TAMPA — It happens every year like clockwork, whenever spring rains melt away the last vestiges of winter chill and the Tampa Bay area starts to sizzle under the sultry summer sun. Felines get frisky, and in a matter of weeks Hillsborough County's Pet Resource Center becomes overwhelmed by the number of orphaned cats in their cradles.
It's a problem the county hoped to tackle in 2013, when it adopted a controversial "trap-neuter-release" program aimed at sterilizing feral cats in an attempt to control the population of strays.
Yet hundreds of orphaned kittens remain the largest demographic of animals euthanized by Pet Resources each year — at a rate nearly 250 percent higher than that of dogs.
Last week, Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan persuaded his fellow commissioners to make another attempt to curtail the copious cat population by reducing the breeding population that produces them in the first place.
The new cat sterilization pilot program is a private-public partnership with private animal shelters, rescue groups and other community partners. The county will spend $100,000 this year to pay the costs of spaying and neutering the kittens those groups take in from the county shelter during the summer breeding season.
It's a one-year experiment. The extra funding already existed in the department's spaying and neutering budget but was underutilized, according to Pet Resources staff. Hagan said that $100,000 could spay or neuter an estimated 1,500 cats and kittens — that would more than double the number of cats that were sterilized in 2018.
"They won't be coming into a crowded shelter, taking up space, resources, medical care, staff care and time," Hagan said. "This program saves money and it gives these kittens a fighting chance, and it will decrease euthanasia rates."
Hillsborough County adopted a "no-kill" standard in 2012, when its euthanasia rate for animals in the Pet Resource Center was about 80 percent, Hagan said. Those efforts were successful in decreasing the euthanasia rate to roughly 12 percent in 2018, county records show.
Pet Resource was successful in boosting the number of animal adoptions, and in recent years the shelter has reported fewer animals surrendered by their owners. But without long-term efforts to prevent population growth, feral cats and kittens have continued to account for roughly 64 percent of the animals euthanized by the county.
"Every year around this time of year we get inundated with orphaned kittens, and they require round-the-clock care," Pet Resources manager Lori Letzring said. "It's not something we're able to provide, but we have fabulous rescue partners that can keep those kittens out of our shelter and boost our live release rate for kittens greatly."
In calendar year 2018, the Pet Resource Center took in 17,696 animals. About 57 percent, or 10,205 of them, were cats.
The county euthanized 1,445 cats, or 14 percent of the ones it took in. That's more than twice the number of euthanized dogs, 634.
In 2018, the county spayed and neutered 1,364 cats and then released them.
Already this year, Pet Resources has taken in 550 cats by March alone. The county euthanized 69 and trapped, neutered, and released 95 of them.
"Right now, what's being euthanized at our shelters the most is still neonatal kittens — they take the most work, they cost the most to take in, and meanwhile we're still trying to do everybody else," said Rescue Cats Florida director Jeanine Cohen, one of the organizations that will take in animals when the county's pet services department gets overwhelmed. "We're coming into kitten season yet again, and we are ready, willing and able to take them on but we need to do it together with the reallocated funds."
The new sterilization program is one of several new initiatives and rule changes within Pet Resources, said department director Scott Trebatoski.
The county said it redoubled efforts to find foster families for kittens — especially young litters who come to the shelter without their mothers. Those cats require almost hourly feedings from bottles of formula, Trebatoski said, which is a poor substitute for the antibiotics and nutrients in their mother's milk. The county also offered community service hours to high school students willing to help foster orphaned kittens until they grow strong enough to stay in the shelter without getting sick, or until they're adopted.
The new stipend will also cover the costs of sterilization, ear-tipping (which indicates cats that have been spayed or neutered), rabies and other vaccinations, and microchips for cats who are adopted. The county will cover $65 of the total $85 cost for those services, which requires a $20 co-pay from the rescue agency.
Contact Anastasia Dawson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.