Cats and laws

A similar decision was rendered in the sheriff’s court at Perth, Scotland, in the late seventies. The cat had killed the plaintiff’s pigeon on a neighbour’s premises. The learned sheriff in his decision said:

“It was quite legitimate for the plaintiff to keep a pigeon, but just as much so for the defendant to keep a cat. The latter is more a domestic animal than a pigeon. But there are no obligations on the owner of a cat to restrain it to the house. The plaintiff’s plea is that the natural instinct of the feline race is to prey on birds as well as mice. So it was argued that the owner of the cat should prevent the possibility of its coming into contact with its favourite sport. But it is equally true that the owner of a bird should exercise similar precaution to prevent its coming within the range of a hostile race. If the defendant’s cat had trespassed into the plaintiff’s house or aviary where the bird was secured, there might be ground for finding the owner of the cat liable for the consequences of its being at large. With parity of reason had the bird intruded itself upon the territory of the cat and there had been slain, there could have been no recourse because the owner of the bird should have prevented its escape. In the present case it appears that both the quadruped and the winged animal were in trespass on neutral territory. It was the duty of the plaintiff to take the guardianship of the bird said to be so valuable and therefore both owners are equally to blame and the case must be viewed as arising from natural law, for which neither owner without culpa can be answerable. The defendant being at first not sympathetic with the loss of the plaintiff, but rather put him at defiance, and forced him to prove it was the defendant’s cat who slew his bird, the defendant will be acquitted but without costs.” In fact, Harrison Weir (“Our Cats and All About Them,” p. 207) Quotes an “Articled Clerk” writing in “The Standard” with regard to the illegality of killing cats: “It is clearly laid down in ‘Addison on Torts,’ that a person is not justified in killing his neighbour’s cat, which he finds on his land, unless the animal is in the act of doing some injurious act which can only be prevented by its slaughter. And it has been decided by the case of ‘Townsend v. Watken,’ 9 last 277, that if a person sets on his lands a trap for foxes, and baits it with such strong-smelling meat as to attract his neighbour’s cat on to his land, to the trap, and such animal is thereby killed or injured, he is liable for the act, though he had no intention of doing it, and though the animal ought not to have been on his land.”

In Maine it has been decided that the cat is a domestic animal within the jurisdiction of the statute which provides that “any person may lawfully kill a dog which … is found worrying, wounding, or killing any domestic animal, when said dog is outside of the inclosure or immediate care of its owner and keeper.” The plaintiff sued the defendant, alleging that he had killed a valuable foxhound belonging to him, and the defendant replied that he had killed it because the dog was chasing and worrying his cat. The court held that this was sufficient justification and gave an exhaustive view of the law as to felines. ( “The cat a ‘domestic animal’ and ‘property’: “The American Law Review” ; Vol. 49, p. 917.) Ingham cites a Canadian case in which the judge decided: “A person may have property in a cat and therefore an action will lie to recover damages for killing it. There may be circumstances under which it would be justifiable to kill a cat; but it is not justifiable to do so merely because it is a trespasser, even though after game.”

In another case the owner of a cat was not held liable to the owner of a canary bird killed by it, the court considering that cats to some extent “may be regarded as still undomesticated and their predatory habits are but a remnant of their wild nature.”
(John H. Ingham: “The Law of Animals.” )

But an Attorney -General of the State of Maryland, evidently no felinophile, handed down a decision which was a cruel blow to the owners of cats. A certain citizen of Baltimore (I hope this was not Mencken) stole a fine maltese cat from a neighbour, who had him arrested for theft. When the case came up for trial the prisoner’s counsel entered the plea that it was impossible for any one to steal a cat, as that animal is not property, and that to take forcible possession of a feline, even though it be a pet and wear a ribbon and answer to its name, is not a legal offense. (Gertrude B. Rolfe: “The Cat in Law” ; “North American Review” ; Vol. 160, p. 251.). The astonishing judge held the argument to be good and the more astonishing Attorney -General, to whom the case was appealed, agreed with him. The latter in his formal opinion, declared that the cat is really nothing but a wild animal, that it is of no use to man, and that the taking of a cat without the owner’s consent is not an indictable offence. Since this extraordinary decision was rendered cat-owners with pussy-baskets have been seen leaving Baltimore on every train. Cats themselves, however, have as yet entered no objection to the decree, arguing doubtless that it stands to reason if a man steals you he wants you pretty badly and is therefore likely to give you more liver, fish, and other delectables than the man with whom you were living before.

In Georgia it is held to be libellous to say that a young lady said that her mama acted like a cat. Edgar Saltus has written variations on a similar theme in his story, “The Top of the Heap.”

It is not an uncommon occurrence for cats to be left property by will. I shall presently discuss the case of Mademoiselle Dupuy. Lord Chesterfield left life pensions to his cats and their offspring. This sounds eternal. Others have done this. In fact every few months you may read of such a will in the public prints. It is the custom of relatives in such cases to attempt to break the wills, and in most instances they have been successful. But there is at least one case in which a notable cat charity has been preserved through several centuries. About 658 of the Hegira (A. D. 1280) the Sultan, El-Daher-Beybars, having a particular affection for cats, at his death bequeathed a garden known as Gheyt-el-Qouttah (the cat’s orchard), situated near his mosque outside Cairo, for the support of needy cats. This garden has been sold and resold, but until at least a comparatively recent date and probably up to the present moment, the owner still continues to carry out the terms of the will. At the hour of afternoon prayer a daily distribution of refuse from the butchers’ stalls is made to the cats of the neighbourhood. “At the usual hour, all the terraces in the vicinity of the Mehkémeh (outer court) are crowded with cats; they come jumping from house to house across the narrow streets of Cairo, in haste to secure their share; they slide down the walls, and glide into the court, where, with astonishing tenacity and much growling, they dispute the scanty morsels of a meal sadly out of proportion to the number of guests. The old hands clear the food off in a moment; the youngsters and the new-comers, too timid to fight for their chance, are reduced to the humble expedient of licking the ground.”

There are other ways in which cats figure in the law. Marine insurance does not cover damage done to cargo by the depredations of rats, but if the owner of the damaged goods can prove that the ship was sent to sea without a cat he can recover damages from the shipmaster. Again, according to English law, a ship found at sea with no living creature on board is considered a derelict and is forfeited to the Admiralty, the finders, or the King, but it has often happened that, from its hatred of facing the waves, a cat remaining on board has saved the vessel from being condemned.

Periodically letters and editorials appear in the American newspapers concerning the advisability of licensing cats or in some way depriving them of their power of increasing, or restraining their actions. In the bird journals hysterical gentlemen moan loudly over the destruction of feathered songsters and demand that strong measures be taken as preventatives. I am not at all sure that laws have not been passed in certain states limiting the freedom of puss.

Nevertheless the cat preserves his liberty. As the learned judge of Fontainebleau remarked, you cannot restrain a cat without changing his nature; he might have added that you cannot change his nature. A cat will preserve his independence at any cost, even that of his life. Recently an adventurous tom climbed the switchboard of the lighting works of Cardiff, became entangled in the wires, and plunged the city n darkness. The effort cost him his life but he accomplished his purpose. Therefore senators and representatives, who find no difficulty in fettering human-kind in a hundred ways, go very slowly in formulating laws regarding the cat. They know perfectly well that the cat will refuse to obey these laws. It is amusing and delightful to observe this little animal escaping the onerous obligations of these United States, where a dog can only walk abroad on a chain with his jaw bandaged and a man is not permitted to raise a cup to his lips unless it contain lemonade or water, or to set pen to paper unless he scratches hieroglyphics that can be read without a blush by nasty-minded old gentlemen on the lookout for obscenity.

Main source: Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964). The Tiger in the House.

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