In July the Flagler Humane Society won a $25,000 grant to trap, neuter and release feral cats and teamed up with the Flagler Beach City Commission to implement the snipping in the city, which had about 900 feral cats at the time. The goal: neuter 652 of them.
The city is on its way. Some 265 cats have been fixed so far, according to Elizabeth Robinson, director of Community Cats of Palm Coast, which has been pushing for TNR’s adoption in local communities. But when Flagler Beach accepted the project, it did not update its animal ordinance accordingly. By not officially legalizing TNR, it left many residents who care for feral cats, and often trap and neuter them at their own expense, either fearful of openly taking care of cats or reluctant to participate in the new campaign.
Last week, the Flagler Beach City Commission fixed its ordinance. The occasion drew much applause from TNR supporters and provided a boon for advocates who want to see the practice extended to Palm Coast. But the occasion also drew some rebukes from TNR opponents—thus reviving the tension at the heart of the issue and leaving some commissioners uncomfortable with an open-ended TNR ordinance: they have agreed to put a time limit on it.
The city manager was clearly not thrilled about the ordinance from a code-enforcement point of view. “It can be very difficult for us to know exactly where they came from and where they should have gone and who’s doing what,” Bruce Campbell said, referring to feral cats. “We get a complaint and we’d have to take a week to try to investigate all of this. It’s more difficult than it might appear if there are problems.”
As for some residents’ questions about how to resolve the unwanted presence of stray cats in their yards, those were not answered. The way the issue played out gave both sides reason to hope.
The fixing of 265 cats prevented the birth of an additional 2,000 cats locally, Robinson estimated. When cities are overrun with feral cats, they can choose to have a big problem by continuing to attempt to kill their way out of it, Robinson said, or they can contain the problem with TNR.
“As we’ve seen,” Robinson told commissioners, “the outmoded approach of trap and kill is inhumane, it’s expensive, and it’s ineffective. Cities who try to kill their way out of the problem fail, and they do so with a high burden to taxpayers. So, big problem, then. Flagler Beach appears to be ready to implement the policies that forward-thinking cities across the country and here in Florida are embracing, and by voting for this revised ordinance you’re positioning this city to have a program that really can work. The feedback I’ve received from residents who are caring for feral cats suggests a timidity due to confusion over what’s legal and what’s permissible—the feeding ban, the TNR program, they were confused. That hasn’t been helpful in getting more participation in the program, and a revised ordinance should bring clarity.”
The grant was part of $354,600 distributed statewide by Florida Animal Friend Inc., the non-profit that administers revenue from the state’s spay-neuter license plates. The program is an indication of the emerging trend of moving away from trapping and euthanizing feral cats: Jacksonville and Port Orange have adopted ordinances formalizing a trap, neuter and release program (otherwise known as TNR). Proponents of TNR consider it a more humane and less expensive way to reduce feral populations, as feral cats live only a few years, and by neutering them, their line eventually dies off.
But TNR has its opponents, who are themselves backed by local government’s entrenched custom of generally killing stray cats once captured. It’s also been difficult to convince some residents of the counterintuitive benefit of releasing back to nature the stray cat populations that are, in residents’ eyes, a problem. Some residents claim that the cats pose a rabies problem—a very unlikely possibility Amy Carotenuto of the Flagler Humane Society was quick to dismiss: in her 30 years of work with humane societies, she’s never once laid eyes on a rabies-infected cat.
Community Cats of Palm Coast has been pushing the TNR approach in Palm Coast, but with no formal success so far. The issue has on rare occasions made it before city council members, but only during public comment segments. Council members themselves have shown no inclination to change their ordinance, and the city administration, whose code enforcement department controls the treatment of stray animals, has not followed Flagler Beach’s lead.
In early winter a coalition of animal-advocacy groups that included the Flagler Humane Society, First Coast No More Homeless Pets, Target Zero Institute and Community Cats of Palm Coast, met with City Manager Jim Landon and Code Enforcement Manager Barbara Grossman with a proposal: the humane society would spay or neuter any feral cat brought in by the city’s animal control officers, at a cost of $35, as long as the cat is then released. For the city, that would represent a saving of $40 per cat, since the city pays a $75-a-cat intake fee to the humane society for each animal it traps. Most of those are euthanized. Despite the projected savings, the city has not changed its approach.
Judy McGovern of Palm Coast hopes that will change. She turned out at the Flagler Beach meeting in hopes of seeing the ordinance pass for its own sake, but also as a way to add pressure on (or further inspire) Palm Coast to follow suit. “We have a tremendous overflow of cats in Palm Coast, and the same thing that she said, people who feed are afraid to come out and feed, they get threatened, shot at, it’s incredible what they go through just to try to take care of these animals,” McGovern said. “Feeders don’t ask for help, they don’t as for food. They buy out of their pocket, they take the cats to the vet and pay for these things themselves. They’re not asking the city for money. But I do hope you’ll consider changing this ordinance and then it will help us in Palm Coast.”
Donn Pedersen of 1208 North Central Avenue in Flagler Beach sees it differently: “I have a terrible cat problem at my house,” he said. “At any given time there are 15 or 20 cats around my house.” The city’s code enforcement hasn’t been much help, though it’s issued the odd citation to the woman who keeps feeding the cats. “I’ve sent in pictures on several occasions of all the cats. It presents a real health hazard in that before I mow my grass, I have to clean up 50 to over 100 piles of cat poo. I can’t go outside to enjoy my yard in the summertime, because the cat stench is so bad. I’ve heard about the trap, neuter and release program, and so I’m here to address that, because I have this problem here. Trapping is great. Anybody wants to trap a cat, I’m all for it. Neuter ‘em, it’s a wonderful thing. You want to pay to neuter ‘em, neuter the part. It’s the release part that I have the problem with. They take the cat after they’re done and they bring ti back to the same place again. So if at the beginning of the day I have 20 cats in my yard and they’re going to bring them back again at the end of the day, I have 20 cats in my yard still. It’s the release part of this problem that doesn’t work. So I ask the question: where’s the end of this thing? Well, the cats will eventually die. OK. Well, how long before the cats die? Years. So you’re telling me I have to be able to live, not being able to enjoy my yard, and I have to clean up cat after cat all over my yard, an excessive amount, for years. It’s not healthy, it’s just not right. My life is just messed up because of all these cats, and yet everybody wants to do this release them back to the same place again.”
Pederson got support from a neighbor who called himself “in Don’s camp” and urged commissioners to find a way to exile the cats after they’ve been neutered, in what would amount to a forced relocation program.
Then Margorie Angelo spoke up. “I am quite proud to tell you that I am the lady they are referring to,” she said, recalling how the man who’d lived on her property before had fed feral cats for 11 years, never neutering a cat. It was his intent not to do so because he was worried he’d be caught with traps in his yard, violating the ordinance. Once the city started the TNR program, she got involved, spaying and neutering 28 cats. She’s offered to clean up the mess in Pederson’s yard, she’s done the rabies shots. “Now, and for the past six months,” Angelo said, “I have suffered tremendous humiliation, harassment, threats, and I have had to go into hiding, I can’t lead a normal life because people are clocking my activities, they’re taking photos of my yard.”
The change in the ordinance will carve out protection for caretakers of feral cats, with some limits. The city commission will take up the ordinance again on April 24, when it is scheduled to be adopted.
“I’m sorry we were remiss in not balancing this with the TNR program,” Kim Carneys, the commission chairman, said. “We did buy into the grant. We should live up to our obligation to make the things match, not that it has to be forever.”