Charleston County has taken the first step toward approving a controversial program that would legalize free-roaming cats and clear the way for an initiative to trap, sterilize and release feral cats instead of euthanizing them.

The program is aimed at feral cats and cats with no owners, but the pending ordinance would allow any cat to roam free in Charleston County so long as it's been sterilized, vaccinated, microchipped for identification and ear-tipped to indicate those steps have been taken. The Charleston Animal Society and other groups hope the program will reduce feral cat populations over time by sterilizing captured cats.

However, the immediate effect could be returning 1,000 to 1,500 feral cats to the wild over the course of a year instead of euthanizing them, and that prospect has bird-oriented animal groups, including Audubon S.C. and the Cape Romain Bird Observatory, very concerned.

A public hearing on the plan is scheduled for 5 p.m. Nov. 17 in County Council chambers. The council gave an ordinance that would support the program initial approval Tuesday on an 8-1 vote.

Two more votes by County Council, and the completion of a satisfactory plan to implement the program, would be needed before the initiative could begin.

Councilman Victor Rawl cast the dissenting vote.

"I have reservations with returning feral cats to the locations where they were captured," Rawl said Wednesday. "I grew up in the woods, and I know that a feral cat is destructive to birds, rabbits and anything they can catch."

The program would be funded by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, not the county. The county stands to save between $40,000 and $50,000 because it would be paying the Charleston Animal Society for fewer cat euthanizations.

Joe Elmore, local representative for the ASPCA, said the goal of the program is to reduce feral cat populations. He said that trapping, spaying or neutering, vaccinating and microchipping healthy free-roaming cats and releasing them where they were found will help end the cycle of ever-growing populations.

Trapping and killing feral cats, the current practice, might seem a more certain way of reducing their numbers, but Elmore said that's a misconception.

"Lets say I'm driving down Dorchester Road and I see a bunch of cats at a Dumpster by a convenience store, and I call animal control on my cell phone," he said. "If you remove the cats and euthanize them, other cats will come in and breed and take their place."

Elmore said sterilizing and vaccinating those feral cats would allow them to defend their food source from other feral cats that might have simply taken their place, and those other feral cats will, Elmore said, likely get sick and die.

"The current strategies just aren't working," he said. "The whole purpose behind this is to reduce, and permanently eliminate, the population of feral cats."

Last year in Charleston County, 2,497 adult cats and 2,078 kittens were euthanized, Elmore said. Of those, 2,400 were feral cats.

Charles Karesh of the Charleston Animal Society has estimated that, had the proposed program been in place last year, up to 1,500 of the feral cats could have been spayed or neutered and released.