City wants accountability for feral cat control

(May 15, 2015) City leaders showed this week that they have a number of ideas on how to handle the resort’s feral cat issue. But trying to corral these into a cohesive policy statement is, well, a bit like trying to herd cats.

As a continuation from last month’s discussion, the city’s police commission talked further this week about Ocean City’s feral cat policy, eventually deciding on some type of measure that would bring more accountability to the $4,500 the city has set aside for the advocacy groups who trap and treat feral cats.

Under the commission’s proposal, anyone doing so would be required to notify the Ocean City Police Department’s animal control division so that the city can monitor where feral cat colonies exist in the resort, and control where the cats are returned.

The city would, in turn, establish a designated veterinarian to vaccinate and spay/neuter any cats trapped in the town limits. The veterinarian would be paid out of the $4,500 pool, which could be increased if the demand is present.

“I thought that was the direction we were going in, rather than funding these groups with a lump sum that may or may not be going toward what we want,” Mayor Rick Meehan said.

This does not address, however, the liability issue presented to the commission at its last session by the Worcester County Health Department, which recommended that the city adopt an ordinance similar to the county’s that assigns legal ownership of a feral animal to whomever is harboring it on their property.

Assigning legal responsibility for the cats on paper, however, is a different thing from deciding what is ultimately going to be done about them in the field.

“If we wanted to adopt something similar to what the county has, the commission is going to have to make a recommendation for what they want to do about these feral cats,” City Solicitor Guy Ayres said. “Politically, there has to be a decision made as to where you want to go.”

From a legal standpoint, Ayres reiterated what he had said previously. Conferring legal ownership of a roaming animal is legally impossible, especially when owners may not know the animals are living on their property.

“As opposed to the county, the majority of our owners are absentee,” Ayres said. “To tell someone that a cat living on their property in the winter when they’re not here is theirs … I don’t think any judge would uphold that.”

Most of the animal welfare groups in Worcester practice a strategy of Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Return (TNVR), 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.

The question is whether or not it is in the city’s best interest to allow this to be done, or if not, if it can enforce some type of alternative. The health department has submitted that TNVR is not effective, and poses a considerable rabies risk since there is no way to ensure that all cats in a colony have been vaccinated and revaccinated.

Liability is also a concern, as all too often it is the taxpayer that ends up shouldering the bill for a victim’s rabies treatment.

Cat advocates, on the other hand, point to a number of successes with TNVR in the resort, such as at the 94th Street mall, as well as successful methods to re-trap and re-vaccinate cats over time.

How the county’s legal responsibility policy does or doesn’t encourage TNVR is a moot point, Ayres said, until the city decides what it wants to support.

“I don’t get a clear message from you all about what you want to do about these cats, and that’s where we have to start,” Ayres said.

Ayres noted that, while the county discourages TNVR, it’s unclear exactly what resources it could provide to the city to pick up the slack if the city were to likewise push away the private TNVR groups it currently relies upon.

“I guess they’d have to hire additional animal control personnel,” Ayres said. “I don’t know. This may be just another law the county drafted that never gets enforced anyway.”

The consensus was that the city should not sanction the returning of cats to areas that would cause problems with nearby human residents, or to areas that could not be monitored by the OCPD.

“We’re not on a farm out in Wicomico County with 800 feral cats. We’re in an urban area,” Councilman Dennis Dare said. “There may be some colonies in town that are managed very well, and there may be some that are not.”

Requiring TNVR groups to go through the OCPD for veterinary services would give the city fiscal leverage over where cats are being returned.

“The vet bill comes to animal control, and they pay out of the funds we have set aside,” Dare said.

“It may need to be trap-neuter-vaccinate and relocate,” Councilman and Police Commission Chair Doug Cymek said. “I would ask that, if we have a problem property, that cats not be returned there.”

According OCPD Capt. Kevin Kirstein, the department’s animal control will respond directly to complaints of nuisance animals. Although rabies is the greatest health risk, the most common complaint is from cats defecating in yards, ripping up flowerbeds, and other property damage calls, Kirstein said. If trapped, any healthy cat will be taken to the Worcester County Humane Society or to a private sanctuary and not released back into Ocean City. Sick animals are euthanized.

Cymek noted that he has spoken to a property owner outside of town that would be willing to regularly accept feral cats caught by TNVR groups, were the city to ban cats from being returned to certain areas of the resort. Still, he said, this is only half of the solution.

“If you are feeding the cats, you have some responsibility for them,” Cymek said. “We have to communicate to discourage people from feeding these cats.”

“That’s not part of this motion,” Meehan said. “If you try to include everything you’re going to falter … if we at least create a funding method, we’re halfway further than we are now.”

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