BILOXI -- A Biloxi Community Court judge has sentenced a 78-year-old woman to 100 hours of community service for the hoarding of cats in a case believed to be unprecedented.
Dawn Summers, a 50-year resident of the Glendale Heights subdivision, thought she was already performing a community service.
She's the manager of a feral cat colony. In cooperation with a city-sanctioned program of the Humane Society of South Mississippi, she feeds cats that have been trapped, examined, spayed or neutered, vaccinated and released to live outdoors without fear of euthanasia.
She said she's fed as many as 27.
Her sentencing drew criticism from HSSM officials and animal lovers who attended a hearing Tuesday to show their support.
"This is already drawing national attention," said Tara High, HSSM executive director.
Contacts with Maryland-based feral cat organization Alley Cat Allies have said it is rare for a feral colony manager to be prosecuted for hoarding, High said.
Judge Pro Tem Dean Wilson sentenced Summers on Tuesday after an attorney met with him behind closed doors to discuss an agreement city officials signed in 2009. The agreement exempts residents from prosecution under the city's leash law if they are caring for feral cats released back into the community through the HSSM's Trap, Neuter, Return program.
The agreement -- a memorandum of understanding -- was attached to a resolution signed by Mayor A.J. Holloway.
But there's a hitch: a city ordinance that limits the number of domestic animals a resident can have wasn't changed when the resolution was signed. That means Summers only can feed up to six cats older than six months or she's breaking the law.
"It was not put on the books as an ordinance," Wilson said. "I do not change ordinances. I enforce them."
The judge decided the cats are domesticated, not feral. He said the only reference he found in state law about feral animals applies to hogs. Wilson ordered Summers to complete her community service with the HSSM or a similar group within six months and gave her two years of probation. Failure to comply could result in a fines of about $1,500, he said. She also faced up to 90 days in jail.
He also forbid her to interfere with animal-control officers' duties to trap and remove the cats. Summers said she is upset by it all.
"I've made donations to the Humane Society to help spay 27 cats so they can be released to live out a normal life span," she said. "All I've been doing is putting food out for them. My only crimes have been a speeding ticket 25 years ago and a parking ticket 35 years ago. Now a judge tells me I'm guilty of hoarding."
A warning in July
The judge said police had warned her in July that she was violating the city's leash law. Police issued her a citation after she refused to let animal-control officers trap cats on her property, he said.
A trial was held Oct. 9. Instead of a leash-law conviction, the judge found Summers guilty of hoarding by harboring and caring for more cats than the city allows.
The judge said the cats create "unsanitary and unsafe conditions. There's a growing problem in the city with distemper."
Summers thought she was attending a hearing Tuesday to review the case. She said she had recently asked the court to provide her legal counsel but was told the city doesn't have the money for it. Community court handles land-use cases, which can include animal-control issues. Plans for appeal
Attorney David Crane volunteered to represent her Tuesday. Crane said he plans to appeal Summers' case. He has 30 days to file an appeal in Harrison County Court. Meanwhile, he asked the judge to consider an appeal bond for Summers.
Crane said there are two questions he wants a higher court to answer: "The first is whether they are feral or domesticated cats, and whether the memorandum of understanding is enforceable."
The law didn't change
Changing the ordinance was not an issue when the city adopted the resolution.
The city adopted the resolution because it was presented as a way to help the HSSM through a budget crisis, said Jerry Creel, director of community development. The community court operates as a branch of his office.
At the time, the city had a problem with feral cats at the end of the Popp's Ferry Causeway, where no houses were nearby.
"On the surface, it seemed to be a noble solution," Creel said. "I don't recall this being presented as a program to set up people in single-family neighborhoods to become agents of the Humane Society and turn single-family homes into a feral cat colony.
"Any time you have domesticated animals that are not enclosed, they are going to get onto someone else's property, leave excrement, urinate, and possibly damage property, and that's when it becomes a public nuisance. In retrospect, if the presentation had included adverse aspects, the council may not have approved the resolution."
HSSM supports Summers
Meanwhile, High said the HSSM is "working on implementing the best long-term strategy for Mrs. Summers and the cats she cares for."
HSSM's board of directors has a goal to eliminate the euthanasia of healthy and treatable pets by 2015. HSSM took in nearly 12,000 homeless pets last year at its state-of-the-art facility in Gulfport. The facility, which includes a spay-and-neuter clinic, lost-and-found and adoption centers and a thrift store, is at U.S. 49 and 28th Street.