Virginia Moves to Make Catnapping a Felony

If Del. Jennifer McClellan's cat equality bill has nine lives, it might need them all to survive the legislative process.

On her second try, McClellan herded the cat theft legislation through a House of Delegates subcommittee Wednesday. Again, it wasn't easy as McClellan and other lawmakers had to huddle outside the meeting room to scratch out a final draft acceptable to the subcommittee.

McClellan's bill would make stealing a cat a Class 6 felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. Under current law, catnapping is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.

Abscond with someone's dog, however, and you can get slapped with a Class 5 felony and up to 10 years in prison. McClellan originally proposed the same punishment for cat thieves, but she scaled it back after determining she didn't have the votes for full cat equality.

"The theft of a cat should be a crime treated as close as possible to the theft of a dog," McClellan, D-Richmond, told the subcommittee.

She and other lawmakers who revamped the bill after it first hit a subcommittee snag on Monday also narrowed it to apply only to "companion cats" owned, fed and cared for by an individual, animal shelter or animal rescue organization.

That revision addressed the Virginia Farm Bureau's concerns that a stray cat could wander onto a farmer's property and stay, subjecting the landowner to possible felony prosecution.

Del. Todd Gilbert wasn't convinced the amendment fixed the problem. He said he was recently in his office back home in Woodstock when a cat slipped through the open door and hopped onto his lap. The cat appeared well fed and groomed but had no collar, so someone suggested he keep it. He didn't. But if he had, he wondered, "Am I all of a sudden committing a felony?"

McClellan introduced the measure at the behest of the Richmond Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Supporters informally call the bill "Ernie's Law" in honor of a kitten that was stolen from the SPCA shelter last summer but was eventually recovered and adopted.

The measure now goes before the full Courts of Justice Committee, which will decide whether to send it to the House floor.