City tackles new menace: cats without licenses

January 05, 2002|By Gregory Kane

FIVE DAYS into the new year, and already we have a dispute in Charm City. Not the most serious of ones, mind you, but one that should concern us all.

It's the great Cats as Public Menace brouhaha. Baltimore officials, to counter the danger of felines run amok, have decreed that cat owners must license their pets. And to show how kindhearted they are, those same bigwigs will allow cat lovers to get their licenses for free this month. After that, licenses will cost $10 for cats that have been spayed or neutered and $30 for those that haven't.

Just fork over the dough, and the city will provide you with a tag inscribed with your cat's address, the better to return it to you should the little fur ball get rabbit in its blood and bolt. It's all a matter of fairness, says Bob Anderson, director of the Bureau of Animal Control for Baltimore.

Yeah, I know. When Baltimore honchos start talking about fairness, it's time to pack the bags and head for Moosebreath, Maine. Average folks start getting a little nervous. But let's hear Anderson out, shall we?

"Let's say you own a dog," Anderson began, though the supposition left me wondering why he would wish such a calamity on me. "You pay a dog license each year. It's time cat owners started paying."

Animal control workers get calls to pick up stray critters, Anderson continued, and 50 percent to 60 percent of those calls are for cats.

"Most dogs are kept inside their houses at night," Anderson said. "Most cat people let their cats roam."

Most cat people would differ with Anderson, and suggest that he get some of his workers out in the morning. In my Pimlico neighborhood, many dog owners have no clue where their pooch is once the sun rises. Non-dog owners do. The canines are running around in posses of five or six, menacing kids on their way to school.

One night, I saw three of those pooches Anderson swears dog owners keep under lock and key rip apart a cat on the lawn next door. The next morning, the same three dogs were walking, unleashed along Garrison Ave. Less than two weeks ago, another dog was busy sinking its teeth into a much smaller poodle on my block. The girl who owned the larger dog - again, unleashed - couldn't get her "pet" to see it wasn't lunch time. The poodle, bloodied and terrified, managed to escape.

For years, I hiked the 20 minutes from my house to a job at Sinai Hospital. I can't count the number of times I was menaced by one of those dogs that were supposed to be in the house. But I can count - exactly - the number of times a cat rolled up on me looking to do harm. I could lose both my hands and still count.

The number is zero. Nada. Not once have I been threatened by a cat. Loose cats may be a public nuisance, but loose dogs are a public menace. If dog owners pay for licenses and cat owners don't, perhaps that's fair, because there's a world of difference.

In the last week of December, a pack of five dogs attacked a man along a boardwalk in New York City. The guy no longer has a face or scalp. Accounts of other dog attacks are known here and across the country. Still, Anderson believes that cats are a greater public menace than dogs.

"Cats kill more wildlife than birds," Anderson contends, though, except for a few cases, I wouldn't classify other pets or humans as wildlife. "They kill birds, chipmunks and squirrels."

And, no doubt, rats. With the rat problem Baltimore has, you'd figure city officials would consider stray cats a boon. At the least, we should all ponder what the rat population in this city would be like without them.

But Anderson said there is another public danger from loose, roving felines: rabies. There are more cases of cat rabies than dog rabies. While dog packs may number four or five, a pack of rogue cats may number 30 or 35.

Also, neighbors have reported foul odors from houses where overzealous feline-o-philes have as many as 30 cats.

"One woman in Southwest Baltimore had 50 cats," Anderson said.

That's irresponsible pet ownership. But there are cat owners who have had their pets fixed and vaccinated. They've bought those little identification tags with the cat's home address for as little as three bucks. They're the same ones the city wants to charge $10 a pop for. In other words, these owners have done everything city officials require before it was required, and they did it cheaper.

Anderson had an answer for that, too. This guy seemed to have an answer for everything. I wish he'd been around when I was taking three-variable calculus.

"Cats will find a way out of your house," the director said to those owners who believe their pets won't. "Most cats will lose the tag." Anderson said the cost of replacing a lost tag with the city is just $1.

That's assuming, of course, that cat owners swamp the animal control office in droves to register their critters. For that to happen, Bob Anderson and Co. will need a surfeit of civic honesty.

We should wish him luck.

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