By Erika Webb
It is a story without end. Stray animals -- roaming dogs and feral cats -- are an overwhelming issue in cities all over the country. Resources are the key to making a dent in the population, but there is an even bigger force at work right here in Volusia County.
Citizens, various city staff members and elected officials who have a passion for animals are finding common ground and forging bonds to help them.
Deltona's new Vice Mayor Heidi Herzberg has long been a voice for those without.
With Deltona Code and Building Services Director Dale Baker and the Halifax Humane Society, she worked out an agreement to trade a city vehicle for spay and neuter services at the society.
Since the program started in July, Mr. Baker said at least 250 animals belonging to Deltona residents -- who otherwise may not have been able to afford the services -- have been spayed and neutered. Residents are required only to pay a $10 registration fee and transport their animals to City Hall the morning of surgery. Halifax personnel take them to the Redinger Low Cost Spay/Neuter Pet Clinic in Daytona Beach and return them in the afternoon to City Hall where owners retrieve their pets.
Mr. Baker said as of Oct. 24, 84 cats and 136 dogs were sterilized through the program.
Vice Mayor Herzberg is delighted with the successful outcome, but a major concern remains.
What about all of the animals without owners to purchase a certificate and drive the animals to City Hall, then care for them after surgery?
Caring citizens all over Volusia feed large groups of feral cats at shopping centers and other commercial locations as well as in neighborhoods.
But those animals multiply at dizzying rates.
On a recent Wednesday night, the vice mayor made her way to a site in Deltona where fellow volunteers trapped six feral cats for transport to Halifax the next morning.
The following afternoon, Vice Mayor Herzberg was at City Hall to pick the animals up. They were taken to another location to recuperate before being released.
DeLand recently passed a cat colony ordinance whereby caregivers may register the colony with the city, agree to have the animals sterilized and then return them to the colonies for continued care.
Port Orange has modeled success dealing with overwhelming numbers of homeless cats. A pilot trap/neuter/release (TNR) program, begun in June 2012 with one cat colony, expanded to 11 others citywide in just six months.
Port Orange Mayor Allen Green is approaching one cat per acre of land he owns. He isn't necessarily seeking more, but he does have 20 acres of land in Port Orange.
"I have 13 cats," Mayor Green said. "If they come up and stay, I take care of them and try to find them homes."
Cats will be cats, but a Siamese who adopted the Mayor prefers the role of guard dog, he said.
Wise possums and turtles steer clear of this particular feline.
"You talk about a boss, somebody who walks this property and patrols this property all night long," he said. "Every cat has a different personality."
Mayor Green said he understands there are polarized points of view on the TNR subject. He happens to be on the solution side.
"It's working, reducing the overall production of cats," he said. "The volunteer group has done an unbelievable job and we've worked with the more proactive vets. It's working for us; that's all I can tell you."
Concerned Citizens for Animal Welfare (CCFAW) is the volunteer group that spearheaded the project in Port Orange.
Vice Mayor Herzberg said the organization is the main liaison between most of the cities in Volusia for information and grants.
"Grants are out there, mostly for feral cats ... and there are some for pit bulls," the vice mayor said. "That's the main reason these West Volusia cities need to get on board."
Pat Mihalic, treasurer and co-founder of CCFAW, said Port Orange just got a $20,000 grant from Pet Smart Charities to aid its cat colony program. Pet Smart Charities representatives got wind of what the city was doing and suggested the city apply for the grant.
It was awarded in a record amount of time, she said.
Ms. Mihalic and CCFAW president and co-founder Cheryl Robel have spoken at commission and council meetings throughout the county, and have advised city staff and officials about what works.
Edgewater is mimicking Port Orange's program and New Smyrna Beach and Holly Hill are ready to adopt programs as well, Ms. Mihalic said.
"The City of Daytona Beach spent almost $140,000 last year on impoundment and euthanasia," Ms. Mihalic said. "Port Orange, the first year (it employed TNR) did over 200 cats. They spent under $15,000 and $3,000 to $4,000 of that was for traps and feeding stations."
She said this year Port Orange spent $18,000, which will be covered by the grant funds.
The 2012 test colony at Horizon Elementary School in Port Orange has given way to 14 others in the city, 13 of which are well under control. The 14th, at the 7-Eleven at the corner of Taylor Road and Williamson Boulevard was waylaid by construction and some well-meaning people who were inadvertently keeping the cats from being trapped. But Ms. Mihalic said 11 cats from that 25-cat colony recently were trapped, sterilized and returned.
"It should be under control shortly," she said. "It won't be long now."
She said discussions with Southwest Volusia cities about the program were favorable.
"We met with Orange City, Deltona and DeBary," she said. "They loved it and are just figuring out how to do it."
Mayor Green said Port Orange continues to tweak the ordinance and methodology, aiming for perfection.
"We work cooperatively with other cities and have spun off some things Ponce Inlet did," Mayor Green said.
In addition to helping establish the Redinger Low Cost Spay/Neuter Pet Clinic at Halifax, Alan Redinger, who passed away in 2012, was instrumental in creating Ponce Inlet Animal Welfare, which worked to enact a TNR ordinance there.
DeBary's assistant city manager, Kassandra Blissett, lives in Port Orange and is passionate about animals as well. She is very proud of what her hometown has accomplished. She's only too happy to extend a helping hand to West Volusia where she spends her work days and nights and is equally proud to serve as a city employee, considering it her second home.
"We have been in constant communication with Halifax Humane Society during the transition from the County of Volusia providing animal services to the current contract with Orange City for these services," Ms. Blissett wrote in an emailed response to questions. "We are planning a meeting after the holidays to discuss opportunities and partnerships that are mutually beneficial to the City, Halifax Humane Society, our sister cities, and perhaps even the county, with the ultimate goals being animal welfare and providing the most cost effective services to our residents."
Last month, DeBary contracted with Orange City for use of its temporary holding facility where animals are kept while City of DeBary staff attempt to locate their owners.
Though some go unclaimed and must be surrendered to Halifax, Ms. Blissett estimated the rate of lost and found animals being returned to their owners or adopted to be between 80 and 90 percent thus far.
Veering away from using Volusia County's Animal Control Services has the potential to save the City of DeBary tens of thousands of dollars over the course of the three-year contract, according to a Sept. 13 agenda item presented to the DeBary City Council.
The humane society and Deltona "graciously" allowed DeBary to participate, offering transport of three animals to the Redinger Clinic for the reduced spaying/neutering program, Ms. Blissett noted, adding that continuation of the transport program will be among the topics discussed at the upcoming meeting.
"Working closely with Vice Mayor Herzberg, Orange City, and even the County of Volusia recently on these animal issues has shown that we have an amazing network of conscientious, dedicated employees and elected officials who can execute a plan seamlessly, without regard to boundaries when we share a common goal," she wrote.
Like Mayor Green, Vice Mayor Herzberg and Ms. Blissett understand that not everyone cherishes four-legged, furry friendships in the same way they do. They get that some do not consider animals a priority at all.
To those citizens and fellow government officials they proffer the universally sought after concept of cost savings.
"If people don't like (TNR) from a policy standpoint, my God, look at the money we're spending," Vice Mayor Herzberg said. "Deltona spends 150 grand a year euthanizing animals."
While some cities have ordinances, others prefer TNR to be an internal policy by which elected officials direct city staff.
Ms. Mihalic believes creating an internal policy is the best avenue.
"You don't have to change or add ordinances," she said.
Vice Mayor Herzberg's "number one priority" is to continue to provide low-cost spay and neuter services to Deltona residents.
"They need it, as evidenced by how grateful they are for this," she said of the arrangement with Halifax Humane Society.
Reducing overpopulation reduces costs to the city, she said.
"My other wish is to try to get more grants to take care of pet overpopulation. That $150,000 that we spend can be spent on other things for residents," Vice Mayor Herzberg added.
And last but certainly not least:
"We need a holding facility for lost animals so people can go somewhere in Southwest Volusia to check for, and pick up, their animals," she said.