Management of feral cats back on Fort Worth City Council agenda

FORT WORTH -- The city staff has given up on a detailed ordinance that would allow what's known as a trap-neuter-return program to manage feral cats, saying it can't negotiate a compromise between animal advocates and residents worried about cat colonies in their neighborhoods.

Instead, code compliance officials are asking the City Council for permission to write an administrative policy that could be adjusted periodically without the need for council approval. The code compliance director would write the rules.

Council members will consider the proposal at today'smeeting.

"Given the continuing opposition, it has been decided that moving forward with a comprehensive TNR ordinance is impractical at this time," Fort Worth code compliance officials told those interested in the issue via e-mail.

The trap-neuter-return program is designed to reduce the number of feral cats euthanized in the city's crowded animal shelter. The city estimates that its animal shelter takes in 5,000 to 6,000 feral cats a year and euthanizes about 3,000.

Under the program, the cats are captured, spayed or neutered, and then released where they were found.

This summer, the council postponed a vote on the proposed ordinance after opposition from several animal organizations.

Code officials agreed to revise the ordinance by lowering the maximum fine for noncompliance to $250 from $2,000.

It also decided to leave records of feral cat colonies in the hands of private "sponsors," mollifying advocates who worried that hooligans might file open records requests to learn the locations and then harm the cats.

They cited the mysterious disappearance of a sizable colony from Trinity Park.

Still, proponents of the trap-neuter-return program "continue to suggest the proposed draft ordinance places too many regulations on community volunteers," and neighborhoods remain concerned about nuisances and environmental impact.

Discouraging participation?

If the council gives the go-ahead, "the plan is to put a program in place that is very similiar, if not the same, as the proposed ordinance," code officials said in the e-mail.

The program would begin rolling out Jan. 1 and would be fully in place by July 1.Code officials would hold another public meeting to explain the new policy.

The department's top two officials could not be reached Friday.

Liz Holtz, staff attorney for the Alley Cat Allies, a Bethesda, Md., nonprofit, said her group favors a staff-written policy over requirements being set down in a city ordinance.

But she's still worried that the policy would require feral cat caretakers, typically volunteers, to register with the city.

The proposed ordinance included such a provision, and also would have required record-keeping and assurances that volunteers would get the animals vaccinated and fixed before they were returned to their neighborhoods.

"Those ordinances almost always fail" because they discourage participation, said Holtz, who said she'll be in Fort Worth to appear before the council.

On the flip side, Steve Epstein, vice president of the Fort Worth League of Neighborhoods and the Hallmark-Camelot-Highland Terrace Neighborhood Association, said he's not sure what to make of the staff's proposal for permission to write the rules.

"If you can't get it into an ordinance, how are you going to get into a departmental policy?" he asked. "What does that solve?"

Neighborhood input

The League of Neighborhoods has suggested that neighborhoods should have a say in whether someone can register a feral colony.

Under the staff's proposed ordinance, "neighborhoods would have no input," Epstein said.

And he's skeptical about making records of colony locations off-limits to the public.

"Government doesn't work well in secrecy," Epstein said. "This is a government function that's being outsourced, and the public will not know."

Michael Wright, co-founder of the Panther City Feral Cat Coalition, said she liked the latest compromise ordinance, including reducing the fine, requiring colonies, sponsors and caretakers to register, and keeping locations secret.

But, of the staff's decision to recommend a policy instead of an ordinance, "I think they caved," she said.

She said she trusts the current code compliance directors, but "what happens if they take other jobs and we get other guys in there who are going to implement other policies?"

Under the proposed ordinance, colony sponsors would be responsible for approving and monitoring individual "caretakers" and for maintaining records.

Caretakers would have to register their colony with a sponsor, get the cats fixed and vaccinated for rabies, have an ear tip on those cats clipped for identification, provide the sponsor with records, feed and water the animals and maintain their health, and obtain a property owner's approval when a caretaker needed access.

The city could revoke a sponsor's status for repeated noncompliance.

It could fine people who maintain colonies but don't register $250.

Scott Nishimura, 817-390-7808

Twitter: @JScottNishimura