Roeland Park man finds himself in Catch-22 after ‘doing the right thing’ for feral cats on his property, faces fine

The two remaining ear-tipped feral cats that hang out in Steven Lewis's yard.
The two remaining ear-tipped feral cats that hang out in Steven Lewis’s yard. Photo provided.

A Roeland Park man’s attempt to do right by a group of feral cats that linger around his house landed him in court and facing fines for violating the city’s animal control ordinance.

“I’m actually the good guy, but I am being treated like the bad guy,” said Steven Lewis.

Lewis trapped three feral cats on his property, had them neutered and vaccinated, and then released them back at the house where he now sets out food for them. Lewis thought this was the most humane way to deal with —and eventually eliminate — the feral cats that have roamed onto his property in north Roeland Park for years. The three were among a dozen he trapped in 2014 alone. The TNR (trap-neuter-return) approach is recommended and encouraged by the Great Plains SPCA, which is one reason Lewis chose that path.

Roeland Park’s animal control ordinance, which was revised earlier this year after considerable discussion, prohibits animals from running at large, but the ordinance specifically exempts “unowned ear-tipped feral cats.” Ear-tipping, taking off the tip of the left ear while the cat is under anesthesia, is the method used to identify a feral cat that has undergone TNR. The ordinance even exempts “unowned” feral cats from the prohibition on feeding.

The municipal court judge, though, ruled in November that because Lewis cared for the animals, he owns them. That ruling, Lewis believes, was “an obvious misinterpretation of the law.” Now he faces a new dilemma. The cats are wild and can’t be brought inside; he can’t even pick them up. But if Lewis stops feeding them, he believes, he will violate other parts of the ordinance against cruelty and abandonment in light of the judge’s ruling.

“I am not going to abandon them and I am not going to drop them off at the river,” Lewis said. (He says the latter option was suggested to him in court).

Several parts of the Roeland Park ordinance specifically exclude “unowned” feral cats from its prohibitions. The language just emphasizes the code’s exclusion, Lewis says, so caregivers aren’t considered owners. “Ear-tipped feral cats don’t neuter and ear-tip themselves,” he said. The section he was charged with violating says “Running at large. It is unlawful for the owner or harborer of any dog or cat to permit such dog or cat to run-at-large within the City at any time… This shall not apply to unowned ear-tipped feral cats.”

Animal control cited Lewis in August, acting on a complaint from a neighbor about the cats. But the cat problem started nearly 20 years ago after Lewis moved into his Juniper Street home. “As long as I have lived here, I have had cats wandering the yard,” he says.

He bought his first trap in 1996 because he “was annoyed by all of the cats on the property.” He estimates that he trapped a dozen and turned them over to animal control.

For many years, Lewis didn’t trap anymore. In 2013 he saw a female feral cat walking down the street followed by a litter of kittens. In 2014, a female had kittens under a shed in his backyard. Last year, he trapped 12 cats in his yard: eight kittens and four adults. Four of the kittens were taken by animal control and four were taken to the SPCA for adoption. Lewis says animal control told him the first trapped adult had to be destroyed. So, he dealt with the last three adults himself.

In the summer of 2014 Lewis decided to TNR the remaining adults so they would not be euthanized. He trapped them, paid for the vaccination and neutering and returned them to the yard. The last adult he actually called for animal control to pick up, he says, but when they didn’t show up, he took it in for TNR. One of the three has since died. Another went missing for a while but has returned. Feeding them, Lewis thought, would keep them healthy and minimize roaming the neighborhood. They don’t damage the yard, Lewis says, “or I wouldn’t tolerate them.”

Lewis will be back in court later this week. Although he was ruled the owner of the cats and found guilty of letting them run loose, the ordinance does not set a penalty. Another court date awaits him to hear the penalty. Once that is determined, Lewis plans to appeal the judge’s ruling to district court.

Northeast Animal Control is supervised though the Mission Police Department. Mission Capt. Dan Madden said if animal control gets a complaint, it has to respond. Each of the cities that animal control serves have different rules. For instance in Fairway, Madden points out, there is no ordinance against cats running loose.

Once the cats have been trapped, Madden says, they can be hard to trap again. Animal control will offer to help trap the cats and take them to Pets Unleashed to be adopted out through the barn cat program. Lewis says he talked with animal control on Friday.

Lewis has some concerns about barn cat programs as a result of conversations with Great Plains SPCA, but says he is willing to trap and turn over the feral cats “to someone who would care for them.”

Feral cats were not the main issue when Roeland Park adopted its new ordinance in January. Pit bulls dominated the discussion for months.