Bill seeks to curb feral cat populations

Front Royal and other localities plagued by feral cats could get help from the Virginia General Assembly next year.

State Sen. Stephen H. Martin, R-Chesterfield, filed legislation late last month that, if approved, would let an organization, such as an animal shelter or humane society, or an individual trap and sterilize a feral cat. The trapper then can return the cat to the site where the animal was caught or a suitable alternative location, under the law. At the same time, the legislation would not let local governments ban the practice. Those localities that allow the practice would no longer require annual registration or licensing of feral-cat caregivers.

Front Royal Town Council addressed the problem in 2012 of how to handle feral cats and whether or not to allow people or organizations to trap, neuter and release the felines. At council’s direction, Town Attorney Douglas Napier sought an opinion from then Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli on Front Royal’s powers. Cuccinelli opined that a locality can capture and sterilize feral cats, but not return them to the same site or any place in the wild.

“The locality – town and county – was hoping that might be a permissable activity because it’s very controversial, but it’s a very difficult problem to figure out how to get a handle on feral cats,” Napier said Friday. “[There’s] apparently quite a large number of them and they have an appreciable impact on birds and … cause a lot of disease amongst the cats themselves.

“I don’t know if it’s a solution or not, but it’s at least another tool in the toolbox to try without being inhumane to the animals,” Napier added. “It seems like you’ve got three options: Leave the feral cats to continue to breed and put pressure on wild animals, birds, or you can capture them and take them to the shelter and euthanize them, or you can do this trap, neuter and return activity and hopefully put a dent in the population without harming the animal, simply neuter the animal so they can’t continue to breed.”

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals promotes the practice as a human and cost-effective strategy for controlling feral cat populations, according to information from the Virginia Municipal League. Animal welfare groups remain divided on a solution. Feral cats are known to kill birds and other animals. However, a feral cat returned to a colony makes other animals in that group at risk for injury.

The legislation, if passed, would not define a participant as an owner under the state code; current law classifies abandonment of an animal by an owner as a misdemeanor. A participant also would not be held liable to the owner of a feral cat for capturing, sterilizing, releasing or providing medical care to the feline. The general assembly likely could consider the bill at its 2015 session.

Martin’s Legislative Director Ashley Wright stated in an email Friday that a constituent who had a trap, neuter and release program contacted the senator afraid that he or she might be charged with abandonment for releasing a feral cat.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com