Kathy Wyss and Sue Rountree didn't set out to start a movement.
They just wanted to help some cats.
Several times a week, the women load their vehicles with traps and go looking for wild cats that have become a nuisance in places like Gulfport and Kenwood and Pinellas Park. Then they take the animals to low-cost clinics around Tampa Bay and get them neutered. Most of the time, desperate residents will pick up the cost. Occasionally, Wyss and Rountree will dip into their own pockets, often at $15 to $35 a cat.
Neither woman realized at first that what she was doing — formally called trap-neuter-return, or TNR — carried any controversy.
Or that in Pinellas County, it's against the law.
"I didn't really think what I was doing was that big of a deal," said Rountree, a 45-year-old paralegal from South Pasadena. "I just thought I was spaying and neutering cats."
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Pinellas County has had a problem with feral cats for years. The estimated count throughout the county now stands at 150,000 to 200,000.
Will Davis, interim director of Animal Services, acknowledged that the county hasn't made much progress.
"The current way we're dealing with feral cats in this county isn't working." Davis said. "We're not reducing the population."
This year, animal activists — including TNR advocates — urged county leaders to do something about the issue, which has been the subject of numerous task forces and studies over the years.
No one agrees on which way is best.
Dr. Caroline Thomas, the county's director of veterinary services, said she has serious concerns about TNR.
Thomas said feral cats often are more likely to carry diseases that can be transferred to people, like rabies and bacterial infections. Catching them can be dangerous, she said.
"By having TNR and encouraging more interaction with these cats, that increases the exposure to these risks," Thomas said.
Thomas also said to really control the population at this point, 70 to 80 percent of feral cats would need to be sterilized.
"Where would we get the money for that?" she said. Davis said that for now, there are plans for an expanded low-cost spay and neuter program, the option many officials seem the most comfortable with.
But he also said there may be room for flexibility.
"Our practice now of not allowing TNR is not fixing the problem," he said. "I know the TNR advocates strongly believe that it's a program that works. … We're open to the discussion."
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Until that happens, Rountree and Wyss say they won't stop. Rountree estimates that in the past couple of years, she has had more than 2,500 cats spayed or neutered.
On a recent work night, Rountree drove her truck to an industrial lot in Clearwater that includes a used-car place, auto mechanic and window tinting business.
A woman who worked at an insurance company across the street was desperate, and tired of seeing cats get hit by cars, abandoned kittens and sick felines in distress.
She called Rountree, who gets similar calls several times a week.
For hours, Rountree pawed through a pile of old, bald, to-be-recycled tires in an abandoned truck used for storage. Using traps baited with tuna, she caught two cats that the caller said had been having kittens. So she went in deeper.
"Anybody in here?" she called out repeatedly.
She crawled carefully in her flip-flops, shining a flashlight inside every tire.
Sweat poured down her face. She wiped it off with her shirt.
Despite spending hours there, she caught just the two cats.
"They're just everywhere," said Wyss, a retired 57-year-old who lives in Tierra Verde. "If they're allowed to run free, then they're going to breed. The cats are here. We're just trying to fix the ones that are out there."
Times photographer Lara Cerri contributed to this report. Contact Kameel Stanley at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643.