Thanks to Attorney General Mark Herring and his office’s Opinions Counsel Timothy Oksman, it is now clear that private people and organizations like ours can engage in trap-neuter-return programs ("TNR") in Virginia without fear of legal reprisals. A letter sent out from the Attorney General's Office during the previous administration in 2013 has been found by Attorney General Herring’s Office to have been inaccurate and therefore it has been wholly retracted. This is important and welcome news for everyone in Virginia who wants to help feral cats by providing them with spaying and neutering and rabies vaccinations through trap-neuter-return programs ("TNR").
The letter at issue, dated November, 2013, was sent to me, and also to Rob Blizard at the Norfolk SPCA, by Norman Thomas who was Opinions Counsel in the Attorney General’s Office at the time. The letter threatened us with criminal prosecution if we continued to provide spaying and neutering services to kind people helping feral cats by engaging in TNR. The City Attorney for Richmond was copied on the letter, apparently in hopes that he would take action to force us to stop providing such services. Yes, that is right, in hopes that our City Attorney would force a non-profit to stop providing free spaying and neutering services to the community. The basis for the irresponsible threats in Thomas' letter was an opinion letter dated July 13, 2013 that had been issued by Attorney General Cuccinelli to the Town of Front Royal. That opinion letter had said only that an agency of a local government may not itself engage in the “return” portion of TNR programs.
Mr. Thomas, who indicated that he was writing the letter because he had been asked to do so but never specified who had done the asking, wildly misinterpreted the July 13, 2013 Cuccinelli opinion. First, he sought to apply it to us, a private non-profit organization that provides the veterinary medical services for feral cats for free, when the Cuccinelli opinion had explicitly limited itself to local governments. Secondly, the Cuccinelli opinion made clear that private people could engage in the trapping and the returning parts of TNR without being seen under the law as owners. The Richmond SPCA itself does not do the trapping or the returning; we just provide the veterinary medical services. The trapping and returning are done by caring individuals acting on their own who clearly under the Cuccinelli opinion are not violating the law either since they cannot be considered to be abandoning an animal they do not own.
When I got the threatening letter from Thomas, I discussed the letter with our Executive Committee and Board leaders and we agreed that it was obviously not based on an accurate reading of the Cuccinelli opinion. We knew, and still know, how very crucial our free sterilization and rabies vaccination services for feral cats are and we were not going to be intimidated into ceasing to provide them with no reasonable legal basis. I am deeply grateful for having Board leaders who are cool-headed and courageous because Thomas’ letter would probably have intimidated many organizations into stopping these crucial services. I replied to Thomas’ boss, Attorney General Cuccinelli, saying that we were confident that the interpretation of his opinion in Thomas’ letter was incorrect and so it would not affect our continuing to provide free spaying and neutering and rabies vaccinations for ferals in connection with TNR efforts. I never received any further communication from Thomas or his office whatsoever.
We are aware that the Thomas letter has been used by people and organizations in our state who oppose TNR programs, such as the Virginia Alliance for Animal Shelters, as the basis for inaccurate claims that TNR engaged in by private people utilizing the veterinary services of a private organization such as ours is not legal in Virginia. It is important that they stop spreading this false information now that our Attorney General's office has made clear that the letter Thomas wrote was wrong and has retracted it.
I am very grateful to Attorney General Herring and to Mr. Oksman for have set the record straight on this issue and, thereby, ensuring that caring people and organizations like the Richmond SPCA do not need to fear prosecution for continuing their good and charitable works to help and protect feral cats.
Robin Robertson Starr is the chief executive officer of the Richmond SPCA. To read her biography or that of our other bloggers, please click here. Before posting a comment, please review our comment guidelines. Please note that our comment policy requires both your first and last name to be used as your screen name.