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Friday, February 8, 2008

City Council to vote on feral cat care

A woman in Pigtown looks forward to her regular visitors: alley cats that come for their daily fix of food.

A couple in Northwest Baltimore feed a stray they've named "old gray and white cat" and six to nine others.

And a woman in Canton expects the six stray cats that meander into her backyard every afternoon, all of which she's trapped, spayed and neutered this year, along with 44 other stray cats within a five-block radius of her house.

All stand to benefit from pending legislation, to be voted on by the City Council today, that would make it legal and easier for them to care for feral cats.

"There are hundreds of cats running the streets, I had no idea," said Rachel Strobel, 29, of Canton. "If you don't fix them, then you're going to have hundreds of thousands that will be born, and eventually they will die.

"If you're going to feed them, you have to fix them, and once they're fixed then it would be inhumane not to take care of them and to manage the colony," she added.

An estimated 185,000 stray cats lurk in back alleys and streets across Baltimore, many dependent on an informal network of caregivers who leave them food. Some caregivers even go a step further, trapping the cats and then vaccinating and neutering them before releasing them back to the streets.

But many do so at their peril, fearful of fines that make it illegal to "abandon" animals after they've been cared for and even more fearful of having to leave the cats in a shelter where they could end up euthanized.

Now, the city Health Department is proposing a program that would allow residents to become "feral cat caregivers," enabling them to trap, alter, vaccinate and mark cats before releasing them and continuing to feed them.

The city legislation appears to have the necessary support. The bill would also amend the city code to enable caregivers to continue to feed feral cats after releasing them, without being penalized for abandoning an animal.

The bill cleared a subcommittee vote last week after a two-hour hearing last month in which more than 20 people from across the state spoke in favor of the legislation. There were no opponents.

Feral cats are defined as cats that are unsocialized to humans and have a temperament of "extreme fear and resistance to contact with humans."

While a number of groups exist that help people trap and train cats, this would allow such groups to work in cooperation with the city's animal shelters.

Supporters say TNR (trap-neuter-release) programs are a simple, humane solution to stabilizing feral cat populations and ensuring that the cats that roam outside - and the people they may come in contact with - remain healthy. They also note the benefit of rat control.

Numerous other jurisdictions have similar programs - including Illinois, Brevard County, Fla., and Cape May, N.J. - according to Alley Cat Allies, a Bethesda-based nonprofit organization that focuses on feral cat issues.

"These cats are out there and they're unowned," said Becky Robinson, president of the group. "Baltimore is recognizing and acknowledging these cats, and that's a good first step. They're acknowledging the caregivers who are caring for these cats and feeding them and saying they can get them neutered and vaccinated without being defined as an owner."

Still, Robinson said, the city needs to follow up with the money and manpower to make the program work.

Bob Anderson, director of animal control, said there are 185,000 domestic cats in Baltimore and he estimates an equal number of feral cats.

Anderson said his department received 1,892 calls to trap cats in fiscal year 2007, with an average of 3.5 cats per request.

Jennifer Mead, director of the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter, called the bill "extremely important."

In the past nine months the shelter has received 5,000 cats, she said. About half find homes; the other half are euthanized.

"Without this being legal, the only option for Baltimore City now is euthanasia," said Mead. "Here's another option, here's a more humane way.

"If we get involved with this feral cat program we'll be able to save a lot more," she added.

For caregivers, the legislation will allow them to continue what they've been doing, without the threat of fines.

Animal control can fine city residents $100 for keeping a wild animal as a pet without a permit and $100 to prevent an animal under someone's care from becoming a public nuisance, said Olivia Farrow, assistant commissioner for environmental health.

"If you're exercising care and control over a cat and you're dumping it back out on the street, it's unrestrained and technically a nuisance," said Farrow.

But animal control workers do not target people taking care of feral cats, and levy fines only if they receive a complaint, said Farrow.

Still, many caregivers say they've either received fines or worry about getting one.

In Pigtown, Janice Boring said there are lots of feral cats and a number of caregivers, some of whom have received fines. "They don't look at us like a resource, they look at us like we're felons," said Boring. "A small bowl of food is a small price to pay to prevent rats."

At the Oct. 30 hearing, Melinda Smith told city officials about her feral cat colony, and the hundreds of dollars in citations she's received.

"I would like legislation that will protect me from prosecution and will protect my cats from execution," said Smith.

"I do live in fear," she added.

Dawn Strecker of Hamilton said she feeds and has trapped and neutered numerous cats, some of which she's found homes for.

"This TNR bill allows us to legally care for these cats," said Strecker. "I mean, I've done it at risk of citation. Passing this legislation would relieve that worry."

Other caregivers pointed out that in a city where violence is commonplace, showing children acts of compassion by feeding a helpless living creature teaches them to value life more.

"These cats, they bring hope to my neighborhood," said Dorathea Blackwell.

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