Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin jokingly invited the city’s animal control unit to fine her for feeding a feral cat outside her ritzy downtown Raleigh condo during the City Council meeting last week while discussing a proposed ordinance that would ban the ownership of “wild and dangerous animals,” as well as the feeding of local wildlife.
Turns out, she may have to pay up.
Baldwin is already violating city code, two Raleigh public safety officials told the INDY, and could face a fine of up to $500 or even a court summons as a result of feeding her furry friend.
The cat may have caught Baldwin’s tongue: in a text to the INDY, Baldwin said city attorney Robin Tatum advised her “that there are no ordinances that prohibit feeding feral cats.” Tatum emailed the INDY reiterating that, and stating, “I know of no facts that would indicate that the Mayor has violated any City Code provision.”
Tatum might be half right: the policy doesn’t explicitly ban folks from feeding ferals, but three sources within city government say Baldwin’s activity would violate at least three existing policies because residents who feed feral cats are considered harboring them on their properties and therefore assume de facto ownership responsibilities that bring them in violation of other city rules prohibiting animals from roaming “at large” and requiring residents provide the animal with adequate shelter and vaccines.
Animal Control dishes out fines in these scenarios frequently, sources say.
The INDY asked Tatum if she believed Animal Control was illegally fining residents. Tatum replied, “My email to you from yesterday remains correct, but that is all we can comment on at this time.”
The proposed policy would outlaw residents in the city from owning an ark-full of menacing beasts, including big cats, crocodiles, and venomous snakes. But it also goes on to ban residents from owning or feeding more run-of-the-mill critters like opossums, squirrels, raccoons, and ducks.
Baldwin, among others on the council, felt the draft policy went too far.
“You’ll be fining me at my house every day. I have my favorite feral cat and he is like one of the family,” Baldwin said. “That, to me, goes a little too far.”
“But I’ll tell you what: I will still feed that feral cat and let you fine me. So there,” Baldwin added with a chuckle.
Baldwin might have been joking, but it wasn’t funny to Animal Control Officer Lauren Mulleady, who is also an owner and rehabilitator of exotic animals. After watching the virtual meeting, Mulleady fired off an email to Baldwin and the council informing them she’s already breaking city code. Feral cats are actually a big problem in Raleigh that Mulleady’s department deals with regularly, and yes, officers do fine people for feeding them.
Not only can feral cats be a public health hazard—Animal Control responds to several feral cat bites each year—but they also spread disease and wreak havoc on local wildlife. Feral cats “pose and already inflict more damage than any of the exotic animal owners’ pets combined in Raleigh,” Mulleady wrote.
“It is extremely upsetting to hear you say that it is ‘taking it too far’ to not allow feeding of feral cats, and that your feral cat is ‘part of the family,’ while the exact potential ordinance being discussed, is what will require owners such as myself to rid of their very own animals, animals that WE consider our beloved family members,” Mulleady wrote. “My animals that will be considered ‘dangerous’ under this potential ban, are also part of my family.”
Mulleady told the INDY she wrote the email as a concerned citizen and didn’t wish to comment further.
How did we go from talking about zebra cobras to feral cats? Has the council, in trying to fix an imaginary problem, stumbled onto a real one? More on that later.
Here’s how we got here: In July, a deadly zebra cobra slithered loose from an enclosure in North Raleigh, eluding capture while capturing headlines, and striking fear into the hearts of neighbors. Everybody freaked out. The snake was eventually caught and its owner, 21-year-old Christopher Gifford, pleaded guilty in court to several charges and was ordered to turn over 74 other venomous snakes in his possession and pay more than $13,000 in fines.
Some would call that the system working, but not City Council member David Knight, who immediately spearheaded an ordinance that would prevent any more deadly creatures from running loose in the city ever again.
But Knight’s policy goes a lot further than banning just venomous snakes. It does that, and prohibits folks from owning creatures such as big cats, bears, and crocodiles, but also pretty common local critters, like opossums, raccoons, squirrels, and ducks.
The definition of a “wild and dangerous” animal is any “non-domesticated animal” that is “inherently dangerous to humans or property.” The ordinance also specifies animals banned are “including, but not limited to,” the aforementioned list. It also says you can’t feed undomesticated animals.
The existing city code doesn’t directly ban the feeding of feral cats, but residents who do can be fined for up to three violations by Animal Control. When a resident feeds a feral feline for three consecutive days, they assume de facto ownership of it and can be fined for having it leave their property, failing to provide a proper shelter for it, and failing to have the animal vaccinated for rabies.
Making matters worse, as one city employee told the INDY, during the COVID-19 pandemic the city was instructed to stop placing traps for residents calling in to report feral cats on their properties, reducing their capacity to combat local feral populations. As a result, the city’s feral cat problem has likely exploded in the last year thanks to decreased enforcement.
“We don’t track it, it’s very hard to estimate that,” said the employee, who did not want to be named for fear of retaliation, “but I am 100 percent sure it’s increased tenfold just because there is no one removing the cats.”
To be fair: Animal Control doesn’t appear to have immediate plans to fine Baldwin (that’d be awkward) but her comments highlight certain hypocrisy in local government.
The public safety threat of exotic animals, including venomous snakes, is mostly imaginary. Only about five people die from snakebites each year in the United States, or about one in 64 million people. Statistically, you are way more likely to get bitten by a feral cat.
Most of the people that get attacked by exotic animals are the owners themselves and these attacks grab headlines precisely because they are so novel and rare. Banning exotic animals won’t stop people from owning them, as local wildlife educator Dan Breeding pointed out at the council meeting, it “will just drive people underground.”
What could create a problem, however, is a regulatory overreach in the form of an overzealous ban on “wild and dangerous” animals that would force a tiny city department—Raleigh has just eight Animal Control Officers—to dedicate their already thin resources to seizing people’s pets.
The ordinance specifies residents will have just 90 days to come into compliance. Then what? Will an Animal Control officer have to come remove a panther from someone’s basement?
The employee I spoke to assured me officers do not want to do that, nor do they have the resources. Seventy-five snakes were more than enough.
“I hope not, but I would not be surprised if in a city of our size there may be somebody out there that has possession of some large cat,” Knight said. “The question is, should the rest of us be put at risk for a very small population doing what they want to do?”
Meanwhile, the city’s very real feral cat problem was somehow turned into a punchline. As Knight pointed out, ask any wildlife expert if you should feed wild animals. They will tell you no: it’s often bad for the animal and disrupts local ecosystems.
It’s a truth many residents won’t want to hear, including Raleigh resident Martha Brock, who has fallen in love with feeding a flock of wild ducks in the pond behind her apartment. Brock, a 71-year-old retiree, has done her research—she knows bread is bad for ducks so she feeds them corn. And, policy or not, Brock says she doesn’t want to stop feeding her ducks.
“They can come after me with their nets, I don’t care,” Brock says. “Just as long as they don’t come after the ducks with the nets.”
Government policy is tasked with cutting the difference between ideals and the realities of human behavior. In a perfect world, everyone would listen to experts and no one would feed wildlife. But we love our bird feeders and furry friends, so the “wild and dangerous” animal ordinance was referred to the Growth and Natural Resources Committee for further debate.
Mayor Pro Tem Nicole Stewart, who chairs that committee, said she wasn’t in support of the ordinance in its current form.
“During these incredibly stressful times, we need to really consider all the ways that people find joy that aren’t harming anyone else,” Stewart said. “I believe this type of pet ownership is bringing people a source of joy.”
The INDY asked if Baldwin still intended to cough up a $500 fine to feed her furry friend. We’re awaiting a response.
Read Animal Control officer Lauren Mulleady’s email to the Raleigh City Council and an email exchange between Raleigh resident and duck enthusiast Martha Brock and Raleigh City Council member David Knight below.
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