TAMPA — Hillsborough County Animal Services may be in a bit of upheaval with the reassignment of its director this week.
But that didn't stop county commissioners from moving forward Wednesday with perhaps the most controversial component of their efforts to lower the kill rate at the animal shelter.
Commissioners voted 6-1 to hold a public hearing Dec. 18 on an ordinance to allow the county to trap stray cats, spay or neuter them, then release them near where they were picked up. Commissioner Victor Crist was the lone opposing vote.
Cats are euthanized at far greater rates than dogs at most public animal shelters. "Trap, neuter, release" or "community cats," as the practice is sometimes known, is a centerpiece nationally of an effort to get shelters to kill fewer animals.
The idea is that sterilized cats won't continue adding to the already large number of free-ranging felines. Over time, supporters say, that should result in fewer loose cats and, eventually, fewer animals euthanized each year.
Critics, including several veterinarians, have said 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 said. They can spread disease to humans and are blamed for killing scores of birds and other wildlife, they contend.
Ian Hallett, a proponent of the trapping program as well as other significant changes at Animal Services, was moved out of heading the department and into a job in the parks department this week by County Administrator Mike Merrill. The move followed months of complaints against him from various sectors in the animal welfare community as disease popped up at the shelter and its veterinarians defected.
Commissioner Ken Hagan, who has been a leading advocate of lowering the county's kill rate, noted the board voted twice this year to support the pilot program. He urged his colleagues to press on.
"I believe enough cats have already died due to our inaction," Hagan said.
But the debate raged anew from speakers for and against the program.
Veterinarians in particular object to the practice of releasing feral cats into the wild, saying they represent a public health risk and allow people to neglect animals or fail to take responsibility for their welfare. Some suggested that the plan to implement the program was not given adequate public input, particularly from veterinarians or a citizen panel that reviews changes to county laws pertaining to animal welfare.
"Responsibility. With this one word you can help focus an important issue being placed before you today," said Michael Haworth, chairman of the county's animal advisory committee. "Who's responsible for feral cats? The ordinance change that's being proposed deliberately releases those people that trap, neuter and release feral cats into our community from responsibility."
Jeanine Cohen, with the group Cat Crusaders, countered that the plan has been vetted for months with input from all sectors of the animal welfare community. In the meantime, thousands of cats have been euthanized at the county's shelter because of health concerns that are unfounded, she said.
"Our conspiracy is to want to save more healthy cats," Cohen said.