SPRING HILL — Joanne Schoch understands the critical battles encountered while trying to solve the problem of animal overpopulation.
As executive director of the Humane Society of the Nature Coast and a frontline soldier who has promoted animal welfare for more than a decade, she has actively pursued solutions that benefit both animals and the community.
Schoch's latest objective is a push to implement a county-approved trap-neuter-return program that will allow volunteer groups to capture free-roaming cats, get them fixed and vaccinated, and then return them to the area where they were found. She has invited a panel to join her at a community forum at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Palace Grand in Spring Hill to discuss concerns over such a policy.
Schoch said that although the program has brought proven results in other communities around the state, she doesn't believe it has ever gotten a serious look by Hernando officials. And though she admits that the policy has some controversial aspects, especially among wildlife activists, she believes a healthy discussion could lead to a balanced solution, taking into account every point of view.
"The idea is to look at TNR, both pro and con, and see what works for people and what doesn't," she said. "At some point, however, I'd like to have something workable that we can bring before the County Commission that they're willing to get behind and support."
Tuesday's panelists will include Schoch; Lisa Centonze, the new managing veterinarian for Hernando County Animal Services; Rick Silvani, owner and operator of PetLuv Spay and Neuter; Tracie Stegner, a volunteer with Paw Warriors; and Laura Paige, a community advocate for TNR.
For two years, Stegner and her small Paw Warriors group have trapped, neutered and returned more than 1,000 stray cats in an area stretching from Centralia Road in northwest Hernando County south to State Road 52 in Pasco County and from Bayport east to Ridge Manor. One week last March, she pulled 60 cats from the Ridge Manor area, then returned them fixed, vaccinated and with notched ears.
Stegner knows that technically the TNR process violates county ordinances. So she does the work "under the radar" in the belief that the process offers a viable solution to cat overpopulation that doesn't involve killing.
"I don't agree that we need to trap and euthanize animals in order to bring the populations under control," she said. "The vast majority of the cats we capture have owners that feed them and care for them. They aren't a danger to the community."
But others disagree. Wildlife activists worry that feral cats that aren't being regularly fed will turn to eating birds, snakes and other native wildlife. One study in Wisconsin showed that stray cats killed millions of songbirds each year in Wisconsin alone.
Schoch said while she understands those concerns, she believes feral cats that are returned to an existing colony near people who can care for them are less likely to turn to killing for food.
"In a way, feral cats are wildlife, too," Schoch said. "They've been introduced to the environment, and like some wildlife populations, they need to be managed and looked after."
Schoch pointed out that several private grants exist that would help support a communitywide volunteer TNR effort, and that such a program would not involve taxpayer dollars.
"To me, it's a question of what makes more sense, supporting a TNR initiative or keep sending county animal control employees to trap the cats and transporting them back to be euthanized," Schoch said.
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.