Georgia 02/21/2010 Athens Banner-Herald Editorial onlineathens.com:
If, as the Athens-Clarke County government’s own assessment indicates, feral cats – former domestic animals that have reverted to an untamed state after being abandoned by owners, and their offspring – “may pose a serious public health hazard,” then it should be in the government’s best interest to get some control over those animals as quickly and as effectively as possible. That’s why it’s puzzling that county commissioners, taking a lead from Mayor Heidi Davison, are apparently ready to give serious consideration to a “trap, neuter, release” protocol. The TNR program envisioned for the county, and developed by some county officials outside public view, will rely on citizens adopting feral cat colonies and arranging for the feeding, vaccination, spaying or neutering, and other veterinary care of the animals. The issue of how to handle feral cats has languished for months, ever since the Athens Area Humane Society opted out of its $100,000 contract with the county when it became a no-kill shelter last year. The county’s own animal control division has neither the space nor the personnel to accept cats unless they bite someone and must be quarantined for rabies testing.
The basis of TNR programs is the proposition that spaying or neutering the animals in feral cat colonies will, over time, reduce the number of kittens born into the colonies, so that the population of feral cats will decline over time, to the point that they are eventually not a problem. But even a brief consideration of the numbers of feral cats in Athens-Clarke County points out the problematic nature of a TNR program in this community. While there are no hard data on the number of feral cats in the county, documentation from county government staff included with the proposed new ordinance reviewed by the full commission Thursday estimates the population “likely numbers in the low thousands.”
Obviously, not all feral cats would necessarily have to be spayed or neutered for the program to be effective. But even after the implementation of a TNR program, large numbers of cats would continue to reproduce, and the difficulty of spaying or neutering a sufficient number of cats to appreciably impact the population would remain at some significant order of magnitude. Also to be considered is the possibility that, once word spread about a TNR program, cat owners who might have chosen other methods of getting rid of their unwanted pets will simply release them into the wild, in the knowledge, or at least the hope, that the animal would receive some care, thereby increasing the feral population.
There are also problematic issues of property rights associated with a TNR program. The question, of course, is whether residents of areas near where feral cat colonies are being maintained should have to be subjected to the possibility that they, or their pets, or the wildlife that might frequent their property, might come into contact with a diseased or otherwise dangerous feral cat. More immediately, though, it’s clear that the TNR proposal is based on some tenuous propositions. If such a program was implemented without any wider gauging of public interest – a likely possibility, given that the commission could vote on the proposal as early as March 2 – county officials would simply have to hope that a sufficient number of citizens would be interested in taking on the tremendous responsibility of managing feral cat colonies, and would have to continue hoping that interest in the program would be sustained over many years, if not in perpetuity.
A final point that must be addressed here is the speed with which the commission appears to be moving on the issue, and its apparent lack of interest in obtaining a wide range of views on the subject of controlling feral cats. As the citizens who offered comment on the proposal at Thursday’s commission meeting – both pro and con – revealed, there is ample reason for the commission to take a measured approach to the issue, particularly insofar as a TNR program is concerned. At the very least, the mayor and commission owe this community a full and open discussion of how they and the people they represent should approach this important public health issue.