Now that I have your attention, let me state for the record: I would never shoot a cat in one of my books (and certainly never in real life). I may have multiple human victims in my mysteries, but all my cats have happy endings (and if I ruin some of the suspense for readers by saying that, so be it. I don't like reading books in which animals are harmed, and as a reader, I'd want to know that.) But there's a case in Texas that has been on my mind, and those of animal lovers everywhere. In brief, a bird lover, seeking to protect the endangered piping plover, shot a cat he saw hunting the plovers. He was charged with animal cruelty. Cat lovers have been outraged – and so have bird lovers, who say that the animals we have introduced into the environment (i.e., cats that roam free) are threatening birds and other elements of the delicate native ecosystem. As much as I am pro-feline, I have to admit it's a complicated issue. This story is particularly of interest to me because this conflict – animal welfare (i.e., the pro-cat side) vs. animal rights (often the folks on the side of native species, and sometimes anti-domestic animal) – is at the core of my soon-to-be-released mystery, Cries and Whiskers.
Today, this particular tragedy may be at an end. Yesterday, a judge announced a mistrial, after the jury declared that it was "hopelessly deadlocked," according to this story
in The New York Times. One big legal issue in the case was the question of whether or not the cat, which lived beneath a toll bridge, was "owned." According to an outdated Texas law, only "owned" animals – that is, not ferals – are protected under state animal cruelty laws. Ferals, that is, genetically domestic animals such as cats, dogs, pigs, etc., that have been abandoned by their owners, lost, or simply bred and colonized in the wild, are not. The feline victim in Texas had lived under the bridge, i.e., "outdoors," but had been given food and toys by the caretaker of the bridge. The outcome may be as good as was possible in one way: The uproar about the case has caused Texas to change its animal cruelty law, removing the requirement that a cat be "owned" in order to be protected by law. And while nothing will bring that poor grey-and-white tabby back, or console the toll-bridge caretaker who fed, played with, and clearly loved him, at least Texas has taken a smart legal step. And maybe brought an important debate to light. My take is that a reasonable truce is possible. For our beloved pets' own safety, as well as for that of their prey, I'd rather all cats be kept in happy, safe, and loving homes. I also hope that abandoned and lost pets can be rescued, and replaced into loving homes. But I also believe in, and support, TNR – trap, neuter, return – of feral cats. Truly feral cats, which have never known human love, usually cannot be made into happy housepets. The best resolution, therefore, seems to be to keep them disease free (trapped ferals are given shots), fed, and also neutered, so that their numbers don't increase. Of course, some people think differently. They see letting cats out as part of their contract with these little tigers, and they take the death of their prey as part of nature's deal. And, of course, as long as people keep dumping pets, letting unwanted cats and dogs loose so they can "fend for themselves," the problem won't disappear. And cases like this one in Texas will keep happening. What do you think? Do you keep your cats in or let them out? How would you have ruled, had you been on that jury? Can you come up with a better resolution?