Leo Romero steered the county animal-control van into a dimly lit corner of Sweetwater where stray cats gather daily to nibble on food left out by a nearby apartment-dweller. Then the veteran kennel supervisor hauled two metal cat cages out of the cargo bay and set them down near a hedge favored by the feline foragers.
But these cages weren’t for trapping and already held three shelter cats itching to get out. Romero obliged, flipping open the metal door to let a long-haired calico scamper back into a life on the streets.
“You’re giving the cats a chance,” Romero said as two kitties in the other cage meowed their urge to leave. “Some of the cats are pretty socialized. They just live outside.”
Faced with far more homeless cats than it can house, Miami-Dade County’s lone public animal shelter has decided to set them free.
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In 2013, county workers sterilized and vaccinated 3,138 homeless cats turned over to the shelter, then released them back into the neighborhoods where they were caught. The latest statistics show the county’s Animal Services department freeing an average of 14 cats a day.
Started in 2012 under pressure from County Commissioners to reduce animals deaths at the shelter, Miami-Dade’s trap-treat-and-return program joins a controversial movement to protect free-roaming cats. Health watchdogs warn of feral cats carrying rabies and other diseases, while bird watchers see the return movement as letting a popular pet undo the natural order of survival.
“I love cats, but nobody thinks about what they do to other animals,’’ said Laura Reynolds, executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society. “They hunt everything that moves.”
The treat-and-return strategy might be the most controversial tactic in the sensitive and grim realm of animal control. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals supports the program as the best alternative to euthanizing unwanted cats. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals condemns it, arguing cats need human care to live humanely.
For Miami-Dade, the program that launched in July 2012 has brought a significant drop in the number of cats euthanized at its shelter, a low-slung cement building with 300 cages for a facility that last year took in nearly 38,000 animals. When the cages get full, the shelter euthanizes animals to make room.
Even though 73 percent of the shelter’s animals left the facility alive in 2013, the shelter still put down 6,907 cats and dogs, according to agency statistics. If the numbers look discouraging, they hold up well against the shelter’s record in 2011. That year, nearly 14,000 animals were euthanized and only about 50 percent left alive.
A sharp drop in feline deaths accounted for most of the shift, with the trap-and-return program playing a central role. Three years ago, about 75 percent of the shelter’s cats were euthanized. Last year, it was only 30 percent, while 35 percent were released. Another 28 percent were adopted or rescued, including some through a transport program that two weeks ago dispatched a shelter worker to drive 60 kittens to a Maryland charity’s farm.
Dog adoptions were up 21 percent last year thanks to the shelter’s outreach efforts. The program includes a February adoption fair at the South Beach Macy’s and a 24-hour fest at Tropical Park that had 1,000 people in line for the midnight opening last spring. But demand is so low for adult cats that feline adoptions dropped by nearly 500 last year.
“We want to become no-kill,’’ said Alex Muñoz, the county’s animal-control chief since 2011. “The only way to do that was to find a solution for free-roaming cats.”
Miami-Dade’s return program is backed by ASPCA grants and only open to free-roaming cats that county residents trap and bring to the shelter. They must certify the cats are homeless, and give the location where they were caught. The shelter picks up the $25 expense for treating the cats, snips off part of an ear for identification, and then lets either the resident set the cat free or sends out drivers such as Romero on delivery runs.
“We’ve had as many as 12 different stops in one night,’’ said Romero, who has worked at Animal Services since 2008, but was briefly laid off during budget cuts in 2010.
“Sometimes they’re skittish,” he said of the cats. “Sometimes they’re friendly.”
Muñoz plans to expand the return program in the coming weeks with about $320,000 to hire more vet workers for treatment and trappers to go out and round up strays themselves.
The treat-and-return program tacitly relies on Miami-Dade’s network of cat feeders — people who tend to neighborhood “cat colonies” in their backyards, alleys, and elsewhere. Animal-control workers urge feeders to trap the cats and bring them in, with the assurance that the animals will come back healthier and, thanks to sterilization, better behaved and unable to breed.
“I know lots of elderly people who love to go out there and feed the cats,” said Christine Michaels, who feeds about 20 cats living near her Miami condo tower. “But they don’t have the means to trap the cats, or to get them sterilized.”
Michaels, owner of Art Deco Tours, regularly heads out with 12 cans of Frisky cat food and a spatula to feed about 20 homeless cats. On a typical outing, Michaels kneels down onto an alley, scoops several clumps of the moist meat onto the asphalt, and pets a black feline that has wandered over for a meal.
“Here is where we feed them. You can tell from the stains on the pavement,’’ Michaels said, the moment captured in a You Tube video filmed by a fellow cat advocate. “That’s Charlie up on the ledge. And this is Sabrina.”
Michaels said she’s used to jokes about being a “crazy cat lady,” but the eye-rolling ignores the suffering that cats endure without caretakers.
“When stray cats have kittens, half of them die. We take them into our homes and we see them take their last little breaths,’’ said Michaels, who promotes cat adoption on her website, riverfrontcats.com. “This country used to have a problem with stray dogs. But we’ve got a handle on that. But people don’t know the gravity of the situation when it comes to homeless cats.”
Return programs have soared in popularity during the last decade. Broward County started a small program in Hollywood in 2010 and has used grant money to expand it in recent years. In 2003, the Maryland-based Alley Cat Allies counted 23 cities and counties nationwide with laws allowing for trap-treat-and-return programs. Last year, the count was 245.
Pet advocates lobbied for the Miami-Dade return program as part of a larger effort to reduce animal killings at the county’s Medley shelter.
In 2012, Miami-Dade commissioners passed a resolution instructing the shelter to pursue a “no-kill” designation, a label generally applied to a facility where only 10 percent of the animals die.
That year, voters approved their own resolution urging Miami-Dade to establish a special property tax to fund animal services, but Mayor Carlos Gimenez ultimately declined to propose the tax increase. The rejection enraged activists, prompting the mayor to insert an additional $4 million into the shelter’s $10 million budget this year to bolster no-kill initiatives, including the treat-and-return program.
Rita Schwartz, a co-founder of Pets’ Trust Miami, which campaigned for the special shelter tax, said the current treat-and-return program is nowhere near large enough to make a dent on the county’s homeless cat population. While sterilizations of cats and dogs grew 50 percent since 2011 to 16,300 procedures last year, Pet Trust Miami says 100,000 a year is needed.
“It’s a drop in a bucket of a very large ocean,” Schwartz said of the cats sterilized and released by the shelter.
Though the majority of Florida’s large animal shelters are listed as having treat-and-return programs, the state’s Health Department links free-roaming cats to disease risk.
“While the risk for disease from cats to people is generally low when these animals are maintained indoors and routinely cared for, free-roaming cats pose a continuous concern to communities,” reads the agency’s 2013 Rabies Prevention and Control policy. “Children are among the highest risk for disease transmission from these cats.”
Health concerns are just one of the flashpoints in the treat-and-return debate. Describing the cats themselves is another fault line.
Advocates of the return program say it targets “community cats,” not strays, while Miami-Dade’s shelter uses the term “feral” to describe the cats it returns to the outdoors. “Homeless” is also frowned upon. “If they’re living outdoors,” said Elizabeth Holtz, staff attorney for Alley Cat Allies, “that is their home.”
Most of the tension revolves around the question of when is it humane to kill a cat. “We don’t believe a cat is better off dead,’’ Holtz said. But for Daphna Nachminovitch, head of cruelty investigations for PETA, a homeless cat’s life can be too harsh to condone.
“Who is responsible for that cat when it gets hit by a car and is dragging its legs around?” she said. “I understand euthanasia is a very difficult topic for people, but the alternatives these cats face on the streets is a far worse fate.”