We live in a country of cat lovers. About 80 million cats live in our homes today, but what about the other 80 million living outside of the house?
In this episode of Reveal, we take a look at two cats whose fates diverged – one, an invasive predator, is encouraged to thrive and hunt; the other, a native wildcat, is being hunted and trapped.
Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.
Section 1 of 3 [00:00:00 – 00:14:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al : From the Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX, I’m Al Letson, and this is Reveal. Americans have an obsession with cats. [Meowing song] The one’s we have in our homes, the ones living out on the streets, people are even passionate about big cats. You might remember the media circus over Cecil the Lion.
Woman: Poor Cecil. How many lions do we have left, do you have to kill them all? What are our kids, what are our grandkids, going to see when they’re older? It’s not right.
Al : So, my dear listeners, you might be asking yourself, why are we doing a show about cats? No, it’s not just for all the web traffic we’re hoping to get, although that would be nice. Nope, jokes aside, this is serious business.
We’re going to dive into the debates and see what’s behind a multi-million dollar effort to save one kind of cat, a feral cat, and why millions are made in an industry that traps and kills another type of wild cat, the bobcat.
We get started in the back woods in Mountain Canyons, where bobcats live, and die.
Trapper: [inaudible 00:01:09] See the size of that track?
Al : Last winter Reveal reporter Tom Knudson hopped on an ATV with a fur trapper in the rugged Nevada outback. He’s hoping to catch an animal most American’s never see, the bobcat. It’s about 2 to 3 times the size of a house cat, with a thick darkly spotted coat that’s kind of sandy brown on top and white underneath. To attract one, this trapper has a trick up his sleeve. He parks his ATV and walks towards a silvery strand hanging from a low branch over one of his traps.
Trapper: See that shiny Christmas Ornament there?
Tom: I do see it. It’s sort of like tinsel isn’t it?
Trapper: It’s sort of like tinsel. You know the saying, curiosity killed the cat, they’re curious about that, so that will draw them in towards the trap. They’ll hopefully just step right on that and I’ll come back tomorrow and have one.
Al : There’s a catch. The steel jaw traps he’s using are so hazardous and indiscriminate they’ve been banned in more than 80 countries, yet are legal across most of America. It’s not just how bobcats are caught that’s controversial, it’s the gruesome way many are killed to protect their pelts from bloodstains. Death by strangulation.
Tom: Do you choose your method of dispatch, the .22, is that for humane purposes?
Trapper: Yeah, I want to kill them instantly, I don’t mess around with that.
Tom: Choke pole, you don’t like that?
Trapper: No, I don’t like that, because I feel that, if they’re suffering, you’re choking them to death.
Al : He, and other trappers Tom met, asked not to be named out of fear for their own safety.
Trapper: I’ve had the notes in the traps that if they find me they’re going to shoot me, they’re going to beat me, they’re going to do what I did to a bobcat, or to a coyote.
Tom: And you say you’re reluctant to be named because you’ve had phone calls?
Trapper: Yeah. Burn my house down, they’re going to burn my truck down, if they find me in the desert they’re going to shoot me, and it’s … it’s kind of that feeling of human life is not valued over an animals life. Even though it is a legal sport, that is regulated, that is governed by the state, that we are allowed to do and we pay to do.
Tom: What do you say to the other side, who thinks that this is a practice that should be left in the 19th century?
Trapper: Well, in the long run mother nature is a lot crueler. Their side, it’s hard, there’s no middle ground, it’s so biased to one direction and another. Trappers are 100% for, and people who don’t agree with the trapping world is 100% against it. We’ve always had the mentality to just hide, stay unheard, unseen, because it’s just how it is.
Al : Here’s the thing. Americans are quick to condemn illegal poachers of elephants for their ivory, or trophy killing of animals like Cecil the lion, but what about legal trapping of bobcats on American soil? Trappers will tell you, they’re out here for the nature and tradition, but as Tom’s guy told him ridding through the outback, there’s also good money in bobcat pelts.
Trapper: We had heard rumors that the prices were going to be high, and I had one very exceptional, probably the best cat I’ve ever caught, he was a very large male. His color was beautiful, flawless. It wasn’t the highest sold for that year, but 1469$.
Al : The most desirable snowy white spotted pelts will go to the highest bidders, and from there make their way to fur dealers in Europe, China, and Russia, where furs are more popular than in the U.S.
In fact, from 2000 to 2013, the number of pelts exported from the U.S. quadrupled. We follow the trail of those pelts out of the mountains of Nevada to an exclusive Paris show room, where we discover the world’s most expensive bobcat coat.
Roland: Beautiful coats. I happen to ask what the prices might be on these coats, and she said the jacket would be 45,000 euros, and the coat 135,000 euros.
Al : Tracking the bobcat around the world and hunting for answers on how they’re treated, when we return, this is Reveal.
From the Center of Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson, and today we’re talking about America’s feline obsession. Coming up later, the lengths people will go to save common house cats, even when they were never raised in a house. But first, we pick up the story of the big international business of bobcat fur. It all starts in a pretty unassuming parking lot in Fallon, Nevada, an hour east of Reno. It’s a place where trappers gather every winter to sell their pelts, a tradition that reaches back to frontier times. That’s where Reveal reporter Tom Knudson met fur buyer Eric Hansel.
Eric: rendezvous was a well known thing that at this date, at this time, we’re all going to meet right here, they’re going to bring some whiskey, and these guys are going to bring some tobacco, and these guys are going to bring some corn, and everybody traded with the pelts.
Tom: When I met up with Eric, there was no whiskey, no corn, but there were piles of pelts, and trappers plenty interested in selling them.
Trapper: I spend probably sixteen hours a week checking traps. You have to put a lot of work in to get these guys. I’ve been doing that for two months to get one cat.
Tom: In Nevada trappers are only required to check their traps every four days, and it’s those long periods of time that animals sometimes languish in them that gets people upset. Carter Nemeyer has set traps across the west for the better part of fifty years, he says four days is way too long.
Carter: That animal is potentially subject to extreme heat, or extreme cold. Obviously, dehydration is an issue, it’s just not the way to treat a critter, and as a trapper I chose to check my traps every day.
Tom: In some cases the end comes quickly, with a sharp crack of a trapper’s pistol, but in other cases the animals are strangled to death with choke poles to prevent blood stains and bullet holds. Jacob Beechler killed a bobcat that way.
Jacob: This one was chocked, yeah.
Tom: To protect the fur?
Jacob: Yeah. I think it’s just as humane. Honestly, like I said, this cat was unconscious in less than 20 seconds.
Tom: Wow, okay, I gotcha.
Jacob: It was completely dead within a minute, a minute and a half.
Tom: One trapper has even posted a video on you tube showing how it’s done, using a noose suspended from a pole. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Youtube Video: I’m going to try to video dispatching of a cat here.
Tom: Step 1: Dangle the choke pole over the trapped animals head.
Youtube Video: For the most part they’re pretty calm in there usually.
Tom: 2: Slip the noose over it’s neck.
Youtube Video: Just get it on there. Dispatch it and see how it looks.
Tom: 3: Cinch down tight.
4: Watch it thrash, and die.
Youtube Video: Kind of went a little crazy there.
Tom: If that cat had been a dog, the trapper might have found himself in jail. Here in the U.S. we go to great lengths to protect our livestock, pets, and lab animals from suffering, but not bobcats. Carter Nemeyer is one trapper who finds death by choke pole hard to stomach.
Carter: It’s not my style I guess, and I guess it’s like one old trapper told me here not very long ago. He said, man, if you’re going to kill me just shoot me, but for God’s sake don’t strangle me to death.
Tom: In a sense bobcats are betrayed by their own beauty.
Pelt Buyer: So you wonder why we’re over there, when we’re looking at your pelts to buy them.
Trapper: Counting spots, you’re darn right.
Pelt Buyer: You know we’re …
Trapper: You’re trying to make sure it’s really fresh.
Pelt Buyer: Trying to make sure it’s a fresh cat.
Tom: Back at the first sale in Nevada, Eric Hansel shows me what fur buyers like him are looking for.
Eric: We want this black and white, like the Cruella de Vil, where she was all about the white with the black spots, the dalmatian, same thing with the bobcats.
Tom: Eric hands me a business card with a photo of a young woman in a striking bobcat coat.
Eric: My guy is an actual end user, he is a guy that makes them into garments, makes coats like that.
Tom: Wow, what would that sell for?
Eric: Well, if it was all the way to the ground, with the full sweep and the hood, it could be $150,000.
Tom: That’s amazing.
Eric: You’ve got to understand, there’s 70 bobcats in that garment.
Tom: The name on the card read Michael [Paupus 00:09:53], a fur dealer in Los Angeles. I called him, but he didn’t want to talk much. Later, I found a federal database that showed he was one of America’s top bobcat pelt exporters. A few years ago he sold 327 pelts for about 300 grand to Eve Solomon, a high end Paris fur retailer. The store was on a French fashion program not long ago.
Tom: Eve Solomon himself said that concerns about animal welfare help make his business more ethical. The interviewer asked him what he meant by ethical.
Translator: It means the fur, where the animal is treated according to extremely strict rules imposed by veterinarians.
Tom: By coincidence an old friend, Roland Lamberson, was vacation in Paris, so I asked him to drop by the Eve Solomon shop.
Roland: It was one of the most fun things I’ve done in a long time. It was great.
Tom: My friend Rolie is a down home dresser, more comfortable in Patagonia than pinstripes. That didn’t matter though when he told the sales lady at Eve Solomon he was looking for a bobcat coat. She led him to a special high roller section in the back, and there they were.
Roland: Beautiful coats. I happen to ask what the prices might be on these coats, and she said the jacket would be 45,000 euros, and the coat 135,000 euros.
Tom: That’s about $50,000 for the jacket, and for the full length coat, $150,000 Making it one of the most expensive fur coats in the world, just slightly out of Rolie’s price range.
Roland: The astonishment of the price registered on my face, and it became clear to her, I’m certain immediately, that I was no longer a customer.
Tom: So, we’ve seen how bobcats are caught, killed, and sold, I wanted to hear from the fur industry, to get their take, so I reached out to Keith Caplan, communications director for the Fur Information Counsel of America. He promotes the fur industry, and even gets their products on TV.
Keith: You’ll see fur on Empire, it fits the character of Cookie.
Empire Show: Cookie, listen to me, listen to me!
Empire Show: Girl, get your hands off my fur, what!
Keith: We were right in there with other designers making product available to the production.
Tom: Fashion though is just a by-product he says. A more important reason for trapping is population control.
Keith: Well, I think we’ll see, similar to what we’ve seen with mountain lions, and coyotes, they’re coming down into residential areas. There’s growing concern among even parent groups at schools in the area to address the coyote problem.
Tom: So you think bobcats could pose a threat.
Keith: We believe so.
Tom: Don’t lose sleep over it, well not unheard of, bobcat attacks are exceedingly rare. They don’t reproduce like rabbits. Some wildlife professionals say there is no need to control them by trapping, but what about the criticism that trapping is cruel and barbaric?
Keith: Well, look, I’m a city guy who works in the fashion industry, so while I do have some involvement on the production end as far as understanding the truth about what happens, because I wouldn’t be here speaking on behalf of the industry if I didn’t know that. My onsite experience with this kind of thing, as you might imagine, is pretty limited.
Tom: That’s true for many people, but as suburbs push out into open country, many pet owners are learning more about traps than they’d like.
Keith: Often the stories you hear are about a dog being caught in these traps. I think there is a responsibility that the pet owners have.
Tom: How is that playing out in bobcat country? While most people probably have never seen a steel jaw trap, in places like Nevada you don’t have to go looking too far for them.
Don: One day, about 35 years ago, I was out on a winter day with my dog.
Tom: That’s Don Moldy, a 78 year old retired psychiatrist from Reno.
Section 1 of 3 [00:00:00 – 00:14:04]
Section 2 of 3 [00:14:00 – 00:28:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Speaker 1: Don Mouldy, a 78-year-old, retired psychiatrist from Reno.
Don: We were looking for wild horses, looking for any resident birds. We walked down in the gully, looked around, and next thing I know, my dog’s in a trap. She was not happy. Fortunately I was able to let her out. While I’m inspecting the trap site, she’s off investigating something else. Lo and behold, she gets caught a second time, in a second trap.
Speaker 1: Don says traps are turning open spaces and hiking trails into minefields. He’s a leading anti-trap activist in Nevada. Over the years, Don’s become a connoisseur of the contraptions. He keeps a collection that he couldn’t wait to show us.
Speaker 3: Looks like it has two pretty powerful springs and a very short chain. Mr. Mouldy is going to trigger this thing for us.
Don: All right, are you ready? There you go.
Speaker 1: Don shows us some of the tools he takes with him when he goes hiking these days.
Speaker 3: Kind of an unusual assortment of tools to go backpacking with. Why do you do that?
Don: Well, because if I want to do something with traps, I’m prepared.
Speaker 3: Do you spring the traps?
Don: Yeah, I think I usually destroyed some of them. You’d be amazed, if you take the chain, wind it up a couple times and whack it on a boulder, goddamn trap just flies all over the place. Pieces go everywhere.
Speaker 1: Sometimes, though, the traps aren’t empty.
Don: You’re out sometimes in the boondocks and you’ll hear the rattle of a chain. Tells you something’s in a trap, close by, and you let your conscience be the guide.
Speaker 1: For him, that means freeing whatever’s in the trap. Pets, coyotes, even bobcats. Public records show that dozens of species, from bald eagles to mountain lions have been caught by accident in steel-jaw traps over the past two decades. Don is suing the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners. He says it has failed to protect wildlife and domestic pets from traps. In other states, activists have taken the issue directly to voters.
Camilla: It was Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts, California, Washington that have all banned leg-hold traps through the ballot measure process.
Speaker 1: That’s Camilla Fox, Executive Director of Project Coyote and a veteran anti-trap crusader. She helped persuade voters to ban traps in California.
Camilla: I really believe in variably if we give the public the opportunity to weigh in on this, they want to see not just leg-hold traps banned, but trapping banned, in general.
Speaker 1: It’s not just activists, though, who feel things must change. So does Carter Neimeier. He’s the retired Federal Wildlife Biologist and Trapper we heard from earlier. He knows more about capturing animals than almost anyone.
Carter: Trapping must be conducted in a human, ethical manner, or the few people who still engage in this, they are going to lose that right and privilege. Trappers, above all else, should be cleaning up their act and trying to do things in the most thoughtful, humane manner possible, or trapping can go away.
Speaker 1: Carter actually talks to animal advocates, which earns him few friends in the trapping community.
Carter: The average trapper out there considers me a turncoat, a whistle blower, so I’m not anti trapping, I’m trying to promote people’s awareness that if you’re going to trap, do it right.
Speaker 1: He believes checking traps once a day is a must, that a gunshot is the most humane way of killing. He also says trappers should be better educated, that like hunters they should be required to take a course before they get a license, especially in times like these, when pelt prices are climbing.
Carter: There’s a lot of people that go out there and engage. It’s kind of like a gold rush. There’s gold been discovered in the hills and then probably a couple of guys who know how to find the gold and everybody else is just a menace to the people around them. Personally, as I’m older, I kind of wish the bobcat could wear his fur and keep it himself, rather than have somebody wearing it.
Speaker 1: But in the canyons of Nevada, where this story started, bobcat trapping is a tradition that won’t fade away soon.
Speaker 6: We do love the animals, we do, but we like to eat too, and we like jackets, and that’s all a part of it. We are truly in the wild, wild west. That’s what it’s all about. If I’m blessed to get an animal, that is just the icing on the cake.
Al: There’s a little postscript to this story. Tom has only seen a bobcat once in his entire life, but he decided to go out with a bobcat whisperer. I didn’t even know there was such a thing, so Tom, where did you find this guy?
Tom: [00:19:11] Daniel Dietrich is his name. He runs a company called Point Reyes Safaris. Just as you can go to Africa on safari, you can meet Daniel, our guide, on the far west coast of America, north of the San Francisco Bay Area and spend a day on safari. When we arrived, he said, “We saw three yesterday.” I didn’t exactly roll my eyes, but I’d been in situations like this before, on fishing trips, where you show up and the fishing was always great yesterday. We just got in the car, rolled out into the national seashore to see what would happen.
Daniel: It’s always that initial pressure, until you see one, take the pressure off. Most important thing when we see them, is if we see them, I’m just going to stop the car and nobody move and let’s just relax and let the cat just dismiss us as a threat.
Tom: An hour or so later, here we are on the side of a hill and I’ve got to give him credit. Our trustee Reveal producer, Ike, spots something up on the hill.
Daniel: There it is. [inaudible 00:20:18]. The way it sat down to hide when we stopped makes me think it’s a bobcat, but I can only see the ears sticking out. He’s right on the edge of the ravine, where the little [inaudible 00:20:35] area is.
Tom: We have a cat.
Daniel: Good eyes, Ike.
Tom: Sure enough, it’s a bobcat, crouched on the side of a bush. Again, you could have mistaken it for a boulder, staring at us. We turned the car around quickly so that Ike and I could be on the bobcat side of the car and we started staring at it.
Daniel: Lower left of the dark shadow. Here is comes, he’s coming out. He’s coming out of the shadows.
Tom: Isn’t that amazing? There he is. Wow, there’s a bobcat in the [inaudible 00:21:12] here and it’s coming our way. We were lucky to see one up close and it’s something that most Americans will never see. I guess you could imagine a wild cat with amber-colored eyes that look at you and watch you very keenly as you watch it. It walks like a cat, it acts like a cat, but it is not a domestic cat, it’s a native cat that’s been here for millennium and it’s incredibly shy, incredibly secretive, and it’s an incredible opportunity to be able to have seen one in the wild. That was really something.
Daniel: That was really super cool.
Tom: I’ve been wanting to see a live one for 10 months. I’ve seen some pelts in pickup trucks and in parking lots, but I wanted to see the live critter and we did it. Thank you.
Al: That story was produced by Ike [inaudible 00:22:35]. Coming up next, we go from the elusive bobcat to the cats in your own backyard. Millions of them don’t have homes, but there’s a movement to keep them alive, with thousands of people spending their spare time to care for the cats.
Speaker 9: We love those cats. Those cats depend on us. Some of them, yeah, they love us. I don’t know if you believe cats can love. I believe animals can love.
Al: Wildlife experts say those good intentions are keeping alive predators that are killing off millions of small animals every night.
Speaker 10: Feral cats are not endangered. Other birds, other wildlife, they are struggling to survive. Many of these are on the brink of extinction. We need to take their populations into account, more so than feral cats.
Al: That story when we come back, on Reveal. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Before the break, we heard about the passion and tradition of hunting America’s native wild cat, the bobcat. Now we’ll hear the lengths that people will go to protect a foreign, invasive feline species, the domestic cat. Where does the fate of these two types of cats diverge? We asked Dr. Carlos Driscoll. He’s a researcher at the National Institutes of Health and is published widely on the domestication of cats. He says domestic cats are the only species we didn’t breed to keep away predators or make milk or eggs. Their only job was to be our friends.
Carlos: We know that around 9,000 years ago, you had a much closer relationship, maybe even an intimate relationship between cats and people. We know this because of a find in Cypress, dated to about 9,000 years ago. There’s a tomb and in that human’s tomb is a kitten that was buried with him. The inference that people have taken from that is that this animal was special to that individual human and when that human died, they buried his cat with him. We know that the relationship had changed from simply an animal that was living amongst us to an animal that was living with us.
Al: Here’s a question for you, that’s most about people than it is about cats. I don’t really like cats. I don’t understand why people love cats. I understand why people love dogs, because I come home, my dog sees me, he gets happy and he gives me love. Cats, I don’t know, they just look at you and they expect to be served.
Carlos: There’s cat people and dog people. Some people like Elvis, some people like the Beatles. What you see as your dog welcoming you home, a lot of people see as kind of a sycophantic, they’re just begging for your attention all the time, whereas cats are a little bit more independent, or a lot more independent. They’re a bit more of a blank slate. You can project on a cat just about anything you want.
Al: There are domestic cats living in every corner of the globe, in and outside of homes. Feral cats, the descendants of domestic cats, are incredible killing machines. In Australia, feral cats kill 75 million native animals every night. That’s right, every night, but when their commissioner of threatened species announced plans to euthanize 2 million feral cats, he met the wrath of cat lovers, including French film star Brigitte Bardot.
Carlos: Madame Bardot was even saying that this is a genocide of cats going on in Australia and that’s because she’s looking at it, I believe from the wrong side. If she were to look at it from the wild animal side, she would see that the genocide is real, but it’s cats that are committing it. The desert bandicoot, lesser bilby, desert rat kangaroo, gould mouse, there’s any number of species in Australia that are extinct now because of cats.
Al: Back in the US, wildlife groups are calling this a conservation crisis because we have even more feral cats than Australia, about four times more. In fact, for every cat curling up on someone’s lap inside, there’s another one living outside, in the US, 80 million of them. You might see them in a park, an alley, your backyard. If you haven’t seen them, you’ve probably heard them. Many people love feral cats as much as they love tame ones and they spend their free time helping to take care of them. People like retired truck driver, Ray Zeeb, who lives in Antioch, California, about an hour east of San Francisco.
Ray: Hi babies! Hi sweeties!
Al: Ray is calling out of the window of his white SUV to a herd of cats running alongside his car. It’s nighttime and the animals are following him to a parking lot off the main drag in Antioch.
Ray: There’s cats right there.
Al: As Ray gets out of the car, his headlights cut through the pitch dark and you can see the bushes pulsating with dozens of glimmering, green eyes. Cats darting around, rolling in the dirt, tussling with one another.
Section 2 of 3 [00:14:00 – 00:28:04]
Section 3 of 3 [00:28:00 – 00:51:00] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al: Cats darting around, rolling in the dirt, tussling with one another. Sound of Ray’s voice is like a dinner bell.
Ray: Hi, Kitty, hi, Bibby …
Al: Ray has been feeding feral cats almost every night for 12 years. He names them and knows their life stories.
Ray: Come on Isabella. Hi, Louisa.
She’s, this is about eleven years old. She was born in that palm tree. Five kittens. Sometimes, we’ve fed up as much as 170. I don’t think we’ve fed 170 tonight, but we went through a darn lot of food there, you know …
Al: Ray is a rugged 72-year-old man with white hair and a white mustache. He’s kind of a tough guy who would seem more at home with his pit-bull than a bunch of cats; but he has a soft spot for them.
Ray: I thought sometimes the best two hours of our life was the two hours of feeding. Basically, you just become addicted to it. You just love them so much, they’re so innocent, especially the babies.
Al: Ray is one of thousands of Americans who do the same thing every night. Feeding feral cats sounds harmless, even humane, but there’s another group that sees feral cats completely differently. People like Grant Sizemore of the American Bird Conservancy consider these cats dangerous predators. He wants them rounded up so they can’t kill native wildlife.
Grant: There were zero domestic cats in North America in 1492, which means that we now have well over 100 million invasive predators now roaming the landscape, killing wildlife. This is something where people need to be paying attention.
Al: Are these millions of feral cats, innocent creatures that we should be saving, or invasive predators killing our wildlife, and who gets to decide? It’s a huge public policy debate in communities across the country. Reveal producer, Adithya Sambamurthy spent the last year documenting how it played out in Antioch, and he had no idea just how heated things would get. He picks up the story, tagging along with cat lover, Ray Zeeb.
Adithya: I’m meeting Ray at his garage. There’s stacks of donated cat food everywhere.
Ray: These are the bundles we get. The donations and stuff come from different stores like Pet Food Express, PetSmart …
Adithya: His garage is a hub for cat lovers who volunteer with the local group. They feed the town’s stray and feral cats and trap them so they can be fixed and then returned outdoors. It’s a program called trap-neuter-return or TNR. They say it’s the most humane way to bring down the number of feral cats.
Susan: Hey, Ray. I have three cats. I didn’t expect to trap three cats.
Adithya: That’s Susan Smith. She’s bringing trapped cats to Ray’s garage. The cats will spend the night here, then go to the vet. Susan has a part-time job at Costco and two sons at home, one of them a foster child, yet she finds the time to feed and trap cats almost every night.
Susan: It is a full time job for me. I do this 24/7. Some of my family members don’t understand what motivates me to do this. I think it’s just something I was born with.
Adithya: She’s been at it for about 6 years now. It’s a big job. There are about 17,000 stray and feral cats roaming Antioch, and they breed quickly.
Susan: Kitty-kitty-kitties. Come on.
Adithya: I want to see what it takes to trap a cat, so I meet up with Susan at a vacant house downtown. The windows are boarded up, the grass is knee-high, and feral cats are everywhere.
Susan: Going to bait the trap with a little wet food.
Adithya: Susan places the food inside a box trap that won’t harm the animals. It’s basically a metal wire cage, five feet by two, with a spring-loaded plate in the back. To trigger the trap, the cat has to step on the plate. That’s where the food comes in.
Susan: … and then some tuna, some albacore, because the smellier it is, the more appealing it seems to be to the cat.
Adithya: She carries the trap behind the house, and then we wait.
Susan: Here comes one. Hey, get your dinner. Come on.
Adithya: The cat sniffs around the trap, cautiously. After a few minutes, it just can’t resist the tuna. When the trap door snaps shut, the cat goes wild, running around in circles.
Susan: Easy. Easy. Calm down. Calm down, calm down.
Adithya: Susan will get the cat fixed, then she’ll bring it right back here, to this abandoned house where she comes every day to feed and take care of the cats. What Ray and Susan are doing is controversial, and a lot of people in town think they’re crazy. Why would you release and feed cats when there’re already so many of them running around? Some people say you should just get rid of the cats. Antioch’s animal shelter is overflowing with animals, including a lot of feral cats. Monika Helgemo runs the place, and she says she has two options when a cat comes in.
Monika: The ones that I can get into a home at some point are the ones that we try to make the spaces for, and unfortunately, the ones that I know I cannot put into a home are the ones that we do end up euthanizing.
Adithya: Monika used to work with Susan’s group to get the cats spayed and neutered, but she stopped after residents and businesses started complaining. We head outside to a neighboring parking lot, and she shows me why people are so mad.
Monika: This whole area right here is a giant litter box. That’s all cat feces. This is all cat feces, and this is one of the areas I have to come out and clean.
Adithya: Monika says there’s about 30 feral cats on this one property alone. She blames Ray and Susan for not cleaning up after the cats, and that’s not all.
Monika: Then you got the wildlife issue. People feeding the cats are also bringing in wildlife to residential areas. I mean, last night, I came and there was big old raccoons, eating, you know, piles of food on that a cat person has left.
Adithya: I wanted to see what Monika was talking about, so I went out with Susan to one of her feeding spots, and left a camera to film overnight. When you look at the footage, you see a large bowl filled with cat food in the middle of a plastic dog house. At first, about five cats crowd around the bowl, but then the first raccoon pops his head inside. The cats take off. Other animals show up. Possums, lots of skunks. You can hear them munching away all night long. It’s an animal smorgasbord. Ray doesn’t see what the big deal is.
Monika: They say that we’re bringing the vermin to the town, the possums, the skunks, the raccoons. I think you could’ve went downtown Antioch long before we lived here, and there were a lot of … Well, I don’t like to refer to them as vermin, they belong there.
Adithya: But some locals keep complaining and county health officials get involved. They see the cat feces carry parasites, and that the raccoons and skunks can transmit rabies and other diseases. By December of 2013, Antioch city officials take action. Little did they know they’re about to start a full blown cat fight.
Male: The city of Antioch is trying to slow down its growing feral cat population with a new ordinance. It would make feeding cats on public property a misdemeanor.
Adithya: Susan and her group decide to fight the ordinance, and they reach out to a national organization for help.
Female: … so, are you guys ready to save some more cats? Woo-hoo!
Adithya: This is the National Conference of Alley Cat Allies in Washington DC. It’s a network of some 250,000 activists. They promote catching and sterilizing cats …
Female: The cat group in Antioch called us for help, and we were glad to send letters to the City Council and educate them on why this kind of knee-jerk reaction of proposing a feeding ban wasn’t going to work.
Adithya: … and Alley Cat Allies offered Antioch grant money for a Trap-Neuter-Return program. They also alerted their network of activists to show up and fight the Antioch ordinance at what turns out to be one of the strangest City Council meetings I’ve ever been to.
Male: Okay, welcome to our regularly scheduled city council meeting. Since we have so many speakers, we’re going to cut the comment time to 2 minutes.
Female: Letting them starve in the streets is simply not humane.
Female: Cats are not the villains in this.
Female: These animals have no voice and they have no rights.
Adithya: Then Susan steps up to the mike.
Susan: We have volunteers spending their time and money. We deserve your cooperation and your appreciation, and not citations.
Male: I’m not afraid of a cat urinating on my foot, I’m afraid of the meth heads that go around my building and threaten me.
Adithya: Councilman Gary Agopian pushes back.
Gary: Nothing in this ordinance stops anyone in this room from doing a TNR program. It doesn’t. You know what? I listened to you, and I want to tell you something. I’ve listened patiently to everyone in this room, and you mocking me is not acceptable. I’m sorry, you should have some respect for this office.
Adithya: Most of the people at the meeting are against the ban, but a handful of bird lovers also show up. They say the cats are decimating the wildlife population, It’s a smaller group, but they’re just as passionate.
Male: First of all, I strongly urge the city council to adopt the revised animal ordinance.
Female: Trap-neuter-release does not address public health concerns, and it does not reduce wildlife impacts.
Male: Feral cats are not a natural resource. Thank you.
Adithya: The meeting remains tense, and the back and forth lasts well into the night. Finally, it’s time to vote.
Male: Please cast your votes. 4 affirmative votes, 1 negative vote, the motion passes. Thank you all for your …
Adithya: That’s it. The feeding ban is official …
Ray: Here, Bibby.
Adithya: … so you can imagine that the next day, I was surprised to find Ray back out on the streets, feeding his beloved cats.
Ray: It’s very disappointing. We bust our butts working to get the food, and now we’re being told, “Just stop.” That’s pretty hard to do. Almost impossible, actually.
Adithya: … and that has bird lovers worried. Paul Shore is the vice president of the local Audubon Society.
Paul: Within the last 5 years, I’ve seen more feral cats being fed, I’ve seen more feral cats out actively pursuing birds. I’m really troubled by the impact. They’re a predator, and they’re an efficient predator.
Adithya: How much wildlife do cats really kill?
Guthrum: Pretty classic kind of cat injury …
Adithya: That’s Dr. Guthrum Purdin from a nearby wildlife rescue hospital. He’s examining a morning dove From Antioch. It’s a young one and it’s missing feathers all along its sides.
Guthrum: … and what happened with this one is the cat managed to get control of him, and bit him right here.
Adithya: Its right eye is swollen. There’s still a visible claw mark just above it. This dove is one of six birds in the clinic, recently attacked by cats from Antioch.
Guthrum: What I see coming in from Antioch is about 10% higher than anywhere else.
Adithya: That’s probably not too surprising, given how many cats Antioch has. The five other birds ended up dying, but Dr. Purdin thinks this one will make it.
Guthrum: It took two surgeries, but at this point, he’s looking really healthy. It’ll be a couple weeks, and then he’ll be able to go back to where he came from.
Adithya: That morning dove is lucky. Researchers at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute estimate that nationwide, cats kill up to 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals every year. We’re talking rabbits, squirrels, mice and rats, but also reptiles, like snakes and lizards, and a surprising number of frogs.
Grant: You know, this is an emerging conservation crisis.
Adithya: Grant Sizemore directs the invasive species programs at the American Bird Conservancy in Washington DC. It’s a bird advocacy group that supports feeding bans like the one in Antioch.
Grant: You cannot introduce 100,000,000 invasive predators and not expect massive impacts. Feral cats are not endangered. You know. Other birds, other wildlife, they’re struggling to survive. Many of these are on the brink of extinction. We need to take their populations into account, more so than feral cats.
Adithya: Grant says releasing feral cats back outside is a terrible idea.
Grant: Ideally, we’d be giving these cats a second chance. These cats can be rehabilitated and re-homed, but if that’s not an option, those cats are unfortunately going to have to be euthanized.
Adithya: There’s no way the cat lovers are going to go for that, and in fact, back in Antioch, three months after the ban on feeding feral cats, Ray and Susan are still out there, night after night, defiantly feeding their cats.
Ray: I’m a really law-abiding citizen. I don’t even get tickets, but I just can’t let the cats die.
Susan: I’m not going to stop feeding cats. We love those cats. Those cats depend on us, and some of them, yeah, they love us. I don’t know if you believe that cats can love. I believe animals can love. We’ll feed at night, we’ll feed them like ninjas.
Adithya: At the animal shelter, Monika Helgemo is fed up.
Monika: How are we going to enforce this when they do it at night, when we don’t have officers on the street? I told them not to and they’re still doing it.
Adithya: Then, in January 2015, the city decides to meet with Susan and the other cat advocates to negotiate a truce that would end the feeding ban. They’re even considering approving a Trap Neuter and Return program. I asked city manager Steve Duran why they were backing down.
Steve: It’s like being Leslie Knope at a community meeting in Parks and Recreation. You can get people that are very passionate about their position, they’re sure they’re right, and so, cities are often in the position of having to try to mediate and then try to get a compromise …
Adithya: But if Antioch caves, will Trap Neuter and Return help reduce the cat population? I looked at a bunch of studies that reached different conclusions, and then I spoke with Dr. Patrick Foley. He’s a population biologist at California State University in Sacramento, and he’s the only academic who’s analyzed two of the largest, longest running TNR projects in the country, one in San Diego, the other in Gainesville, Florida.
Patrick: Cat populations were not significantly going down, and that’s probably the single take-home lesson here.
Adithya: Dr. Foley says the problem is that cats are so fertile, a single female can give birth to as many as 6 kittens in 1 litter. Within 4 years, that cat can have as many as 4,000 descendants, and after 8 years, the number jumps to as many of 64,000, all from one cat.
Patrick: Our calculations show that you need to have about 75% of the female cats be sterilized in order to make this work, and that’s maybe about 10 times as many, roughly, roughly, as their present efforts are making.
Adithya: That means Susan and her team would need to spay more than 6,000 females within a couple of years to start seeing a population decline. Susan told me they’ve only been able to sterilize about 500 cats over the past six years.
Patrick: I appreciate the fact that people at the TNR want to take responsibility. Neutering them is a great idea, but if it’s simply a symbolic idea, it’s not taking responsibility.
Adithya: That brings me to one of the biggest national players in the TNR movement, PetSmart Charities. It’s a non-profit set up by the founders of PetSmart, one of the biggest pet food retailers in the country. The charity gives millions of dollars to hundreds of feral cat groups. Bryan Kortis manages those grants.
Bryan: … and we actually get the bulk of our funding from individual donations from customers who go into PetSmart stores and give a dollar or two dollars at the checkout counter, so there’s obviously a strong relationship between PetSmart and PetSmart Charities.
Adithya: He’s doing more than giving a lot of money to cat groups, he’s teaching them how to lobby their local governments to support Trap Neuter and Return, and he’s got a savvy message.
Bryan: What I tell people is you don’t want to go in there wearing a sweater with paw prints on it and saying, “Please, please, help the cats.” You have to appeal to saving taxpayer money, reducing public health risks by having the cats vaccinated for rabies, having wildlife predation go down simply by virtue of not having as many cats in the environment. These are the points you want to emphasize.
Grant: They are protecting an exploding feral cat population.
Adithya: That’s Grant Sizemore at the North American Bird Conservancy, again.
Grant: PetSmart Charities is one of the organizations propping up trap-neuter-release throughout the country. They’re aware that trap-neuter-release doesn’t work to reduce feral cat populations. They’re aware of the harmful impacts that feral cats have on wildlife. I’ll be interested to see whether or not they continue to support this growing movement.
Adithya: I asked Bryan at PetSmart Charities for his take on that.
20 plus years into the movement, there isn’t any hard science that shows that it works on a community scale. What’s your response to that?
Bryan: I’m totally comfortable with trap-neuter-return moving forward on a much larger scale than it has in the past, even though we don’t have 100% scientific proof that’s been peer reviewed and published that it works on that large of a scale. I’m not seeing any harm that’s going to come from getting outdoor cats fixed and vaccinated. I’m just not seeing it, so no, I don’t think we’re walking down a perilous road.
Adithya: With PetSmart Charities’ money and Alley Cat Allies Network, trap-neuter-return is going mainstream. More than 400 cities and counties now use TNR, and after 11 months of negotiations between city officials and Susan Smith’s group, Antioch is considering whether to join them.
Male: Okay, welcome to our regularly scheduled city council meeting. We’re at Item #4, “Approval of a trap-neuter-return Program for Downtown Antioch” …
Adithya: This time around, there are no crowds, no heated debate, just a quick vote as the city gives the cat lovers what they’ve been fighting for.
Male: … Please cast your votes. Okay, 5 affirmative votes, the motion passes.
Susan: Thank you, Thank you, council members. It just means so much to us that we can continue to care for them, so thank you very much.
Adithya: That was Susan again. The pilot program allows her group to feed the cats, as long as they keep sterilizing them, but only in designated spots downtown, and only during the daytime. Out on the streets, Susan is back to feeding cats, and now she’s official. Her title: “Community Cat Manager”. City officials will review the program after 1 year, and it’s up to Susan to keep the cat numbers in check. That’s going to be tough. Even if she can control the cats downtown, the unfixed ferals in other parts of town are going to continue to breed, and new cats are going to keep showing up. That’s pretty much what was happening on one of the last times I went out with Susan before the City Council voted.
Susan: Haven’t seen that one before, so I have to get her fixed.
Adithya: Susan looked worried.
Susan: I’ve done a lot of TNR, and everywhere I go, it seems like I’m finding a litter of kittens. It feels very discouraging, very overwhelming, considering all the hours and all the personal time I’ve spent out here doing this. You’d think you would notice a difference or a decline in the kitten population.
Adithya: … so I asked her why does she keep going.
Susan: You can’t walk away from it. It’s just once you’re in it, it’s hard to even consider walking away from it. Somebody has to do it, and, you know, that’s just it. Somebody has to do it.
Al: That piece was produced by Adithya Sambamurthy; so while Susan is now in charge of trap-neuter-return, she’s left wondering if it works, and that raises a lot of questions about the money that towns are spending on it, and whether people should be feeling feral cats at all when they can catch and spread disease and kill off native wildlife; and this note: shortly after we wrapped up reporting on this story, PetSmart Charities, the group that hands out grants to fund trap-neuter-and-return programs, announced it was laying off its entire staff. We got in touch with PetSmart’s corporate offices, and they told us they’re reviewing the entire program, but they said they will honor any commitment they’ve already made to cat groups. Antioch is just one of hundreds of towns around the country dealing with the issue of feral cats. You can learn more about what’s happening nationwide in a new film by our producer, Adithya Sambamurthy. It has amazing footage that shows how feral cats are trapped, and how they track and kill native wildlife. Check it out at revealnews.org.
Today’s show was edited by Patricia Flynn, with help from Andy Donohue and Amy Powell. our lead producer was Ike Sriskandarajah. Reveal’s production staff includes Stan Alcorn, Fernanda Camarena, Julia B. Chan, Peter Haden, Delaney Hall, Michael Montgomery, Neena Satija, Laura Starecheski, and Amy Walters. Our editors are Deb George and [inaudible 00:50:15]. Our lead sound designer and engineer’s my man, J Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs. Our head of studio’s Christa Scharfenberg. Susanne Weaver’s our executive editor, and our executive producer’s Kevin Sullivan. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.