Editorial: Wildlife protection must factor into cat release plans

It’s understandable why Palm Beach County commissioners are considering a program to trap, neuter, vaccinate and release unwanted cats, to cut down on euthanasia.

Some 10,000 cats a year are taken in by the county shelter, and only 1 percent are claimed.

But before commissioners vote to add a TNVR program, they would be wise to remember this cautionary tale. In 1999, Palm Beach County voters endorsed buying environmentally sensitive land. The first property on the list was a 97-acre patch of sand pines and scrub oak on Hypoluxo Road, near railroad tracks. The county paid $4.5 million for it. What made the site so special? It was home to the southernmost population of Florida scrub jays, an endangered species that lives only here, and is unique for its intelligence and family bonding. We say “was,” because there are no more scrub jays on the Hypoluxo Scrub. County environmental managers believe that the last eight birds were hunted and killed years ago — by stray house cats. Because the birds nest in low bushes, they were easy prey for the feline predators. It is a stark reminder of how much damage free-roaming cats can do to native wildlife, not just birds but small mammals and reptiles as well.

In June, 2015 commissioners will take a final vote on the proposed TNVR program. They should pause before they do.

The county’s proposed policy, as written, has some good features. It would prohibit the release of the cats in parks and protected natural areas, and it would focus on sterilizing only healthy-looking cats that are clearly being fed and cared for by neighborhood animal lovers. These cats would be returned to their place of origin once “fixed,” microchipped and vaccinated.

That sounds like the perfect solution, except that it’s not really. Even well-fed cats retain their hunting instinct, and continue to kill significant numbers of wild birds and animals. One study found an outdoor domestic cat is capable of killing 60 birds and 1,600 small mammals in an 18-month period.

There are so many species of animals that are vulnerable to predation by house cats: ground foraging brown thrashers, oven birds, palm warblers and water thrushes; tiny tree frogs and green anolis; marsh rabbits and Florida mice.

While TNVR theoretically should cut down feral cat populations, several studies have shown that they rarely do. Communities with TNVR programs tend to develop even bigger cat-dumping problems than before the effort began, because people feel emboldened to just release their unwanted animals. And the reality is, animal control programs rarely have the resources to actually trap, sterilize and release the thousands of animals that are out there

Clearly, there should be a strong education component, so pet owners understand the benefits of keeping their animals indoors, where they won’t be hit by cars, exposed to diseases, and won’t pose a risk to wildlife. And it may be best to start the program slowly, so that its effects can be thoroughly studied.

The county’s Environmental Resources Management Department should be consulted on appropriate release sites. The list of no-go zones will probably need to go beyond parks and preserves, and extend to neighborhoods where vulnerable species live.

It should be well-understood how far feral cats tend to roam. It may not be possible to bring back southern Palm Beach County’s Florida scrub jays. But the county should do its best to ensure a well-meaning effort to humanely control unwanted cats doesn’t amplify their already serious threat to wildlife.

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