This past Thursday, August 21st, in the face of a feline supporting audience, the Elkhart County's Board of Zoning Appeals decided that outdoor community cats are a different sort. The unanimous vote reversed a zoning administrator's decision earlier in the year against an Elkhart couple, James and Christine Conklin, colony cat caretakers. The Elkhart County Board members noted that of the 60 people in the audience, nearly all raised their hands in support of the Conklins, and none spoke against their appeal.
"This seems to me to be literally a different animal," Board member Robert Homan said ultimately before proposing to overturn the staff's ruling."
The couple feed the cats on their Heaton Lake porch. They didn't bring the cats to their neighborhood or throw them outside to fend for themselves. These cats were most likely born and raised in the area. Thanks to Elkhart County Feral Cat Coalition, the cats have all been spayed and neutered.
The Code Enforcement staff demanded the Conklins remove the cats or apply for a special use variance for a kennel, after a neighbor's complaint. Much discussion surrounded the debate over whether having the cats spayed and neutered consisted of veterinary care, of whether setting out cat food in the winter was providing housing, and whether feeding them meets the definition of "caring" for them as part of the zoning code's description of operating a kennel.
"We have been caring for feral cats since 1995," Christine Conklin read from a statement to the board. "We don't hold them, and they don't come in the house. ... We've been doing this 20 years, and we've never heard anything negative about it. My husband and I don't see how we can remove any of the cats. We love all of them. They're a part of our family."
Local animal welfare groups spoke of the greater impact of the zoning decision. Feral cat groups make strides on the growing population of roaming cats through out the county. Anne Reel, director of the Elkhart County Humane Society, points out that when county commissioners adopted a new animal ordinance in 2010 that defined feral cats and supported the trap-neuter-return program as a humane way to reduce the overpopulation, the zoning director was on the committee.
"If you ever put a feral cat in your home, you'll understand they're not domesticated, and you'll probably be calling the Humane Society to get them out," Reel told the board, to general laughter. "These animals are not kept animals. They're free-roaming animals."
Well said Ms. Reel! I once did just that. After having some success in past transitioning feral cats to semi- feral, then later to house cats, I was more or less forced to give it another try. A new neighbor moved in our small piece of the world and took it upon himself to complain about anything and everything related to our once peaceful, happy place we call home. A number of feral cats pass through our neighborhood due to the location and surrounding fields, wooded lots, apartment complexes and parks. Some were spayed, neutered and vaccinated and a few, not all, stuck around; by few I mean 2 - 3 cats total.
The problem with trying to turn outdoor community cats into house cats is that cats, like people, are very individual in their wants, needs, fears and phobias. THEY decide when they are ready to go from outdoor life to house cat and it doesn't happen overnight. For some cats it never happens. If you try to turn them into house cats before they decide that is what they want, it won't work. Your home becomes a prison instead of a haven and you become the jailer. Cats, like rabbits, are not for control freaks.
Elkhart County Humane Society saw 3,100 feral cats come through its doors in 2010. In 2013, the number was down to 1900. A few years ago Ms. Reel herself became an outdoor community cat caretaker. Community cats living their natural lives in the neighborhood that they are familiar with is humane. To take them to a county shelter is to kill them. Feral cats are not adoptable animals and all non-adoptable animals are killed at your county shelter.
To trap and dump cats in a location foreign to them is a death sentence. What would you do if someone kidnapped you and dumped you in a strange and different place? You would try to find your way back home. People whom don't like cats are people that do not understand them. Dumping a cat in another location is to dump them in another cat's territory, most likely a intact cat, not spayed or neutered, not vaccinated, therefore very aggressive with intruders. Where to hide from predators? Where are the best places to find safety, shelter and hunt? How to get back home? Most feral cats will try to find their way back home. This is when they are most at risk of being hit by cars or snatched by predators.
For people whom choose to feed cats and/or provide shelter, this really is no different than that of neighbors whom feed community birds or squirrels. There are many humane cat deterrents available to those that don't want the cats on their property. The problem with the type of neighbor that complains about EVERYTHING is that they don't want to be bothered with putting any effort themselves to deter cats from their property. No, they want YOU to fix THEIR problem. Typical personality and maturity level of a miserable whiner.
The real problem has nothing to do with community cats. Even if the outdoor cats suddenly disappeared, after a brief celebratory moment, these complainers will surely obsess about the next thing that they believe to be the source of their misery. The actual source of their misery comes from within and colors the way they perceive and experience everything, be it an outdoor wild animal, or the way their employer runs the show, or the way their coworkers perform their job. These complainers take their misery with them everywhere they go and spew it at everyone and everything. They drain the joy and peaceful coexistence spirit of the community as a whole. These people are a cancer to every culture and environment. Killing cats isn't going to fix the real problem behind the constant whining and complaining of unhappy miserable people.
Portions of this story was originally posted Friday, August 22, 2014, by Virginia Black of the South Bend Tribune. If you would like to continue receiving stories covering feral cat issues, tap on subscribe next to my photo above.