Help! A Neighbor Has Been Poisoning Our “Cat Colony.”

Advice on manners and morals.
March 26 2013 6:15 AM

I Have but Nine Lives to Give

In a live chat, Prudie advises the caretaker of a “cat colony” whose unhappy neighbor may be resorting to poison.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

Q. Neighbors and Animals: My parents and I are huge animal lovers and have been feeding a feral cat colony for a few years now (they are all spayed and neutered). Our neighbor however cannot stand them and has been very vocal about it to us. He trapped them for a while whenever they would come into his yard and take them to animal control. However, since they are microchipped to our address, animal control would call us and we would pick them up. Upon their return, the organization that got them spayed/neutered has tried working with our neighbor to no avail. However a last month two of the cats started acting funny. We took them to the emergency vet only to learn they had antifreeze poisoning and there was nothing we could do but end their suffering. We thought of our neighbor, but wanting to give him the benefit of doubt, we dismissed it as an accident. However two weeks ago a third cat acted the same exact way and another vet visit confirmed antifreeze poisoning. We now no longer think it's a freak accident. Several friends and family are telling us to call animal control and report our neighbor. However we have no proof that it is actually him putting the antifreeze out, only a hunch based on past interactions and experiences. What should we do?

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A: There's a key piece of information missing here: How big is your "colony"? If you're talking about more than a few cats, then your neighbor has a legitimate beef that his yard has become playground and litter box for your brood. No, I'm not defending kitty murder, but it doesn't sound as if you have at all been sensitive to his desire to not be part of the territory of a feral cat colony. Obviously, he does not have the right to kill them, and what you describe is gruesome and awful. You could call the police if you suspect that he's poisoning your cats, but you know they are unlikely to do a forensic analysis of anti-freeze traces around his property. In some communities, there are restrictions on how many animals one can have, so you should look into whether you are violating this restriction before you take this further. Your neighbor has not been amenable to lectures from cat fanatics about why he should put up with your cats in his yard. But it doesn't sound as if you have tried to mitigate the annoyance to him. I suggest before your entire brood sickens and dies, you reduce the number of cats trolling the neighborhood. Your organization should help you re-home these cats. You also should see if you can keep some of the remaining ones inside most of the time. Then go to the neighbor and tell him that you've heard his complaints and there are going to be far fewer cats wandering the neighborhood. That might be enough to check his feline-cidal impulses.

Dear Prudence: Annoying Bromance

Q. Split Religion Family: In 16 years of marriage my wife and I are usually in very good agreement about raising our four children with one major exception. My wife is a fairly devout Catholic. I was raised Presbyterian, but began to question the faith seriously as I became a teen. Today I think I could best be described as a Deist, with many very significant differences from mainstream Christian beliefs. Before we married, my wife extracted a promise that our children would be raised in her faith and that I would support her in this. For the last decade I have sat passively next to my wife as she attends mass, a boring task that I loathe. Our older two children have reached the age where they also dislike attending church and are starting to rebel. My wife thinks that I need to step up and support her better. She's accepting when I counter the Catholic beliefs that we do not share, like intolerance for gays and narrow roles for women, but she expects me to positively discuss the core tenets of the faith. The kids are perceptive enough to know that I hate attending church as much as they do. I'm happy to continue with the promise that the kids be raised in her faith, but I'm increasingly uncertain how to support her in a way that preserves my integrity. We both agree we need to change our approach, and we need advice to rethink this.

A: If your children have inherited your skeptic's gene there's ultimately not going to be a lot your wife can do to keep them in the fold. Religious observance is based on moral suasion, so simply forcing your wife's views on them is probably going to be counterproductive. You can point out to your wife that you've been supportive, you have reliably attended mass, but it's up to her to do the heavy duty explaining about her beliefs, and why it's possible to disagree with some of your church's tenets while embracing their essential worldview. You have by your own admission been dutiful, but unhappy, and you know the kids have picked that up. So I think more honesty all around would be helpful here. As a family, you can talk about the place religion has in your lives, what you get out of it, and what you disagree with. Just allowing the children to voice their thoughts and have them answered respectfully might make them feel less coerced to go. Your kids are presumably young teens and starting to really flex their independence. But if family attendance at church is something mom and dad consider mandatory, then you have to explain there are a lot of things one has to do in life with mixed feelings, but one does them anyway. Maybe it's also possible to have a compromise here—that is, you allow the kids a specific number of passes on going. Your wife has to recognize that the more punitive religion becomes, the more likely the kids are eventually to flee.

Q. Re: For cat-lover: I suggest plastering your neighborhood with signs warning ALL pet owners about the recent spate of antifreeze poisoning in your area. I'm sure she's not the only cat or dog owner in a 10-block radius, and other people's pets can suffer and die just as horribly. If nothing else, you will have warned your pet-friendly neighbors, and, hopefully, scare the poisoner away.

A: This is a good suggestion, thanks. Another reader pointed out that any car leaking anti-freeze can attract pets because the ethylene glycol entices with its sweetness and aroma. So the deaths may not be due to malice, and the flyers should ask that people make sure their cars aren't leaking. I've also been slapped down for the insane idea of bringing feral cats into the house. But I still maintain that maintaining a colony of ferals that roam the neighborhood is not being neighborly.

Update: Post-chat I've been able to look into the cat colony question, and indeed these territorial and untamable creatures are not amenable to being convinced to hang out elsewhere or become house pets.  A colony can run to dozens of cats, and since the original letter writer is feeding them at or near his or her house, that means this benevolent impulse is making life most unpleasant for the man next door. The ASPCA says to be "diplomatic" with angry neighbors and also suggests that they booby-trap their yard with non-toxic devices to try to repel roaming cats. However, it seems unreasonable to expect neighbors to take responsibility for managing and enduring these animals for years on end. There's no good answer here, but if someone is permanently hosting a large, caterwauling clowder, I still think the onus is on the cat lover to reduce the population in a humane way. 

Q. Strained Relationship With Adult Stepkids: I am a second wife to my husband who for years was married to a very difficult woman. A couple of years ago, he finally divorced her and married me soon after. Much to our mutual delight, we are expecting a baby soon, and I am so excited to be giving my husband a new, happier start on married life. At the same time, his adult children, a son and daughter, both in their 20s, have been a bit withdrawn around me, and I very much want them to be as close to their new younger sibling as possible. I would like them to be listed as guardians in the event that my husband and I were to die. As this was very important to me, I was saddened when they said no, and they seemed put off by the whole thing. Since then, they have been even more distant when I see them, and it is awkward when they come over. So to help with family unity, I guess my question is, what else can I do to bring them closer to us?

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