Legal, ethical issues at odds for cat control

(April 24, 2015) In world that subscribes to Newton’s law of litigation, in which every action produces an equal and opposite lawsuit, the Town of Ocean City is trying to further define its policy toward feral cats in face of pressure from the county health department.

The city’s police commission heard a presentation last week from Dr. Andrea Mathias of the Worcester County Health Department, which, although it’s jurisdiction coincides with the county, is a state-run agency.

Specifically, Mathias wished to gauge the city’s interest in adopting an animal control ordinance similar to that used in the county, which would assign legal responsibility for an animal to whatever property is harboring it.

“In the county, the ordinance clearly puts ownership on the person who is feeding or maintaining the animal,” Mathias said.

The policy is clearly geared toward feral cats, particularly situations where a group of wild felines is being fed and cared for on one property, but is roaming onto other properties whose occupants may not want them present.

“It’s sort of an emerging issue in animal control,” Mathias said. “Ordinances that have been enforced to contain dogs have not been for cats.”

But even if responsibility for roaming animals could be assigned from a legal perspective, there was skepticism from the commission that it could be done in practice, or that a new law would actually help the city address the proliferation of feral cats.

“You can put all kinds of things in an ordinance, but it doesn’t mean you can use them,” said City Solicitor Guy Ayres.

For example, Ayres noted, a colony of feral cats has existed for some years behind the Ocean Plaza Mall on 94th Street. Except for two stores, the mall has been abandoned and derelict for years. Residents often feed the animals, but they are otherwise uncontrollable.

“That property is now owned by an investment group out of Baltimore, Continental Realty. If someone goes behind the mall and gets bitten, are we supposed to go after Continental?” Ayres asked.

Hypothetically, if the company then needed to cut its liability and cease harboring animals, “is Continental supposed to hire a guard to keep cats from coming onto their property?” Ayres posed.

The commission seemed to concur that there was no easy answer, legally or practically. Given the high number of transient and temporary residents, Ocean City generates a considerable number of stray animals relative to its small permanent population. Cats, in particular, proliferate at abandoned properties or in neighborhoods that still have some open land.

Control of the animals is largely left to private animal welfare groups, of which several exist in the area. Most practice a strategy of Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Return, in which feral cats are captured, spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and then put back where they were found.

TNVR relies on the idea that cats fill a certain ecological niche – if removed from their territory, more cats will just move in. Thus, it is better to maintain existing cats in known territories, and allow the population to gradually thin due to lack of reproduction.

Ocean City has had a certain number of successes with TNVR. The Ocean Plaza Mall, for instance, used to have several hundred cats, but residents have observed a dramatic drop since TNVR efforts started several years ago. The Ocean City Police Department works with several cat welfare organizations to control that site and others.

However, the state and county have never quite been sold on the program.

“In our experience, we do not find it to be a particularly effective solution,” Mathias said. “Sometimes it is said a cat colony will self-regulate in its size … that takes into account some assumptions that turn out not to be true.”

Most critically, Mathias pointed out the difficulty in re-capturing cats to keep them up to date on rabies vaccines. Rabies shots given upon initial trapping are guaranteed for a year, and usually effective up to 18 months, but colonies will need to be monitored long-term.

Further, there is no way to keep track of what cats have been re-vaccinated, meaning that nearly all humans who are bit by a feral cat require expensive rabies treatment regardless.

More to the point, TNVR “doesn’t address clearly who the owner of the animal is and who is responsible for the animal,” Mathias said.

However, TNVR groups fear that any attempt to legally define ownership as “harboring of an animal,” as is done in the county, would be used as a tool to discourage property owners from seeing TNVR as a viable solution.

“I don’t understand why this county cannot accept that TNVR is the solution, nationwide,” said Susan Coleman, director of Community Cats Coalition. “Thirty-nine states have adopted TNVR as policy.”

Although not present at the police commission, Coleman offered some insight as to how county policy affects her operation.

For instance, at a housing complex in West Ocean City, Coleman said, her group addressed a group of 15 to 20 feral cats via TNVR.

“Now, we’re down to like six cats,” Coleman said. “The residents feed them and love them. But one person comes down, who’s not a year-round resident, and says, ‘I don’t want them here.’”

Subsequently, the health department was called, and informed the unit owner that the condo could be held liable for any rabies incidents. The property manager was also contacted, and notified the rest of the unit owners.

“Only one person [in the building] was against it because the health department put the fear of god into them that, if somebody gets scratched, they’re going to be sued out of house and home,” Coleman said. “And now the health department is sending [the manager] a letter every month saying they’re a liability.”

While individual cat sympathizers may not have any recourse, Coleman noted that her group has a $1 million insurance policy against any suits.

“In the five years I’ve had it, it’s never had to pay out,” Coleman said.

Another perspective was offered by Dr. William Schultz, a long-time area veterinarian whom Police Commission Chair Doug Cymek had asked to attend.

Schultz offered that the legal and practical aspects of TNVR were (no pun intended) two different animals. Practically, the method can work, as Schultz has worked on several large cat colonies in Worcester and Wicomico counties. These sites are more rural, however, and less likely to cause legal issues of cats roaming into areas where they may not be wanted.

“One colony, out by Wor-Wic College, we spayed and neutered on-site, trapping about 30 to 40 cats at a time,” Schultz said. “It took us years, but we got the colony under control. It works because you’re dedicated to it. If you’re just throwing food at cats willy-nilly, in an urban area – no, of course you’re going to have problems.”

“It’s about density,” Schultz said. “Two hundred cats on 100 acres isn’t’ a problem. Twenty cats on half an acre is.”

In nine of 10 situations, Coleman said, residents who call her organization about feral cats prefer that the cats be unharmed and returned to where they were after TNVR, and rabies boosters are administered at 18-month intervals.

If owners want the cats off their property, there is a farm colony where they can be taken, although it is rapidly filling up, Coleman said.

If the animals are removed by the county, Mathias said, they are held for up to two weeks. After that, unclaimed animals that are human-friendly go to the humane society or a foster home. Those that are fully feral are euthanized.

Generally speaking, the commission did not want to see a mass extermination of feral cats, nor did they want to see colonies proliferate in areas where residents found them to be a nuisance.

“There’s no easy answer,” said Mayor Rick Meehan. “From a practical standpoint, we don’t need to be further developing cat colonies in town.”

“If the cats are sick and a danger to the public, there should be no question [about removal],” Cymek said. “But I think we need to get out there and start looking at the colonies before we decide [on a legislative direction]. It’s not going to be a mass cull or euthanization.”

Schultz reiterated that any solution – TNVR or otherwise – would never be completely risk-free or legally waterproof, and it was up to the city to find the least problematic and most humane route. He joked that the most natural, hands-off way to control the level of feral cats would be to introduce coyotes or monitor lizards to Ocean City.

“It would work biologically, but that doesn’t mean it would go over well legally,” he said.

The city currently has $4,500 earmarked in the coming budget year for aid to TNVR groups operating in Ocean City. That funding will remain available until the city council decides otherwise, Cymek said.

 

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