People who feed feral cats are unlikely to end up in jail, the Cornwall Borough police chief said Tuesday, despite a new ordinance banning the practice.
The ordinance, according to Chief Bruce Harris, was enacted earlier this year after a borough resident started feeding strays in the Anthracite region and inadvertently lured more than 50 feral cats to the neighborhood.
“The cats obviously didn’t stay in the yard of the person who put the food out,” Harris said. Unfortunately, he explained, many cats flocked to the yard of a neighbor whose son is highly allergic to the animals.
“They would climb on the outdoor furniture, they would urinate in the yard and against the side of the house,” Harris said. “The boy had some fairly serious medical issues because of it.”
The nuisance ordinance—passed by borough council in April despite numerous objections from residents—allows officials to impose fines from $100 to $1,000 and imprisonment of up to 30 days. Even so, Harris said, violators probably won’t end up in jail.
The question arose after a 79-year-old Ohio woman received a 10-day jail sentence for feeding strays in Garfield Heights. According to CNN, the woman was a repeat offender who ignored warnings to cease and didn’t pay her fines.
In Cornwall, Harris said, police aren’t out looking for people feeding cats.
And, he said, “if police did receive a complaint, we would simply give the people a warning.”
A verbal warning would be followed by a written one, he said, if the person didn’t stop the behavior. Citations would follow, at which point a district judge would have the option to impose fines.
It’s only at that stage—if the person violating the ordinance refused to pay the fines—that jail time becomes possible, Harris said.
“I would certainly hope it wouldn’t come to that,” he said.
There haven’t been any complaints in the Anthracite region since the ordinance was approved, he noted.
Besides feral cats, the ordinance also prohibits residents from attracting or feeding stray dogs, skunks, raccoons and squirrels. Birds are specifically excluded from the ban, although it requires that “recognized bird feeders” be used to contain the feed.
CNN reported on July 30 that Ohio woman Nancy Segula started feeding cats a few years ago, after a neighbor moved away and left his cats behind. Neighbors complained, and Segula said she started receiving citations for the offense in 2017. A city official disputed her story, saying the first citation was issued against her in 2015.
According to the report, she was ordered to serve 10 days in jail in May 2019, but the sentence was suspended with the understanding she would stop feeding strays. When she later admitted that she was still feeding the cats, the sentence was reimposed.
The Lebanon Daily News in April identified the woman feeding cats in Cornwall as Linda Chernich. Her neighbor, Dustin Boger—whose son has the cat allergy—was among area residents who complained to police about Chernich’s activities, the Daily News reported.
PAWS tries Trap, Neuter, and Release
Before enacting the ordinance, Harris said, the borough contacted PAWS (Preservation of Animal Welfare and Safety Inc.), a nonprofit organization that tried to resolve the problem through a trap, neuter and release program.
Efforts by PAWS reduced the number of cats, Harris said, but did not eradicate the problem.
PAWS president Kathy Fitzkee said Tuesday the group “is definitely not in favor” of any law that bans feeding feral cats.
“It does nothing to help the main problem, which is you have cats that people are abandoning. They’re strays, they’re lost.”
The cats “have become accustomed to being fed,” Fitzkee said, and “they’re not able to survive on their own.”
The TNR program serves to reduce the population over time by eliminating the cats’ ability to reproduce, she said. It also stems the spread of disease by vaccinating cats for rabies and distemper before they’re released.
In recent years, Fitzkee said, PAWS trapped more than 200 cats in the Cornwall area. More than half of them, she said, “were pulled into our foster and adoption program, and were removed from the community.”
She said PAWS also provided Boger with deterrents—sprays and ultrasonic devices—to repel cats from their property. She said neither Boger nor the borough informed the organization that the problem had gotten worse.
“People will not stop feeding cats, even with a ban,” Fitzkee predicted. “People are compassionate, they’ll find a way to feed them.”
However, she said, the threat of fines or jail time will make people less likely to seek help from organizations like PAWS.
“The whole purpose of TNR is to decrease the number of cats in the community – humanely,” Fitzkee said.
“We need to stop the population growth,” she added. “By not feeding the cat, you’re not addressing the problem. A feeding ban scares the residents and divides the community, and it doesn’t help the cat. It just exacerbates the problem.”