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Hernando trap, neuter, release program may give feral cats an extra life

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County residents now can trap feral cats, and have them spayed, neutered, vaccinated and returned by the county, thanks to an ordinance passed Tuesday by County Commissioners.

The measure, approved on a 4-1 vote, aims to tamp down the large feral cat population in Hernando. It also means the county will euthanize fewer animals.

"The only option is to put them down or do this," commission Chairman Steve Champion said during the meeting discussion. "This is a good medium."

Here's how it works: Residents buy a live-animal trap or rent one from the county. (Officials said they may waive rental fees for people who partner with local animal groups.) Then they set up the trap and wait for a cat.

Next, people bring the cat to Hernando County Animal Services workers, who check the feline's health and judge its temperament and behavior, in case someone wants to adopt it. The county still may kill cats that are diseased, wounded or dangerous. But if they are healthy, they go into the new program.

Staffers spay or neuter cats in the program, so they can't breed, and vaccinate them against rabies. Before volunteers take them back to where they were found, they "eartip" the cats — make a small straight cut on the tips of their left ears to mark them.

Upon release, these cats earn a new designation from the county: They become "Community Cats."

Animal Services manager James Terry told commissioners that the program shouldn't cost more than the county already spends on the feral population.

The county will allow residents to care for the cats if they sign up to become "Community Cat Caregivers" and work with Animal Services and affiliates like the Humane Society and PetLuv, both based in Brooksville. Otherwise, feeding and keeping stray animals is against the law in Hernando County.

The caregiver program allows participants to feed and provide for the animals. That's so long as their food and water sources are at least 250 feet from a school, public playground or public park, and 750 feet from lands managed by state and federal governments. People who are interested should contact PetLuv, said Terry, at (352) 799-9990.

As long as the cats don't become a nuisance, they're free to live.

Terry and Humane Society of the Nature Coast director Christina Sepulveda told the board that programs like this have worked elsewhere in the state. Sepulveda cited efforts in Orange County, where she is from.

Terry said data for previous ideas, like mass euthanasia, showed that those policies haven't been successful and that the county should try another route.

Commission vice-chairman John Allocco, who cast the lone dissenting vote on the ordinance, said he worries the program won't reduce feral populations and fears that released feral cats could harm local wildlife.

Debating the topic with Allocco, Champion questioned whether his colleague had ever tried to control a cat and argued that nature will take its course.

"Neuter them and let them go. Who cares," Champion said. "Let's see what happens."

The law has a built-in sunset; it expires in 2023.

Contact Justin Trombly at Follow @JustinTrombly.