This largely volunteer effort seeks to control a problem that vexes cities everywhere: how to manage homeless, free-roaming cats -- thought to number at least 1 million in Los Angeles -- while trying to avoid euthanizing them.
But the Audubon Society and other bird and wildlife groups say the program violates state environment laws. And what's more, they contend it isn't reducing the number of feral cats, which prey on many types of birds.
So the bird people took the city to court, much to the dismay of the cat people. Last month, after a daylong trial, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge sided with the plaintiffs, and it recently issued an injunction barring the city from subsidizing or promoting the trap-neuter-release program until environmental studies are completed.
In the long-playing Sylvester-vs.-Tweety battles, score a big one for the birds.
"The latest estimates are that there are about . . . 160 million feral cats [nationwide]," said Steve Holmer, senior policy advisor of the American Bird Conservancy, one of the groups that sued the city of Los Angeles. "It's conservatively estimated that they kill about 500 million birds a year."
But Judge Thomas McKnew Jr.'s decision sent a chill through cat advocates, who fear it could discourage municipalities across the nation from employing trap-neuter-release as a way to reduce shelter killings.
"There will be diminished public awareness of the homeless cat situation and the trap-neuter-release solution," said Mark Dodge, founder of the nonprofit FixNation. "More homeless cats get abandoned, get ignored. It will probably mean more euthanasias of cats in shelters."
In addition to barring city vouchers that offset the cost of neutering, the city cannot release feral cats from shelters to organizations like FixNation; conduct public outreach about the program; refer complaints about feral cats to trap-neuter-release groups; or waive cat-trap rental fees. (In the last fiscal year, the city spent about $240,000 subsidizing 8,000 surgeries for stray cats.)
City animal control officials declined to comment. The deputy city attorney on the case did not return repeated phone calls.
Not surprisingly, the ruling set off a flurry of emotional rhetoric.
In one online petition expressing outrage over the "ill-advised ruling," signer Joanna Milkowski quoted Gandhi: "A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members." Another called on people to "Help the Babies!!!!"
Dodge even suggested that these bird groups are "extremists" who "need to be marginalized" just like "Islamic jihadists."
"It's ugly; it's gotten very vicious," said Travis Longcore of the Urban Wildlands Group, one of the organizations that sued the city on behalf of the birds. "It's not like we've got a vendetta here. This is a real environmental issue, a real public health issue."
Although neutering and releasing the cats "appeals to the illusion of a win-win situation," Longcore said, the birds and other wildlife are losing out. "The fact is, you decide not to kill cats and instead you kill wildlife."
Those cats, Longcore said, often are diseased. And when colonies are fed, the practice often attracts more cats, either from around the neighborhood or because people dump new cats.
At San Pedro's Cabrillo Beach, a feral cat colony resides near where snowy plovers nest, said Garry George, conservation chairman for the Los Angeles Audubon Society. At San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, George said, feral cats have wiped out the California quail population. And in San Diego, feral cats roam free near a habitat for the California least tern, which officials are trying to monitor and protect, he said.
But even if environmental reviews are conducted, the question at the core of the dispute would remain: Does neutering feral cats effectively reduce their numbers?
Longcore, in a paper published in the scientific journal Conservation Biology, suggests that it does not, making him a prime target for cat lovers.