City to Spend $800,000 on Feral Cat Study

Calculating how many feral cats there are in Los Angeles is difficult, but animal experts estimate the figure is between 1 and 3 million. Photo: Getty Images/HiBakusha.

Calculating how many feral cats there are in Los Angeles is difficult, but animal experts estimate the figure is between 1 and 3 million. Photo: Getty Images/HiBakusha.

CORRECTION: Our story indicated that if the city enact a program that included elements of a Trap Neuter Return policy, they were mandated by the court to do an Environmental Impact Report (EIR).  In fact, the court ordered the city to do an “appropriate environmental review pursuant to CEQA,” but did not specify an EIR.  When the city tried to fulfill this requirement by doing a Mitigated Negative Declaration, it was meant with such controversy that the Los Angeles City Attorney, not the courts, decided to pursue an EIR.  We regret the error.

The city of Los Angeles has earmarked $800,000 to study in 2017 the environmental impact of feral cats.

The study must be completed, by court order, before the city can consider the best way to manage feral cats, estimated to be between 1 and 3 million in the city.

Feral cats, some say, possibly cause a negative impact to the environment by killing birds and other wildlife and therefore disturbing nature’s natural balance. Additionally, some fear that feral cats’ fecal matter—high in bacteria—ends up contaminating the city’s water stream.

According to the city’s Animal Services Dept., about 1/3 of the cats brought into Los Angeles shelters this past year were euthanized. That means currently a substantial number of feral cats are breeding, growing their populations further.

“We would love to have a spay and neuter program. Right now, these cats are just breeding out of control,” said Brenda Barnette, the department’s general manager.

While some have scoffed at the high price tag for such a study, Barnette said the city is already spending roughly $500,000 annually on staff managing feral cats in local shelters.

This latest round of funding is the most recent chapter in a contentious, years-long struggle to determine the city’s policy toward feral cats.

In 2005, the city had a policy called “Trap, Neuter and Release” (TNR), meaning after caught feral cats were neutered they were released back to whomever had requested the sterilization procedure, like a homeowner trying to prevent continued breeding on their property, for example.

But they allege they stopped those practices in 2006, due to threatened litigation from alliance of predominately local environmental groups, who said the city did not have proper California Environmental Quality Act—known as CEQA—clearances for the program.

Of concern were the increased deaths of birds and other wildlife due to so many feral cats and the spread of disease—through fecal bacteria contaminating waterways.

Although, according to Barnette, the city stopped its so-called TNR program in 2006, three years later, it was successfully sued by the alliance for allegedly continuing to run it without environmental clearances.

Soon after, the city—by court order—was prohibited from using funds to sterilize feral cats. Additionally, the court prohibited the city from educating the public about TNR alternatives to euthanizing cats and from holding public meetings on feral cat issues until the CEQA issues were addressed.

In 2013, the city tried to meet the court requirement indicating it had examined the TNR practice and found that no further study was needed. However, the city’s determination—known formally as a Mitigated Negative Declaration—was met with so much controversy that the court ordered the city to do the more thorough study—an environmental impact report.

According to Barnette, the litigation and the subsequent court order—which is still in effect—keeps the city’s hands tied from properly dealing with the issue. Currently, the city can only direct residents to take care of the issue themselves.

We can’t do anything,” said Barnette. “If you have cats in your neighborhood that are a nuisance, we can give you a trapping permit and we can even loan you traps and you can trap the cats [on your own private property] and turn them in to the shelter.”

Although the $800,000 study will evaluate both the sterilization of feral cats and TNR options, Barnette said that her department is not advocating TNR.

“I don’t think anyone is recommending, at this point, that the city operate a Trap, Neuter and Return program,” said Barnette. “There are plenty of rescue [groups] that do that, plenty of private people who even do that today…. I think it’s unlikely that we would have the staffing or the will to really want to operate ourselves a TNR program.”

Barnette said her department needs to see the results of the study before it can recommend one program over another.

Phyllis Daugherty, a Los Angeles based animal activist with the non-profit Animal Issues Movement is opposed to the city spending funds for the study.

“There is absolutely no reason to spend $800,000 for a report as to whether tons of cat feces left in the street and private yards will have a negative impact on the environment,” said Daugherty.

According to Daugherty, 70% of the feral cat population would have to be sterilized to see a significant decrease in the population. She is opposed, she said, to a plan that she feels cannot work.

“Spending millions of dollars to alter a small percentage of feral cats in the street will not impact the feral cat problem,” she said.

When first faced with a $500,000 request for such a study during a Los Angeles City Council sub-committee meeting last April, Los Angeles City Councilmember, Paul Krekorian said it was “ludicrous” that the city was being forced to do an extensive environmental impact report to neuter cats and was taken aback by the cost.

“I just need to understand how a consultant with a straight face proposes that they’re entitled to five $100,000 a year employees for a full year to assess the environmental impact of neutering cats,” Krekorian said at the time.

When told the actual total was $800,000, as $300,000 had previously been approved for the study the prior year, he remarked, “Oh dear God.”

Ultimately, however, the city approved the line item after Barnette submitted a breakdown of the costs.

“I think that there were a number of [city councilmembers] who realized that even though it’s a big ticket item on the front end,” said Barnette, “when they really thought about it, they realized that down the road it could be a cost savings for the city.”

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