Trying to make stealing a cat a felony

January 15, 2008 4:17:08 AM PST
Achieving equality for cats isn't as easy as it sounds. State Delegate Jennifer McClellan found that out Monday when a legislative panel wrangled over a proposal to make stealing a cat a felony - the same as for swiping a dog.

Unable to find a solution, the chairman designated a couple of members to work on the bill with McClellan, the Richmond Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Virginia Farm Bureau and bring it back for a future meeting.

McClellan, a Richmond Democrat, opened her pitch for the legislation with a disclaimer: "I do not now, nor have I ever, owned a cat."

But for people who do love their cats as much as dog owners adore their pets, she said, Virginia law is unfair. Stealing a cat is a misdemeanor, punishable by as much as a year in jail. Dognappers can get as many as 10 years.

"All I'm trying to do is have the law reflect that if you steal a dog or steal a cat, the punishment should be the same," McClellan told the House Courts of Justice subcommittee.

Supporters of the bill are informally calling it "Ernie's Law" in honor of the kitten whose ordeal inspired the legislation.

Ernie was abducted from the Richmond SPCA's shelter last summer. Robin Starr, the organization's chief executive, said in an interview that two men asked to visit the kitten before possibly adopting it. One man put the cat under his shirt, and they walked out.

An SPCA worker got their license plate number, and the car was tracked down. The SPCA pressed charges, but the prosecutor decided the misdemeanor wasn't worth pursuing after the defendant failed to appear for arraignment.

Starr said that she had no idea why the gray and white kitten was stolen, but that cats sometimes are taken to use as dogfighting bait.

Subcommittee members wrestled with such issues as whether to add other pets, including hamsters and parakeets, to the felony statute and the notion that the law treats cats differently because many are feral.

Lindsay Potts, a lobbyist for the Farm Bureau, said the organization doesn't want Virginians subjected to a felony if they feed a cat that wanders onto their property and decides to stay.

Although Ernie got no justice, his story had a happy ending. Starr contacted the thief and persuaded him to return the kitten, which was sick and needed prescription medication. They met at a Richmond junkyard to make the exchange.