It's a new day for thousands of feral and free-roaming cats in Hillsborough County after a wild debate Wednesday on how to reduce the killing of strays. Do we continue to humanely euthanize? Or adopt a trap, neuter, then release program?
The Board of County Commissioners voted 6 to 1 in favor of the TNR program, and it could increase the county's save rates by as much as 40 percent over the next two years.
"I'm really grateful to the commission for that level of support for my plan and for my work here," said Ian Hallet, who has only been on the job as Hillsborough Animal Services Director for 11 months. He just moved back to his hometown and wasted no time tackling one of the most controversial topics facing feral and free roaming cats.
Supporters in green t-shirts filled the Board of County Commissioners meeting.
"We're saving 35 percent of the animals right now. My hope is at the end of the next two-year budget cycle, that our numbers are such that we'll hit 70 percent," Hallett said.
It's a county-funded, two-year pilot program to TNR some of the estimated 200,000 to 400,000 so called "community" cats. After the animal is caught, it will now be sterilized, ear clipped, microchipped and put back to where they came from.
"The microchips are a very minimal cost," said Dr. Betsy Coville, who is a local vet and has volunteered with the Humane Society for 25 years. "But they still cost something," we said. "Yes," she admitted. "But by doing it, they're trying to track the cats when they come back."
Coville said this will cut down the booming cat population and the spread of diseases.
"The majority of the diseases cats have are not transmissible to humans," she said. "The plan that we've been using is obviously not working or we would not have 200,000 feral cats."
Volunteers have been managing these cat colonies for years, using their own money for spaying, neutering and feeding them.
"And we stop harassing these people, who are at night, at 2 o'clock in the morning, running out to feed their colony, because they're afraid they're going to get busted or caught because these cats aren't tagged," said Terri Romano, who is the Operations Manager for the Animal Coalition of Tampa. "This should be the final plan, to make that OK, for them to do the right thing and spay and neuter. In a managed colony, they're just going to live out their lives. You're stopping the howling, you're stopping the spraying and the fighting that these cats are doing because they're not spayed or neutered."
But not everyone agreed, including some vets who say free roaming cats spread diseases like rabies, and kill billions of birds every year.
"My pets can be infected, your children can be infected, those are all concerns of the veterinarians," said Dr. Christy Layton, who is President of the Hillsborough County Veterinary Medical Society. "And our biggest issue is there's just nobody out there to care for these cats and care for their welfare. Unfortunately, the only disease they're being checked for is feline leukemia and FIV, and those two diseases don't affect humans at all. The diseases that do affect humans are rabies, toxoplasmosis, hook roundworm infections, and those are something you can just check for and release and keep them protected from it."
"At the end of the day, someone needs to be responsible for these cats, especially if taxpayer money is going into this," said Dr. Michael Haworth, who is a local veterinarian.
The Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation has a plan called AWAKE. While they agree there needs to be a trap, neuter and release plan, their proposal called for a containment component and releasing the animals back to a safe area, away from the general population, where they can live out the rest of their lives.
Dr. Coville said there is a three to five day period housing, feeding, then euthanizing the community cats, which costs about $250 per cat, as opposed to $20 to $25 for a blood test and micro chip in this new program.
"Within one day, they go to a non-profit, so very little housing and labor associated with that," said Hallett, who added the savings will be put toward staff time to work on adoptions.
"It's not going to change the community overnight. It's important to consider that we would do 2000, the Humane Society and Animal Coalition are already doing 10,000 or more each year, and then the county has a program for owns pets of 7,500, so you're talking about a community that's cranking out 20,000 spay-neuters a year, and that will make a difference."
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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