BROOKSVILLE — Laura Page just wanted to do what any compassionate person would do.
When a stray cat had kittens under her shed in Spring Hill, she cared for the mother and the one kitten that remained by feeding them and taking them to the veterinarian to be sterilized and vaccinated.
Then she found out that what she had done was a violation of the county's revised animal ordinance, and she wondered how to set a good example and explain to her children how a compassionate act violated the law.
On Tuesday, Hernando County commissioners commended Page for what she had done, but struggled with how to change the animal ordinance. Their dilemma: finding a balance between decriminalizing feeding and caring for stray animals while still protecting residents from cat hoarders and those who keep large colonies.
Ultimately, commission Chairman Dave Russell, who expressed strong support for a compromise, convinced fellow commissioners to take the discussion to another level. Russell asked county staffers to meet with the stakeholders and, in the next 30 days, craft a way to protect those like Page and still have an ordinance with teeth.
Page had collected hundreds of signatures from residents who want to eliminate any penalty for spaying, neutering and vaccinating feral cats. She said in a letter to the County Commission in May that she wasn't advocating a full-blown trap-neuter-return, or TNR, program as some communities have done.
The feeding of feral cats is the latest in a series of discussions and changes in the way Hernando County deals with animal issues. A recent town hall meeting was held regarding a TNR program, and commissioners decided to continue the county's feral cat trapping program, which usually results in cats being euthanized.
The discussions were prompted by an audit and studies done last year in the wake of the controversial euthanization of a dog named Zeus. Since then, the county has made multiple changes at Animal Services, including beefing up the staff.
Lisa Centonze, the managing veterinarian for Hernando County Animal Services, explained Tuesday that under current county rules, if someone feeds an animal for five days, they are considered to be harboring the animal. If that lasts 14 days, they are considered the owner and are obligated to have the animal licensed and vaccinated.
Centonze made several suggestions to the commission on how the ordinance could be tweaked to accomplish what Page was seeking. One was abandoning the term "harboring" a stray animal. The other was establishing a "good Samaritan" clause.
Commissioner Wayne Dukes said he had questions about the ordinance when it was adopted, but also expressed concern about people who start with one animal and end up with dozens.
He agreed that someone should be able to help an animal in immediate need, but "we need to be very careful how we handle this," he said.
"I don't want to see people feeding feral cats,'' said Commissioner Nick Nicholson. "We'll just have more and more cats.''
He said he didn't have a problem if people sterilize strays.
Commissioner Diane Rowden urged commissioners to find a compromise, and then she read from Centonze's presentation the reason: A compromise "would enable county citizens to be compassionate, help animals and not break the law without costing the county anything.''
While Commissioner Jim Adkins said he didn't have a problem with people feeding strays, he cited two cases that turned into hoarding situations.
Using Page's example, County Attorney Garth Coller said she would be considered the owner of the stray cats in her yard and would not be cited for feeding feral cats. He urged commissioners to avoid changing the ordinance. Prosecution of people who are irresponsible pet owners is difficult enough now, he said.
Russell said he hoped the staff can find the right balance.
"I can see some areas where we can make something like this work,'' he said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.