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Why this town is seriously considering a leash law for cats

A leashed California cat goes on a stroll. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Town officials in Kenai, Alaska — besieged with complaints about free-roaming felines and a burgeoning shelter cat population — are proposing a cat leash law.

This news was reported last week in wonderful detail by the local paper, which cited a city attorney’s description of impolite cats “defecating on private property, invading plant beds, and otherwise disturbing property owners’ peaceful enjoyment of their property.” The solution, according to Mayor Pat Porter and town council member Tim Navarre, is an ordinance they have proposed that would require cats to be kept indoors, behind a fence or on a leash or chain.

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The penalty for noncompliance: As much as $500.

“Having cats use my yard for a kitty litter box is a huge health issue, as well as being really nasty, and we shouldn’t have to tolerate this,” one Kenai resident wrote in a letter to the council, according to the Peninsula Clarion. “Twice I have accidentally stuck my fingers in cat poop while trying to weed my flower garden.”

Although the idea of tethered cats being escorted on strolls might sound absurd, requiring it is hardly, er, for the birds. In fact, it’s fairly common. Many cities, including St. Louis, have laws that instruct people to keep pets of any sort on their own property or on a leash. Some, such as Englewood, Colo., and Dallas, even specify that cats are most definitely not exempt. Henderson, Nev., goes further, making it clear that the rules apply not just to dogs, but also to cats and ferrets.

So why don’t you see more cats being walked? Because most places don’t enforce the law, probably because they’ve got better things to do with their time and money.

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Noncompliance and resources come up frequently in the civic battles that these sorts of proposals inevitably spark. When officials in Barre, Vt., proposed clarifying in 2010 that their city’s leash law included cats, a city council meeting on the matter drew what the Associated Press called an “unusually large crowd” of about 30 people. Resident Sue Higby pronounced cat leash laws “a bad idea,” the AP reported, “unless you want to have the police department chasing cats around for a million dollars an hour.”

That concern prompted the town of Gretna, La., to free felines from the local leash law in 2014.

“I don’t think it’s something we can enforce. I don’t think we can confine a cat to a yard,” Joe Marino III, the Gretna council member who sponsored the change that unleashed cats, said at the time, according to the Times-Picayune. 

The arguments have been echoed in Kenai, where a former council member said cat owners would ignore the law and posited that many roaming cats are feral, so requiring leashes would just mean more work for the town’s animal control officers. “The flaw in this ordinance is that it assumes compliance,” Ryan Marquis wrote in an emailed testimony to the council, according to the Peninsula Clarion.

But the case for keeping cats constrained is pretty compelling.

When Edmonds, Wash., passed a cat leash law in 2013, proponents cited cats’ role in spreading toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection that has been tenuously linked to mental health problems. Many animal welfare groups promote indoor lifestyles as safer and kinder to kitties (feral cat advocates disagree). And then there is cats’ role as bird assassins, a topic that’s gotten more attention since the recent release of the book “Cat Wars,” in which a bird scientist argues that cats must be removed from the outdoors — by trap, poison or weapon.

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Porter said in an interview Monday that some residents of larger subdivisions in Kenai, a town of about 8,000 humans, have “20 cats that they’re just letting run loose,” and neighbors aren’t pleased. Adding cats to the local leash law would simply make them subject to the same rules as dogs, she said.

Currently, Porter said, miffed neighbors can borrow a live cat trap from the town’s animal control department and then take a trapped cat into the town shelter. But when the cat owner comes for the cat, the town has no recourse, she said, and that’s what she wants to change.

“We just have to give the cat back,” Porter said. “There’s not even a charge for it coming into the animal control, even if they fed it for three days.”

Porter said people on both sides of the issue have exhibited far more passion about it than what she termed “more important” council matters, such as the budget. But the pro-leash crowd should not expect a cat-catching patrol if the proposal passes on Oct. 5, she said.

“We’re not going to go running around neighborhoods looking for cats,” she said. “We just don’t have the resources.”

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