By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff Writer
Carbondale’s Board of Trustees narrowly avoided passing a new ordinance regulating the freedom of domestic cats on Tuesday night, opting instead to create a subcommittee to work on the proposed ordinance, an exercise that Mayor Stacey Bernot jokingly said might be like “herding cats.”
That subcommittee is to include two trustees — Frosty Merriott and Allyn Harvey — Police Chief Gene Schilling and a member of the town staff.
In addition, the subcommittee will include two local women who have come to symbolize the “pro” and “con” side of the debate over the control of cats, Mary Harris of the Roaring Fork chapter of the Audubon Society and Cindy Sadlowski, founder of the Street Cats Coalition, which has worked for 15 years to keep down the number of feral cats in the region by spaying or neutering the animals.
The town staff wrote up a proposed ordinance after Harris told the trustees in July that the predation of birds by free-roaming cats is essentially pushing some bird species toward extinction.
In one presentation, she maintained that as many as 4 billion birds are killed by cats each year across the U.S.
Sadlowski, however, countered that there is no proof that cats are responsible for an alarming decline in some bird populations in this country, and argued that it is pollution, loss of habitat and other human-caused influences that are the true reasons for the decline in bird numbers.
“Loss of habitat, climate change and toxic chemicals are the major causes of the bird population decline,” Sadlowski wrote in a letter to the town, dated July 30, in which she pleaded for the trustees to hold off on passing any new, restrictive laws concerning the movement of cats in town.
As written, the proposed ordinance would require that all domestic cats over the age of six months be spayed or neutered; that all adult domestic cats in town be licensed; that any cat found outside its owner’s residential property be considered as “running at large” and subject to impoundment; and that owners of cats that get loose be subject to fines that could run to $1,000 after multiple offenses, among other provisions.
The proposed ordinance is to be the starting point for discussions by the subcommittee about how the town should deal with the issue. The subcommittee is to report back to the board of trustees later this year.
At Tuesday’s meeting of the trustees, several local residents stood up to address the trustees, in support of either Harris’ or Sadlowski’s side of the issue. The testimony took up more than an hour of meeting time and featured everything from placing computer chips in cats for identification purposes (rather than typical metal license tags on collars, which could pose a hazard to the cat) to the beneficial role of cats in keeping mice and other rodents under control.
“Cats have their place in the ecology, too,” said local resident Charles Saiviano, arguing against passage of the ordinance, who reported that he once put up barriers around his home to keep feral cats from taking up house-keeping there, only to have his home quickly overrun by mice.
“The rodents need predators, and when they don’t have predators, they can just take over,” Saiviano said.
Delia Malone, urging the trustees to pass the ordinance as is, maintained that science has proven cats to be the primary predator of birds, and that cats are an “invasive species” not native to the U.S., meaning that the continent’s bird population evolved largely without cats as a predatory influence on their numbers.
Faced with an audience mostly made up of supporters of the ordinance, the trustees appeared at one point to be ready to pass it.
Trustee Merriott, noting that “we have four votes” on the board in favor of passage, lauded Sadlowski’s work as a regional cat expert, and pleaded with her to work with the town to make the ordinance as good as it can be, rather than simply demand that it be shelved.
“That’s not going to happen,” Merriott said, saying at one point that given the amount of time and public resources that have gone into getting the proposed ordinance this far, it might as well become law.
But after continued discussion, the trustees opted to set up the subcommittee in an effort to rework the proposed ordinance to make it acceptable to both sides of the debate, if possible.
Sadlowski at one point declared that “this entire ordinance is extremely troubling” and told the board it should outlaw bird feeders as a way of preventing cats from preying on unwary, hungry birds.
She also suggested that the ordinance, which is silent on the subject of feral cats, is deficient because of that oversight.
She also said that, in her travels to trap, neuter and release feral cats, she had never seen a large number of domestic cats roaming the streets.
“You just don’t see many cats,” she emphasized, “and I think we’re just addressing a problem we don’t really have.”
But in the end, she told the proponents of the ordinance, “I think we can work together. Let’s get something that will work for the ferals, that’ll work for the birds.”
Published in The Sopris Sun on September 10, 2015.