By LAUREN BIRNEY
A UMW student may face charges for not complying with campus police after trying to rescue a cat from a tree on campus on Sunday, Jan. 21. Sophomore Jeff May had volunteered to ascend a tree after the local fire department, campus police and animal control declined to help.
Animal Rights Club member Meghan Coyle, who witnessed the cat being chased up the tree early in the afternoon by dogs, returned to the site several times throughout the day to ensure that the cat was still alive.
“I waited around with it for 10 minutes to see if I could coax it down but it was at a very awkward position (about 25 feet up in the air) and didn’t want to move around from the branch that was securing it,” Coyle said.
Later on, she said, the cat had moved farther up the tree to a height of roughly 50 feet.
Multiple students made phone calls to the emergency and non-emergency police, fire department and the animal control center. Citing other preoccupations with car accidents and emergencies due to the inclement weather, the authorities made it clear that their priorities were saving human lives over the animal.
As for animal control, according to Coyle, “Apparently so many different people called the Spotsylvania and Fredericksburg area animal control people that the campus police came down and told everyone that if we called one more time we would get summoned because whenever animal control was called the police were notified and it was tying up police lines.”
Jeff May, who had been following the developments with the cat throughout the day, went to the police station himself and also was told that the police could not do anything. However, according to May, a woman working at the station said that if he or any other students had the resources to do so, they could try to get to the cat. She warned him to be careful.
Later that day some students attempted to use rappelling equipment to hoist a person up into the tree. May, observing the situation, volunteered to be lifted into the tree.
“I take animal rights seriously, and I don’t distinguish it from human rights; human rights is a more specific angle of animal rights,” May said.
However, things became more complicated when the rope became stuck, and the fire department was called to help get May out of the tree. Soon after the call was made, May was able to loosen the rope and began to climb down, but UMW Police Sgt. Harold Sims, who had been alerted to the scene by the fire department call, forbid him from coming down until the fire department had arrived. Because he was now present, Sims argued, he was liable for the safety of those students involved.
While May was still in the tree waiting for the fire department to arrive, Sims requested information about his name and residence hall. May responded by asking why the officer needed such information.
“I asked that because if he was going interrogate me, I wanted him to wait until I was out of the tree,” May said.
According to May and several other students, Sims became irritated at May’s hesitancy. Sarah Alice Coleman, a freshman bystander at the scene, remarked that Sims responded by calling May a “smart ass” and saying that he could find out the information on his own.
“While I understand that he was responsible for the safety of the people involved, I feel like the campus police officer immediately treated them as if they were guilty of something, without telling them exactly what school rules were broken,” Coleman said.
In a later statement Sims defended his actions, saying that by not answering the officer’s questions, May was not obeying the University Student Handbook clause that demands students cooperate with University officials who are “attempting to enforce the policies and procedures of the University.”
“In emergency situations cooperation is paramount,” he said.
The fire department arrived soon thereafter, raising a ladder up the side of the tree to get May down. Some students requested that the fire marshals try to get the cat nearby while they had the equipment to do so. The fire department again refused, claiming it to be too dangerous.
Jessica Kidder, a freshman bystander, disagreed with the fire department’s reluctance to help the cat.
“Since the ladder was at least five feet from the cat you’d think they could’ve quickly rescued it,” she said.
The fire marshals, however, who had been to campus earlier in the day and were berated by students when they informed them there was nothing they could do, were less than eager to jeopardize the lives of people to help the cat.
After the ordeal, Sims requested that the involved students come to the station to issue a statement. At this point, according to on-lookers, many people quickly dispersed. Remaining were only three students—May and two freshmen who had been assisting with holding the ropes.
One of the freshmen, Will Evans, remarked on how the police responded to student inquiries as to how they might possibly be punished.
“The whole situation was just so absurd,” Evans said.
All of the students issued statements at the police department and talked to the residence life officer.
The freshmen have so far not been charged with any policy violations, or been informed of having to pay a fine. May’s actions, however, might have consequences.
May remarked that in his meeting with Judicial Review Director Raymond Tuttle, he found that he might be able to avoid being held responsible for climbing the tree if he can corroborate the statement made by the woman at the police station giving him permission to try and help the animal using his own means.
As for his actions with the police officer, May maintains that he was not trying to be uncooperative.
“I am being accused for being non-compliant with a police officer,” May said. “However, I believe this was a misunderstanding and that he must not have heard me.”
Sims acknowledged that he understood May might have been nervous or wary at the time, but that he still was obliged to answer his questions.
“The primary function [of the campus police] is to preserve life and protect property,” Sims said. “The student’s safety is our main concern.”