On the prowl Mar 26, 2003
Today's meeting of the state's wildlife commission is guaranteed to be a real cat fight.
A Cape Canaveral veterinarian is urging the agency to stop Florida's latest environmental threat: five million domestic house cats gone wild. The feral felines are annually killing thousands of birds and millions of small mammals, some endangered or threatened. Neutering and adoption could be part of the answer, but so could a government euthanasia program that could anger"Cats are like manatees," said Edwin Roberts, chairman of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "They have a devoted following, and regardless of what we decide, it's a no-win situation."
Today's discussion in Tallahassee centers on good cats gone bad -- those dumped in the nearest woods by their owners and forced to become feral or wild cats in the realest sense of the word. Over the decades they've formed massive breeding colonies.
In recent years, largely volunteer groups have tried to control the problem by what they call TNR -- trap, neuter and release. Professional biologists say it hasn't worked.
And so does Dr. Christine Storts. She's the veterinarian who wrote a letter urging the wildlife commission to do its job and stop the cats' slaughter of the state's smaller creatures.
Living two blocks from the beach, Storts became curious when she noticed there were no beach mice. A little checking astounded her.
Brevard County's estimate of free-ranging cats had increased from 100,000 in 1999 to 200,000 in just four years.
She joined committees to deal with the problem by trapping the feral cats, neutering them and then releasing them. But she considered it hopeless.
"I do know that having TNR handle 5,000 cats over the past five years, when there's ten times that many still roaming around, means it isn't working," Storts said.
The last insult was in her back yard, where Storts feeds birds, squirrels and fish. She fired off the salvo at the state wildlife agency after looking out her kitchen window.
"When I looked out that window and spotted a cat perched by the freshwater fish pond, I knew I had to do something," Storts said.
She wants the agency to control the predators and to stop the amateur trap-neuter and release programs. She would like the cats trapped and adopted, trapped and euthanized or trapped and kept in secure enclosures for the rest of their lives.
Although the state wildlife commission has known about the cat problem for years, today's meeting is one of the first direct actions it has taken on the issue.After all, who cares if there are not as many rats and ravens around Florida?
The federal government for one.
Kennedy Space Center had a problem with Vehicle Assemble Building workers feeding feral cats that came wandering out of the palmetto scrub from the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Eventually they were faced with a growing population of 20 cats prowling around 15 threatened or endangered species which call the refuge home.
NASA's solution was to turn an abandoned 20,000-square-foot building into a"cat house," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Dorne Whitmore."Some [of the cats] had to be euthanized and the others were neutered since the local SPCA didn't want to take them."
The feds became more concerned when a colony of neutered feral cats in the Keys cropped up near the last small colony of Key Largo Wood Rats.
The residents of a nearby condo swore the cats were fed and contained so they couldn't escape, said Bill Brooks, wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Jacksonville office.
The government does know the feral cats in the Panhandle are preying on the endangered Choctawhatchee Beach Mouse, after finding a transmitter the mouse had been wearing in a cat's stomach.
But the federal fish and wildlife service backs off when it comes to the cat problem in general.
One of the cats' chief advocates is Dr. Julie Levy, a University of Florida assistant professor of veterinary medicine.
She has organized a catch-neuter-release effort in Alachua County. Since 1996, her Operation Catnip has neutered 14,000 cats.
Still, she said, the count has 36,000 feral or free-ranging cats. "One in eight households are feeding stray cats," she said.
She wants a multi-pronged approach to the issue: educating people about not feeding strays or dumping unwanted cats; increase the neutering of strays. So long as the program is carried on by local governments, there some doubt of its effectiveness.
And while no formal decision on what to do is expected today, state wildlife workers are less than enthused about tackling the issue.
"I don't think we're in danger of becoming cat-catchers," said Frank Montalbano, FWCC wildlife division chief.
Don Wilson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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