Controversy is brewing over treatment of feral cats at Universal Studios hotels

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Talk about creating your own public relations mess! What's gone on over the past few months concerning feral cats at the three Loews Hotel properties on the grounds of Universal Studios, Orlando, Fla., remains inexplicable. According to an internal memo, if employees at the hotels feed the cats, this is grounds for dismissal!

The resorts are currently trapping feral cats. In the process, some of the animals are getting hurt.

"It's common for some scrapes, but in my 10 years (of trapping) I've never seen injuries like these," says Carol Needham, a volunteer with CARE Feline TNR, a local non-profit that helps feral cats. "The trapping company is apparently not following protocol to keep the cats calm." The non-profit has stepped up to find temporary foster homes for the trapped feral cats and also is seeking new digs for these cats to live out their lives -- not an easy task.

Feral cats appearing on the grounds of hotels is not a new phenomenon. In 2004, George Ricci, then a bellman at Loews Royal Pacific Resort at Universal, began a program of trap, neuter and return (TNR). The protocol is exactly the right way to deal with feral cats, according to Becky Robinson, president of Alley Cat Allies, a national cat advocacy organization. Feral cats are trapped, then medically checked. They're vaccinated for rabies, spay/neutered, and their ears are tipped to identify which ones cats have been 'TNR'd.' Then they're returned to their feral colonies to live out their lives. Very friendly cats are adopted, as are young kittens. Indeed, Ricci found homes (often employees stepped up) for many of the cats at Royal Pacific.

Ricci says other employees began participating in the program, just to help out the cats. Staff members in the engineering department even built elegant feeders resembling little Italian-style buildings, as staff supplemented the cats with food. No doubt the animals were also catching local vermin.

The hotel knew about the program but never helped subsidize costs, which is where CARE Feline TNR first came in. Then, out of the blue, in January, Loews management decided they had a "better way" to deal with feral cats: trapping them with the apparent intent to exterminate. According to one source, two cats were trapped at the Hard Rock Hotel at Universal and summarily euthanized.

When word of this leaked out, social media and the local news media reported the story and public pressure forced Loews to stop, at least temporarily. Loews says that they sought advice about what to do next.

Jennifer Hodges, director of public relations for Loews Hotels at Universal, responded via email: "For more than two months, we sought input from the public on a solution for re-locating the feral cats. No viable option for re-location emerged, after weeks of diligent outreach. The only option offered was to keep the cats. Our assessment had determined that they must be re-located, in order to make the health and safety of our guests and team members a priority."

Robinson counters, "Well, where do they expect these cats to go? There's no mystical place to re-locate feral cats to."

Ricci notes that a nearby Sheraton property had a more severe problem. Cats were hanging out wherever people were -- even at the pool -- because they'd get handouts. The interactions raised concern, since the hotel didn't want guests scratched or bitten by cats who were basically wild.

"They did it exactly right," says Ricci. "They paid for people who understand TNR. The cats were trapped, spay/neutered and returned, and feeding stations were created and gradually moved away from where guests would see them."

Loews chose another route, hiring a company to trap the cats and remove them to Orange County Animal Services. By law, Animal Services must accept the cats. And though feral cats aren't adoptable, Animal Services thought it was "unfair" to euthanize them.

CARE Feline TNR, has come to the rescue to find foster homes for the cats (often people's garages -- not ideal, but what else could they do?) until somehow a permanent safe place can be found -- perhaps farmland -- to house (ideally) all members of the colonies.

Presumably to expedite the process of trapping the cats, Loews has told employees at all its Universal hotels (Royal Pacific, Hard Rock and Portofino Bay) not to feed the animals, maintaining the decision is intended to "reduce the chance of injury to our guests, team members and tenants." By all accounts, the edict suggests, feed the cats and you may be fired!

Robinson says cats who've grown accustomed to being fed may not find enough food elsewhere. Though Hodges says there's no concerted effort to starve the feral cats to death, that might be the ultimate outcome. Meanwhile, over 20,000 cat lovers have signed an Alley Cat Allies online petition protesting Loews' handling of the matter. There may even be a demonstration.

As for the feral cats, about half have been trapped and removed.

Ricci departed Loews as a full-time employee (to pursue another career) just before the feeding stations were removed and traps put out. He says he received a text message threatening his arrest if he set foot on hotel property again.

"Instead of being humane in their approach, it's as if their new regional director feels he's waged war against these innocent cats," says Ricci. "Clearly, anyone on the cats' side is the enemy. There's something that just isn't normal about that."

(Steve Dale's NEW EBOOKS, "Good Dog!" and "Good Cat!", are available on all major eReader devices and platforms. The basic version of each book is $2.99. An enhanced version of "Good Dog!" with embedded videos is available at iTunes for $4.99. For details, check the "Good Dog!"Facebook page. Write to Steve at Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207. Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is www.stevedalepetworld.com)

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