City support of feral cat population control program stopped by lawsuit brought by American Bird Conservancy
LOS ANGELES––California municipal governments may not assist or promote neuter/return of feral cats without first completing an environmental impact report, ruled Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Thomas McKnew on December 4, 2009.
McKnew ruled on behalf of five organizations representing birders that the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services was in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act for issuing $30 sterilization vouchers to neuter/return practitioners and for referring people who call to complain about feral cats to charities that do neuter/return.
“Pervasive, albeit informal & unspoken”
“Despite official denial, the implementation of the program is pervasive, albeit informal and unspoken,” McKnew wrote.
McKnew did not address the value of neuter/return as a feral cat control method, or the virtues of neuter/return as public policy. The McKnew verdict lacks precedential weight until and unless affirmed by appellate courts.
But the McKnew verdict appears to point the way for birding groups to block neuter/return programs in any state with legislation similar to the California Environmental Quality Act.
“The City must now implement the CEQA process, which includes full scientific review, assessment of alternatives, and potential mitigation measures,” exulted the American Bird Conservancy. “The public will have the opportunity to engage in the process and ensure an open, science-based approach to the issue of free-roaming cats in Los Angeles.”
Cost of impact study will inhibit neuter/return
The cost of performing an impact study specific to each feral cat habitat, and the time required to do it, are expected to significantly inhibit neuter/return programs throughout California, and perhaps beyond, wherever lawsuits are anticipated.
Some California communities have helped neuter/return practitioners with vouchers for discount sterilization surgery for 15 years or longer–and these communities saw the fastest drops in their
feral cat populations during the early years of the programs.
After the numbers of feral cats dropped, leaving feral cats in less accessible locations, progress slowed, while the continued presence of some cats has inflamed birder opposition.
“We shouldn’t be balancing no-kill on backs of wildlife”
“Some animals are dying in this equation. There is no no-kill,” Urban Wildlands Group science director Travis Longcore told Torrance Daily Breeze staff writer Melissa Pamer. “Our position is that we shouldn’t be balancing the no-kill policy on the backs of wildlife.”
The Urban Wildlands Group brought the case against the City of Los Angeles in June 2008, with co-plaintiffs including the American Bird Conservancy, the Endangered Habitats League, the Los Angeles Audubon Society, the Palos Verdes/South Bay Audubon Society, and the Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society.
“This lawsuit was filed because the city didn’t follow the rules,” South Bay Audubon Society board member Martin Byhower told Pamer.
Location, location, location
“Byhower and Longcore both emphasized the importance of location in placing or moving cat colonies,” wrote Pamer. “The way TNR was being unofficially deployed by the city didn’t take into
account or try to control the establishment of colonies in sensitive ecosystems or public open space, they complained.”
“Without total effectiveness in neutering the colony, cats continue to breed. Additionally the colony acts as a dumping ground for unwanted pets, often actually growing over time,” said American Bird Conservancy vice president for conservation advocacy Darin Schroeder.
“Neuter/return does not produce more cats”
Responded attorney Mark S. Dodge, founder of the Los Angeles cat and dog sterilization program Fix Nation, “The simple fact is that neuter/return does not produce more cats by returning them after surgery, as the wild bird advocates claim. It merely transforms cats already in the environment from being the prolific breeders they are, thereby reducing their numbers over time. The consequence is clearly not adverse to the environment. Without neuter/return, we would see more and more cats killed in shelters,” as occurred year after year in Los Angeles for four decades before neuter/return was introduced, “while at the same time the homeless cat population would simply continue to expand.”
Added Dodge in a separate statement to Pamer of the Daily Breeze, “I am not afraid of the environmental study issue one bit. I’m ready to take it on.”
Dodge at the Fix Nation web site urged neuter/return practitioners and other feral cat advocates to encourage the City of Los Angeles to appeal the McKnew verdict.
“Calling on Los Angeles to appeal”
Seconded Alley Cat Allies president Becky Robinson, “We are calling on the city to appeal this terrible decision. The California Environmental Quality Act was intended to apply to activities like highway construction, not neuter/return.”
“We are certainly disappointed with the recent ruling, and will be going back to advise our client of the situation, and will be moving forward at their direction,” Los Angeles city attorney’s office spokesperson Frank Mateljan told Pamer.
Both Dodge and Robinson emphasized that neuter/ return practitioners may continue to trap, sterilize, and vaccinate feral cats, with the support of nonprofit organizations. But South Bay Cats founder Teri Harrington, of San Pedro, acknowledged to Pamer that “With the voucher program being eliminated, it’s going to be very, very tough.”
Los Angeles Department of Animal Services interim general manager Kathy Davis on December 18, 2009 warned staff, partner veterinarians, and rescue groups that sterilization vouchers may now
be issued only for use with personal pets. Rental fees for use of humane traps will no longer be waived for recognized neuter/return practitioners.
“It is very short-sighted to stop a long standing program, rather than simply and responsibly cease any expansion of the program until after a study,” former Los Angeles Department of Animal
Services general manager Ed Boks told ANIMALS 24-7. “Also, California Environmental Quality Act studies are designed to evaluate the impact of development on a specific piece of property.
Neuter/return does not fit that model. The California Environmental Quality Act is being used by misguided birders to shut down a program that saves the lives of cats and birds,” Boks continued.
“Some locations may not be appropriate for neuter/return, such as locations with endangered birds,” Boks said. “However, if fewer feral cats is the goal of the petitioners, then neuter/return is the only
methodology that will guarantee that end.”
Boks was not the first Los Angeles animal control chief to encourage neuter/return, but he was the first to promote it in a personal blog at the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services web
site. Boks commented on the McKnew verdict while designing a new nonprofit neuter/return program to assist neuter/return practitioners in South Los Angeles.