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JACK SMITH ON SUNDAY

Lemmeowt! : It Seems That a Cat, Too, Is Entitled to Lives, Liberty and the Purrsuit of Happiness

November 04, 1990|JACK SMITH

ACCORDING TO A STORY in the Winnepeg Free Press, the city of Calgary has passed a law requiring cat owners to keep their cats at home.

Evidently the law was passed to appease irate citizens who complained that neighbors' cats were vandalizing their yards.

It permits the alleged victims of these depredations to set up cat traps, provides for fines to be imposed on delinquent owners, and gives those owners five days to claim impounded cats. Otherwise, the cats are done away with.

At last report, the city was divided between cat owners and cat haters. An animal-protection group was trying to gather 40,000 signatures to force a plebiscite on the issue. It argues that the law ignores the real problem--the population explosion of cats--and that a low-cost neutering program could be financed by the money needed to enforce the law.

We know from experience that legislators pass laws infringing the freedom of cats at their peril. The classic case involved Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson's eloquent veto of a bill passed by the Illinois State Legislature requiring the licensing and restraining of cats.

In a message that ranks among the most graceful of state papers, Gov. Stevenson wrote: "I cannot believe that there is a widespread public demand for this law or that it could, as a practical matter, be enforced.

"Furthermore, I cannot agree that it should be the declared public policy of Illinois that a cat visiting a neighbor's yard or crossing the highway is a public nuisance. It is in the nature of cats to do a certain amount of unescorted roaming. Many live with their owners in apartments or other restricted premises, and I doubt if we want to make their every brief foray an opportunity for a small game hunt by zealous citizens--with traps or otherwise. . . ."

He warned that the bill could only create "discord, recrimination and enmity,"which is exactly what the law has done in Calgary.

Obviously, there is a disparity between the civil rights granted dogs and cats. One need only observe our own household to see that cats are a great deal freer than dogs.

We have five cats. I cannot say that we own them. They live outside, on the porch, among the plants in the yard, under the house, on the roof. Three of them are solid-black males. The fourth is their mother, a mottled gray-brown. The fifth is an orange male of a previous generation.

At much travail and risk, we trapped each of them and had them neutered, a favor for which, of course, they do not appreciate us. Evidently they attach themselves to us only because my wife feeds them every morning. They gather on the porch, whining and snarling, until she appears. They are not affectionate. They show no love. Once fed, they vanish to their mysterious pursuits, evidently pillaging our neighbors' yards. When we come home we see them streaking toward our house from various directions, risking the dangers of the streets.

The question is--do we own them? If Los Angeles had a law like Calgary's, could we be obliged to bail them out if they were trapped and turned over to the pound? Could we be sued for damages they might have inflicted on the neighbor's premises?

On the other hand, our dog also was a stray. We did not buy her. We did not ask for her. She simply appeared one day inside our fence. We have taken care of her ever since.

But do you think she is allowed to run free? No way. Not only is she confined to quarters, but when she gets out, we panic. My wife gets in the car and drives down the hill looking for her. I stand by for telephone calls saying she has been taken in. If we take her for a walk, which we rarely do, we must keep her on a leash.

I am not objecting to this difference in our treatment of dogs and cats. It simply illustrates a difference in their natures. I know some cats are house cats and are never let outside. But I can't imagine living with a cat 24 hours a day. And I can't imagine confining a cat to quarters. I am also told that some cats are trained to walk on a leash, but I have never seen it done, and I don't care to walk a cat.

I think my wife and I have done much to strike at the heart of the problem. Over the years we have caught and neutered many wild neighborhood cats. Few have ever rewarded us with their company and their affection. All they care about is food. Yet my wife seems to care about them. She worries that one of them will be hit by a car. She worries when one is absent for a few days.

I'm afraid that Stevenson was right. Cats are outside the law.

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