Bedford city officials are really worried about feral cats.
They’re apparently so concerned about the development of feral cat populations that not only have they decided against adopting a city-sponsored trap-neuter-release program, but some are talking about banning individuals from carrying out those activities. And they’ve restructured the rules and membership on the animal shelter board to shut out TNR supporters.
That wholesale rejection of the trap-neuter-release system, its proponents say, may have the opposite effect from what is intended. The TNR program, used in dozens of Texas cities and counties, is probably the city’s best bet for controlling the feral cat population, animal welfare activist Connie Stout and others said. Releasing neutered animals back into the community reduces feral cat populations over time, whereas simply killing them is an endless process.
At a Feb. 4 animal shelter advisory board meeting, Panther City Feral Cat Coalition board director Sandra Bitz and Mid-Cities Community Cats member Cathy Kemp waited for a chance to ask the advisory board about shelter statistics. The two nonprofit groups work to humanely control the population of feral cats.
The agenda did not list an open forum, so after adjournment Kemp asked if the public would be allowed to ask questions at future meetings.
Board members appeared surprised by the question, Bitz recalled. Finally, one member said all questions needed to be referred to city council members, who approve the board’s agenda items. That response in return surprised Bitz, who regularly attends similar shelter meetings across Tarrant County.
“There is always an opportunity for those in attendance to speak, to ask questions or make suggestions,” she said. “This is the only one I’ve been to that was totally closed to residents, welfare groups, and concerned citizens.”
During a city council meeting the following week, council member Roger Fisher, liaison to the shelter, made the advisory board’s role clear.
“Those boards and commissions are working under the direction of the council on the goals and ideas of the council,” Fischer said. “A public forum is not conducive in that arena.”
“That means [residents and taxpayers] are shut out,” Bitz said.
Directors and volunteers with animal welfare groups say the incident is just the latest in a string of actions taken by Bedford Mayor Jim Griffin, council members, and current shelter board members to suppress input from supporters of TNR. Last year the council voted 4 to 3 not to adopt the TNR program despite the recommendation of the then-sitting advisory board.
The vote was effectively a death sentence for feral cats brought to the city shelter unless they are promptly rescued. The council also removed all six members of the shelter board, replaced them with three people who do not support TNR, and restructured the board to bring it more firmly under city council control.
Stout, who was one of those removed from the shelter board, has been working with rescue groups to save as many of the feral cats as she can, get them neutered, and find people willing to have them released on their farms or properties outside of town. But she can’t save them all.
Through her new nonprofit, Mid-Cities Community Cats, Stout and her supporters are trying to educate the public on the benefits of TNR. The group’s next event is at the Hollywood Feed Store in Colleyville on March 21.
Dawn Orr, a dog behavioral specialist, was chair of the shelter advisory board before the purge. She said she was notified about her dismissal well after council voted on the matter.
“It was upsetting,” she said. The council “does not want to adopt change and accept opinions from outside persons. I think the majority of the shelter staff cares about the animals, but the city council doesn’t want to change. Change might mean more work.”
Griffin said in an e-mail to Fort Worth Weekly that the council “restructured the animal shelter advisory board to align with state law” on items such as “the times to meet and the number of board members.” The council felt the time was right to align boards and commissions to the council’s goals and visions, he said.
The animal shelter board was purged last summer. In August the council approved an ordinance cutting the board’s meetings from six per year to the state minimum of three and rewriting the board’s mission statement. Language was also added to allow the council to remove any member of a city advisory board or commission “with or without cause.”
“This looks like the mayor and council members do not want any kind of input at all from the community,” Stout said. “If it’s not matched to their beliefs, [the council] is going to get rid of you.”
Stout used the state open-records law to obtain e-mail correspondence among city officials about the TNR program. In an e-mail sent last May, new shelter board chairwoman Barbara Richardson wrote to Deputy Police Chief Eric Griffin that Bedford needs to outlaw TNR. Griffin oversees the animal shelter.
If that happened, Bedford would be the only city in Texas to ban the program, said Elizabeth Holtz, senior attorney at Alley Cat Allies. She said her group is deeply concerned that such an ordinance would even be considered.
“Considering that over 46 Texas cities and counties support or recognize TNR, [such an ordinance] would certainly be out of step with the rest of the state. Furthermore, other municipalities in the region, including Fort Worth, Arlington, and Garland, recently adopted TNR,” she said. One city in Maryland banned TNR last year, she said.
In another e-mail to Griffin, Richardson discussed the possibility of banning the feeding or harboring of feral cats, aimed in part at preventing the establishment of feral cat colonies. “The hard part in enforcing this is that you have to actually catch them putting food out to issue a citation, which is very time-consuming,” she said.
Last February, a 76-year-old Gainesville man was jailed for eight days for feeding stray cats in violation of a city ordinance. The arrest drew widespread criticism on social media and from animal-rights groups.
Richardson referred questions from the Weekly to City Secretary Michael Wells, who provided council meeting minutes related to the animal shelter advisory board restructuring but declined to comment.
The lack of transparency and public input is particularly worrisome to Stout.
“So my question is, why does Bedford have advisory boards [at all] if the advisory boards are told by the council how and what to advise, think, and feel?” Stout said.
Griffin, in his e-mail, said that he and the city council support any nonprofit that performs TNR in Bedford. After listening to input from a wide range of people, however, he did not see the value of implementing TNR as a city policy, he said.
Despite her abrupt dismissal from the shelter advisory board last year, Orr said she would volunteer in Bedford again if the council was open to citizen input.
“If they would change, I would jump back in there,” she said. “I have a special place in my heart for Bedford … but at this point I haven’t even been back to their shelter.
“It’s sad. Animals are suffering, but if I go in there and can’t do anything, it’s a waste of my time.”