Groups Hoping To Change County’s Feral Cat Law

BERLIN – Last year, Susan Coleman spent more than $50,000 on food, veterinary care and supplies for Worcester County’s feral cats.

What drives her crazy is seeing animal control officers trap and euthanize some of those same cats.

“We want to stop the unnecessary killing,” said Coleman, who operates Community Cats Coalition.

She’s joined a number of other local cat advocates to fight for a law change that would keep that from happening. Community Cats Coalition, Town Cats and West Side Animal Rescue are in the process of contacting county leaders to bring that about.

“We’re the voice of these animals,” Coleman said. “No one else is going to stand up for these cats.”

According to Coleman, the problem is that Worcester County law doesn’t recognize free roaming cats. Feral cats being provided for by groups like Coleman’s are considered domestic animals and thus fall under the purview of Worcester County Animal Control. If someone calls to complain about the cats, they’re trapped and seized by animal control.

“If a neighbor complains, animal control comes down and traps and kills the cat,” Coleman said.

She says trapping and removing the animals is not solving the problem. Groups like Coleman’s believe that trapping the cats, having them neutered and rereleasing them, commonly known as TNR (Trap Neuter Release) is the only humane solution to the problem. The cats that go through the TNR program are fixed, vaccinated and have an ear marked to identify them as such. Coleman and other volunteers typically take 80 cats a month to a low-cost clinic across the Bay Bridge to be vaccinated and spayed or neutered.

Liz Holtz, associate director of law and policy for Alley Cat Allies, says the law in Worcester County makes it difficult for groups to carry out TNR because the animals they care for can be impounded by animal control. Though ideally she’d like to see local officials participate in TNR, a simple law change would help organizations like Community Cat Coalition.

“Specifically we’d like the law changed to protect ear-tipped cats from impoundment and euthanasia,” Holtz said.

Lt. Neil Adams of the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office says the problem with the colonies of cats local groups are feeding is that they’re generally in populated areas.

“These cats are wild,” he said. “They wander. They defecate on people’s picnic tables. People call in complaints.”

When that happens, because the cats fall under the section of Worcester County code pertaining to at-large animals, animal control officers respond.

“It shall be unlawful for any person to permit a dog, cat or other animal owned or harbored by him to run at large,” Worcester County code reads. “Any such animal running at large maybe be apprehended by the Animal Control Warden or other designated officer and may be impounded in the animal pound.”

Traps are set up on the property of the individual who complained and the cats are taken to Worcester County Animal Control in Snow Hill. There, they are typically held for 10 days. If the animal is adoptable, animal control officers add it to their list of available animals. If not, it is euthanized.

“If it’s too feral, we put the animal down,” Adams said. “We cannot have the liability to put a wild animal back in the community.”

Animals may be euthanized before the 10 days are up if they’re showing possible signs of infectious or communicable diseases.

Adams said that many of the cats, though healthy, were simply too wild to make suitable pets.

“We put them in cages with food and water and a litter box,” Adams said. “These cats go to the bathroom in the litterbox and then lay in it. Someone’s not going to want that in their home.”

Animal control officers are aware cats that have been through the TNR program have notched or tipped ears. “If that’s the case, we do try to hold the animal,” Adams said, adding that individuals claiming animals from the office were required to pay an impound fee and board.

Carlene Morrison of West Side Animal Rescue says she doesn’t understand why feral cats are the subjects of complaints to animal control.

“I don’t understand why there’s this general hatred of an animal that’s not doing anything to you,” she said. “It’s not like a wolf. They’re going to run in the opposite direction.”

Like Coleman, she finds it frustrating that various groups are spending time and money to spay and neuter the feral cats only to have them captured by animal control.

Coleman said the TNR effort, which she believes has resulted in a reduction in the number of feral cats locally, only serves to save taxpayers’ money.

“I’d like to see us all work together and do TNR as the humane solution,” she said.

Adams said the county code simply did not allow for free roaming cats.

“If we were talking wild dogs, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation,” he said.

According to Andrea Mathias, deputy health officer for the Worcester County Health Department, the fact that the feral cats roam freely is the root of the problem. While she called the efforts of cat advocacy groups “laudable,” Mathias would like to see them do more to contain the animals.

“If there are colonies of cats that are maintained, there should be an effort to also contain them,” she said. “A lot of the issues we come across are because the cats are free roaming.”

The health department’s interest in feral cats extends to two areas — nuisance property conditions and rabies. Mathias said feral cats weren’t monitored and couldn’t be protected from exposure to rabid wildlife. While those that go through the TNR program are vaccinated, if a situation comes up it’s hard to identify when and whether a particular cat was vaccinated, as vaccination certificates are often labeled with a cat’s color or markings.

“There’s no way to identify an individual cat is the actual cat that was given the vaccine,” Mathias said.

If a feral cat bites or scratches someone and is not caught for testing, Mathias says the health department treats the person as if they have been exposed to rabies.

“We have to assume the worst,” she said, adding that it would cost an individual between $7,000 and $10,000 to receive the necessary shots and hospital care.

Healthcare providers assume the worst because once symptoms develop, rabies is fatal.

“Once you develop symptoms, it’s too late,” Mathias said. “You can’t wait and see. It’s uniformly fatal.”

While the health department is quick to point out that cats are the most common domestic animal to come down with rabies, Coleman and Morrison argue that raccoons are the primary culprit in spreading the disease.

“They’re not rounding them up the way they’re viciously rounding up cats,” Coleman said.

Adams maintains that animal control is not targeting feral cats.

“We do not stalk feral cat colonies,” he said. “We go out when we get a complaint.”

Aside from the health department’s concern regarding feral cats and exposure to rabies, Mathias said another issue was the nuisance they could sometimes create for neighboring property owners.

“A large colony of cats can be a destructive force,” she said.

Feral cats don’t respect property boundaries. Just because they’re dropped off at a particular property after being neutered and vaccinated, it doesn’t mean they’ll stay at that property. Mathias says that while they may show up at a location where food is regularly set out for them, they won’t stay there.

“It isn’t a fair request to ask a person to allow a colony of cats to roam on their property,” Mathias said.

Coleman, on the other hand, says feral cats aren’t roaming neighborhoods in packs. At Assateague Point, where she helps care for a colony of about 60 cats, she never sees more than a handful at a time. She added that colonies of feral cats only existed because of irresponsible pet owners.

“It’s a human problem,” she said. “People get these cats when they’re kittens and when they’re no longer cute they throw them out.”

Morrison says feeding the cats is no different than feeding wild birds. She says she’s not responsible for the birds she feeds and shouldn’t be responsible for the cats either.

“I feed the birds every day and I don’t own those birds,” she said.

The position of animal control officers, according to Adams, is that because individuals have been feeding the cats on a regular basis they’re taken on the responsibility.  The difference between feeding cats and birds, he said, was that cats weren’t wild animals.

“Somebody has to take the responsibility,” he said. “It’s a domestic animal not a wild animal.”

Adams added though, that animal control officers were simply enforcing the laws county leaders put in place.

“Animal control gets a bad rap because they enforce it but we’re not the ones who came up with it,” he said. “This was adopted by the County Commissioners years ago.”

Coleman, Morrison and the rest of the local cat advocates realize that and say that’s why they’re committed to working with the Worcester County Commissioners to see some changes.

“The law needs to be changed because if TNR is a viable way of maintaining colonies they need to be protected,” Morrison said.

Anyone interested in more information on her group or similar local groups can visit www.westsideanimalrescue.com, www.communitycatscoalition.com or www.towncats.net.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.