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Bird supporters fight back, accuse Wichita board of feral cat favoritism

A feral cat peeks out of the brush.
A feral cat peeks out of the brush. File photo

As a Wichita city board continues to claw its way toward an ordinance making it easier to be a stray cat, bird lovers are pushing back and accusing the board of feral feline favoritism.

Tom Ewert, president of the Wichita Audubon Society, told the board last week he thinks the ordinance would be bad for birds and other local wildlife animals. At the minimum, he said the proposed “community cat colonies” should be banned around 15 parks and open spaces that are designated as wildlife habitats.

“We would go back to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 which says I can’t kill a robin or a blue jay, but a feral cat can do that,” Ewert said. “It’s documented that cats kill up to 40 birds per year, and if you have eight or 12 (cats), that’s unlimited numbers of birds that are being killed, not to mention the rabbits and other wildlife.”

The Animal Control Advisory Board has been working for months and is nearing completion on a proposed ordinance to set city policies allowing trap, neuter and release, or TNR.

A TNR policy would allow residents to establish and care for colonies of stray and feral cats at their homes and businesses.

The cats would be trapped, spayed or neutered, vaccinated for rabies and released back into the community to a caregiver who would take on most of the responsibilities of owning a cat, including requirements to provide food, water, shelter and veterinary care.

As part of the process, a veterinarian would cut the tip off a cat’s ear — a process known as “ear tipping” — so animal control officers would know at a glance that the animal is under someone’s care and shouldn’t be picked up and taken to the shelter unless it’s causing a public nuisance.

The board decided last week that caregivers would have to register both themselves and any cat colonies they supervise, but those registrations would be held confidentially by Animal Control and not open to public view.

Also, the members decided not to require microchip identification of the colony cats.

One thing they couldn’t decide was how many cats could be in a colony. Currently, the city code allows a person to own two cats; four with a permit.

As currently drafted, the TNR ordinance would allow a resident those four “owned” cats, plus up to eight strays in a colony on the same property, for a total of a dozen.

Three board members wanted to pare down the number to eight total, but the vote deadlocked in a 3-3 tie. The limitation was tabled until a special meeting scheduled for Nov. 28, when board member Judith Hill will be there to break the tie.

Ewert objected that board members repeatedly asked for advice from audience members affiliated with the Friends of Felines, a pro-TNR group, while making decisions on the ordinance.

He said the board chairwoman, Stephanie Anne Fisk McCurdy, didn’t call on others for input, even when they raised their hands. They had to wait to speak until the end of the meeting after the key issues had already been voted on.

Asked if he thought the process was fair, Ewert said “not at all.”

Resident Richard Ruth also complained of cat bias.

“Having the Friends of Felines as being the primary person(s) to give guidance on this issue with ferals . . . is kind of limiting where you can go with this,” Ruth told the board. “Opening it up to other voices, maybe you’ll be able to arrive at something that’s a little more workable.”

McCurdy did not return a phone message seeking her response to Ewert’s and Ruth’s complaints.

Ewert also said his group, which has 150 members, has had trouble gaining access and data from the board, which advises the City Council on animal issues.

“We would like to be informed when these meetings occur,” Ewert said. “We would like for the minutes to be published in a timely manner. A colleague and I sat here for a half an hour . . . in August because the meeting was postponed by a week.”

Last week, the board approved minutes dating back to April. The most recent agenda for the group posted on the city’s web site was for its January meeting.

The proposed ordinance was withheld from the public until the day after the meeting, and only released after The Eagle objected that releasing documents from public meetings is required by state open-records and open-meeting laws.

Ruth also complained that the meetings are held at the office of the Humane Society, which shares a building complex with the city animal shelter.

To get to the meeting room, attendees must walk past a wall of glass cages where lost and abandoned cats are put on display for possible adoption.

“Meeting at the Kansas Humane Society, maybe it’s out of necessity or convenience, but I don’t think it’s a neutral location,” Ruth said. “It sort of gives the appearance of favoritism.”

Although the ordinance is being drafted by Assistant City Attorney Jan Jarman, the board set aside significant time last month to get legal advice from lawyer Katie Barnett of the Best Friends Animal Society.

Barnett has advocated for and helped get TNR ordinances passed in Lawrence, Kansas City, Kan., and other communities.

As the board works toward codifying TNR, one thing is certain: It’s already going on in Wichita, with or without city approval.

Teacher Deb Shevlin said she has bought four cat traps herself and has trapped, neutered and released 16 cats that showed up in her daughter’s back yard. She said it cost at least $60 a cat for neutering and vaccination, which she also paid for out of her own pocket

Residents who do TNR are “stepping up because they see there’s a problem,” she said.

“The whole idea is to reduce the number of cats. If you have eight cats on the block in Midtown, then you want to be able to get in there and get all of them fixed so you aren’t reproducing cats,” she said. “If you’re just focusing on the eight that are registered to this one person and not the rest of them, then you’re not solving the problem.”

The board is expected to finalize the ordinance proposal at the Nov. 28 meeting. From there it would go to the City Council, which will have the final say on whether it passes into municipal law.

Dion Lefler; 316-268-6527, @DionKansas
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