“Investigative Report” Targets TNR Efforts

In their second report in a recent series investigating the two-year TNR pilot program in Hillsborough County, Florida, television station WFLA revealed evidence of “gruesome feral cat deaths.” Apparently, some of the cats are being returned to their trapping location too soon, and dying tragic deaths as a result of post-surgery complications.

Or at least that’s what the headline implied. The story changes pretty quickly after that, though.

“How are [the cats] adjusting after surgery?” asks 8 On Your Side’s senior investigative reporter Steve Andrews, rhetorically. “No one knows for sure.”

Wait—no one knows for sure? Aren’t these people supposed to answer questions?

Not to be deterred by his team’s admitted lack of knowledge, Andrews persists, referring vaguely to “pictures of what’s happened to some” cats that have been released. “The pictures are so disturbing, News Channel 8 managers won’t allow them on television.”

But they are—of course—on the WFLA website. Such is the state of “investigative reporting” in the click-bait era. Granted, the photos really are disturbing (reminiscent of PETA’s anti-TNR efforts). Just as disturbing, though, is Andrews’ apparent trust—badly misplaced, as it turns out—in the source of the photos: the Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation, whose executive director is Don Thompson.

This is, after all, the same guy who’s been fueling the witch-hunt in Hillsborough County since at least 2012, with his very public opposition to TNR (comprised mostly of an almost hysterical degree of scaremongering).

And to think Thompson’s actually concerned about the welfare of these cats is laughable. In 2013, he proposed an alternative to TNR described by Thompson and co-author Christy Layton (then president of the Hillsborough County Veterinary Medical Society) as “the penultimate intersection of responsible pet ownership and animal welfare… testament to the importance of pet ownership and humane animal care.”

The highlight of their penultimate intersection? A collection of 12’ x 8’ “garden sheds” housing 10–25 cats each. Without artificial light, air-conditioning, or much hope of even the most rudimentary medical care, as “electricity would likely not be required.” [1]

Even setting aside for the moment Thompson’s rather abysmal track record on the issue, it’s difficult to imagine somebody involved with TNR taking a cat with post-surgery complications to Thompson’s wife or any other veterinarian publicly opposed to TNR. More to the point, the 8 On Your Side piece doesn’t actually connect the photos provided by Thompson and H.A.H.F. to TNR efforts underway by the Humane Society of Tampa Bay and Hillsborough County’s Pet Resource Center (formerly known as Hillsborough County Animal Services).

I reached out to Sherry Silk, CEO of H.S.T.B, and Scott Trebatoski, director P.R.C., and neither is aware of any evidence of the “gruesome deaths” mentioned in the news story (this despite the fact that P.R.C.’s program cats are traceable by way of their microchips). And the “evidence” itself raises more questions than answers: of the cats depicted in the H.A.H.F. photos, only one is clearly ear-tipped—and the caption makes no mention of post-surgery complications. Another cat is obviously not tipped, and it’s difficult to tell on the others. (I reached out to Andrews via Twitter, asking about the photos, but received no response.)

To be clear: post-surgery complications associated with surgical sterilization are not entirely unheard of. This is surgery, after all. But trappers and caregivers generally understand this and, more important, that they are expected to return to the clinic at the first signs of problems. Moreover, guidelines developed by the Association of Shelter Veterinarians—based on “current principles of anesthesiology, critical care medicine, microbiology, and surgical practice, as determined from published evidence and expert opinion”—recommend that “feral cats… be returned to their environments as soon as they are fully recovered from anesthesia.” [2]

Something else overlooked in all of this: TNR efforts in Hillsborough County have prevented the births of thousands of kittens—a significant animal welfare impact in itself.

All of which Andrews could have learned with a little effort. But Andrews—despite that “investigative reporter” title—shows little interest in really digging into a story. Worse, he cheats his audience—setting them up with provocative rhetorical questions his reporting fails to answer.*

In short, Andrews is just the kind of “investigative reporter” Thompson and H.A.H.F. have been looking for.

* Consider the headline for Andrews’ first story in the TNR series: “Is trap-neuter-release program working for Tampa Bay?” He and his 8 On Your Side colleagues fail to provide their audience with much of an answer, suggesting (again, vaguely) instead that any reduction in the population of community cats is offset by the plight of one resident: “feral cats are making her life miserable” (hardly an original approach). The third segment is no better, with Andrews and his team failing (as seems to be their habit) to provide any support for the piece’s headline (“Questions about Hillsborough spaying, neutering program outrage feral cat supporters”).

Literature Cited

1. Layton, C. and D. Thompson, AWAKE! Feral/Stray Cat Management Plan for Hillsborough County, Florida, 2013, Hillsborough County Veterinary Medical Society and Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation.

2. Looney, A.L., et al., The Association of Shelter Veterinarians veterinary medical care guidelines for spay-neuter programs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 2008. 233(1): p. 74–86.

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