- Associated Press - Saturday, May 7, 2016

MIAMI (AP) - At Zoo Miami, a debate is raging over the territory one species can rightfully roam. That would be the stray cat.

Zookeepers say feral cats living next door in South Dade’s Larry and Penny Thompson Park creep into the zoo animals’ enclosures and risk spreading a disease that has already killed a red kangaroo and three squirrel monkeys. This month county workers started trapping cats in the park, with plans to offer healthy felines up for adoption and euthanize sick ones.

“We see them almost every day,” zoo spokesman Ron Magill said of interloping cats. “It’s becoming an increasingly common phenomenon.”

The operation enraged local pet advocates, who accuse the county-owned zoo of paranoid veterinary science and pursuing a futile effort to clear a 270-acre park of at least 200 cats who would be better off managed inside the habitat they call home.

“That is their territory. That is where they know they are safe,” said Cindy Hewitt, a volunteer with the Cat Network organization, which advocates for homeless cats. She said the zoo has a “legitimate concern” about protecting its animals, but that securing the property is more realistic than trying to purge the surrounding areas of stray cats.

“If you can contain your population,” Hewitt said, “you can keep the cats out.”

The trapping effort for Zoo Miami captures some of the complications tied to a drastic change in how Miami-Dade County treats stray cats.

The county’s Animal Services department used to euthanize homeless cats that weren’t adopted, with nearly 9,500 cats killed at Miami-Dade’s lone animal shelter in 2011. But in 2012, the county launched a new approach that has stray cats sterilized and then put back in the neighborhood where they were found.

Launching the “trap-neuter-and-return” program brought a steep drop in euthanized cats - only about 1,200 were killed at the shelter in 2015, a nearly 90 percent decline in just four years. It also brought a steady stream of county-sterilized cats put back on the street: about 10,000 in 2015, or 27 a day. Treated cats return with nicked ears, allowing concerned citizens to spot untreated cats for future capture.

Cats at Thompson Park routinely emerge from the bramble and tall grass to greet visitors. “My little girls love chasing them,” said Gary Bushea, a construction worker from West Perrine who likes to fish at Thompson Park. He said he’s seen kibble and water dishes left out for the cats, who also can dine on scraps left by parkgoers, and on birds and other prey.

Returning sterilized cats to the county’s Thompson Park wouldn’t solve the zoo’s complaints. So Miami-Dade is trying to rid the area of cats altogether, rather than slowly shrinking the existing population through attrition.

Other parks have cat populations, and the vast expanses of open land prove popular dumping grounds for unwanted felines. Miami-Dade has tried to purge other parks of cats, too, but this is the first operation that pit the strays against more exotic county-owned animals.

Magill said four monkeys and the red kangaroo died from toxoplasmosis in recent years. The disease that can be spread by cat feces, and zoo keepers are concerned lemurs, koalas, tamarins and other monkeys are vulnerable to cat-borne contamination.

He estimates there are at least 200 cats living in Thompson Park. A brief trapping effort by the county Parks Department captured 19 cats, with 17 sent to Animal Services for placement. The zoo euthanized two it said tested positive for feline leukemia.

Alex Muñoz, chief of the county’s Animal Services department, said all healthy cats taken from Thompson Park will find owners willing to feed them - be it inside or outside. “Some aren’t as ready to be a house pet,” he said of stray cats. Animal Services said Monday that of the 17 captured, seven still need homes.

The zoo, an arm of Parks, isn’t testing the park cats for toxoplasmosis since it stays in a cat’s system for only a few weeks, Magill said. Cat advocates see toxoplasmosis as an excuse for rounding up the cats, since the disease has other ways to spread. “The cats have gotten a bad rap,” said Becky Robinson, founder of the national Alley Cat Allies group.

Magill said the zoo can’t risk endangering its animals over felines that shouldn’t be living in the wild.

“I know some of these cats are going to be euthanized,” he said. “I think we should be straight forward and open about this. I hope that fact will educate people as to why you shouldn’t let your cats roam free and become strays.”

When news of the Thompson Park trapping operation became public, cat advocates launched an email campaign trying to stop it. “We did not approve of the project and the alternate suggestions given by our Board Members were ignored,” the Cat Network said an April 19 email to members. Cat Network “offered suggestions to keep the cats in the Park and out of the Zoo area , like installing a cat fence, electric wires, etc., and none of them were acceptable by the Parks Dept. and Zoo. They didn’t want to hear any alternatives.”

The controversy is the latest flashpoint in a long-running fight between pet activists and the administration of Mayor Carlos Gimenez. He declined to recommend enactment of a special animal-services property tax that county voters overwhelmingly endorsed in a non-binding referendum held in 2012.

Joined by some county commissioners, Gimenez said he wasn’t convinced voters understood the consequence would be higher property taxes, and instead shifted existing funds to boost the Animal Services budget by 45 percent over four years. Now organized as the Animal Power Party political committee, advocates of the tax are funding anti-Gimenez mailers as he faces reelection in 2016.

While Animal Power leaders support the county’s treat-and-release policy for cats, they’re targeting the Thompson Park operation over the possibility that the captured felines could be transplanted elsewhere in the county.

“The question is where are they being removed to?” asked Michael Rosenberg, a founder of the Pets’ Trust group that engineered the 2012 straw ballot. “Should we take them to your neighborhood so you can feed them?”

His objection demonstrates just how tricky the cat debate can be, since Miami-Dade’s treat-and-release policy relies on unwanted felines living outside and roaming freely. Rosenberg said the system is the best option when it comes to unwanted cats, but that he’s skeptical Miami-Dade can actually find homes for the Thompson Park strays beyond another “cat colony” roaming free in another neighborhood.

“These kind of incidents are going to happen over and over again,” he said. “There aren’t the resources to do the amount of spay-and-neuter surgeries needed.”

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Information from: The Miami Herald, http://www.herald.com

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