This story illustrates the great difficulty in enforcing a law which creates an obligation on a cat owner to register her/his cat. Currently, throughout America (and Australia), there are discussions about how to minimise unwanted cats through better cat ownership. One proposal is to make it obligatory to obtain a cat license through registration. Such a law exists in Ottawa, Canada.
The law states that at section 53 (1) every owner of a cat, where the owner resides in an area of the city where the zoning permits residential land use, shall register the cat with the City…
Dan Smith, 65, is facing jail for not paying a fine for his failure to register a semi-feral cat who is fed by his estranged wife, Elizabeth, with whom he still shares a home (in Gatineau) despite the fact that he also has a separate home in Vanier, not that far away. Both are suburbs of Ottawa.
Mr Smith is being hounded by animal control, the police and the courts and because he resolutely refuses to pay the fine and court costs or register the cat because he does not “own” her, he is now facing a jail term, which by the way, he does not mind because, “Maybe, I’ll have a rest for a few days”.
You can see the problem with laws creating obligations to register a cat because they must operate on the question of ownership. Once again this tricky question of “cat ownership” comes to a head because morally we don’t really own cats anyway which is highlighted in this case when a person regularly feeds a feral cat.
A surly SPCA Animal Control officer told Dan Smith that if you feed a cat you own the cat:
“You feed it, you own it.”
That can’t be true, surely? It would mean that people engaged in trap-neuter-release programs (TNR) anywhere in North America, which often incorporates feeding, own the feral cats in their care. Nobody’s ever suggested that these kind people own the feral cats that they are managing. They are simply caring for them in a specific way to gradually reduce their numbers. Under this Ottawa law, however, they would be deemed to be owners.
In the case of Dan Smith, not only is the cat a semi-feral cat and therefore technically has no owner in the conventional sense, his former wife has admitted that Dan is telling truth and that she has looked after the cat for the past 12 years. In fact, she describes this cat who she has named Winnie as a feral cat and her pet; a relationship difficult to define in law.
In the case of Dan Smith, the problem hinges upon the bylaw which places an obligation upon cat owners to register their cats. If the law is drafted with insufficient clarity then there will be problems enforcing it.
In this instance the bylaw describes “domestic animal” as meaning a “cat or dog”. It does not differentiate between, domestic, stray, semi-feral or feral cats. The law defines “owner” as someone who “possesses or harbours an animal” and “a person who is temporarily the keeper or in control of the animal.”
Does a person who feeds a semi-feral cat “control” the animal? No, must be the answer and certainly in this case as Winnie just turns up. Is Winnie being kept by Elizabeth? Well she is being fed and we don’t know the full facts but solely feeding a cat does not mean the person is the cat’s “keeper” in my view. The definitions seem to be inadequate to me.
Perhaps though, on reflection, the lawmakers of Ottawa decided that a person would own a feral cat if he/she fed that cat (based upon what the Animal Control officer said). That would seem to be far-fetched and going against the opinions of the vast majority of the public who would undoubtedly agree that feral cats are wild and therefore cannot be said to be “owned” by anyone.
Even if you could say that a feral cat was owned by somebody who fed the cat you will encounter the great difficulty of deciding what “feeding the cat” means. What if you put down a meal for a cat on one occasion and then never did it again. Would that constitute feeding the cat and therefore owning the cat?