Cat lovers are pushing the Florida legislature to pass a law protecting strays, over the objection of environmental lobbyists who say the furry creatures are a murderous menace to Mother Nature.
Two "community cat" bills in the state House and Senate would create protected cat colonies where the glut of strays scavenging for food and shelter could be trapped, neutered or spayed, then released to fend for themselves.
"The more neutered or spayed cats there are out there, the less kittens there'll be," said Holly Raschein, a co-sponsor of the legislation who represents Key Largo in the Florida Keys, a haven for cats as well as tourists.
"From a moral standpoint, rather than killing them, we could vaccinate them and put them back."
Becky Robinson, co-founder and president of Alley Cat Allies, a Bethesda, Maryland-based organization that promotes "trap, neuter, release", or TNR, as a humane and economical alternative to the conventional animal control pound.
"The system has always been catch-and-kill," said Robinson. "But outdoor cats that are unowned are still domestic animals and all we're trying to do is stabilize the colony."
Two states, Illinois and Utah, as well as the District of Columbia, have passed similar laws, according to Alley Cat Allies. The organization commissioned a 2007 poll by Harris Interactive, which found 81 percent support for spaying or neutering cats and returning them to where they were caught. Only 14 percent favored disposing of unwanted strays.
The bills are not likely to pass before the state House and Senate adjourn on May 3 but sponsors have said they will reintroduce the legislation.
The Audubon Society and some other environmental groups oppose TNR because stray cats kill birds.
The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a study in January, indicating that cats kill between 1.4 billion and 3.7 billion birds per year, along with 20 billion small mammals, such as mice.
Aside from the cats' carnage, Audubon lobbyist Julie Wraithmell said the strays spread disease. Stray cats have infected other pets and animals with feline leukemia and a type of HIV, and given rabies to humans, Wraithmell said.
"What we should be doing is educating people about spaying and neutering, responsible pet ownership," she said. "We should make sure there are free or low-cost spay-neuter services available."