ELKHART — Local feral cat caretakers and advocates scored a victory Thursday afternoon, Aug. 21, after a decision made by the Elkhart County Board of Zoning Appeals.
After nearly two hours of public comment and deliberation, the three present members of board voted unanimously in favor of an appeal to a zoning ordinance enforcement made in late 2013.
Unchallenged, the enforcement would’ve required feral cat caretakers in unincorporated Elkhart County to apply for special permits in order to continue their operations — an obstacle that would’ve dealt a blow to ongoing efforts to reduce the feral cat population, advocates argued Thursday.
Between November 2013 and June 2014, Chris and James Conklin of Osolo Township received several warnings from county code enforcement stating they were 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 gives food, water and occasional shelter to at their single-family property on Ideal Beach.
The warnings were sparked by complaints from a neighbor, according to county officials.
With the help of the Elkhart County Feral Cat Coalition (ECFCC) and lawyer Andrew Hicks, the Conklins’ filed an appeal to the zoning decision in June.
In a letter sent to the Conklins in May, county zoning administrator Brian Mabry wrote that their situation was considered a kennel in the eyes of the zoning ordinance because a varying number of cats were being fed, and there’s a certain amount of control that could be exercised over them.
The zoning 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.”
Mabry said Thursday that multiple code enforcement inspections found there to be up to nine cats present on the property at one time.
He also said feral cats are, by the dictionary definition, considered domestic since they are of the same species as household cats.
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
This interpretation of the ordinance “opens the door to an absurd result,” Hicks argued Thursday. He compared feeding feral cats to putting up birdhouses.
“I think common sense tells you feeding birds does not make you an aviary,” he said.
(The appeal documents can be read in full below this story.)
Presentations in favor of the appeal were given Thursday by Chris Conklin; Chris Bralick, ECFCC president; Deb Snell, ECFCC vice president; Anne Reel, director of the Humane Society of Elkhart County; and a member of the public.
No comments were made in opposition to the appeal.
While each person gave their own perspective on the situation, there was a resounding message — upholding the initial enforcement would make it harder to reduce Elkhart County’s feral cat population.
In April, the ECFCC helped establish the Conklins as feral cat colony caretakers and assisted them in employing the Tag-Neuter-Release (TNR) method, which 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. Since 2010, the use of TNR in Elkhart County has reduced the local feral cat population from 3,100 to 1,900, Reel said Thursday.
“A can of worms”
In the end, Mabry’s arguments weren’t enough to uphold his initial decision.
Present board members Robert Homan, Meg Wolgamood and Lori Snyder all voted in favor of the Conklins’ appeal, eliciting cheers from the nearly 60-member audience, about half of which indicated earlier by a show of hands that they were caretakers of feral cat colonies.
Board members Randy Hesser and Tony Campanello were not present. Had Thursday’s vote not been unanimous among the three present members, a decision would’ve been delayed.
"I personally don’t think that [feral cats] fit the definition of the kind of animal that we’re talking about in a kennel. I think they’re outside the ordinance,” Robert Homan, board member, said before motioning to overturn the initial zoning decision.
There was some initial hesitation by Wolgamood, who expressed concern for the neighbors of feral cat colony caretakers but ultimately decided that initial ruling would’ve “opened up a can of worms.”
Had the decision gone the other way, Reel said it would have torn the ECFCC apart.
Now, the coalition can continue caring for feral cats without limitations or fear of repercussions, she said.
Bralick, who has been actively involved in the case, said she was relieved and happy with the decision.
"If we were denied the appeal, then we would’ve had to get together with the attorney and discuss our next steps if we wanted to file in court,” she said.
Chris Conklin and her husband plan to continue caring for feral cats, just as they’ve done on their property for the past two decades.
Chris and James Conklin’s appeal to the Elkhart County Zoning Board