Sunday, May 14, 2017

Chronic Condition: ASAC Wants to Know Community Cat Locations

San Angelo's City Council adopted a Community Cat Ordinance in February 2015.  City Council approved a sponsorship model where local animal services group(s) could coordinate with cat colony caretakers and offer low cost spay/neuter services for community cats.

Critter Shack was the only local animal service organization to step up for community cats.  It served as the city's sponsoring organization for over two years.

At the two year mark Critter Shack representatives shared their successes in public comment at City Council.  On February 7, 2017 four people shared the logic behind trap, spay/neuter, return and maintain (TNRM) for community cats and how it is the most effective solution for reducing the number of cats over time.

Several local colonies are over 60% smaller in number.  The San Angelo State Supported Living Center fixed their 101st cat recently.  This effort prevented well over 60 litters of cats in just one year.

Area citizens used their time, money and resources to prevent countless numbers of new cats that often ended up in the shelter. These four citizens are solving San Angelo's cat problem one small area at a time.  They closed their comments by asking City Council for support educating the public and assisting citizens with low cost spay neuter services, something other Texas cities have done.

Oddly, for the last two years the Animal Shelter Advisory Committee never asked to put community cat education on the agenda.  It never tasked staff to offer low cost spay neuter for community cats.  Collaborating with CritterShack on community cats has been absent from Animal Services' goals and objectives.

Instead the Committee and staff repeatedly catered to the desire of one member to know the location of cat colonies, even though this is not in the ordinance.  Here's the pattern:

September 17, 2015 -- Update on cat colonies.
December 3, 2015 -- Update on Trap Neuter Release Program.
April 21, 2016 Minutes -- Ms. Bennet requested information on the locations of community/feral cat colonies 
May 19, 2016 -- Discussion and possible action on the location for community (feral) cat colonies and points of contact . 
April 20, 2017 --  Discussion and possible action related to feral cat colony registration.
The City does not have a good history with cat colonies.   

City staff bypassed animal control ordinances in 2013 when it targeted the Mejor Que Nada cat colony for extermination.  Animal Control harassed a local cat caretaker who'd reduced the colony from over 200 cats to 55.  Animal Shelter Officers threatened her with arrest, something they are not legally allowed to do.

The ordinance arose from a need to offer legal protection to community cat caretakers to operate without harassment.  Many cat caretakers recall this history.  I don't blame caretakers for fearing the prospect of having their colony wiped out after spending significant time, money and energy to help cats failed by their human owners.

It is critical colony locations not be disclosed so people who hate cats are unable to target them.  It's important to deter people who seek to dump their problem on someone else by not revealing colony locations.  The City Animal Shelter called one colony caretaker and asked if it would be OK to tell citizens to dump cats at their colony.  The answer is a loud "No."

Animal Services Director James Flores lumped citizens who feed cats but don't neuter in with cat colony caretakers.  They are two very different groups.  One is solving the problem while the other is compounding it (feeding but not fixing).  It takes but a few questions to determine in which group they belong.  Kittens generally means it is not a colony, as caretakers trap, neuter and socialize weaned kittens for adoption.

Yes, the city has a huge problem with cats.  It's odd Animal Services is most interested in finding the names and locations of people working to solve it.  Animal Services has virtually no interest in addressing the vast areas of the city that have unaltered free roaming cats and un-managed groups of cats.  Sarah Bennett and James Flores shared two different un-managed cat sites.  Neither spoke to the people feeding but not fixing.  Both were in a position to seek information and provide coaching.  Neither did .

It was odd to hear Flores tell the board:

 "... we can't catch a feral cat.  It's impossible."  
I assumed animal trapping to be a basic skill set for an Animal Control Officer.  Caretakers successfully trap thousands of community cats each year.  Effective cat trappers include a number of women in their 70's and 80's.  I'll venture they'd be willing to train Mr. Flores and city staff.

Assistant City Manager Michael Dane suggested Flores ask nicely and he was sure the information would be provided.  Dane should be the first to refer to the existing ordinance and share why citizens and staff crafted it that way.  Dane should require city staff be clear and precise in their language when talking about what exists.

Effective leaders would share what's working well from both sides of the partnership and what the two groups agree would be an improvement.  That did not happen from Michael Dane, James Flores, Bob Salas or Animal Shelter Advisory Committee Chair Jenie Wilson.

Angelo State University President Dr. Brian May has a PhD in Animal Science.  He understands the benefits of managed community cats on campus.  He argued for the ordinance at City Council in early 2015.  With its passage the city appeared to return to collaborating with community cat caretakers, as it once effectively did under Shelter Director Leslie Hart.  That promise faded.

Flores revealed the number one citation given by Animal Control Officers is for not spaying/neutering.   Animal Services has a group of community partners addressing their top problem for free.

The Animal Shelter Advisory Committee would be better off leaving the existing ordinance and asking CritterShack how the City can collaborate on community cats.  The Committee is at a crossroads, one fork is real collaboration and the other the bureaucratic, controlling, bullheaded stance for which the city is infamous.  Which will it be?

Update 5-15-17:   Oddly the ASAC will take up community cats before they deal with the recent distemper outbreak at the shelter.   Last month Shelter Director James Flores educated the committee that loose dogs are impossible to catch but a loud bang of the hand on the side of a truck door will drive a dog home where the owner is then ticketed.  Flores didn't address the city's limited capabilities in dealing with packs of wild dogs that recently killed pets in the community.  The video will be interesting to watch.

Update 6-11-17:  Staff posted the ASAC minutes for 4-20-17.  It states "Mrs. Bennett asked if we found out who the cat colonies belonged.." and "Mrs. Bennett said the shelter needs to know where the animals are and who manages the colony."  The description of Flores comments has a distinction that I didn't hear when I listened to the meeting.  If I were a member I would consider the minutes inaccurate as Flores clumped people practicing TNRM in with people feeding and not fixing.

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