Friday, November 11, 2011

News Alert: Judge Rules that Feeding Feral Cats is Legal in Maryland's PG County

Here is some good news for PG county!


November 10, 2011
Timothy W. Saffell

Judge Rules That Feeding Feral Cats is Legal in Maryland

Upper Marlboro, MD. The Prince George's County Circuit Court ruled today that Animal Control Officers may not issue warnings or penalize people for merely feeding feral cat colonies. This decision is the result of a suit filed by Prince Georges Feral Friends, SPCA against Prince George's County.
Timothy W. Saffell, President of PGFF, SPCA, says "County residents have told us that they have been given an 'Incident/Investigation Report' by Prince George's County Animal Control Officers that says 'Feeding feral cats is illegal. You must stop. You may be fined if you continue.' "
"The Incident/Investigation Report form never included a citation to the section of the Animal Control Statute that was allegedly being violated" he continued. "We searched the law and could not find any prohibition of feeding."
The judge agreed. The judgment will be issued on December 9, 2011. Prince George's County may appeal but it is unlikely.
The attorney for PGFF, SPCA, Anne Benaroya, who has extensive experience in constitutional, administrative, and animal law and is co-founder of the Maryland Animal Law Center, said, "This is a big victory, not only for PGFF, SPCA, but also for feral cat caretakers who have been molested by Animal Control agencies around the state." She expects that other advocates will now be empowered to "stand up and talk back."
Ms. Benaroya points out that "When the government prohibits a citizen from engaging in a legal activity, it is a violation of that citizen's constitutional rights." Furthermore, she observes, "Now, with this judgment, if a County Animal Control Officer prohibits the feeding of feral cats, absent a demonstrable nuisance condition, the court can be called upon to issue an immediate restraining order."
"This decision does not affect any law that prohibits creating nuisance conditions, trespassing, etc. Ms. Benaroya adds, "This is just the beginning, and more work remains, since it does not apply to any jurisdiction where feeding outdoor animals is expressly prohibited by code or common law."

I have heard it over, and over, and over again.  I've heard it from ordinary citizens.  I've heard it from erstwhile officials.  I've heard it from people with reputations as "experts" with national organizations.  I've heard it spewed as a condemnation of what I said and did.  I've heard it from people (a lot of them) who fancy themselves more "humane" than their neighbors.

Every time I heard, "it's illegal to feed" a couple of decades ago, it bothered me.  At some point after hearing it repeated again and again, I began asking, "how do you know?" or "where do you see that in print?"  And never, no matter who I asked, did I ever get a specific citation.  A citation is a quote, or a reference of some sort to written material.  I looked for one.  I used the Internet, and searched until I could find a current Prince George's County Code online.  (I tried to find a library where I could use a copy, but never found a place where you could read the law under which you are expected to live and work, without having to pay hefty sums).  I searched through it.  I read the sections that might pertain to animals in any way.  I DID learn a lot about what is legal and what's not.  But I never could find a restriction on providing nourishment.  In fact, over the years, when I did find some language relative to feeding, it was in Maryland State Statute, and called for sanctions if you PREVENT someone from providing sufficient nourishment to animals.  "Hmmmm." I thought.  Shouldn't the people who are allowed to go around "enforcing" on others, know this and spread the word?  Why, I wondered, wouldn't they want to have everyone KNOW how we are supposed to act, and not violate the law.

Particularly frustrating to me as someone who owned and cared about pets, was this effective feeding ban, when it applied to cats that you sometimes see browsing around in suburban neighborhoods.  I'd certainly put food out for my share of strange cats visiting my yard.  My friends and coworkers and neighbors definitely had told me about doing the same.  We ALL thought this was a good thing.  All of us were rather proud of ourselves and happy to be able to help another creature. 

But a lot of times when I was learning about the lives of those cats, I heard that phrase, "It's illegal to feed," used by one humane society as a defense for caring nothing about the lives of SOME animals.  And when I would talk with people at events or pet-related stores, a lot of them were quite confused about what they ought to do -- if they turned away from a hungry cat, they felt terrible and cruel; yet if they fed they sooner or later ran into one of the humane society women who lectured them about the evils of feeding.  My lone voice explaining that there is nothing at all in our law saying they shouldn't feed, didn't go very far.

Common sense, thank goodness, frequently has ruled.  And there is an army of good people around PG today who have fed cats.  They all subscribe to the responsible unwritten law saying, if you feed, you should also "fix" (spay or neuter to sterilize) cats.  This leads to the kind of program that animal control and the humane societies have failed to offer.  Again, that "it's illegal to feed" excuse gets trotted out any time those groups are questionned about why they don't work with the community to do what their name says -- control animals.  The word control does NOT have to mean "kill," even though that appears to be the only control method known to PG's animal control.

This month, at long long last, we have a court ruling.  And it confirms what I've been saying for so long.  It's NOT illegal to feed.  I couldn't find language about not feeding, because IT IS NOT THERE.  If you looked for it and could not find it, you're not blind, either.  IT IS NOT THERE.  And now, we have a court ruling that says so. 

Why, we may ask, don't the humane societies and animal control want us to know that it is NOT against the law to feed?  Well, I have a theory now about it.  The goal of PG animal control is to raise revenues, and it takes a no hold barred attitude in order to do that. So animal control doesn't care at all if you don't know the law.  In fact, it is better for their bottom line if you DON'T know what is lawful for you to do.  This way, you can be fined for all kinds of things.  And as long as you can afford to, most of us may decide to just pay a fine rather than stand on principle.  Is this what democracy looks like?  Well, in PG County, sadly, yes, it is.

However, the law has been interpreted for us now, and feeding is lawful. 

I would like to encourage you, reader, to feed that outdoor cat you may notice outside your door. I would like to encourage you to NOT ONLY feed, because as good responsible neighbors, we want to do things that are good for our community.  So I encourage you very strongly to feed and to think of a way to also safely trap, and get veterinary spay or neuter surgery, and a shot against rabies, for any cat that you feed.  I'd even go as far as to tell you that you should look for a program that provides help with doing all of those things.  You won't find it from animal control in PG, though, and you also won't find it from the humane societies around here.  Their concern for animal welfare or for community goes from zilch to perhaps a modest curiousity, but no further.

The ruling on feeding was secured by a grassroots group of neighbors who have persevered through attempts to work with PG county, through trivial legal obstacles placed before us, to a day in court at great expense and impressive amounts of hard work, research, writing and data analysis.  Prince Georges Feral Friends, SPCA (PGFF), formed to help cats and cat supporters when those humane societies turned their backs, won this one all by itself.  PGFF accomplished this while still carrying out that program that no one else seems to be able to provide.


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