Feral cats are everywhere — but no one can seem to agree on what to do about them. Left free on the streets, they spread disease, kill birds and small animals, and reproduce like crazy. Put in shelters, they become a burden to taxpayers. Only a fraction are adopted, and many must be euthanized. Some cat lovers advocate “trap-neuter-release” programs (called TNR for short): Feral cats are brought in to be spayed and neutered, then released in the neighborhoods where they were found, so they can live out their natural lives.
But even that has its opponents, as Broward County is seeing. The county's new plan to expand TNR is causing dramatic reductions in cats at its shelter —- but is being criticized by environmentalists.
At least 300,000 feral cats live in Broward County, in “virtually every neighborhood,” according to the county website. Of that number, 8,430 cats ended up in Broward’s shelters during fiscal 2015, according to county data. Animal-rights activists have long criticized the county for the high number of dogs and cats killed in its shelters each year — more than 10,000 in both 2011 and 2012 — so the county implemented a “No Kill” Strategic Plan in 2012. Despite this, the county has continued to euthanize animals and killed 5,822 across all species last year.
To help reduce the number of feral cats sitting in Broward’s shelters, the County Commission approved a plan in September that replaced Broward’s existing spay and neutering initiative, called SPOT, and instead created a “Sterilization Trust Fund” through which the TNR program would run. Last Tuesday, the commission voted to allow outside shelters to participate in the county’s release plan. Shelters would be paid $50 for every cat they spay or neuter and then return to the street.
A Sun Sentinel article about the program last week reported that 566 cats had been sterilized and released since September. Thomas Adair, director of the county's Animal Care and Adoption Division, explained that where the shelter previously housed 100 cats on a typical day, there were now fewer than ten.
But even when sterile, feral cats don’t exactly live cushy lives. If a cat is lucky enough to avoid catching one of a thousand different deadly diseases, like feline AIDS, then the best the animal can usually hope for is a life spent dodging cars, hiding from other, bigger predators, eating from garbage cans, and, likely, starving to death or being killed by the elements. If a cat can find food, great — on the best days, perhaps, a cat might feast on a bird.
“Feral cats threaten all types of birds,” says Doug Young, president of the South Florida Audubon Society, a wildlife conservation group focused mainly on birds. “In Broward, they threaten shore birds, of course. On the beach, they threaten migrating, neotropical sandbirds.”
This, Young says, is because feral cats, which the Broward County government calls “community cats,” are an invasive species and don’t have a natural place in South Florida’s food chain. He was upset that the county expanded its TNR plan.
As the commission was considering implementing the plan in September, Grant Sizemore, director of invasive-species programs for Virginia’s American Bird Conservancy, sent the commission a letter on September 10 saying that, while feral cats should be handled humanely, the “methods proposed in these amendments would be counterproductive and dangerous,” as some studies show TNR programs do not actually reduce cat colonies over time. Additionally, a 2013 study conducted by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that outdoor cats kill 1.4 billion to 3.7 billion birds each year.
Young provided New Times with a copy of an email he sent to Broward County Commissioner Marty Kiar on September 14 that said that “these ordinances essentially make feral cats a protected species and establish a protected class of citizen, the ‘community cat caregiver.’”
Young, meanwhile, said "the problem has to do, number one, with disease. There are things like ringworm these cats have. Some tourists might not know there are cat feces in the sand.” (Feral cat feces have been linked to the spread of toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection, in humans.)
“And I say this while staring at a 16-by-20 photo of two cats I had rescued decades ago,” Young added. “But those cats weren’t feral. Feral cats are difficult to train and adopt.”
Lee Gottlieb, a board member with South Florida’s Audubon chapter, said the entire reason he joined the organization was to help protect Florida from feral cats.
“We are not cat killers,” he says. “We are concerned about any animals, and we firmly believe the abandonment of cats in the wild is inhumane. We believe anyone who does that should be prosecuted for animal cruelty.”
PETA, interestingly, actually sides with Audubon here: As an organization, it has come out against the efficacy of release programs, due to the rough lives feral cats lead on the street.
“Sadly, our experience with trap, spay-and-neuter, and release programs and 'managed' feral cat colonies has led us to question whether or not these programs are truly in the cats’ best interests,” PETA’s national website reads. “We receive countless reports of incidents in which cats — ‘managed’ or not — suffer and die horrible deaths because they must fend for themselves outdoors.”
Those who feed feral cats, Gottlieb added, often don’t realize the food they leave out can attract other wildlife, like raccoons or opossums.
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“The biggest problem that I see, other than harming the bird population, is that when you feed cats, you can’t restrict the cats to the food source,” he says. “Rats, raccoons, opossums, and anything else knows that when ‘Mary Jane’ and her good conscience puts food out, other animals start feeding from the same trough. In the end, the cat pays the price.”
Young, at least, believes it's more human to euthanize the cats outright. But Gottlieb disagrees and says that rather than kill more animals, the county has only one option: Somehow find a home for the remaining cats.
Adair, speaking to New Times, said that, while cats unquestionably kill birds and can transmit disease, the county believes the "trap-neuter-release" approach is a faster way to reduce its feral cat population.
"There is data out there supporting both methods," he said, referencing both the county's way, and purely euthanizing the cats. "But we've been able to find through our own research, and the research of others in the Journal of American Veterinary Medicine, that you'd have to euthanize way more cats to reduce the population by the same number as you would neutering them. If we were to maintain that population by euthanasia alone, we don't have the personnel."