Dealing with the new norm related to COVID-19, the world is truly a bizarre place. Masks are no longer worn solely on Halloween. Hand sanitizer and Lysol wipes may soon replace cash as the national currency, while social distancing no longer means a self-imposed hiatus from Facebook. Yes friends, these are truly trying times that we are enduring. However, for all the new handwashing protocols and bumping elbows rather than shaking hands that is occurring, some old norms have not been affected by the virus.
One such situation is the feeding of feral cats. As an attorney representing community associations, one of the calls I receive every so often is an association complaining about the crazy cat person and his/her refusal to stop feeding feral cats in the community. Now, I know what some of you are thinking, what’s the harm in feeding homeless cats? Candidly, the answer may surprise you. Feeding feral cats can not only have a negative impact on the environment and create health issues, it can also lead to potential criminal liability to the individual doing the feeding. No, that was not a typo, there is potential criminal liability for feeding feral cats.
First, how does feeding feral cats negatively impact the community? According to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (“TPWD”), feral cat colonies have a negative impact on the populations of birds, small mammals, amphibians and other wildlife. What about those Trap, Neuter & Release (“TNR”) programs we’ve heard about, don’t those fix the problem? According to the TPWD, TNR programs are not effective in curtailing the negative effects on the wildlife population. Part of TPWD’s lack of support for TNR programs has to do with the inability to successfully capture a sufficient amount of the feral cat population to neuter. In addition, the health of the individual feral cats is a concern, and trapping a feral cat leads to immense stress on the individual animal, which then leads to the individual animal being even harder to capture in the future for additional medical care. Additionally, they end up concentrating feral cat colonies in a certain area which creates public health concerns, increasing the spread of disease and disrupting natural ecological processes. Suggested actions that an association may take are to curb areas that would attract feral cats or their prey. An association may want to consider creating or enforcing rules that require keeping trash and waste areas clean and orderly. Associations may also send member blasts encouraging their members to not feed or set out food for feral cats.
Feral cats have been known to carry numerous diseases such as rabies, roundworm, ringworm, fleas, ticks, etc. Now, what happens when you let Fido or Fluffy outside for a little R&R and they come into contact with one of these cats? The answer is that you will probably find yourself in the waiting room at the Vet clinic trying to social distance yourself from a giant Great Dane named Mr. Pickles who is giving you the side eye. The point is that although feeding feral cats may come from a good place, the unintended consequences outweigh the acts of kindness.
42.092 of the Texas Penal Code is titled “Cruelty to Nonlivestock Animals”. It defines the term “abandon” as abandoning an animal in the person’s custody without making reasonable arrangements for assumption of custody by another person. “Custody” is defined as responsibility for the health, safety and welfare of an animal subject to the person’s care and control, regardless of ownership of the animal. It is an offense of the Penal Code to fail to: 1) unreasonably provide food, water, care or shelter for an animal in the person’s custody, or 2) abandon unreasonably an animal in the person’s custody. An offense under §42.092 is a Class A misdemeanor; however, the penalties increase if an individual is convicted on multiple occasions. So, for those individuals who have taken it upon themselves to feed feral cats and then cease feeding the animals, those individuals are subjecting themselves to potential criminal liability.
Simply stated, feeding feral cats is potentially detrimental to the health of the ecosystem and wildlife. Additionally, an inordinate number of cats in one place could result in damage to personal property. For these reasons, coupled with the possibility of criminal liability, residents should be educated and discouraged from feeding feral cats. By doing so, it will save the association valuable time and effort and allow it to focus on more important issues…like trying to figure out how to make DIY toilet paper.
 See TPWD Issue Briefing Paper – “Management of Feral Cat Colonies & Trap, Neuter and Release Programs” 2014