Closed-door discussions

PUHI — The group has been known by many names, but most recently it’s been dubbed “the feral cats bill drafting committee.”

The committee has been meeting for a little more than a year, and always behind closed doors.

It is a group that Kauai Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura convened to help direct the formulation of a feral cats bill she intends to introduce to the County Council. She did not provide a time frame for the expected introduction of the bill.

Basil Scott, president of the Kauai Community Cat Project, is one of the nine committee members. He said the committee has representation from bird and other nature conservancy groups. Yukimura said the Kauai Humane Society has representation on the committee, but would not provide the names of the committee members.

“I have had a problem with this because the meetings are held in secret,” Scott said. “It’s not illegal to the letter of the law, but the spirit of the Sunshine Law, the intent, is that openness must be maximized.”

Yukimura said the committee’s meetings aren’t subject to the Sunshine Law, which applies to governmental agencies and their decision-making process. That’s because her committee is not “a decision-making group, nor is it a governmental agency created by constitution, rule, statue or executive order for the purpose of taking official action.”

“To help me do effective problem solving, people need to feel safe to brainstorm and raise out-of-the-box ideas,” Yukimura said. “If the press were present, they would hesitate.”

She continued to say that “things could be taken out of context, and committee members would have to spend a lot of time defending themselves from people who were not in the room. It’s hard enough just trying to solve a complex problem.”

Scott, however, believes that the meetings are being intentionally kept secret because they are contentious.

“JoAnn has set up something that can’t possibly have a positive result,” Scott said.

Yukimura said once the bill has been introduced, there will be “ample time for extensive debate” and all the protections of the Sunshine Law will be triggered.

She said the group’s discussions revolve around one question: How can we reduce the number of feral cats on this island?

“We are looking at how to allow and regulate managed cat colonies while at the same time holding caregivers accountable for reducing the number of cats over time, which they assert will happen,” Yukimura said.

The committee is also considering ways to provide aggressive public education and a spay-and-neuter program.

“Reducing the number of feral cats is particularly important on an island where many endangered bird populations are rapidly declining, partly (because of) free-roaming cats, many of which are feral,” Yukimura said. “We are trying to find an appropriate balance.”

The Kauai Community Cat Project estimates there are between 15,000 and 20,000 stray, abandoned or feral cats on Kauai.

According to Scott, about 250 people work with the organization, which operates a trap-neuter-release program that handles around 3,000 cats annually.

Grant Sizemore, director of the invasive species program for the American Bird Conservancy, said he’s heard those same numbers, but as far as he knows, “nobody has any clue” how many feral cats are really on the island.

“It’s safe to say there’s a large amount,” Sizemore said, “and they don’t fit into the normal, native, healthy ecosystem of Kauai.”

Penny Cistaro, executive director of the Kauai Humane Society, said the organization has received 951 stray cats from July 2015 to the end of February.

“Strays” are any cats that are taken to the Humane Society that have no owner. If they’re unsocialized, or feral, they are euthanized. If the strays are kittens, less than four weeks old, they are euthanized as well.

Of those 951 stray cats, 469 were euthanized because they were either feral or unsocialized, 60 were euthanized because they were unweaned or young kittens, and 44 were euthanized because they had untreatable medical issues.

“When you look at it in that context, the numbers are pretty high and it’s pretty sad,” Cistaro said. “The free-roaming cat problem on the island is huge and when you try to solve it, there are layers upon layers of things.”

Humans introduced the cats that now live on Hawaii, Sizemore explained, and so their place is next to rats, mongoose and other animals on the invasive species list.

“We don’t blame cats; it’s in their nature to hunt,” Sizemore said. “It’s death by a million cuts, really, and each cat plays its part.”

A study by scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in 2013 estimated that outdoor cats kill about 2.4 billion birds annually in the contiguous United States.

Sizemore said the burden is on the public to be responsible with pet ownership, as well as to contend with the cat problem humans have created.

“It begins with spaying and neutering your cats, and keeping your cat contained,” Sizemore said.

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