Leah Edwards doesn't boast a degree in animal husbandry or veterinary medicine or public policy. In fact, she doesn't have any degree, at least not yet.
But this UA honors freshman has nonetheless put her finger on key dilemmas surrounding Pima County's approach to animal control, and has offered some common-sense options that—although successful elsewhere—perennially elude our sprawling jurisdiction.
Her list includes licensing cats in the same way we license dogs. That would include a mandate that cats be vaccinated against rabies and other diseases; currently, no such requirement exists. It would also give cats a better shot at being reunited with their owners if they land at the Pima Animal Care Center, make it easier to distinguish between feral and owned cats, and raise needed revenue for the cash-starved PACC.
Edwards also suggests developing a formal trap-neuter-release program, arguing that getting animals fixed would cost taxpayers about $25 a pop, compared to the $75 we now spend on sheltering, euthanizing and disposing of each animal.
Leah Edwards earned an Honors College First Year Prize for her clear and astute analysis. But she says a better reward would be seeing a few of her suggestions put into action. She's certainly seen the alternative, after several years of volunteering at the PACC.
"Right now, Pima County doesn't have very much in the way of trap-neuter-release programs, and it doesn't have any feral-cat programs," she says. "From what I observed, most of the feral cats taken to the Pima Animal Care Center will be euthanized. And I don't think a lot of people have very much knowledge about how trap-neuter-release programs even work."
That's hardly the case elsewhere. For a comparison, she looked to Utah's No More Homeless Pets program. Coordinated by the nonprofit Best Friends Animal Society, the project works through community groups and local governments to distribute T-N-R vouchers for free or low-cost cat sterilization. It also oversees innovative "Trap Trading Posts," which provide free loaner traps and T-N-R instructions.
Edwards thinks that creating a similar program here would not only save money in the long run, but also save the lives of untold cats. She points to an extensive Louisiana T-N-R program where, over three years, the Southern Animal Foundation helped shrink a New Orleans feral- cat population from 500 down to 65.
Nothing in Southern Arizona comes close. "There isn't substantial funding in Pima County to help mitigate the cost of getting a feral cat neutered, which I think is a big barrier to a lot of people," Edwards says. "In places like Utah, there are vouchers given out that effectively let you get a free spay (or) neuter at your local vet for your feral cat."
While the county does have a small fund to fix ferals—$5,000 was allocated in 2010—it doesn't come close to efforts made elsewhere. And the numbers show it. "There's a very high euthanasia rate for ferals" at the PACC, she says, suggesting that nearly all such cats are killed.
Edwards also argues that the licensing of cats is long overdue. Not only could it lead to increased vaccinations and sterilizations, she says, but it would also help animal-control officers distinguish between feral and owned cats.
Licensing would overlay Pima County's cat population with a patina of accountability, while potentially raising more than $1.5 million for services such as a broadened T-N-R program.
Still, it could potentially land more cats at PACC—prompting some opposition to the idea from rescue groups—and could increase the workload for animal-control officers.
Another concern is finding money to start a licensing program. "The upstart costs might be a problem," Edwards concedes. "But over time, it would reduce the number of cats coming in. You wouldn't have as many ferals coming in, and hopefully, the domesticated-cat population would be more in check if they're required to be neutered and licensed."
All of which could go a long way toward reducing Pima County's distressingly high euthanasia rates. A bit of number-crunching led Edwards to conclude that the PACC euthanized 17,000 animals in 2010—or 63 percent of all animals brought in.
The center falls under the Pima County Health Department, which in its 2009-2010 annual report claimed that no "adoptable" animal has been euthanized since 2002.
"That's not true," Edwards says of the Health Department claim. "I think in recent years, it has gotten much better. But when I started working at PACC in 2007, they unquestionably euthanized for lack of space."
Officials with the PACC have long said that no animals are killed due to overflow conditions. And spokeswoman Jayne Cundy says the euthanasia numbers cited by Edwards may be wrong, since many animals—such as those hit by cars—are already dead or badly injured when they arrive at the PACC.
Sherry Daniels is director of the Pima County Health Department. She says many of the ideas raised by Edwards have long percolated among administrators and advisory boards, but that each comes with its own hurdles.
Take the licensing of cats. "We've had it on and off the table for a variety of reasons," Daniels says. "I believe it's even been discussed by our Pima Animal Care Center Advisory Committee. It has not necessarily gotten much support from that community, which really helps us (guide) policy."
Public perception is also a big barrier to shifting the way we deal with cats, says Daniels. "People see dogs in a different way—as aggressors. That's one reason why people see rabies and dogs as an issue. But the general public doesn't necessarily realize that cats are also at risk and need to be vaccinated."
Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll has long been an outspoken advocate for reforms at PACC. But the District 4 Republican predicts a potential backlash to cat-licensing.
Increased revenues for animal care could be a plus, he says. "But on the flipside, there are always groups that are against the further advancement of government into their homes and their private lives. How many cats can be the maximum number a family can have? All that stuff is something people are going to worry about."
And that means Carroll has to worry, too. "Hey, I'm willing to hold a hearing on anything," he says. "But there are people who don't want to be told that they have to spay and neuter, or how many animals they can have in a litter."