MASSACHUSETTS – Congregating in front of the town hall in Snow Hill, approximately 20 activists bear signs reading, “Oliver deserved to live.”
The protest is just one part of an ongoing dilemma regarding the policy of euthanasia as a first measure Worcester County Animal Control implements for stray cats. Oliver, a cat who had been in possession of Berlin’s Community Cat Coalition prior to being picked up by animal control back on June 28, had received all proper vaccinations and was neutered.
“Oliver was ear-chipped as a trap and return cat,” stated Molly Armus, of Bethesda’s Alley Cat Allies. “That means animal control knew that he was neutered and disease free.”
Alley Cat Allies state that of all of the cats that come through Worcester County Animal Control, about 86 percent are euthanized. A campaign for letters to Worcester County Animal Control has so far sent 56,000 letters, according to Alley Cat Allies.
Back on July 13, those asking for Oliver back were notified that he had been euthanized.
The fight to save Oliver
In the days leading up to Oliver’s death, Susan Coleman, who is the director of the Community Cat Coalition, had struggled to retake the cat and return him to his outdoor colony.
“He’s still alive, but he’s scheduled to be killed, let’s just call it what it is, in 10 days,” Coleman stated on July 8. “They won’t give us our cat, just in case it came in contact with a rabid cat, which it hasn’t. This happens all the time.”
Coleman believes stringent euthanasia policies are taken by Worcester County Animal Control with the intentions of preserving a clean atmosphere in a county with such a high tourist population.
“They don’t recognize trap and return in Worcester County,” Coleman stated. “Wicomico does, but here they feel like it’s too densely populated of an area and tourists are going to come out and pet the cat. But a true feral cat will run from you, it will not let you touch it. The only reason that lady could’ve been bitten by the rabid cat is because it was not feral, it was a friendly cat, and she tried to pick it up.”
Coleman was talking about a case on July 7, when three people required rabies treatment following contact with a rabid cat in West Ocean City, the Worcester County Health Department reported.
Karlene Morrison of Westside Community Cats in Nanticoke explained that the exposure to rabies was the fault of the residents, not the cat.
“I know that if a cat is lying in the street or acting strangely, to never try to pick it up without gloves,” Morrison stated. “I would’ve known something was wrong, because they don’t just lay in the street for no reason.”
Despite all of Coleman’s concerns, the magnitude of cat populations in Worcester County and the surrounding area often overburden no-kill shelters.
At the Worcester County Humane Society, a small building in West Ocean City is lined with cages holding kittens, adoption director Jessica Summers explained the depth of the problem the area faces
“We’ve taken in 75 kittens already this season,” Summers stated. “We’re at the point where we have upwards of 200 cats here. We have people coming from Delaware and Virginia to give us cats, because they don’t want to send them to a kill shelter.”
While the humane society has taken a non-kill approach to animal control, they still struggle with a lack of funding, having no financial support from Worcester County, and a severe overcrowding burden that encapsulates the area’s problem. However, Summers said animal control may not be following proper measures for dealing with the cats.
“With the cat that was found to be rabid in Ocean City, and the fact that there are so many cats in the area, I can understand how euthanasia can sometimes be required,” Summers stated. “I can’t speak for the policies of animal control, but euthanasia should be used as a last resort, not a first response measure. Their kennels should be full before they decide to start to euthanize.”
Summers described a system in which people allow cats to breed that they cannot care for, consequently perpetuating a population problem, which in the end, creates a place for euthanasia.
“I’ll never understand how people can just give up animals, but we take in all that we can,” Summers stated. “We always find room for another cat, but there’s only so much we can do if people don’t adopt.”
Finding some common ground
Coleman’s and Morrison’s approach toward cat population control differs sharply from animal control by not promoting euthanasia, but rather by quarantining and controlling populations.
Coleman explained that after capturing the cat, they’re driven to Annapolis where they’re spayed or neutered and receive vaccinations. For cats who are more friendly, they are held in a colony or transferred to PetSmart, where they are able to be adopted. For feral cats, they are indeed returned to the population, now disease free and unable to reproduce.
Animal control policies differ very drastically due to the number of cats.
“Domestic animals are required to be under control of the owner at all times,” Lt. Ed Schrier of the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office stated. “The owner will be subject to fines if their pet wanders. Owners have 10 days to claim their pet once taken by animal control (before being euthanized).”
However, both Coleman and Morrison explained the 10-day rule is often abused, and animal control works to prevent people from reclaiming their pets.
Worcester County Animal Control has declined to comment on the recent situations.
“It’s a misuse of power,” Coleman stated. “I had a woman call me crying because animal control was trapping in her neighborhood, and her pet cat was in one of the traps. She called and they said ‘You cannot touch that trap, it’s government property,’ and she said ‘That’s my pet cat.’
“They told her that they needed to bring it in and impound it, and then she could come and claim and be charged $100 for letting it free roam. … They took it down to animal control and she rushed down to claim the cat, and they had already put it down.”
Morrison further explained that animal control often required a large amount of information before any person is allowed to claim their cat. She stated that in one of her cases, she needed to provide a certificate and all the cat’s records. Morrison also said animal control wouldn’t allow an owner to see the cat during that process.
“How is a person supposed to identify their cat without seeing it?” Coleman stated. “At this point, we don’t even know if the cat that they have is ours, it could be someone’s pet cat.”
Coleman now believes that animal control refused to let her see the cat in question because it had already been put down, within the 10-day grace period to be claimed. It should also be mentioned that this is not the first time such allegations were made against Worcester County animal control.
Back in 2012, Alley Cat Allies, which is a Bethesda-based nonprofit, condemned Worcester County animal control for not abiding by the 10-day rule, and euthanizing five pet cats within the grace period.
The 10-day rule follows the guidelines of the CDC for an animal to be quarantined for 10 entire days for rabies observation. While the only sure way to prove rabies in an animal is dissection of the brain, no person in the United States has ever contracted rabies from a pet dog, cat or other animal following this 10-day quarantine.
For Coleman and Morrison the fear of what could happen to cats in Worcester County has quickly come to a head.
“If they really were worried about it being a human health hazard, if you’re really worried about this cat being exposed, why don’t you give it to me or give it to Susan so we can quarantine it and watch it so we know?” Morrison stated. “Why is putting to sleep the only option that there is? It’s a choice; they’ve chosen this.”