Wild Horses? What About Wild Cats?

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They are perhaps the most prolific of domesticated animals that have "gone wild" - feral cats. It's difficult to estimate just how many of these cats, sometimes known as strays, actually exist, but the LA Dept. of Animal Services guesses there may be as many as three million feral felines living in the LA area.

In LA, as across the nation, and in fact the world, there is an ongoing controversy over these animals, one that pits cat lovers against bird lovers. Here in Los Angeles, friction between the two groups ended up in court, with a victory for the bird fanciers.

There's no doubt that large numbers of feral cats can cause a variety of problems. They can spread diseases to humans and animals, and because they generally form colonies, many consider them to be a nuisance.

Still there are many individuals and organizations that care for feral cats. One local non-profit, Fix Nation, has a program that uses volunteers to trap wild cats. They're then neutered, and released back to the area where they were found. Fix Nation received some funds from the city of Los Angeles, which might otherwise have to euthanize these cats in its animal shelters.

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Bird proponents say these trap-neuter-release programs violate state environmental laws. And they contend they don't reduce feral cat populations, which they blame for killing millions of birds each year.

A group of bird advocates, including The Audubon Society sued Fix Nation, and after a day-long trial in LA Superior Court last month, Judge Thomas McKnew Jr. barred the city from offering groups like Fix Nation vouchers that offset the costs of neutering. And he ruled that the city cannot release feral cats in animal shelters to organizations that offer to neuter them on their own dime.

The judge's ruling was based on evidence that the city had adopted the trap-neuter-release program without doing the review required under California's environmental laws. Now, feral cat advocates are lobbying the city council and the mayor to conduct such a review. But, given the city's budget crisis and other problems, it's unclear whether officials are ready or able to fund a full scientific review and hold public hearings on the matter. Records show that LA spent less than $250,000 a year on the feral cat program; the Animal Services annual budget is about $30 million.

Although the court's ruling bars the city from funding neuter and release programs, it does not prevent individuals and organizations from doing so on their own.

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