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Trap-neuter-release programs for cats may soon be legally protected in Texas

By Emily Foxhall and Noah Alcala Bach, The Texas Tribune

Trap-neuter-release programs for cats may soon be legally protected in Texas” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Tammy Dexter never thought she would see the day when a trap-neuter-release program for cats would come to her suburban Houston community. But a bill signed by Gov. Greg Abbott might make that more likely by protecting people from facing possible criminal charges when they return sterilized cats to the wild.

House Bill 3660 slipped through the legislative process without opposition — until now. It raises the divisive issue of whether trap-neuter-release programs are the right way to handle feral cats. The American Bird Conservancy is sharply criticizing it; the group doesn’t believe cats should be released because they kill a startling number of birds.

“We can’t just have people dumping animals; it’s not humane for the animal that’s dumped and it puts the community at risk,” said Grant Sizemore, director of invasive species programs for the American Bird Conservancy. “It jeopardizes the health and safety of people, wildlife and domestic animals.”

Texas law considers unreasonable abandonment of an animal in someone’s care a misdemeanor offense. Some jurisdictions still supported the trap-neuter-release, or TNR, approach in spite of the legal gray area. HB 3660, which immediately became law when Abbott signed it last weekend, will protect those who release neutered cats from being prosecuted for abandonment.

Advocates at the bird conservancy said they didn’t know until recently the bill was making its way through the Legislature. For others such as Dexter, this law has been a long time coming.

Thirteen years ago, Dexter was searching for her runaway cat, Skittles, all over Pearland, only to learn that a neighbor caught the cat, who was then euthanized by the city. The Pearland Police Department on Thursday was unable to comment on what happened to Skittles.

Dexter started her own animal rescue that she said has become her life’s work. She pleaded with the city to stop euthanizing cats and embrace TNR instead.

Dexter’s efforts finally got traction late last year when City Council members listened to advocates from Houston-based Friends for Life Animal Shelter discuss what they considered the benefits of a TNR program, which they offered to design. Focusing such efforts on specific areas reduces the cat population, they argued, and it’s cheaper than killing the cats or adopting them out.

One of the estimated 75-100 stray cats awaits feeding time at one of the many Save Our Strays locations in Tomball, on June 11, 2023.
One of the estimated 75-100 stray cats awaits feeding time at one of the many Save Our Strays locations in Tomball, on June 11, 2023. Credit: Douglas Sweet Jr. for The Texas Tribune
Volunteers of Save Our Strays construct homes for the many cat colony feeding locations in Tomball, on June 11, 2023.
Volunteers of Save Our Strays construct homes for the many cat colony feeding locations in Tomball, on June 11, 2023. Credit: Douglas Sweet Jr. for The Texas Tribune
First: A stray cat in Tomball awaits feeding time. Last: Volunteers for Save Our Strays place small shelters at the many cat colony feeding locations in Tomball. Credit: Douglas Sweet Jr. for The Texas Tribune

“TNR is not cruelty or abandonment,” Dexter told council members at the meeting. “It’s not reckless, as some people say. TNR is scientific, planned ahead and executed by design. Cats go back to where they used to live in a better condition.”

The practice is common in Texas: Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Dallas all have resources on their websites explaining and encouraging residents to take part in TNR programs, most of them in partnership with local shelters. The Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals support it.

Sandra Woodall, a volunteer for the nonprofit San Antonio Feral Cat Coalition, which trains people to do TNR, said such programs are “the only way you’re going to control the cat population.”

But there’s strong opposition, too. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department don’t generally support the tactic, nor do the bird advocates. As these opponents see it, releasing cats back to the environment can expose people to disease, leave cats to suffer from stress and injury and doesn’t actually help reduce populations of cats unless a vast majority of a population is neutered.

“Feral (non-owned) and free-roaming cats pose a direct threat to the health of our natural resources,” the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department states in a guidance document. “Additionally, TNR programs are not effective at alleviating the threats of feral and free-roaming cat colonies on feline health, human health or native wildlife populations.”

For Pearland officials, another question remained: Was TNR legal in Texas?

“As a police department, our concern was to make sure any actions requested of our employees were legal,” Pearland police Assistant Chief Chad Randall wrote to The Texas Tribune.

The Brazoria County criminal district attorney seemed to think such a program could be considered illegal animal abandonment and wrote a letter in November asking Ken Paxton, the state’s now-suspended attorney general, to weigh in.

The request inspired state Rep. Cody Vasut, a Republican from Angleton, about 30 miles south of Pearland, to get involved. Vasut authored what he calls the “cat bill” to clarify that releasing a cat back to where it was trapped should not be considered a misdemeanor under the abandonment statute.

“I don’t think Texans should go to prison because they do a TNR program,” Vasut said. “And I don’t think that that’s animal abandonment under the statute.”

Houston Police Officers Union Executive Director Ray Hunt turned out to be an unexpected advocate who showed up to the Senate committee hearing to support the bill. A staffer found a stray cat outside their office, determined it had no owner and had it neutered, he said. They took care of the cat, which lived around the office for a year until it died.

“That cat had a much better life after it was taken care of and didn’t end up having additional litters of cats around here that we would’ve had to take to the pound,” Hunt said in an interview.

The House passed the bill with only a handful of votes against it. The Senate passed it unanimously. The bird conservancy was caught by surprise.

Sizemore fired off a letter to the governor asking him to veto it, warning it would threaten the ability of Texans to enjoy their property, endanger communities and harm wildlife.

Abbott signed the bill into law on Saturday.

Disclosure: The Texas Parks And Wildlife Department has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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