Thursday, March 3, 2011

Community minded criminals

In November 2009 our 18 year old cat died and we had to replace her.  We were considering pet adoption when we realized how huge the feral cat population was in our neighborhood and looked into a community friendly approach of Trap, Neuter and Return.  TNR humanely reduces the feral population over time at a cost of only about $25 per cat.  So far as we know we are the only ones in our neighborhood interested in actively controlling the feral cat population. Now we can see why, but I get ahead of myself.

In December 2009 a feral cat had a litter of kittens somewhere in our yard and over the New Year's break we put our plan in operation.  That first time we trapped momma and 4 kittens; we had them all neutered at Animal Coalition of Tampa, adopted 2 kittens for ourselves then released the rest.  We started leaving some food out for those cats.

Over the next year we continued to feed the neutered cats and what strays came around looking for handouts.  When the current problem started we were ready to do another TNR, hoping to catch at least 5.

In November 2010 an older, maybe 15 year old, cat was left in a cardboard box in our front yard with the inscription: "We know you like cats and hope you can help this one".  We took in that cat, our third pet, and she became the abused cat of the month on ACT's web site due to extreme malnourishment with attendant heart and renal problems.  Vets have now seen her several more times and under our care she is now looking much more healthy and happy.

On February 22, 2011 we received a notice of suspected violation that stated in part: "we have been informed that your pets are roaming loose in a neighbor's yard.  If these are your pets you must confine them.  If these are not your pets please ignore this notice and you do not need to contact us."

We verified that our 3 pets had not clawed through a screen and were still inside our house then complied with the instructions and ignored the notice. We did not realize that Hillsborough County now considered all neighborhood cats to be our pets.

On Friday February 25 we were talking to our neighbor when she brought up the feral cats and said "cats are burying poop in my yard".  We asked what she expected us to do about that and she replied "stop feeding your pets". We told her "our pets" were securely locked inside our house and reminded her that the cats in all of our yards were feral neighborhood cats that had been there long before we moved in.  We tried to reason that with our TNR efforts, the huge local feral cat population would decrease over time and everyone would benefit.  That reply made her more irate and she started screaming that "she would make us sorry" and "this will get ugly".  We disengaged and went inside our house to ponder the problem - her screaming continued for quite a while.

The next day we decided the neighborly thing would be to move feeding from our back porch to a station we erected on the side of our house away from her.  We tried that for two days but each night raccoons destroyed the feeder so we gave up.  At that point we really didn't want to risk antagonizing our volatile neighbor further so by February 28 we had stopped leaving any food outdoors but left the feeder enclosure as a shelter.

On Tuesday March 1 Animal Control Officer Luis Garcia came to the house.  We talked for quite a while and I told him about the cats we had neutered and how huge the local feral cat colony was and that we were going to do another TNR.  At that point I still did not realize that it was illegal for us to do that.  That was when Mr. Garcia informed me that under the Hillsborough County statutes, having a feral cat neutered makes that animal a legal pet of the person who has it done.  Mr. Garcia said he had not expected to come into contact with people working to help control the exploding feral population and said he could see we were actively working to help his agency with the feral problem.  Mr. Garcia gave me his business card and told me he would talk to his supervisor and to expect a call that afternoon or the next day.

Late the next afternoon I had not heard anything so I called the number on his card and gave my case number.  The officer who answered iterated that by neutering or even feeding them, those cats became my pets.  Pets are not allowed to roam free so she said we would be fined $240 per pet and that the officer saw many, I think she said 10, cats in ours and adjacent yards.

She suggested there were only two courses of action available:
1. We could trap and hand over to Animal Control all cats from the neighborhood but, with adoption rates so low, we would effectively be handing them over for euthanasia.

2. We could erect a fence around our yard to corral all the neighborhood cats but that fence had to be high enough to keep them from getting out and roaming the neighborhood.

Not liking either of those options I asked what would happen if we paid the fine as a "my bad for not doing diligent research on legal ramifications"? She replied they would happily take my payment but they would still periodically recheck and if any cats were seen roaming free in our or adjacent yards, those cats would be assumed to be ours and we would be fined again.

I am an easy touch and have often donated food and money and invented "make work" projects for those in need, never once worrying that altruistic actions would expose me to litigation.  When the woman who made this complaint came to me last month to ask for a loan, I even gave her more than she asked for.  I am certainly not rich and I have no idea what exit strategy to take.  The 3 options the county is allowing me: killing all the neighborhood cats, taking them all into my home, or periodically paying thousands of dollars in fines, are unacceptable and impossible.  Is there no middle ground that would be inclusive of community friendly approaches?

Update 3/6:  In the week since we stopped leaving food out, the feral population that comes around our house has quickly dropped to almost zero.  The good news is that our neighborhood has lots of cat lovers and none of the ferals ever looked the least bit hungry even when we had been gone for several days :)  We have also not yet received a formal citation but it could arrive at any time.  Meanwhile we have had contact with the Hillsborough County Animal Services Director of Operations and the Humane Society of Tampa.  While wheels have been put in motion there is nothing concrete to report yet.

We realize we caused our own problem by not fully researching the TNR issue especially when it came to local regulations.  Any more you have to be a lawyer to just live.  While all learned reports show the advantages of TNR, none mention that in many parts of the country the practice is illegal.  Besides the obvious lack of new offspring, studies have shown that neutered feral cats have less tendency to fight or howl.  Also, nature abhors a vacuum so when a colony of cats is removed, another colony quickly fills the void.  In this case the neutered cats would be taken away and killed and a new set of fertile feral cats would take their place.  In our reading early on we relied on the local TNR web sites, not realizing that almost every one had disclaimers like "any inquiries are kept in strict confidence".  That should have been our cue to read between the lines.

More as the saga unfolds.

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