City hits 'paws' on cat ordinance

ALAMOSA—Alamosa city council is taking a “paws” from its cat ordinance amendment to give time to absorb and incorporate suggestions from the community.

Numerous residents spoke to the council during the public hearing on the ordinance Wednesday night, with several of them asking the council to take more time and revise the ordinance. City codes have not accommodated cats in the past, but community concerns — especially over feral cats — prompted the city staff and council to amend the city’s animal ordinance to cover them.

After hearing from the community, the council unanimously decided to table the ordinance and meet with those wishing to help revise it before bringing it back to council on April 19.

Alamosa Mayor Josef Lucero thanked those who came and spoke.

“Everyone on council and staff is very sensitive to the feral cats,” he said, “as well as any other animal life.”

Alamosa City Manager Heather Brooks gave an overview of the ordinance amendment pertaining to cats and explained that what prompted the ordinance was complaints about feral cats both from those who believed the city should be doing more to help them and those who were upset about the number of feral cats and the nuisance they believed the cats were creating such as using neighbors’ yards as litter boxes and killing birds.

“We were fairly limited on what we could do,” Brooks said. She added the existing animal shelter did not have space to take in cats.

Feral cat colonies were illegal without an ordinance change, she explained, because the city ordinance simply stated no one could have more than four pets, period. The ordinance amendment makes provisions for feral cat colonies without limiting the number of cats in those colonies.

Those caring for the colonies must receive permission from the city police department and agree to participate in Trap, Neuter Release (TNR) programs and provide records annually to the police department. If kittens were born in the colony, the person(s) caring for the colony would agree to find homes for them.

“We have been fortunate to have passionate volunteers in the community through groups and individuals on their own trapping, neutering and feeding them,” Brooks said.

She added that the city staff and council wanted to come up with a solution that would deal with the feral cats humanely and address nuisance concerns at the same time.

The long-term solution both Brooks and various speakers mentioned was the Trap, Neuter Release program, which will ultimately reduce the number of feral cats in the community. That will take the continued efforts and cooperation of volunteers, Brooks added.

“This is a good example of public/private partnerships,” she said.

She said the city would pay for traps as well as the spaying and neutering costs. The cats’ ears would then be tipped to identify which cats had been neutered or spayed. Feral cats would then be returned to their colonies.

The city has also worked with Cats Alive to relocate about 30 cats that were an immediate nuisance, Brooks said.

Between the first and second readings of the ordinance city staff added a section clarifying running at large to exclude domestic cats with tags or electronic ID identifying the owner and owner’s phone number.

The ordinance also adds definitions for nuisance: (1) Molests passersby or passing vehicles; (2) Attacks other animals; (3) Is at large; (4) Damages private or public property; (5) Barks, whines, howls, or makes any other noise in a loud and persistent or habitual fashion so as to disturb any person or neighborhood; (6) Is diseased.

City Attorney Erich Schwiesow clarified a section related to unclaimed animals. He said the city already has the authority to pick up loose animals, including cats, and currently the ordinance requires unclaimed animals to be kept at least five days. However, the animal shelter the city uses to house dogs has no space for cats, so the ordinance as amended gives the city the option “to dispose of the animal in whatever manner deemed appropriate, including destroying the animal in a humane manner” in less than five days if the city has no access to house the animal.

“The city has a responsibility to behave humanely,” Schwiesow said.

Residents comment

Ten people spoke during Wednesday’s public hearing on the cat ordinance.
Washington Addition resident Ron Loser thanked the council for tackling the feral cat problem and doing so in a humane manner.

Kris Steinberg, who has been working with feral cats for 20 years in Alamosa and other San Luis Valley counties, told the council the situation here is much better than it used to be thanks to the efforts of those who have been involved in spaying and neutering the feral cats.

She said sterilizing the animals not only reduces the population but also reduces cats’ noxious behavior.
She added that totally removing cat colonies is not the solution because it creates a vacuum that will be filled by other animals.

Jennifer Stoughton thanked the city staff and council for caring about the cats and made suggestions for tweaking the ordinance. She mentioned, for example, that the city could be held liable for domestic cats being accidentally spayed or neutered during a TNR effort, and the city needed to review how it is going to protect itself and the cat owners in the ordinance. She said in an ideal world cats would stay inside or stay in their own yards when they went out, but that doesn’t happen.

Margaret Doell also thanked the city for addressing the feral cat issue and said she had some suggested revisions for the ordinance she would like to share with the city before the council passed it. Some of her suggestions, for example, included more specific language about who would be making decisions regarding feral cats.

She also suggested that the ordinance be clear that euthanizing a cat would be the city’s last resort option.

Aileen Peek, manager for SLV Animal Welfare Society, which operates a no-kill shelter near San Luis and has found homes for more than 8,000 animals, said she would like to see Alamosa become a no-kill city like San Francisco.

“We could set an example for other cities,” she said.

“We can never build a shelter big enough,” she said, advocating funding for humane education and spay/neuter as preventative measures.

Peek added that animals experience the same emotions as humans such as loss. She quoted Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who said in the “The Little Prince,” “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”

Marge Hauer, who belongs to Cats Alive, a totally volunteer organization, has been active in TNR with cat colonies as well as other assistance for cats. She said TNR is a solution that has made progress already. She said if more volunteers could help with it, “you will see a difference. It will definitely take time. It’s a long process with just a small amount of people.”

She asked the council to take some more time, about 30 days, before passing the ordinance.
“There’s some wording that is still alarming to me,” she said.

Donna Ditmore, manager of Cat Welfare and Alpha Humane, said she sometimes takes 25-30 calls a day regarding cats, either people wanting to give them away or people wanting cats. She has helped in a variety of ways including taking sick cats to the vet and spaying and neutering cats.

“We want to work with you guys, get everybody spayed and neutered,” she said.

Margrett Geist, who has had cats for almost 60 years and has taken in many that needed help over the years, talked about the irresponsibility of cat owners who move away and leave them or dump them on somebody’s doorstep. She said people need to be educated.

Sabrina Husmann, a member of Valley Humane League, also supported TNR and said it is important for everyone to work together to address the situation of feral cats.

Diana Hamilton, director of Valley Humane League, agreed with former speakers and asked for a month to review the ordinance again before approval. She said she would be glad to work with the city on the wording.