Cats: “There Oughta Be a Law ...”

Cats: “There Oughta Be a Law ...”

By: Staff  Date: 10/25/1999 Category: | Feline Issues |

In order for cities and towns to get a handle on solving any perceived problems with cats, they must first recognize that there are different types of cats. Perhaps the most foolish laws being entered on the books of cities and counties across the country are those which, essentially, make the existence of free- roaming/unowned/feral cats illegal by putting restrictions on owned cats. These laws come in many forms, but all share the ultimate result of pouring tax dollars into a gaping, bottomless pit, while offending all principles of humane concerns.

Consider, for example, the provision that requires that cat owners keep their cats confined - the so-called "leash law" for cats - which often is accompanied by the requirement that cats be licensed. The usual justification for these laws is the nuisance factor. Cats do, after all, leave pawprints on freshly washed cars, and bury their waste in gardens, as well as make offensive noises and odors centered around breeding activity. Other, more esoteric justifications given for these laws include protection of birds from predation by roaming cats. The reasoning, then, is that if citizens keep their pet cats indoors, the city's animal control department can then devote its energies to capturing the unowned and stray cats that remain. Not only will the nuisance be abated, they reason, but the cats will be saved from suffering on the streets due to starvation, disease, bad weather and the countless dangers that urban life presents. Perhaps the reader is nodding his head enthusiastically by now. It certainly sounds reasonable, after all. Before jumping on the cat law bandwagon, though, a few facts should be known.

Reliable data about feral and unowned cats is sparse and difficult to obtain. Alley Cat Allies, the national advocacy group for feral cats, estimates that as many as 60 million of the cats in the United States are feral/unowned. A reasonable guess is that 40-50 percent of all cats in any given urban area fall into this category. Far removed from the pampered house cats, the feral cats eke out an existence in cities, suburbs and rural areas. A few cities now regard feral cats as urban wildlife, like the squirrels and possums that share neighborhoods with humans, and while this may not be strictly appropriate there are some parallels. Like traditional wildlife, the feral cat must have food and shelter - habitat - in order to survive. This habitat might be dumpsters behind a city restaurant, or sprawling industrial complexes or parks. Cats have a reproduction rate in direct relation to their habitat. On an average, half of all kittens born in unmanaged feral colonies will die before weaning, and the vast majority will not survive past three years of age. (Death rates in different parts of the country vary, largely due to climate conditions.) Also like any other wildlife, feral cats protect their territory from intrusion by outside cats. Whether the habitat is urban or rural, studies of stomach contents of cats show that they are opportunistic feeders and scavengers, with the majority of any prey being rodents and lizards rather than birds. With that brief description of the feral cat in our society, contrast the most common approaches that cities employ to control the nuisance that feral cats present.

Under licensing and confinement laws, even if citizens dutifully kept all of their pet cats indoors, large numbers of cats would still be on the streets. Cities have long used them as justification for trap-and-kill programs, and still are, though there is ample evidence that these eradication programs are neither humane nor effective. If feral cats are inhabiting an area, it is because there is an available food source and some form of shelter. If those cats are removed, then the niche will soon be filled by other feral cats seeking those same necessities. These laws and the resultant trap-and-kill programs are the reason that, while euthanasia rates for dogs are plummeting in virtually every jurisdiction, cat euthanasia is holding stable or even rising.

Feral cats that are second and more generations away from their house pet roots, are almost virtually untamable, and avoid all human contact, which guarantees that 100 percent of them will be euthanized. Even kittens, if captured older than about six weeks of age, require far more fostering and one-on-one care to transform them into an adoptable pet, so most conventional shelters and humane organizations euthanize them as well. In between are cats that are currently unowned, but which are either abandoned house pets or ferals that have learned the value of regular hand-outs, and these are called "loosely-owned" cats, often with entire neighborhoods providing food for them, but little else by way of veterinary care, sterilization, etc.

"Well," say many city lawmakers, "then we shall force people to take responsibility for cats." Most common among the laws passed to accomplish this spurious end, are definitions of "owner" as any person who feeds a stray or homeless cat for more than a given number of days. Another is the prohibition against feeding stray cats at all, perhaps based on the unrealistic premise that if the cats are not fed, then they will simply go away.

When none of these laws accomplish the stated goal of reducing the free roaming/unowned/feral cat populations and the nuisance associated with them, even sillier ideas or more intrusive principles sometimes become law. Cities institute high neuter/spay differentials on licensing of pet cats, mandate neutering or spaying of cats (even though 87 percent of all owned cats are already sterilized), or pass laws limiting the number of cats that a household can own.

Because stiff penalties and fines back up the vast majority of all of these laws, the cities are virtually assuring more abandonment of pet cats that will, in turn, lead to more feral cats! Where is the logic?

Finally, some thinking, reasoning individual - probably in England, and probably in the 1970s - conceptualized the premise that there may be at least two different types of cats - owned, pet cats, and the unowned, feral variety - and that no single program or law can reasonably encompass both. This concept then developed further, encompassing the idea that feral cats could actually act more like wildlife, and proven wildlife management practices ought to apply to them as well. Thus, the person reasoned, if we trap and kill all of the cats from a given colony, it will simply open up that habitat for more cats to come in and fill the void. Therefore, the reasoning continued, we should intervene by trapping the cats in the colony, removing the kittens young enough for socializing, and vaccinating and sterilizing the adults. We should be able to return them to their territory, which they will still defend from invaders and continue to control the rodent population, but will no longer reproduce and exceed the capacity of the habitat, therefore limiting the amount of possible nuisance. Vaccinations will help control both feline and zoonotic disease. Humane individuals who will be willing to provide food for these colonies should be encouraged and even supported.

The innovative trap-neuter-return idea was already catching hold in small, local groups in the United States, when it was bolstered by the formation of Alley Cat Allies as the national feral cat network, which has provided the nuts and bolts information on how to assure the success of the trap-neuter-return programs. Later studies, primarily those conducted by the National Pet Alliance, with funding from The Cat Fanciers' Association, proved that the programs achieve and even far exceed their goals. For example, after only two years of an aggressive TNR program in which the Feral Cat Coalition trapped and neutered more than 3100 cats in San Diego County, the number of cats handled by animal control dropped by 35 percent and euthanasia of cats was reduced by 40 percent.

The TNR programs have been slower to gain public approval than their logic and early success would tend to indicate, although that is now changing. Many humane societies are loath to return the cats to a life in a managed colony, considering it "suffering," and sincerely believe that euthanasia is the kinder choice. City leaders and animal control departments are slow to give up the "trap and kill" mentality that has dominated for so long. Still other citizens, who would employ various individual methods for keeping other forms of urban wildlife off their property, will instead call animal control to complain about cats.

Slow though it might be, the acceptance of TNR as a sensible and viable alternative to the unsuccessful laws is growing. More scientific studies of the dynamics of feral cat colonies will provide the much-needed data to fashion improvements to the programs and to convince skeptics in city government. Hopefully they will also put to rest the "feral cat as mass murderer of songbirds" theory that is based on limited data and wild guesses rather than valid scientific inquiry. In fact, some schools of thought now fear too great a success of TNR, and are recommending that a few members of feral colonies be left unsterilized to insure the continuation of the colony to control rodents. A very wise gentleman wrote in 1949, "I cannot agree that [a bill to require confinement of cats and to allow trapping of cats at large] should be the declared public policy of Illinois that a cat visiting a neighbor's yard, or crossing the highway is a public nuisance. It is in the nature of cats to do a certain amount of unescorted roaming. Many live with their owners in apartments or other restricted premises, and I doubt if we want to make their every brief foray an opportunity for a small game hunt by zealous citizens - with traps or otherwise. ... Moreover, cats perform useful service, particularly in rural areas, in combating rodents - work they necessarily perform alone and without regard for property lines."

That wise gentleman - Adlai Stevenson - who as Governor, gave his rationale for vetoing "An Act to provide Protection to Insectivorous Birds by Restraining Cats," : "The problem of cat versus bird is as old as time. If we attempt to resolve it by legislation, who knows but what we may be called upon to take sides as well in the age-old problems of dog versus cat, bird versus bird, even bird versus worm. In my opinion, the State of Illinois and its local governing bodies already have enough to do without trying to control feline delinquency. For these reasons, and not because I love birds the less or cats the more, I veto and withhold my approval from Senate Bill 93."

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All Authors Of This Article: | Anna Sadler |
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