Columbia Borough is governed by the Borough Council which consists of seven members, elected for four-year terms. Council is responsible for setting policy in every aspect of the Borough, including budget, public works, zoning, and ordinances. This article addresses an important primary question regarding codes and ordinances. The issues related to ownership of and responsibility for feral cats. The treatment of ownership and responsibility under both feral cat statutes and common law. According to the Columbia Borough office website: All pets must be under the control of their owner at all times.
Let me start by saying, it is illegal in Pennsylvania for any person to harbor, care for, shelter or maintain any animal in such a manner as to disturb or unduly annoy the public through the animal’s noise, barking, smell, mischief or other harmful propensities. This includes feeding / caring for feral cats and / or feral cat colonies. Similarly, it is illegal for the owner of any animal to allow the animal to go beyond the boundaries of their premises or to run at large over the streets or public grounds or upon the property of another.
When a person sees a malnourished cat roaming her neighborhood, her first instinct is often to stop and help. In doing so, it is unlikely that the individual will carefully consider the ramifications of her actions before giving the cat food and water or bringing it into her garage to give it shelter from the cold. Will the kindhearted bystander wonder whether feeding the cat will cause her to become the cat’s legal owner? Will she consider the possible rights and responsibilities that might arise from her caretaking? Will she attempt to prevent the cat from trespassing on her neighbor’s property or bringing other cats to the neighborhood? If she moves to a new neighborhood, might she be held criminally liable for abandoning the cat(s) she cared for? Is she subject to other ownership requirements, such as ordinances requiring registration or sterilization?
The statute defines an animal’s owner as anyone who (a) has a right of property in an animal; (b) keeps or harbors an animal; (c) has an animal in his care; or (d) acts as a custodian of an animal. Given the status of feral cats as “companion animals,” anyone who provides food, water, or shelter to a feral cat would almost certainly fall under the definition of an “owner.”
Firstly, what is a feral cat? Feral cats, wild cats, stray cats — we have many names for the mysterious felines we sometimes see peeking out from under our porch or darting into abandoned buildings. Yet most of them share a single destiny: short, difficult lives. A feral cat is any cat who is too poorly socialized to be handled … and who cannot be placed into a typical pet home. They are usually the offspring of cats who were lost or abandoned by their owners, and they grow up not socialized to humans. Many experts agree that feral adult cats simply can’t be tamed. They are wild animals, like raccoons. They tend to stay away from humans, hide during the day, and when adopted, are very difficult to socialize. Just like you would never try to handle a raccoon, you should never try to pick up a feral cat.
People do not generally “possess” a feral cat in the same way that they would possess a dairy cow, a housecat, or a parrot. They typically do not care where the feral cat spends most of its time, they rarely try to confine it, and their interaction is generally limited to providing the animal with food and water.
Feral cats live a dangerous and short existence because of the threats from fighting, disease, and often traffic. They can rarely be domesticated and may carry diseases such as salmonella or cat scratch fever, both of which affect humans. Feral cats do not die of “old age.” They are poisoned, shot, tortured by cruel people, attacked by other animals, or they die of exposure, starvation, or highly contagious fatal diseases, such as feline AIDS, feline leukemia, and feline infectious peritonitis.
Cats are also consistently the #1 carrier of rabies among domestic animals and are disproportionately more likely to expose people to rabies than wildlife. Cats are the only definitive hosts for the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which causes toxoplasmosis. Up to 74% of all cats will host this parasite during their lifetime and excrete hundreds of millions of infectious eggs into the environment through their feces. When a person accidentally ingests this parasite, they may experience blindness, miscarriage, a child born with developmental problems, memory loss, or death. Public health scientists, public health agencies, and professional organizations such as the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians recognize that maintaining cat/s outdoors is bad for human health.
According to the Columbia Borough the feral cat “feeder” must vaccinate and sterilize the cats in her care. The local municipality is supposed to enact these ordinances prohibiting cat owners—including feral cat keepers/feeders—from substantially damag[ing] property or caus[ing] an unsanitary, dangerous or unreasonably offensive condition. The aggressive tendencies of stray and feral cats pose certain risks that domestic housecats do not, especially when they are cornered by human.
The Columbia Borough also has posted on their website the following:
[Amended 8-9-2004 by Ord. No. 737]
A. It is hereby declared to be unlawful for any owner, keeper or custodian of any dog or cat to permit his or her dog or cat to discharge such animal’s excreta upon any public or private property, other than the property of the owner of such dog or cat, within the Borough if such owner, keeper or custodian does not immediately thereafter remove and clean up such animal’s excreta from the public or private property.
B. It shall be unlawful for any owner, keeper or custodian to have under his or her control or custody any dog or cat while on any public or private sidewalk, parkway, walkway, street, public park, public way, public grassy area or any other public areas, or upon private premises owned by any person, firm, or corporation other than the owner, keeper or custodian of such dog or cat, without having on his or her person a device which would be capable of removing any offal, feces or excreta of such dog or cat, which device shall not include the hands or feet of the owner, keeper or custodian.
It shall be unlawful for the owner of any cat to allow such cat to run at large upon the public streets of this municipality or upon the property of others unless accompanied by the owner.
Upon moving into my new home in Columbia, I noticed that many feral cats were frequently coming onto my property, and the cats have been defecating and urinating in my yard. It began with the neighbor (feeder) placing bowls and plates of cat food and chicken bones in my yard. This of course was attracting the feral cats to my property. The neighbor (feeder) would reach over a four-foot fence to place cat food in my yard. When I saw her do this, I politely asked her to stop, as I have two senior dogs that are not cat friendly. They are also not allowed to have chicken bones. The neighbor (feeder) grew angry and stated that the previous renter allowed her to put food in the yard. Again, I asked her to please stop but she refused. She went on to call my dogs vicious and ferocious because they do not like cats. She continued to feed the cats up against the fence line in clear view of my dogs. She would give my dogs the finger and scream profanities at them for barking at the numerous cats gathering to feed. The whole situation has caused an excess amount of stress and anxiety for myself and my dogs.
The “feeder” in this case does not even live on the premises. She merely shows up twice a week to feed and water the cats. She does not provide shelter or veterinary care, and she never relocates or confines the animals. She has caused a large number of cats to be attracted to the area and frequent my backyard, thereby interfering with my own and my dogs use and enjoyment of my property. Further, the amount of severe emotional distress that arises out of the nuisance of having to deal with a large number of feral cats on my property has grown out of control.
I even went as far as spending over a thousand dollars to install a privacy fence to prevent the “feeder” from placing food in my yard. After installing the fence, I continue to deal with nuisance behaviors every day, such as urinating and defecating in my yard and garden, digging in my yard and garden, jumping on my car and upsetting my dogs are some of my greatest concerns. A few other problems I deal with daily:
- Frequent, loud noises that are part of the fighting and mating behavior of unneutered/unspayed cats.
- Strong, foul odors left by unneutered male cats spraying urine to mark their territory.
- Flea infestations.
- Visible suffering from injured and dying cats.
Many experts agree that one of the best ways to help feral cats and cat groups — called colonies — is through neutering programs. The neighbor who feeds these cats has made it very clear that she is not going to cooperate with those kinds of programs. I attempted to trap the cats myself and bring them to animal control, the animal shelter(s) ultimately told me that they do not assist in capture or house feral cats.
Trap-neuter-return (TNR) endeavors are geared toward reducing the number of unwanted cats by catching and then neutering or spaying them. Also called trap-neuter-spay-return or trap-neuter-vaccinate-return, they are endorsed by both the ASPCA (even though the ASPCA advocates adopting the many available domestic cats and kittens rather than trying to tame feral cats) and Humane Society, but good luck trying to get their help. All my attempts to get help have gone unanswered.
TNR is a nonlethal strategy for reducing the number of community cats and improving the quality of life for cats, wildlife and people. At its most basic, TNR involves:
- Humanely trapping community cats,
- Spaying or neutering them,
- Vaccinating them against rabies,
- Surgically removing the tip of one ear (a “tipped” ear is the universally recognized sign of a cat who has been spayed or neutered),
- Returning the cats to their home.
It should be noted that trap, neuter, release programs are considered bad policy. Over time, TNR programs have consistently failed to reduce feral cat populations. These programs facilitate the spread of diseases and maintain cats in unsafe conditions. Feeding feral cats, often associated with TNR programs, does not reduce predation or risk of disease.
Some people have suggested relocating or “putting down” these feral cats. Relocation may sound like a humane solution, but it is ultimately ineffective due to the “vacuum effect.” Feral cats gather where there are resources: food, water, and shelter. When an existing colony is relocated (or eradicated), before long a new flock of feral cats will discover the same resources and move in to “fill the vacuum.” Which ultimately comes back to the “feeder” being the main problem.
While my neighbor may have good intentions by feeding, feeding, feeding, she won’t go ahead and vaccinate or spay/neuter the cats. Even as I am a self-described “dog person” I don’t want the cats to be hungry, but that’s not providing a solution. These cats need vaccinated to prevent disease and spayed/neutered to prevent more litters. Feeding alone can make the situation worse. Feeding ferals increases their ability to give birth to even more kittens who are destined to suffer and die premature deaths. A female cat can become pregnant as young as 16 weeks of age and go on to have two or three litters a year, the feral cat population — and the problems associated with it — grows and perpetuates. In seven years, a single female cat and their kittens can produce 420,000 more cats.
My requests for assistance from the borough have went unanswered. Perhaps it’s easier for them to ignore the situation then to deal with it and fix the problem. I know feeding bans are nearly impossible to enforce. A person who is determined to feed the cats will usually succeed without being detected, but the borough hasn’t even tried to resolve the problem. They’ve basically abandoned me and left the problem up to me to solve, but how can I solve the problem if none of the resources are willing to help?
The cats continue to come in my backyard. They continue to use my yard as their own personal litter box putting not only myself but my dogs at risk of the diseases they carry. The Columbia Borough should hold this feral cat feeder accountable. Every other pet owner is required to spay, neuter, immunize against rabies and license their pet, thus this feral cat feeder should be subjected to the same fines and citations as other animal owners if they fail to comply with these laws.