Hillsborough OKs plan to trap, sterilize, release cats
Hillsborough County is joining a growing movement that seeks to reduce high euthanasia rates at animal shelters by sterilizing free-roaming cats and releasing them back into neighborhoods. Hillsborough commissioners voted 6-1 today to begin a pilot “trap, neuter and release” program that will spare 2,000 community cats from the needle. The program was adopted as part of a larger, 60-point plan to lower euthanasia rates at the county animal shelter. About 50 or so cat lovers wearing green T-shirts printed with the newly adopted program's name, “Be the Way Home,” cheered loudly following the commission vote. “This is really a great day for the animals of Hillsborough County and the residents,” said Joan Zacharias, one of the green-shirted TNR supporters. “This whole matter … is citizens looking at a problem and solving it, themselves. We didn't ask for county money to do it. We did it ourselves.” Trap, neuter and release has been a red-hot topic in social media and the blogosphere since Animal Services Director Ian Hallett produced the report in April. The report was based on recommendations from a task force empanelled by county commissioners last May to develop a plan to reduce euthanasia. Though the task force supported most of Hallett's plan, veterinarians and a few other members opposed the trap, neuter and release aspect. The vets said the released cats could spread disease, such as rabies and toxoplasmosis, a disease caused by parasites sometimes present in cat litter. They cited the Florida Department of Health's opposition to community cat programs, another name for trap, neuter and release, or TNR. “And so the question must be asked: What does Animal Services know about public health risks that the Department of Health, human doctors and other experts do not know?” said Judy Serrapica, who works for a coalition of 50 veterinary clinics called the Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation. Supporters countered with their own veterinarians and medical doctors who said the health concerns expressed by opponents were overblown. Though some veterinarians raised the specter of pregnant women and their babies being at risk for toxoplasmosis, Janet Marley, an OBGYN doctor, said she has delivered over 8,000 babies and never seen a case of the disease. “Mammals and birds carry toxoplasmosis,” Marley said. “Men get it from eating contaminated meat, from drinking contaminated water and from not washing their vegetables.” Both sides cited conflicting statistics and studies as to the program's effectiveness in reducing the number of community and feral cats. Veterinarian Christy Layton said releasing sterilized cats back into neighborhoods would have no effect on the population as long as irresponsible pet owners allow their unaltered cats to roam. “Since we all agree that the feral cat problem would be decreased by promoting responsible pet ownership in our county, how does dumping thousands of cats from our shelter into the streets help us to promote this responsible ownership?” Layton asked. Supporters argued that the past policy of rounding up cats and killing them at the animal shelter has not worked; cat colonies are still growing. They cited the growing number of U.S. communities – 90 or more, some said – that have adopted TNR programs. Those include Jacksonville, Brevard County and Manatee County in Florida. Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore told commissioners the county started its TNR program in 2006. The number of cats taken into the county's animal shelter dropped from 3,500 in 2008 to less than 2,000 last year, she said. During that time, Whitmore said, she had just two complaints about feral cats. “TNR works and the numbers don't lie,” she said. Hallett said he chose to start with 2,000 cats because that number represents 1 to 2 percent of the estimated number of free-roaming cats in the county. The program should increase the number of cats leaving the animal shelter alive – called live outcomes – by 20 percent. The current live outcome rate is 19 percent of cats brought to the shelter. In the next five to 10 years … this is probably our only shot at getting to 50 percent,” Hallett said. The 2,000 cats will be given blood tests to make sure they don't have diseases that are communicable to other cats, and they will be fitted with microchips to see if they are returning to the shelter and “causing trouble.” They also will be vaccinated for rabies. The cats will not be released near schools, playgrounds, public parks or conservation lands, he said. “This is not a long-term solution; it's not something that will be with us forever,” Hallett told commissioners. “This is a way to increase our live outcome rate as we work toward a permanent solution of keeping cats indoors and getting them spayed and neutered.” Commissioner Victor Crist voted no on the program, saying he opposes introducing non-native predators into the environment where they can prey on wild animals.