Behind the News, Wanderlust

Feral cats invading Pinellas County (and my backyard)

I first met Frisky about three weeks ago. It was a short interaction. I came crashing through my back gate with a load of groceries; she ran as fast as her little legs could carry her.

Oh, a new cat, I thought. Maybe it’ll make friends with the other stray cat that haunted this side of Crescent Lake – a large, tenacious stray tabby with absolutely no fear. His torn ear and smashed in face gave the impression the cat had been hit by a car – or several.

But this new cat seemed less street-savvy. She was dark grey, striped with darker grey, with a large head plopped on a much smaller frame. Her ribs stuck out. She had obviously not eaten as well as the other strays.

So, I began leaving cans of cat food outside. Last year, in one of my more unusual interactions at Crescent Lake, I inherited about a dozen cans of Nine Lives cat food from an odd couple staying at the motel across the street.  These very distraught folks had lost their cat, Tiger, who turned up in my backyard. I know this because I came home one day to find an older, shabbily-dressed man climbing out from under my deck.

“Uh, who are you and what are you doing?”

“Oh, Tiger, Tiger, my cat, she’s escaped and under-”

Hi reply was broken by sobbing from his girlfriend standing behind me.


They left after I assured them I would capture the cat. Tiger must’ve thought they were as crazy as I did because he came out about five minutes later. I scooped him up and dropped him off at the couple’s hotel room. They were so happy I found Tiger that they gave me a dozen cans of cat food, for what use I don’t know. Perhaps to offer to Tiger when he showed up again.

I never saw Tiger, or the couple, again. But I did begin to see this new grey cat,  usually for just a few seconds at a time. Every other day, I left a can of food for her. I never saw her approach, but the can was always empty the next day. That cat was so skittish; in fact, I almost stopped leaving cans out, fearing I was giving the possums or raccoons a free meal.

Which is why it was so surprising when, one day, the cat suddenly came right up to me, purring, meowing loudly and trying to force its furry little body inside my house.

Immediately, I began to see a lot of her. She brushed up against my leg every time I stepped outside. She purred and tried to jump in my lap when I sat down. And she meowed. Constantly. For hours on end. When I went out to my car, she followed me meowing. When I stepped out on the porch, she followed my voice around the house and began another round of meowing. One night, when my friend Sal stopped by to chat on the porch, she meowed for over three hours straight.

It took me two days to figure out why. This cat was, well, feeling frisky (hence her name). She was in heat. Sure enough, over the next, Frisky presided over her own harem under my deck. I saw a lot more of the tough tabby, a fatter grey cat who only appeared on the weekends and a few other felines I’d never seen before, no doubt attracted from blocks around by Frisky’s incessant meowing.

“Great,” I groaned. Little baby Friskies all meowing on my back porch. I shuddered at the thought. Unfortunately, I was (and am) working constantly and there’s just no time to take her to the free spay clinic.

Coincidentally, feral and stray cats are in the news again.

According to a report by the St. Petersburg Times, there are an estimated 100,000 stray cats roaming Pinellas County. County officials have known about the problem for years, but this year they decided to create a focus group to study the issue.

From the article:

Tuesday, the group presented the results of the yearlong study at a special commission work session at the Pinellas County Courthouse. Commissioners agreed to take the group’s suggestions to promote spay and neuter education, support and expand the spay and neuter programs for low-income citizens at Pinellas County Animal Services, and share resources like the county’s Animobile with nonprofit animal groups.

Doesn’t it seem like this should have been done years ago? After a year-long study, you’d think they’d have some more, uh, innovative ideas. Well, at least they aren’t going to go around killing them all as the Clearwater Audubon Society suggested.

I’m happy to say Frisky is no longer in heat. But she is still hanging around, meowing and generally trying to adopt me as her owner. Unfortunately, I can’t have a cat. Too many reasons to list here. So, if anyone can help, please e-mail me.

She’s very loving, I can assure you.

Behind the News

Pinellas County forum: Kill dem cats or let ’em be?

Several weeks before my layoff, I was perusing some of the local rags and came across an interesting item in a weekly newspaper concerning the formation of a “feral cat committee.”

Ah, I thought, finally a government body our local cat ladies can get excited about.

The jist of the article was one well covered by newspapers in the area: Pinellas County has a huge homeless cat population. It’s getting worse. Nobody agrees on what to do about it.

Some interesting statistics on the county’s feral cat popuation:

A county formula based on our population estimates over 150,000 stray or feral cats roam our alleys and streets. In 2007, Pinellas County’s animal services department took in 12,878 cats. Of those, 4,148 were claimed by their owners or adoped out. The rest — over 8,000 — were euthanized.

Currently, the county offers spay and neuter services to try and control the homeless cat population. All cats adopted out are spayed/neutered, plus the county will sterilize cats free of charge for pet owners on public assistance. That’s not counting the low price they already charge ($20-30) for everyone else.

In addition to the county’s efforts, some organizations like the Human Society conduct TNR programs (that’s Trap-Nueter-Release for those not hip on the lingo) that sterilize feral cat colonies in the hopes that they will eventually die out. The argument for those TNR supporters is that if you just remove the feral cats, another group will move in, possibly one not sterilized, and create a worse situation.

(I’ve written about TNR here.)

But some government agencies and animal organizations say that’s just not good enough.

Back to the article.

So, the reporter for this story attended a 2008 county commission meeting where they were discussing the feral cat situation. The director of Pinellas County’s animal services department, Dr. Welch Agnew, presented these same statistics to commissioners along with information on the county’s policy. That policy is to screen all cats coming into the county shelter, save the healthy ones with good attitudes, and euthanize the rest. He added this adorable-as-a-kitten quote: “We don’t hate cats. We love cats and want to get as many home as we can.”

But Dr. Bruce Rinker, the county’s environmental lands manager, had a different take. Feral cats are invasive species, he told commissioners, just like Brazilian peppers, air potatoes and Cuban tree frogs. Plus, they kill birds. And he does not like TNR. He calls it: “Trap, neuter and re-abandon.”

Next up at this commission meeting was Mike McDonald of the Clearwater Audubon Society who agreed with Rinker. He feels all feral cats should be euthanized. A life on the streets is much more harsh, he argued.

The county commissioners didn’t vote on any new policy — you can imagine the public outcry over rounding up little kitties and gassing them. Instead, the commissioners allowed stakeholders to create a committee to talk about the issue. I’ve been eagerly awaiting any news since. Earlier this month, that news came.

Today, April 15 from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m., the feral cat committee will host a forum to gather public input on what to do with feral cats. Kill ’em or TNR ’em?

This is one issue that has fallen by the wayside over the last few months. But if you’re a cat lover, and especially if you have experience in solutions, you might want to speak your mind.