Biloxi Cat Colony Caretaker Found Guilty of Hoarding Due to Local Ordinance

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A Biloxi, MS woman whose has conducted her  TNR and cat colony feeding operation in cooperation with a city sanctioned program of the Humane Society of South Mississippi, was found guilty of hoarding  in a case where a decision on conflicting laws led to the outcome.

The case is now receiving national attention.

78 year old Dawn Summers, a 50 year resident of the same neighborhood, was found guilty for her responsible caretaking activities and was sentenced by Judge Pro Tem Dean Wilson at a hearing on Tuesday to 100 hours of community service, along with two years probation.

The judge recommended the community service hours be served at HSSM or a similar group. Failure to comply with conditions can result in $1,500 in fines and 90 days in jail.

Ms. Summers was told at sentencing not to interfere with any trap and remove activities by animal control, even though the cats she has cared for have all been spay/neutered and vaccinated.

She is quoted in the Sun Herald saying, “I’ve made donations to the Humane Society to help spay 27 cats so they can be released to live out a normal life span. All I’ve been doing is putting food out for them. My only crimes have been a speeding ticket 25 years ago and a parking ticket 35 years ago. Now a judge tells me I’m guilty of hoarding.”

Ms. Summers received a warning in July for violating the city’s leash laws, and was issued a citation for refusing to allow animal control officers to trap cats on her property. In a trial on October 9, she was found guilty of hoarding for harboring and providing care for a number of cats greater than the city’s 6 pet limit allows. Ms. Summers has cared for up to 27 cats.

The judge said the cats create “unsanitary and unsafe conditions,” and added ” There’s a growing problem in the city with distemper.”

City officials signed an agreement in 2009 that exempts residents from prosecution under the city’s animal laws if they are caring for feral cats released back into the community through the HSSM’s TNR program. However, a city ordinance limiting residents to six domestic animals over the age of 6 was not changed to reflect the agreement.  The city ordinance limiting the number of animals one can care for to 6 trumped the feral caretaker agreement in the hearing held Tuesday.

HSSM has remained supportive of Ms. Summers, and Alley Cat Allies has isued a news release in support of her today. (See statements from both groups below.)

Ms. Summers’ attorney David Crane, who volunteered his services, says he will appeal.  He will raise the following questions with the court; “Whether [the cats] are feral or domesticated cats, and whether the memorandum of understanding is enforceable.”

For a detailed report on the sentencing, see the Sun Herald story.

In a similar case: On November 5, feral and stray cat colony caretaker Annette Betancourt, of Liberty, MO was found guilty of hoarding for feeding and caring for more cats than allowed under local law. See Feral Cat TNR Advocate Found Guilty After Going to Trial to Defend Her Work



The Humane Society of South Mississippi wrote on Monday:

Mrs. Dawn Summers, 78, of Biloxi,  thought she was doing a great thing when she enrolled in the Humane Society of South Mississippi’s Trap-Neuter-Return (T-N-R) program. The program seemed like a dream come true for Summers, who lived in a neighborhood that many stray and feral cats called home. Through the program, each of these cats could be humanely trapped, spayed or neutered to eliminate future population explosions, vaccinated against rabies, and returned to their original location—all for FREE.

The program seemed the perfect solution to the problem—these cats got to live out their days and would no longer multiply and further the issues that feral and stray cats generally cause.

Mrs. Summers is the epitome of a good feral colony manager—the cats too wild to touch and yet she showed them compassion and care in the only way they understood—through food.

Now, just a few short months after having several cats fixed and vaccinated through HSSM’s T-N-R program, Mrs. Summers has been accused of violating leash laws and hoarding—simply because she feeds feral cats and refuses to allow Animal Control to trap cats on her property to be destroyed.

The Biloxi Municipal Court asked Mrs. Summers to allow Animal Control to trap the cats so that they could be euthanized, but Mrs. Summers refused to take this action.

“I can’t have their blood on my hands,” said a teary Mrs. Summers during a conversation with HSSM officials, “I can’t have these cats trapped on my property in order to be destroyed. And I guess that means I’m going to jail.”

Representatives of the national feral cat organization, Alley Cat Allies, claim they have never heard of a feral colony manager being prosecuted for hoarding—as ferals are outdoor and tend to come and go as they please.

In addition to the moral outrage that the idea of trap-and-kill methods of feral cat population control brings about, prosecuting Mrs. Summers in conjunction with her efforts as part of HSSM’s T-N-R program is in direct violation of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the City of Biloxi and HSSM pertaining to the T-N-R program.

This MOU, proposed by Mayor A.J. Holloway and adopted by City Council on August 18,2009 clearly states that representatives of HSSM exempt from violations of the ordinances the court is claiming Mrs. Summers is in violation of. In fact, this MOU goes even further, stating that the City of Biloxi understands and has considered that “Other methods of controlling feral cats, such as trap and kill or trap and relocate, have proven to be ineffective” and “[Trap, Neuter, Return (TNR)] is the only effective long-term solution to the feral cat problem.” Read the full MOU here.

UPDATE 12/11/12, 12:00pm

Mrs. Summers was sentenced to 100 hours of community service for Hoarding during this morning’s hearing concerning the estimated 20+ cats she cares for and has had fixed through HSSM’s Trap-Neuter-Return program.

The judge found that these cats are NOT feral and that they are, indeed, domesticated animals, thus Mrs. Summers was in violation of the city’s ordinance which states that no one is to own more than 6 domestic animals within the City.

The judge, in a separate move, ordered the cats to be trapped and removed.

Please stay tuned as more details are released. We are working on implementing the best long-term strategy for Mrs. Summers and they cats she cares for.

Mrs. Summers was touched by the show of support both in the courtroom and online.

Alley Cat Allies wrote today:

Mississippi woman sentenced to 100 hours of community service for caring for cats

BETHESDA, MD— Alley Cat Allies, the only national advocacy organization dedicated to the protection and humane treatment of cats, today expressed disappointment at the recent conviction of a 78-year-old Biloxi woman apparently based on the mistaken belief by Judge Pro Tem Dean Wilson that her longtime participation in a sanctioned Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) program for feral cats was a “hoarding” situation.

Despite testimony noting that Biloxi resident Dawn Summers had participated in a TNR program established through the Humane Society of South Mississippi, the judge convicted her of the hoarding charge and sentenced her to 100 hours of community service.

“This conviction is a travesty,” said Becky Robinson, president and co-founder of Alley Cat Allies. “Ms. Summers had been working within a city-approved program, providing an extremely valuable community service by ensuring that feral cats in her neighborhood were neutered and vaccinated, and stabilizing the population.

“The judge in this case made a grave error by fundamentally misunderstanding TNR. Ms. Summers does not ‘own’ these cats – their natural home is the outdoors and they were living on the property even before she was. She was not ‘hoarding’ them, but helping them,” said Robinson. “We stand behind Ms. Summers and others in her community who want the city’s TNR ordinance fixed so that misunderstandings like this can never happen again.”

Robinson noted that TNR is the only humane and effective approach to feral cats in any community, because feral cats are not socialized to people, cannot be adopted into homes, and are almost always killed in animal pounds or shelters.

In a TNR program, cats are humanly trapped and taken to a veterinary clinic, where they are spayed or neutered and vaccinated for rabies. A small portion of their left ear is removed (called an “eartip”) to identify the cats as part of a TNR program. Any tame cats or young kittens are fostered for adoption.


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