County’s Animal Control Defends Handling Of Cat Ordeal Amid Turmoil

SNOW HILL – Though a national campaign to save the life of a feral cat trapped as part of a rabies investigation failed, its effects continue to be felt in Worcester County.

The Worcester County Health Department gave a formal report to the Worcester County Commissioners Tuesday after elected officials received thousands of emails asking them to save the life of Oliver, a cat trapped in West Ocean City. The cat was euthanized July 13. Since then, a Worcester County Animal Control officer has been assaulted and the agency continues to receive threats.

“It has been a very difficult time,” said Sue Rantz, the county’s chief animal control officer. “We have had people calling, voice messages have been left. They’ve threatened our lives, our homes … We have been condemned for everything we have done.”

Last week, the national group Alley Cat Allies launched a campaign to save the life of Oliver, a cat captured by animal control at Ocean Village, a townhouse community in West Ocean City. Oliver was trapped and removed from the community after a cat from the same colony tested positive for rabies in June.

“A local rescue group was willing and able to take on the financial and legal responsibility of quarantining the cat for up to six months, but they were not allowed to take custody of the cat,” said Molly Armus, staff attorney for Alley Cat Allies. “The group has successfully quarantined cats previously in Wicomico County.”

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According to Worcester County Health Officer Debbie Goeller, her department was contacted June 11 by Pet’s ER in Salisbury. The veterinarian’s office said a family staying at Ocean Village had brought in a cat that was displaying the symptoms of rabies. Goeller said the cat was euthanized and sent to the state for testing. Four days later, her department was notified that the cat had tested positive for rabies. That same day, health department officials posted notices in Ocean Village advising residents that a rabid cat had been found in the vicinity.

“They also went door to door to determine if additional people or pets had been exposed to this rabid cat,” Goeller said. “That is our normal procedure.”

Her staff determined that two adults and one child required post exposure rabies treatment. They also established the cat that had been euthanized was part of a larger colony that lived on the Ocean Village property.

“The health department determined that all of the cats had been exposed to rabies,” she said. “Therefore, the remaining cats needed to be removed from the community and humanely euthanized to reduce the risk of additional rabies exposures.”

Mann Properties, Ocean Village’s property management company, was notified and authorized the trapping and removal of the cats. Though traps were set June 16, no cats were captured until June 28.

“In large part, they were unable to be trapped because someone was continuing to feed those cats, hampering animal control’s trapping efforts,” Goeller said.

The cat known as Oliver was trapped June 28 and Goeller’s department was contacted by Karlene Morrison of Westside Animal Rescue in Nanticoke. Goeller said Morrison told them she’d helped get the “gray tabby with the bad eye” that had been trapped neutered and vaccinated. She offered to provide the animal’s rabies vaccination certificate.

“Ms. Morrison was advised the cat trapped by animal control was not a gray tabby although it did have an injured eye and that the certificate that was provided must accurately identify the cat,” Goeller said.

When the certificate was submitted the following day, however, Goeller determined it was not valid.

“It did not accurately identify the cat,” she said. “Nor did it identify that the cat was from Ocean Village. Additionally the rabies vaccination was expired so it was determined to not be valid.”

Goeller said her decision was supported by the state’s public health veterinarian.

Armus, however, says that animal control refused to give them a description of the impounded cat.

“So how could the rescue group provide a rabies certificate without a description of the cat that was impounded?,” she asked.

She and members of other advocacy groups questioned launched a letter writing campaign urging the county commissioners to intercede to save the cat’s life.

“Put most simply, Worcester County can and should allow a well-equipped, experienced organization to assume the care for the length of the quarantine period,” Alley Cat Allies’ Alice Burton wrote in a letter to the commissioners. “The latter option is a humane, judicious use of taxpayer funds that fulfills the county’s responsibility to protect residents and other animals from any possible rabies risk.”

Goeller maintained that in Maryland, only bats and raccoons tested positive for rabies more frequently than cats. Cats, she added, could incubate rabies for up to six months.

“For a full six-month time period, those cats can be incubating rabies and could begin shedding the virus at any time,” she said.

According to Goeller, if the animal is incubating the disease it won’t test positive for it. A positive test only occurs when the animal is shedding the disease, and shedding can begin three to four days before the creature shows symptoms of rabies.

The cat known as Oliver was euthanized July 13 and animal control officers are still trying to trap the rest of the cats in the colony. Lt. Edward Schreier, spokesman for the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office, says that because the cats are essentially wild it’s hard to tell how many remain at Ocean Village.

“The colony of cats can grow due to food being left around for them,” he said.

When asked if animal control would be using tranquilizer darts to catch cats there, Schreier said it was a practice occasionally used.

“The Ocean Village community has asked animal control to help them remove an unwanted and unauthorized colony of cats from their property,” he said. “One technique is to tranquilize the animal in an attempt to catch it. Previously trapped and released wild animals are leery of reentering a trap.”

Rantz told the commissioners Tuesday that it was while one of her officers was at Ocean Village that he was assaulted.

“Assistant Chief Grandstaff was assaulted Friday night by a gentleman at Ocean Village …,” Rantz said. “He reached inside his truck and threw a clipboard at him and all sorts of foul language was spoken.”

Commissioner Chip Bertino said it seemed like the easiest solution regarding the whole situation would have been to turn the cat referred to as Oliver over to one of the groups willing to quarantine him. Rantz explained that might have been done if it had been the typical animal bite situation and the animal’s owner had proper documentation.

“If it was a normal bite situation, a person could quarantine if they had proper documentation,” Rantz said. “No one could provide that information. We had four different ladies calling saying the cat was theirs. We caught them up in their lies they were telling us.”

Bertino said he knew Rantz and her officers had endured a lot in the past few weeks and thanked them for their efforts. Other commissioners echoed his sentiments but were critical of the fact that they knew nothing of the situation until they began receiving emails from individuals asking for Oliver’s life to be saved.

Commissioner Joe Mitrecic said the situation, according to Goeller’s presentation, began June 11 and yet he wasn’t aware of it until mid-July when he received 600 emails from those seeking to save Oliver’s life.

“If there’s a situation like this, the commissioners need to know as it’s happening,” he said. “The ball was dropped there. In this day and age with electronic communication, there is no reason why the commissioners should not be kept in the loop so we’re not blindsided by the public.”

Commissioner Bud Church offered similar comments and said law enforcement should investigate the threats made to animal control officers.

“They have every right to ask questions but they have no right to threaten,” he said.

Armus says her organization will continue to “stand against Worcester County Animal Control’s terrible record against cats.”

“In 2015, it killed more than 86 percent of the cats that it took in in 2015,” Armus said. “The community cares about cats and wants to see them protected, not killed. Worcester County needs change.”

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.