Years ago, I was a reporter covering a trial at a downtown Tampa courthouse with a jury that deliberated all night and into the wee hours. When a bailiff stepped outside for some fresh air under the stars, I went along for something to do.
"Watch," he said, and pointed to the cats.
In all of the years I had walked to and from this courthouse — walked all around downtown, even — I had never seen them. But apparently at night, the town was theirs. They crept along sidewalks and ducked into storm sewers, all these feral and free-ranging cats somehow surviving.
Maybe they live in your neighborhood or under the building where you work, cats born in the wild or abandoned or lost and making a go of it outside. Some have people who feed them and look out for them, even if they aren't owned cats. Others are too wild for much human contact. It can be a tough life, and Hillsborough County alone may have as many as 200,000 of them.
Well, get ready: Today Hillsborough County commissioners will be asked do something about it.
And not something easy.
Commissioners will consider a 60-point proposal aimed at reducing the truly sad number of dogs and cats we put down every year — about 12,000 of them.
And while much in the plan is hard to argue against — such as getting more adoptable pets to places people can see them and improving the experience for customers who go to the shelter — the proposed "community cat" neuter-and-release program has some folks fired up.
The idea: Take healthy homeless cats, sterilize them, vaccinate them and release them — near where they were living, if possible. This stops the cycle of platoons of kittens born in the wild, and more kittens, and more. And you're releasing cats, not euthanizing them.
Ian Hallett, the new guy running Animal Services, is asking the commission to consider a modest two-year pilot program to sterilize a maximum of 2,000 such cats a year and release them with a microchip and a notched ear, the symbol of a fixed feral, free-roaming or unowned cat. (Who knew?)
It's not a perfect step, but a positive one that simply means killing fewer cats.
But people who love animals are rarely half-hearted about it and you can expect controversy today. While the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals endorses such programs already at work in other cities, critics, including a group of veterinarians, say it can be inhumane and potentially unhealthy. Bird advocates say feral cats kill birds.
Count Sherry Silk of the Humane Society of Tampa Bay as "totally astounded" by the opposition. Along with the Animal Coalition of Tampa, the Humane Society has operated a low-cost community cats trap-neuter-and-release program that has fixed 41,000 of them since 2007.
"The bottom line is," she says, "do you want the cats to live?"
On this surely everyone can agree: The more cats that have homes, the better. The fewer feral cats out there, the better.
But here is a truth in this plan: "It's not making a bad situation good," says Hallett. "But it's making a bad situation better."
There's the bottom line for the commissioners today, then: Looking for ways to save animals, not kill them.