Pinellas County Thinking Sensibly About Feral Cats
Pinellas County is in Florida, USA. It has a human population of 916,542 (2010). It has an estimated feral cat population of 200,000. I stress ‘estimated’ as no one, either in the US or UK or anywhere else, knows the true number feral cats. A recent story in the UK press says that there is a feral cat problem in Stoke-on-Trent – “up to 40 feral cats roaming around some Stoke-on-Trent neighbourhoods” (thisisstaffordshire.co.uk). The city has a human population of 239,700 (2007). The indications are that the proportion of feral cats to people is not that dissimilar.
In Stoke-on-Trent, the RSPCA and Cats Protection (charities), are organising a large TNR programme to deal with feral cats. In Pinellas, Florida, the Pinellas County commissioners have taken up the responsibility to find a long lasting, sustainable solution that benefits everyone and that includes, the feral cats, the cat advocates, the native wildlife and, finally, the pro-wildlife and anti-cat advocates. It is difficult to accommodate everyone. But from what I read in the Tampa Bay Times the indication is that they are doing a good job is grappling with a difficult problem in difficult economic times. And the financing of any program is at the core of its success.
The feral cat problem needs to be tackled in a widespread manner to have any real long lasting effect. That point has been wisely recognised by the Pinellas County commissioners. Veterinary services chief Caroline Thomas says that 80-90% of the feral cats need to be sterilised for the program to be effective and I agree with that. Otherwise you are just pushing the problem around the county. The sort of funding that that requires would impact spay and neuter services, which are proactive steps to reduce feral cat populations. Let’s remember that TNR is a reactive program.
It is far better to take proactive steps and this is another point recognised by the commissioners. Another important proactive step would be education on best practice cat caretaking. This must be the most important of all methods to reduce feral cat populations long term. That area needs funding too and was recommended by an original report into dealing with feral cats.
Cat advocates rightly support TNR programs but the counter argument from the local Audubon Society groups is that the TNR program releases wildcats (feral cats are wild domestic cats and a top predator) back into the environment where they can harm native wildlife. If the TNR program is half-hearted you are not fixing the feral cat problem and damaging wildlife at the same time. This is a decent argument that cannot be ignored.
Another point made is that TNR programs indirectly support poor cat caretaking as they remove the consequences of poor cat caretaking (abandoned cats and ad hoc breeding leading to feral cats). Better to stop the cause than remove the product.
I am pleased to say that the Tampa Bay Times does not report that exterminating feral cats was discussed. If that is the case it is very sensible. Cat advocates routinely make the obvious point that killing feral cats is inhumane and cannot be a long term fix.
The commissioners have yet to reach a conclusion on how to deal with their feral cat population. But it would seem that it needs to be tackled at root (proactively) and on the street (reactively). That means expanding education and discounted spay and neuter programs coupled with a comprehensive, countywide TNR program.
Which leads to the matter of funding. Funding should (or could) be raised from all parties who benefit from the cat in one way or another in the form of some sort of registration fee. That is a delicate and controversial point that was not discussed as far as I am aware by the Pinellas county commissioners. However, something fairly radical has to happen to get to grips with the feral cat problem.
When you search for cat news in online news websites the majority of stories concern feral cat problems. I conclude therefore that it is a lingering and substantial cat news story. One aspect of this story is never mentioned. When the people in authority have finally decided on a wise, workable strategy to rid the country of the feral cat “problem” will they unearth a rodent problem that was suppressed by the feral cat?
Also before anyone does anything it might be a good idea to conduct a proper study to calculate accurately the number of feral cats. It might be that there are less feral cats than people thought, which would remove, at a stroke, a part of the “feral cat problem”.
An element of the feral cat problem is a perception problem. If people think there are lots of feral cats, they think there is a problem. There might not be that many feral cats. Loosely made assessments can create a problem.