It is 1:30 in the afternoon when Civil Defense Officer Michele Marino, begins another day patrolling for Alachua’s department of Animal Services. But, before she can make it to her first call about a contained squirrel, she gets a call on her radio from dispatch. A man has just called in a cat that should be picked up because it looks as though it has a gunshot wound to the neck.
A bit surprised over the nature of the call, Michele turns her company truck around on U.S. Highway 441 to head back to where the call is coming from. As she heads toward the stated address, she comments of the possibilities that the cat has actually been shot in the neck. She says the call sounds a bit absurd; is probably just an old wound that didn’t heal right or maybe the cat was shot by a BB gun, there’s no way a cat could be alive after being shot in the neck by a real gun.
When Michele, a petite woman with green eyes, a quick smile and a retro, bleached blond hair-do, locates the address, she pulls onto the lot of a trailer home. The owner, dressed in tight blue jeans, pointed lace-up boots, a black cap and a close fitted, white T-shirt with a rebel flag and the words "Tommy Rebel" printed on it, steps out to greet her. He immediately points to the lattice woodwork under the trailer that covers the space between the home and ground. A large white and red cat is pacing slowly. He gives a brief history of the cat that for the past two months it has been roaming around on his property. It disappeared for a couple of days only to reappear this morning on his trailer’s steps wounded. She replies that the cat appears to be either feral or a stray gone feral.
Michele kneels down on the ground to get a closer look at the cat; matted hair outlines a deep, thick patch of red that can be seen on the neck just above the shoulder blade. She decides to entice the cat out from under the trailer with some wet cat food. The cat just about lunges for the food and begins gobbling it up. Michele pulls the dish away to the outside of the lattice woodwork and pushes it in, so the cat can crawl out from underneath. It follows immediately to get back to the food. As it comes halfway from under the woodwork, she grabs it by the scruff of its neck and pulls it up into the air. The cat makes no noise or moves of resistance. Michele yells out an obscenity as she realizes why: the cat has a hole, the size of a nickel, passing through the back of its neck. Soft flesh and hard bone can be seen by the naked eye. The cat has been shot by a .22-caliber rifle and has somehow managed to survive!
Michele thanks the man for making the call (tells him he did the right thing), places the listless cat slowly into a wire cage in the back of the truck, jumps into the driver’s seat and closes the door as the man continues to slowly talk about his thoughts on the situation. She gives him a final wave and drives off. The animal shelter is only a mile away so it takes less than five minutes to return and park the truck up close to the building. She swiftly walks through the various doors and passageways that lead to the operation room. As she makes her way to the veterinarian, coworkers walk up to her, only to gasp and step back as they stare at the poor kitten hunched over in the cage eating wet cat food with a hole through its neck.
As she walks into the operation room, the veterinarian and three assistants are in the process of castrating a male dog. Three puppies are on the floor lying on cushioned mats and heating pads as they slowly come out from being under anesthesia. The four women finish one segment of the operation and step over to Michele to examine the cat. They concur that the cat is suffering from malnutrition, dehydrated and probably carrying an infection, besides the obvious fact that there is a hole passing through its body. The only cure is to put the poor cat out of its misery by euthanizing it.
One of the vet’s technicians escorts Michele and the cat to a much smaller room where the cat is let out of the cage to rest on a tall, metal examination table. The vet-tech is obviously aggravated with the condition of the cat as she pulls out a bottle of blue liquid, titled "Fatal-Plus," fills up a syringe with it, pierces the cat’s belly and injects the liquid into the cat, who is totally unaware as it halfway completes its meal. By injecting the liquid into the abdominal cavity, the cat’s body will slowly absorb and distribute it. The cat will gradually feel light-headed, fall asleep, pass out and finally pass away.
But not this cat. It is either so concentrated on eating its meal, or its dehydration and extreme blood loss keep the body from absorbing the liquid. The vet-tech and Michele joke that this cat definitely have nine lives. However, when the cat finishes its meal, the liquid finally begins to take its affect over the body. The cat shifts its body weight to lay on its side. The technician and Michele take turns petting the cat’s head. It closes its eyes and lays its head against the cold, metal table. The tech coos soft words into the cat’s ears and runs her fingers along its back, never mentioning the possible diseases the cat could be carrying and affect her with. The body lies still except for the slight movement of the belly as the breaths get slower.
As she runs her fingers along the backside of the cat, she moves them under the tail to check for the sex. Her body stiffens as she lets out a soft gasp: the cat is a male that has been neutered. She continues to examine the body while she pets and finds old scars that have prevented the regrowth of hair along the legs and face. On the side of the belly, there is a section of matted hair; another wound that never healed correctly. Feeling the organs of the cat, the technician finds the liver to be engorged and hard; a sign of some feline infection.
"This cat has had such a hard life," she whispers as the breathing stops and the body lies still. She leans over and slowly speaks into the cat’s ear. "You poor, poor cat."
Not all cats that live the wild life, fending for themselves, will meet the same end as the unfortunate one mentioned above. Quite the contrary, most of the once domesticated, but now wild, cats growing up on their own, called feral cats, group together to form colonies, in which they hunt, feed and reproduce together to sustain. However, when there are too many colonies, the wildlife and public can be affected, even harmed.
So the question is: What causes Mother Nature’s balance to skew, and when it does, where does the right for humans to step in and control come from?
The effect that feral cat colonies have had on Mother Nature’s balance in Alachua County has caused many heated debates among the civilians, cat professionals and environmentalists residing throughout. Some of the questions stirring the debate are: Is there really a problem? How bad is the problem? How do you control the problem? And who will enforce the control? Those and more were discussed at the November 22 Alachua County Commission meeting when the Animal Services Amendment, Chapter 72, titled "Housekeeping Revisions" was brought up for debate and decision. Besides suggesting new laws on companion animal cruelty and leash laws when not on private property, the ordinance addressed the issue of controlling feral cat colonies.
The public discussion began with Animal Services Director, Barbara Snow, promoting the sections within the ordinance about feral cats. She said after much communication with environmentalists, cat breeders and show people, individuals and groups, the time had come to put into effect a feral cat program for Alachua county. To do this, several points are needed to reduce and control, but must act in synergy to be effective. They are vaccination, sterilization, registration, education, enforcement and humane euthanasia.
"Right now, we have a lot of euthanasia, almost no enforcement and very little education on this issue," Snow said. "The combined education efforts of humane groups, environmental groups and Animal Services can alleviate much of the impact feral cats have on wildlife when they are forced to fend for themselves."
Is there really a problem?
Many individuals and proponents for one wildlife conservation or another spoke before the commission to address what problems feral cats have caused in Alachua, and their potential hazard toward wildlife. Rex Rowan, president of the Alachua Audubon Society, said the section on feral cats in the ordinance would add to the pressures on wildlife. The more feral cats there are he said, the more wild animals would die.
Dan Pearson has been an environmental specialist for 10 years and currently resides at Alachua’s District 2 Office. He said the basic hazard feral cats cause for the surrounding wildlife is that, simply spoken, "they eat them." Unlike dogs, cats are known to kill their prey even if they are not hungry; they enjoy the sport of it, he said.
"Our business is to preserve wildlife, and that is threatened by the feral cat colonies, which can multiply into groups of 50-100 cats if fed and supported by people, that wander out to kill and feed in the woods," Pearson said.
Wildlife in Alachua that is threatened by feral cat colonies can be any small mammal or reptile, such as snakes, lizards, frogs, mice and birds. One such mammal that could become a threatened species is the Florida mouse, a field mouse that lives in the sand hills of northern Florida.
"If feral cats were to locate one of these sand hills where the mice live, they’d have a field day catching and killing them."
Greg Klowden, a graduate student at the University of Florida’s department of wildlife ecology and conservation agreed when he said condoning the maintenance of feral cat colonies is not the way to address the problem.
"We should be moving toward ‘leash laws’ in order to protect the abundant wildlife of Gainesville," he said, "not working to establish the well-being of such a highly skilled, non-native hunter."
Private citizen, Robert Simons, began his criticism by stating he loves cats; he has one and his sister has three; all rescues. However, he personally has a problem with feral cats when someone unknown to him released a few on his heavily wooded, private property to multiply and thrive on his wildlife habitat. He said that indigo snakes, quail and even tortoise are some of the wildlife being affected by the colony manifesting on his property.
"I think people put blinders on; I would personally categorize it as a form of bigotry. You only worry about the cat, but you don’t worry about the baby rabbit, or the squirrel, frog, etc.," Simons said.
Another problem feral cats might pose is the number of feline infections transmittable to other felines and humans. Because feral cats do not receive the recommended vaccinations household cats do, it is possible that the percentage of infectious cats could drastically rise if one of these life-threatening diseases were contracted within a colony. Such infections and diseases are rabies, cat-scratch fever, Lyme disease, salmonella, ringworm, feline Leukemia (FeLV), feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), and distemper.
How bad is the problem?
"In the feral cat situation, when we do the registering and we gather information, we will have a lot more knowledge and a database to find out just how serious is the problem out there," said Snow.
Recent studies already state that 31% of the cats in Alachua are not owned.
Michele, the Animal Services officer, knows of a place where 95% of the cats are not owned. While making her way through the east side of town, she slowly drives along Northeast 10th Avenue. It’s a short street; only about a block long, but as she approaches its end at 19th Street, she is greeted by one, two, three cats roaming along the pavement. They mill about in front of a pale green, wood paneled home on the corner. The paint is chipping off, the grass hasn’t been cut in over a week, and various rusted objects lie in the dirt surrounding the house on cinder blocks.
As the truck moves directly in front of the house, four, five, six, seven, eight cats can be seen in the tiny front yard. Peering out from behind the screen door sits an all white cat. When the truck turns and passes by the side of the house, several feline bodies are seen darting under the house as other overweight (or pregnant) cats lie about within the small fenced-in back yard.
Michele turns the truck back around to park in front of the house. She’s hoping to make contact with the old woman inside who has been reported to be uncommunicative. As she assesses the situation, a woman in her forties, wearing hair curlers, pink fuzzy slippers and electric blue nail polish makes a bee line straight to the truck, asking if Michele has come to take the cats away.
"Can you get rid of those cats. Please tell me you’re here to take them away. They be coming up in my yard and shittin’ all the time," the woman said as her voice slowly rose with frustration. "She don’t be takin’ care of them. They’re everywhere. Please tell me you’re going to take them away."
Michele replied quietly how the woman could help Animal Services fix her problem by calling in a complaint, picking up some cages to trap the cats and calling for an officer to pick up any cats she trapped.
"Good," replied the woman. "Because she’s crazy. I call her the caaaaaaaat woman. Never comes out of her house, except to get her mail. And when she does, all her cats come a followin’."
Michele says 90% of her job is how she can relate positively with the people in question so she decides to make contact with the "caaaaaaaat woman." Walking up to the screen door she calls out a "hello" and receives a soft reply. She peers into the poorly lit home through the screen door and sees an older woman, maybe in her sixties, sitting in a chair at the center of the front room eating. There are about seven to 10 cats sitting and walking around her. The woman continues her meal as Michele introduces herself, but does pause momentarily to answer the few questions offered for information: Her name is Maureen Morris and she’s been living in this house for a long, long time. She doesn’t remember when the cats around her home began living there with her; they just come and go as they please. She doesn’t feed them, her cousins do.
Maureen’s short and evasive answers from inside the house bring Michele to believe the woman could care less that there is a giant colony of wild cats living under her house. Through the front door, Michele offers Maureen the assistance of removing any of the cats for her if they become a nuisance. Maureen just nods her head as she continues her meal of fried fish. Then Michele comes back with some canned cat and dog food, a can of flea spray and her business card. She tells Maureen she will leave the items on the front steps. Maureen applauds her for her kindness. If she ever has a problem with her cats, she will call. Michele walks around Maureen’s home and that of the abandoned house next door. Cats dash and dart toward cover under the structures. She gets on her knee and peers under to see orangy-red eyes peering back. As she walks back to her truck she comments how she’d love to pick up the houses and see what’s going on underneath; there must be way more than 50 cats living in this colony!
How do you control the problem and who will enforce it?
Snow said she complemented and commended Dr. Judy Levy and her practice, Operation Catnip, for a program of sterilization that bears no expense to the taxpayers. She said she hoped a program like it could be expanded to Animal Services.
"However, Dr. Levy is not the enforcement component and that is the responsibility of Animal Control Services. We would also like to add registration to this order," Snow said.
Dr. Levy spoke of her private volunteer organization that began in July 1988. It offers free sterilization and vaccination clinics for stray and feral cats. She said the process of trap-neuter-return is a population control technique that has proven to control cat populations in many communities. She cited examples of other programs in Florida and California. She said after the first year of Operation Catnip, 1, 575 cats were sterilized, which prevented 11,000 kittens from being born.
Levy also reported a survey given to feral cat caregivers who utilize the program, provided results that almost half of the cats in any given colony were less than 1 year of age; not the age where cats are sufficient hunters. And after a year of using the services, the colonies went down in size by 26 percent.
"The ordinance as written finally acknowledges a problem that was always hidden within our community," Levy said. "It allows a feasible, economical, and publicly acceptable solution to reduce stray cat populations. The ordinance also allows for the removal of cats deemed to create a nuisance. So, if feral cats are shown to be harming wildlife populations, the ordinance contains a mechanism to remove them."
Another proponent of the trap-neuter-return method for controlling feral cats was Rick Barton, CEO of Molly and Friends, a cat furniture company for the southeast. He said the process of removing and killing feral cats used today is futile, because it just creates a vacuum effect. When members of a colony are taken away, the rest will increase their breeding capabilities to compensate.
Instead of removing and killing the feral cat population of Alachua, Barton offered his services and the services of about 1,000 other feral cat caregivers to catch, spay and neuter, then release.
"I can solve the problem," Barton said quickly and passionately. "I can catch them all. I know how to do it. We’re going to have a ‘spay-mobile.’ I got a little RV I’m getting and it’s going to come ‘round and we’re going to spay and neuter for free … in Alachua county if you let us come in; it’d be kinda’ silly if you didn’t."
Barton ended his winded 5-minute speech to the Commission with: "I love my cats. Don’t you hurt them."
Finally, Shawn Goreman, a graduate student at UF whose thesis is on feral cat biology, said he believed the ordinance should go into effect because it would allow for a new process of control. Goreman cited from his studies examples of other methods to control feral cat colonies that had failed. They were poison, biological agents (viruses) and hunting.
"Everyone … wants to get rid of feral cats, whether it’s for humane reasons or wildlife," Goreman said, "…but instead, we’re focusing our energy on fighting each other." "Without letting science find out if (a new method) would work or not, we’re all really going to lose."
When the 3-hour debate and discussion ended, the Commission passed the ordinance 4-1 with Commissioner Chuck Clemons dissenting. However, an entire section and parts of other sections on the feral cat situation were struck down for further evaluation.
"I think it speaks well of us that we’re tempting to deal with this in our ordinance, but we need to get it right," Commissioner Robert Hutchinson said. "The lack of specificity, in what appears to me to be potentially a very burdensome job for somebody to manage this, and my concerns are being that we are on new territory here, can we realistically do this?"
Snow said there were many policies and procedures to be worked out in dealing with the registration and enforcement of care for feral cats. She said she is looking forward to the future meetings with feral cat care givers once they come forward with trust to the idea that the policy will be a positive one, looking out for all sides involved.
As she drove away from Maureen Morris’ home, Michele commented on the Animal Services’ ordinance. She said she agreed that a trap-neuter-return program sounded like a great idea, but questioned if Alachua’s Animal Services had the man-power to control it. If anything, she said, she’d like to see Animal Services merge with the sheriff’s office, so the use of enforcement could legally be mixed with the civil aspect. No matter the outcome of the feral cat situation, Michele said the main focus of her job "is to be used as an educational tool. To create not only public safety, but public awareness, too."
"We are the voice of the animals. They can’t say they need the help, so we’ll say it for them."