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Marjorie Clarkson: Charleston's proposed cat law an ill-advised overreaction

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- We have revered and reviled cats throughout our long history with them. In Cyprus, the remains of a cat and its human companion buried 9,000 years ago were discovered in a shared grave. The ancient Egyptians idolized them; and there is a legend that the infant Jesus stopped crying only after a tabby cat jumped into the manger and calmed him with its purring.

The cat revilers were in full force in 14th-century Europe because they believed cats brought the plague into their homes. The wholesale slaughter of cats went on for decades, and is thought to have lengthened the plague because the infected flea-carrying rats lost their primary predator.

Interestingly, in a place much closer to Charleston in time and miles, a removal of cats from a Dunbar neighborhood brought about a noticeable increase in rodents, according to some long-time residents. Nature abhors a vacuum, and will fill it up with other species.

Cats have again become the target of those who think their presence is a menace: The Charleston City Council recently proposed legislation titled "Cats prohibited to run at large; fines." The first provision of this law reads, "The cat is firmly attached to a leash or chain or otherwise under the physical control of its owner . . . " and goes on to impose fines of increasing amounts for violations of the leash/chain law. The cats will be impounded at the animal shelter for their offenses. If the cat becomes a chronic offender, the owner can forfeit its ownership. The City Council has decided each household is limited to three cats, no matter the size of their home or ability to care for more, and any more must be allowed by special permit, which also costs money.

It is not difficult to understand why many upset Charlestonians filled the meeting room at City Hall when this proposed legislation came up for a committee vote in early September. They recognized this legislation as an extreme overreaction to a problem that has nothing to do with responsible cat owners and their neutered and immunized pets. The real problem is the growing number of cats that end up abandoned, hungry and reproducing kittens that become feral. Another, less significant problem is that of cat hoarders, which is rare, and will not be eliminated by new legislation, because there is already a law that allows citizens to complain about "nuisance houses" in their neighborhoods.

It became clear at the meeting that the staff and board of the Kanawha County Animal Shelter and Humane Association had not been consulted during the drafting of the proposed law. The shelter's executive director, Chelsea Staley, said if this law passed, euthanasia of cats at the shelter would increase because there is no room for more cats at the already overcrowded facility.

Passage of this proposed legislation will mean the killing of family pets that are not threatening the quality of life in their neighborhoods. After all, we domesticated these animals 10,000 years ago to protect our stored grains from rodents. They now mainly give us the pleasure of their company but are still on the job, keeping rodents under control in our community. I hope we are more enlightened in our animal-management practices than the 14th-century European cat-killers who acted out of fear and prejudice.

Clarkson, of Charleston, is a community volunteer and former legal researcher and public communications official in Santa Fe, N.M.


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