Q: My tenant just moved away and left an older cat behind. He says she’s not his but he’s been feeding her every single day for the past several years. He’d even asked me to feed her while he was out of town so I know he’d been caring for her. But now he wants nothing to do with this cat and I’m left to take care of her. Is there an animal neglect law that can be used against people who do things like this?
A: The short answer is “No. There is no animal neglect law that applies to cases like these.” The long answer may be more nuanced, but it’s no less crucial for those who feed cats to understand:
Cats are highly territorial creatures of habit. They lay claim to their territories deliberately, carefully selecting and defending areas where a consistent food source can be claimed for their own. When a food source suddenly disappears, especially when they’re older, their very existence is threatened. The chances that they’ll find a sustainable, consistent food source is limited.
Sure, most healthy feral cats are capable of finding their own wild-caught food. But once cats become territorially adapted to a colony or to a household (out of doors though it may be), it becomes difficult for the domesticated cat to re-adapt to or come to learn a new way of living where finding food requires new skills.
The upshot: Abandoning a cat after feeding it for years constitutes animal neglect, regardless of what the law says. Since it’s hard to prove that an animal is being abandoned and because there are bigger fish to fry when it comes to animal cruelty, you can forget about prosecution.
Here’s an example that proves my point: Those who leave dogs and cats behind when they evacuate for a storm are almost never prosecuted. Though Florida threatened to prosecute offenders after Irma, I’ve yet to hear about a specific animal cruelty charge.
Given this kind of lax enforcement, what are the chances that someone who leaves a cat behind will be prosecuted? After all, they’re likely to claim to be nothing short of noble for feeding a stray cat for all those years.
Make no mistake, however: If you feed a cat, she’s yours. She’s yours to sterilize and treat when sick or injured. In sum: Don’t feed a cat if you can’t commit to her. Period.