In 2011, 40 to 50 percent of the kittens cared for by Pinellas County Animal Services’ foster parents were feral. Experts say chances are good that feral kittens can be socialized and go on to make good indoors, companion cats.
CLEARWATER – Only 26 to 27 percent of Pinellas County’s estimated 500,000 pets are licensed – an “untapped resource” during another unfavorable budget year.
Will Davis, interim director of animal services, told Pinellas County Commissioners during a March 20 work session that his department is 75 percent self-sufficient, bringing in about $3 million of its $4 million budget. He also said if more citizens licensed their pets, as required by county code, more money would be available to provide necessary services, such as dealing with pet overpopulation.
“This is not a perceived problem,” he told commissioners. “It’s a real problem.”
Davis said the county’s animal shelter, constructed in 1995, was high quality and still effective, although most likely some things about it would change if it were being constructed today. He said “good progress” was being made in getting animals adopted. Thanks to volunteers, Saturday adoptions are available again.
“We’re doing everything we can to get these animals out (of the shelter),” he said, adding, “We want them to be in good homes.”
About 30 percent of the pets brought to the county’s shelter are adopted. Another 10 percent are reclaimed by their owners.
“We’re very focused on building a volunteer force,” Davis said.
Animal services has one employee dedicated to working with and recruiting more volunteers – something Davis said was making a difference.
Still, 51 percent of animals taken into the shelter are euthanized, which is better than the national average of 60 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats put down each year.
Davis points to irresponsible pet owners as contributors to the problem coupled with a lack of funding to provide spay and neutering services for low-income residents. The program was eliminated in the past due to budgetary issues, but Davis reinstated the service by “reprioritizing,” allowing staff to spay and neuter animals at the shelter for those who meet financial guidelines.
More education on responsible pet ownership is needed, he said, including the importance of spaying, neutering and keeping animals off the streets.
“Irresponsible pet ownership is the beginning of the problem,” he said, referring to a flow chart that details the issues. “Were it not for folks letting pets run at large and breed indiscriminately all through the year …”
Davis talked about the ongoing issue of feral cats, which he said was different from the problem of cats being allowed by their owners to roam free.
Back in 2009, Barbara Snow, former director of the Humane Society, and Dr. DeWayne Taylor, former director of county animal services, put together a work group to try to find a solution to the feral cat problem. Davis said the group came up with some good initiatives, which county commissioners acknowledged, but it was a private group leading the effort and nothing really happened.
Dr. Caroline Thomas, animal services’ director of veterinary services, reviewed efforts made to trap, neuter and release feral cats, a program advocated by the work group.
She said about 60 percent of feral cats that come into the shelter are euthanized because they can’t be adopted out. She said kittens could be transformed from feral to companion cats, but not adults that grew up in the wild and are un-socialized. Of the 775 kittens placed in foster care in 2011, 40 to 50 percent were feral.
In addition, county law requires that cats be confined or under their owner’s control at all times. She said people who feed and care for feral cats are breaking the law. Three feeding citations have been issued, but only after multiple contacts trying to educate those in violation.
Trap, neuter and release programs also don’t really do anything for the animal’s welfare and quality of life.
“We don’t want feral cats, we want companions – inside cats,” she said.
Staff estimated there are about 150,000 to 200,000 feral cats living in Pinellas.
“There are way more cats than resources,” Thomas said.
In addition, feral cats are predators. Feeding them can attract wildlife, such as coyotes. Plus there’s the issue of public health and safety due to transmittable diseases that may be contained in cat feces. One of these diseases is the leading cause of blindness in children, she said.
To reduce the feral cat population effectively, 80 to 90 percent would have to be spayed or neutered, which could be between 120,000 and 180,000 cats. In addition, it would take a constant effort to keep the population under control.
“And it doesn’t address irresponsible pet ownership,” Thomas said.
Dave Kandz, conservation chair for the St. Petersburg Audubon Society, and several wildlife biologists, told commissioners they are opposed to trap, neuter and release programs for feral cats, primarily because it continues to allow non-native predators into the natural ecosystem.
Wildlife biologist Jean Murphy said the wild is not a suitable habitat for domestic cats, which should be kept indoors as companions.
John Hood, president of the Clearwater Audubon Society, said he was in support of a program of trap, neuter and adopt for feral cats, but not the release of predators into the environment.
Dr. Don Morgan, a long-time veterinarian with Bluffs Animal Hospital in Belleair Bluffs and member of several veterinarian professional organizations, said state statute prohibits the release of nonindigenous animals into the wild. It’s not permissible by state law, he said.
“Trapping and euthanizing is not popular,” he said, adding that it was something that must be done due to disease problems and the fact that feral cats are not socialized.
Morgan advocates a low-cost, high-volume voluntary spay and neuter program to prevent pet overpopulation.
Thomas talked about the pros and cons of a mandatory spay and neuter program, as opposed to leaving it voluntary as it is today.
“Our shelter couldn’t be more on board with voluntary spay and neuter,” she said.
Concerns about a mandatory program include having people skip veterinary care because their animals are not spayed or neutered. Also, more low-income residents might choose to surrender their pets if they can’t afford the surgery. Plus, animal services doesn’t have the budget for aggressive enforcement of a mandatory program.
Instead, Thomas suggested looking for ways to encourage more residents to spay and neuter. One way could be to reduce fees for residents who reclaim animals brought into the shelter that have been spayed or neutered.
Byron Elder, secretary of the Clearwater Kennel Club, spoke against a mandatory spay and neuter program, saying that it would discriminate against breeders of purebred animals.
“Overpopulation is not due to (local) breeders,” he said. “A lot (of animals) are imported in (to the county).”
Davis said he recently attended a meeting of several private organizations that provide animal services in Pinellas. He said the consensus was that the best way to battle the pet overpopulation problem is to provide affordable, low-cost and accessible spay and neutering services.
But, spaying and neutering of animals takes money. Davis said to do more would take help from everybody – private organizations, veterinarians – not just the county’s shelter.
One way to increase funding for animal services is by getting more residents to license their pets, which Davis said was an untapped resource that could help supplement animal services’ budget. An animal license is $20 a year and residents must show proof of current rabies vaccination.
Commissioners asked staff to continue working with private organizations, such as SPCA and the Humane Society, to find the most affordable and effective methods of dealing with the county’s animal problems. They also asked staff to suggest revisions to the fee schedule to add incentives for spaying and neutering.
“It’s a good place to start,” said Commissioner Nancy Bostock.