Wednesday, August 20, 2008

What is feral?

While traveling, I learned of a Critter Control franchise owner who was found guilty of animal cruelty for capturing and dispatching three feral cats in response to a complaint by a TV station concerning a colony of cats behind their building.

A pest-control operator will have to get his license re-certified but is not facing jail time after being convicted yesterday of misdemeanor animal-cruelty charges in Henrico County.

But Keith Copi, who operates the Richmond-area Critter Control franchise, said after court that the convictions further cloud animal-cruelty laws and will make it difficult for homeowners and businesses to deal with nuisance animals.

"You'd be better off trying to get rid of a homeless person camping in your yard than having to deal with a stray cat," Copi said.

He said that state laws defining so-called companion animals are so inclusive that animals ranging from house mice to snakes might be covered by state animalprotection laws.

Copi received three 12-month jail terms, all suspended, and was fined $250 for each of the three cats he gassed.

He acknowledged in Henrico General District Court yesterday that he gassed the cats he trapped in June in a parking area behind WRLH Fox 35 television studios in the 1900 block of Westmoreland Road. He said he was not aware of an emergency law passed in February banning the use of a gas chamber in killing companion animals; nor did he know that feral cats must be euthanized by a veterinarian.

Here, WVRA, a Richmond radio station, discusses whether feral cats should be considered companion animals.

Here is the Richmond SPCAs timeline in blog format (bottom to top)

The Richmond SPCA is responding to this situation by training community members in trap/neuter/return.

As a former wildlife control contractor who handled cats, I frequently spoke at wildlife conferences and explained to my colleagues that the killing of cats, whether feral or friendly, was not permitted by a non-owner. In NYS, if a stray cat shows up at your rural barn, no, you can't fetch the gun and shoot it. The cat could be someone's pet. In addition, it is illegal to dispatch a cat with a firearm in a non-emergency. CO2, while considered "humane" in the wildlife control field, is reviled in domestic animal control, and is often illegal for use on non-wildlife. In places where gas chambers are still used for dogs and cats, members of the community are fighting to end the practice.

The issue is not, to my mind, whether a feral cat is a pettable companion animal. It is whether a third party on the scene is capable of telling for certain that a cat in a trap is a born-on-site feral cat, or a lost pet cat. Or, whether that feral cat might in fact be treasured by someone. My Fast Food Ferals are neutered and rabies vaccinated. They are fed every day. Whether or not they can be petted, one can argue they have been provided with all the same care received by an outdoor pet cat. They are loved by the person who cares for them. Does "companion" really require physical contact?

Animal control shelters exist (and hold stray animals for 3-5 days by law in most cases) specifically to sift out the wanted from the unwanted. If your cat doesn't show up for a day or two, whether on your front porch or at your feeding station behind the local TV station, you can go to the local shelters to see if your cat is there.

If a wildlife control business sets traps and immediately kills your cat, you don't have that option.

In this situation, it appears to me the contractor used his natural resources text as his guide, rather than domestic animal control and animal cruelty laws. On one hand we can point at wildlife control manuals that state CO2 is the most humane option for dispatching raccoons, skunks, etc. and on the other we have state laws that specifically forbid its use on a raccoon-sized animal like a cat, on the grounds that it is inhumane. How can that be?

Is it any wonder that wildlife control contractors are confused?

Luckily, in NYS we have a wildlife control manual that gives WCOs a heads up on cats.

It was Mr. Copi who was charged with animal cruelty---not the TV station who hired him. That is the most important lesson for WCOs. When it comes down to the wire, the one held responsible is the one who took the final action. The business owner is expected to know the law, even if the TV station made the call and paid the bill for the removal.

Most of my friends who are WCOs have made arrangements with their local shelter to accept the cats they capture. Many of them include a donation with any cat they bring in. Some even are involved in TNR, if the landowner is willing to pay them for it. Others wisely say "no way, I'm staying right away from cats."

However, I do know at least one business who catches cats and then dumps them--unneutered and unvaccinated--at farms (with permission), thinking this is humane. This is also illegal in NYS, permission or no.

Unfortunately, in this case it still appears as if the point is being lost. The question isn't "is a feral cat a companion animal." The question is "how do we tell with 100% certainty that one cat is beloved and another is not?" Answer: "You can't."

Domestic animal control laws were put in place to protect the public and safeguard property (the pet). That is why there is a holding period. That is why cats and dogs should be handled by DOMESTIC animal control specialists (or with the cooperation of domestic animal control specialists), not strictly by wildlife control specialists for hire.

Only a holding period -- or reporting a captured cat as "found" to your local shelter -- can answer the question "does anyone care for this dog or cat?" before the decision is made to kill it or give it away.


Zuleme said...

And of course, to my way of thinking it doesn't matter if a cat is loved by someone or not. They all have a right to live. And yes, whether you can pet something or not doesn't make a difference as to wether you love it. People love birds don't they?

I remember with one of our spay neuter clinics the term owned/unowned came up and all I can say is that an unowned cat has every possiblity of being "owned" someday and should be treated with the same respect as an "owned" cat. Personally, I respect the right of a cat to be wild and I like grouchy cats too.

Felyne said...

This is a fantastic post.

I couldn't think of anything more horrid than a missing pet, never recovered. You would always wonder, especially on stormy cold nights, if they were alright and had shelter, warmth and food.

If Oliver and Booti hadn't been found, I would always wonder and worry about them.