Pinellas backs pilot program targeting feral cats

CLEARWATER — After hours of impassioned public testimony, Pinellas County commissioners on Tuesday opted to move forward on a pilot program aimed at easing the county’s population of stray dogs and cats through more aggressive sterilization efforts.

Commissioners stopped short of supporting mandatory spaying and neutering, though.

“It wouldn’t solve the problem,” said Commissioner Janet Long. “More money can be spent on education, low-cost spay and neuter, making it accessible.”

Tuesday’s workshop aimed to examine ways of reducing the number of animals that end up in Pinellas County Animal Services’ care. Some people who attended the meeting said requiring all pet owners to spay or neuter their animals is the only way to do that, while others pushed for the county to legalize the practice of trapping, sterilizing and releasing feral cats and dogs — a policy a majority of commissioners supported.

Last year, nearly 14,000 cats and dogs were either brought to a county animal shelter by their owners or picked up while roaming neighborhoods unattended. About 51 percent of those were either claimed by their owners, got adopted or were sent to no-kill shelters, Animal Services Director Moe Freaney said. The others weren’t so lucky.

“We do routinely euthanize animals,” she said. “[Our staff consists of] compassionate people that love animals, so these are very hard decisions.”

Supporters of mandatory sterilization said requiring all pet owners to spay and neuter or face a penalty would result in fewer unplanned litters and, ultimately, drive down the number of animals the county has to put down.

“This is what will reduce the number of pets being taken to the shelter and the ones being killed,” said Andrea Barlow. “We can’t kill ourselves out of this. We’re never going to reduce the amount that we’re killing until we stop the irresponsible breeding.”

Opponents said such a rule would be unfair for breeders, who do so legally, and that mandatory sterilization could result in more rabies cases because some pet owners might avoid taking unsterilized pets for routine care for fear of a penalty, which would be tough to enforce.

“What are we going to do? Have the police stop you and say ‘Pick up the leg of the dog, let me take a look?’ ” said animal welfare advocate Marilyn Weaver.

Weaver said there are other ways to encourage pet owners to spay and neuter — namely, education and by adopting a higher pet license fee for those who wish to keep their pets “intact,” or able to breed.

Commission Chairman Ken Welch and Commissioner Norm Roche supported mandatory spaying and neutering, which advocates refer to as MSN.

“One thousand (impounded animals) a month? It’s unacceptable,” Roche said. “It’s a reality, but if our way is to deal with that necessity in the most humane way possible then you can’t ignore MSN. It has to be part of the discussion.”

Other commissioners disagreed.

“My biggest concern is doing the full-blown mandatory spay and neuter, who and how would we ever manage it?” said Commissioner Susan Latvala. “We wouldn’t, and it wouldn’t solve the problem. More money can be spent on education, low-cost spay and neuter, making it accessible.”

The commission did adopt a pilot program to trap, neuter, vaccinate and release the county’s feral cats. It would be run by a local nonprofit at no cost to the county, Freaney said.