TALLAHASSEE — This could be the ultimate legislative cat fight.
A House subcommittee Wednesday approved a controversial bill that could help clear the way for programs that involve capturing free-roaming cats, neutering and vaccinating them and turning them loose again.
Supporters say the bill (HB 1121) could help reduce the number of "feral" cats that get euthanized and, because of neutering, lead to fewer cats on the streets. But the measure is causing a stink because opponents say feral cats prey on birds and other types of wildlife and can be a nuisance to property owners.
Preston Robertson, a lobbyist for the Florida Wildlife Federation, said feral cats are "decimating our wildlife" and that lawmakers shouldn't put the state's "okay stamp" on programs that free the cats. Another major opponent is Audubon of Florida, which is worried, at least in part, about wild cats dining on birds.
But the bill, sponsored by Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, has the backing of groups such as the Humane Society of the United States and the Best Friends Animal Society. Part of their argument: If neutering leads to fewer cats, that means fewer birds will be eaten.
"The idea is to reduce the number of cats that are out there,'' said Denise Lasher, of the Best Friends Animal Society, which touts a "no kill mission" on its website.
But Julie Wraithmell, director of wildlife conservation for Audubon, disputed that such trapping and neutering programs reduce the number of feral cats. She said people will abandon cats in the areas where the felines congregate and also said neutering efforts don't get to all cats.
The bill describes the free-roaming cats as "community cats" and focuses on setting up "community cat" programs. A person who provides food, water or shelter to cats in such a program would be a "community cat caregiver."
Some parts of the state already have programs to capture, neuter and return cats to the wild. But the bill, which was unanimously approved by the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Subcommittee, makes clear that cities and counties can approve ordinances to set up the programs and tries to remove a concern that releasing the cats could be considered illegal abandonment.
While the bill drew debate from groups on both sides, lawmakers also showed they could be playful.
"I'd ask that you hold your meows to the end,'' Raschein said, as she started discussing the bill — playing off a common legislative refrain to hold questions to the end of a presentation.
Before voting for the bill, Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, acknowledged that it was not "purrrrfect."