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Group brings mandatory spay-neuter debate to County Commission

Kathy Wyss of Tierra Verde prepares to put a blanket over a trapped feral cat in St. Petersburg to keep the cat calm so it can be taken to be fixed, vaccinated and then re-released as part of a volunteer trap-neuter-release program. Such a program is one option set to be discussed at a Pinellas County’s Animal Services workshop, but the workshop’s main focus is a group is pressing for a mandatory spay-neuter program.

LARA CERRI | Times (2012)

Kathy Wyss of Tierra Verde prepares to put a blanket over a trapped feral cat in St. Petersburg to keep the cat calm so it can be taken to be fixed, vaccinated and then re-released as part of a volunteer trap-neuter-release program. Such a program is one option set to be discussed at a Pinellas County’s Animal Services workshop, but the workshop’s main focus is a group is pressing for a mandatory spay-neuter program.

For Pinellas County commissioners and staff, a workshop scheduled Tuesday is for learning about the challenges facing the multimillion dollar Animal Services department and finding ways to solve those problems.

But for some animal activists, the meeting is a chance to push one proposal: requiring all pet owners to spay or neuter their dogs and cats.

For the past several months, those activists have been bombarding commissioners with mailings about the need for such a rule to control the burgeoning animal population in Pinellas. They've even sent the commission about a dozen videos supporting their position that they want played during Tuesday's session.

"It's not a large group of people, but they are passionate," Commission Chairman Ken Welch said.

The group, he said, is trying to make Tuesday's session a decision point on the issue.

But that's not going to happen, he said, because commissioners are barred from voting during workshops. If there's going to be a vote, it will have to come later during a regular commission meeting.

The county has responded to the onslaught by placing strict limits on the time of the meeting — 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. in the fifth-floor Assembly Room of the Pinellas County Courthouse, 315 Court St., Clearwater — and by restricting the number of videos the group can play during public participation, which will come at the end of the workshop.

Andrea Wells, who is helping spearhead the movement supporting a mandatory spay-neuter rule, said she resents the implication that her group is trying to hijack the meeting. Those in favor of a mandate, she said, came in front of the commission in April and this meeting came out of that.

"We're sort of the reason for the meeting being held in this form, so how can we hijack it?" Wells asked.

The county, she charged, is doing its best to "purposely thwart" those who support mandates by limiting the number of videos and timing.

"All criteria were met," she said, "(then) the criteria kept changing."

Animal Services, which operates countywide, has 49 employees and an annual budget of about $4 million funded by property taxes, income from such things as adoption fees and licenses, and the animal welfare trust fund, which benefits from donations, bequests and pet store adoption fees.

The agency takes in all cats and dogs brought to it regardless of health, temperament or other issues. It has 294 dog runs, 160 cat cages and 17 cat runs that can each hold up to 15 felines.

In the first six months of this year, Animal Services took in 2,455 dogs and 3,927 cats. Of those, 563 dogs and 231 cats were adopted; 808 dogs and 2,403 cats were euthanized, according to county figures.

Most animal advocates seem to agree that those numbers are way too high. But they disagree on the best way to reduce them.

Some animal advocates want to focus on Pinellas' feral and free-roaming cat population, which the county estimates at 92,367 to 172,687 animals. One solution, they say, is a trap, neuter, vaccinate and release program. They say that prevents breeding and disease and will humanely reduce the population of wild and stray cats.

Welch said he's open to hearing the arguments in favor of such a program but would like to see proof that so-called TNR programs work before supporting an official program in Pinellas.

"I'm not there yet," he said.

The real battle is likely to come between advocates of mandatory spay-neuter rules and those who support the voluntary program now in place.

Under a mandatory program, owners of cats and dogs are required to have their pet spayed or neutered by a certain age, usually 4 to 6 months. No animal older than that could be sold. Owners who fail to neuter their pets could be subject to fines, citations or increased license fees. Exceptions would be made for show, breeding, working, service and hunting dogs, or for health reasons.

Welch said he believes the commission is split on the issue. He is not in favor of a mandatory rule, which he sees as penalizing responsible owners who take care of their animals — sterilized or unsterilized — and do not let them roam.

The county sterilizes all animals that are adopted through its system.

But officials said they see several potential downsides to a mandatory program. Those include decreased care for pets by owners who do not comply and avoid vets because they don't want to be caught. Other problems exist for those who can't afford to have their pets sterilized.

Moe Freaney, head of Animal Services, says staff members plan to suggest less rigid steps the commission might consider to help limit pet overpopulation and encourage voluntary spaying and neutering — charging more for licenses for unsterilized animals and making it mandatory that an unsterilized animal found roaming free for the second time be sterilized before going back to its owner.

But Wells said voluntary programs don't work. She likened the situation to seat belt laws. When the use of seat belts was voluntary or a secondary offense, many did not use them. But their use has increased since not being buckled became a primary offense.

She said the county has plenty of low cost and other programs available to those who want to sterilize their animals.

"Those who want to do it can do it," she said.

Those who aren't taking advantage of the available resources are causing the problems, she said. Taxpayers who are funding Animal Services are paying for those who aren't responsible pet owners.

"It works elsewhere," Wells said. "What we're doing now is protecting the lowest common denominator by (not having any rules)."

Without a mandate, she said, the county has two options: "We kill the excess or we hoard the excess."

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Group brings mandatory spay-neuter debate to County Commission 09/06/13 [Last modified: Friday, September 6, 2013 6:25pm]

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