Feral cat controversies raise legal issues

A ban in Florida on the popular “trap, neuter and release” program (TNR) used across the country for controlling feral cat populations has reignited controversies and raised new questions.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission policy issued May 30 states that the commissions purpose is “to protect native wildlife from predation, disease and other impacts presented by feral and free-ranging cats.” In response, the group Alley Cat Allies filed a petition in court to challenge the policy, citing inhumane treatment of the feral cats. The FFWCC’s attempt to have the challenge dismissed was denied on July 9. The case will now be heard on Sept. 11.

In a St. Petersburg Times’ article following the decision, Jay Slack, a field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in south Florida, stated, “The returning of nonnative species into the wild is a violation of the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Species Act. Those who do practice trap, neuter, return may be subject to federal prosecution.”

In many states, the TNR method is considered a huge success. Often, veterinarians volunteer their services in the sterilization programs, either through their own practices or local animal shelters. But as these programs become the target of public policy initiatives, veterinarians must consider the extent of their liabilities, says George M. Dennis, legal counsel for the Kansas Veterinary Medical Association and practicing veterinary medical law attorney in Overland Park, Kan.

Many states have enacted volunteer immunity statutes that protect individuals who volunteer, Dennis said, but questions regarding malpractice coverage, workers’ compensation insurance, veterinarian-client-patient relationship status, and many other issues need to be considered. These laws vary from state to state and community to community, so veterinary practices should consult their local authorities.

TNR questions are the focus of “Management of Abandoned and Feral Cats,” the Animal Welfare Forum hosted by the American Veterinary Medical Association on Nov. 7 in Chicago.

NEWStat Legislation & regulation