Published in The Baltimore Sun, September 4, 2014.

Stephanie, safe with Feral Friends Network member Rude Ranch Animal Rescue. Other cats in Anne Arundle County aren't so lucky.

Stephanie, safe with Feral Friends Network member Rude Ranch Animal Rescue. Other cats in Anne Arundle County aren’t so lucky.

The first day of school can be scary for little ones, and for Stephanie it was traumatic. A small tortoiseshell cat with tiny white toes, Stephanie as she has been nicknamed by the shelter now caring for her created a flurry of news stories and speculation over the Labor Day weekend after she got lost inside a local school.

Richard Henry Lee Elementary in Glen Burnie treated her kitty sighting with the severity of a bomb threat, choosing to evacuate students and close at 9:45 a.m. on Friday of last week, after a teacher caught a glimpse of Stephanie loose without a hall pass. Dubbed a “feral cat” early on, animal control was called in to apprehend Stephanie and more than likely, do what Anne Arundel animal control does with feral cats kill her.

Despite the nationwide trend toward progressive animal sheltering policies on feral cats also called community cats Anne Arundel County is a hold out, and that could be bad news for Stephanie. Upon entering the shelter system in Baltimore City or even the District of Columbia, Stephanie would be part of a Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) program. She would be trapped, spayed and vaccinated, eartipped to identify she was in fact spayed and vaccinated and returned to her outdoor home in the community.

But in places without TNR programs, like Anne Arundel, most cats that display “feral-like” behaviors fear or skittishness are destined for death. If, heaven forbid, your sweet lap cat Whiskers escapes from your home and is picked up by animal control, don’t you think she, too, would be terrified? Held in a steel cage for the mandatory holding period, dogs barking in the next room, and lots of poking and prodding from shelter staff and volunteers would Whiskers make it out alive? Is it right to condemn a cat to death for being frightened?

Many animal shelters have recognized the futility and cruelty of the endless cycle of killing cats and are looking for ways to save more cats. That means changing policies like the ones in Anne Arundel County.

It’s tragic that because Stephanie lives in Anne Arundel County, she could be killed instead of being able to live out her natural, healthy life outdoors. Just last year the county shelter killed 1,007 feral cats, and it doesn’t look like there are any plans to stop the killing. If your heart sinks to think about little Stephanie, think of the thousand cats who will lose their lives this year and speak up on behalf of all the cats in your community. The policies the county clings to are outdated, and other shelters are abandoning them as cruel and ineffective. Ask Anne Arundel County to join the thousands of other communities that have embraced TNR programs and other policies that protect cats’ lives.

So what will happen to Stephanie? She could get lucky. With all the media attention her story has garnered, the shelter is fielding multiple adoption inquiries. They say they’re holding Stephanie for observation to determine if she’s adoptable. Even if she’s deemed “feral,” her fame will likely save her. They will find her a barn home where she can live out her days in peace. No shelter wants to be known as the “cat killing” shelter even though they continue to kill the other cats that don’t grab headlines.

Stephanie’s visit to an Anne Arundel school has to become a teachable moment. When our animal shelters are doing more killing than sheltering, it’s clear they’ve lost sight of their mission to serve the community and protect animals. I truly hope Stephanie lives through her brush with fame, but soon she won’t be in the news anymore, and the sad truth will remain that Anne Arundel County is not a safe place for cats. Until the citizens speak up and demand that their tax dollars go toward protecting instead of killing, nothing will change.