CLEARWATER — More than two years ago, Pinellas County commissioners accepted a task force's recommendations to curb the number of feral cats roaming the community.
The ideas sat. Not the cats.
It's tough to count, but county Animal Services estimates that up to 200,000 feral cats live in Pinellas. That's double the number of so-called unsociable, free-roaming felines cited in 2008-09.
Animal and wildlife advocates pressed commissioners Tuesday to take action to reduce the number of feral cats, though they disagreed on ways to do it.
The commission told Animal Services department staff to work with advocates and come up with suggestions within 90 days. Commissioners were particularly interested in creating a low-cost, high-volume program for spaying and neutering cats.
The original panel recommended more education campaigns and improving spay and neuter services, and running the county's mobile animal unit with nonprofit groups. Instead, budget cuts have reduced Animal Services staff and programs — and have left the mobile unit parked and unused.
Last year, the county took in 10,310 cats, euthanizing 6,190 and adopting out the rest. Of the euthanized cats, about 1,700 were feral — a tiny portion of the total feral population.
"It's not a perception problem, it is a real problem," said Will Davis, interim director of Animal Services.
The original panel also recommended the county avoid involving itself in emotional debate about trap-neuter-release programs for feral cats. Those efforts often win acclaim from cat advocates, because they sterilize the animals to stop them from reproducing but put them back in the community.
Animal advocates pressed commissioners Tuesday and in recent emails to support a similar program in Pinellas.
"Since feral cats are out there in the open, then we need to deal with them humanely," said Debi Butler, a cat owner from Clearwater.
But veterinarians, animal welfare agencies and environmentalists argued against a "TNR" program, suggesting it would likely be ineffective and even dangerous to wildlife.
Davis and veterinary services chief Caroline Thomas said such programs sometimes don't end up reducing the feral population. To have an effect, Thomas estimated that 80 to 90 percent of feral cats would have to be sterilized.
Animal Services, which operates countywide with a staff of 46, has only 15 enforcement officers. A TNR program could divert money from spay and neuter services. Plus, such a program could hinder attempts to help people become better, more attentive pet owners, Thomas said.
Meanwhile, members of local Audubon Society groups said a TNR program would inflict a non-native species on wildlife, a violation of state law. Birds, snakes and mice, among other animals, would be at risk.
"Releasing an apex predator into the environment is not good science," said John Hood, a member of Clearwater Audubon and the Florida Master Naturalist Program.
Instead, Davis and Thomas recommended a more aggressive voluntary program to promote spaying and neutering, but not a mandatory program as some advocates suggested. Pinellas has begun a discounted spay-neuter program for low-income residents. A new group of nonprofits, advocates and county officials has begun meeting, too.
Commissioner Karen Seel also recommended the report address how to pay for expanded programs. One option is charging more for registering unsterilized pets. Besides doing that, Hillsborough County has a voucher program with local vets, which allows low-income residents to pay only $10 per animal for sterilization.
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