Stray cat problem has few solutions
Visits to the Humane Society of Morgan County, Morgan County Sheriff's office, Morgan County Health Department and Morgan County Commission unearthed few solutions to the growing problem of stray and feral cats that roam unabated across our land and through our communities.
As defined by the Humane Society of the United States, a stray cat is a pet cat that is lost or abandoned. Feral cats are the offspring of lost or abandoned cats or other feral cats who are not spayed or neutered.
According to statistics gathered by the Feral Cat Coalition in San Diego, California, a pair of cats, which can have two or more litters per year, can exponentially produce 420,000 offspring over a seven-year period.
Numbers this large are often hard to contemplate. Morgan County resident Thereasa DiRodio presented her own case before the Morgan County Commission at their regularly scheduled meeting Friday, July 13.
DiRodio presented a petition to the commission requesting that county animal control be responsible both physically and financially, without increased burden to taxpayers, for domestic stray felines (cats).
The petition cited dangers to public health because stray and feral cats can carry a variety of diseases including rabies and ticks with Lyme disease.
DiRodio and a neighbor have seven acres of mostly wooded property near Berkeley Springs. She has taken 50 feral or stray cats found on the two properties to veterinarian Dr. Robin Townsend of Hedgesville for spaying or neutering and rabies vaccinations.
DiRodio told commissioners that she is currently supporting 32 of these cats. Although the Humane Society, through funds from the Trap, Neuter and Return program, pays a portion of the cost for spaying and neutering, DiRodio has shouldered much of the cost herself.
She has nine cat enclosures in her house for sheltering during bad weather and a pet door to allow the cats to come in to eat and go out again.
Sympathetic to problem
Morgan County Commission President Glen Stotler and Commissioners Tommy Swaim and Brenda Hutchinson were sympathetic to DiRodio's plight and petition, but said their hands were tied by state law.
"If you look at the code, we only have the authority to enforce rabies shots if you have cats. We don't have any authority for stray cats," Stotler said.
By state law, whoever owns, keeps or harbors a cat must have it vaccinated for rabies and continue to keep shots up to date. Sheriff's deputies can request cat owners to produce proof that their cat(s) have received the required shots.
But enforcement only happens when a complaint is filed in Magistrate Court against an owner. This usually only happens after an animal bites a victim.
If owners are found in court not to be in compliance with the law, they may be fined $10 to $50 or receive jail sentences of 10 days to 60 days, plus pay court costs.
"If there is no owner, there is no recourse," Stotler said regarding stray or feral cats.
The commission agreed that the state legislature has not addressed the issue of cats beyond the requirement of rabies vaccinations.
"I believe that traditionally, because we are a mostly rural state, cats were considered beneficial because they were getting rid of mice and other pests," Hutchinson said.
Swaim said DiRodio should approach Delegate Daryl Cowles and take her petition to the next level.
Hutchinson suggested that DiRodio coordinate with other counties because the petition would then carry more weight with the state legislature.
DiRodio asked commissioners if state laws requiring owners to vaccinate their cats for rabies could be enforced.
Stotler said he would have a conversation with Morgan County Sheriff Ron McIntire to see what it would take to enforce the rabies law.
Morgan County Sheriff
McIntire said deputies do what they can by transporting injured or sick cats that they come across while on patrol to a vet for treatment. He said that someone brought in an injured cat the other day and a deputy took the cat to the vet who treated the animal and turned it over to the Humane Society.
McIntire said that the Animal Warden does not handle cats. The county kennel is too small. In the case of a bite, the Humane Officer, Deputy T. J. Johnson will investigate and the health department will be notified.
Health Department Sanitarian Lee Fowler said that all doctors and hospitals are required to submit an Animal Encounter report to the department whenever they treat someone who has been bitten.
The Animal Warden is then notified and one of the two sanitarians at the Health Department will assist in the investigation and advise the owner and victim.
The sanitarian will check with the owner and the vet to determine if the animal's rabies shots are up to date. The animal will be quarantined for 10 days to see if rabies symptoms develop.
If the victim agrees, the owner is asked to quarantine the animal. If not, the Animal Warden will take charge of the animal and the quarantine.
In case the animal is not able to be captured, the sanitarian will advise the victim on their best course of action which may be to undergo a series of rabies shots.
"You should never go around picking up stray animals. It's simple, just leave them alone," Fowler cautions.
Trap, Neuter, and Return
"It is astronomical the number of offspring one or two strays can produce," Linda Pinieski of the Morgan County Humane Society said.
Pinieski estimates that 90% of the cats they have are strays that have either been abandoned or given up by an owner who no longer can, or wants to care for them.
When they are able, the Humane Society does accept stray cats, as long as they are healthy and have a good temperament. Pinieski explained that they are trying to limit the number of cats in the main trailer to 60 and in the smaller isolation unit to 20.
The Humane Society does not accept feral cats due to the risk of disease to both the other cats and volunteers, Pinieski said.
Funds are available from the Trap, Neuter and Return program to assist people who want to participate. But the burden is on you to arrange to trap the cat, take it to the vet to be spayed or neutered, and then return the animal back to where it was caught.
The Humane Society will help you arrange an appointment with a veterinarian, but will not keep the cat. The person trapping the cat is also responsible for feeding the cat.
The reason for trapping and neutering the cat is to keep the population down, Pinieski explains. If a group of cats live in your barn and they are trapped and neutered, they no longer can reproduce and by nature the group will drive other stray cats away.
Traps are available at the Humane Society and the Rock Shop in Berkeley Springs.
People who live in the county and want to participate in the program should call 258-5592. There is a form to be filled out to qualify for funding.
Those who live in Berkeley Springs should call Rock Shop owner Maya Fredo at 258-6770.
No real solution
Until the state legislature passes laws for cats similar to those that control dogs, and provides funding to local municipalities and county commissions, there seems to be no real solution to the problem.
"I don't know of any county commission that is against controlling cats," Stotler said.
"Look at the code, we just don't have the authority to do anything," Hutchinson adds.