County proposes letting cats roam if they'll behave
Nov. 18, 1998

by Steven T. Dennis, Staff Writer

November 20, 1998

Cat owners who let their pets roam freely outdoors had better hope they have accommodating neighbors.

A widely reviled earlier proposal -- mocked as a "cat leash law" -- has been dropped by the Duncan administration. But Montgomery County Attorney Charles W. Thompson has proposed new animal control provisions that would make it illegal for owners to allow any animals, including cats, to:

*Enter private property without the property owner's permission.

*Endanger wildlife.

*Damage, soil, defile or defecate on property other than the owner's.

Cats found to be "repeatedly at large" also could be termed a public nuisance.

If Thompson's proposal becomes law, owners of roaming cats would no longer be able to ignore a neighbor's complaints without risking the impoundment of their pet. Cats found to kill birds, rabbits, mice, rats and other critters also would be in trouble with the law.

But unlike the previous proposal from County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, introduced in August, cats roaming at large would not automatically be illegal.

Opponents complained that the original proposal would force owners to leash or otherwise restrain their animals if they wanted to go outdoors.

Proponents, including the American Bird Conservancy and the Montgomery County Humane Society, wanted to keep cats inside to prevent them from spreading disease, polluting the environment, killing birds and other small creatures, getting run over or annoying neighbors.

Duncan, who owns two free-roaming cats himself, always maintained that he never intended to propose a cat-leash law but merely wanted to give county residents a defense against felines that create a public nuisance.

The new proposal also requires cats that are impounded more than once within 12 months to be restrained to the owner's property and spayed or neutered, if they haven't been already. An animal control officer also could order "any specific conditions that are appropriate in the animal control officer's judgment."

Pet owners who fail to comply with those orders would be guilty of a civil violation and may not be allowed to retrieve their cat if it is impounded again within the next 12 months.

Thompson, who wasn't available for comment, said in his memo that he modeled the language on that of other counties, including Carroll County.

"I believe these provisions, when taken together, will effectively resolve concerns that cat owners have about their pets' roaming instincts while at the same time balancing those concerns with those of neighbors who may not be as happy about the cat's intrusion on their property," Thompson said in a memo to the County Council, which held its first work session on Duncan's animal control proposals Thursday.

Councilwoman Nancy Dacek (D-Dist. 2) of Darnestown, the lead council member for animal control, said she had received the new proposal only Thursday and would wait for future work sessions to discuss the merits of the cat control provisions.

In rewriting the county's animal control law, other issues that the council will address include:

*Beefing up the laws regarding dangerous animals. Duncan has proposed a broad expansion of powers for animal control officers to seize and destroy animals deemed dangerous or potentially dangerous.

*Whether dogs should be required to be on leashes when outdoors, with certain limited exceptions. The current law prohibits dogs from roaming at large but allows owners to walk their dogs without a leash if they have verbal control.

*Whether there should be limits on the number of animals a person can keep without getting special permission from the county. Dacek said she was very reluctant to impose a numerical limit unless absolutely necessary.

*Whether new standards of care to judge cruelty should be imposed.

*Whether laws should impose different requirements for rural and urban areas. Dacek said different sets of requirements would be very difficult to enforce.

*Whether breeders of animals should have to purchase a breeder's permit. Such a requirement is now on the books, but very few purchase them. Duncan's proposal would eliminate the requirement.

*Whether licenses for unaltered dogs and cats should continue to cost much more than for spayed and neutered animals. County statistics show when the rates were raised for unaltered animals in 1991, the number of licenses plummeted. Duncan's proposal would return to the pre-1991 rate structure.

*Whether a first violation for an animal "running at large" should automatically be waived, as under current law. Duncan's proposal repeals the automatic waiver.

Dacek has made clear that any new laws will have to be balanced against the county's ability to enforce the law. She said the county clearly needs more animal control officers than the six they currently have.

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