The Cat's in the Bag

Gracie succumbs to Independence's free cat-trapping program.


Gracie the cat met a lethal dose of pentobarbital before Shauna and Darin Willoughby even knew he was missing.

The way the Willoughbys tell it, Gracie was a charismatic cat who would put his paw on the door to signal that he wanted to go out and would expectantly hold out his face whenever a family member made kissing noises. He would groom the Willoughbys' other animals -- even Minnie, the miniature dachshund.

But Thomas Heinkel, the man who shot the anesthetic into Gracie's heart, tells a different story: Gracie was a vicious, aggressive cat that appeared to be feral. "If they're unmanageable and you can't handle them safely, then they're put down immediately, and that's allowed by state law. We don't take it lightly, but I'm not going to subject my officers or myself to being bit." Heinkel, the Independence animal shelter manager, kills 15 or more animals each day.

But Gracie was in trouble even before Animal Control officers got their hands on him. The Willoughbys' neighbor, Dorothy Vader, an avid bird watcher, would peer out her back window and watch the neighborhood felines stalk the birds that came to her feeder and bird bath. She found bird remains in her yard and decided it was time to do something.

Vader called Animal Control and put her name on a two-week waiting list to borrow a wire-mesh cat trap at no charge. Independence city ordinances require that cat owners keep the animals on their own property and put identification and rabies tags on them. If they don't, Animal Control officers will show their neighbors how to bait traps with food and will then transport trapped animals to the shelter. Heinkel says about 30 people are on the cat-trap waiting list.

"People call up here all the time and say, 'Hey, these cats are coming in my yard, they're using my yard as a litter box, they're killing the birds, they're squalling all night long, they're spraying on my screen door.' So one of our duties is to capture and secure all animals and fowl that are running at large, unrestrained or otherwise, in violation of the city ordinances."

Independence instituted its cat-trapping program more than 10 years ago to deal with large numbers of feral cats and pet cats roaming around, making nuisances of themselves. Lee's Summit has a similar program, but Kansas City, Blue Springs, North Kansas City, and Raytown do not. Heinkel says such measures are necessary to combat the problem of "excess animals" (about 60 million feral cats roam the streets throughout the United States).

According to Missouri regulations on holding periods for animal-care facilities, "any live dog or cat, other than owner-relinquished or feral animals ... acquired by an animal shelter or contract kennel shall be held for a period of not less than five business days before offering for adoption or euthanasia." But Heinkel maintains he did not break the law; he thought Gracie was feral.

And the Willoughbys say they didn't know about the rules. They say cats often remove their own collars and can't be restrained from entering a neighbor's yard unless they're kept inside. Their cat Applesauce still wears no collar.

"I bought her two collars, but she just keeps taking them off," Shauna says. "And besides, she's got a flea allergy, so her neck is kind of irritated and the collar bothers her."

Shauna just hopes she won't have to relive what happened to Gracie. She still gets upset talking about it. It was May 4, a Thursday, and Gracie and Applesauce didn't come home like they usually did at 10 p.m. Shauna and Darin knew something was amiss, and they called all the local animal shelters. The following Tuesday, Darin picked up Applesauce from the Independence shelter. But Gracie's absence was unsettling -- the two cats had been inseparable. That Friday, Shauna visited the shelter a second time and a worker again looked through the handwritten log book. This time the worker found a gray, long-haired, neutered male cat listed as "fractious" that had been "DO" (disposed of). He had come in from the same trap as Applesauce, from the address directly behind the Willoughbys' house.

Shauna called her husband and told him the bad news. He immediately confronted Dorothy Vader. The Willoughbys believe she knew that Gracie was their cat. Darin says his neighbor seemed unremorseful and that she told him owners should keep their animals out of other peoples' yards.

Vader, though, says she was "heartbroken" and no longer has a trap in her yard.

Shauna and Darin now have a kitten named Patches they bought to "replace" Gracie, but it's not the same. And they say Applesauce just sits around and refuses to play with other cats. The Willoughbys say if the city is going to hand out traps to private citizens, it should also provide a registry of trapped cats, a bulletin board, or some other way of reuniting owners with pets that inevitably will be trapped.

Or at least hold them longer. The Humane Society of Missouri, for example, holds all strays for six days. Truly feral cats are sometimes put down after 48 hours, with the director's permission, in compliance with state law. "I don't know why they'd be (killing a pet cat)," says Steve Kaufman, director of adoption for the Humane Society of Missouri in St. Louis. "My cat at home is the nicest cat in the world, but put him in a trap and suddenly he's not going to be the nicest cat in the world anymore. After you've been in this business long enough, you learn to tell the difference between a cat that's feral -- it's wild, it's never had any contact with humans, and it absolutely cannot be tamed -- and a cat that's just upset and mean because it's been cornered. There's a big difference.

"As far as putting the cat down after two hours, I'd question that."

But Heinkel says the cat should have been wearing tags. He says fewer than 5 percent of the cats that are brought in are wearing identification.

"People just don't get it. We try to educate them, we try to get it in the news, but some things you just shouldn't have to tell people about their animals."

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