TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners reaffirmed their support Wednesday for a program aimed at reducing mercy killing of feral cats despite veterinarians’ warning the program could spread disease.
By a 6-1 vote, commissioners scheduled a Dec. 18 public hearing on amendments to the county animal ordinance that would enable citizens to trap feral cats, have them neutered and vaccinated, then return the animals to their neighborhoods. Called trap, neuter and release, or TNR, the program is used by at least 100 localities around the nation as a method of reducing euthanasia at crowded animal shelters.
The commission first voted to adopt trap, neuter and release in May as part of Animal Services Director Ian Hallett’s “Be the Way Home” plan to reform the department. Hallett was removed from his post Monday, in part due to fractured relations between the county and animals welfare groups. Code Enforcement Dexter Barge took Hallett’s place on an interim basis.
As they have since the TNR plan was first floated, some county veterinarians spoke in opposition Wednesday morning. They cited the July case of a 2-year-old girl bitten by a rabid cat in the Northdale neighborhood as an example of the dangers free-roaming cats pose.
“Do we really want more of these colonies popping up all over our community where your children and your dogs play?” said Dr. Christy Layton.
Dr. Michael Haworth, chairman of the county’s Animal Advisory Committee, said TNR is not effective in reducing cat colonies unless 70 percent or more of the feral cats are sterilized. Cats released back into neighborhoods are not properly vaccinated or dewormed, he said.
The vets said they supported most of Hallett’s Be the Way Home plan but asked the commissioners to reconsider the trap, neuter and release component.
Don Thompson, executive director of an organization representing county veterinary hospitals, suggested limits be put on TNR program to keep cat colonies at least 1,000 feet away from schools, hospitals and playgrounds. He said the veterinary community could not support the proposed ordinance changes in their present form.
“As it is written it demands your rejection and it demands some reconsideration. ... Let’s try a pilot project rather than opening the barn door and letting thousands of cats out onto the streets,” Thompson said.
Animal welfare advocates countered that the vets were trying to stir up hysteria using an isolated and rare instance of a rabid cat.
Trisha Kirby, a Clearwater resident who volunteers at the Hillsborough shelter, said Pinellas County has recorded just one rabid cat in 30 years. Pasco County, just to the north of Hillsborough, recently passed a TNR ordinance, Kirby said.
“There’s been one rabies case ... rabies is not an epidemic; it’s extremely rare.”
Commissioner Ken Hagan spoke for most of his colleagues when he said he not only supported moving ahead with TNR, but regretted the county had not done more to implement the program already.
“I believe enough cats have already died because of our inaction and I do not want to delay moving forward,” Hagan said. “All we’re doing today is setting the public hearing, not approving the ordinance.”
County Administrator Mike Merrill agreed, saying he did not believe the ordinance needed any more vetting by the Animal Advisory Committee or any other panel.
Commissioner Victor Crist was the only no vote. He said he agreed with the veterinarians’ concerns about public health. Crist also voted against TNR in May, citing concerns by Audubon and other nature groups that feral cats are wiping out birds.
Hagan said he agreed with Merrill that Animal Services needed new leadership to rebuild trust and cooperation between the county and animal rescue groups and shelter volunteers.
Despite the upheaval that developed in the department under Hallett, some progress was made, Hagan said, including a 38 percent increase in pet adoptions and a 9 percent decrease in the kill rate of dogs and cats.
“The county administrator is committed to making the administrative changes necessary to stabilize the agency and ... turn this ship around,” Hagan said.