Council considers licensing of cats Pet lovers, farmers disagree on proposal for fees of $6 to $24


In Howard County, there are suburbanites, and there are farmers. There are those who would save the earth, and those who work it. Those who name their cats, and those who barely count them.

So when the County Council votes tomorrownight on whether to require that cats be licensed as dogs are, they face an issue split along a divide more cultural than political.

The two worlds of Howard county meet in people like Rebecca Tacchetti, a Lisbon mother and former teacher. She is not the suburban picture of a cat owner, with Fluffy happily purring beside the hearth, an easy target for a cat license.

Tacchetti has more than 30 feral cats on her rural property. And she has captured each one -- to get them shots and have them neutered before returning them to the woods behind her house.

Each day, she sets out more than 5 pounds of food for Brownie, Daphne, Pinocchio, Mickey, Cooch, Clarence and others. Many others.

"I just can't sit in my house, enjoy my life and eat my food and watch them scrounge around for food. I just can't," says Tacchetti, who favors cat licensing to control feral colonies. "I'm not sure, but I think God holds things like that against you."

Farmers, on the other hand, are accustomed to thinking of animals in terms of their job on the farm.

"They don't guard. They don't herd cattle," says Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a West Friendship Republican and a farmer. "They're only good for one thing, and that's rodent control."

And just as the cats control the rats, farmers say nature provides its own cat control: foxes. If they fail, farmers know a solution to overpopulation that is cheaper and simpler than licensing.

Feral cats

"The only way to deal with it," says Martha Clark of the Howard County Farm Bureau, "is to collect up all the wild cats and kill them, dispose of them."

Supporters of cat licensing, led by Animal Advocates of Howard County, argue that licensing would do the same job in a far more humane way.

Tomorrow night, the County Council is likely to approve cat licensing by a 3-2 vote, but Republican County Executive Charles I. Ecker says he may veto the bill. Feaga also hopes to soften the blow to farmers by proposing an amendment to

exempt barn cats used primarily for rodent control.

Licensing cats would cost $6 a year for each neutered cat and $24 for each cat that is not neutered. Those who own more than two neutered cats still would pay $12 a year.

The licensing and price structure -- identical to what Howard requires for dogs -- would encourage cat owners to neuter their pets, supporters say. They argue that reducing the number of fertile cats would curb the growth of feral colonies in Howard, particularly along U.S. 1 and U.S. 40.

900 destroyed

Howard County Animal Control has put to death more than 900 feral cats in the past three years, says Animal Advocates. Thousands more roam the county.

It is a public health issue because cats can carry rabies. But supporters of licensing talk more of the brutish, short lives of wild cats -- bred for domesticity, then turned loose to fend for themselves in the wild.

"The first thing I noticed when I moved to Howard County was the horror of so many cats," says Moira Liskovec, a veterinary technician who moved to Ellicott City from England. "There were feral cats everywhere."

She and her daughter decided to save a feral colony living behind the Boston Market restaurant on U.S. 40, catching all 16 and getting them neutered and vaccinated. Twelve now have homes. Liskovec returned the four wildest cats to their old stomping grounds behind the restaurant.

Others make similar efforts. One recent evening, John and Nancy Skillman of West Friendship sat parked in their Toyota Cressida behind a McDonald's on U.S. 40. The brush there is home to another feral colony.

The Skillmans aren't sure cat licensing would help the problem, but they have captured 18 feral cats in the past three years.

That evening, a wiry black cat -- lured by a bowl of food -- crawled into their cage. John Skillman whisked it into his trunk for the trip home, where the cat will begin its rehabilitation and, presumably, a fat, happy life as a pet.

One cat at a time

"We can't solve the world's problems," says Nancy Skillman, "but we know of this one little colony."

Stories of cat rescuers like the Skillmans and Liskovecs amuse many farmers. They say they're happy to share Howard County with people who give their cats names and Christmas stockings and generally treat their pets like furry, four-legged children.

But requiring licenses -- with its related costs and hassles -- crosses the line.

"It's an intrusion of privacy, and an intrusion of the way we've always lived," says Feaga.

Susan Streaker, who plans to leave her West Friendship farm for a new one in Virginia because of creeping suburbia here, says, "We're on a farm. We are into caring for animals, but not in a townhouse-mentality kind of way."

She adds: "The next thing they'll be doing is vaccinating our goldfish."

Pub Date: 4/06/97

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