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Pinellas begins addressing feral cat problem

The many stray cats and kittens that roam my brother's neighborhood somehow figured out he's a sap for felines.

They gather on his front porch and climb the window screen. Spread-eagled against the screen with their claws dug into the wire, they hang there, meowing pitifully and staring at him with sad can't-you-see-I'm-hungry eyes.

When he can't stand it anymore, he picks up the bag of cat food he bought for his two indoor cats and fills the little bowl on the porch. He knows he shouldn't feed strays, but he'd rather starve himself than let a cat go hungry.

I like cats fine, but don't get me started on people who let their cats roam outdoors. A neighbor's cat uses my flower beds for its litter box, my driveway for its naps and the top of my car for a perch. Their cat should be their responsibility, not mine. I shouldn't be the one worrying that the cat will get hit crossing the street.

Some cat owners act as if cats are only recently descended from their wild ancestors and must be allowed to roam freely. But cats have been domesticated for — well, I don't know how long, but way longer than any of us have been around. A pet cat kept indoors isn't going to hurl itself at the walls or climb the curtains in a desperate bid for freedom from captivity. It's going to eat and play and sleep.

House cats allowed to roam outside or abandoned by irresponsible owners often become a nuisance or regress to a feral state. And feral cats are creating enormous problems for communities and local governments everywhere. One study estimates that the United States has as many as 120 million feral cats, and the number is growing exponentially, because one thing cats do well is reproduce, starting as young as 5 months old.

Local governments and animal rescue organizations are grasping for solutions. The debate has pitted cat lovers against bird lovers and led to demonstrations and lawsuits. Los Angeles has an estimated 1 million stray cats, a number that boggles the mind. But when the city began trapping the cats, neutering them and then turning them loose, the American Bird Conservancy and other bird-lover groups sued. Turning feral cats loose allowed them to continue to slaughter birds, they argued, and the city also failed to do an environmental impact study as required by law. The bird lovers won.

The alternative, though — turning the cats over to animal shelters, where they could be euthanized — offends some cat lovers.

The strong emotions about trap-neuter-release programs, referred to as TNR, and the potential for legal action against governments are two of several reasons Pinellas County is moving slowly on addressing its significant problem with feral cats, defined as cats that are free roaming and not socialized.

A year ago the Pinellas County Commission asked that a work group be assembled to study ideas for dealing with the county's feral cat population. Thousands of feral cats are brought to local shelters each year — 14,000 to Pinellas County Animal Services alone.

After a year of meetings and research, the work group didn't propose any changes in county law, which requires cat and dog owners to vaccinate and license their animals and keep them from roaming.

Instead, the group said local nonprofits such as the Humane Society will conduct a campaign to promote spaying and neutering and to convince pet owners that letting cats roam free is against the law and bad for the cats, which are exposed to hunger, cold, disease, and injury or death from traffic and sick people with cruelty in mind. The work group also asked the county to expand its spay and neuter program for low-income pet owners. And the Humane Society of Pinellas will lead discussions between humane organizations and local residents running TNR programs to try to create some guidelines all can agree on.

I've noticed lately that there are fewer cats roaming my neighborhood. I hope that's because they have been taken in. Or maybe it's because coyotes have taken up residence in my neighborhood. Cats prey on birds; coyotes prey on cats.

That's one more reason to keep your cats indoors where it is warm and dry and safe.

Diane Steinle is editor of editorials for the North Pinellas editions of the St. Petersburg Times.

Pinellas begins addressing feral cat problem 12/12/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 12, 2009 3:30am]
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