Sentence delayed in Roeland Park feral cat case; animal control has offered to help resolve issue, Lewis says

Steven Lewis outside Roeland Park Municipal Court Friday morning.
Steven Lewis outside Roeland Park Municipal Court Friday morning.

Steven Lewis went to Roeland Park city court again this morning and left without being fined for presumably being the owner of feral cats that have taken up residence on his property.

Municipal Judge Karen Torline decided to delay sentencing since Lewis told her in court this morning that Northeast Johnson County Animal Control had agreed to guarantee that the cats will not be euthanized and will pay the fees if they are turned over to Pets Unleashed to find a new home.

“Why don’t we defer sentencing,” the judge said.

When Lewis asked Torline to restate her reasons for finding that he is the owner of the cats, the judge told him it was because he is caring for them and feeding them. “You are harboring them,” Torline said. After a November trial, the judge ruled that Lewis was the owner of the feral cats and was guilty of violating the Roeland Park animal control ordinance which prohibits allowing dogs or cats to “run-at-large” in the city.

The ownership ruling was key because that section of the ordinance also states that “This shall not apply to unowned ear-tipped feral cats.” Ear-tipping is the method used to identify a feral cat that has been trapped, neutered, vaccinated and returned to the colony (TNR). Lewis has trapped dozens of feral cats on his property over the last 20 years and many have been removed by animal control. In 2014, he trapped three remaining adults for TNR so they would not be euthanized. It is the method recommended by the SPCA to humanely reduce the feral cat population.

Prosecutor Frank Gilman suggested no sentence would be recommended if Lewis come back to court and says the cats have been removed. Lewis will be back in court on Jan. 22. The judge said she was concerned that the cats are running loose. “Maybe if we resolve that (we) can end this case.”

Since Lewis’s story was first told on Monday, several events have unfolded. One of the three cats that Lewis trapped in 2014 for TNR had been missing since October. He was an older male and Lewis presumed he had died. But Wednesday, he showed up back in the yard with significant weight loss and injuries that indicate to Lewis he was attacked by a dog.

Lewis called animal control and he and Officer Brenda Bettis trapped the cat. Animal control took it to a veterinarian for treatment and then to Pets Unleashed with a promise, Lewis said, that it will not be euthanized. Animal control is paying all the fees, Lewis said. He checked on the cat Thursday and took over a case of food for it. The hope is that Pets Unleashed will find someone to take it in.

“Somebody is trapping them and dumping them,” Lewis said of the cats. Another one of the three had disappeared for a while and showed up again under weight this fall. Lewis said when he saw a third cat in the yard Wednesday his thought was, “oh, no, not another cat.” He didn’t recognize the returning cat at first because of its condition.

The two instances have convinced Lewis that the cats are being dumped, but then finding their way back to the colony at his house. “You can see the consequences. It’s not pleasant for the cats,” Lewis said, referring to how battered they are when they return.

Animal control, Lewis said, wants him to trap the remaining cats take them to Pets Unleashed and has promised to pay the fees. Animal control cited Lewis for allowing the cats to run loose in the yard last August, acting on a complaint. Lewis said animal control had known for a full year that the TNR cats were in the yard – with no citations – before he was taken to court.

“It relieves me of the responsibility of caring for them,” Lewis said of the offer from animal control, “plus now I know someone in the neighborhood is trapping and dumping them.” That is a solution the judge suggested in November, he said.

Lewis still considers the judge’s ruling to be in error. ”People I’ve spoken with agree that this is not a reasonable interpretation,” Lewis said. Her ruling that he owned the cats is exactly why ear-tipped feral cats are excluded from the ordinance, Lewis said. “Based on her logic, there would be no ‘unowned’ ear-tipped cats and there is no point in having all of those sentences added on (the multiple exclusions in the ordinance for unowned ear-tipped feral cats).”

Lewis is considering asking the city council to amend the ordinance to make it clear that the ear-tipped cats are unowned, perhaps by removing the word “unowned.” Lewis has maintained that he was doing the right thing to address the feral cat problem that has plagued his north Juniper neighborhood for decades, but ended up in court for his efforts.

Judge Torline noted Friday morning that Lewis had indicated plans to appeal the guilty verdict to Johnson County District Court, but that appeal cannot be made until after he is sentenced. The Friday court proceedings indicate that he may never be sentenced.