Keeping felines in line
Sep. 23, 1998

Proposal would keep cats from roaming the streets

by Steven T. Dennis, Staff Writer

A cat fight has erupted between supporters and opponents of County Executive Douglas M. Duncan's plan to prohibit felines from roaming freely in Montgomery County.

Duncan has proposed that all cats should be prevented from leaving their owners' property as part of a comprehensive overhaul of animal control laws. Cats that wish to go outdoors will have to be leashed or otherwise controlled.

The current law prohibits only "unaltered" cats (that is, those not spayed or neutered) from roaming.

Opponents of the change say that it is unnecessary and unenforceable.

Proponents say cats aren't safe outside and have a tendency to kill birds, rabbits and other animals.

A public hearing on the animal control law is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the County Council building in Rockville. And county officials are likely to hear quite a bit from the public at the hearing.

"They might as well make a law banning squirrels from Montgomery County. I don't think it's likely to be very effective," said Linda Rabben of Takoma Park. Rabben is one of many who have written to the County Council expressing their outrage.

"I think that it is an unwarranted intrusion on my freedom to have a pet," she said. "It reminds me of Singapore where they've outlawed chewing gum."

William L. Brown of Takoma Park said that the proposal is "ridiculous."

"We wouldn't be able to take the cats out. We'd have to walk them like dogs. Have you ever tried to walk a cat? It doesn't work. The cat will just sit there.

"I don't know why they need a new law to enforce when I never see them enforcing any of the other laws on the books," he said.

Brown also said that cats are happier outside.

However, Sharon Kessler, director of the Montgomery County Humane Society, supports the change in the law, saying that the only safe place for a cat is indoors.

Linda Winter of Washington Grove also supports laws forcing owners to keep their cats indoors. Winter is the coordinator of the American Bird Conservancy's "Cats Inside!" program.

Winter said that it's "really better for birds and wildlife and the cats themselves and the humans if the cats are kept indoors," she said.

Winter said that she formerly allowed her cats to go outdoors but changed when she found out "how many millions of cats are out there killing hundreds of millions of birds each year," she said.

"Birds have so many other issues causing the decline of bird populations across the country," Winter said.

She also was sick of cleaning abscesses from cat fights, and was upset when her cat would bring home birds, baby squirrels and baby bunnies.

"I was acting irresponsibly by letting her do that," she said.

Winter said that cat owners can build cat enclosures that allow cats outside where they could "watch birds at a safe distance," she said.

Cats can also be trained to walk by leash, she said.

Winter said that the enforcement of the law would require additional animal control personnel, but said that it would be impossible for the county to enforce the law too strictly.

"It's certainly not a round-up-and-kill program," she said.

County officials have also complained that the current law is difficult to enforce because it isn't always easy for an animal control officer to tell if a cat has been altered.

Rabben and Kim Tedrow, also of Takoma Park, contend that roaming cats perform a service by keeping a lid on the rat population.

In a letter to the council, Tedrow expressed her disbelief.

"If you weren't serious, I'd be laughing at the absurdity of it," she said. "As a resident living in a neighborhood with several well-loved, well-behaved, free-roaming cats, and a neighborhood with a persistent rat population, I must say this doesn't make any sense.

"I think the County Council has better things to do with its time. Like perhaps putting a few overzealous developers on a leash."

Duncan, for his part, denies that the proposal is a cat leash law.

"I didn't want anything in there to leash cats. I don't think that works at all," he said.

Duncan also said that he had concerns about how the proposal could be enforced, but deferred to the opinion of the Animal Matters Hearing Board in making his proposal.

He said it would be fine with him if the public and the County Council decide that it isn't a good idea.

County Councilwoman Nancy Dacek (R-Dist. 2), the lead council member on animal control issues, said she's opposed to the new restrictions on cat roaming.