Virginia humane society fined for recording released feral cats as “adopted”

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  September 2013: (Actually published on October 8,  2013)

PORTSMOUTH––The Virginia Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services has fined the Portsmouth Humane Society $1,250 for releasing sterilized feral cats,  who were recorded in the PHS shelter tracking records as having been adopted by executive director Jenn Austin and four other staff members. “I felt that these cats were not legitimately adopted and remained in the custody of the facility,”   VDACS veterinarian Dan Kovich told Tim Eberly of the Virginian-Pilot. “State investigators,  tipped off by a former employee,  issued three violations last month to the Portsmouth shelter,  which has the contract to serve as the city’s animal pound,”  Eberly wrote.  “Austin acknowledged that she and her staff have been personally adopting feral cats and releasing them for about a year and a half.” How many cats were released is “not clear,”  Eberly said.  “State investigators put the number as high as 91,  but noted they only reviewed adoption records for five shelter employees.  The total,  an official said,  could be much higher.” The Portsmouth Humane Society holds the Portsmouth animal control housing contract.  The PHS web site says it is “an open admission humane society,  meaning we will never turn away an animal that comes to our doors,”  which imposes “no time limits for any of the animals in our care.  They may stay at PHS as long as it takes for them to find a permanent,  forever home…We do not euthanize any adoptable or treatable animal.” The no-kill policy became controversial in August 2013 after two pit bulls mauled a staff member and were later euthanized. Said Austin,  “Our whole mission is to save lives.  If we have to be creative about how we save animals’ lives,  we’re going to do it.”  Of the feral cats,  Austin told Eberly,  “We’re talking about wild animals.  Animals who have lived outside their whole lives.  We’d be punishing them by killing them.”

PETA opposition

Other Virginia humane organizations have conducted neuter/return programs for feral cats for more than 20 years,  often clashing with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals,  whose head office is in Norfolk,  Virginia.  PETA opposes neuter/return as “abandonment.” Norfolk-area cat rescuer John Newton alleged in a March 1998 letter to ANIMAL PEOPLE that PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk had personally trapped cats from neuter/return colonies supervised by the Meower Power Feral Cat Coalition,  taking many to their deaths at animal control shelters.  PETA in September 2003 tried to block a neuter/return program proposed to the city of Newport News by Meower Power,  Cat Rescue Inc.,  and the Animal Resource Foundation.

Legal perspective

The Virginia Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services became involved after Virginia attorney general Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II on July 12,  2013 wrote to Town of Front Royal attorney Douglas W. Napier,  in response to Napier’s request for an opinion on the legality of neuter/return,  “It is my opinion that a locality may operate a capture and sterilization program for the purpose of controlling a population of feral cats.  The feral cats may be captured in a humane fashion,  and such captured cats may be sterilized by a licensed veterinarian.  The feral cats,  however,  may not be released by the locality back to the location whence they came or some other location in the wild.” But Cucinelli added that in his view,  “Persons who capture feral cats while acting as agents of or in conjunction with a locality as part of its trap and sterilize program are companion animal finders,  and do not become the de facto or de jure owners of such cats.” Elaborated Cuccinelli,  “Virginia law provides ‘No person shall abandon or dump any animal.’  [The word] ‘Abandon is defined as ‘desert, forsake,  or absolutely give up an animal without having secured another owner or custodian for the animal or by failing to provide the elements of basic care.”  Virginia law defines “dump” similarly,  but specifies that the term covers “any dog,  cat,  or other companion animal,”  left “in any public place including the right-of-way of any public highway,  road,  or street,  or on the property of another.” “Thus,”  wrote Cuccinelli,  “given the current statutory requirements for the disposition of companion animals,  including feral cats, and the statutory prohibition upon abandoning or dumping companion animals,  it is my opinion that feral cats may not be released programmatically back to the location where they were captured or other location ‘in the wild.’” Noted Cuccinelli,  “I express no opinion regarding the policy implications this conclusion may elicit.  Localities will have to weigh for themselves whether maintaining a TNR program furthers their interests and what such a program’s potential effect on population numbers and adoption rates will be.”

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