Feral cat supporters appeal zoning ruling, circulate petition on behalf of Osolo Township couple

Chris and James Conklin of Osolo Township have been told they need to reduce the number of cats on their property or potentially face legal action.

Posted on July 9, 2014 at 10:13 a.m.

Feral cat advocates are fighting a zoning ordinance decision because they fear it will have dire consequences for the county’s free-roaming feline population.

Since November, Chris and James Conklin of Osolo Township have been warned twice via written notice that they’re in violation of a zoning ordinance that prohibits county residents from keeping more than five domestic animals on residential property without being considered a kennel.

The animals in question are feral cats that the couple feed, give water to and occasionally shelter at their property on Ideal Beach. The letters came after a complaint was made.

What’s is a feral cat?
  • A feral cat is born and raised in the wild, or has reverted to wild ways in order to survive after being abandoned or lost.
  • Some feral cats tolerate some human contact, but most are too fearful and wild to be handled. 
  • Feral cats usually live in groups called colonies and take shelter wherever they can find food, like rodents, other small animals and garbage. 
Source: The ASPCA

Now, with the help of an attorney, the Conklins and the Elkhart County Feral Cat Coalition (ECFCC) are appealing the zoning ordinance decision and they’re circulating a petition to gather public support before a public hearing Aug. 21.

The conflict

The ordinance states that a kennel is defined as when more than five dogs, cats or other household domestic animals over six months of age are kept on a property; if there are more than two such animals kept for breeding, boarding or training for compensation; if more than two such animals are kept and offered for sale.

The Conklins’ situation is considered a kennel because a varying number of cats are being fed and there’s a certain amount of control that can be exercised over them.

At least, that’s according to a letter sent to the couple May 30 from Brian Mabry, county zoning administrator. 

The appeal filed in late June argues, among other things, that feral cats can’t be considered domestic because they’re wild by nature and aren’t kept on the property or owned by the Conklins.

“Wild animals are not owned property, so it’s impossible for them to be able to monitor their activities at any given time,” said Chris Bralick, president of the ECFCC.

Chris Godlewski, director of planning and development, said in May that the zoning ordinance only defines two classifications of animals—domestic and agricultural.

The appeal also argues that caring for feral cat colonies is not a land use issue and that the zoning ordinance conflicts with the county’s animal control ordinance.

That ordinance says colony caretakers “shall not be considered nor deemed to be the owner of the free-roaming cats cared for in the colony.”

The county has also not provided solid evidence that the Conklins have kept more than five cats on their property at one time, the appeal argues.

“Affects everybody in the county”

The ECFCC and its members, including the Conklins as of this spring, use the Tag-Neuter-Release (TNR) method. This involves neutering feral cats, tagging their ears and releasing them back into the wild.

The goal of TNR is to keep feral cat populations under control.

Bralick and other coalition members worry that the outcome of the hearing could set a precedent that makes it difficult for colony caretakers in the county to use the TNR method without interference.

The ECFCC is circulating a petition, available at the Elkhart County Humane Society and coalition meetings. It reiterates the points made in the appeal. 

"If they’re able to regulate people feeding wild animals, that affects everybody in the county, not just the colony caretakers,” Bralick said.

In May, Elkhart County Commissioner Mike Yoder downplayed the potential consequences of the ruling, saying zoning code enforcement is mostly driven by complaints.

The Conklins, the ECFCC and their attorney will go before the Elkhart County Board of Zoning Appeals at 8:30 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 21, at the Department of Public Services, 4230 Elkhart Road, Goshen.

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