TAMPA — Thousands of feral cats roaming Hillsborough County will be trapped, neutered and released beginning in the fall.
After hearing from a divided, emotional audience of animal advocates, county commissioners voted 6-1 Wednesday to begin the controversial two-year pilot program. It's part of a broader, ambitious plan to increase adoptions and reduce killings at the county's animal shelter.
But it was the trap-neuter-release program that drew the most attention and controversy.
Opponents, including some veterinarians, said the so-called "community cat" plan is hardly humane or healthy. Feral cats kill birds and other wildlife, can spread diseases to humans and are often threatened by predators, starvation and cars, they argued.
Amy Howland, who served on a county task force that studied animal issues, disagreed with the trap-and-release plan. She called it an attempt to "appease very well-meaning, big-hearted cat hobbyists."
She also sided with the country's leading trap-neuter-release expert, Dr. Julie Levy, who told the task force that an unfocused trapping program in a county the size of Hillsborough will not work.
Commissioner Victor Crist cast the lone opposing vote, saying he stood with "the squirrels and the birds … who will lose their lives as a result of this decision."
Supporters argued that the program has been carried out elsewhere. Once released, sterilized cats won't continue adding to the 200,000 free-ranging felines in Hillsborough, they said.
Judy Stimson aimed to "set the record straight on some risks," citing a Florida Department of Health statistic that said there have only been 13 cases of cat rabies in Hillsborough in the last 15 years.
"There's a small minority that wants to eliminate all risks," said Stimson, a Sun City Center resident and director of South Shore Felines. "In order to do that, we'd have to wipe out the dog and cat species."
Tensions ran high as residents spoke, with audience members booing, cheering and, at times, resorting to insults. Russ Swisher, who spoke in opposition, urged commissioners not to listen to the "cackling of the crazy cat ladies" behind him.
Humans created the feral cats problem, so they have a responsibility to fix it, said Nancy McCall, director of development at the Humane Society of Tampa Bay.
"We all would prefer to see every cat in a loving home, but that's not realistic," she said. "Trap-and-kill does not work, and the public will not abide by the mass murder of these creatures. People will always, always feed a skinny cat that shows up on their doorstep. It's just human nature."
Hillsborough County is not alone in confronting the feral cat issue. While Pinellas County has no official trap-spay-neuter program, Animal Services staff is studying it as part of a larger examination of the county's animal ordinances. Their recommendations are expected to go before the County Commission in the next couple of months.
Some 20,000 dogs and cats come to the Hillsborough County shelter each year, but about 12,000 are ultimately euthanized — most of which are cats.
Animal Services director Ian Hallett proposed the plan while seeking to appease animal-welfare advocates. The plan establishes a two-year pilot program to sterilize up to 2,000 stray cats annually. Its estimated yearly cost is $47,000.
The county will spend $20 on a microchip and blood test for each cat when the trapping program launches on Oct. 1. It now spends $100 on each cat that it houses for five days and euthanizes. The microchips will reveal how many cats ultimately return to the shelter, and an ear clipping will allow them to be tracked in the wild.
The approved plan also includes many new efforts to boost dog and cat adoptions: using social media, taking cats and dogs to public places to show them off as potential pets, increasing the Animal Shelter's profile with new road signs and special events, as well as mobilizing more volunteers
Before then, Animal Services will decide where to first implement the program. One option is to aggressively target the areas where low-cost spay and neuter programs are already in place. Then officials can judge what effect the combined programs have on shelter intakes.
"I'm extremely grateful to the commissioners for the support to make the changes we need at Animal Services and to save more animals," Hallett said. "I'm happy because I put together a compromise between two sides that were deeply divided. I think it gives us a lot of hope about working together."
In other business, commissioners also heard a presentation from Westshore Alliance executive director Ron Rotella on how to make the West Shore area more attractive, livable and pedestrian friendly. The Public Realm Master Plan calls for landscaped medians, shaded sidewalks, screens to hide parking lots and shared bus and bicycle lanes along West Shore Boulevard between International Plaza and Kennedy Boulevard.
Times staff writers Sue Carlton and Anne Lindberg contributed to this report. Caitlin Johnston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3111.