Clash of laws erupts in cat fight

Zoning stance could set back spay-neuter gains

South Bend Tribune

Every afternoon, Chris Conklin and her husband, James, line up a few plastic bowls in their kitchen, topping them with canned and dry cat food and a little delicacy -- today, some cottage cheese on the side.

One of them sets the bowls onto the front porch and steps away. Several cats quickly hop onto the porch from their hiding places nearby, gobble down their daily meal, and then dash off into the neighborhood in different directions.

The Conklins live in a small home on the edge of a lake, in a residential area in Elkhart County. They're animal lovers whose two older indoor cats were embraced as strays, and who can't even bear to let the deer go hungry in the winter. Neighbors bring them animals to care for. Chris Conklin tried to save a cat she found in a snow bank last winter, apparently poisoned, that died anyway. Sometimes a lady down the street sets

some scraps out on their porch for the cats, too.

But late last year, an anonymous neighbor's complaint set in motion a series of events that might mean not only that the Conklins must stop feeding the outdoor cats but could also set back the county's progressive trap-neuter-return program for free-roaming cats.

The feral cat people

Last spring, a few outdoor cats that lived at my significant other's rural home near Middlebury began having kittens. As happens out in the country, other people's unwanted pets end up on your property, too, scared and hungry.

Seeing the writing on the wall, and because I'm an unrepentant cat lover, I took three calico kittens to a veterinarian for spaying. That bill was almost $500. Before I could catch my breath and figure out how to otherwise divert the pregnant-kitty train heading straight for us, another cat had kittens. Then another.

We found homes for a few of them, but we quickly learned that free kittens are everywhere for the taking, and shelters are overflowing. Dropping cats off at a shelter is almost certainly a death sentence.

Eventually, I learned of the Elkhart County Feral Cat Coalition. For $42 apiece, these hard-working volunteers help trap your free-roaming or feral cats and take them to the ABC Clinic in Granger, where they are spayed or neutered, their left ears snipped off ("tipped," so they are recognized if picked up later) and given a first round of shots. Then the cats are returned to their environment. (For more information, see the group's website or Facebook page.)

But part of the deal is that you agree to be the "caretaker" of the "colony" of cats, provide shelter and food for them as long as they live -- even if you acknowledge the reality that outdoor cats live significantly shorter lives than their indoor counterparts.

The president of the ECFCC, Chris Bralick, says that within two years, a colony will typically be half its original size.

TNR -- trap-neuter-return -- is a movement growing as an alternative to euthanasia in containing a burgeoning feral cat population across the country. In Elkhart County, Bralick estimates that since 2010, when the group was recognized as a not-for-profit, its volunteers have spayed or neutered about 1,000 cats in about 225 colonies.

In January, the group entered a pilot project for the town of Middlebury. Recently, they've been in discussions with Goshen about a similar project to lower cat populations there.

Elkhart County commissioners revised their animal ordinance in 2010 to support the feral cat group's efforts, including definitions of feral and free-roaming cats, TNR, colony and colony caretaker.

It also reads: "This Ordinance shall not prohibit a colony caretaker from maintaining a managed colony."

But what county officials did not do was address their own conflicting zoning regulations.

The cats in my colony are not on residentially zoned property, but for the grace of the zoning gods. The cats of Chris Conklin's colony might not be as lucky.

'That's our stance'

In November, the Conklins opened a letter from a county code enforcement investigator, saying his office received a complaint they were "maintaining a kennel" in a residential district. The letter gave the option to remove all but five of the cats or apply for a special use variance to operate a kennel on the property.

Operating a kennel seems unlikely to be approved in a residential area, even if the Conklins were inclined or able to do so financially. But it also flies against the nature of feral cats.

Officials won't say who complained, but the Conklins suspect it is a neighbor they had reported as being neglectful to a pet.

Chris Conklin says she had been considering contacting the ECFCC for some time -- even $42 a cat was an expense for the older couple on a fixed income -- but the letter tipped her decision. So with the group's help, they trapped and spayed-neutered 11 cats.

Then last month, they opened another ominous letter from the planning department. The two have the option to contest the law or to apply for an exception. The deadline is today to apply for a June 19 hearing.

Chris Godlewski, plan director for Elkhart County government, says the commissioners' amended animal ordinance that appears to favor the feral cat program has no bearing on zoning laws.

"Our role in county zoning, we will regulate the number of animals, feral or not, we will regulate the number on that lot," he says. "That's our stance."

"We've told the landowner this is our decision," he says. "If people don't agree with how we do things, they can appeal."

Even after hearing the description of how little time the feral cats are actually on the Conklins' property -- they scatter into the neighborhood -- Godlewski was not swayed.

"It's up to them to state their case," he says. "There are no other provisions in the ordinance to differentiate between feral cats and other cats."

He discouraged the notion of adding more pages to the 200-page county code by noting any such differentiation, in fact, despite officials' current rewriting of the county code.

"Any rule you make," he says, "it's never going to be perfect."

Community standards

Contacted early last week, Elkhart County commissioner Mike Yoder was unaware of the brewing debate but sounded optimistic it could be resolved by updating zoning laws.

By Friday, though, that optimism had departed as quickly as one of the Conklins' cats.

He compared the apparent conflict between the animal and zoning ordinances to a circumstance where a person might have a license to style hair but not the zoning approval to operate a hair salon on a particular property.

"Unfortunately, one neighbor complains, that's all it takes," Yoder says. "If the person had three acres, the neighbor could complain all they want and it doesn't make any difference."

The zoning department, without the staff to police, operates purely on complaints, he says. He points out that this might be a blip, since the program has gone this long without a conflict.

Instead of amending the zoning laws, Yoder says officials might have to clarify the language in the animal ordinance. "I can't see any way from a community standard these people can continue to care for that number of cats."

With respect to commissioner Yoder, that might ignore a reality that has long compounded feral cat and animal hoarding issues in the first place: Animal lovers will want to feed the strays they see, even in residential areas, but will be reluctant to take responsibility for having them spayed and neutered for fear of being fined or otherwise punished.

Indiana's General Assembly this spring passed a bill, signed by Gov. Mike Pence, that goes into effect July 1 allowing TNR in mobile home parks, something feral cat groups hailed as a major victory. Before, residents' only choices were to let the population roam out of control or have the animals euthanized.

"My response to that is the state oversteps and that's a home rule issue," Yoder says. "Feral cats are a nuisance to most people in the community. That's what the community standard is. If it wasn't, there wouldn't be any complaints."

'This isn't right'

I catch up with Elizabeth Holtz last week by phone, as she's in a Texas airport on her way to speak at a conference about feral cats.

She's a staff attorney for Alley Cat Allies, a national organization based out of Bethesda, Md., that advocates for free-roaming cats.

Holtz says in the last 10 years, TNR has spread from 24 cities and counties to 240 in 2013, and "it's taking off everywhere."

"I absolutely believe it's the future of animal control and believe it will be the gold standard," Holtz says.

That the zoning board would undercut what seemed to be the good intent of the animal ordinance and the well-meaning actions of the Conklins -- "They're good Samaritans. They did everything right" -- "is completely inappropriate.

"That they're being punished for doing a compassionate act for the community is really sad," she says.

Bralick is even more worried.

"We were making such progress. We were so excited," she says, referring to the Middlebury project and the mobile home park legislation. "The animals haven't had much of a voice all these years. They shouldn't be totally forgotten. Why do we have the right to kill something because we don't want to see it outside?"

She and the Conklins point out that nobody complains about those who feed squirrels, birds, deer or other animals. Why are cats different?

James Conklin says they'll fight the zoning board's decision on principle.

"We ain't rich. We ain't millionaires," he says. "But this isn't right."

Other feedback

After last week's column about a local girl who won a national handwriting contest, we asked how important you think it is that young people learn cursive writing. Here are a couple of Facebook replies:

Nick Brittin: As long as the writing is legible, then it's served its purpose. I'm happy for this girl, but I don't think beautiful penmanship is something the schools should focus too much attention on.

Cheryl Oles: I wish my teenage boys wrote better. They were just at that age in elementary when they just stopped doing it. I wish I would have stepped up and made them do it at home.


The last of the free-roaming cats that visit the Conklins' front porch to eat once a day -- the couple had 11 spayed and neutered a few months ago under the Elkhart County Feral Cat program -- lingers to finish on a recent day.(SBT Photo/VIRGINIA BLACK)