Hillsborough County Commissioners support trap-neuter-release program to deal with feral cats

Hallett said his plan is short term, lasting for two years, and it would increase the live outcome rate for cats by 20 percent. He said it's the only shot that the county had at getting more than a 50 percent mark.

"Ten years from now, most cats will be inside," he said. "Most cats will not be free roaming. This is not a long-term solution. This won't be with us forever."

Critics of the TNR plan were caustic in their criticism. "Colossally stupid," were the indelicate words used by Russ Swisher from Brandon, who said he was bitten by a "cute and fluffy kitten" in the mid 1990s. He added that a vote for TNR would be a rebuke to everyone in the county.

Dr. Christy Layton from Plant City is the president of the Hillsborough County Veterinary medical association. She said agreeing with the Hallett plan would be to "give in to a vocal minority," adding that the real problem is with irresponsible cat owners.

Brandon resident Wendy Upton also spoke from personal experience when she said she was bit while attempting to pick up a feral cat who was walking across the street on State Road 60.

"Who is going to be responsible for my $80,000 of medical bills if you let these cats out for the society?" she asked commissioners.

The Florida Department of Health opposed the idea, as did the Hillsborough County Veterinary Medical Society.

But there appeared that, at least based on the amount of people speaking, supporters of TNR were larger in force.

Cathy Unruh hosts a talk show on WEDU television and is a committed animal rights activist, particularly for cats. She said that while vacationing in the Bahamas years ago, she helped introduce TNR after encountering three stray cats. A decade later, she affirmed, the feral problem is now history.

Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore said her board passed TNR back in 2006, and it passed with little to no controversy.

"You have a hard decision," she told board members. "But I'm just shocked at some of the responses."

For the most part, Hillsborough commissioners were on board with Hallett's plan. Sandy Murman asked Hallett how he could accomplish the plan under the $1.3 million budget? Hallet said he felt confident he could "squeeze every drop" out of that budget over the next two years.

Commissioner Crist said he was speaking up for the other animals who will lose their lives due to the county's new policy in announcing his decision to vote no.

Commission Chair Ken Hagan, who initiated the discussion at the board, said the "senseless killing of animals must stop." He called the new plan a humane one that makes a bad situation better.

"It's not a perfect solution, it's not a long-term solution, but it is a step in the right direction," he said.

The issue of what to do with feral cats was the primary point of discussion at this morning's Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners meeting. The Hillsborough County Animal Services task force recently released a preliminary report aimed at minimizing the number of lost or stray animals that are euthanized at the county shelter each year. One of the recommendations was for shelter adoption centers to stay open longer. But the heart of the plan is what led to controversy. It's dubbed "TNR," for trap-neuter-release, and supporters of the plan made their presence known inside the county center on Wednesday morning, all wearing light green t-shirts that read, "Be the Way Home."

The plan was approved by the County Commission 6-1, with Victor Crist dissenting.

According to Ian Hallett, the county's Animal Services director, there are approximately 200,000-400,000 feral cats roaming the county, only 2 percent of which are sterilized. While almost 20,000 cats and dogs end up in county shelters annually, only 20 percent of those cats are picked up by residents who want a pet, with the rest being euthanized.

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