Federal Agents Threaten Pet Owners With a War on Cats
An overzealous federal agency is targeting Florida cats in a pest removal operation and it’s becoming a huge problem for pet owners.
Throughout the ages, cats have held a high place in society. Scholars commonly hold that felines were first domesticated in Egypt 4,000 years ago due to their ability to police dirty, disease-carrying rodents that plagued the land. This heroic role made cats so revered in ancient Egypt that some worshiped the animals as deities.
If a person were to kill a cat, even accidentally, the act was punishable by death. Upon their death, cats were often mummified and left to lay with their trophies: dead rats. However, times have changed for the once-renowned species.
The Smithsonian recently published an article titled: “To Save the Woodrat, Conservationists Have to Deal With an Invasive Species First: House Cats.” This is the latest entry in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s cat fight with residents of Key Largo, Florida, and their beloved pets.
In 2014, the Fish and Wildlife Service implemented a pest management plan designed to trap cats that the agency perceived as a threat to the Key Largo woodrat. The furry targets of this sting operation were accused of trespassing on federal land, which is a woodrat habitat, and doing what cats do best: hunt and kill rats.
Instead of focusing only on the large swaths of feral cats that pose the primary threat to the rats’ survival on the island, the Fish and Wildlife Service went overboard. Resident cat owners complained that agents set baited traps adjacent to the private property of the owners who live next to the federal park.
Then, Fish and Wildlife Service agents trapped Rocky, a pet cat to Spencer Slate, a Key Largo businessman who runs a scuba diving center. According to Slate, the traps “were all about 50 feet from [his] property” when Rocky was lured in one night. As a result, Slate said that “Rocky’s face was so bloodied by the trap’s spring-shut door that he did not recognize his pet.”
Slate discovered this after a Fish and Wildlife Service agent showed up at his business to serve him with a written citation threatening jail time for allegedly allowing Rocky to enter federal land. When delivering the citation, the agent neglected to return the captive kitten, instead depositing Rocky at an animal shelter nearly 15 miles away.
In the face of agency abuse, Slate refused to roll over, taking his case to a federal judge who dismissed the citation after the scuba captain demonstrated that the Fish and Wildlife Service had set the trap that captured Rocky outside of federal land.
As Mark Miller, managing attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation’s Atlantic Center in Florida, explains, “when [Fish and Wildlife Service] agents prowl off of federal land to trap private citizens’ cats on private land, these agents’ actions implicate a number of constitutional clauses” that could make the agents’ actions unlawful.
Furthermore, the fact that Slate was threatened with jail time for the instinctive response of his baited cat is a gross misuse of government power. This tactic represents the phenomenon of overcriminalization, the use of the criminal law and penalties to punish every mistake and to solve every problem—including a pet cat wandering around Key Largo.
One would hope that after Slate exposed this injustice in court, the government would start leaving pets and their owners alone, but this is not the only example of federal regulation of domestic animals.
For instance, it is a crime to “allow” a pet to make a noise “that frightens wildlife” on land administered by the National Park Service. It is also a crime to walk your dog in a national park on a 7-foot leash, 36 CFR § 2.15(a)(2) and 36 CFR § 1.3. Keep Lassie close or she could put her owner in the slammer.
Over the years, courts too have weighed in on animal treachery. In 1926, the English Court of Appeals held in Buckle v. Holmes that a cat owner is not responsible for the damage caused by his trespassing pet.
Even earlier, in 1890, a Pennsylvania court held in McDonald v. Jodrey that a cat owner is not responsible for the “predatory habits” of the species, but can only be held liable for the “known mischievous tendencies” of a particular pet.
The judge in Slate’s case is not the only judge who would likely view the adoption of a wildlife conservation strategy that encourages federal agents to confiscate pets as an alarming government overreach.
Adding the threat of jail time for property owners who are mere bystanders to government conservation efforts and the natural instincts of orderly pets is all the more unjust.
Legend has it that Pope Gregory IX denounced cats as an incarnation of Satan in the 13th century. This led to the mass extermination of medieval felines.
With cats no longer present to stand guard, Europe experienced an explosion in the rat population, which spread the ravaging bubonic plague throughout the land. Scholars estimate that the Black Death killed one-third of Europe.
The Fish and Wildlife Service ought to heed this historical warning and leave the cats of Key Largo alone.
David Rosenthal is a visiting legal fellow in the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.