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More than a feline

It’s a felony to steal a dog in Virginia, but it’s only a misdemeanor to steal a cat.

You can look it up.

Virginia Code § 18.2-97, the animal larceny statute, states that it’s a Class 5 felony to commit larceny of a dog. The law also lists a number of farm animals.

And cats? Cats are not mentioned.

There was one recent legislative attempt to right this discrepancy, but that effort quickly ended up in the litter box.

In 2008, then-Del. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, sought to bring cats into parity with dogs.

She sponsored House Bill 334, which would have added cats to the code section, thereby making it a Class 5 felony to steal a cat.

The bill got sent to the Courts of Justice committee where the members pawed it over and produced a weaker substitute: Cats still would be added to the law, but theft of same would be reduced to a Class 6 felony, putting cats on par with chickens, sheep and goats. Not dogs.

Ahem.

The substitute passed the committee, 20-2. (Note: It is not known whether the two “nay” votes were angry cat-lovers.)

Over in the Appropriations committee, however, the claws really came out, and the substitute was tabled 13-11.

In the intervening 11 years, no one, including McClellan, has dared to take on the pet-parity catfight.

The animal theft laws aren’t the only place in the Virginia Code where cats are MIA. The Old Dominion has a long and arcane list of “State Emblems and Designations.”

Just take a look at all the “emblems” in Virginia Code §1-510. Just after the official “Covered Bridge Festival,” you’ll find that the official state dog is the American foxhound.

The official state cat is … Oh, wait, there isn’t one.

Virginia has an official state bat, bird, fish, insect and salamander. But no official state cat.

Can anyone even name more than one type of salamander?

Perhaps adding injury to insult, the official state flower AND the official state tree both are the American dogwood.

Cats clearly need a better lobbyist.

But in truth, the law has been harder on cats in the past than it is now. Under the current version of Virginia Code § 3.2-6585, “All dogs and cats shall be deemed personal property and may be the subject of larceny and malicious or unlawful trespass.”

Back in the early 1980s, cats weren’t mentioned in that section at all; apparently, they didn’t even rise to the level of “personal property.”

In 1984, a guy named Kenneth Kilby was arrested inside an animal  shelter in Hopewell with a bagful of kittens, according to the UPI archives.  Kilby said he was rescuing the animals because he was afraid they would be put to death.

He was subsequently charged with felony breaking and entering with intent to commit larceny.

Kilby’s lawyer, C. Hardaway Marks, got him acquitted. In a brief to the court, Marks reviewed the statute then in effect, noting cats were considered “base” animals that are not subject to larceny. In other words, you couldn’t go into someone’s building to steal something that couldn’t be stolen.

The judge dismissed the charge. The amendment to the statute, upgrading cats to “personal property,” was passed not long after that.

Despite that later change in legal status, Marks made an observation in his brief that still resonates 35 years later:

“No matter what decision the court reaches today, one truth remains,” he wrote. “Those who know cats and those who love cats know that cats belong to no one. Persons do not have property rights in cats. Cats have property rights in persons.”

– Paul Fletcher