Turbo's traumatic night in kitty jail is forcing Edmonds to take a closer look at a Catch-22 paradox that affects cat owners everywhere...

Share story

Turbo’s traumatic night in kitty jail is forcing Edmonds to take a closer look at a Catch-22 paradox that affects cat owners everywhere.

Unlike dogs, pet cats have the legal right to roam freely in most towns and cities. And their human neighbors apparently have the right to declare them to be nuisances, lure them into traps and deliver them to the local pound.

The notion of creating “leash laws” for cats has been debated at least since 1949, when then-Gov. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois vetoed a law intended to protect birds.

“I cannot agree that … a cat visiting a neighbor’s yard … is a public nuisance. It is in the nature of cats to do a certain amount of unescorted roaming,” the future presidential candidate wrote at the time.

Tell that to Debbie McCallum, who is unapologetic about trapping her neighbor’s cat, keeping him caged overnight and then turning him over to Edmonds Animal Control the next morning, Sept. 14. Turbo, a 2-year-old adopted stray, cut his face in several spots trying to wriggle from the wire trap.

McCallum said it was her last resort.

Passive ways to deter cats

If neighborhood cats are a nuisance — say, staking out the bird feeder or using the vegetable garden as a litter box — experts suggest these methods to persuade them to go elsewhere.

• Talk to the cats’ owners about keeping them inside.

• Fill a spray bottle with water and “gently” blast the errant cats in the face.

• Protect birds by installing feeders on tall poles with squirrel baffles, a wire fence or an electric fence.

• Discourage visits with scent repellents, available at garden- and pet-supply stores or Web sites including www.havahart.com/cats/straycat
, www.multicrop.com.au/KeepOff.htm and www.critter-repellent.com.

• Try a sonic repellant. Set off with a motion detector, the device produces a high-frequency modulating sound that cats and dogs can’t bear but humans can’t hear. You can take a look at it at www.queenswood.co.uk/index2.shtml.

Source: Cat Fancier Association and Seattle Audubon Society

Cats belonging to two neighbor families “use my yard for their personal latrine; they spray on my door,” she said. McCallum also suspects Turbo, a neighbor’s cat, in the systematic killing last spring of 16 young quail she had hand-raised and released into her yard. She doesn’t want that to happen to her newest batch of 25 chicks, now safe under a heat lamp in her garage.

She tried to be neighborly, she said. She asked Turbo’s owners to keep their three cats off her one-acre property along the Edmonds bluff — a true cat playground, with plenty of shrubs for hiding, grassy areas for sunbaths and bird feeders that attract chickadees, hummingbirds and other feathered playthings.

“I heard them whistling for him that night,” McCallum admitted. “I felt bad. But I wanted to prove a point: Keep their cats at home, on their own property, and this won’t happen.”

A city animal-control officer advised McCallum she had the legal right to trap a trespassing cat.

Trouble is, the city’s laws don’t say so.

While some municipalities — including Mukilteo, Woodway, Lynnwood and all of unincorporated Snohomish County — do prohibit pets of any kind from “running at large,” Edmonds exempts cats from that law. So do Seattle, Everett, Mountlake Terrace and Mill Creek, among others.

And though most cities have laws protecting residents from “trespassing” cats that create a “nuisance,” the Edmonds law requires complaints from three separate homes before an animal is defined as a nuisance.

Seattle apparently is the only nearby city with a clearly defined policy on trapping nuisance cats. Each case must be approved in advance by the director of the Seattle Animal Shelter, said enforcement supervisor Ann Graves.

Typically, cats are considered nuisances for actions such as scratching cars or damaging vegetable gardens, she said. Killing wild birds doesn’t count, she said, because they aren’t anyone’s property.

Complicating matters for Edmonds officials: Turbo’s family includes Ray Martin, an outspoken and well-known critic of city government.

He has made clear his outrage over Turbo’s trapping, demanding charges be filed against McCallum. He also wants McCallum to pay Turbo’s $58.25 veterinary bill.

Martin’s focus is a state statute that makes it a gross misdemeanor to “take” or “confine” a pet.

But animal-law attorney Adam Karp, of Bellingham, said that’s part of the state’s theft laws, and it doesn’t clearly relate to cases such as Turbo’s.

“Legally, you have to look at the nuisance codes,” he said, and also at the intent and methods of the person doing the trapping.

Turbo belongs to Martin’s daughter, Laura Martin, who spent hours searching for him Sept. 13. She assumes McCallum heard her calling for him in the woods next to her home.

“I was crying, I was hysterical,” she said.

Police Chief David Stern and Mayor Gary Haakenson said the city attorney is studying city codes to determine the legality of Turbo’s capture.

McCallum apparently thought she was complying with city laws, and called police the evening when Turbo was caught. She used cat food to bait the wire trap — 3 feet long and about a foot high — originally purchased to catch mountain beaver, another problem in her wooded neighborhood.

She was told to either let the cat loose, return him to his owners or wait until morning when an animal-control officer could pick him up, according to a police report.

McCallum chose to keep him, moving the trap to the garage, covering it with a towel and providing Turbo with food and water. The next morning, she called police again, and an animal-control officer picked up Turbo and took him to the city’s contract shelter, Adix’s Bed & Bath.

Adix’s staff removed Turbo’s collar, found his identification tags and called the Martins.

A City Council committee was scheduled to meet Tuesday night to discuss the city’s cat policies. The committee’s two members, David Orvis and Richard Marin, both said they don’t have much experience with cats.

“I’m a little bit worried about the practical aspects of how do you keep a cat in your yard,” Orvis said.

Animal-rights groups tend to stay away from cases like Turbo’s because they generally disapprove of allowing cats to go outside. Indoor cats have a much longer life expectancy, said Richard Huffman, executive director of the Purrfect Pals cat shelter.

“We encourage cats to remain indoors — it’s healthier for them, and it’s healthier for the wildlife,” he said. “We don’t want cats to be bad neighbors.”

Diane Brooks: 425-745-7802 or dbrooks@seattletimes.com