The Ulster Town Board back on April 6 opened a public hearing on proposed legislation to tackle the issue of feral cats. After hearing more than an hour of comments officials decided to continue the discussion at their next meeting.
Of the five-member town board, only three were in attendance — Eric Kitchen and Joel Brink were absent. This in part is why Supervisor James Quigley III said town officials would not close the hearing, but extend it. The number of speakers stretched into the double digits and a there were a further 13 letters on the matter received by Town Clerk Suzanne Reavy, most of which she said favored legislation in some form.
The issue was initially broached during a town board meeting in February when a letter from Dawn DeLuca was read in which the Sunset Park resident expressed concerns that her property was being overrun by feral cats because a neighbor was feeding them. DeLuca was on hand at the public hearing, held during the board workshop meeting on April 6, where she noted that the influx of feral cats have interfered with her feeding other wildlife as she had in the past.
“I can’t feed the birds. I can’t feed the squirrels,” she said. “I have to sit outside and police the feeding because these cats come over and torment the poor wildlife that I try to feed.”
In the proposed legislation, cat owners or anyone “harboring any cat” by feeding strays and feral colonies would be responsible if those cats sprayed or defecated on private property, cause damage or behave violently. Cats not vaccinated against rabies would be forbidden. Violations would come with fines of $50 for the first offense, $150 for the second and $250 for each subsequent violation.
Adam Saunders, executive director of the Ulster County SPCA, said that while he isn’t opposed to laws focused on feral cats, he took issue with some of the points in the town’s proposal.
“This draft suggests a comprehensive program designed to enforce some responsibility on cat owners while providing legal means to catch strays or ferals that are a public health risk,” Saunders said. “The goal is admirable, though I would suggest, as with dog control legislation, that it might be best written with the primary goal of reuniting families and lost pets first while including provisions to decisively handle crime offenders. Contrarily, this legislation seems to be written with the primary goal of removing cats from outdoor areas. It also has extremely onerous and expensive redemption and adoption clauses within it. This will inevitably result in the euthanasia of most of the animals picked up. Controlling an animal population is best accomplished by first understanding that population. This legislation suggests no understanding of cats, why they may be behaving as they are, how to curb those behaviors, and ultimately, if necessary, how to safely catch them.”
Saunders said the cat control issue often comes down to two remedies: Euthanasia, and trap, neuter and release, commonly known as TNR.
“I of course advocate the latter, and my organization runs a clinic specifically to fill that need,” Saunders said. “Cats seek out food sources, shelter, and mates. Cats are also territorial. Cats are considered by many pet owners, unfortunately, to be disposable and are far too often abandoned when people move or relocate. This alone creates a continuous stream of animals living within the environment, outside of the breeding that may happen while they are there.”
Quigley said that the town had tried TNR in different neighborhoods in the past, but hadn’t seen the results they were hoping for.
“We would like to do a TNR program humanely, but because of the fact that the ’T’ doesn’t work, we can’t get it off the ground,” Quigley said.
Saunders said TNR was most effective when the community and town officials are on the same page.
“You do need the cooperation of the individuals feeding the colony,” he said. “That cooperation only has to extend for a matter of days while the trapping is underway. If the feeding stops and the only source of food is the food in the traps, you will be successful in catching the animals. My conversations with the residents of this particular neighborhood have indicated that I would have that cooperation for a TNR effort, not for an effort that would result in the cats’ removal and euthanasia.”
Quigley said that numerous complaints had come to the town because of the perception of a feral cat issue.
“Feral cats are a serious problem, and we constantly hear about the destruction of private property, the urination on people’s property, and the smell,” he said.
Local resident Dan Furman agreed, adding that unlike many other animals, cats are not part of the “natural ecosystem.”
“They’re a domesticated pet, much like dogs are,” he said. “And I would like to see cats held to the same standard of the law. I have both a cat that stays indoors, and I have a 100-pound German shepherd. I can’t let my German shepherd just run all over the town and go to the bathroom on everybody else’s lawn. It’s against the law. I don’t understand why that doesn’t apply to cats … I’m sorry, but if you’re feeding a cat, that’s your cat.”
Area resident Leslie Lansing said that feral cats also pose a health risk for other animals and humans. In addition to feline AIDS and leukemia, she said cats also spread toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease.
“It can be contracted when someone unknowingly digs in the soil and comes in contact unknowingly with cat feces,” Lansing said. “This is especially dangerous for pregnant women because an unborn child can be born with defects. Additionally, it can cause serious damage to human eyesight.”
Lansing said she owns three indoor cats who’ve been hassled by local feral colonies.
“I find them sitting on my deck, my windowsills,” she said. “This drives my cats crazy. Three cats that normally cohabitate with each other peacefully get so wound up that they turn on each other and fighting breaks out between them. This is very upsetting to me. I have spoken to my neighbors about their free-roaming cats, and they have every excuse in the book. In fact, one suggested that I purchase a product that is supposed to ward off the cats. Why do I have to bear this expense? Not to mention spraying a product that might harm their cat.”
Matt Molinaro, a resident of Sunset Park, said he favored legislation, but not TNR. “I honestly would like to see all of these feral cats and abandoned cats be taken out of the neighborhood,” he said. “I pay each year for [my] dogs to be licensed through the Town of Ulster. I pay over $500 a year to have my dogs get their proper physicals and medications. Why do these people that are harboring these animals think that they shouldn’t have to do that?”
The town board late last year adopted a controversial law to regulate ownership of chickens in two different residential zoning districts, making it clear at the time they’d have preferred not to.
“Amongst this board there is great consensus that this is an issue between neighbors, and it should be addressed between neighbors,” said Quigley, in November of last year, before the legislation passed by a 4-0 vote. “But seeing that we can’t get the neighbors to talk to each other, we are forced to now take a position and install a structure under which we can enforce some type of penalty if someone doesn’t play nice. We don’t want to restrict roosters. But if someone has a complaint from their neighbors about some neighbor’s roosters, we need something to be able to enforce. Consequently, a prohibition against roosters.”
Passage of the law was the culmination of an often heated debate between neighbors and town officials over several months. Prior comment periods and last week’s public hearing show the potential for similar controversy with a feral cat law.
Quigley said the clock won’t start ticking on the 30-day comment period on the proposed legislation until after the public hearing is closed.
“We will reconvene this at the April 20th board meeting,” he said. “Hopefully with a lot less comment.”