Fate of Utah feral animal bills shows lawmakers’ leanings

by Jared Jacang Maher

Feral cats have been the topic of much political debate in Utah this year as a result of two bills that presented very different methods for how to deal with feral animals.

HB 210, which would have allowed for the shooting and killing of feral animals, failed to pass through the Utah Senate before the end of the state’s legislative session last month. Meanwhile, a separate bill making it easier for animal welfare organizations to sterilize and return feral cats to the places where they were found passed both houses. SB 57 is awaiting signature by Utah Governor Gary R. Herbert.

Though these bills were unrelated, the fact that HB 210 died while SB57 prospered shows greater support for policies that take a more humane approach to controlling feral animal populations, says Best Friends Animal Society spokesman John Polis.

Best Friends, a non-profit, sponsors around 40 programs throughout southern Utah that trap, neuter and then release free-roaming cats, which otherwise might be euthanized. The bill allows for ear-tipped cats to be returned immediately to their colonies without being held in a shelter for what is currently a mandatory three-day holding period.

Polis says his group had been planning to seek this legislation when they discovered that a bill introduced by Rep. Curt Oda would permit property owners to kill feral animals that have been deemed pests.

"We were opposed to the bill because it would give anybody the right to shoot a cat, and coincidentally weve got this bill and were trying to save more cats," says Polis.

Oda argued the bill was intended to shield farmers and ranchers from prosecution under animal cruelty laws in areas where feral animal populations have gotten out of control and dangerous. The proposed law would have allowed rural residents to "humanely shoot" and bludgeon an animal to death if they had a "reasonable suspicion" it was feral. There was a large outcry from critics who said the definition of what constituted a feral animal was overly vague and could lead to situations where cats and dogs could be killed with impunity.

"Well, feral animals include feral cats," noted Polis. "Some of them are domesticated cats that go away from home or maybe feral cats that are in a return program of some kind. Why give someone the opportunity to sit on their backdoor step and shoot a cat if it entered your yard?"

Despite the introduction of language into Oda’s bill that reduced its scope to only the unincorporated areas of counties, the measure proved too controversial for a majority of legislators to support. The negative public reaction to loosening animal cruelty laws on feral animal may be attributable in part to the no-death alternatives being offered, says Polis.

"I think more people are knowledgeable about how we can trap and return feral cats," he adds. "For sure that sure showed in some of the comments you would see out there."


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