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When a person sees a malnourished kitten roaming her neighborhood, her first instinct is often to stop and help. In doing so, it is unlikely that the individual will carefully consider the legal consequences of her actions before giving the cat food and water or bringing it into her garage to give it shelter from the cold. Will the kindhearted bystander wonder whether feeding the cat will cause her to become the cat’s legal owner? Will she consider the possible rights and responsibilities that might arise from her caretaking?
The answers to these questions can vary widely depending on where the individual lives. Although some state and local governments have enacted laws attempting to resolve some of these issues, most states and municipalities do not have any laws governing the care and ownership of feral cats. In places where there are no feral cat laws, a cat owner is only responsible for damages caused by the cat if she owed the injured person a legal duty of care to prevent the damage from occurring, she breached that duty, and the breach was the cause of the injured person's damages.
What does it mean to “own” a feral cat? A person typically owns an animal when she has possession over it. The problem, however, is that people do not generally “possess” a feral cat in the same way that they would possess a dairy cow, a housecat, or a parrot. They typically do not care where the feral cat spends most of its time, they rarely try to confine it, and their interaction is generally limited to providing the animal with food and water. This decreased level of control makes it difficult to determine how feral cat ownership should be determined in states and municipalities that do not have feral cat laws.
Only thirteen states and the District of Columbia have any laws that even mention feral cats (California, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Nebraska, New York, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia, and Vermont). Generally, the state laws that do address these issues simply (1) define feral cats and (2) enable local governments to adopt their own solutions The result of this approach, though, is that the law of feral cats can, and often does, vary drastically within the same state. (For further information on specific state laws, see the Detailed Discussion on this topic).
In the absence of a state or local feral cat law, courts and juries may not be willing to assign rights or responsibilities to feral cat caretakers. It is possible, then, that individuals who care for feral cats in these places would not be required to comply with any of the requirements imposed on animal owners, nor would they be responsible for any damages caused by the animals’ behavior. Further, feral cat caretakers in these jurisdictions may have a difficult time protecting feral cat colonies from animal control agencies and the actions of private citizens (because caretakers are not owners, they would likely not have the right to prevent other people from relocating feral cat colonies or impounding the feral cats).
Feral cats do not fit neatly within the common law categories of animal ownership. The first problem is the question of whether feral cats are wild or domestic animals. Feral domestic cats would almost certainly not be considered wild animals, since domestic cats have, by definition, been generally domesticated and are generally unlikely to cause personal injury. However, it is possible that individual members of a domestic species could be considered wild if those individual animals have not been domesticated. So while feral cats are part of a domesticated species, it is possible that a court might find that specific feral cats qualify as wild animals, which would subject their owners and keepers to different requirements than owners and keepers of domestic cats.
In light of this difficulty, the most rational way to determine ownership of feral cats is to look at the extent to which a particular keeper or caretaker has exercised control over a feral cat and then impose responsibilities on the caretaker in a way that reflects that level of ownership. If a keeper or caretaker has given a feral cat food and water every day for several years and has provided the animal with periodic veterinary care, that person is more likely to be viewed as an owner than a person who has merely fed a feral cat once a day for six months. This sliding scale would allow courts to hold caretakers responsible for their actions when those caretakers are actively involved in caring for feral cats, but it would also encourage people to care for feral cats on a casual basis without having to fear .
In states that have not addressed feral cats in their laws, to what extent can a caretaker be held responsible for damages caused by feral cats? The answer to this question is likely to depend on the degree of control that the individual exercises over the cats. In places where keepers or caretakers of feral cats are considered “owners,” it is quite possible that a feral cat caretaker could be held responsible for damage caused by feral cats. The few cases that have addressed this issue look closely at evidence of ownership to determine the extent to which a keeper or caretaker should be held responsible. Further, when damage to property or persons is reasonably foreseeable (i.e., the caretaker knew or should have known that the feral cat was likely to damage property or injure people), a court could impose civil liability (money damages) on keepers and caretakers for failing to control the feral cats in their care.
In addition to civil liability, keepers and caretakers may also face criminal charges in some circumstances. Determining when a feral cat caretaker may be criminally liable is a complex issue that has not been extensively addressed. One commentator who has analyzed the issue in Texas raised the possibility that an individual who cares for a feral cat could be held criminally liable for abandonment or neglect if that individual ceased to provide the cat with food and water or failed to pay for the cat’s necessary medical treatment.
Similarly, some states classify feral cat caretakers as “owners” and further require owners to spay and neuter their pets or immunize them against rabies. Thus, feral cat caretakers could be subjected to the same fines and citations as other animal owners if they fail to comply with these laws.
In most places, courts will have no guidance other than common law for dealing with feral cat issues. A person who feeds feral cats outside of her office building every morning might not be subjected to liability at all, whereas a person who provides shelter, food, water, and veterinary services for a group of feral cats would be more likely to be liable for the actions of those animals. Ideally, more state and local legislatures should begin to address this complex and convoluted area of law. Keepers and caretakers provide a valuable service, and the law should not discourage these individuals from caring for animals in need.
For more on this topic, see the Detailed Discussion