TAMPA — The debate Wednesday over whether Hillsborough County should trap, neuter, vaccinate and release stray cats as a strategy for controlling their population raged as it has for months before commissioners.
In the end, commissioners voted 6-1 to approve an ordinance that will encourage the practice by private groups by removing requirements for so-called "community cats" to get a microchip and face registration annually. And as part of the vote, the county also will directly engage in the practice on a test basis, with details still to be spelled out.
"TNVR may not be a perfect answer," said Commissioner Ken Hagan, who has been the board's leading advocate for attempting to reduce the number of animals killed each year at the county's shelter. "But it's a step in the right direction."
As approved by commissioners, with Victor Crist voting no, the county's participation will roll out in pilot mode. It will allow the county to accept up to 2,000 cats a year that it likely will farm out to nonprofits to test for certain diseases, then neuter the healthy ones and release the animals in the vicinity of where they were captured.
The cats captured through the county program will receive rabies vaccinations and a microchip. The county will attempt to track whether the released cats create a health concern or become a nuisance.
Private groups are exempted from the microchip requirement because it increases their costs, Hagan said, likely reducing their participation.
The effort is a cornerstone of a larger program approved earlier this year by commissioners called "Be the Way Home," which aims to reduce the number of unwanted, stray or abused animals killed each year at the shelter. The trap-and-release strategy has been one of the most controversial components.
Some animal welfare advocates, particularly a vocal contingent of veterinarians, say returning the animals to the wild encourages irresponsible pet ownership. At worst, the cats, particularly when they form colonies, can spread disease to other cats and even humans through their waste or when their rabies vaccinations wear off.
Loose cats kill other wildlife, notably birds. And they often live short, painful lives, as they, too, are attacked by other animals, contract disease, starve or are struck by cars. It's more humane to euthanize them, critics say.
"This ordinance, as written, flies in the face of good government," said Don Thompson, who owns a veterinary clinic and is executive director of the Hillsborough County Animal Health Foundation.
Advocates for the program say its implementation is spreading around the country, with several counties in Florida adopting it as a strategy to contain loose cat populations. Private groups are already doing it, trapping and releasing more than 40,000 cats in recent years in Hillsborough County.
Those organizations, such as the Humane Society of Tampa Bay, Cat Crusaders and Animal Coalition of Tampa, take credit for a decline that has already taken place in cat euthanizations at the county shelter since the mid 2000s. What's more, they note that the historical practice of simply euthanizing stray cats has done nothing to lower their number in the wild.
"We can't keep trapping and euthanizing. It doesn't work," said Jeanine Cohen, co-director of Cat Crusaders. "We've been doing it for years and we still have irresponsible pet owners and we still have unaltered cats and kittens."
The county must still spell out how its pilot program will work and other specifics, such as more precisely defining a prohibition of releasing cats near schools or nature preserves. Cats reported as a nuisance also may not be released to the same area.