Hillsborough County (Florida) Animal Services’ modest step in adopting TNR is met with fierce resistance by some in the veterinary community. Their alternative plan? Uninformed, unfunded, and unworkable.
Among the agenda items to be addressed when the Hillsborough County (FL) Board of Commissioners meets Wednesday morning: “approve the Animal Services Department’s Plan to Increase Live Outcomes in order to lower the euthanasia rate at the County’s animal shelter.” A no-brainer, right? I mean, who could object to something like that?
Although regular readers undoubtedly know where this is going, I’ll bet there are plenty of Hillsborough County residents who are puzzled by the opposition from the Hillsborough County Veterinary Medical Society and Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation. Earlier this month, Don Thompson and his wife, Dr. Katie Thompson, owners of the Veterinary Center at Fishhawk, issued an e-blast warning of “Thousands of cats dumped on our streets.” “Sound [sic] impossible,” the e-mail continued, “but that is exactly what our new Animal Services Director is planning.” (Katie Thompson is an HCVMS member and sits on the county’s Animal Advisory Committee; Don Thompson is the executive director of HAHF, and recently spoke on behalf of the Florida Veterinary Medical Association in opposition to HB 1127.)
What the Thompsons were referring to is, as the recently released proposal Be the Way Home: The Plan to Increase Live Outcomes (PDF) explains, a “community cat program for 2,000 cats.”  As I understand it, this would be a two-year pilot program modeled on the successful Feral Freedom programs underway in Jacksonville, FL, or San José, CA.
Apparently the TNR aspect of the proposal created a great deal of controversy during last week’s Animal Advisory Committee meeting, when HCAS director Ian Hallett unveiled the plan. I imagine Wednesday’s meeting will be no different.
I’ll get into the details of the HCAS proposal in a future post, as I’ve only glanced at the final version. For now, I want to focus on the proposal HCVMS and HAHF are offering as an alternative.
Which, it turns out, isn’t much of a proposal at all. And, as even a cursory reading reveals, it offers no feasible alternative to TNR. This might explain why, despite the Thompsons’ suggestion that the plan has broad support from the veterinary community, only one other vet—HCVMS president Christy Layton—has formally signed on.
(Unfortunately, the point was lost on the editorial staff at the Tampa Tribune, which published an editorial on Wednesday declaring: “recycling feral cats… back into the community is not an appropriate public policy.” Like HCVMS and HAHF, the paper offered nothing in the way of solutions—or, in fact, any substantive contribution to the larger discussion.)
I discussed an earlier version of the HCVMS/HAHF plan last September, as part of a five-part series criticizing HAHF’s campaign against all things TNR. The most recent iteration (PDF), issued late last month, is mostly unchanged. Which is to say: there’s still very little to like about it.
Indeed, the proposal’s awkward and ill-conceived name—AWAKE! (Animal Welfare, Adoption, Kids, and Education)—is a harbinger of the awkward and ill-conceived content to come.
Given their no-holds-barred opposition to TNR, it’s no surprise that HCVMS and HAHF are using the AWAKE! plan to further that agenda.
“Under this plan new colonies would NOT be allowed once registration of existing colonies is complete. These limitations would be strictly enforced and the colonies closely monitored for compliance.” [2, emphasis theirs]
And what about those existing colonies? According to the plan, “uncontained, managed care colony requirements include:
- All cats must test negative for FIV and Feline leukemia.
- All cats must be sterilized.
- All cats must be vaccinated for Rabies as required by F.S. 828.30, and be kept current as required by F.S. 828.30.
- All cats must be micro-chipped and registered to an owner or rescue.
- All cats must be treated annually for internal parasites that pose a zoonotic risk to humans, domestic animals and wildlife.
- Feral cat colonies sanctioned by the County cannot be maintained within 8,000 feet of schools, human food sources (groceries, restaurants, etc), daycare centers or hospitals; nor maintained within 8,000 feet of public parklands or environmentally sensitive areas.
- Thorough monitoring of managed colonies is absolutely vital. No new cats can be allowed to migrate into existing colonies, and colonies must be aggressively cared for to ensure full compliance with all measures. Any kittens and newcomers shall be immediately removed and adopted/fostered/contained. Consistent monitoring will allow progress evaluations and ensure the cats are in good condition and safe
- All feeding must be completed while the caregiver is present, and then ALL food removed, along with all visible fecal matter and food remains.
- All managed colonies shall be appropriately licensed, new colony establishment is strictly forbidden, and the managed colony program shall be phased out over a 5-year period of time.
- All managed colonies shall have the permission of all adjacent land owners, and any property owners within 1,000 feet of the colony location.” 
Why not just come right out and say that TNR will be prohibited? That’s certainly the practical effect of what’s being proposed—and, of course, it’s the intent of HCVMS and HAHF.
Do they really think the county commissioners and their constituents can’t see that?
“The AWAKE! sanctuary program,” explain the authors of the plan, “is the penultimate intersection of responsible pet ownership and animal welfare, and will stand as testament to the importance of pet ownership and humane animal care. It is the only solution that addresses the issues of all stakeholders without compromising the most important concerns of each party involved.” 
But the sanctuaries have nothing to do with pet cats, as the authors themselves explain: the sanctuaries are intended to be “an alternative to those animals unable to be adopted for whatever reason.” 
And whether or not they’ll provide humane care is a matter of some debate.
The proposal suggests that 12’ x 8’ “garden sheds” would be used to house 10–25 cats each. Imagine 25 cats—each of whom is “unable to be adopted for whatever reason”—in a very small bedroom. Without much light, and no air-conditioning—as, according to the plan, “electricity would likely not be required.” 
Thirty such sheds would be built (by volunteers, of course) on a “2–5 acre compound,” bringing the total number of cats housed at each of the two “sanctuaries” to 750. The “optimum,” suggest HCVMS and HAHF, would be one such facility in the northern part of the county and one in the south.
In a nutshell, then: “the penultimate intersection of responsible pet ownership and animal welfare” consists of a team of just one DVM and two CVTs providing daytime-only care for up to 1,500 cats—most of them fractious—housed at opposite ends of a county that’s 36 miles north-to-south. Suffice it to say, this does compromise the most important concerns of some stakeholders.
In addition to those housed at the two county-supported sanctuaries, many unadoptable cats would, according to the AWAKE! plan, be kept in “single-residence sanctuaries”—fenced yards and “catios.” The idea, apparently, is for caregivers to relocate their colony cats to their (newly) enclosed patios or backyards. While it may be true that, as HCVMS and HAHF claim, “tens of thousands of cat owners are already doing backyard ‘sanctuaries,’”  such enclosures are typically used as fresh-air extensions of their indoor space.
It’s curious that the authors—who profess throughout the proposal their concern for the welfare of these cats—are willing to hand over so much responsibility to people who, generally speaking, have no formal training whatsoever in veterinary medicine. It’s entirely possible that the scenario HCVMS and HAHF describe would, in practice, actually lead to health conditions far worse than anything these cats face on the streets.
Further evidence, were any necessary at this point, that this is not about the welfare of the cats.
HCVMS and HAHF suggest that “the cost per cat in sanctuary space will be $200/year including all operational costs”—“not cheap,” they note (“but Responsible Pet Ownership is not cheap” ). In fact, $200/cat/year would be quite a bargain. Best Friends (cited by the authors of the AWAKE! plan as one of the “many informed organizations and individuals [that] provide cat sanctuary facilities around the country”) puts that figure at something just shy of $2,500.
Each sanctuary (“a 2–5 acre compound with 30 outdoor shelters housing between 10–25 cats each” ) is estimated to cost no more than $200,000 if land is donated by the county and volunteers are used to reduce or eliminate costs wherever possible. An additional $120,000/year would be needed to cover “employee cost, including benefits.”  (It’s not clear whether this includes the two certified veterinary technicians mentioned in the proposal, or just the veterinarian.)
Also on the payroll: the sanctuary director, who would more than likely be an HCAS employee, though “a non-governmental organization could undertake the program with county support.”  It’s difficult to imagine HCAS adding a position given the trend over the past few years: full-time HCAS staffing dropped from 88 employees in Fiscal Year 2010 to 78 in FY 2012, and an additional position was eliminated in the recommended FY 2013 budget. )
No Good Deed Unpunished
Nowhere is the tone-deaf—insulting—nature of the AWAKE! plan more evident than in its heavy reliance on volunteers and donors.*
“Currently,” explain the plan’s authors, “hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of people are providing care (to some extent) for feral and stray cats around our county.”  True enough, but HCVMS and HAHF betray their ignorance when they suggest that these people (or, indeed, the community at large) will support a program that effectively outlaws TNR and lays the groundwork for the killing of many thousands of cats.
“The real power in this plan,” proclaim the authors, “turns on the recognition and utilization of so much that is already being done on behalf of feral cats.”  But the volunteers and donors upon which the success of AWAKE! hinges will, I suspect, find other outlets for their charitable giving—organizations with the cats’ best interest in mind.
• • •
The fact that the AWAKE! plan alienates the very people who are doing the most to reduce shelter intake numbers and increase live-release rates is, although troubling, hardly surprising. The proposal’s underlying philosophy is a familiar one: there’s no problem we can’t kill our way out of.
“It is impossible to expect the community at large to understand the importance of Responsible Pet Ownership,” argue the plan’s authors, “if the county animal control response to cat overpopulation is to simply dump them outside.”  The implication, of course, is that a large-scale campaign of killing is what’s really needed. Maybe if we kill enough cats, these people will finally shape up.
Never mind the fact that generations of lethal control have done nothing to solve the “feral cat problem.”
It’s bad enough when the conservation community endorses such misguided, costly, ineffective, and unpalatable practices—but these are veterinarians. Well, at least for the time being they are. Alienating a significant portion of their client base, as HCVMS and HAHF members are doing here, can’t be good for business.
* For a close second, there’s this: “Hillsborough County has always led the nation in animal control best practices, and the issue of cat overpopulation should be no different.” Despite years of improvement, only 58 percent of dogs and 20 percent of cats made it out of HCAS alive last year. What’s “best practice” about that?
1. n.a., Be the Way Home: The Plan to Increase Live Outcomes. 2013, Hillsborough County Animal Services. http://agenda.hillsboroughcounty.org/cache/00003/355/B-2.PDF
2. Layton, C. and Thompson, D., AWAKE! Feral/Stray Cat Management Plan for Hillsborough County, Florida. 2013, Hillsborough County Veterinary Medical Society and Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation.
3. n.a., County Administrator’s Recommended Budget for FY 13 2012, Hillsborough County Florida: Tampa, FL. http://www.hillsboroughcounty.org/DocumentCenter/Home/View/4036