RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And in state legislatures around the country, lawmakers are debating all sorts of key issues: education reform, election laws, gun control. In Florida, one of the hottest issues to come before the state lawmakers this term involves cats, as NPR's Greg Allen reports.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: This is a story that starts out warm and cuddly - with Larry Wasserscheid, a volunteer with a Miami group, the Cat Network.
LARRY WASSERSCHEID: She's a little baby. We don't want her to be scared.
ALLEN: Wasserscheid has brought a stray cat to a church parking lot in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood. The Cat Network is here every month offering free spaying and neutering. There are more than 40 volunteers like Wasserscheid - people who trap the strays and bring them to the group's mobile vet unit to be fixed.
WASSERSCHEID: This cat was at the Hurricane Cove Marina & Boatyard, where I was working on my boat and found five cats. And this is the fourth one that we're getting fixed here.
ALLEN: The Cat Network operates a trap-neuter-return program. It's actually more than a program; it's a movement that began in England and which has spread throughout the U.S. since the 1990s.
Cat Network president Megan Clouser says it started as people became aware of all the stray animals that were being killed in shelters.
MEGAN CLOUSER: Unfortunately, we've been doing that for about a hundred years now. So, why not try something that keeps the animals out of the shelter and keeps them sterilized so they aren't reproducing.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)
CLOUSER: If you want to come in.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi...
ALLEN: Inside the mobile unit, a vet and her three assistants are busy. There are a dozen cats in carriers. One by one the cats have an area on their stomachs shaved. Clouser says they're given rabies shots, sedated and then either neutered or spayed.
CLOUSER: In addition to the actual sterilization, they also get the ear tip, in which the left ear is clipped. It goes straight across. And then, anyone who is involved in the trap-neuter-return program will know that that animal has been sterilized.
ALLEN: Clouser calls it a labor of love. All of those involved are volunteers, doing it because they like cats and they want to help the community.
But not everyone thinks those activities are a good thing.
CHARLES HALL: It's just been a nightmare for us.
ALLEN: At a recent hearing before a state Senate Committee in Tallahassee, Charles Hall said he and his wife lived next door to a colony of 40 to 50 feral cats. He said the noise, the nuisance and the smell were a big problem. He worries that trap-neuter-return programs aren't helping.
HALL: We no longer have rights. The cats have taken over our rights.
ALLEN: Florida's Senate is considering a bill brought forward by community cat groups that would protect and promote trap-neuter-return programs by making one key change to state law.
It removes an obstacle the groups say has halted these programs in some areas, a law against abandoning cats.
Denise Lasher works with the organization that helped write the bill, Best Friends Animal Society.
DENISE LASHER: And all we're doing is clarifying that, under the definitions of community cat program, that would not be abandonment under state law.
ALLEN: Lasher testified at a contentious Senate committee hearing that could almost be called a catfight. There were plenty of cat lovers but almost an equal number opposed to the bill. Some cited a threat to public health.
But the best-organized opposition to the Florida bill comes from those with their own furry and feathered creatures to protect, wildlife groups, especially those that represent birdwatchers.
Bob Johns of the American Bird Conservancy says although cats make nice pets, they don't belong in the wild.
BOB JOHNS: Feral cats are not native to North America. And they frankly did not evolve in this environment, and so wildlife never evolved any defenses against this predator.
ALLEN: A study published earlier this year by the Smithsonian and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that outdoor cats are the leading cause of death for birds in the U.S., killing between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds annually.
What's not clear is whether trap-neuter-return programs actually reduce feral cat populations. Some studies show that, even when they're targeted by the programs, cat colonies often continue to grow.
Dozens of cities around the country and a few states have adopted laws and ordinances supporting trap-neuter-return programs. Wildlife groups are hoping to block the legislation here to stop Florida from following suit.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.