60 million cats and the curse of compassion Strays: An estimated 300,000 kind souls are trying to cope with 60 million abandoned cats. Day after day, a mostly female army is out there caring for America's feline homeless.

Sun Journal

January 10, 1998|By John Balzar | John Balzar,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- Sixty million abandoned cats run loose in America. That's the latest estimate of experts -- a pure guess, of course. Susan Fleming believes that about 10,000 roam the barrier island of Miami Beach. That's a guess, too. Fifty of these cats she calls hers. And even that is a rough calculation at any given time.

On this sultry sundown, just as every night, seven days a week, Fleming ventures out and feeds them. She waits for cover of darkness, because there is no guessing about this: Cats are causing big trouble in the land. Nature and the nature of cats are in collision. Cats are killing birds. Cats are killing small wild creatures. Animal lovers find themselves disturbed and angry, and divided about what to do.

With so many million cats now roaming backyards, open lots, beaches and parks, no less of an organization than the Humane Society of the United States, a group born of pet owners, has now joined in the call: It's time to bring all cats indoors and keep them there. For the good of the cats and wildlife.

Conservationists say hurry up, it's about time.

Felines don't get a voice in the matter, but those who would speak for them say don't sacrifice cats -- it's not their fault.

As never before, Americans are being asked to alter their ancient bond with the domestic cat.

"OK, kids," Susan Fleming coos down an alleyway, clanging spoon against bowl. Cats bound over fences, drop down from trees, squeeze from underneath buildings, tails erect, eyes aglow, mouths watering.

From a car that smells of sodden kibble, Fleming makes 13 dinner stops in a territory of just a few square blocks.

Elsewhere in the back streets and parks, along the boardwalk and around the dunes, a hundred or more people, mostly women, divide up the city. They fan out with bowls and buckets. Some feed twice as many cats as Fleming. Others, ones and twos.

Nationwide, untold multitudes are out feeding cats. Extrapolating the density of Miami Beach's feeders to the entire nation, there could be 300,000 people like Fleming, digging into their own pockets to pay for cat food, answering what she calls the "curse of compassion."

The question of cats in America has long pitted cat and bird fanciers in Hatfield and McCoy neighborhood feuds.

The Humane Society, the largest animal organization in the country, anguished about the conflict for years. This autumn, it joined with the American Bird Conservancy and assumed leadership in redefining the proper place for cats in a crowded nation:

One, the groups declared, cats should be subject to municipal animal controls, or protections if you prefer, just the same as dogs.

Two, it's no longer responsible to let your cat roam.

After lagging behind dogs for most of the 20th century, cats have become our most popular and numerous pet, with 53 million of them in 34 million households. The Humane Society estimates that 60 million roam the country without owners. Total cats: 113 million and surely increasing.

To rein in house cats and, even more, to rid the nation of free-ranging felines, says Humane Society vice president Wayne Pacelle, the most "radical notion" for pet owners since the campaign for spaying and neutering began in earnest in the 1950s.

Even this hardly says enough.

The people who own cats, and particularly those who accept responsibility for unowned cats -- cat people, as they sometimes are called -- can be righteous crusaders. Cats, after all, are innocent of everything except their nature. They are, like children, blameless. Cat people must protect them.

Driving through Miami Beach, Susan Fleming is talking about her friends who help feed the homeless cats. "She's a nut," Fleming says of one. So is another and, later, a third is revealed to be a nut. Good people, but nuts.

Does Fleming get called a nut?

"All the time," she laughs. "My boyfriend calls me a real nut. OK kids." Clang, clang. "This guy here is Tuxedo. He's 11 years old. I've had him since he was a kitten. I've never been able to touch him."

Clang, clang. When Hurricane Andrew lashed the South Florida coast, most people prepared by boarding up their homes. Fleming, who owns several apartment buildings in South Beach, raced around trapping her stray cats. She locked them in empty upstairs apartments with tubs of food and water. Otherwise, they would seek shelter under buildings where a storm surge would drown them.

To venture into these side streets as a stranger is to see only garbage cans and backyard fences. But cats are attuned to the vibrations of Fleming's car. They have dinner reservations. By the time she pulls to a stop, they have materialized in colonies of three, five, seven. Clang, clang. Some have names; others are recognized by color. Here's a newcomer. This tomcat has been around from the start. These two are brothers. There's a mother with new kittens.

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