Hillsborough County is poised to take a step this week that could help find loving homes for thousands of dogs and cats. A package that goes to county commissioners Wednesday would retool the Animal Services Department to bring a new sense of energy and focus. The measure also includes a forward-looking experiment to sterilize a small number of free-roaming cats and return them to their habitats. It's a good package, and commissioners should embrace it.
The 60-point plan brought together by a county task force is a humane, balanced strategy for making the 20,000 dogs and cats taken in at the shelter every year healthier and more suitable for adoption. The department will expand its hours and the use of online and social media tools to better market the dogs and cats, and it will expand programs for volunteers to improve the health and temperament of animals who are available for placement.
One controversial element calls for sterilizing up to 2,000 stray cats brought to the shelter every year and returning them to where they were found. Critics say the move would create public health risks and a danger to the bird population. But those fears sound overblown. These same cats are already roaming freely; the county would not be adding to their numbers. Only healthy cats would be eligible, and all would be vaccinated before release. Over time, reduced litters should help curb the stray population, estimated at 200,000.
Animal Services has been one of the county's success stories in recent years — adopting out more animals, driving down its kill rate and aggressively targeting cases of abuse and neglect. The new approach that director Ian Hallett has outlined will keep the momentum going and help curb the 80 percent kill rate for the 10,500 cats taken in every year. Only a more robust community plan and further outreach on responsible pet ownership will significantly cut the stray cat population. But this measure is something the department can build on, and it calls attention to the need for a comprehensive, sustained and humane approach in dealing with domesticated animals.