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Cat Bill Put On Pause Amid Environmental Groups' Concerns

Releasing stray cats back into society, after they’ve been neutered and vaccinated, could become law in Florida if a bill aiming to help Florida’s cat population in a humane way is passed. But, the measure’s sponsor was forced to put the bill on hold, after it faced a lot of opposition during its first committee stop Monday.

The ultimate goal of the bill is to humanely curtail the growing population of stray cats in Florida. According to legislative analysis, one female cat and her offspring can produce up to 370,000 kittens in seven years.

Some counties have tried to reduce growth by euthanizing feral cats. But, others have allowed for local community cat programs where a cat could be taken in to be spayed and neutered and later released.

But, under current law, that could be seen as “unlawful abandonment of cats,” and the bill sponsor, Democratic Senator Darren Soto wants to change that.

“What this bill does is basically codify programs that are existing in multiple counties, which is the trap, neuter, and release program,” said Soto.

But, some, not everyone’s on board with the idea.

“As you’ve heard, this bill is permissive, but if passed, it will function as a state endorsement of the practice of trap, neuter, and release in Florida—that’s TNR as you know—without regard for other aspects of the state’s interest,” said Julie Wraithmell.

Wraithmell is the Audubon of Florida's director of wildlife conservation. She says releasing the cats poses a huge threat to the state’s wildlife.

“We know that domestic cats, free roaming cats, predate as many as many as three-billion birds in the U.S. annually. Florida invests substantial resources in protecting our state’s wildlife, especially our imperiled species. Nevertheless, feral cat colonies have decimated a colony of state-threatened black skimmers in Brevard County, they predate federally listed species including Lower Keys Marsh Rabbits, Snowy Plover, Florida Scrub Jay, nesting marine turtles, and several beach mouse subspecies. They’re a threat to ground nesting birds, like Northern Bobwhite, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has documented transmission of feline leukemia and feline HIV/FIV from free-roaming cats to Florida Panthers,” added Wraithmell.

“Cats are not the only impact on our wildlife. We’ve also got coyotes, and pythons and people polluting and development going on and habitat destruction. So, I don’t think they need to be vilified as the 100-percent decimating our wildlife,” responded Dr. Ashley Paper.

Paper is a veterinarian in St. Johns County, who says she knows firsthand what it’s like to have an overpopulation of cats. And, she says these local community programs are a good idea, and have helped areas like hers.

“So, what we did in Lighthouse Park was we got our city council—We worked with our neighborhood association and our city council, and our Animal control—they granted us an exception to manage our own problem. The people in our neighborhood would report cats to us, trap them up, bring them to us, we fixed them and over the years, after they’ve been exposed to cars and dogs and rattlesnakes, and everything else we’ve got there, the population has diminished. And, I’m proud to tell you that since 1994, when we started this, our colony has diminished from 200 cats to six,” Paper added.

With strong arguments on both sides of the debate, Senator Soto, the bill’s sponsor, agreed to put the bill on hold, until he can work out the concerns with the bill’s opponents.

“This is no doubt controversy on both sides. You have the birds at risk. You have the cats at risk. You have folks who want to save the cats. You have folks who want to just put them down,” said Soto.

While the bill was temporarily postponed in its first committee stop, the Senate Agriculture Committee, its House companion has already cleared its first stop and has two more to go before it comes up for a floor vote.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on twitter @SaschaCordner.