Feral cat crackdown evokes emotional public debate

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Jul 01, 2003

Kissimmee, Fla.-A recent ban on Florida's trap-neuter-release programs in favor of more progressive feral cat controls pits public health veterinarians against educators, practitioners and motivated animal lovers in the state.

On May 30, the veterinary community was staunchly divided as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted to prohibit trap-neuter-release (TNR) programs - a method viewed by wildlife and public health advocates to fuel environmental evils caused by the overpopulation of cats.

The group's caveat: Free-roaming felines spread disease and kill millions of birds and other small animals, pushing some species toward extinction.

While commission members named no specific population controls, more than 200 protesters railed against the group's efforts to oust the thousands of predatory cats not indigenous to the area. The group's Feral Cat Issue Team notes that while poison, the best method for curbing cat populations is not an option in Florida, "cats can be eradicated through shooting or trapping and euthanasia."

Alarmed by the report, TNR advocate Dr. Julie Levy says the commission clearly favors the trapping and sheltering feral cats, a preamble to euthanasia.

"It's 2003. Surely we have moved beyond where the only answer is to kill things," says Levy, associate professor at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine (UF). "They're trying to say they don't want to murder cats. The problem is that's not written in their policy."

Groundswell of opposition

Commission members could not be reached for comment, but spokeswoman Angie Raines stresses that the group has no immediate objectives for dealing with feral cats. The public outrage is a product of media hype, she says.

But feral cats' defenders claim the open-ended policy leaves room for inhumane eradication. As the commission heard from experts on both sides of the issue, protesters from the area and Washington D.C.-based Alley Cat Allies pit themselves against state public health and animal control veterinarians, shouting pro-cat mantras and wore buttons that read, "Fix 'em. Don't kill 'em." Cat enthusiasts screamed insults, accusing commission members of allowing strays to be slaughtered.

Raines insists the reaction was a misunderstanding.

"We oppose TNR and we'll protect wildlife wherever we have to. That's nothing new," she says. "But erroneous information on Web sites and in the news say we're about to kill hundreds of thousands of cats. That's simply not true."

Ongoing debate

What is true is TNR works, says Levy, who has published a paper on the effectiveness of TNR and runs Operation Catnip, a private program responsible for sterilizing more than 5,000 feral and stray cats since its inception in 1998. Free services are performed at the UF teaching hospital each month.

"TNR lowers cat populations, but it takes years," Levy says. "Contrary to what was once believed, feral cats can live long happy lives.

"My understanding it that's the commission's problems with this system. If you trap an animal, neuter it and release it, you still have that cat out there."

Precisely, says Dr. Christine Storts, a TNR opponent and practitioner in Cape Canaveral where she estimates the feral cat population tops 200,000.

"There are colonies of cats at every park, at every beach crossover," she says. "My clients are getting upset about the cats, their dogs are picking up intestinal parasites. Everyone's distressed.

"I don't want these cats put to sleep, but we can't just let them roam around free."

Storts, who also spoke before the commission May 30, is in favor of any solution that does not include TNR or euthanasia. The problem, she says, is cat advocates won't budge.

"They refuse to compromise to come up with ideas," she says. "They're like absolutists."

Developing a strategy

Just how the commission will rid public lands, including 5.6 million acres of property it manages, of wild cats is a mystery to Dr. Kenny Mitchell, director of veterinary services for Pinellas County and past president of the Florida Animal Control Association. TNR is a nice idea, he says, but there's not enough scientific evidence to support it. What the commission lacks is a comprehensive plan.

"We think TNR makes more work with fewer results," he says. "That's the position, but there isn't a strategy right now. I think the commission fell short of that. And then to have the media pick it up and make the government look like it's the enforcer, it's turned this whole issue into guerilla warfare."