Donna Bernstein, a city resident and co-director of Community Cats, was instrumental in the city's decision, and has tried to persuade the county. She argues that the trap-and-kill approach doesn't work, and trap-neuter-return — which has been practiced in a systematic way in parts of this country for about 20 years — is the more sensible and humane way to manage feral cat populations.
"What's the more rational approach?" Bernstein asked. "The question isn't whether you have cats or not," Bernstein said, "but do you have altered and vaccinated cats or unaltered, unvaccinated cats?"
She and other advocates of the neutering program argue that efforts to eliminate feral cats by killing them one, two, 10 or 20 at a time will always be defeated by what they call a "vacuum effect:" When cats are taken away, she says, others will move into their turf for the food, supply, and the cycle begins again.
"There's nothing a county or community can do to totally eradicate these animals," said Bernstein. "Most people don't want these animals killed. They just want them to stop breeding."
Over time, the argument goes, if enough feral cats in a given area are spayed or neutered, if the colonies are well-managed, their numbers will diminish, while saving animal control officers the work of constantly rounding up stray cats. Advocates also say that many of the behaviors that make cats a nuisance, including yowling and male spraying, are diminished or eliminated when animals are sterilized.
Bernstein made her case in a meeting last year with county officials.
Della Leister, the county's deputy health officer, was not persuaded.
Leister said she is particularly concerned about feral cats as potential carriers of disease, including rabies, either to people or to other animals.
Typically, a cat that is trapped, neutered and released is vaccinated only once. Leister is not convinced once is enough.
"Accepting that one rabies shot is better than none is not a policy we would support," Leister said.
Bernstein said caretakers sometimes vaccinate their cats more than once if they're trapped again for another reason. Elizabeth Parowski, a spokesman for Alley Cat Allies, a national group that supports trap-neuter-release programs, said caretakers she knows of do not generally make a practice of trapping and vaccinating their animals more than once.
Opinions vary as to the effectiveness of one rabies shot over time — some studies say the vaccination can last more than four years — and the risk that cats pose of spreading the disease.
Like all warm-blooded animals, cats are potential carriers of rabies. But Nancy Peterson, who manages cat programs for the Humane Society of the United States, says there has not been a case of a person contracting rabies from a cat in this country in 35 years. She noted that the World Health Organization since 1982 has recommended vaccination rather than removal to control rabies in stray dog populations.
Peterson made those arguments in a lengthy e-mail she sent early this year to Dr. Gregory William Branch, the county health officer, covering key concerns about trap-neuter-release: disease, risk to birds and other wildlife, effectiveness in population control. She said she does not recall receiving a response.
Neither have county officials apparently been moved by an online petition drive organized this year by the Feline Rescue Association Inc., a Maryland organization run by Lizzie Ellis. She said about 1,000 petitions — many from people outside this area — went to Leister, Branch and County Executive James T. Smith Jr.
Leister said she has not been in touch with city officials about how the program is working there.
Many national animal welfare organizations have joined the Humane Society of the United States in supporting trap-neuter-release, including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the American Association of Feline Practitioners, the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association. The National Animal Control Association supports the method in some cases, and the American Veterinary Medical Association — the country's largest nonprofit veterinarians' organization — endorses practices to resolve the problem of abandoned and feral cats, but takes no position for or against managed cat colonies.
Research on the practice, much of it published in the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, can be found to support more than one point of view about its usefulness. As a former president of the AVMA said in a published 2004 forum on managing abandoned and feral cats: "At the current time, there are no easy answers."
Cat caretakers in the county say they know the rules, but they also say they feel compelled to help the animals. Some are afraid to make their names public, while others decline to reveal their colony's exact location to protect the animals or keep people from dumping unwanted pets into the group.
Jolene Baldwin started her trap-neuter-release efforts when she lived in the city, long before the rules there changed. She remembers placing traps in tough neighborhoods and waiting there through the night so as not to leave a trapped cat stuck and vulnerable to abuse. She's been registered for years as a nonprofit cat rescue operation called Little Flower, and often works with the county shelter to help place animals and to foster cats until they can be adopted.
"Because the need is so great you have to jump in and help," said Baldwin, who started her efforts 20 years ago. "It's just a kind of calling. It's hard, and it's heartbreaking. The rewards, I want to make sure the cats are not suffering. … I'm particularly touched by the fact that they suffer. So I do what I do."