In South Bethany, Bill Murphy was horrified to discover a colony of feral cats had broken into his house in the winter of 2013-2014.
“The house was winterized,” Murphy said at a Feb. 10 council meeting. “When we returned in the spring, they had lived in the whole house. They had defecated, they had vomited…”
The family threw away quilts, sheets, changing tables, cribs, “everything that wasn’t wooden,” and sprayed to remove the urine smell. Despite $25,000 worth of damage remediation, he said they were still anxious every time their grandchildren crawled on the floors. Nowadays, cats still run around the yard and deck at night.
“South Bethany, in my judgment, is particularly at risk to cat invasion of that ilk because homes aren’t fully occupied during the winter, so there’s not that human activity to either detect that the cats got in, or scare the cats off,” said Town Councilman Wayne Schrader.
Stories like this have prompted the South Bethany Town Council to begin drafting ordinances regarding feral cats.
But it’s a passionate subject for a four-legged problem.
Although the town budget was the stated subject of a scheduled Feb. 23 council workshop, feral cats were expected to get some attention at the 1 p.m. meeting. Some people want feral cats away from their homes, while others are afraid the Town will resort to euthanasia.
Over the years, the council has gotten various complaints about feral cats in town. On Feb. 10, Schrader outlined the Town’s options.
He recommended the Town prohibit importation of feral cats into town; prohibit the placement of food for any animals on property not owned by that person; and regulate the placement of such food (such as not leaving it outdoors for longer than one hour, or without supervision).
Schrader recommended they avoid immediate executive action that might invite a lawsuit.
However, he mentioned euthanasia as an option, which perked the ears of many animal advocates in the audience.
On Thursday, the council was set to review the first draft of a feral cat ordinance.
Charter & Code Committee Chairman John Fields said, “The draft takes care of the feeding issue, and the draft also requires the cats to be licensed and have tags, like dogs do. The draft ordinance makes it possible for the Town to trap a cat and carry it off … if necessary.”
Schrader said that is intended more for nuisance cats.
“There have been inquiries about where we can take these cats if they become a problem,” said Fields, adding that, recently, a police vehicle nearly hit two cats that were eating in the roadway.
But feral-cat advocates said there’s no guarantee that trappers are really taking cats to sanctuaries. There are rumors that trappers merely kill the cats. Even if they do drive the cats to a nearby sanctuary, some people doubt the Town would pay the $300-plus fee.
“Like so much of stuff, if it’s anecdotal,” Schrader said. “If you ask for research, you’re gonna get anecdotes.”
He suggested — if trapping and removal is even considered — that the Town could easily confirm if an animal arrives at the designated sanctuary.
“There has been an effort to identify sanctuaries that would accept feral cats if we ever got the point of trapping and removing them,” Schrader said. “It’s my sense that there’s no effort to draft any kind of ordinance to call for the euthanizing of cats.
“What we’re working on in the immediate term is language to, among other, [control] things the feeding of feral cats by dropping food on roadways around town and just generally considering whether we ought to just ban in its entirety the feeding of feral cats,” although that is more controversial.
“We’re not looking for a quick remedy, and we’re not looking to [kill everything],” said Mayor Pat Voveris on Feb. 10, asking the public to give the council time to research the options.
But since then, in the process of researching trappers and sanctuaries, some council members startled local advocates of trap/neuter/release (TNR).
The issue even prompted resident Terri Nicholson to create a Change.org petition, supported by more than 3,000 people worldwide as of mid-week.
“We want Town Hall to know they cannot just go in — let them know we are the solution to keeping the cat population under control. We are not the problem. We are the solution,” Nicholson said. “TNR has kept our numbers down for over 11 years. … You don’t see kittens running around South Bethany.”
The council has the authority to preserve the health, safety and cleanliness of the town, and to prevent, abate or remove nuisances.
The cat population has been controlled for years by groups including Cats Around Town Society (CATS) and Coastal Cat Rescue, which trap, neuter and release feral cats, or find adoption homes for the more sociable cats.
“They are not harming anyone or anything and deserve to stay where they are,” the Change.org petition said. “Why would they spend the money that will be needed to hire someone to trap and then to kill these animals? Right now they are all taken care of at no expense to the Town.”
“I wish and hope people can take the focus off the issue of killing cats. … It would be easier if we could start with addressing the feeding issues,” Schrader said. “I think that will be the forefront of discussion on Thursday. I … understand there are people who are passionate about cats.”
“We never felt the same in that house again,” Murphy said. “Do you want to choose cats over the health of the residents here in South Bethany? It’s confusing to me why we enforce so many rules on dogs that we don’t enforce on cats.”
The feeding restriction has public support, from both Clair Mace of CATS and a local petition that garnered 40 signatures.
The crowd at the recent council meeting had mixed reactions, as cats control rodents but also attack beloved birds. Cats can also expose children to allergens, as well as pathogens from cat waste in the yard.
Nancy McCarthy warned that permanently removing the existing feral cats would likely result in non-neutered cats moving into the territory.
In other South Bethany news:
• Smoking, vaping and related activities could be banned on the beach. The first reading of Ordinance 186-17 — which could prohibit smoking tobacco, weeds, marijuana, vaporized liquid or similar substances, using any pipe, cigar, cigarette, hookah or electronic smoking device — was approved on Feb. 10. The prohibited area would run from the beach access points to about 100 yards into the Atlantic Ocean.
• The South Bethany Police Department recently won a statewide Crime Stoppers award. Ptlm. Megan Loulou won an individual award, as well as recognition at the 2017 Joshua M. Freeman Valor Awards, for helping solve about 20 area burglaries based on one local crime scene.
• With Delaware’s coastal towns re-forming the Association of Coastal Towns (ACT), the South Bethany Planning Commission has suggested that sea-level rise efforts be moved to that category, rather than be an individual town effort.
• The 2017 Board of Election includes Carolyn Marcello, Bonnie Rae and Sally Baker, with election workers Lora Caputo, Lisa Saxton and Diana Cowell, and alternate Pat Spangler.
• As a way to connect people to their neighbors and their internet, the Community Enhancement Committee will propose a public picnic and Wi-Fi area near town hall. It will be discussed as part of the upcoming budget draft discussions.
• Amateur and professional photographers can submit samples to be considered for South Bethany’s Art in the Hall exhibit. Applications are due March 15, with the exhibition scheduled for May 26 to June 24, hosted at town hall by the Community Enhancement Committee. For details or submissions, contact Sue.Callaway@gmail.com.
• Canal Drive streetlights were ordered and should be installed within the next month.
• The Assawoman Canal Trail is still coming to South Bethany. Carol Stevenson said the Delaware Department of Transportation has determined that a Route 26 underpass is possible for the walking path to connect several towns together.
• A community Potluck Dinner will be held at Town Hall on Saturday, March 11, at 6 p.m. Those planning to attend should RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org. Soft drinks will be provided, but the event is otherwise BYOB. Guests should bring a dish based on their last name (A to H, entrée; I to P, dessert; Q to Z, salad/side).
• A travel policy for South Bethany employees and the town council was unanimously approved, based heavily on federal guidelines, although some exceptions can be approved by the mayor or town manager.
• The town council is writing the summertime Black Gum barricade into the town code, with Ordinance 185-17. Although a resolution would allow the town council the flexibility of changing the barricade hours more quickly, Voveris said their town solicitor had recommended writing the times (10 a.m. to 1 p.m.) into the actual code. Any future changes will require three town council readings.
The council’s next regular meeting is Friday, March 10, at 7 p.m., preceded by a public budget meeting at 6 p.m.