Hillsborough County commissioners will hear proposals this week aimed at curbing the number of abandoned or neglected animals euthanized each year at the county's shelter.
The 60-point plan includes strategies such as making greater use of social media to promote animals available for adoption and taking cats and dogs to more places people gather to show them off as potential pets.
But the most controversial proposal calls for an expansion of an effort already used by some nonprofits in Hillsborough. It would enable the county to have stray cats brought into the shelter, neutered and released in roughly the same area they were captured or to an existing "colony" of cats that have a human caretaker.
The concept — called trap-neuter-release or community cats — has been embraced by several other government animal shelters around the country, from Jacksonville to Austin, Texas.
The idea: Once released, the sterilized cats won't continue to add to the already large number of free-ranging felines. Over time, that should result in fewer loose cats and, eventually, fewer animals euthanized each year.
"It's the only thing I've seen since I started seriously studying this that actually makes a difference," said Frank Hamilton, president of the Animal Coalition of Tampa. His group, along with the Humane Society of Tampa Bay, already engages in the practice.
Hamilton said the nearly 10,000 cats the two groups sterilize each year have contributed to a decline in the number of animals showing up at the shelter.
Critics, including several veterinarians, say the approach is hardly humane or healthy. Many cats released into the environment live short, often disease-prone lives and face risks from predators, starvation and cars. They can spread disease to humans and are blamed for killing scores of birds and other wildlife.
And nobody is held responsible for those loose cats. "Who owns these cats, so if there is a problem that someone will be responsible for that?" asked veterinarian Katie Thompson.
Thompson raised concerns about the spread of disease to humans during a recent meeting of a task force studying trap-neuter-release and other measures aimed at reducing shelter kills.
"At what point do we say it's okay to let cats live in the wild? We don't care if they're hit by a car or bite someone," said Tim Golden, a dog breeder who was also part of the task force that met for months at the direction of county commissioners.
Supporters say the approach ultimately seeks to lower the number of loose cats, adding that the usual approach of just killing most of those that end up at the shelter clearly hasn't worked.
"In a perfect world, I would love for every cat to be able to live in a house," said Gretchyn Melde, co-creater of the nonprofit rescue group Cat Crusaders. "We're not in a perfect world."
The proposal from county Animal Services director Ian Hallett represents a bit of a compromise to appease the opposed factions of animal-welfare advocates. It calls for a two-year pilot program in which the shelter would seek to sterilize up to 2,000 loose cats a year and then release them.
Cats will be tested for disease, with sick cats generally not eligible. They would also get microchips so that Animal Services can try to track how many return to the shelter as well as an ear clipping to so that the county can track their fate in the wild.
Animal Services then likely would join with private groups to perform the actual sterilizations, probably with the help of grant money. The cats would then be released, so long as they're not near schools or commercial or environmentally sensitive areas.
Hallett said the number of loose cats in Hillsborough County may approach 200,000 and acknowledges the pilot program will neuter only a small percentage. But it will give the county an opportunity to study whether the program helps reduce the population.
"This is a middle road," Hallett told the task force recently. "This is an attempt to try to find a program that we can all get behind."
Some 20,000 dog and cats wind up at the shelter each year, and that's after budget cuts prompted the county to all but stop picking up loose animals unless they posed a safety risk. About 12,000 are euthanized, which actually represents a sharp reduction in recent years, thanks to a variety of measures.
While nearly 60 percent of dogs get adopted, handed to rescue groups or returned to owners, fewer than 20 percent of cats meet such happy endings, Animal Services records show.
Hallett's other recommendations, cobbled from task force suggestions, offer a variety of other steps to cut down on the number of dogs and cats euthanized each year. He hopes to sharply increase marketing and use of volunteers at the shelter to coordinate adoption events. He also hopes to change the image of the shelter on Falkenburg Road in Brandon and make it easier to find.
But without a program such as trap-neuter-release, Hallett said it will be hard to make significant improvement.
County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, who suggested creation of the task force with the goal of eliminating the need to kill unwanted pets, said he did not realize the tempest he had stirred. He said he continues to evaluate turning neutered cats loose, but said he is leaning in favor of the idea.
"I question if we can dramatically cut our kill rate without some form of community-cat program," he said. "And I'm struggling to determine how this is making the conditions, the environment, worse. The cats are already out there. To me it's preventing further breeding of feral cats."
Bill Varian can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3387.