PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Thelma Towne says one of her 87-year-old mother's few joys in life is to feed a few stray cats in the neighborhood.
But that came to a crashing halt on March 22 when Nuisance Control Officer Stephanie Provencher paid a visit to the Brown Street home. An anonymous complaint had been phoned into the Health Department that morning saying the food for the stray cats were starting to attract rats.
Provencher had been sent photos of a rat on the property and issued a cease-and-desist order on leaving cat food on the porch. Towne has never seen a rat on her property and said the order felt like an attack on her mother for feeding strays while others in the city do the same thing.
"It felt like the Gestapo attacking. That is what the emotion felt," Towne told the Board of Health on Wednesday when she appealed the citation.
The citation issued to Towne wasn't very clear on what the department was trying to address with the order. The notice cited city code but did not specifically say why the citation was issued. Instead, it provided language outlining a number of steps a property owner should take -- such as making sure trash cans have tight-fitting lids, that birdseed must be kept off the ground -- to avoid attracting wildlife.
"I have numerous pictures of city parks [trash cans] that are open with no sealing lids," Towne said. Others in the city have birdfeeders that drop on the ground and also don't have trash cans with lids.
Further, she said it isn't simply a matter of leaving food out for the cats but that they take cats in and get them checked by a veterinarian and bring animals to shelters. She said her neighborhood has a lot of apartment tenants coming and going, and often they leave their cats behind -- so it isn't a matter of feral cats but rather strays.
"I don't want the misconception that we are just throwing food out there and not doing anything," Towne said.
She said she understands, and agrees, with the city's efforts to keep the city clean but felt officials had gone about it the wrong way when it comes to her property.
"I am a hard-working, taxpaying, property owner in the city of Pittsfield. I've been born and raised in the city. I am a 21-year veteran," Towne said.
The Board of Health, however, said she was not targeted and acknowledged that the cease-and-desist letter was not clear enough. Provencher said she received a complaint, consulted with the senior sanitarian about it, and then went to confirm the report. She said she already had an inspection scheduled just a few homes down that day.
When she arrived, she saw Towne's mother on the porch, taking the cat food indoors. She called out to her, explained the situation, and then provided her the letter. Provencher said mentioned that there was a "small" problem with the rodents the city was trying to curb.
"I think our inspector did a good attempt to communicate with your mother," Health Director Gina Armstrong said.
That message, however, wasn't relayed well to Towne. At the hearing on Wednesday, she seemed taken aback by the allegation of rat activity in the area and said she will certainly be getting her home inspected.
"I have a very difficult time believing that," Towne said.
There is room for improvement with the Health Department's notification letters. Provencher said since the incident occurred, and drew a large number of comments in a local Facebook group, the department has edited its letter.
"We certainly commend you for doing the right thing for the cats. I don't think it was ever a question whether or not it was right to feed the cats. It was just becoming a nuisance," Provencher said.
Armstrong also provided information for Animal Dreams, which can help take care of the stray cats. Chairman Steve Smith apologized to Towne for how the violation notification process played out.
"The last thing we want anyone to feel like is the way you felt," Smith said. "We're sorry that you felt that way. We are already undergoing revisions in that document so it doesn't happen again."
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I think the best approach is to set out food twice a day (at specific times) for, say, 20 minutes, then take anything left over back in. If it's just sitting out, yes, it will attract anything. The cats will quickly learn the feeding times and show up. And rats aren't going to be competing with cats if they are feeding during the times the food is out.
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