It’s not clear who, if anyone, owns free-roaming cats or whether people should be held responsible when the outdoor cats they feed cause damage or break laws (for example, the Endangered Species Act or the Migratory Bird Treaty Act) by killing piping plovers or endangered woodrats. There are also conflicting positions on whether cats should legally be considered an invasive species. Some states do, some don’t. The laws of many communities do treat outdoor cats like stray dogs—i.e., as animals that should be picked up and taken to shelters. But in practice, most outdoor cats are left to roam, in part because of the difficulty of determining whether that tabby on the street corner is a stray or someone’s pet. The uncertainty has essentially turned outdoor cats into protected predators, says Nebraska’s Vantassel.
Ani Satz, associate professor at the Emory University School of Law and the Rollins School of Public Health, suggests that a better legal approach would include mandatory—and subsidized—spaying and neutering, rules requiring cats to have collars and be kept inside, efforts to cover dumpsters and eliminate other food sources, and heavy penalties for people who dump animals. “We should be blaming ourselves for this problem,” says Satz. “The legal and policy response has to help both birds and cats, not pit one species against another.”