If you’re reading this from Hillsborough County, Florida, I hope it’s from the safety of an underground bunker—while you await the movers’ arrival. You need to get out while you still can because—well, you know… rabid cats.
As local “investigative reporter” Steve Andrews put it in one of three melodramatic pieces on the subject, “It’s rabies roulette in Hillsborough County.” Actually, journalistic Jenga is more like it. But that’s Andrews in a nutshell: half used-car salesman, half ambulance-chaser. And, as he’s made clear through his previous “reporting,” also hell-bent on shutting down TNR efforts in the area.
Unfortunately, the local news media isn’t the only source of misinformation and scaremongering.
This latest chapter in the Hillsborough County witch-hunt (which goes back years) all began when a Good Samaritan attempting to help a cat who’d been hit by a car was bitten. The cat was unable to be saved and then quarantined, and so was instead euthanized and submitted for testing. And according to the Hillsborough County Health Department, the cat—who was ear-tipped—tested positive for rabies.
Whether or not the cat was vaccinated remains a matter of speculation—no vaccine is 100 percent effective, of course. But the incident was enough to draw the usual cast of characters out of the woodwork.
Veterinarian Christy Layton told Andrews, “The community is at risk, because if they get bitten, we don’t know anything about the vaccine history of these cats.” But Layton showed her true colors five years ago when, as president of the Hillsborough County Veterinary Medical Society, she co-authored a ludicrous “proposal” that would have effectively ended TNR in Hillsborough County—leaving thousands of cats unvaccinated.
And that same “proposal” would have housed up to 750 cats “unable to be adopted for whatever reason” on each of two 10-acre “compounds” where “electricity would likely not be required.”
But now we’re expected to believe Layton is concerned for the welfare of Hillsborough County’s community cats? (“What happened to those cats? Did they get eaten by coyotes? Did they get hit by cars?” she asked Andrews.) As I say, Layton’s already shown her true colors.
Another local veterinarian opposed to TNR, Katie Thompson, compared rabies to Ebola—conveniently neglecting to mention (at least in Andrews’ telling) that it’s been more than 40 years since a case of human rabies in the U.S. was attributed to a cat. 
What’s really going on here?
When you’ve got veterinarians, lawyers, public health officials, and members of the news media clamoring to shut down the only programs providing vaccinations for the very animals least likely to receive such services you have to wonder about their motivation.
The evidence suggests this visceral opposition to TNR—and to subsidized veterinary services in general—has very little to do with public health or animal welfare. Consider, for example, two years during which three cats tested positive for rabies in Hillsborough County: 2001 and 2016.* In 2001, more than 15,500 cats entered the municipal shelter and only about 1,500 made it out alive; last year, nearly 83 percent of the 7,889 cats entering the same shelter made it out the front door.
Protecting cats and protecting public health are not mutually exclusive.
If the current number of rabies cases is a grave public health concern, then where was the outcry in 2001? And where were these same “concerned citizens” when, following a highly publicized rabies case in 2013, the Animal Coalition of Tampa and Humane Society of Tampa Bay sponsored a mobile vaccine clinic?
That’s easy—they were nowhere to be found.
One wonders if Layton, Thompson, and their like-minded colleagues will be satisfied now that Scott Trebatoski, Director of the Hillsborough County Pet Resources Center, has announced that all cats included in the shelter’s TNR efforts will now be microchipped. Although this will obviously improve the ability to track a particular cat’s vaccination history, I doubt opponents will let up.
Indeed, even if community cat programming was halted countywide, there would still be all the veterinary services provided to the many pets of low-income residents—which seems to be the real objection here. So, unless and until Hillsborough County’s private-practice vets are the only game in town, I’m afraid we can expect the witch-hunt against outdoor cats to continue.
*Hillsborough County averaged just one case of rabies in cats annually between 2001 and 2016.
- CDC. Recovery of a Patient from Clinical Rabies—California, 2011. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 61, 61–64 (2012).