When officials in Polk County, Florida, contributed nearly $50,000 to SPCA Florida’s TNR program, they probably expected to take some heat. But maybe not from some of their local veterinarians. According to a story in Friday’s edition of The Ledger though, the “controversial stray cat program is drawing complaints from local veterinarians who question its effectiveness and the use of taxpayer dollars.” 
Sounds like some Polk County vets have been talking to their colleagues in neighboring Hillsborough County, where members of the Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation have launched a substantial anti-TNR campaign—apparently as a way to stifle competition from low-cost clinics.
The Cost of Killing
Among those interviewed for the story was Winter Haven veterinarian Jerry Rayburn, who describes TNR as “pretty ineffective.”
“‘How effective is that going to be?’ Rayburn asked. ‘If you spay and neuter 1,500, that’s less than half of 1 percent (of the cat population). If you consider the 298,500 cats [of an estimated 300,000 in the county*] that continue to breed, the effect on reproduction is negligible.’” 
Is Rayburn suggesting that Polk County can kill its way out of this? Heaven knows, they’ve been trying.
According to data sent to me by a Vox Felina reader, 18,505 cats entered Polk County’s two open-admission shelters last year—3,747 at SPCA Florida and 14,758 at PCAC. I don’t have outcome data for SPCA Florida, but the live release rate for PCAC is appalling: 6.6 percent. In other words, more than 93 percent of the cats brought in are killed. Approximately 38.2 percent of those were labeled “feral.”
But Rayburn goes further, implying that the killing is not only more effective than TNR, but that it’s providing taxpayers a good return on their investment.
“People don’t see the big picture,” Rayburn told The Ledger. “It’s another waste of public funds.” And Rayburn’s not alone. Dr. Joseph Ertel, a veterinarian for Polk County Animal Control (part of the Sheriff’s Office), “echoed Rayburn’s thoughts recently—after making the same points when he addressed the County Commission.”
“‘If someone wants to help the cats with their own money and time, well, OK,’ Ertel said. ‘I wouldn’t be for it. But I just can’t believe with the times we are facing now that we’re going to spend taxpayer money on free-roaming cats.’” 
In Hillsborough County, it’s been estimated that TNR vouchers cost the county “approximately $65 per animal, as opposed to $168 for [Hillsborough County Animal Services] picking-up, handling, and disposing of an animal.”  Assuming the costs are the same in Polk County, that’s nearly $888,000 in tax dollars.
How’s that working out for you, doctors?
(Rayburn says he’s working on what reporter Jeremy Maready calls “a better alternative” to TNR. “He volunteers his time with the Humane Society in Winter Haven and is working to develop an education program for students to teach and promote being a responsible pet owner.”  Which ought to do for Polk County’s unowned cats what HAHF’s AWAKE! Initiative promises to do for Hillsborough County’s: nearly nothing.)
Biased, Poorly Reported, and Factually Incorrect
As I mentioned in my comment to the story, Maready’s piece is an improvement over what readers have come to expect from the paper—whose columnist Tom Palmer, it seems, has made it his job to head up the feral cat witch-hunt in Polk County. (Why The Ledger has given him a platform to spread misinformation is a mystery.) That said, the article betrays some truly lazy reporting.
Citing a 2004 article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, for example, Maready claims that the Humane Society of the United States opposes trap-neuter-return. While HSUS was slow to come around, the organization has promoted TNR for years now—recently hiring a director of cat protection and policy, in fact, to help further such support.
Why not check the HSUS website—or pick up the phone?
Maready refers to “a 2009 letter by the U.S. Department of the Interior” given to county commissioners “outlin[ing] its stance against the practice” of TNR.
“‘The Service strongly opposes domestic or feral cats being allowed to roam freely within the U.S. due to the adverse impacts of these non-native predators on federally listed threatened and endangered species, migratory birds and other vulnerable wildlife,’ according to the letter.”
With a minimum of detective work, Maready—and, in turn, the commissioners and the rest of the community—would have learned that this is actually a letter from the New Jersey field office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (PDF available from the American Bird Conservancy’s website). Although USFWS reports to DOI, the letter is hardly what Maready suggests.
What’s more, last year, USFWS stated unambiguously on its Open Spaces blog that “the Service has no national policy concerning trap-neuter-release programs or feral cats.” 
Had Maready done some additional homework (i.e., a quick search of Vox Felina), he would have learned about how far $50K gets you with USFWS, which, in 2007 paid USDA that much to trap cats in the Florida Keys.  Unofficial reports (I’m told nothing official has been issued yet) suggest that something like 13 cats were caught—some of which were clearly not feral—along with 81 raccoons, 53 of which were released alive. 
• • •
It’s clear that the issue of free-roaming cats is important to Polk County residents, as illustrated by the media coverage it receives (and the comments accompanying online stories). The Ledger has an obligation to provide its readers with the relevant facts, thus allowing them to make informed decisions. Unfortunately, Jeremy Maready’s piece is just the latest example of the paper’s failure to deliver.
* I disagree with the estimate, but will save that topic for another post.
** I don’t know that this is the case, as I’ve not looked into what Polk County spends on rounding up, housing, and eventually killing stray cats. On the other hand, I’ve no reason to think the costs would be much different from those in Hillsborough County.
1. Maready, J. (2012, November 2). Critics Question County Funds for Cat Program to Trap, Neuter and Release. The Ledger, from http://www.theledger.com/article/20121102/politics/121109838
2. 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
3. Davidson, M. (2011) Where We Stand: No National Policy on Feral Cats or Trap-Neuter-Release. Open Spaces http://www.fws.gov/news/blog/index.cfm/2011/9/16/Where-We-Stand-No-National-Policy-on-Feral-Cats-or-TrapNeuterRelease Accessed June 26.
4. O’Hara, T. (2007, April 3). Fish & Wildlife Service to begin removing cats from Keys refuges. The Key West Citizen, from http://keysnews.com/archives
5. n.a., Lower Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Comprehensive Conservation Plan. 2009, U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service: Atlanta, GA. http://www.fws.gov/nationalkeydeer/