Inside, cats are beloved pets. Outside, they are invasive predators that collectively kill billions of birds and small mammals a year.

Members of the Minneapolis City Council will step into that fray Wednesday, weighing in on a national debate that is pitting animal lover against animal lover, when they vote on an ordinance that would in essence license the care and feeding of free-roaming cats — if they’re neutered.

The law would allow citizen volunteers to establish feral cat “colonies,” where strays can be fed and cared for — but also neutered, vaccinated and equipped with electronic identity chips. Wednesday’s hearing is expected to draw ardent advocates on both sides; the council’s public safety committee will vote whether to recommend the ordinance to the full City Council for action next week.

Pet protection groups, who would oversee the project, say that it’s about time Minneapolis joined ranks with other cities such as St. Paul to become a “no-kill” city, and that such programs are a more humane way of dealing with abandoned and feral cats. Over time, the cat population should decline, they say.

“The current method of animal control, catch and kill, is not working,” said Christine Hinrichs, clinic coordinator for Pet Project Rescue.

But wildlife conservationists and others say that such “trap, neuter and release” programs only perpetuate the problem of free-roaming cats that are a scourge on wildlife and that there is no evidence they cause their numbers to decline. It’s far better, they say, to require owners to keep their cats indoors and discourage their abandonment.

“We don’t treat any other pets like this,” said Joanna Eckles, of the Minnesota chapter of the Audubon Society. “We don’t spay and neuter boa constrictors. We don’t look at cats in a balanced way.”

It’s not a small problem for the city. Since 2010, Minneapolis Animal Care and Control has killed nearly 2,500 stray and feral cats, a small portion of the hundreds of thousands estimated to be living wild around the Twin Cities.

Nationally, the problem burst into the public eye earlier this year when a study by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute estimated that cats kill billions of birds and small mammals each year.

“House cats are not part of our environment, and they do not belong there,” University of Minnesota ornithologist Robert Zink said in a letter to the Minneapolis City Council. “They are, pure and simple, ecological pollution.”

‘It’s a direct response’

Council Member Cam Gordon said he didn’t propose the ordinance because of a growing problem with cats. The number of stray cats brought to Animal Care and Control rises and falls each year but is generally around 1,000. Some are recovered by their owners, some are given to animal shelters or adoption agencies, and about half are euthanized.

Gordon said he proposed the policy in response to people in his ward who are cat lovers — and because some residents are already feeding feral cats, which only makes the problem worse. Casual feeding attracts varmints like skunks and raccoons, he said, and wild cats can have up to three litters per year.

“It’s a direct response to a cry from individuals and neighbors,” he said. “We want to be able to regulate it … and see if they are working well and not force them into feeling like they are criminals.”

Hinrichs said her organization is already working with 14 people who are managing cat colonies that range from just a few animals to about 30. She said her organization and other cat protection groups teach them how to feed cats without attracting more cats, and they pay for neutering, chips and vaccinations.

“The purpose is managing the existing colonies, not to create new ones,” she said. “I don’t want to see more feral cats on the street.”

The ordinance would also require caretakers to keep records of each cat and immediately trap and neuter new arrivals. It also would prohibit colonies within a half mile of parks, lakes and other wildlife areas, an effort to create a protective buffer for wildlife.

Benefits cited and disputed

Similar programs around the Twin Cities and elsewhere have succeeded in reducing the number of complaints, stray cats turned into the city and feral felines, advocates say. Similar techniques reduced a massive Anoka colony of 200 cats to about 35 after nine or 10 years, said Mike Fry, executive director of Animal Ark. About 85 were adopted, he said.

Conservation scientists, however, dispute such accounts.

“I call it trap, neuter and reabandonment,” said Grant Sizemore, who directs the Cats Indoors program for the American Bird Conservancy. “Because you are not getting at the ultimate source — irresponsible pet owners who are abandoning them.”

As long as unneutered free roaming cats, whether abandoned or not, can make their way to a colony, the population will continue to increase, he said. Studies from around the world have shown them to be “worse than doing nothing.”

Gordon said regulated cat colonies would be just one tool for the city. Residents could still trap nuisance cats and bring them to Animal Care and Control, he said. The city is not ready for a leash law for cats, he said — it was floated before but died in the face of howls of protest from cat owners.

He may be among them. Gordon’s cat is routinely allowed outside but doesn’t go very far, he said.

Though he was quick to add that she isn’t a very good hunter.