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Back at the cat colony, a man walks quickly toward the parked Animal Control truck. “What are you doing here?” he yells. “What are you guys doing here?”
Officer Johnson steps down from the driver’s seat and informs the man that she is simply showing a couple reporters a feral cat colony. No harm is intended. Johnson has faced fists and two-by-fours and screaming pet owners. She says she is adept at de-escalating conflicts.
The man introduces himself as Jim and asks that his last name and the location of the colony remain secret.
“I just get a little defensive, that’s all,” he says. Jim explains that he has been protective of his cats ever since someone poisoned them with Prestone a few years back.
“Somebody came through here and threw out a pregnant cat and the next thing I know I had kittens running around everywhere. At one time there were 30 out here,” says Jim, who has been taking care of the cats for more than a decade. “… And then someone came down here and decided they wanted to poison them. I would come out here and find two or three a day, dead, just laying right out here.”
He says he has a good guess who did it.
“I told the individual that I would shoot him if I ever caught him and he knows I will do it too because I am one of those PTSD Vietnam veterans,” he says, laughing.
With hot water and cat food in hand, Jim begins to dump chow on the ground around the trailers. He points to a whole raw turkey he brought out a few days before to sustain the hungry creatures. The cats begin to emerge, darting toward the food and darting back into the darkness under and in the trailers.
“These are my kids,” says Jim, who has named all the cats in his colony. He calls the big tomcat Teddy Bear. He says he regularly removes the colony’s kittens to put them up for adoption.
Balding and dressed in veteran regalia, Jim is one of many feral cat caretakers in Missoula. On the other side of the trailer park there is a second colony of nine, which his neighbor feeds and protects. Combined with his eight cats, that’s 17 feral felines in an area the size of a football field.
Moltzen of AniMeals probably knows more about feral cat colonies and their caretakers than anyone else in Missoula County. She says she is aware of 60 to 70 caretakers in the area. Many of them rely on her organization for cat food, so she knows where the felines live.
“Well you know, there is a city ordinance here where if you feed ’em, you own ’em. People just don’t tell anybody [that they are feeding them],” she says. “I don’t tell anybody where my rescues are, where the cats are that are getting fed. … It’s not that it’s secret, you just don’t want to call attention to it so people aren’t going out there shooting them or poisoning them.”
Caretakers are secretive. Multiple individuals refused to allow the Indy onto their property for fear that their cats could suffer reprisals from the community. These caretakers are a crucial link between the colonies and the organizations that provide spay and neuter services, vaccinations and food.
The poisoning of Jim’s cats, and the conflict that ensued, is reminiscent of a larger controversy. Last year, the debate between bird lovers and feral cat advocates took a nasty turn on a national scale over the use of poison.
In March 2013, Ted Williams, an established writer for Audubon magazine, authored a column for the Orlando Sentinel in which he identified a certain over-the-counter drug as an effective way to poison feral cats. In the column he also called TNR “dangerous, cruel and illegal” and suggested that trapping and euthanizing cats was a more humane approach.
His column provoked an immediate outrage from feral cat groups. Alley Cat Allies, the premier feral cat advocacy organization in the country and a major proponent of TNR, called for Williams’ termination at Audubon. The magazine later suspended him and in doing so garnered national media attention. Eventually Williams apologized, saying, “I should have explained that this feral-cat poison, if registered, would be applied only by the state and federal wildlife managers who are widely, legally and lethally (but not effectively) controlling feral cats with rifle, shotgun and trap.” He returned to work at Audubon shortly thereafter.
There have been other public conflicts. In 2010, conservation groups, including the American Bird Conservancy and an Audubon chapter, filed a lawsuit in California seeking to put a halt to the use of TNR in Los Angeles, which had adopted the method as its primary approach to feral cat management in 2005. The groups asked a judge to bar the city’s use of TNR until it underwent proper environmental review as mandated under California law. The judge issued an injunction in the plaintiff’s favor and thereby suspended the city’s program.
Alley Cat Allies responded to the ruling by telling its supporters in Los Angeles to continue practicing TNR. “The bottom line: This case DID NOT make Trap-Neuter-Return illegal in Los Angeles,” wrote Alley Cat Allies on its website. “The ruling only applies to the actions of the Los Angeles city government.”
Since the Smithsonian study came out last summer, Alley Cat Allies has spent a great deal of time trying to portray it as “junk science,” even delivering a petition with 55,000 signatures to Smithsonian in protest of the report.
UM ornithologist Dick Hutto has watched some of these controversies unfold. He says Alley Cat Allies’ aversion to the Smithsonian report is due to a lack of ecological understanding.
“The animal rights side is all about the individual animal and the rights of the individual animal,” he says. “The thing that that side fails to appreciate is that there is an ecological system too, and the system, in my view as an ecologist, is much more important to worry about than any individual animal or plant.”
As for the Smithsonian study, he challenges Alley Cat Allies and other cat advocates to develop their own data.
“Who cares whether it is one, two, three or four billion birds killed each year—it’s a lot,” he says. “What do these other people suggest, would be my question. What data do they have that we could look at to compare with this?”
Despite the national controversy, the feral cat issue has not sparked much conflict in Missoula. In fact, it has barely been discussed in public forums at all, and many caretakers want it that way. They love their feral cats and so, like the cats themselves, they stay silent.
“Come on babies! Come on,” Jim says sweetly, trying to lure the cats out to eat.
When he has emptied his container of food, he walks back to his trailer as the colony disappears into its run-down shelter. A passerby would never know it is there.