When Nadine Rund's cats first went missing, she scoured the alleys around her Armory Park house. Then she dispatched a worried e-mail to neighbors.
Her concerns were well-founded. Strange things had been happening to Armory Park cats of late. A kitten, apparently drowned, had been found in a trash receptacle not far away. Several doors beyond that, another pet cat was discovered dead by the street, its face agonized, its death mysterious.
Rund's two cats, which she'd had for a decade, were both feral by varying degrees, and both were fixed. Now she wondered where they might have wandered, in this downtown neighborhood marked by Victorian homes, dense shrubbery and a thriving population of semi-wild felines.
A few days after their disappearance, she found her likely answer, and posted it on the neighborhood Listserv: "Sadly, I believe I may have learned the fate of my two missing cats, George and William," she wrote. "They seem to have been the victims of a neighbor's plan to trap and dispose of un-neutered feral cats."
Both animals were apparently euthanized by the Pima Animal Care Center before Rund had a chance to claim them.
Scott Denton traps Armory Park cats and trundles them to the Animal Care Center. To be clear, no one suggests that he had any involvement with the earlier cat deaths. But his timing is unfortunate, given the tense atmosphere those incidents created. Rund is now convinced that Denton captured her two cats and hauled them to their doom, saying the dates of their disappearances coincide with Denton's recent trapping trips. "There's no doubt in my mind," she says.
Denton readily admits to his cat-trapping, and cites intense frustration with a large feral population. "My line of reasoning is that I have a pest problem," he says, "which is akin to if I had rats or any other kind of animal problem on my property.
"You trap a cat, and the urination stops," he says. "There's a fairly reasonable assumption that was the cat that urinated on your porch. So you've eliminated a problem."
Still, he doesn't believe that he actually trapped Rund's cats. Instead, he dismisses her allegations as "overblown" and coming from a neighbor who "spreads all kinds of gossip, because she has nothing better to do."
While Scott Denton won't be short-listed for Humanitarian of the Year (his other urban enemies include pigeons, or "flying vermin"), he has sparked a ferocious but perhaps overdue neighborhood debate over the handling of feral cats.
Armory Park is not alone. Across the country, communities are grappling with persistent feral-cat populations. On one hand are those who propose trapping, neutering and returning animals to their territory. On the other are people who argue that permanent removal is most proficient, particularly when some cat-keepers refuse to have their animals fixed.
In the meantime, this Armory Park scuffle has also revealed a few common misconceptions. Among them is one that may prove criminal.
Under the law, feeding a feral cat for several days can confer ownership. By turn, the trapping of that cat by someone else could be considered theft.
"I think it's prosecutable, if the person committed it with intent," says Stephanie Nichols-Young, a Phoenix attorney and board member with the Arizona State Bar Animal Law Section. Intent infers that cat trappers such as Denton "have reason to know that the cats are their neighbors' cats," she says.
This definition would even include felines from the troublesome feral colony cited by Denton--a colony cared for by another of his neighbors.
One common way to detect ownership is by checking whether the cat has been neutered, a step Denton says he didn't take. "When you pick up the cage to put it in a vehicle to go to animal control, the cat is insane. There is no way for someone who traps a cat, which is a nuisance on their property, to check and see whether the cat is spayed and neutered. ... The cat is bonkers in the cage. I'm not going to put my hand in there."
But according to Nichols-Young, signs of ownership can also be as simple as noticing whether a cat appears groomed or well-fed. "If there are specific facts that would lead someone who is trapping cats to know or have reason to know that this is probably an owned cat, I think there is a prosecutable theft," she says.
Further complicating matters, the Pima Animal Care Center advises callers to trap pesky cats on their property and bring them in. And if someone shows up with a trapped cat, center workers won't just send them away. "We don't know if that person will take the animal to the desert or whatever," says center spokeswoman Vicki Ann Duraine. "At least we know that the outcome will be more gentle here."
Beyond that, the center isn't equipped to determine who may or may not own a feral-appearing cat, according to Duraine. Even attempting to scan for ID markers such as microchips can be a daunting task for harried staffers. "Cats are extraordinarily shy animals," she says, "and even domesticated cats that come in here might be thought to be feral, because they get so defensive."
Still, it's unclear what legally justifies euthanizing a cat in the first place. Unlike dogs, they are not regulated, says Nichols-Young. "Cat owners are not required to license their cats. They're not required to put them on a leash or contain them. ... They're basically allowed to run free.
Another misconception: Removing individual animals solves feral-colony problems. Instead, it could simply perpetuate the situation or even make it worse, according to Alley Cat Allies, a national organization working to protect feral cats. Trapping cats from a colony "creates a vacuum," says Allies spokeswoman Elizabeth Parowski, "because the surviving cats will breed to back to capacity."
Instead, she touts conscientiously capturing, neutering and returning animals as the best way to reduce a colony's size over time. "But it is a hot debate," she says. "Millions of Americans love cats so much."
Count Nadine Rund among them. Rund says George and William were like her children. "I feel just empty now. ... William was always in his place, and George was in his. And when I went to bed, George would be by my window, and I would go out, and we'd have a little game of keep-away."
As for William, he was a scaredy cat. "By the time they would have gotten him to Animal Care," says Rund, "he wouldn't have stood a chance."