Gretchen Sheehan: Woman's fine for feeding stray cats in Pompano Beach sparks fury
Susannah Bryan, Sun Sentinel
7:22 AM, Jan 9, 2013
12:44 PM, Jan 9, 2013
POMPANO BEACH — Gretchen Sheehan wouldn't dream of letting a cat starve.
So for the past three years, Sheehan, 72, has made the daily trek from her home in Deerfield Beach to neighboring Pompano Beach to feed a group of homeless cats, including two named Cinnamon and Sampson.
She had no clue she was breaking the law.
Sheehan's labor of love netted her a $50 fine when a Pompano Beach animal control officer caught her feeding the cats outside an empty building that used to be a Burger King on Federal Highway in November.
Turns out Pompano Beach has a little-known law prohibiting the feeding of feral cats without a permit and permission of the property owner.
"They depend on the food we bring them," said Sheehan, the only person cited by Pompano Beach last year. "I was devastated. This all happened over feeding some innocent cats. It just blows my mind."
The story, featured last week on WSVN-Ch. 7's "Help Me Howard," has sparked a furor over Pompano's ban on the feeding of stray cats and dogs, city officials say.
"We are not trying to punish people," said David Aycock, one of the city's two animal control officers. "We are trying to help the cats. If you want to feed them, go one step further: Find a home for them."
Palm Beach and Broward counties do not ban the feeding of feral cats, but do encourage people who tend feral colonies to have the cats fixed and vaccinated against rabies.
"If you are going to care for cats, feeding alone is not enough," said Diane Suave, director of Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control.
In Palm Beach County, people who feed feral cat colonies are required to register the colony with the county; sterilize and microchip the animals; and remove and socialize all the kittens.
"You start with two cats and then you have eight, and that's creating chaos in the community," said Lisa Mendheim, spokeswoman for Broward County Animal Care and Adoption. "We try to educate people and tell them the cats should be spayed and neutered. They are basically breeding all year long down here."
Cat colonies are well established in cities throughout South Florida, including Hollywood, where a rescue group oversees a trap-neuter-return program to help keep the numbers under control.
Critics gripe that stray cats are a nuisance, leading to overpopulation and a stench that's hard to ignore. What's more, they say, the "cat ladies" who feed them can wind up attracting a bigger problem, like raccoons and other scavengers.
Bird watcher Ricky Ray worries about the proliferation of cat colonies and their effect on wildlife.
Ray, a onetime Hollywood resident who now lives in Arizona, returned last week to visit friends.
"I took the bike down to the beach," he said. "I could not believe all the cats. The birds don't stand a chance. The cats are going to eat them all."
As the feral cat population has exploded, some cities — including Margate — have shown interest in modeling a stray animal ordinance after the one in Pompano Beach, city spokeswoman Sandra King said.
A year ago, Pompano started setting up hidden video cameras to catch those who feed stray cats when nearby homeowners or businesses complained.
The motion-activated camera came in handy when a woman refused to stop feeding a colony of 30 cats despite at least 25 citations, Aycock said. She finally stopped feeding the animals after being arrested and sent to court on charges she violated several trespass warnings.
"The reason we stepped this up is because we had several business owners that were livid," Aycock said. "She put out all this cat food, and all these birds showed up. They were getting defecation from the birds in an amount that was biblical."
On Nov. 19, Aycock's partner Jason Soldini caught Sheehan feeding the cats in broad daylight after driving up to check on a camera he'd hidden in a bush near the feeding area.
He informed Sheehan she was not allowed to feed the cats. When he realized the city's camera was missing, he searched Sheehan's car. City officials now suspect a second woman who feeds the cats at night may have taken the camera.
If Sheehan were to get caught feeding the cats again, she could face a $100 fine for the second offense, $250 for the third and $500 for additional violations.
Sheehan says she took over feeding duties from a woman who had arranged to have Cinnamon, Sampson and at least two other felines spayed and neutered. Each cat has the telltale notch on its ears showing it's been fixed.
City officials say they intervened only after receiving complaints last October from a nearby business about a colony of about 20 cats.
Before getting a permit in Pompano, the feeder has to seek written permission from the property owner and the consent of adjoining property owners, confine the animals to the feeding site, then sterilize, vaccinate and microchip the animals.
Owners of unaltered cats and dogs also face fines for letting them run loose in Pompano Beach. First-time fines
start at $250 and increase to $500 for subsequent violations.
The crackdown in Pompano Beach shocked Oakland Park Commissioner Suzanne Boisvenue, who referred to the feeding ban as "insane."
Boisvenue was so touched by the tale, she now wants to adopt Cinnamon and Sampson.
But she will have to catch them herself, Pompano officials say, as they are not in the business of trapping cats.
"I would take in these two," said Boisvenue, who already has one cat. "I will take them and provide them with a home."