The Prince George's County Council is hoping to avoid a catfight over a proposed bill that would allow feral cats to be released rather than euthanized.

The bill, introduced by Councilwoman Mary Lehman, D-Laurel, would give cats that have been "ear-tipped" a better chance of avoiding euthanasia. Ear-tipped cats have been trapped, vaccinated and neutered, then returned to the outdoors by an animal welfare group. These groups cut a quarter-inch off the tip of the cat's left ear to signify that the cat has been neutered and vaccinated.

Under the proposed legislation, animal welfare groups that use "Trap, Neuter, Return," or TNR, would be given 72 hours to pick up and release an ear-tipped cat that has been turned in to the county. There is a three-strike rule, however -- an ear-tipped cat captured three times must be released in a different area. Animal control officers who respond to a call for a trapped ear-tipped cat must let it go.

The county would not do any of the trapping, vaccinating or neutering. That would remain left up to outside groups.

Lehman's legislation is a response to the county's animal kill rates, which have drawn the ire of animal welfare organizations. According to a report from the county's Department of Environmental Resources, 11,542 cats were euthanized from 2009 to 2011, with about 37 percent of them feral. The county had a 300 percent increase in feral cat intakes, from 410 in 2009 to 1,642 in 2011.

Advocates for TNR say it keeps the feral population down without killing animals. "A feral cat cannot be a pet in someone's home," said Alison Grasheim, a spokeswoman for Alley Cat Allies. "Across the country, nearly all feral cats are killed when they're brought to a shelter."

Some critics, however, say that euthanasia is a better option for the cats than dying from predators, disease or weather conditions outdoors. Others cite potential harm to wild bird populations or the potential to transmit diseases to pets and humans.

"It's a very nice theory, but it doesn't work," said Gavin Shire, vice president of the American Bird Conservancy. "It's a threat to birds and a threat to human health."

The strategy has seen some success locally. A January report from the Fairfax County Police Department said about 1,800 feral cats had been trapped, vaccinated, neutered and returned since the program was enacted in October 2008. The county's animal shelter saw a 58 percent decrease in feral offspring in the shelter's foster program from 2010 to 2011, the report said.

Lehman said her bill is an attempt to bridge both sides of the debate. "This is not a TNR bill," she said. "All it does is acknowledge that people are doing it."