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.

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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?

A: What is wrong with his kids? Dad finally dumps their shrew of a mother, finds someone younger, hotter, nicer (and fertile to boot!), and they're not celebrating. What ungrateful little beasts. OK, I'll give you points for actually wanting your husband's previous family in your lives, but please, try to see these events from their perspective. Consider that they likely love their mother and feel loyalty to her, and that they even prefer her to you, even though she is by your own description a dreadful person. You may not understand this, but it is not the dream of every twentysomething to have a new sibling young enough to be their own child. And it's their prerogative to answer in the negative to the request that if you and your husband make an early departure that they raise the kid. So back off. Encourage your husband to see his existing children separately. Invite them over occasionally for an adult evening—they are adults after all and are not going to ever think of you in motherly terms. Be open to their having a relationship with their new sibling, but don't force one on them. Not trying to grab them by the scruff of their necks and make them love their new family will be more effective in eventually allowing them to like all of you.

Q. Re: Attending Church: This could have been my dad writing in. Please, please, please have an OPEN discussion with your children and DO NOT force them to go to church. I went through that age of questioning why I should attend mass and by not talking about it, it drove a very large rift between my parents and me. It took years to finally be able to speak about it. Religion and faith are two different things. Please have these talks and let your children be free to come to you!

A: Thanks for this. I agree letting the kids respectfully have their say, hearing them out, and explaining your own perspective is a lot more powerful than, "You're going to church, or else!"

Q. Dealing with Death: My fiancé and I typically have a great relationship, but we've had a hard time seeing eye to eye on how to deal with the death of a family member. We are both fortunate to come from very loving, supportive, and close families. But my family has some health issues and lifestyle choices that led all four of my grandparents and a few aunts and uncles to passing away in their 60s and early 70s. My fiancé's family is the picture of health, and most people live into their 90s. When his grandmother passed away a few months ago at the age of 96, the family staged a four-day visitation and funeral weekend. On day three I asked him if services in his family are always like this and he said it was the first family funeral he'd been to. I understand that everybody grieves differently, but since then nearly every weekend we are invited somewhere to sit around, eat, and talk about Grandma. I love my fiancé, and his family truly are wonderful people. But I think this style of grieving is ultimately damaging, since it doesn't give anybody the chance to move on. I suggested skipping the next grief session, and my fiancé said, "Just because your family doesn't care when somebody dies doesn't mean my family is the same way." I don't want to minimize his grief, but I also think clinging to this for this amount of time is unhealthy. Any advice for moving forward? 

A: Just because your family is able to say, "Well, Walter sure enjoyed his cigarettes and his booze. So long, buddy!" doesn't mean everyone can move on so easily. I agree that when your loved ones hit their 90s it's a good idea for everyone to mentally rehearse their departure so that while one can grieve, it can also be done with a sense of peace about the end of a long life, well lived. But your fiancé's family is having a harder time dealing with the death of Grandma. I'm wondering if you're fairly characterizing these get-togethers. It's one thing if the family is simply gathering and someone mentions a memory of Grandma or says how much she would enjoy seeing little Isabella learn to walk. It's another if these really are weekly grief support sessions. If it's the latter, instead of telling your boyfriend it's time to get over it—which will only make him feel disloyal to his grandmother—explain that you understand these events are important for his family to process this loss, but it would be better for him to go without you. I'm pretty confident it won't be long before people start moving on.

Q. Her Two Dads: When I was 22, I was so anxious to get away from a bad home situation, I married a nice guy I'd been dating. He was really a sweetheart, and we had a daughter together. Things were great until he lost his job and started drinking; we subsequently split up while my daughter was still a toddler. Several years later, I met and married the man who adopted her and raised her as her own. We were together for 15 years until he started seeing someone on the side. My daughter’s adoptive father and I split shortly before she graduated from high school. She has always known her biological father (who subsequently cleaned up and got his act together), and is friendly with him and his wife. When I remarried again a few years ago, I didn't tell my current husband about her bio dad; as far as I'm concerned, the man who raised her and adopted her is "Dad." Furthermore, since she was an adult and out of the house long before we met, I didn't think it was a big deal because we're well past the age of having kids ourselves. Am I being unreasonable about this? She refers to her adoptive father as "Dad," so while I haven't talked to her about it, she seems to feel the same way I do, but I have friends who insist I'm being deceitful.

A: A terrible upbringing can have consequences for the rest of your life. It sounds as if you've made it out, but not without a lot of bumps. But I fail to understand why you would hide the very important information that your daughter was the product of your first marriage. I'm guessing it's because you preferred not to disclose you'd had two previous marriages. I don't know how long you've been with your current spouse, but I agree with your friends that this is the kind of important biographical information one shares. Before the information is sprung on your husband, I think you need to tell him you're embarrassed about something about your past you withheld. He'll probably be so worried that you were a porn star in your youth, that he'll be relieved that your secret is that you had a brief, youthful marriage that produced your wonderful daughter.

Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.

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Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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