Loews Hotels in Orlando give community cats the shaft

Recently, Loews Hotels announced they would be discontinuing their responsible management of on-site feral (“community”) cat colonies at their luxury hotels and resorts in Orlando, Florida.

This abrupt, ill-conceived policy shift has created an understandable stir in the animal welfare community, including among national organizations experienced in trap/neuter/return (TNR) of free-roaming cats and knowledgeable about the benefits TNR programs provide to communities and cats. Aside from canned public announcements from the hotel public relations’ office, there have been few answers to the legitimate questions being posed about this policy shift.

In March, Best Friends reached out to Loews in the hope of resolving the issue and gaining a reprieve for the cats. Loews’ attorney couldn’t give any examples of specific problems being caused by the cats. The hotel’s inability to articulate the issues implied they were not seeking suggestions to the problem but rather simply wanted the cats removed.

After being bombarded on their Facebook page for weeks by cat lovers and TNR advocates, the hotel chain finally posted rationale for changing its policy. The policy change is allegedly based on the Rabies Prevention and Control in Florida 2008 report wherein it states that the management of free-roaming cat colonies “is not tenable on public health grounds because of the persistent threat posed to communities from injury and disease.”

Given that TNR programs provide rabies vaccines to cats who would normally go unvaccinated, it’s disturbing that community cats are being targeted for removal. In fact, the same 2008 report Loews is relying on so heavily to justify the cats’ removal specifically states that vaccinating cats plays an important role in “reducing the risk of human exposure to infection if the animal is involved in a biting accident.” It sounds like implementing TNR would be a step forward toward protecting public health. Some health departments agree, and a number have partnered with organizations that conduct TNR.

Loews was allegedly forced to hire Critter Control, a pest control company whose trapping techniques were questioned by Alley Cat Allies and others when hotel cats ended up at the local animal shelter suffering from obvious injuries. (See a post about the situation on the Vox Felina website.)

It’s important to note that the Florida Department of Health is also culpable for the cats’ circumstances because of the agency’s current policy that dreadfully undermines the importance of the services provided by community cat caregivers. Granted, health departments are solely responsible for protecting human health, but there is no denying that a vaccinated, sterilized colony of cats provides far better protection against the spread of disease to humans than unsterilized, unvaccinated animals. Well-managed colonies actually curtail feline population growth and serve as a natural barrier to protect humans from potential disease transmission.

Progressive programs like TNR that serve to minimize human health risk and exposure should be embraced, not condemned by the same state agencies entrusted with this responsibility. For an agency to publicly denounce the invaluable community services provided by well-managed TNR colonies is as misguided as Loews’ belief that rounding up all of the cats currently on their properties will permanently rid the properties of cats.

Luckily, CARE Feline TNR, an impressive local group, is working with the municipal animal shelter to save the impounded Loews’ cats. Sadly, it is important to note that relocating community cats is so labor and resource intensive, it is rarely a viable option. The best approach lies with more health departments and local governments getting on board with TNR.

Please contact the Florida Department of Health and urge the agency to reevaluate its position and embrace public policies that serve to better promote human health and compassion toward animals.