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Feral Cats Bill Pits Animal Welfare Advocates Against Conservationalists

Austin Evan
Flickr Creative Commons

Animal welfare advocates are at odds with wildlife conservationalists as the Florida Senate prepares this week to look at a controversial feral cat bill. 

Introduced by minority deputy whip Darren Soto (D-Kissimmee), Senate Bill 1320 would make it easier for trap-neuter-release programs to operate in Florida without fear of running afoul of the law. A version in the House, House Bill 1121, has been making steady progress through various committees in the last month. 

The bill would remove any penalties associated with trapping, neutering, and re-releasing feral cats, or "community cats," into the wild, or the city/suburbs, as is often the case. It would allow "community cat caregivers" to provide food, water, and shelter for feral cats and give veterinarians leeway to participate in trap-neuter-release programs. According to the bill's text, a "community cat" is any outdoor, free-roaming feline without visible owner identification. 

Alley Cat Allies, one of the nation's lead supporters of trap-neuter-release programs, has praised the "lifesaving" programs protected by the bill and has said SB 1320 would "save countless cats' lives." 

Conservation groups like Audubon of Florida, Defenders of Wildlife, and Florida Wildlife Federation, meanwhile, oppose efforts to legitimize Florida's feral cat colonies, which they say are a threat to native Florida wildlife.   

Audubon of Florida writes, "While proponents assert this practice ultimately eliminates feral cat populations, peer-reviewed scientific research and case studies have not borne this out... Feral cat colonies often persist and grow with dire consequences." The group cites statistics from a recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study that estimates domestic cats "kill a median of 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals a year."

Alley Cat Allies challenges those numbers and contends that humans remain the leading threat to all wildlife. They say scienceproves feral cats are "opportunistic feeders" and would prefer to riffle through people's garbage cans than to hunt songbirds and other small animals. 

The "cat people" versus "bird people" face-off about feral cats is nothing new: A lively comment section from a 2011 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service poston the topic demonstrates it has been long in the making. That said, 2013 has been a particularly active year for debate, with plenty of news to fuel discussion. 

Earlier this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service implemented the Final Integrated Pest Management Plan for Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges. A Miami Herald story says the plan calls for the removal of feral cats in specified protected areas as a means to reduce predation of the Lower Keys marsh rabbit and Key Largo woodrat.  

Long-time environmental writer Ted Williams -- recently at the center of the feral cat debate -- was last week reinstated to his role as editor-at-large for Audubon Magazine. Williams had been temporarily removed from the post after writing an Orlando Sentinelcolumn that discussed using Tylenol to euthanize feral cats. Cat advocates called for Williams' dismissal, while environmentalists and journalists (for the most part) came to his support. Read more about the controversy here

Fort Lauderdale-based veterinarian and birder Brian Monk weighed in on the subject with a March 27 blog on the American Birding Association's website. Monk outlines the typical feral cat's "short and brutal" life which rarely comes to a "peaceful end." He writes that while "improving feline health in general, while keeping our precious wildlife safe, is a noble goal" it requires an "ignoble" approach. He says trap and euthanasia "is the only truly viable solution."

Advocacy groups on both sides of the issue are calling on supporters to contact their representatives as the "community cat bill" works its way through the legislature. The bill is on the Senate Agriculture Committee agenda for 12:15 p.m. today (Monday, April 1). 

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