Animal welfare advocates thought this would be a quiet legislative session. We were wrong. There were several bills that would have had devastating effects on the animal protection laws we have worked so hard for through the years. One in particular proved to be rather contentious, and involved the subject of feral cats and what to do about them.
Feral cats are descendants of domesticated cats. They have either been born and raised in the wild or have been abandoned or lost and have turned to wild behaviors to survive. Feral cats often live in groups called colonies and are fearful of any human contact.
According to Alley Cat Allies, an adult feral cat is unlikely to ever become socialized to the point of enjoying human contact or living inside. However, a stray cat that has reverted back to wild behavior because it has been lost or abandoned can be re-socialized. In addition, very young kittens born in the wild can be socialized if caught at a young age.
Trap/neuter/release (TNR) is a program that improves the lives of feral cats and, hopefully, contributes to a declining population of feral cats. Caretakers trap the cats, have them spayed or neutered, vaccinated, treated for obvious problems, and then release them back to a safe location. The ears are usually tipped to show that they have been sterilized. The cats live in a colony and are fed and monitored by the caretakers. Their basic needs are taken care of.
In the past, the State Veterinarian’s office has been of the opinion that TNR is simply a re-abandonment of cats. If we talked about trapping, neutering, and releasing dogs, or guinea pigs, or other pets, people would be appalled. Somehow, though, it has seemed acceptable to promote TNR programs for cats.
A locality in Virginia asked their senator to introduce SB359, a bill that would have changed the abandonment code. The bill would have taken away any responsibilities for the future care of feral cats. Shelters could trap, neuter, and release cats with never again having to feed them or monitor their health. Wildlife advocates, the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association, the Virginia Animal Control Association, and many shelters opposed the bill.
There were many weaknesses in the bill; proponents could actually trespass on property to trap cats and then return them to the trapping site, even if the property owner were opposed. Additionally, owners’ rights were completely disregarded. For instance (and I want to be clear – we support spaying and neutering all animals and never condone any breeding), if an owner of a purebred Persian cat accidentally left a door open and the cat wandered from home, anyone associated with a TNR program could have trapped the cat and have it sterilized, then released back to another location.
Our opposition to the bill was based on all those points, but our main objection was that the life of a feral cat is a cruel, short one, especially for the ones who are never going to be fed or treated in case of illness, accident or injury. We went to Richmond armed with many, many pictures of feral cats that have been starved, burned, scalped, or otherwise tortured.
The bill passed the Senate Agricultural Committee. At that point, the locality that asked for the bill realized there was a lot of opposition, so they submitted a substitute bill that would have required a property owner’s permission, among other changes.
Thankfully, the House Agricultural sub-committee defeated the bill because of the weaknesses.
The State Veterinarian has started to form a formal work group to address the issue of feral cats in Virginia. The problem has grown to hideous numbers, and we hope that good news for the cats will happen next legislative session.