Neuter/return requires impact study, says Los Angeles judge

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2010:


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.
“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 precedental 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
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.
“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 coplaintiffs 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.
“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
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.
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
“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 ANIMAL PEOPLE. “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. 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.

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