Hillsborough plan for feral cats faces hearing today
Bitterly divided animal lovers are expected to fill Hillsborough County Commission chambers today when commissioners debate a controversial program to reduce mercy killing of cats at the animal shelter.
The 10:45 a.m. discussion is likely to focus on the pros and cons of “trap, neuter and release,” in which volunteers and rescue organizations trap free-roaming cats and take them to veterinarians who check them for disease and sterilize them. The cats are then returned to the neighborhoods where they were trapped.
Called TNR for short, the program is a key component of 25-page report by Animal Services Director Ian Hallett that focuses on ways to reduce the number of cats and dogs killed at the animal shelter. In fiscal year 2012 more than 12,500 animals were put down at the shelter, some 8,500 of them cats.
Hallett is proposing a pilot release program using 2,000 cats from the shelter or from volunteer trappers. The cats would be checked for disease, sterilized and fitted with a microchip for further monitoring. Sick cats would be put down.
The proposal has ignited a debate between some veterinarians and bird lovers on one side, and rescue groups such as the Humane Society of Tampa Bay and Animal Coalition of Tampa on the other. The groups have used blogs, social media and letters to the editors of newspapers to disparage each other's arguments.
The debate has also flooded county commissioners' email in-boxes. Rich Reidy, legislative aide to commission Chairman Ken Hagan, said Hagan's office received hundred of emails on the subject.
“We gotten more notifications on this than anything I can remember in 10 years,” Reidy said. “There have been a lot of times that, over the years, we've gotten a lot of input from people. This rivals the best of those easily.”
Hallett is not selling trap, neuter and release as the ultimate answer to growing community cat populations, but he thinks the program will stabilize feline populations while other remedies are found or gain more acceptance.
He noted that free-roaming packs of dogs once were more common across the United States but slowly disappeared as the culture changed and people became educated about animal welfare.
“I hope that 10 years from now the intake of cats per capita will go way down through, one, spay and neutering and more responsible pet ownership,” Hallett said, “and two, we will have built an adoptive network that will be capable of finding good indoor homes for all cats.”
Though trap, neuter and release is gaining popularity, with dozens of local governments around the nation adopting the practice, it has divided animal advocates. Many veterinarians oppose it, saying recycling feral or partially socialized cats back into neighborhoods raises public health concerns and infringes on property owners' rights.
The Florida Department of Health, when asked about trap, neuter and release, provided a written statement saying that “managing free-roaming/feral domestic cats is not tenable on public health grounds because of the persistent threat posed to communities from injury and disease.”
The department went on to say that even cats that had been vaccinated against rabies would have to be captured and observed for 10 days if they bit or scratched someone.
But cat lovers, including some veterinarians, say the disease claims are overstated. Most feral cats, the ones most likely to come into contact with rabid wild animals, avoid people. And all the cats trapped for sterilization are also vaccinated for rabies.
“You worry about anything actively living out its life outside; they could potentially come into contact with (rabid) animals,” said veterinarian Karla Bard, who serves as medical director at the Humane Society of Tampa Bay. “But obviously we require vaccination of our dogs and cats.”
Only eight cats have tested positive for rabies during the last 10 years in Hillsborough County, according to records at the county office of the Florida Department of Health. Those numbers reflect only cats the health department had to test because they came in contact with humans or were seen acting strangely.
Raccoons are much more likely to be infected with rabies than cats, said Doug King, an environmental supervisor with the local health department office. King estimated that in the last 10 years, an average of three or four raccoons per year have tested positive for rabies.
Veterinarians opposed to trap, neuter and release also point to the possible spread of toxoplasmosis, a disease caused by parasites that grow inside cats. However, it is rare for humans to contract the disease through cats. Toxoplasmosis is more likely spread by eating under-cooked meat or unwashed vegetables.
“If you have cats and if you're growing a lot of vegetables, there would be an issue with contamination of the soil,” Bard said. “I think it's pretty well known you would certainly want to clean your vegetables before eating them.”
The Humane Society and the Animal Coalition of Tampa have been practicing trap, neuter and release since 2005 through the work of volunteers and rescue groups. The two agencies say they have neutered more than 95,000 cats, reducing the number of cats entering the animal shelter by about 9,000 a year.
Commissioners will take public comment on Hallett's plan for 45 minutes starting at 9:10 a.m. Wednesday.