As local governments all over Florida drastically rethink the way they deal with stray cats, Hernando County is still struggling with the most basic question:
Should the county continue to provide traps to capture strays that will almost certainly be euthanized?
On Tuesday, the County Commission will again bring up this question.
Last month, Lisa Centonze, the county's managing veterinarian for Animal Services, asked permission to end the practice of loaning traps to catch strays, and argued that the program doesn't work.
She told commissioners that last year, 280 feral cats were euthanized by Animal Services — a tiny percentage of the rapidly reproducing population of free-ranging cats in the county.
Trapping and killing feral cats, she said, is "inefficient, costly and inhumane.''
The discussion has been delayed in the past, and may be again Tuesday. But even if the commission does take it up, Hernando has already fallen behind other nearby counties on this issue.
Last week, before a packed chambers, the Hillsborough County Commission decided that trapping, neutering and releasing feral cats was a better solution than trapping and killing.
Similar programs are up and running in Pasco and Citrus counties, Centonze told commissioners.
But county Commissioner Wayne Dukes bristled at the thought of a similar program in Hernando and said there was no real problems with the current policy of loaning out cat traps.
"The program is not broken,'' he said. "She inherited some issues we can fix.''
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About three dozen of the county's traps have been loaned and never returned, Centonze told the commission. Another dozen are broken, and still others are too small for cats — which leaves just a few available for use by residents.
Dukes said these problems can be solved by writing letters to people who haven't returned the traps or enlisting jail inmates to repair the broken ones.
Whatever the solution, he said, the county needs to have traps to loan to residents who ask for help in clearing strays from their neighborhoods.
Col. Mike Maurer of the Hernando County Sheriff's Office agreed.
"We're the ones who are going to get the call'' about nuisance cats, he said last month.
Since that discussion, Dukes said that he has talked to Maurer and to Centonze's boss, Public Safety Director Mike Rampino, and that they agreed the loaning of traps can continue.
"I know there is a cost involved in taking in a feral cat, but that's just what the county does'' to protect the community, Dukes said.
He said he was happy to have Centonze onboard, but "her heart is in trap and release'' and Dukes said there was no way he could ever support that.
Dukes expressed concern that returning cats to where they were trapped could spread disease and harm wildlife.
Centonze said last week that she got the message — Dukes and her boss want trapping to continue.
"I'm going to work with the Sheriff's Department to make the program more efficient and workable,'' she said.
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Commissioner Diane Rowden was shocked to hear that the discussion of the trapping issue had taken such a turn, especially since there has not been a full discussion by the board.
"The Board of County Commissioners took the time and spent the money to find the most qualified veterinarian to manage Animal Services,'' she said. "Now she has to come to the County Commission to ask permission to do her job?''
Rowden said Centonze is the expert and that commissioners shouldn't second-guess her.
"It's micromanaging,'' she said, and noted that Dukes made reference to the fact that the county has been loaning out traps for 23 years.
"He said that we've been loaning out traps for 23 years, why stop now. But feral cats are multiplying, so how effective has the program been?'' Rowden said. "It's a failure and a waste of taxpayers' money.''
Rowden said that the whole issue is still up for discussion and that Centonze shouldn't have to take a step back. In fact, Rowden said, she shouldn't even have to ask the board to end the trap-loaning program.
"We should let Dr. Centonze do her job,'' she said.
Joanne Schoch, executive director of the Humane Society of the Nature Coast, agrees. She said she wonders what kind of trigger sets off a need for a county manager to run his or her operational decisions by the full commission.
Schoch was infuriated at the last commission meeting when she and others who had waited for hours to discuss the trap-loan program were not allowed to speak because other controversial issues on the agenda ran long.
Like Rowden, Schoch said the commissioners don't have the knowledge that Centonze does.
"If you hired a well-qualified manager, why isn't she allowed to make decisions?'' Schoch said. "Next thing you know, the board will be questioning what brand of toilet paper she's buying for Animal Services.''
Schoch expressed concern that commissioners were making their minds up about the issues before allowing a full discussion to take place.
But Commission Chairman Dave Russell said a full discussion will take place on the issue and that no decision has been made on whether the trap-loan program will continue or end.
"We're going to be in a posture to act'' if the board wants to make a decision Tuesday, Russell said. "A good, open discussion will be helpful.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.