Stray Cat Strife on the Main Line Over Radnor Ordinance

Opponents worry cats will starve. Proponents shout "rabies!"

It’s been quite a month for our fine furry friends in the Philadelphia region. First there was the wild turkey who was running around West Philadelphia. (He has his own Twitter account, naturally). Then there were the rat sightings. Then there were more rat sightings. (Surprisingly, the rats don’t have their own Twitter account, although @ThePhillyRat is currently available … just saying). And now, it’s stray cats that are the subject of much hand-wringing.

The controversy in Radnor Township centers on a proposed ordinance regarding the feeding of feral cats. Essentially, the ordinance declares that if you feed a stray cat with any regularity at all, you own it and are responsible for its vaccinations and other care. You become the stray cat’s de facto owner. You’ll also be required to keep a collar on the cat.

The wording and particulars of said ordinance have been fought over and reworked for nearly two years, and all signs suggest that it will soon be passed into law by the Board of Commissioners. The township held public hearings on it in April (the hearings also included debate over the prospect of pigs in Radnor—but that’s a story for another day), and the commissioners are scheduled to reconvene on the cat issue this Monday.

Opponents of the ordinance have called it an all-out feeding ban. They say it’s cruel, both to the animal and to the person caring for it. “You’re a criminal if you feed a homeless animal,” Wayne resident Joanne Fredericks told the board. She also paraphrased Mahatma Gandhi during her impassioned testimony: “The greatness of a society and its moral progress can be judged by the way it treats its animals.”

Of course, the law wouldn’t actually ban the feeding of stray cats. And it’s unlikely that anyone would go to jail. But what the ordinance does say is that if you, out of the kindness of your heart, buy some Tender Vittles for the neighborhood stray once a week, well, it’s basically your cat.

“If you adopt a stray cat–and you’ve demonstrated that you’ve adopted it by feeding it,” says Radnor Commissioner Todd Curley, “then you better be ready to take responsibility for it, the same responsibilities that you would take for a domesticated cat.” Curley explains that the ordinance came out of a concern over rabies. “A feral cat is one of the most problematic vectors for rabies,” he says. “Rabies is a problem, and we interface with feral cats more than other animals.”

But cat-loving resident Kathy Siciliano says that the ordinance will create more problems than it solves. “It’s just not practical,” she insists. “What if you’re a restaurant that leaves out scraps for the neighborhood cats? Does that make you a criminal? And what happens to this cat once you’re forced to stop feeding it? The same thing that would happen to a homeless person who can’t get food. They get desperate. They become sick.”

Siciliano also points out that getting a collar on a feral cat is pretty much impossible except under sedation, since they generally don’t tolerate human contact. And because of choking hazards, she explains, the only humane collar option for a cat is a break-away style collar, and keeping one of those on a cat living in the wild just isn’t going to happen.

Proponents of the slippery-slope theory of government interference will also note the potential complications of a law like this. Let’s say you feed the straggly old cat down the street once in a while. One morning, Bradley—that annoying neighborhood kid—is waiting for the bus. He teases the cat, gets bit, and it turns out that the cat does, indeed, have rabies. Does that mean that Bradley’s litigious parents can haul you into court?

“Exactly, that’s the problem I have,” says Radnor commissioner John Fisher. “The moment you declare that a person is the owner, there are legal repercussions. I don’t think we can assign someone the title of owner when it comes to an animal that’s free roaming. If you go to a park and feed the pigeons, do you own the pigeons? No. And no one would claim that you do. And pigeons carry, disease, too. And people feed squirrels, and squirrels carry rabies. Do they own the squirrels? We shouldn’t put an onerous definition of owner on people who are just caring for animals. That’s just wrong.”

One thing’s for sure. If Radnor has some hungry, wild cats they want to get rid of, that might be one way of dealing with Philadelphia’s growing rat problem. Then again, those rats looked really, really big.

[Photo: Wikipedia Commons]