Cats, paragons of independence, still depend on us for protection

Cats moved from forests into villages — and homes — more than 10,000 years ago. They came to America with European settlers in the 1600s. Since humans domesticated cats, we should be responsible for them.

Cats are now more popular than dogs as pets in the United States.

And an estimated 9 to 12 percent of households feed free-roaming neighborhood cats, according to the Animal Legal and Historical Center. Of the estimated 70 million free-roaming cats in the United States, almost 40 percent have not been spayed or neutered.

Since one feral cat can give birth to as many as four litters of kittens a year, colonies of these cats can quickly form a public-health crisis.

Some biologists also believe that feral cats threaten native wildlife species, although the federal Lacey Act — the first act to ban the importation of non-indiginous species, passed in 1900 — does not classify domestic cats as injurious, non-indigenous wildlife.

With these threats to the environment and public health, we believe laws are needed both to protect cats and to protect the public from the results of uncared-for cats. While all 50 states have animal cruelty laws, which would apply to cats, very few have laws regulating or licensing cats. New York is not among them.

Locally and across the state, volunteers often fill the void.

Many times, The Enterprise has run news of fundraisers and initiatives by local groups that help animals, including cats. We’ve featured pictures of abandoned pets that need new homes. We’ve written stories on initiatives to spay and neuter street cats.

Much of the work with abandoned or feral cats is done by dedicated volunteers who fill a gaping need that municipal governments can’t or won’t.

Cats, unlike dogs, often fall in a gray area. By law in New York, every town must have a dog-control officer. Not so with cats. By law, a driver who hits a cat, like hitting a horse, dog, or cow, must report it but, in reality, since cats are not licensed, this often does not happen.

Among the groups we’ve featured on our pages is Happy Cat Rescue. The not-for-profit shelter was started eight years ago by Marcia Scott at her Meadowdale Road home in Guilderland; she was assisted by her husband, Charles.

As recently as Sept. 26, we ran a story about two cats rescued from the meat trade in Thailand that flew halfway around the world to rest at Happy Cat Rescue until someone adopted them.

We were surprised to learn this week that the Scotts’ house had been raided on Oct. 2 — less than a week after our story on the Thai cats ran — and that they were subsequently charged with six counts of “Torture/Injure/Failure to Feed an Animal,” all unclassified misdemeanors under the state’s Agriculture and Markets Law.

Over the years, The Enterprise has covered many sad stories of animal abuse and neglect. Usually, when we visit the sites of the arrest, the abuse or neglect is obvious.

In 2014, for example, we wrote about two elderly New Scotland sisters who lived in a small camper with 45 cats. We could see they truly loved cats and meant to be helpful, taking in strays. But we could also see they had lost touch with reality and the cats were suffering.

At the same time we covered the sisters’ arrest, we also wrote about how to help hoarders.

“Hoarders often profess great love for animals,” writes Gary J. Patronek, a veterinarian with a Ph.D. in epidemiology who founded the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium in 1997 to study the problem of animal hoarding from the perspective of different disciplines. That paradox makes hoarding cases tough to resolve.

But, in many Enterprise visits in the last eight years to Happy Cat Rescue, we had not seen the Scotts as hoarders. It appeared to us they were capably running a legitimate shelter, with many cats and many volunteers.

This week, we covered the story of their arrest and their appearance in Guilderland Town Court on Thursday in which they agreed to shut down their shelter and have nothing to do with helping cats or advising others about cats for the rest of their lives.

They will be allowed to keep five of their 10 personal pets — all rescued cats with special needs. But once those five cats die, they can have no more pets.

Trying to get all sides of the story, we talked to several people involved in local cat-rescue operations. We were told our impression of the Scotts’ operation was distorted because the Scotts would clean up when a newspaper photographer was scheduled to visit.

We also recorded the viewpoint of the veterinarian who treated the Happy Cat rescued felines and of a volunteer at Happy Cat. They both gave glowing reports of the Scotts’ care, documented with the other viewpoints in our front-page story.

A spokeswoman for the complainant, the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society, said the society didn’t think the Scotts were hoarders. “It was clear it was a rescue that started with good people with good intentions and spiraled out of control,” she said.

Asked about the six cats that the charges indicated had been injured or tortured, she said she had no knowledge of that but that the Guilderland police had taken pictures she hadn’t seen.

The spokesman for the Guilderland police, in turn, told us he had not seen the pictures and did not know the specific base of the charges. “It was their case,” he said of the humane society. “They would have to tell you the specific reasons for the charges.”

Meanwhile, Marcia Scott says, “Mohawk Hudson made accusations that never happened.”

The volunteer who was cleaning the cages at the time of the Oct. 2 raid said the police officer told her that the side of the shelter where she had completed her regular morning duties before being interrupted by the raid “was cleaner than a lot of houses he’d been in.”

The Scotts say they couldn’t afford to fight the charges and signed the agreement to avoid the risk of jail or of not being able to get any of their cats back.

We may never know for sure if cats were abused or tortured or unfed or, rather, if the law as it now stands was too blunt an instrument to distinguish between those crimes and much lesser problems.

What is clear to us, however, is this: As a society, we need to pay more attention to the care of cats. The way our government does that is through regulation.

One of the women who was concerned about the Happy Cat operation, and has long been involved in local animal rescue, said the outcome of the Scotts’ case was “what any legitimate rescue group would hope for.”

She said that, since the only recourse is through the state’s Agriculture and Markets Law, often charges result in just “a slap on the wrist.”

Marcia Scott herself told us that one of the reasons she first decided to start a cat rescue was because cats are not protected in the same way dogs are.

In this week’s Enterprise, we also happen to have a story on a wildlife rescue operation, which makes clear there are stringent regulations in place, administered by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, to license and regulate people who help ailing wild animals.

Certainly, we owe as much to the animals we have domesticated.

Perhaps if rescue operations had to be licensed, with regular checks from authorities, the Scotts would still be happily helping cats in need.

The woman who brought the two cats that had flown from Thailand to Happy Cat Rescue told us in September that she hadn’t wanted to ask Marcia Scott who was already “overwhelmed” with cats in need.

“But Marcia saw the post and said, ‘I’ll take them.’ Marcia said, ‘That’s real rescue. I usually take cats because someone has an allergy.’”

 “Marcia never says ‘no,’” said the woman who transported the Thai cats.

We urge our legislators at the state, county, and town levels to take a close look at what can and should be done to protect cats and to help the people who care for cats that have been abandoned.

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