Thursday, August 05, 1999

Feeding strays shouldn't be a crime

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        PARK HILLS — Betty Vest is trying to be tough. She says things like, “The soup kitchen is closed,” in an almost cheerful way, as if it really isn't so heart-breaking.

        Ms. Vest has a habit of feeding stray cats. Recently, the city of Park Hills ordered her to stop, saying she was creating a nuisance in the neighborhood.

        At first she tried to disagree. Then legal action was threatened, so now she is doing her best to keep the cats away.

        Meanwhile, the city council is scheduled to review the situation at its Monday meeting. Ms. Vest's predicament has stirred rumors of a citywide ban on stray-cat feeding. Some 30 animal rescuers plan to attend the meeting, where they will present alternatives to such bans.

        Park Hills Mayor Mike Hellmann says the city's concern is limited to Ms. Vest's activities. There won't be a new city law, he says.

        It's a good thing. People who “collect” dozens of animals ought to be helped, because they can't possibly provide good care to so many. But people who leave food for stray are a different story.

        They aren't the real problem. They weren't the ones who abandoned these cats, allowed them to breed, dumped them on other people's lawns or otherwise doomed them to difficult lives.

        If government wants to crack down, it should go after these irresponsible owners. At the very least, abandoning cats ought to be a misdemeanor in every city, and every shelter should require sterilization of adopted animals.

        Of course, an open feeding trough for strays can be a nuisance. Good Samaritans should exercise restraint, and concerned neighbors should approach them about a mutually agreeable solution. Anyone can borrow a trap from the Kenton County Animal Shelter, for instance, and use it to catch strays on their property.

        Another option is to contact the Greater Cincinnati Feral Cat Coalition. It advocates trapping wild cats, sterilizing them, treating health problems

        and then returning them to acceptable locations. These include farms where such cats are valued as mousers, says Sherry Drescher of the Feral Cat Coalition.

        We can all help by having our own pets sterilized and visiting shelters to adopt.

        People like Betty Vest shouldn't have to bear this burden alone.

        She says she has five cats of her own, the maximum allowed by Park Hills. After the city council's July meeting, Ms. Vest got another stern warning about the strays. So she put out a trap and managed to catch three — two adults and a baby that wandered into the cage.

        The animal shelter was full and the cats unhealthy, so “they had to execute two of them on the spot,” Ms. Vest says.

        Again, she sounds matter-of-fact. But her red eyes give her away.

        She recalls a litter of kittens born several weeks ago. The mama wasn't hers; it was just a cat that nobody wanted, like thousands of others.

        “They were still nursing on their mother, and then the big heat wave hit, and they were dropping like flies. Every one of the kittens died,” Ms. Vest says. “My sister and I tried to save one, but it died anyway.”

        As she's telling me this, she starts to cry.


  For help with relocating stray cats, contact the Greater Cincinnati Feral Cat Coalition, (513) 681-6194.
        Ms. Vest loves cats, and Park Hills seems to be a place where people drop them off. For some time, she and a woman down the street were putting out food for them, because they had extra.

        Then her next-door neighbor started to complain. She told city officials that the strays looked sick and were relieving themselves in her yard. The food was attracting raccoons, fleas, flies and other vermin, says Mr. Hellmann, the mayor.

        Under the city's nuisance ordinance, Ms. Vest was told to stop.

        She's trying to be philosophical about it. With this heat, “I don't know which is worse for them, dying here or dying at the pound,” she says.

        There's still one cat hanging out on her driveway. She calls it Little Red.

        “I caught the one it came with and its friend, the lady cat, so it's not real trusting of me right now.”

        Tears form in her eyes again. “I'm sorry,” she says, trying to collect herself.

        No, Ms. Vest. You're not the one who should be apologizing.

        Karen Samples is The Enquirer's Kentucky columnist. Her column appears on Sundays and Thursdays in The Kentucky Enquirer. She can be reached at 578-5584 or email her at