WEST OCEAN CITY — Several family cats in a quiet West Ocean City neighborhood were recently trapped and later euthanized in a situation one resident characterized as a “massacre,” but county officials this week stood by policy and procedures.
Last week, several cat owners along bucolic Waterview Drive began to notice their family cats, most of which were either adults or elderly and allowed to roam their yards, were missing. After several inquiries and failed attempts to locate the missing animals, the pet owners discovered one of their neighbors had set traps to catch feral cats in the area and that county Animal Control officers had been called to collect the animals.
According to county officials, Animal Control made attempts to determine if the cats were family pets and owned by residents on the street. At least three of the trapped cats, including those owned as family pets, were euthanized a short time later after showing signs of wounds and exhibiting aggressive behavior. According to county officials, policy and procedures were followed closely, but the victims believe the neighbor was wrong to set the traps in the first place and Animal Control acted too quickly to euthanize the animals that were clearly family pets.
Waterview Drive resident Tara Zimmerman said this week her 12-year-old cat went missing and they looked all over the neighborhood for her. The cat spent much of its time indoors, but went out in the yard for a couple of hours each day and typically stayed close to home. Zimmerman said if traps were set in the neighborhood and baited with food, it was likely her cat was drawn in.
“Of course, if they put food in there to lure them in she’s going to be curious,” she said. “Our cat stayed close to home and rarely left the yard, but if they tried to trap her, she was going to get lured in.”
When she contacted neighbor Matt Odachowski, he said his 16-year-old cat had been missing for seven days. At that point, Zimmerman circulated a flyer offering a $100 reward for information about the missing cats. A neighbor contacted her and told her another neighbor had set traps.
Several cats were rounded up, including family pets, and some were later euthanized, including the cats owned by Zimmerman and Odachowski. Zimmerman said she was told Animal Control made an attempt to locate the owners, but didn’t believe an earnest effort to find the cats’ owners were ever undertaken.
“Obviously, they didn’t make much of an effort to contact any of the owners,” she said. “There are only 15 houses on the street and people either owned the cats or knew who they belonged to. These were family pets and most of them were older and tame and wouldn’t hurt anybody or anything. Our cat would just lay in the sun most of the time.”
Odachowski said he was out of town on business for a few days and got a call from his distressed wife about the family’s cat missing. He said the elderly cat had no front claws, barely any teeth and struggled to walk, leading him to believe something had attacked it. When Odachowski got a message from Zimmerman about her cat also missing, he began to consider something or somebody might be attacking family pets in the neighborhood.
Odachowski said he later found out one of the neighbors on the street had been trapping cats and that Animal Control had picked them up.
“I could not believe that a neighbor with approximately 15 houses in the entire Waterview Drive neighborhood could do this without letting the entire neighborhood know,” he said. “I had to find out the truth so I confronted him as he drove down the road. He stopped and we exchanged a few choice words. As a matter of fact, I think I invented a few new ones after he admitted doing so.”
With the origin of the mystery solved, the neighbors turned their focus on the Animal Control to find out the disposition of their pets. Odachowski said Animal Control confirmed the trapping had been going on for a while and that four cats were caught in the neighborhood. Animal Control told another neighbor seven cats had been taken. Odachowski said he personally knew of five missing, so he assumed the seven number he had been told was correct. Odachowski said Animal Control told him one cat was trapped on a Friday and euthanized on a Tuesday.
“That is only four days, including the weekend when they are closed,” he said. “I was then told another cat belonging to a neighbor up the street was actually put down immediately because it was out of control. How can these pets have been taken from a small neighborhood without everyone being notified the trapping was taking place and why were they killed so quickly?”
Odachowski said the entire situation was preventable with some common sense and a modicum of decency.
“The entire event is horrendous,” he said. “From the neighbor that didn’t have the decency to let anyone know that we was going to do this to the Animal Control. There should be some sort of notice given, either a sign put up at the beginning of the neighborhood, notes on doors or even mailed. I believe their policy is to hold the animals 10 days. Well, they did not follow their own policy. This should not be allowed to happen to others and policies and procedures need to be either changed or just followed. All of these pets should not have to die in vain.”
Zimmerman agreed a review of the county’s policy was necessary if only to prevent a similar incident.
“It’s too late for our cats, but if anything good comes out of this, maybe in the future they can let everyone know when they are setting traps and rounding up cats so pet owners can be sure to keep their cats inside. No family should have to go through this,” she said.
After being contacted by a reporter, County Commission President Bud Church said he asked County Administrator Gerry Mason to look into the situation and Mason came back with a report on what had happened on Waterview Drive. According to Mason’s report, Animal Control informed him three cats had been trapped in the neighborhood. The complaining property owner allegedly told the Animal Control field officer on the scene the three cats were feral and not owned by anybody, according to Church. Church said he was informed one of the trapped cats had been taken around the neighborhood to see if it was owned and neighbors responded they didn’t recognize the animal.
Church said Mason said two of the three trapped cats had wounds. According to the Animal Control report acquired by Mason, one of the cats was put down because it was exhibiting aggressive behavior and five days had passed. Another cat, an orange one, was put down immediately because of its wounds and its aggressive behavior. The remaining cat was put down after it exhibited aggressive behavior and damaged the tongs used to remove it from the trap. According to Church, via Mason, none of the cats had collars or any other identification. Church said he was informed with regard to the Odachowski cat, no contact had been made with Animal Control for at least seven days.
Church said that was all he knew about the situation on Waterview Drive, but said he learned through the process just how bad the feral cat problem was in the county.
“I was told Animal Control typically handles as many as 1,200 to 1,300 feral cat cases,” he said. “We have a severe problem in the county with cats and I was shocked when I heard that number.”
The Worcester County Code has a vast section on animal control, impoundment and euthanization, including language that appears to specifically address the Waterview Drive incident. For example, the county code specifically addresses owner notification efforts.
“Any dog or cat which is impounded under the provisions of this subtitle and has not otherwise been disposed of within 15 days after being impounded subject to the provisions hereof may be disposed of in any legal humane way by the Animal Control Warden,” the code reads. “No dog or cat which is licensed hereunder and identifiable as such, except in cases of blatantly vicious animals, shall be destroyed until the Animal Control Warden has made at least two attempts, one of which shall be written, to contact the owner to advise the owner of the impoundment of the animal.”
The county code also includes language prohibiting pet owners to allow their animals to run freely and addresses the 10-day rule mentioned by the victims.
“It shall be unlawful for any person to permit a dog, cat or other animal owned or harbored by him to run at large,” the code reads. “Any such animal running at large may be apprehended by the Animal Control Warden or other designated officer and may be impounded in the animal pound. Any animal so impounded shall be held at the animal pound not less than 10 days unless sooner redeemed by the owner. Any animal presenting symptoms of infectious or communicable disease constituting a health threat to other animals in the pound may be euthanized prior to the expiration of the holding period.”