Cats will be cats, no matter the law

Posted June 23, 2009, at 12:26 p.m.

Q: My problem may seem trivial, but it is very disturbing to me. My husband and I feed birds at several feeders outside our glass sliding door. Unfortunately, there are many cats in my neighborhood, and they scare away the birds, and have killed several over the winter. My husband wants to shoot the cats, but I would rather trap them in one of those traps that don’t hurt them, and bring them to the ASPCA. Could we do that, and just say they are strays? Polite requests to neighbors have had no effect.

A: Interesting question. If the cat is really and truly a stray, call the animal control officer. Shelters usually accept strays only from animal control officers, not angry neighbors. No shelter wants to take in a pet by mistake. But if it is somebody’s darling, there is little the law can do. Here’s why. First, you do not have the right to trap and dispose of a neighbor’s cat, let alone shoot it. Pets are property. You can’t mess with someone else’s property. Kill or kidnap someone’s precious puss and you will have an enemy for life.

“But it’s killing my birds,” you might say. They are not your birds, which brings us to another second point. They are wild birds. If the neighbor’s cat were killing your chickens, Maine law would let you do something about it. The town could fine the neighbor $100 or you could sue in small claims court to recover the value of your dead chicken.

“But can’t I keep someone else’s animals off my property?” Ordinarily, yes, you can. Maine has an “animal trespass” law that says after the neighbor has been ordered by the animal control officer, he must keep his animals off your property. If he doesn’t, the town can fine him $50 to $500. The catch is the law says – in plain English – that it does not apply to cats, which seems to indicate that the lawmakers know something about cats. Cats will do what cats have done since the dawn of time, and there is not much the law can do about it.

Is there anything at all you can do? There probably isn’t any direct legal action you can take. You are not alone in your concern, but your suggested solutions will get you into trouble. You could ask your neighbor if he would put a bell on the cat. If he won’t, and it’s worth it to you, you could put up a cat-proof fence. Or buy a dog. Get a guard goose. Put the feeders on very tall posts that cats can’t climb – but make sure the seed doesn’t spill on the ground.

Unfortunately, if the cats are really decimating your bird population, you may need to put the feeders away and do your birding in the wild. For more ideas, and a sympathetic ear, consult with the Maine Audubon Society.

This column is a service of the Lawyer Referral and Information Service of the Maine State Bar Association. Its contents are a general response to the question and do not constitute legal advice. Questions are welcome. Go online to AAL@mainebar.org, describe your question and note you are a BDN reader. Written questions mailed to ” Ask a Lawyer,” Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor, Maine 04402-1329, will be forwarded to the LRIS.

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