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 4 of this five-part series, I look at Hillsborough County Animal Services as the agency struggles to move from a 35 percent live-release rate to “no-kill” status—a task made all the more difficult by HAHF’s campaign against TNR.
As I like to tell anybody who will listen, there’s no evidence whatsoever that we’re going to kill our way out of the “feral cat problem.” While it may be impossible to prove a negative, Hillsborough County, Florida, does make for a compelling case study.
A Grim Past
“Even though it is Florida’s fourth-largest county,” explains Francis Hamilton, Associate Professor of Management at Eckerd College, in his 2010 paper describing “the development and ongoing process of a social change effort and collaboration” in Hillsborough County, “it has euthanized more animals than any other county in the state.”
“From 1996 to 2008, Hillsborough County Animal Services (HCAS), the county’s public shelter, euthanized about 82 percent (over 306,000) of its animal intake. In calendar year 2005, 73 percent of dogs entering the shelter were euthanized, as were 92 percent of cats.” 
In February 2007, Hillsborough County became one of four communities in the country targeted that year by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals as part of its Mission: Orange initiative. A team of outside consultants was deployed, tasked with “report[ing] on current programs” and “recommend[ing] areas ripe for change which could increase adoptions, while reducing shelter intake and euthanasia.” ASPCA committed $200,000 “to be invested in the area’s animal welfare community for each of the next three years.” 
By 2007, things were already beginning to turn around in the county—thanks in large part to a popular low-income voucher program begun in late 2002 that allowed qualified residents to have up to eight animals (four cats and four dogs) sterilized, vaccinated (rabies), and licensed all for a $10 co-pay.  In addition, the Animal Coalition of Tampa (co-founded by Hamilton, who today serves as its president) opened a high-volume spay/neuter clinic in 2006; around the same time, the Humane Society of Tampa Bay ramped up its spay/neuter efforts.
Despite the notable progress, 93 percent of cats brought to HCAS during 2007 never made it out alive. And, while overall cat intake numbers were dropping, stray and feral cats were making up an ever-larger portion of that total. Indeed, 2009 data (the most recent reported in Hamilton’s paper) show that more than 1,200 stray and feral cats were being killed by HSAS each month. 
Not surprisingly, ASPCA had identified the issue as a priority in its 2007 report.
“While there are no accurate records of the number of feral cats entering the HCAS shelter and being euthanized there, it is evident anecdotally that a large proportion (perhaps 60 percent) of the cat intake is ferals. There are estimated to be more than 200,000 feral cats in the county. No serious attempt to reduce euthanization and control pet overpopulation can be made without addressing this issue. It is imperative that no obstacles stand in the way of working to bring the feral cat population under control, and that additional resources be provided to help bring this about.” [2, emphasis mine]
In fact, the consultants had already identified a significant obstacle in the community:
“Some veterinarians… express a variety of feelings and concerns about the feral cat problem and TNR practices, often being unwilling to endorse TNR as a helpful method of dealing with feral cat colonies, but feeling that TNR is probably all right if caregivers maintain the colonies responsibly.”* 
Nevertheless, the ASPCA report’s recommendations included several items specific to TNR, including ordinance changes “to allow low-income caregivers to qualify for… voucher[s] for feral cats” and the expansion of the low-cost spay/neuter services provided by ACT, HSTB, and others. 
That was five years ago.
Hamilton tells me that ACT and HSTB together performed “in excess of 22,000” spay/neuter surgeries last year—approximately 9,200 of them on feral cats.
Last month, Cat Fancy awarded Tampa Bay “the top spot for cat-friendly cities.”
“Though the cat-loving community has access to myriad cat-specific resources, it also has a feral cat population that is being managed by one of the best trap-neuter-return in the country, says Sherry Silk, executive director of the Humane Society of Tampa Bay. ‘We now have a full-time person managing the program,’ says Silk, noting that the TNR efforts began five years ago. So far, more than 9,000 cats have been spayed or neutered and living in colonies. ‘It’s all volunteers who go out and trap the cats, bring them in and feed them once they’re returned. We have that many people who care about cats that don’t have a home.’” 
“Since this program started,” Silk explained in a recent episode of Spotlight Tampa, “the cat euthanasia in our community has gone down dramatically, so we know that it works.”
Until late last year, both ACT and HSTB were being reimbursed by the County for vouchers redeemed by qualified residents caring for feral cats on their own property. The arrangement—approved by HCAS—was good for both the cats and the taxpayers. “The average cost per surgery to the county for this voucher program,” explains Hamilton, “is approximately $65 per animal, as opposed to $168 for HCAS picking-up, handling, and disposing of an animal.” 
Even so, all that changed in October, when allegations were made that ACT and HSTB “may be getting reimbursed by the county for sterilizations of nonexisting animals or strays.”  News reports [4, 5] suggest that the subsequent investigation was prompted by Dennis McCullough, then director of operations at HCAS.
In April, the Tampa Bay Times reported that “a sheriff’s investigation found no evidence of criminal intent.”  Both Hamilton and Silk (who each provided their respective records to investigators) go further, telling me that the investigation was entirely unwarranted. Not only was there no evidence of criminal intent, there was no evidence of any wrongdoing whatsoever.
Though ACT and HSTB had continued their TNR work undeterred, the incident had a chilling effect.
Tensions only increased when, as the Times put it, “Hillsborough County took the first step… toward making its animal shelter a no-kill zone, or at least one where sharply fewer animals are euthanized.”
“It began with the immediate departure of the Animal Services Department’s longtime director of operations, Dennis McCullough, who ‘voluntarily retired,’ said County Administrator Mike Merrill.” 
Some on the 10-member Animal Advisory Committee were apparently taken by surprise, learning of the changes by way of a video clip posted online in which County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan told The Alliance to Save 90, a no-kill advocacy group started by ACT, “The killing must stop.”
In May, The Tampa Tribune reported: “The row has split county animal activists into two groups: veterinarians and small-animal rescue groups on one side, and the Humane Society of Tampa Bay and other anti-euthanasia groups on the other.”
“The vets and rescue groups say county officials conspired secretly with the Humane Society to overturn the leadership at Animal Services without telling other members of the animal welfare community. The goal of the conspiracy was to turn the county animal shelter into a ‘no-kill’ facility, they said.” 
“Those allegations seemed to gain credence,” the Tribune story explained, “when the county announced that Ian Hallett will be the new director of animal services.”
“Hallett, a Riverview native and graduate of Hillsborough High School, is now the deputy chief of animal services in Austin, Texas. Austin became a ‘no kill’ shelter in 2010 and now boasts a 90 percent save rate, meaning only 10 percent of the animals impounded are killed.” 
Something else Austin boasts about: the city doesn’t round up feral cats, choosing instead to support the TNR efforts of the Austin Humane Society (to the tune of about $78,000 annually, I’m told).
A No-Kill Hillsborough County?
It remains to be seen how strongly Hallett will push for TNR in Hillsborough County, especially in light of HAHF’s objections (and the objections of like-minded individuals on the Animal Advisory Committee).
What is clear, however, to anybody familiar with the issue, is that HCAS is not going to get from a 35 percent live-release rate—roughly where it is today—to 90 percent without TNR.
• • •
The Cat Crusaders of Tampa have started an online petition supporting TNR in Hillsborough County. At last check, the petition had 11,323 signatures.
*The team’s observations seem contradictory; in light of recent events, however, it would seem any reservations they had about the veterinary community’s willingness to endorse TNR were warranted. I include the full quote here in the interest of transparency.
• Part 5: Would the real HAHF please stand up?
1. 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
2. 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
3. Bedwell-Wilson, W., “To Be a Cat.” Cat Fancy. 2012. August. p. 37–39, 59.
4. Varian, B. (2011, October 7, 2011). County Hunts Phantom Pets. St. Petersburg Times,
5. Varian, B. (2012, April 20). Animal Shelter Closer to No-Kill. Tampa Bay Times, p. 1B,
6. Salinero, M. (2012, May 5). Fur flies over Hillsborough shelter changes. Tampa Bay Tribune, p. 1, from http://www2.tbo.com/news/breaking-news/2012/may/05/fur-flies-at-shelter-changes-ar-400137/