Cat Fight in Richmond

Feb 9, 2021

You could call it a “cat fight.”  Virginia lawmakers are now debating a bill that would make it easier for volunteers to trap, neuter and release feral felines.  Many animal rights advocates oppose it.

PETA argues a bill to control the population of feral cats doesn't do enough to protect the animals or people who live around them.
Credit PETA

Daphna Nachminovich is an executive with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and she knows how quickly cats reproduce.

“They have at least two litters a year, and they have multiple kittens per litter, and they start reproducing at five or six months."

So she doesn’t oppose sterilizing feral cats, but she’s not happy with a bill sponsored by Senator Lynwood Lewis.  It allows animal shelters to set up trap, neuter and release programs and exempts volunteers from state laws that require people to care for their animals, providing food, water, shelter and veterinary care.

And from a public health standpoint, Nachminovich says, they should arrange to vaccinate feral cats against diseases like rabies.

“Cats are the most common domesticated animal to transmit rabies to humans,"she explains, "so it’s extremely important that they are kept current on their vaccinations.”

She adds that the legislation provides no protection for people’s pets – no requirement that trapped cats be held for a period of time so owners can claim them.

“It really applies to any cat a person finds outdoors without a visible form of identification, which could really be any cat belonging to another person or a cat that someone is already taking care of.”   

Instead, opponents argue for laws like the one in Newport News.

“Several years ago they passed an ordinance that requires people who wish to feed feral cats outside to register with animal control, to actively trap, spay/neuter, vaccinate cats that they choose to take care of, limit the colony size to 20, obtain property owner permission and also the permission or buy-in from surrounding property owners,” Nachminovich says.

Wildlife advocates say free-roaming cats kill billions of birds and small mammals each year.

Many groups that advocate for wildlife have joined PETA in lobbying against the bill – noting free-roaming cats kill billions of birds and small mammals in this country each year. They’re asking state lawmakers to set Lewis’s bill aside and let them draft a better one for consideration next year.  

The sponsor of SB1390 could not be reached for comment, but backers of the bill say more than 70 groups including the Richmond SPCA support it.  A spokesperson for the society, Tabitha Treloar, points out that vaccination is part of any good trap-neuter-return program, and she says the measure does not absolve volunteers in such programs from animal welfare laws.  Instead, the bill clarifies a gray area of law: volunteers who trap a cat for sterilization, then return it to its colony could not be charged with “abandonment.”   

The goal, she adds, is to “keep community cats out of shelters where they are often killed, not because of sickness or injury, but because they are not socialized to humans.”  Treloar said “volunteers go to great lengths before trapping any newcomer to a cat colony” to determine if it is a pet.  If so, she says, it is “eagerly reunited with its family so limited surgery appointments can go to community cats.”

***Editor's Note: Additional comment from supporters of the bill was added to this story on Feb. 10th.