Society director, said.
Haworth said vets are not opposed to a reasonable TNR program with restrictions, such as keeping cat colonies away from playgrounds, assisted living homes, hospitals and restaurants. But Haworth said the county’s program is unreasonable because, though the cats will be vaccinated and their ears clipped to identify them, no humans will have responsibility for the cats if they cause trouble.
“Let’s put some things in it that make sense,” Haworth said. “Let’s kick the tire on this car before we pass it into an ordinance and get into something that has huge unintended consequences.”