Swinging a dead cat law | City | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Swinging a dead cat law

What difference do four absent councillors make? A heck of a lot, finds Erica Butler.

On October 16, HRM councillors finally closed the books on years of debate about whether or not to take a stab at regulating cats in the municipality. In a close 11 to nine vote, councillors decided to start treating cats a lot like they treat dogs, requiring their owners to register them and control their movements. The new so-called "cat by-law" is actually By-Law A-300, Respecting Animals, what city staff call a "harmonized" by-law, replacing eight older laws and ordinances covering everything from pythons to poodles.

Four councillors were unable to vote on October 16. Councillors Steve Streatch and Gary Meade were away at other meetings and Bedford councillor Gary Martin was disqualified after missing the public hearing due to medical reasons. (Council rules dictate that you have to hear all the public has to say on an issue before being allowed to vote on it.) Woodside-Eastern Passage's Becky Kent was busy resigning from Council so she could take up her newly won post as provincial MLA.

With four councillors out of commission for a close vote on a contentious issue, the Coast couldn't help but wonder, what if? If a full council had been available to vote on October 16, would the so-called cat by-law still have won the stamp of approval?

As it turns out, probably not. Steve Streatch, Gary Meade and Gary Martin have all stated they would have voted against the by-law, or at least the inclusion of cats in it. Former councillor Becky Kent won't say how she would have voted. Though she didn't formally resign until October 23, the same day the by-law was approved, Kent says she hadn't decided the issue before she left her seat at City Hall. But regardless of Kent's vote, the three absent "nays" would have already turned the outcome around, with 11 for the new by-law as is, cats and all, and 12 against. "My position was to vote the by-law in but hold back," says councillor Gary Martin, citing staff comments that HRM is just not ready to take on a cat registry. "I'd like to see the law passed and have the cat part put on hold until staff have demonstrated they have the dog portion down pat."

Steve Streatch says he is already getting calls from constituents complaining about the prospect of having to register their cats. In rural Musquodoboit, says Streatch, "to think that you can corral cats up and have them registered and behave in a similar matter to dogs...it's unrealistic."

"I think we need to identify clearly what the problem is. I don't think the problem is that there are cats that are unregistered. I think it is that there are a few people who have no control over their property or animals and are allowing them to cause difficulty for their neighbours. And of course that needs to be dealt with, but you don't paint everyone in HRM with the same brush, so now you've all got to spend money to register your cat and then build this great big facility to house them. I just think it's over the top."

Money may end up being what kills the cat registry. Although it's an approved by-law, actual implementation can't happen without some budget-time considerations, including council-approved money to build a cat shelter to house offending cats. "I don't see spending $1.5 million for structure," says Gary Meade, "plus another million or so for implementing it." Citing the city's low compliance rate with the dog registry, Meade says there just won't be enough revenue to cover the costs, even with a $10 to $30 charge for registrations. "We're going to get $100,000 back," says Meade, "and we're going to spend $2.5 million? That doesn't sound too business-wise to me."

Erica Butler is a Halifax writer with a deep admiration for cats, even though she’s really more of a dog person.

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