TAMPA — Sure, Florida's summer months bring rain, heat and mosquitoes, but they also bring something less wet, sticky or bothersome: kittens.
Florida's long summers create a lengthy ''kitten season'' of sorts, animal experts say. That is, mama cats in the South often breed twice, in May and July, whereas in the North, they generally breed once.
Because of abandonment, neglect or a host of other reasons, many of these cats and kittens are feral. They typically can't be adopted.
And there are plenty that need attention. There are an estimated 200,000 feral cats in Hillsborough County, according to the Humane Society's Web site.
So, what should you do if you find a cluster of kitties or a feral cat colony under a porch or hanging around your doorstep?
A couple of local animal-advocacy folks told the St. Petersburg Times that it's okay to take care of them. But you've got to do so responsibly, or else your efforts to be a Good Samaritan could be legally declawed with nuisance complaints and costly fines.
The key is balancing concern for the animals with the community's rights, said Marti Ryan, Hillsborough County Animal Services spokeswoman.
If you start to care for a feral cat or colony by feeding it, you've got to fully care for it, she said.
"We ask that in doing this and becoming a fully responsible owner, you have to take up the entire equation: licensing, registering, getting shots," she said.
"This is just one of the parts of responsible ownership."
Geography is also important when it comes to cats. You should keep colonies on your own property, or care for them only on properties with which you have an agreement with the owner.
Obviously, sparsely populated places like industrial parks and rural settings are better than dense urban areas. When you're in a tightly packed neighborhood, Ryan said, cats can lounge on cars, potentially damaging property. They defecate in people's yards, and male feral cats spray — a rather smelly way of marking territory.
"What we're generally concerned with is that (the) cat isn't bothering anybody," Ryan said.
Feed it and it's yours
From a strict legal standpoint, a cat becomes a person's responsibility when he or she starts to feed it, said Melissa Cordon, a Tampa attorney specializing in animal law.
"Even if you don't think you're doing it, if you're feeding it, then you become the owner," she said.
This means if you feed a cat, you've got to make sure it's vaccinated, registered and not bothering anyone, or you're breaking the law.
In Pinellas County, individuals who care, keep or feed an animal for 48 hours or more are considered its owners, said Linda Britland, Pinellas County Animal Services field enforcement manager. So, if you feed a neighbor's outdoor cat for that period, you could even be fined if that cat isn't vaccinated against rabies, she said.
Also, in Pinellas, it's illegal to leave food out for animals.
Pasco County's laws are similar to those of its neighbors. You are considered an animal's owner, and responsible for it, "basically as soon as (you) start feeding it," said Denise Hilton, Pasco County Animal Services manager.
There's nothing on the books barring cats from running at large in Pasco. But an individual considered an animal's owner must ensure that the cat or kitten is vaccinated and medically cared for, she said.
Penalties for violating these laws and ordinances vary by infraction and county, but generally cost about $100.
Though not a legal issue, Petra Gearhart, who runs the Humane Society of Tampa Bay's trap-lending program, said that care should be coupled with efforts to combat feral overpopulation.
In days of yore, the policy toward ferals was trap and remove — "a euphemism for trap and kill," Gearhart said. The policy proved ineffective, she said.
Now, low-cost spay and neuter programs are aligned with a trap-and-release approach. There are fewer problems, Gearhart said, when consistent feeding is coupled with spaying and neutering.
"All the nuisance behavior that some people refer to is really abated, because they're no longer prowling or scouring the neighborhood for food," she said. It "kind of calms everything down."
Victoria Bekiempis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3436.