Jurors on Thursday tried to decide the fate of a prominent birdwatcher charged with animal cruelty for shooting a cat that lived under a bridge.
The trial has sparked a hot Internet debate between cat lovers who say there is no excuse for killing an animal and birders who say that feral cats are the killers. It has also raised questions about what makes an animal a pet, especially if it lives outside.
If convicted, Jim Stevenson could face up to two years in prison and a $10,000 (6,831 EUR) fine.
Stevenson, the founder of the Galveston Ornithological Society, has admitted he shot the cat last fall because he saw it hunting a threatened species of bird near the San Luis Bridge Pass.
Defense attorney Tad Nelson said his client thought the cat was a stray. A state law bars the killing of domesticated animals without the owner's permission.
But prosecutors have argued that a toll bridge worker fed the cat and gave it toys and bedding and named it "Mama Cat," effectively becoming the pet's owner. And they say Stevenson could have easily realized that if he had looked around the bridge before firing the fatal shot.
While the jury deliberated, Stevenson told The Associated Press that he thoroughly researched local and state law and thought long and hard about what he should do before he killed the cat.
He said he decided to shoot it because he believed it was a threat to the birds. But he said he also felt sorry for the animal.
The bridge, Stevenson said, "is a revolving door for cats. Dozens and dozens of cats go through there and disappear. They're getting run over ... they're getting killed by coyotes. It's no life for a cat out there."
In her closing arguments on Thursday, assistant district attorney Paige Santell called the cat's death a "terrible thing that did not have to happen."
The cat suffered for nearly 40 minutes after Stevenson shot it in the back with a .22-caliber rifle and severed its spine, Santell said. And John Newland, the bridge worker who cared for the cat and several others, is still suffering the loss of a beloved companion, she added.
"What he did was uncalled for," Santell said.
Nelson said his client would not have killed the cat if he knew it belonged to somebody, but he could not see its food dish from his van.
He urged the jurors to set aside their feelings about the cat's death and focus on the law. And he said buying some food and toys for a cat doesn't make you the owner if you haven't taken other steps such as having the animal spayed or neutered or purchasing a collar and tags.
"He loves the cats. He doesn't own the cats," Nelson said of Newland.
A revision of the cruelty law that took effect Sept. 1 broadens protection to stray animals, but the law came too late to affect Stevenson's case.