Thin cats, attracted by the metallic sound of a spoon tapping on the top of a cat food can, seem to materialize from nowhere.
Wide-eyed and skittish, they scatter at the sight of humans only to cautiously return at the rattling sound of dry kitty crunchies and the meaty smell of Nine Lives and Friskies being plopped into dishes.
Mike LaMonica has been feeding these feral cats — about 15 of them — twice a day for the past two years. He has also made sure that all but two (who just joined the colony) have been spayed, neutered and vaccinated. LaMonica isn't the only one in Pinellas County who has been caring for neutered feral cats. It's a labor of love, but LaMonica and others are breaking the county's rules.
Soon, that will change.
County commissioners agreed this month to relax rules enough to allow a group calling itself MEOW Now, for Managing & Ending Overpopulation Wisely Now!, to start a pilot program of trapping, sterilizing, vaccinating and releasing feral cats back into the wild.
The theory is that sterilizing the animals and releasing them will humanely control the feline population. But it's a controversial idea even among animal advocates, many of whom argue that putting the cats back in the wild condemns them to short, tortured lives.
But veterinarian Julie Levy, director of the University of Florida's Maddie's Shelter Medicine Program, said that's true of all animals that live in the wild, though "we never suggest they should all be killed because something bad might happen in the future."
Pinellas' decision to try TNVR has been a long time coming. At least 13 years ago, a small group in Pinellas Park wanted to start a trap, neuter, vaccinate, release program but was unable to get buy-in from the county. The TNVR concept came in front of the commission again in 2008-09 and yet again last spring.
Several factors helped change county officials' minds this time, Commissioner Karen Seel said.
One was the sheer number of feral, or community, cats. County officials estimate that population at 92,367 to 172,687 cats. Clearly, Seel said, the county's policy of loaning traps to residents, then putting up the friendly cats for adoption while killing the others was not working to control the population. And, mass killing of cats is not popular with many members of the public. But it happens. In 2012, Pinellas County Animal Services took in 7,528 stray cats. Of those, 4,927, or about 65 percent, were killed. Animal Services has taken in 4,418 stray cats through August of this year and has euthanized 3,288, or about 74 percent of them.
"We want to see a difference; we want to see fewer animals euthanized," Seel said.
The other big factor was MEOW Now and its founders: former Seminole City Council member Dan Hester, the SPCA Tampa Bay, the Humane Society of Pinellas and other individual animal activists. Not only are the organizers well known to commissioners, they also came well prepared with a skeleton business plan and defined goals.
"I definitely think that made a difference," Seel said. "It's no longer going to be whomever, wherever. It's going to be organized."
Even better, from the standpoint of budget-crunched commissioners, no public money will be involved. Expenses for the one-year pilot program, estimated at $60,000 to $80,000, will be financed by MEOW Now's founders and other donors. After that, the group hopes to be able to finance itself strictly by donations. The first-year monies are expected to mainly finance an executive director and the costs of spaying and neutering.
The primary goals of the pilot program will be the creation of a database locating feral cat colonies and providing a baseline for measuring success in reducing numbers. Part of that database will include a list of volunteers, from those who help trap the cats to those who feed the colonies. MEOW Now also wants to spay or neuter at least 1,000 feral cats by the end of 2014.
That doesn't sound like a lot, said Martha Boden, CEO of SPCA Tampa Bay, but it's a reachable goal for year one. That number is expected to increase in subsequent years.
Whether there are subsequent years will depend on verifiable success in the first or second year of the pilot. Success, said Levy, the UF vet, depends on what you're measuring.
If the goal is total elimination of cats — even if it's just the feral ones — there will never be "success."
"If that's what people want to define as working, nothing works," she said. "But that doesn't mean we're helpless."
TNVR, on the other hand, can work in somewhat contained areas. UF has tracked a colony of cats on the University of Central Florida campus since the 1990s. When the TNVR program first began, there were more than 100 cats on campus. Now, there are 10 and they're all old, Levy said.
That's enough for Dan Hester, the main driving force behind the formation of MEOW Now. Hester's concept of the organization can be summed up as "laser focused." First, he said, MEOW Now has no other goal or agenda than the reduction in the number of feral cats in Pinellas. Other animal issues exist, but Hester said he feels the best way to solve the problem is to concentrate on one area at a time. Besides, he said, other organizations are working at solving other issues.
Secondly, Hester wants to focus on colonies. Fix most cats in one colony and gradually the number of kittens goes down in that location. Do that in lots of colonies and, over time, the feral cat population will drop countywide.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this story. Anne Lindberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8450.