Kenai Council postpones cat leash ordinance

Kenai cats could join dogs on the list of animals that city code requires to be restrained either by a leash, fence, or building.

The cat leash law was introduced to the Kenai City Council by Kenai Mayor Pat Porter and council member Tim Navarre, who in the ordinance text cited an increase in residents’ complaints to the Kenai Animal Shelter about roaming cats and a growing cat population in the shelter that “has begun to tax the available resources of the Animal Shelter.”

The council unanimously voted to postpone the ordinance Wednesday, with members Mike Boyle and Bob Molloy absent. It will now have a hearing and vote on October 5.

The “restraint” which the ordinance would require of cats at all times is defined in Kenai code as “physical confinement, as by leash, chain, fence, or building.” The maximum penalty allowed in code for an animal violation is a fine of up to $500 per violation.

A memo from Kenai city attorney Scott Bloom, attached to the ordinance, states the Kenai Animal Shelter “has received an increased number of complaints regarding cats roaming at large, defecating on private property, invading plant beds, and otherwise disturbing property owners’ peaceful enjoyment of their property.”

Kenai Animal Control Office Jessica Hendrickson wrote in an email that she’d observed an increase in cat complaints, though numbers showing the increase don’t exist.

“We have noticed an increase in the amount of calls with complaints about cats in the past several months,” Hendrickson wrote in an email. “Because we do not have a current Kenai Municipality Code regarding cat confinement, we do not keep detailed records regarding confinement complaints.”

Two letters to council members from Bridgit Gillis and Sheila Holtzen, both residents of Kenai’s Woodland subdivision, were included in Wednesday’s meeting materials and emphasized such complaints.

“I have been a cat owner myself and have nothing against having cats as pets,” Gillis wrote. “I do, however, have a problem with cat owners allowing their cats to roam freely within city limits, where we all live closely together. Not only is this practice disrespectful, but it does not have the best interest and safety of the cat in mind.”

Holtzen wrote that with ill family members in her home, “having cats use my yard for a kitty litter box is a huge health issue, as well as being really nasty, and we shouldn’t have to tolerate this.”

“Some days the stench coming from underneath my back deck is sickening!” Holtzen wrote. “Twice I have accidentally stuck my fingers in cat poop while trying to weed my flower garden, and I had to start live trapping them after that.”

The Kenai Animal Shelter has six live traps it loans to residents for 14 days, Hendrickson wrote in her email.

“Recently, the traps have been completely checked out and we have had a waitlist for people to pick them up when they have been returned,” Hendrickson wrote.

Kenai resident and former council member Ryan Marquis testified to the cat leash law via an email, in which he wrote that “the flaw in this ordinance is that it assumes compliance.”

“It is my opinion that those that start restraining their cats will be significantly fewer in number than those that ignore the ordinance (whether knowingly or not),” Marquis wrote. “Also, I believe that a large number of the cats that are likely prompting this ordinance are feral; they don’t have owners that can be responsible for them being unrestrained. If I’m correct, this means that Animal Shelter resources will be taxed even further.”

Kenai resident Heather Morning also said the cat leash law would create more burden for the animal shelter rather than relieving it.

“Every cat that is currently used to being outdoors would now have to be contained and every time that cat manages to get out of its containment, animal control would be tasked with having to get involved in that situation because it’s now an ordinance,” Morning said.

Marquis wrote that the leash law could have an unexpected fiscal impact.

“Are you prepared to increase Animal Control’s budget to support this new program?” Marquis wrote. “And remember, it’s not just additional food that the Shelter would need to acquire, it’s the personnel hours involved with chasing after complaint cats, other expenses associated with housing, time spent dealing with owners and the additional costs associated with increased euthanizations and vaccinations.”

As of Thursday afternoon, Hendrickson wrote that she didn’t have available information on the costs associated with keeping cats at the shelter.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Kenai City Manager Rick Koch said “it is not the case” that the shelter’s resources are being taxed. Koch said the shelter’s budget — $421,265 in Fiscal Year 2017 — “is sufficient for its operations, specifically for food.”

In a memo given Wednesday, Koch recommended delaying the vote on the cat ordinance, writing to council members that he “would like to research historical information and provide that information to Council so that you have the best information available on which to base your decisions.” During the meeting, Koch elaborated on the information he sought.

“I want to spend a little bit more time looking at the data as far as the number of complaints and calls, and provide that information in a report to council,” Koch said. “I’d like to be more specific and give you information on how we handle complaints for cats now, how many requests we get for live-traps … and I wanted to bring all those numbers for you guys to be able to have that and consider this action.”

Porter requested that Koch also include in his report a list of other Alaskan cities that currently have cat leash laws.

Hendrickson wrote in an email that the shelter can reasonably house 16 cats, or slightly more if there are cats that come from the same household and are used to living together. Hendrickson, who started working at the shelter in August 2015, wrote that the maximum number of cats hadn’t been reached during her time there.

In August 2016 the Kenai Animal Shelter took in 48 cats, according to its latest monthly report. Of these, 34 were voluntarily given up by owners and 13 were brought in as strays, having been either impounded by animal control officers or brought in by residents who had trapped them. Hendrickson wrote that cats usually spend 5-10 days at the shelter before being adopted.

“When an animal comes in as a stray we hold it for 3-5 days before we are able to adopt it out to allow for an owner to come in and claim it,” Hendrickson wrote. “However, we do have occasions when animals stay at the shelter for upwards of a month or so before they are adopted out.”

Fourteen of the cats that entered the shelter in August were adopted. Three were claimed by owners, and two were euthanized. Twenty-nine were transferred to one of the four animal rescue centers that the Kenai shelter partners with.

According to the shelter’s reports — submitted to the city council in meeting packets at the last meeting of each month — cat intake in 2016 and 2015 has ranged between the 62 cats taken during September 2015 and the 14 taken in February 2016. In each month, a majority of new cats have been those brought voluntarily by owners, and the majority of cats leave the shelter to be sent to rescue centers.

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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