By DOUGLAS HANKS Associated Press/ Miami Herald

MIAMI – At Zoo Miami, a debate is raging over the territory one species can rightfully roam. That would be the stray cat.

Zookeepers say feral cats living next door in South Dade’s Larry and Penny Thompson Park creep into the zoo animals’ enclosures and risk spreading a disease that has already killed a red kangaroo and three squirrel monkeys. This month county workers started trapping cats in the park, with plans to offer healthy felines up for adoption and euthanize sick ones.

“We see them almost every day,” zoo spokesman Ron Magill said of interloping cats. “It’s becoming an increasingly common phenomenon.”

The operation enraged local pet advocates, who accuse the county-owned zoo of paranoid veterinary science and pursuing a futile effort to clear a 270-acre park of at least 200 cats who would be better off managed inside the habitat they call home.

“That is their territory. That is where they or- know they are safe,” said Cindy Hewitt, a volunteer with the Cat Network organization, which advocates for homeless cats. She said the zoo has a “legitimate concern” about protecting its animals, but that securing the property is more realistic than trying to purge the surrounding areas of stray cats.

“If you can contain your population,” Hewitt said, “you can keep the cats out.”

The trapping effort for Zoo Miami captures some of the complications tied to a drastic change in how Miami-Dade County treats stray cats.

The county’s Animal Services department used to euthanize homeless cats that weren’t adopted, with nearly 9,500 cats killed at Miami-Dade’s lone animal shelter in 2011. But in 2012, the county launched a new approach that has stray cats sterilized and then put back in the neighborhood where they were found.

Launching the “trap-neuter-and-re- turn” program brought a steep drop in euthanize cats – only about 1,200 were killed at the shelter in 2015, a nearly 90 percent decline in just four years. It also brought a steady stream of county-sterilized cats put back on the street: about 10,000 in 2015, or 27 a day. Treated cats return with nicked ears, allowing concerned citizens to spot untreated cats for future capture.

Returning sterilized cats to the county’s Thompson Park wouldn’t solve the zoo’s complaints. So Miami-Dade is trying to rid the area of cats altogether, rather than slowly shrinking the existing population through attrition.

Magill said four monkeys and the red kangaroo died from toxoplasmosis in recent years. The disease that can be spread by cat feces, and zoo keepers are concerned lemurs, koalas, tamarins and other monkeys are vulnerable to catborne contamination.

He estimates there are at least 200 cats living in Thompson Park. A brief trapping effort by the county Parks Department captured 19 cats, with 17 sent to Animal Services for placement. The zoo euthanized two it said tested positive for feline leukemia.