At a community workshop on ways to deal with feral cats in Laurel, Mayor Craig Moe told the crowd of 65 people crammed into the Municipal Pool meeting room that he's "keeping an open mind" on a proposal that the city switch from killing feral cats that are overrunning the city to neutering and releasing them instead.
This announcement got a boost later in the Feb. 15 meeting when the owners and operators of a low-cost spay and neuter clinic on the Eastern shore discussed their plans to open a second for-profit facility in Laurel by summer.
Residents have been complaining for years about feral cats, which differ from strays in that they are not socialized to humans and don't make good household pets, said Helen Woods, a Laurel cat advocate who organized the meeting.
The mayor said he'd recently held a session with his senior staff that stirred up "mixed emotions" to a citizen-led proposal that the city adopt a trap, neuter and release, or TNR, program. He said he told staffers to "tell me why we can't institute it or give me a hybrid program" that could be put into effect.
After emphasizing that Laurel falls underPrince George's Countylaw, which calls for trapping and euthanizing feral cats, and saying a change in policy "would likely require legislation," he repeated to the crowd that he would remain open-minded as he hears the pros and cons.
"I don't have a position on this issue," Moe said. "I don't have pets; I'm never home to even feed a bowl of fish. But I'm not a fan of seeing pets destroyed.
"This has stirred up conversation around the county," he said. "I told the PG animal warden that we're going to learn about it together since some of this is new to us."
City has 'huge problem'
The audience that Moe addressed had also come to learn how to do TNR as volunteers to help solve the city's cat overpopulation problem.
Woods, who runs a TNR website at http://www.laurelcats.org had begun the meeting by saying Laurel is "several generations into the current crisis in town."
"We have a huge problem in the city," the Ashford resident said. "The current housing crisis has exacerbated the issue because people who are getting thrown out of their homes are also dumping cats."
The workshop included a TNR video and trap demonstration by Bethesda-based Alley Cat Allies, and a discussion by Brad and Dr. Kate Howard on their progress in opening a low-cost, spay-and-neuter clinic.
The Howards have operated Spay Now animal surgery clinic in Grasonville since summer 2008, Brad Howard said, a for-profit business which they felt compelled to open in order to help slow down the chronic overpopulation problem.
He left his work as an attorney and she quit veterinary work in the private sector to focus on building a clinic that would offer spaying and neutering "as inexpensive as we could possibly make it," he said.
"We felt people who would otherwise spay and neuter if they could afford it would then bring their cats in," he said, noting the couple is negotiating among three places but hasn't signed a lease agreement yet.
Elena Johnson, of Alley Cat Allies, said, "Catch-and-kill is cruel and it won't keep an area free of cats for long" since it causes a vacuum effect, which encourages new cats to move into and colonize unpopulated areas.
"Decades of failed practice has proved (this method's) futility," she told the gathering, and said that's why ACA promotes TNR, "which will also stop spraying, yowling and fidgeting" by feral cats, activities that draw citizen complaints.
Woods pointed out that some residents misunderstand the role of the city's animal control department, where Jennifer Volack was hired as the city's animal warden in spring 2011.
"Neighbors think animal control will come get a feral cat and have it adopted by a family and playing with kids in two weeks," Woods told the audience. "They think it's a happy ending for these cats, but they'll likely be killed."
Joelyne and Justin King, who moved to Laurel five months ago, told the gathering that they were planning to use TNR techniques to trap 15 cats and have them spayed or neutered because they feel it's a humane method of handling excess cats.
The Kings —who have two cats, a dog, a lizard and a turtle as pets —said they immediately saw a lot of feral cats running around when they first moved in and decided to take it upon themselves to help with the problem.
"The problem is widespread," Woods concluded after the meeting, adding she'd only expected a dozen or so people to attend.
She predicted "the word's going to get out that people should contact the mayor and tell him how they feel" about switching to TNR as a humane solution.
"We need to find long-term answers," she said.