In state legislatures around the country, lawmakers are debating important subjects education reform, election laws, gun control and abortion. But in Florida, one of the hottest issues to come before the Legislature this term involves cats.
There, lawmakers are considering a contentious bill that would offer legal protection to groups that trap, neuter and return feral cats to their colonies.
An Alternative To Shelters
Larry Wasserscheid, a volunteer with a Miami group called The Cat Network, has brought a stray cat to a church parking lot in the city's Little Havana neighborhood.
"This cat was at the Hurricane Cove Marina and Boatyard, where I was working on my boat and found five cats. And this is the fourth one that we're getting fixed here," he says.
The Cat Network is here every month, offering free spaying and neutering. There are more than 40 volunteers like Wasserscheid people who trap the strays and bring them to the group's mobile vet unit to be fixed.
The group operates a trap-neuter-return program. It's actually more than a program; it's a movement that began in England and has spread throughout the U.S. since the 1990s.
Megan Clouser, the organization's president, says it started as people became aware of all the stray animals that were being killed in shelters.
"Unfortunately, we've been doing that for about a hundred years now," she says. "So why not try something that keeps the animals out of the shelter and keeps them sterilized so they aren't reproducing?"
Inside the mobile unit, a vet and her three assistants are busy. There are a dozen cats in carriers. One by one, the cats' stomachs are shaved. Clouser says they're given rabies shots, sedated and then either neutered or spayed.
"In addition to the actual sterilization, they also get the ear tip, in which the left ear is clipped it goes straight across. And then anybody who's involved in the trap-neuter-return program will know that that animal has been sterilized," she says.
Clouser calls it a labor of love: All of those involved are volunteers, doing it because they like cats and want to help.
'A Nightmare For Us'
But not everyone thinks those activities are a good thing.
"It's just been a nightmare for us," Charles Hall said at a recent hearing before a state Senate committee in Tallahassee.
Hall said he and his wife lived next door to a colony of 40 to 50 feral cats. The noise, the nuisance and the smell were a big problem, he said, and he worries that trap-neuter-return programs aren't helping.
"We no longer have rights," Hall said. "The cats have taken over our rights."
The bill before Florida's Senate, brought forward by community cat groups, would protect and promote trap-neuter-return programs by removing an obstacle that the groups say has halted these programs in some areas: a state law against abandoning cats.
Denise Lasher works with Best Friends Animal Society, the organization that helped write the bill. "All we're doing is clarifying that, under the definitions of community cat program, [trap-neuter-return programs] would not be abandonment under the state law," she told the Senate committee.
Opponents Question Program's Benefits
There were plenty of cat lovers at that hearing, but almost an equal number opposed to the bill. Some cited a threat to public health.
But the best-organized opposition to the Florida bill comes from those with their own furry and feathered creatures to protect: wildlife groups, especially those that represent birdwatchers.
Bob Johns of the American Bird Conservancy says that although cats make nice pets, they don't belong in the wild.
"Feral cats are not native to North America. And they frankly did not evolve in this environment," he says. "So wildlife never evolved any defenses against this predator."
A study published earlier this year by the Smithsonian and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that outdoor cats are the leading cause of death for birds in the U.S., killing between 1.4 billion and 3.7 billion birds annually.
What's not clear is whether trap-neuter-return programs actually reduce feral cat populations. Some studies show that, even when they're targeted by the programs, cat colonies often continue to grow.
Dozens of cities around the country and a few states have adopted laws and ordinances supporting trap-neuter-return programs. Wildlife groups are hoping to block the legislation here to stop Florida from following suit.