'Logical' and 'legal' not the same
Logical' and 'legal' not the same for Jensen Beach cat lover
Fort Pierce Tribune (subscription), FL - July 16, 2006
By MEGAN KENNY firstname.lastname@example.org
JENSEN BEACH — Facing a court date and a hefty fine for failing to leash cats, Kristen Nielander knew she needed legal help.
The self-described animal lover tried Legal Aid and the public defender's office before calling The Florida Bar and getting a recommendation for a lawyer. She hopes to convince a judge she's not the legal guardian of cats she feeds, traps, spays or neuters and vaccinates, but a volunteer trying to help humanely control the cat population near her home.
Nielander found an attorney who will be paid for by an anonymous donor she knows from a local animal shelter. Unfortunately, few attorneys know about animal law, with antiquated ordinances that national animal rights groups say were well-intended but are pointless.
"Logical and legal are not the same thing," Nielander said. "Legally, I'm in the wrong, I guess, but logically, the whole thing is ridiculous."
Nielander, 39, got in trouble in March when she tried to rescue five cats from the Humane Society of the Treasure Coast. Animal control officers brought the cats to the shelter. Nielander has spent $9,000 to fix and vaccinate more than 70 cats She tries to have them adopted or rereleased where they were caught.
To return the cats, and to keep them from being euthanized, she had to tell Humane Society officials they were hers, resulting in $575 in fines for failure to leash the cats.
She's scheduled to appear in Martin County Court on Sept. 20 to fight the fine.
The American Humane Association said, when done correctly, Nielander's approach to controlling a stray and feral cat population in neighborhood is the best.
But Elaine Wood, program manager of the association's shelter services, said she's not surprised someone would run into legal trouble because their actions conflict with local laws.
When someone feeds a cat, they're legally considered its owner in many communities, she said.
"Legally, it's an uphill road," she said. "Historically, animal control's directive was to control rabies. That's initially why they were organized in county governments."
Even if a humane society or an animal control officer agreed with what someone like Nielander was doing philosophically, they are bounded by legal obligations.
Jessica Frohman, program director of the Bethesda, Md.-based Alley Cat Allies, an activist group for the trap, neuter, release approach Nielander practices, said she doesn't see many people with cat colony-related legal problems, though some activists fight against laws made with decent intentions.
"There's an ongoing situation where the laws don't adequately deal with the situation they were created to address," Frohman said, referring to leash laws, laws that limit the number of pets a person can have and licensing requirements.
There also are communities that initiate feeding bans and mandatory spay and neuter laws that are equally unenforceable.
"What are they going to do? Go door-to-door and check to see if someone has a spayed pet?" she said.
She said the climate of the law is changing as more local governments make exceptions to some laws by adding a trap, neuter and release program thatexempts some animals. But it's a slow process, and it's hindered because there aren't many attorneys who can navigate animal cases.
Boca Raton attorney Barry Silver, who is shepherding a half-dozen animal cases through the courts, said the archaic notion of animals as property still prevails in the legal system, but the notion that pets are not just chattel is catching on.
"In court, they'll tell you that the legal system views animals as chattel. That's what they're taught and that's what they believe," he said. "But that's not true. We have laws that punish people who are cruel to animals. But there is no law to punish people who are cruel to chairs."
The key is to find more citizens, and attorneys, willing to push those limits, he said.
"A rational view, that an animal is more than a chair and less than a human," Silver said. "Everyone knows animals aren't the same as things, but the law doesn't. But they're getting there."
Pets in court
• In May, a couple was charged with misdemeanor theft and animal cruelty after allegedly driving a neighbor's cat 15 miles west into the Everglades.
Fort Lauderdale firefighter Christopher Cortes and his girlfriend, Iris Zukerman, allegedly tried to banish Mr. Kibbles, their neighbors' cat, in Coconut Creek, because the cat used his pickup truck flatbed as a litter box, according to prosecutors.
The couple said they thought the cat was a stray. Mr. Kibbles found his way back home from 15 miles away.
• Last month, a judge in Bridgeport, Conn., sentenced Ruth Cisero, the owner of Lewis, a cat who attacked six neighbors, to two years' probation and 50 hours of community service for endangering her community. The cat could have received a death sentence.
Lewis must be kept inside, or in a cage outside, for the duration of the probation, or Cisero could be sent to jail.
• In the first decision of its kind in the state, in May, a judge in Spokane, Wash., awarded the owner of Max, a Spokane Valley cat who was set afire by teenagers almost three years ago, $5,000 in damages for emotional distress.
On the Web
http://www.animallaw.info/ or http://www.alleycat.org/.
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