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Changes may be in the works for how the District treats feral felines.

The District Department of Energy & Environment has released a draft of its “Wildlife Action Plan,” which will govern the way D.C. handles animals and their habitats for the next several years. Tucked in the 214-page document is a section devoted to invasive species, including northern snakeheads, blue catfish, and, yes, cats.

“Cats (felis catus) are non-native predators that have been among the worst invasive species globally,” the plan reads. “In the District, they take the form of free-ranging animals that damage bird, mammal, and reptile populations.”

Now cat advocates are crying foul over D.C.’s proposal to shift the status quo.

In a newsletter circulated last Thursday, the Washington Humane Society’s vice president of external affairs, Scott Giacoppo, wrote that the Wildlife Action Plan as proposed “would result in the rounding up and killing of feral cats—essentially a reversal back to the animal policies of the 1800s that were ultimately proven to have no impact on the population at all.” The debate over DOEE’s draft centers on a policy known as Trap, Neuter, and Return. This policy, Giacoppo wrote, “is the most humane and effective way of addressing the feral cat population.” But the plan states that D.C should “revisit” TNR programs since “TNR animals are often released on National Park Service property and into prime wildlife habitats.” It thus recommends giving captured cats to adoption facilities and promoting “cats indoors” programs, although critics note that feral felines are not easily turned into pets.

“They know these animals are not adoptable,” Giacoppo, reached by phone Monday, says. “What they’re referring to, it’s a couched way of saying, ‘Bring [cats] to the animal shelter so they can be killed. When they do a round-up-and-kill, that’s going to cost taxpayers money, and people won’t tolerate it.”

He adds that WHS, following the TNR model, has sterilized 8,000 cats “at no cost to the city whatsoever.” DOEE did not consult with WHS about the Wildlife Action Plan, Giacoppo says; the society contracts with D.C. to provide animal control services and directly responds to wildlife problems. “We’d absolutely be willing to collaborate with [DOEE] and other agencies,” he adds. “Generally, the only [cats] being released are the healthy ones.”

The proposed plan states feral cats kill “an estimated 1.3 to 4 billion birds and 6.3 to 22.3 billion small mammals in the United States annually,” citing a 2013 literature review in the online journal Nature Communications. (The plan does not specify the number of free-ranging cats in D.C., but Giacoppo admits that the data is limited: “It’s nearly impossible to identify every feral cat out there.”) However, the review got some flak after it was published for, among other things, extrapolating national tallies from local numbers and relying on studies that were conducted before TNR had been implemented. (Meanwhile, a study published last year in the online journal PLOS One found that trap-and-return policies effectively decreased feral cat populations.)

DOEE Director Tommy Wells explains that he sees free-ranging cats as just one example of a species with negative impact in D.C.: White-tailed deer and Canadian geese (both native to the District) have destroyed habitats and damaged property, he says; their numbers will have to be controlled in the future.

“There’s no question that deer, geese, and cats have a destabilizing effect on us being able to have a self-sustaining ecology of wildlife natural to the city,” Wells says. “The good news is that a lot of our areas that sustain wildlife will be protected forever because they’re National Park Service land. No one’s going to build a condominium in the middle of Rock Creek Park.”

Wells adds that a team of about dozen specialists prepared the Wildlife Action Plan, from field observations to drafting—representing the first time that the District has taken empirical observations and inventories into account for the plan. Asked whether DOEE would consider killing feral cats to limit their population, Wells says: “We’re going to put all options on the table. We certainly don’t want people wandering the streets with guns after cats, but whatever is done will be done humanely [and] within the law.” DOEE is researching alternatives to the TNR policy, which gives “no benefit to the city.”

“We have to look at the whole environment and all the threats,” he explains. “We have to decide how much damage is acceptable in maintaining [cats].”

This isn’t the first time feral cats have come up in District policy-discussions: In 2011, the Washington Post reported that the TNR method had divided feline lovers and vets, and had become “the latest flashpoint in a long-running dispute between bird people and cat folks.” A few groups were concerned about at-times conflicting issues: animal dignity and conservation. Many raised some form of the question: “Do feral cats even live happy, healthy lives?”

Becky Robinson, the president and founder of Alley Cat Allies, a Bethesda-based animal welfare organization, helped pioneer the TNR movement in the 1990s. She says D.C.’s current TNR policy is “a model for the rest of the country,” adding that catching-and-killing—historically the main method of managing feral cat populations—”has been rejected by hundreds of communities.” Moreover, the plan’s adoption-recommendations seem “naive” to her.

“The reality is, unknown cats in alleyways are not adoptable,” Robinson says. “They are socialized to each other, but they’re not lap cats. If these cats are taken into a shelter or facilities, the best case scenario is that they’d hide under someone’s bed, very scared. Quite frankly, they would not be happy.”

Robinson adds that trapping or killing feral cats would produce a “vacuum effect”: The remaining cats would still reproduce and wouldn’t be vaccinated, meaning they could breed up to the same capacity as before and carry disease-causing pathogens. TNR, she says, mitigates the key issue of reproduction.

“It’s never going to be the answer to kill one species to save others. What’s humane for cats is to capture and neuter them and to let them live their lives.”

DOEE will receive public comments on the Wildlife Action Plan until Sept. 7.

Image via Shutterstock