There’s a nationwide battle pitting cat lovers against wildlife biologists and public health officials. It’s playing out at Disneyland.
By Matt Smith

Disneyland, the so-called happiest place on earth, is a reputed ghost haunt, a favorite spot for scattering family ashes and home to creepy animatronic dead presidents. And it has found yet another way to freak out guests.

According to the company’s own lore, “deep in the backwoods of Disneyland Park (is) a land filled with woodland creatures.” It’s called Critter Country, “a restful world filled with shady trees, babbling brooks and all kinds of playful animals.”

But one kind of animal in particular has been drawing attention lately – Disney’s collection of feral cats.

On the Cats of Disneyland Instagram account, self-identified park employees and visitors describe a hidden world of cat colonies. These wild examples of Felis catus stalk around the park and sometimes allow guests to pet them behind the ears. A white-chested feral cat named Ned, for instance, occasionally can be seen welcoming guests at the Disneyland Hotel. A longhaired tortoiseshell cat that Instagram fans have named Francisco is known to hang out in the shade near Grizzly River Run.

“We found Francisco at California Adventure today. He was just hanging out watching us silly hoomans (sic) riding water ride,” reads one of numerous posts from fans of this grouchy-faced, bushy-maned feline.

Park visitors take turns snapping photographs of the cats, which have become a draw in their own right.

“Excited to visit Disney again. this time for the kitties,” one Instagram poster writes.

“Next trip to Disneyland we gotta do some cat spotting!” says another.

The Cats of Disneyland Instagram account features parkgoers’ photos of felines from around the resort. The geotagged images add locations to the sightings. CREDIT: Instagram

The cats may be a source of joy for the more than 67,000 people who follow them on Instagram. But they’re also a public health threat, according to local officials whose job it is to prevent plagues. They say Disneyland has defied their demands that the park expel the swarm of feral cats, as such animals can spread flea-borne typhus, a disease that in rare cases can cause humans’ brains to swell, organs to fail, and blood to harden in the veins. More typical cases’ symptoms range from mild to undetected. No Disneyland cats have been found to carry typhus bacteria, but local health officials see a potential for disease.

After one Disneyland employee became infected with typhus, a crew of local government pest-control specialists visited the park in 2016 and found cats so flea-ridden that the insects leapt onto inspectors’ clothes. Those particular fleas weren’t found to carry typhus, but fleas found on a captured Disneyland opossum did. Health officials urged Disneyland to remove the felines and stop setting out food for them. Disneyland officials said they’d take the advice into account. But Orange County continues to receive reports that the park is infested with feral cats kept alive by park staff. Perhaps more tellingly, multiple posts on the Cats of Disneyland Instagram feed document feral Aristocats stalking the park through last summer.

Officials in Orange County, Calif., say they continue to receive reports that Disneyland is home to feral cats kept alive by park staff. Health officials have urged the park to remove the felines and stop setting out food for them. CREDIT: Kyle Grillot for Reveal

Cat and mouse

“We have worked collaboratively on managing colony populations,” Disneyland said in a statement. It claims that the park’s feral cat population has declined from 200 to 30 cats since health officials first asked the park to remove them a year before the typhus incident. “We have worked collaboratively with the agencies, and these agencies have been supportive of those efforts.”

But a government official with whom the company claims to have collaborated disagrees.

“Did they follow our recommendations? No. They didn’t. They didn’t really comply,” said Laura Krueger, a public health ecologist at the Orange County Mosquito and Vector Control District, which is tasked with stopping the spread of insect- and animal-borne diseases to humans. (In the science of epidemics, a disease vector is any germ-spreading creature, such as a cat, a flea or one of the Rickettsia bacteria that sometimes live on them.) “Basically, our agency just didn’t go hard-core abatement on them and make them do it,” Krueger said.

The standoff is but one battle in a nationwide war pitting feral cat feeders against annoyed neighbors who want feral cats out of their yards, wildlife biologists who say they wipe out bird populations, public health officials who say they spread disease, and even the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which says feeding cats in the wild condemns them to brutal deaths via disease, coyotes and car tires.

The cat feeders are far from outclawed, however. Buying cat food in bulk and depositing it in the dead of night is a largely invisible yet wildly popular American hobby. At Disneyland, according to vector control documents, the cats were being fed by staff at the park’s Circle D Ranch, where Disneyland has boarded animal “cast members” such as draft horses, a cow, donkeys, turkeys, goats and – unofficially – cats.

Feral cat hobbyists are one of the great success stories in the annals of American grassroots lobbying. Their movement is called trap-neuter-return, or TNR. The idea is that feral cat populations can be reduced humanely by trapping cats, sterilizing them, releasing them outdoors and then setting out food for them for the rest of their lives.

Wild-feline aficionados nationwide have pressed for local laws making it easier to feed cats and for government policies directing animal control agencies to place feral cats back outdoors after sterilizing them. Such policies abound in the San Francisco Bay Area, where a feline threat to vulnerable burrowing owls was traced to feeding stations maintained by a Google employee group devoted to TNR.

TNR enthusiasts lie in wait during nighttime feeding hours, monitoring cage traps that shut when a curious feline steps in for a bite of cat food. Captured animals are sterilized and given rabies shots at a local clinic, which also removes the tips of their ears to show that they have been sterilized. Then they’re returned to where they were trapped and are fed in perpetuity as members of what enthusiasts call “cat colonies.” Without the food, they say, there would be no way to attract and trap other cats.

But wildlife biologists and natural resource managers consider the expansion of TNR to be an ecological crisis. A 2013 study from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute estimates that cats kill around 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals every year. PETA sees it as a moral crisis: “Adding this predator that does not naturally exist, a very efficient predator that does not naturally exist, is not right, not natural,” said Teresa Chagrin, an animal care and control specialist at PETA.

The struggle to contain the TNR movement is one that opponents have for the most part lost, with more than 400 cities and counties across the country adopting the method over the past 25 years, according to the advocacy group Alley Cat Allies.

Feral cats can spread flea-borne typhus. In the top and bottom right photos, fleas prepared for examination are on display at the Orange County Mosquito and Vector Control District in Garden Grove, Calif. In the bottom left photo, Bob Cummings, director of scientific technical services, explains typhus outbreak mapping. CREDIT: Kyle Grillot for Reveal

Housing crisis

Toward the end of the 1980s, Stanford University was under a type of siege. Graduating students frequently would deposit their pet cats in the campus’ ubiquitous groves of coast live oaks. A population explosion ensued. And Stanford, consistent with the times, drew up an extermination plan.

A campus facilities employee named Carole Miller was among the humans who were heartbroken upon hearing about the plan. She and some friends formed the Stanford Cat Network, offering a counterproposal to humanely reduce the cat population with an aggressive neutering effort.

They caught and sterilized cats and kittens and set up official feeding stations throughout the campus. By 1992, no new kittens were being born on campus, and a few years later, “the number of cats was down to 150 and continued to decline,” according to the book “Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America,” by feral cat advocate Nathan Winograd.

Inspired by the Stanford Cat Network, the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals took up the cause and by 2000 had reduced the number of feral cats being euthanized by 73 percent, according to Winograd’s book. Today, the city’s SPCA calls its TNR program Community Cares, renting out animal traps, providing subsidized sterilization services, and instructing volunteers to place feral cats back outside and “resume the feeding schedule and continue to provide food and water.”

Both at Stanford and in San Francisco, TNR was the key to reducing the feral cat population “in a non-lethal, humane, and effective (though long term) way,” Winograd wrote, adding that the technique spread from there throughout America.

During a 2013 visit to Stanford, Miller gave reporters a tour of feeding stations and elaborate wood-and-wire warrens built for the feral cats. She pointed out some of the cats and shared their names and life stories, revealing an extraordinary sense of responsibility and affection for her outdoor feline brood. She said she was even putting off surgery on her leg because it might mean she couldn’t feed the cats. She echoed Winograd’s assertion that this dedication had taught the world that it was possible to reduce outdoor cat populations humanely.

Not long after that visit, an accidental fire burned down Miller’s San Jose house. She survived, but the fire revealed that she had been keeping about 100 cats on her property, many of which perished in the fire.

Veterinarians later interviewed by animal services officers said Miller frequently would come in with near-dead cats that were underweight, covered in fleas, dehydrated, suffering from kidney failure and respiratory infections, and “smelled like they were being kept in their own urine,” according to an investigative report by San Jose Animal Care & Services obtained by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. Twenty-one cats that had died before the fire had been kept in her freezer, the report said. Miller couldn’t be reached for comment.

After the tragic incident, the Stanford Cat Network changed its name to the Feline Friends Network and, according to its website, continues to “provide a viable alternative to euthanasia, through spay/neuter, vaccination, release and feeding of unsocialized cats.”

In an email, Feline Friends board member Larissa Williams de-emphasized Miller’s involvement in the Stanford group. After the fire, “a new board was formed, and the name changed to reflect this reorganization. Carole Miller is required to have no further contact with Feline Friends, or with cats in our care, and may not come anywhere on site. All ties are officially severed and we have no more association with her,” Williams wrote.

Not-so-wild wildlife

TNR advocates contend that if a population of sterilized felines is kept alive with cat food in a certain area, this population will edge out fertile animals, and the area-wide lack of reproduction will cause the whole group to eventually die humane, natural deaths.

This logic drives wildlife biologists and park managers bonkers. The problem lies in the devilish detail of what a “certain area” is. Scattered studies have shown that animals in a confined area can die off under aggressive birth control. But unless you can sterilize the vast majority of them, the remaining fertile animals find fertile partners. They beget litters of as many as 10 kittens, which are known to become pregnant as early as 4 months old, meaning all bets are off.

Cats come from all around to where the food is set out. And feral cats that find cat food waiting for them have improved survival prospects, enabling them to thrive and prey on the birds and small mammals in their vicinity. Even sated cats will hunt and kill instinctively. Wildlife biologists, national park managers and nature preservationists liken outdoor cats’ environmental destruction to that of invasive species such as Africanized bees or Asian carp. Except that the cats are more deadly.

David Graber, former chief scientist for the National Park Service’s Pacific West region, said feral cat feeding by TNR advocates is among the most significant invasive species crises that wildlife managers face. The park service has intensely studied the possibility of controlling overpopulated predators and invasive species through sterilization. For park managers, this would be a godsend because it would avert the public backlash that ensues whenever they have to kill off invasive deer or other charismatic animals, according to one park superintendent. The official didn’t want to be named out of fear of sparking outrage from the TNR movement.

But the field of wildlife management has all but dispensed with the idea of sterilization as ineffective for anything other than the lowest-numbered, most enclosed populations. Absent those conditions, animals from other areas come to the food. And thus sustained, they reproduce.

Even as wildlife officials were debunking TNR, however, cat lovers were turning the idea into a political movement and forming advocacy groups. Alley Cat Allies, for example, has an annual budget of $10 million and is dedicated to protecting, feeding and sterilizing strays and ferals.

Many groups are funded by pet supply companies, which stand to benefit as more Americans buy cat food for feral colonies. According to a statement, PetSmart Charities has granted more than $100 million to support spay/neuter programs including, but not limited to, TNR efforts. The retailer Petco has its own charity arm, with a $34 million annual budget, and has been a major sponsor of Alley Cat Allies’ national conference.

Flush with cash, TNR advocates have fought to quash federal legislation to remove invasive species from national wildlife refuges because the term includes feral cats, and they’ve pushed back against scientists who warn of the threat that feral cats pose to wildlife. They have been so aggressive that a group of researchers writing in the journal Biological Invasions describe feral cat advocates as a group worthy of study. Their report is titled, “Responding to misinformation and criticisms regarding United States cat predation estimates.”

“Overwhelming consensus shows that cats are invasive species that impact wildlife and human health yet free-ranging cat advocates propagate misinformation about such impacts to support policies keeping cats on the landscape,” the July 2018 paper states. For example, after scientists determined that feral cats kill billions of birds and small animals every year, Alley Cat Allies commissioned its own report, which claimed that there were major flaws in statistical methods used to estimate the number of birds killed by cats.

The idea was to “fabricate doubt about outdoor cat impacts and stymie policies favoring removal of cats from the landscape,” the authors of the Biological Invasions paper write.

J.R. Yeager helped trap and euthanize more than 300 cats after he became disillusioned with trap-neuter-return efforts. He lives in Oakland, Calif., with his street-rescued cat, Penny. CREDIT: Adithya Sambamurthy/Reveal

Tender mercies

J.R. Yeager didn’t know Stanford’s Carole Miller. But he became caught up in the movement she’d helped spawn. In 2000, he’d volunteered at an animal shelter in Pennsylvania, only to learn that one of the facility’s major tasks was euthanizing cats and dogs.

“That was pretty shocking to me,” recalled Yeager, who recently retired as an executive search consultant. Soon after his sad discovery, he moved to the Bay Area, where he learned about San Francisco’s Stanford-inspired TNR program and volunteered to contribute to what he thought would be the reduction of euthanasia at animal shelters.

He was assigned to a postindustrial waterfront district to care for what he recalls were hundreds of cats, many of them struggling to survive. He saw cats dragging their hindquarters on two good legs, mouths full of abscesses.

“How in the world am I going to take care of a cat with a mouth full of abscesses?” he said.

At a certain point, Yeager stopped believing in the program and decided the best thing to do was simply kill the cats. Humanely.

He began taking some of the cats to a veterinarian and having them put to sleep. He got appointed to San Francisco’s Commission of Animal Control and Welfare and in 2005 called for an injunction against the city SPCA’s TNR program and what he called the “illegal and inhumane activity of its staff and volunteers.” According to Yeager, TNR volunteers were violating laws against dumping animals and feeding wildlife.

The SPCA ceased providing its TNR volunteers with food in 2015, the organization’s Krista Maloney wrote in an email. However, as of February of this year, the group’s website was advising TNR volunteers to “provide food and water” to feral cats.

And Yeager’s injunction effort failed. Still, Yeager did not stop trapping cats, which he believed were starving, perishing from disease or otherwise suffering inhumanely.

He moved to Oakland and discovered swarms of cats in a desolate area near downtown’s Lake Merritt. He set out food at night for a few weeks until the animals trusted him. When it was time, he started setting down a trail of cat food leading into an animal trap. Once an animal was captured, he would rush to throw a towel over the cage to calm down the frightened cat.

In his nighttime rounds, Yeager eliminated virtually all the cats around Laney College, the Oakland Museum of California, the county courthouse, Peralta Park and La Escuelita Elementary School. By his own estimate, by 2014, Yeager had taken more than 300 street cats to a vet to be euthanized, an activity he has wound down since then.

“Ever since I discovered them, I have been feeding them every night, so even though their lives are shorter than they might be otherwise, they’re good lives up until the end,” Yeager said, sitting in his Oakland Hills living room, stroking the white mane of a street-rescued cat named Penny. “But you know, there are only so many cats that any one person can take care of, and the idea of simply having them spayed and neutered and put back is insane to me. It is absolutely insane. I will never do that again.

“Once I have trapped a cat, unless I can place it in a home – and I’ve been able to do that – but if I can’t place it in a home and it is a feral cat, the alternative is to put it back out on the street to fend for itself. I won’t do that. To me, that’s cruel. The euthanasia, the putting them down isn’t cruel.”

If animals could talk

Meanwhile, in 2013, the year of Carole Miller’s house fire, Orange County initiated a TNR-based Feral Free Program with the aid of a recurring $100,000 grant from PetSmart Charities, according to a 2015 county civil grand jury report.

The issue came before the grand jury following complaints about the local animal shelter, including a 2012 human typhus infection that may have come from fleas on feral cats roaming the premises.

The report depicts an extended bureaucratic war between health officials, who were worrying about the spread of disease-infected fleas caused by releasing sterilized feral cats outdoors, and animal care officials, who were receiving enthusiastic support for a policy that did not involve killing cats.

Vector control officials said the program violated environmental laws but got nowhere. They requested information about cats being released into neighborhoods so they could be monitored for flea-borne typhus. But animal shelter personnel refused.

As a last resort, opponents of Feral Free today make themselves a bane of the local cat-feeding community. They remind government employees and pet advocates – at public meetings, during inspection-team site visits such as the 2016 Disneyland incident and in stern memos and reports – that buying pet food and leaving it outside poses a public health risk. But these measures are largely ineffective.

“Animal services releases thousands of cats every year in Anaheim. Yeah, it’s a lot,” said Laura Kruger, of Orange County’s Vector Control. “When that happens, they are all sharing their fleas. It’s basically like a bunch of animals without flea control roaming neighborhoods.”

Feral cat advocates say the number of strays brought in to county animal services has declined, a statistic used to suggest that there aren’t as many cats living outdoors. As for the issue of typhus and other flea-borne diseases, feral cat advocates have largely won that fight, as TNR remains Orange County policy.

This makes these alleged disease-carrying critters the happiest cats on earth.

This story was edited by Andrew Donohue and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Matt Smith can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @SFMattSmith.

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Matt Smith is a reporter for Reveal, covering religion. Smith's two-decade career in journalism began at The Sacramento Union in California. He went on to positions at newspapers in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Twin Falls, Idaho; Fairfield, California; and Newport News, Virginia. Between 1994 and 1997, Smith covered Latin America as a reporter in Dow Jones & Co.'s Mexico City bureau. For 14 years, he was a lead columnist at Village Voice Media in San Francisco. He came to Reveal from The Bay Citizen. Smith holds a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Before his career in journalism, Smith was a professional bicycle racer. He is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.