Brighter Days Ahead for the Sunshine State’s Cats?

Feral cat advocates were more than ready for some good news when, last Wednesday afternoon, we got some. Florida House Bill 1121, supported by Best Friends Animal Society, Alley Cat Allies, and the Humane Society of the United States, made it through the 11-member House Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee with unanimous approval. Among the key provisions of “The Community Cat Act,” as it’s come to be known, are protections for community cat caregivers (“release of a community cat by a community cat program is not abandonment or unlawful release”) and veterinarians participating in community cat programs (who would be “immune from criminal and civil liability for any decisions made or services rendered… except for willful and wanton misconduct.”)

As the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Holly Raschein (R-Key Largo), explained to Keynoter reporter Ryan McCarthy: “The basis for the bill is it’s not mandatory. It gives local governments an option if they want to deal with feral cat colonies.” [1]

The message didn’t seem to get through to opponents of HB 1121, however, who, as expected, brought to Tallahassee their usual misinformation and scaremongering.

It had to be awkward for the Audubon Florida representatives who showed up, what with former Audubon magazine editor-at-large Ted Williams’ inflammatory Orlando Sentinel op-ed less than a week old. (Indeed, I’m told some were trying to distance themselves from the national organization.) On the other hand, it must take a lot to embarrass people who don’t seem the least bit uncomfortable routinely defending junk science. Which, as McCarthy explains, is exactly what Julie Wraithmell, director of wildlife conservation, did—disputing the fact that TNR reduces the number of feral cats. She also “said people will abandon cats in the areas where the felines congregate and also said neutering efforts don’t get to all cats.”

As for what program she and her organization have in mind that does “get to all the cats,” Wraithmell apparently had nothing to say. (Not that she was asked, of course.)

A story on Audubon Florida’s website was equally quiet on the topic of alternatives, despite a “united opposition” that included Defenders of Wildlife, Florida Wildlife Federation, and the American Bird Conservancy. Among their concerns: wildlife (“free-roaming cats kills [sic] more than kill 1.4–3.7 billion birds in the United States each year”), public health (“the Florida Department of Health calls feral cat colonies ‘not tenable on public health grounds’”), and property rights (“private property owners adjacent to colonies often report cats roaming their private property, predating their wildlife, damaging personal property, and using gardens and children’s sandboxes as litter boxes”).

If opponents didn’t get much traction with the recently published Smithsonian/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service paper, perhaps it’s because committee members recognized it for what it is: agenda-driven fiction.

Their rabies “concern” was no better.

As I pointed out in August of last year, the number of rabid cats reported in Florida is essentially unchanged from what it was 20 years ago—despite a 45 percent increase in human population. [2] Naturally, more people means more pets—as well as the kinds of interactions with wildlife that lead to increased rabies surveillance reporting.

No doubt there’s also been a significant increase in TNR over the same period. So where are all the rabies cases to justify those public health “concerns”? I suspect the TNR programs are, by vaccinating the cats they sterilize, actually doing far more than their detractors to protect the public from rabies.

But I don’t imagine that’s something Wraithmell wants to talk about either.

Which leaves the property rights issue. And if I understand the bill correctly, this is actually a non-issue: nothing in HB 1121 trumps existing laws that protect property owners.

Outcome Uncertain

The Community Cat Act has a long way to go before becoming law. “It still has three more committee steps,” Raschein told the Keynoter, “and so the likelihood of it passing is not high.”

Whatever the outcome, though, HB 1121 is already a victory for stray, abandoned, and feral cats—an important first step for Florida, and a precedent for the rest of the country. Such efforts are critical to expanding TNR programs and protecting the people involved. What’s more, this kind of legislation forces the hand of TNR opponents—and the more exposure their “concerns” receive, the less credibility they’re likely to have.

Recall Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ observation: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Where better to prove the point than the Sunshine State?

•     •     •

Florida residents are encouraged to contact their elected officials requesting support for the bill. (A note thanking Rep. Raschein for her sponsorship isn’t a bad idea, either.)

Literature Cited

1. McCarthy, R. (2013, March 21). Bill would create more spay and neuter programs. Keynoter.com, from http://www.keysnet.com/2013/03/21/485981/bill-would-create-more-spay-and.html

2. n.a., 2010 Florida Morbidity Statistics Report. 2011, Florida Department of Health, Division of Disease Control, Bureau of Epidemiology: Tallahassee, FL. http://www.doh.state.fl.us/disease_ctrl/epi/Morbidity_Report/2010/2010_AMR.pdf

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