Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin was probably joking when she invited Animal Control to fine her “every day” for feeding a feral cat that roams around her ritzy downtown Raleigh condo building last month. But what started as a wisecrack quickly escalated to the city suspending enforcement of city codes Animal Control had been using to fine residents for feeding feral cats, according to an investigation by the INDY

The same day, the city launched an internal investigation and placed an Animal Control officer on leave related to the matter.

Is Baldwin’s joke about to cost someone their job? Because it’s really not funny anymore. 

It might smell like retaliation: a mayor’s gaffe rushes the city’s legal team to reinterpret the rules behind closed doors to give the mayor impunity, while a low-level employee takes the fall. Or it could just be a clumsy game of telephone up the chain of command muffled by the awkward mechanisms of bureaucracy. It’s not clear what happened, exactly, and the city won’t say—but it doesn’t look good. 

The INDY also discovered that residents paid $1,700 in fines for cat-related code violations prior to the city ceasing enforcement last week. 

It’s unclear how many of these violations relate specifically to feral cats as the city does not track that, but multiple sources within Animal Control have confirmed to the INDY that the city does fine people for feeding feral cats under existing code.  

The debate over feral felines began during a city council discussion of a proposed ordinance to ban the ownership of “wild and dangerous animals” and the feeding of undomesticated animals, such as feral cats and ducks. Baldwin, among others on the council, said the ordinance went too far, and it was sent to the city’s Growth and Natural Resources Committee for further scrutiny.

Before the council had even adjourned that afternoon, Animal Control officer Lauren Mulleady fired off an email to Baldwin from her personal email account stating that the city already tickets residents who feed feral cats, as they can spread diseases and wreak havoc on local wildlife. Mulleady, who also owns and rehabilitates exotic animals, said feral cats “pose and already inflict more damage than any of the exotic animal owner’s pets combined in Raleigh.”

Naturally, the INDY poked into the matter. We published an article last week detailing the micro-scandal— mostly just calling out the hypocrisy of a mayor flaunting a city code violation and basking in the weirdness of how the council’s quest to satiate a public furor over an escaped zebra cobra led to a debate over feral cats. 

Baldwin, we figured, would probably back down from her statement. But that’s not what happened. According to an email reviewed by the INDY, the city suspended citations for individuals found feeding or failing to vaccinate feral cats on August 25, the day our paper hit the stands.

“Police Department legal staff were consulted and advised that there is no legal authority to cite individuals for this activity under any current city ordinance,” according to the email from RPD Deputy Chief Scott Oosterhoudt to members of the Animal Control division. “I am directing you to immediately cease any enforcement activity that results in such charges/citations.” 

The same day, an Animal Control officer was placed under investigation in relation to the matter. That employee is currently on paid administrative leave, according to a city employee who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. 

The city did not confirm or deny that an investigation was underway and declined to answer the INDY’s questions, citing a state statute that keeps personnel matters confidential. 

Baldwin declined to comment on the matter, directing questions to City Attorney Robin Tatum, who clarified that the cat-related citations involve all cats, and “the City cannot confirm which, if any, of them involved feral cats.” 

“There is nothing in the Raleigh Code that relates to feral cats or prohibits individuals from feeding feral cats,” Tatum wrote in an email Tuesday. “Consequently, there are no ordinances that are violated when a person feeds a feral cat, so there is nothing to enforce.”

She continued: “The duties that the Code and state statutes impose are upon cat “owners” which does not include someone who feeds a cat that does not belong to them.  We are aware of no law that would deem an individual a “de facto” owner for feeding a cat or any other animal that the person does not own.”

Animal Control’s rationale behind feral cat violations is somewhat tricky. 

While nothing in city code explicitly bans folks from feeding feral cats, Raleigh city code (12-3004) defines owners as “any person owning, keeping, harboring, possessing, or acting as custodian, however temporarily, of an animal.” Under two separate city ordinances—12-3007 and 12-3008—“owners” of feral cats can be found in violation if the cat isn’t vaccinated or wanders from their property. 

That interpretation of the code was shared by both Mulleady in her email to Baldwin and sources within Raleigh public safety who spoke with the INDY

If Tatum is correct, and the code doesn’t apply to feral cat feeders, then why has Raleigh’s Animal Control unit been fining residents for it? 

According to records obtained by the INDY, the city has issued 47 citations for 67 code violations since 2019 to residents for having a cat “at large” or failing to vaccinate a cat, both of which could apply to feral cat feeders (the city does not track whether a violation relates to a feral or house cat, so there’s no way to know exactly how many feral feeders have paid the piper). 

The city has collected $1,700 in fines for violations of the at-large and unvaccinated cat ordinances, according to Raleigh Police Department. In the last two years, the city has taken a dozen residents to court over these issues, records from RPD show.  

If Tatum is correct, does that mean the 44 residents cited since 2019 (there were three repeat offenders) have legal ground to sue the city if the cat in question was feral? If those citations were illegal, does the city plan to return the dough?

Neither Baldwin nor Tatum have elaborated on the matter. 

If Tatum is wrong, Animal Control officers find themselves in a bind. The Raleigh Police Department’s code states that unlawful orders are those “in violation of federal, state or local law” and that employees are not required to follow them. State statute requires that owners vaccinate their cats. Owners, as defined by Raleigh city code, are any person “acting as a custodian . . . however temporarily” of an animal. 

Isn’t a person feeding a cat “acting as a custodian?”

By which law should Raleigh’s Animal Control abide? 

Maybe Tatum is right and the code is poorly written. If the city wants to take a hard look at its animal ordinance, it might want to start with the most recent code update, which Baldwin and the council voted to approve just last summer. That policy includes a rule prohibiting residents from keeping water in metal dog bowls, which disproportionately targets low-income pet owners, many of whom are people of color. Other rules take away affordable crating options for pet owners, such as dog igloos, by mandating requirements like “a dry floor raised at least 4 (inches) above the ground.” 

Plotted geographically, Raleigh’s cat-related citations show at-large and unvaccinated cats are an issue throughout the city, with virtually no neighborhoods immune. It’s a problem that could be getting worse, as last year Animal Control was instructed to stop placing traps for residents who reported feral cats on their properties during the pandemic. Left unchecked, Raleigh’s feral cat population has probably exploded, one source told the INDY last week.

 So it’s worth asking: if Baldwin cares so much about the plight of feral cats, what’s she going to do about it? Because ceasing enforcement of city code and placing employees on leave in an already threadbare department certainly isn’t helping. 

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