CLEARWATER — Pinellas commissioners agreed Tuesday to relax county rules on stray animals to clear the way for a pilot program aimed at reducing the feral cat population.
Commissioners nixed a proposal to pass a spay-neuter law requiring all pet owners to sterilize their dogs and cats. Instead commissioners said they'd take the first steps to a mandatory system — charging more for licenses for unsterilized animals and mandating sterilization at the owner's expense of animals found wandering loose for the second, or subsequent, time.
It is unclear when the new rules will take effect. County staff will have to draft them and bring them to the commission for approval.
The new direction for the way Pinellas deals with dog and cat overpopulation came at the end of a four-hour workshop that gave commissioners a chance to hear of the problems faced by the $4-million Animal Services department. 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 out of the shelter; 808 dogs and 2,403 cats were euthanized.
While some animal activists said the only solution was a mandatory spay-neuter law, others focused on the county's feral cat population. 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.
One group in particular, calling itself Meow Now, said it wanted to try a one-year pilot program. While TNVR works elsewhere, they said, it's unclear if there will be enough volunteers in Pinellas. The group is spearheaded by former Seminole City Council member Dan Hester, the Humane Society of Pinellas, SPCA Tampa Bay and other animal activists. The seed money for Meow Now will come from the group's founders, Hester said.
But the problem is that county rules forbid many TNVR activities, including one that bans cats and dogs from running at large and another that prohibits feeding that attracts cats and wildlife.
Hester said people will not contribute time nor money to an organization that is, essentially, breaking the law. Commissioners agreed they need to relax the rules, at least temporarily, to let Meow Now have a chance.
"To me, this seems like a reasonable path forward," Commissioner Ken Welch said.