A clause in a city law that requires cats to be on leashes has sparked a hissing match among fans of free-roaming felines.
A City Council meeting with cats on the agenda drew an unusually large crowd of about 30 people Tuesday night, including one woman who brought three large signs, one of which said, "Arrest criminals, not cats. Can Barre afford a jail for cats?"
City officials cited complaints from some residents about a roaming cat that turned a neighbor's garden into a litter box.
Barre resident Sue Higby called a leash law for cats "a bad idea ... unless you want to have the police department chasing cats around for a million dollars an hour."
Cities around the country and at least one state have enacted or considered cat restraint laws. In 1949, the Illinois Legislature passed "An Act to provide Protection to Insectivorous Birds by Restraining Cats."
It was vetoed by then-Gov. Adlai Stevenson, who wrote, "To escort a cat abroad on a leash is against the nature of the cat," according to the New Jersey-based Cat Fanciers' Association.
The agency says jurisdictions with cat leash laws or similar restrictions include Akron, Ohio; Aurora, Colo.; Montgomery County, Md.; Palm Beach County, Fla.; and New Orleans.
In Barre, the feline firestorm started last week when city officials began reviewing animal control ordinances with an eye to updating them. Mayor Thomas Lauzon said then that a draft rewrite would have the effect of banning cats from roaming.
Reviews were mixed among residents lined up Tuesday at the Simply Creamies ice cream stand near City Hall.
"Have you ever tried walking around with a cat on a leash? It sounds kind of crazy," said Cheyenne Roberts, co-owner of the Pit Stop Diner in Barre.
Thad Cochran of nearby Plainfield had this rejoinder: "If dogs have to have a leash, why not cats?
Lauzon said Tuesday that no one on the council intended to require that cats be restrained. But on second look at the law, he realized that both the existing ordinance, adopted in 1973, and the proposed rewrite ban roaming cats; the law had just never been enforced.
"No owner or keeper of an animal shall allow his, theirs or its animal to run at large," the key language says. Cat owners hoping to get around the law by a whisker appeared to be out of luck. Animal is defined by the city as "every living being, not human or plant."
When the daily newspaper serving Barre, The Times Argus, ran a story about the cat restrictions last week, the caterwauling began.
Cats "are quite neat when it comes to personal scatological matters," said a letter to the editor bearing the signature Morticai Flint, who turns out to be a tiger cat owned by Paul and Alison Flint. "Generally, we provide valuable services to urban areas notably in the realm of vermin control."
Paul Flint attended the Council meeting, carrying a toy kitten in a cat carrier and explaining, "Morticai wouldn't get into the cage."
Some say the solution to cats wandering into trouble is keeping them indoors.
"Scientists estimate that free-roaming cats kill hundreds of millions of birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians each year," the Virginia-based American Bird Conservancy, which runs a "Cats Indoors!" campaign, says on its website. "Cat predation is an added stress to wildlife populations already struggling to survive habitat loss, pollution, pesticides, and other human impacts."
Lauzon said the city may end up with a compromise ordinance requiring cats to wear collars with tags identifying their owners and showing their rabies shots were up-to-date. Owners would only be fined if their roaming cats were determined to be a nuisance.
The issue is expected to be settled later this summer.