Out he trots, no matter the weather, my cat Ralphie.
He likes to sniff at the weeds, dig in the garden a bit, drink from puddles, sleep half-falling-over on top of the fence. He barely comes in between May 1 and the end of October. We offer him toys, four pairs of hands to scratch and pet him, and expensive chewy treats that come from the vet and purport to clean his teeth. The lovin' never stops around here and it comes at him in volleys of rally-worthy chants:
Who's the guy?
He's the guy!
Who's the guy?
Ralph's the guy!
(Scratch, scratch, scratch, pet, pet, pet.)
He's polite about enduring the attention, but he'd rather be chewing on grass, watching birds and napping in the backyard—30 degrees in the blazing sun or one degree, with a chance of frost. Outside is where it's at for him. It's in his nature. He's just a carefree guy. So what's he got to fret about?
On April 1, 2008, it's lights out for Ralphie Lowe. The Ralph. Ralphie McRalphs. Sir Ralphs-a-lot. On that most foolish day of the calendar year, the Halifax cat by-law takes its grip. And Ralphie either gets trapped taking his last squat in the neighbour's garden and gets shipped off to wince and flop from the Euthanal pinprick, or out comes my Wüsthof Classic Chef 8" and off comes his fuzzy little head.
This is what it's come to: Either the city's going to murder my cat or I will. Because if I have to keep him inside—if I manage to slide out the door without him hiding under the hall tree, dashing at the last moment and snaking out past my feet—I estimate it will take 18 hours, 36 minutes and 15 seconds before his meowing to be let out drives the sense from me completely. RIP Ralphie. Shame, really. He's such a nice cat.
Harmonized By-law A-300—Respecting Animals isn't an especially long by-law, and it's no more stultifying a read than any other piece of Halifax legislation you might stumble across. But it's got the city howling. It's been to council 26 times since amalgamation. And finally, October 23, council voted the sucker in. Despite its cost, estimated at $3.3 million. Despite the fact that A-300 is a carbon copy of an existing—largely ignored and entirely unenforceable—by-law (that no one can own a dog without registering it. Ever met a registered dog? Me neither. Estimates mark their number at 10 percent). Despite the fact that Northwest Arm-South End councillor Sue Uteck, for one, says she's received a measly three cat complaints since 1999.
Yes, cat complaints. Because, see, cats are the news here.
Cats, as of April 1, must be registered (cost: $10 to $30). And if any HRM felines run at large (a term the city defines as "off the property of its owner without a leash... on any private property or premises without the permission of the owner or occupant thereof"), they're up a pole.
They can be trapped and, in as short as three business days, killed. Poor old Ralphie and his neighbourhood cat pals—orange guy, that long-haired browny-black one, the grey tabby who stares at you like you're going to lunge at the Friskies and milk that's always left out on his porch for him, and Lips (the only one with a collar, or a name, as far as I know)—are doomed.
It's the cat strategy in A-300 that's got people's backs up.
And no wonder, because A-300 is about controlling domesticated cats, not feral ones.
Before A-300, Halifax had a feral cat by-law—you could rent a trap on $50 deposit, nab your furry pest and take the whole damn lot back to the SPCA. It's the same deal now, except all free-roaming cats are criminals in this giant feline dragnet.
Excuse this dumb-as-tacks statement, but it's pertinent here to mention that feral cats and domesticated-but-free-roaming cats are not the same. Feral cats are, by-and-large, unfixed, unwell and have little to eat but what they find thrashing about in your trash. Domesticated cats mostly just like to take a wizz outside.
And if you'll pardon another affront to your common sense, I'd like to point out that cats and dogs are different animals, too. Though in the eyes of HRM they will be one and the same as of April 1.
Free-roaming dogs frighten people: They can bite. Free-roaming cats slink around looking for birds and rodents and they occasionally approach passersby looking for a chin scratch.
Dogs you can tell to SIT! and STAY! and GO LIE DOWN! when you want them to. A cat? Ha! Cats flip you their furry middle finger when you ask them to do something. Plus, you absolutely cannot keep a cat in, who wants to be out. Not unless you harness old fuzz-ball and tether him to the toilet. If he gets out? You cannot keep a cat from wandering off your property. Not unless you install a World Wrestling Entertainment steel cage ring in your yard and fashion some kind of plywood cover for the top.
By-law A-300 has whipped up an impossible situation for outdoor-cat owners in HRM. You can't keep them in. And you can't let them out. Outdoor cats have got to go, one way or another. Like I said: It's my Wüsthof 8" or the city-injected Euthanal.
How is it possible to hate cats so much? I mean, that's what this by-law is telling us, right? Council hates cats. Even though many councillors have argued vehemently against adding cats to the by-law. Even though it passed by a slim margin (11 to nine in favour: Halifax-Downtown councillor Dawn Sloane tells me she's bringing the debate back before council in two weeks or so, with three of the four votes needed to get the cat licensing strategy out of the mix). Even though councillor Sue Uteck fought for a last-ditch motion to allow her district and others to opt out of the by-law, effectively creating cat-safe zones. (A valiant effort, but, Sue, uh, sorry, can I ask: How the hell do you explain electoral district boundaries to cats so they know which side they're safe on and which side puts them at risk from fur-abhorring trap-happy green thumbs?)
Yes, council hates cats. And, ergo, HRM hates cats. But how is it possible? Are our frosty, hard hearts mere lumps of coal?
People love cats. They loooooooove cats. Cats are the subject of unparalleled cultural adoration. More than dogs, even. And people love their dogs. But cats? They worship their cats. They idolize their cats. They fill web pages with photos of their cats in costumes, cats peeking out from boxes, cats standing on their back legs. They write, as Haligonian Donald Sarty did on the message wall for the Facebook group, "People protesting cat by-law in Halifax", "NS, I LOVE our cats as much as life itself." Come now. As much as life itself? We are talking about cats, after all.
And I love my cat. I do. But not as dearly as life itself, no, no no. And I chalk that up to the benefit of perspective, rather than some deficiency in the Ralphie-love department.
I don't post pictures of Ralphie online. I've never celebrated his birthday. I won't be wrapping him a Christmas gift. I respect him and love him, but with full recognition of the capabilities of his walnut-sized brain and with ample understanding of one fact: He's a cat. And I have better ways to spend my time, money and energy than dressing him up in a miniature Phantom of the Opera costume for Halloween and dragging him around the neighbourhood in a trolley to collect treats, coos and snickers.
I don't indulge in cat fancy. It's not in my character to blindly pander to what I imagine to be Ralphie's requirements, the way someone might insist her cat "needs" a can of tuna to start the day, or others invent further feline wants—five treats before bed, a freshly laundered pile of underwear to sleep on, "Magical Mister Mistoffelees" on repeat during the supper hour.
And you know what? This over-indulgence is the selfsame preciousity that has gripped the anti-outdoor-cat contingent.
Yes, imagining there's a way to prevent the nuisance of little purring turd burglars in the garden stems from the same misguided preciousness as that of the over-zealous feline-o-philes. It's an overwhelming pride in property: in this case, an out-of-all-
proportion adoration for flowers and shrubs and tomato plants. I mean, let's take stock here. This is really all about Puff, Paws, Mitts and Muffy depositing turds in people's gardens. Turds. In gardens. They're not
ripping off people's bank cards and stealing their identities. They're not kidnapping toddlers from neighbourhood playgrounds.
Wanting to keep roaming kitties out of what the cats see as—jackpot!—a sea of perfect backyard litter boxes, weeded, raked and tamped just for the comfort of their feline asses, is simply hysterical—both in the panic-stricken sense and the humorous one.
No one goes about blasting birds from the sky because they dig garden-helpful worms out of the ground. No one traps starlings for stealing grapes and cherries. And no one should expect that cats are a different kind of wildlife or that they have any less place out in the world because they get fed in homes, have names and enjoy Andrew Lloyd Webber show tunes.
Also lacking perspective?
Councillors, who have such acute tunnel vision that they've allowed, first, for this to come to council 26 times in 11 years, and second, for it to pass, even though some councillors say they've received few complaints about it. Rockingham-Wentworth councillor Debbie Hum says she's never received a complaint about cats in her four years in the chair.
Hum voted against A-300. But Brad Johns, councillor for Upper Sackville-Lucasville, voted in favour. And his response, when the Daily News last month asked him how much he hears about cats, was fist-slammingly exasperating. He gets half-a-dozen calls a year. "There's not a whole lot," he admits. "See, my issue with supporting this by-law is not because of the amount of calls I get, it's because there's nothing I could tell people to do about the calls that they were making."
I have a suggestion: Tell them to suck it up. Tell them the world is sympathetic but that we have bigger issues to deal with than a few centimetres of fecal matter scattered amongst the begonias.
However, for this, cats will die. In legislative theory, anyway.
According to the October 16 staff report outline on by-law A-300, the costs break down like this: We pay $1.2 million already for animal services. The domesticated cat add-on means another half-million in operating costs (with "potential for significant increase," staff admit), plus $1.6 million in capital costs for a new shelter. Even if we average out the $10-$30 licensing fee, that's more than 100,000 cats that need to get in line for their tags in the first year if the city wants this thing to pay for itself. (Have you met anyone who's eager to shell out for this one? Me neither.)
Let's consider that little staff caveat: There's a "potential for significant increase" in the sheltering of caught cats. What's "significant increase" mean? The Nova Scotia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals sent out a press release the morning after the cat vote, noting that Calgary (which is thought to have comparable-to-Halifax cat population numbers) makes use of two shelters to house its by-law-infringing cats. The capital costs alone for those kitty jails amount to $10 million. Not including land. Not including operating costs.
The NSSPCA says it "would be relieved" if HRM built another shelter. But the by-law, as written, intends that kitty convicts will be in lock-up at the SPCA's Scarfe Court shelter in Dartmouth until the new facility is ready. The SPCA says the by-law-driven influx of cats will be "staggering" and they already don't have the resources to deal with the ones they have now.
Sherry Mitchell Larade has first-hand experience with this. She started the "People protesting cat by-law in Halifax, NS," Facebook group. She has seven cats. And their stories, she says, show people the problems with cats in the HRM. Problems that will only get worse with the by-law.
Larade is reasonable. She wanted one cat. Cyril, who's now nine, she got from the SPCA. Then things got wiggy, cat-wise. Larade says, "I've ended up being a crazy cat lady."
Shelby was abandoned after someone moved without him out of Larade's mother's Spryfield apartment. Fifie, a three-week-old kitten who was barely able to eat, Larade found alone in a field. Crystal showed up with a collar and pregnant at the back door in January but Larade couldn't find the owners. Charlie was one of Crystal's kittens who Larade couldn't find a home for. Between having kittens and getting spayed, Crystal got knocked up again and Larade has Princess (a boy) and Sputnik from that litter.
"These cats just show up," she says. "I know that tomorrow I could wake up and there would be another one out there."
She tried to place every new cat that came her way—through the SPCA's waiting list, friends or community members. "There's no place to put these cats," she says. That's how she's ended up with seven—all fixed, all well-cared for, all free-roaming because, as she says, "you can't keep a cat in if he wants to be out." Larade will register the cats, she says, but worries about the cost of bailing them out if they're picked up repeatedly: "There is a limit here, OK?"
But who's going to catch Fifie and Charlie and Princess in Timberlea, or Ralphie and his downtown pals, while they're out roaming the streets and flopping on the sidewalk belly-up in front of school kids?
Albro Lake-Harbourview councillor Jim Smith says not to worry about that. "I believe that enforcement is ready," Smith told CBC News. "This is going to be self-enforced."
Well, sure it will be, Jim, the same way all our by-laws are self-enforced, because there are so few by-law enforcement staff out there to chase down evildoers as it stands. Are you following me here? There's no one to enforce it. No one except angry cat-hating neighbours with rented traps.
And there's the final troubling part of this cat control catastrophe—leaving cats unattended in cages, according to the
NSSPCA, constitutes animal cruelty under both provincial legislation and the criminal code. So perhaps the Wüsthof 8" is the truly humane solution to the problem Council poses for Ralphie and thousands of cats like him in HRM. It's quick, anyway (provided he stays still a moment). And at least he won't be cruelly rotting away in some maniacal gardener's rented trap. Ralphie, perhaps, couldn't hope for a better fate.
Lezlie Lowe is an award-winning freelance writer. She is not a crazy cat lady.