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Advocates battle over future of 40,000 stray cats living in D.C.

A cat fight has erupted in the Nation's Capital.

On one side, biologists - who say the estimated 40,000 stray cats that now live on the streets of D.C. have invaded protected wildlife areas and are killing off native species.

Their opponents - cat activists - who are unwilling to give an inch and are determined to keep those cats alive.

Biologist Dan Rauch has devoted his life to saving D.C.'s wildlife.

"We know this ecosystem has been compromised,” explained Rauch, as he walked along the edge of the U.S. National Arboretum. “There is a direct threat of cat predation."

Rebekah DeHaven, an attorney for Ally Cat Allies, has devoted her life to saving feral felines.

"Humans have a special relationship with cats,” said DeHaven.

Rauch and DeHaven are adversaries in a looming battle over how feral cats should be classified.

In D.C., stray cats are not considered an invasive species even though they fit the definition of a non-native predator. While other invasive animals like fish, or deer or even dogs are often killed in the District for causing harm, cats have special protections.

Protections bestowed in 2008, when D.C. implemented a Trap-Neuter-Return policy. Former Council Member Tommy Wells voted for it.

"Just like everybody else, I thought these are just cute animals,” stated Wells. “They're cats. I don't want any animal to be euthanized."

Now, nine years later, Wells runs D.C.'s Department of Energy and Environment. He tells the I-Team Trap-Neuter-Return has resulted in more cats, which kill thousands of animals like robins, chipmunks and rabbits in protected wildlife areas like the U.S. National Arboretum.

When asked if he would vote for TNR now, Wells replied, "Absolutely not. It doesn't make sense to knowingly introduce an invasive predator into an area that is sensitive with species of great concern."

Wells is now calling for a new cat policy, so populations can be controlled. The problem? Felis catus could be labeled an invasive species.

"DOEE is alleging there is a problem. We're not,” said David Smith, with the Humane Rescue Alliance.

Smith calls TNR a huge success. In 2007, D.C. euthanized 3,732 cats. Last year, only 589 were killed, all sick or injured.

"We don't believe cats are an invasive species," added Smith.

Clearly not. In the last nine years, the non-profit has neutered and returned 15,070 cats to the streets of D.C.

"Let's sit down and figure out how to get this done - how to protect wildlife but at the same time protect cats, who should not be killed just because they're a cat,” said Smith.

"It's going to come to a tipping point,” added Rauch, who says the cats and DC’s native species cannot co-exist. "One hundred and thirty species of bird, small mammals, amphibians and reptiles in the U.S. National Arboretum and they are all in trouble."

Trap-Neuter-Return in D.C. is a law. Any re-classification on cats would require legislative action by City Council and the Mayor.

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