HAHF-Truths, HAHF-Measures, Full Price (Part 5)

Complaining of the impacts of free-roaming cats on wildlife and the environment, along with a range of public health threats, dozens of veterinarians in Hillsborough County, Florida, have banded together to fight TNR. Evidence suggests, however, that their real concern has nothing to do with the community, native wildlife, or, indeed, with cats. What the Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation is most interested in protecting, it seems, is the business interests of its members.

In Part 5 of this five-part series, I discuss the apparent motives for HAHF’s recent campaign against TNR.

“All of the current issues have arisen from the No Kill movement that attempted to incorporate some radical changes to our county shelter without following the normal governmental process,” explained Don Thompson, executive director of HAHF, in a recent e-mail.

“A big part of the 11-point plan (point 1) is county-endorsed and -funded TNR—and initially, that was going to happen without public input. We objected, and the process is now being properly engaged… We are not in favor of county funded or supported TNR, for all the reasons listed on our page.”

Thompson is referring to a series of events following Nathan Winograd’s February visit to Tampa, including the establishment of a task force, a move Ian Hallett, director of Hillsborough County Animal Services, describes in an August 7th memo to “Animal Advisory Committee Members” and “Registered Voters of Hillsborough County”:

“On May 2, 2012 the Board of County Commissioners directed that a process be initiated, to include the Animal Advisory Committee (AAC), to conduct a comprehensive assessment of best practices resulting in a financially feasible plan to minimize our county’s use of animal euthanasia. To this end, the County Administrator will create a task force composed of the current AAC members and three members elected by them to create, as the Board states, “‘buy-in from the entire community… the rescues, the shelters, the nonprofits, everyone.’”

Of course, where HAHF is concerned, “properly engaged” also means a pull-out-all-the-stops effort to misrepresent the threats posed by free-roaming cats and discredit those who conduct and/or support TNR. Their claims—little more than scaremongering, really—about rabies and toxoplasmosis, for example, simply aren’t supported by Florida Department of Health data. Indeed, prohibiting TNR would likely increase the threat of both, as (1) fewer free-roaming cats would be vaccinated, and (2) fewer kittens would be removed from the environment before they become infected with T. gondii.

And, until about a year ago, some caretakers were using county-funded vouchers to have their “personal ferals” sterilized and vaccinated. So where was HAHF?

From Asleep to AWAKE!
On June 28, 2011, The Tampa Tribune reported of an incident in May when “a cat leaped out of shrubbery to ambush a woman strolling through her Brandon neighborhood on a public sidewalk.”

“The aggressive stray deeply bit and scratched both of Jan Sack’s legs, then ran away… Sack’s misfortune highlights several important issues: the downside of government layoffs, the importance of volunteers and why responsible citizens don’t feed stray cats.” [1]

“The people who feed stray cats are largely responsible for Hillsborough’s cat problems,” argued the Tribune. “One such well-meaning, ill-informed person is almost certainly responsible for turning Jan Sack’s walk into a painful and frightening ordeal.” [1]

If HAHF wanted to get its anti-TNR message out, here was an excellent opportunity. Yet a snapshot of the HAHF website from July 14th suggests that the organization had no interest in such matters.

A year later, though, HAHF is unveiling its AWAKE! (Animal Welfare, Adoption, Kids, and Education) initiative (PDF), which the organization describes as nothing less that “the solution for all things animal in Hillsborough County, Florida!”

While it’s easy to support some of the initiative’s goals (e.g., improved shelter conditions, reduced owner surrenders, increased adoptions, etc.), its approach to managing the community’s stray, abandoned, and feral cats is at best disingenuous. Modeled after the American Bird Conservancy’s Cats Indoors! program, a Trojan Horse in the witch-hunt against free-roaming cats, AWAKE’s Feral Cat Welfare Policy would mean the killing of tens of thousands of cats in Hillsborough County.

Not surprisingly, HAHF fails to acknowledge this simple fact.

Sanctuaries (Yes, again.)
Instead, AWAKE! emphasizes TENVAC: Trap-Evaluate-Neuter-Vaccinate-Adopt-Contain. Of course, TNR programs already incorporate the first five elements; the last is little more than a rebranded version of the “sanctuaries solution” that’s been floated (again, disingenuously) for many years now.

Apparently I’m not the only one to express incredulity at the suggestion “containment” is the answer way. As HAHF explains is a recent blog post: “Because AWAKE! doesn’t discuss in detail more containment options, that is leading some to conclude there will not be enough sanctuary space to house all the community cats that are part of existing colonies.”

“First, the American Veterinary Medical Association position provides some latitude in the types of containment utilized for the plan… Second, there are three significant ways to create sanctuary space. Our plan highlights one primary method, which is community cat sanctuaries—in the truest sense of the word! These locations will require caregivers willing to open their homes to otherwise unadoptable cats, with the community working together to keep them safe and healthy. The second way to create space is with ‘catios’ which are smaller back yard contained cat enclosures that can be easily moved, perfect for people in small homes and renters who want to be a part of the solution for these cats. Finally, limited parcels of county property can be found to provide sanctuary space; with fencing and proper shelter to provide protection from urban risks. These three containment options, coupled with common sense approaches for more rural colonies, gives us reason to believe we will have the required sanctuary space.

Third, there is no time certain in our plan. Because our plan does not mandate a time in which all cats must be contained, we have flexibility in addressing each individual caretaker colony. Any effective plan for feral cats is compelled to recognize the scope of the problem; and thus, must allow time to address the issues. If we work together to meet the challenge feral cats create, we can over a period of several years clear our streets of stray domesticated animals. At the same time, we can provide safe homes for those unadoptable cats which are currently living in undesirable situations.”

Where to begin?

How about HAHF’s qualification—that there’s “enough sanctuary space to house all the community cats that are part of existing colonies”? What about all those that aren’t? Out of luck, I presume. (And let’s not even get into the challenges involved in documenting which cats are part of a colony and which ones are not.)

Many have suggested that the population of stray, abandoned, and feral cats in Hillsborough County may be around 200,000.* Animal People editor Merritt Clifton’s most recent estimate [2] would put the figure at no more than a quarter of that.** Even so, it’s difficult to see HAHF’s “plan” accommodating 50,000 cats, many of which are unsocialized.

As HAHF acknowledges, “if sanctuaries for feral cats exist or are to be built, the AVMA encourages properly designed and maintained facilities. High quality care is imperative and overcrowding must be avoided.” [3] Sounds great, but where is the funding going to come from? The caretakers, many of whom are already spread too thin financially? The taxpayers? It’s curious that HAHF is all for county-funded sanctuaries and county-funded shelter killing (“$168 for HCAS picking-up, handling, and disposing of an animal” [4]), but opposes the use of county-funded vouchers (approximately $65 per animal [4]) for TNR.

Thompson tells me he had “a healthy and positive conversation” with Best Friends Animal Society three months ago “about how their sanctuary works.” I have no idea what was discussed, but it seems to me that the message would have been clear: Hillsborough County is in no position to scale up what’s been done at Best Friends’ Kanab, Utah, sanctuary. Indeed, one need look no further than the spectacular failures of sanctuaries around the country (e.g., FLOCK—Pahrump, NV, May 2007; Tenth Life—Clewiston, FL, late 2009; and, most recently, Caboodle Ranch—Lee, FL, March 2012) to know that they’re no solution at all.

Feeding Bans (Yes, again.)
Integral to AWAKE!’s “feral cat solution” is an ordinance change that would prohibit the outdoor feeding of cats, which HAHF calls “the single biggest problem with TNR!” Among their objections: feeding “increases mating opportunities and disease spread.” As I’ve pointed out repeatedly, policies prohibiting feeding would only drive cats and caretakers underground—making it virtually impossible to sterilize and vaccinate a community’s stray, abandoned, and feral cats. And with no role remaining for trappers and caretakers, it will apparently be the county conducting the proposed TENVAC operations (at taxpayer expense, of course).

HAHF also complains that “feeding any species always increases the population!” This is the familiar “basic biology” argument used by many TNR opponents. And why not? It’s short and sweet, and sounds perfectly plausible.

But where are the studies demonstrating a straightforward causal connection between feeding and population increases? That’s another story. Indeed, researchers in Brooklyn found no such link, noting that “supplemental feeding” had no “significant effect on population density,” because available food supplies—mostly garbage—already exceeded what the cats required. [5]

What’s more, it’s been well documented on uninhabited islands from which cats have been eradicated that populations of feral cats can increase without any handouts at all. [6–8] If it’s really as straightforward as HAHF suggests, why not promote the feeding of the various wildlife species allegedly threatened by free-roaming cats?

And finally, a careful reading of AVMA’s free-roaming cat policy reveals a significant discrepancy between it and the version included in the AWAKE! plan.

According to HAHF, AVMA calls for “state and local agencies [to] adopt and enforce ordinances that… Prohibit public feeding of free-roaming abandoned and feral cats.” In fact, the AVMA policy reads:

“State and local agencies should adopt and enforce ordinances that… Prohibit public feeding of intact free-roaming abandoned and feral cats.” [3, emphasis mine]

Omitting that one word says a lot about HAHF. If the AVMA case against unowned cats is so compelling,*** why misrepresent it? It’s an insult to the intelligence of HAHF’s members, the various Hillsborough County agencies tasked with managing the community’s population of free-roaming cats, and, of course, to the general public—all of whom can, in just a few clicks, find the original text online.

A Difference in Philosophy
In an e-mail exchange nearly two weeks ago, Thompson rejected my assertion that that HAHF’s opposition to TNR has nothing to do with rabies or any other public health threat. “You seem to insinuate,” he wrote, “that vets are interested now for some reason not related to the health of our community, both human and animal.”

“Some have even suggested the vets are taking this action for pecuniary reasons. I have never seen a feral cat with a credit card attached to its neck. The simple reality is in our county, only two organizations are making money off feral cats, and interestingly, they are the ones driving this effort to implement TNR funded by the county. Draw your own conclusions.”

In fact, I am one of those suggesting that “pecuniary reasons” are largely responsible for HAHF’s recent action. And, as a 2007 American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals report makes clear, it’s an allegation with some merit.

The team of outside consultants responsible for “report[ing] on current programs” and “recommend[ing] areas ripe for change which could increase adoptions, while reducing shelter intake and euthanasia” as part of ASPCA’s Mission: Orange initiative found that “about 25 vets volunteer for the monthly feral cat spay day program.” [9]

“There is nonetheless some controversy in the vet community about discounted spaying and neutering particularly at the [Animal Coalition of Tampa] and [Humane Society of Tampa Bay] clinics. Veterinarians express dissatisfaction at the ‘unfair competition’ the clinics constitute; they fear that the competition may increase if the clinics provide increased services; they sense that the clinics just ‘sterilize them and leave them,’ without encouraging a continued relationship with a veterinarian.

This points out a difference in philosophy between the animal welfare community and veterinarians. While expressing an agreement on the goal of reducing pet-overpopulation and euthanasia, veterinarians feel that this should be done through educating the public to better animal care, part of which would be spaying and neutering, part would be establishing a good relationship with a vet. Some veterinarians take this to the extreme of feeling that the high volume clinics actually do harm by tacitly creating the impression that an ongoing relationship with a vet is not important, or by painting vets as the ‘bad guys’ because their fees are so much higher than the clinics’. As a way of pursuing their philosophical approach, veterinarians have established the Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation, a separate organization from the [Veterinary Medical Society], with the mission of educating through a variety of promotional means and informative materials.” [9, emphasis mine]

Five years later, HAHF’s “variety of promotional means and informative materials” is designed not to “encourag[e] a continued relationship with a veterinarian,” but to mislead the public about the threat of free-roaming cats.

All Is Not Well(ness)
“There are a number of people who have argued that low-cost spay/neuter programs merely cannibalize regular spay/neuter procedures rather than increasing total spay/neuter levels,” explain Joshua M. Frank and Pamela L. Carlisle-Frank, in a 2007 paper published in Ecological Economics, “as well as a number of people who have argued that aggressive no-kill/adoption guarantee organization adoption programs primarily cannibalize from animal control programs rather than increasing total adoptions.”

“The results of this study present strong evidence that neither of these cannibalization or substitution effects take place, or at least if they occur, they are more than compensated for by positive spillover effects (i.e., a complement effect) in adoption and spay/neuter efforts. The evidence is particularly strong in the case of spay/neuter procedures, where discount programs appear to significantly promote regular spay/neuter procedures.” [10, emphasis mine]

One wonders if the same holds true for general wellness services (e.g., physical exams, eye and dental exams, deworming, etc.), and area into which both ACT and HSTB have expanded. Both Francis Hamilton, president of ACT, and Sherry Silk, executive director of HSTB, tell me that many of their clients would probably not be seeking any veterinary care for their pets were it not for the low pricing they offer.

But here, too, there seems to be some backlash from the local veterinary community.

Indeed, Silk suggests that HAHF’s recent opposition coincides a little to conveniently with the opening of HSTB’s beautiful new Animal Health Center in July. In addition, HSTB has been a part of Hillsborough County for 100 years now, and has earned the trust of the community, says Silk. Clients come to them for more than just low prices. And ACT, while it lacks HSTB’s history, has quickly established itself as trustworthy, professional veterinary clinic.

The Problem with TNR
After nearly three weeks of research—including several phone calls and e-mails, and sifting through dozens of news accounts and reports of all kinds—it’s still not entirely clear to me what’s behind HAHF’s opposition to TNR.

One particularly interesting theory suggested to me is that if TNR were successfully banned, then the two organizations responsible for the bulk of it—ACT and HSTB—would lose some significant funding (in the form of grants and donations), thereby diminishing their ability to compete with full-service, full-price vets. In fact, it’s not clear that such a move would have the desired effect, as neither organization seems to be overly dependant on such funding.

That said, it’s difficult to dismiss the theory—especially in light of the comments made in the ASPCA report.

I suspect there’s something more going on though. HAHF’s member vets may very well see TNR as a “gateway” to less expensive, high-quality veterinary care. But there are others involved in this fight, I’m told, who don’t much care one way or the other about the price of veterinary care—they just want to put an end to TNR. And not just in Hillsborough County, either. For them, what’s going on there is merely an opportunity to go after TNR across the country.

Conspiracy theory? Maybe. On the other hand, the various explanations from HAHF simply don’t add up. Besides, it’s not as if conspiracies don’t actually exist.

•     •     •

A list of HAHF members can be found here. It is, of course, their right to oppose TNR. However, as (potential) clients, we have the right to take our business elsewhere. And to spread the word to others who object to HAHF position.

If your vet is on this list, I encourage you to call and confirm that they do, indeed, oppose TNR. If so, perhaps it’s time to look for another vet.

*It’s not clear exactly where this figure is coming from. One often-used rule-of-thumb estimate (based, if I’m not mistaken, on two widely-cited studies on the subject [11, 12]) involves dividing the number of households by two, which in this case, would put the figure at about 268,000. I’m not comfortable with the underlying methodology, but it’s interesting to consider the implications nationally—as estimate of 66 million unowned cats is far lower than some TNR opponents claim (without, of course, the burden of supporting evidence).

**To get a very rough estimate, I divided the number of households in Hillsborough County (536,092) by the total households in the U.S. (131.7 million), and then multiplied that result by six and 12 million.

***In fact, the AVMA policy is rather incongruous, advocating, for example, “research that better defines the impact of free-roaming cats on native wildlife populations,” while apparently ignoring the compelling evidence that already exists contradicting AVMA’s claim that “these free-roaming abandoned and feral cats… represent a significant factor in the mortality of hundreds of millions of birds, small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fish.”

Literature Cited
1. n.a. (2011, June 28). The risks of cat charity. The Tampa Tribune, p. 6, from http://www2.tbo.com/news/opinion/2011/jun/28/MEOPINO1-the-risks-of-cat-charity-ar-240267/

2. Clifton, M. (2012, July/August). Feral cat neuter/return results appear to have plateaued. Animal People, p. 13,

3. AVMA (2009) Free-roaming Abandoned and Feral Cats.  https://www.avma.org/KB/Policies/Pages/Free-roaming-Abandoned-and-Feral-Cats.aspx Accessed September 2, 2012.

4. Hamilton, F.E., “Leading and Organizing Social Change for Companion Animals.” Anthrozoös. 2010. 23(3): p. 277–292. http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/berg/anthroz/2010/00000023/00000003/art00006

5.  Calhoon, R.E. and Haspel, C., “Urban Cat Populations Compared by Season, Subhabitat and Supplemental Feeding.” Journal of Animal Ecology. 1989. 58(1): p. 321–328. http://www.jstor.org/pss/5003

6. Bloomer, J.P. and Bester, M.N., “Control of feral cats on sub-Antarctic Marion Island, Indian Ocean.” Biological Conservation. 1992. 60(3): p. 211-219. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6V5X-48XKBM6-T0/2/06492dd3a022e4a4f9e437a943dd1d8b

7. Bester, M.N., et al., “A review of the successful eradication of feral cats from sub-Antarctic Marion Island, Southern Indian Ocean.” South African Journal of Wildlife Research. 2002. 32(1): p. 65–73.

http://www.ceru.up.ac.za/downloads/A_review_successful_eradication_feralcats.pdf

8. Bergstrom, D.M., et al., “Indirect effects of invasive species removal devastate World Heritage Island.” Journal of Applied Ecology. 2009. 46(1): p. 73–81. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2664.2008.01601.x/abstract

http://eprints.utas.edu.au/8384/4/JAppEcol_Bergstrom_etal_journal.pdf

9. n.a., ASPCA Mission: Orange Hillsborough County/Tampa Consultant Report. 2007, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: New York, NY. media.tbo.com/graphics/shelterreport.pdf

10. Frank, J.M. and Carlisle-Frank, P.L., “Analysis of programs to reduce overpopulation of companion animals: Do adoption and low-cost spay/neuter programs merely cause substitution of sources? Ecological Economics. 2007. 62(3–4): p. 740–746. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800906004678

11. Levy, J.K., et al., “Number of unowned free-roaming cats in a college community in the southern United States and characteristics of community residents who feed them.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2003. 223(2): p. 202-205. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2003.223.202

12. Levy, J.K., Gale, D.W., and Gale, L.A., “Evaluation of the effect of a long-term trap-neuter-return and adoption program on a free-roaming cat population.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2003. 222(1): p. 42-46. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2003.222.42

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