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.
A Friend to Felines
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. Oh, and there's a mother with new kittens.
Each cat gets a mound of moistened kibble but only fleeting affection. Fleming believes, as do most pet owners, that cats deserve love and attention. For these creatures, though, it's better if they do not become too trusting of people. Not everyone is soft on strays.
Yes, Fleming acknowledges that her cats kill birds, and this makes her uncomfortable. "I love all animals equally. And there's no doubt that a well-fed cat will continue to hunt. Unfortunately, that includes birds. But what's the alternative? Do you want to kill all these animals too?" She points to the cats surrounding her--black and orange and white and gray, spotted and solid, all eyeing the bowl in her hand. "What's the alternative? These cats didn't do anything to deserve to be killed."
Stiffening, she adds: "And let's face it, the real damage to wildlife in this world comes from humans."
Fleming has been feeding here for 12 years, taking over from "two little old ladies who died." She is now middle-age, and she hopes that someone "will take over for me when I can't go on."
But she does not just feed cats. Fleming and her 100 friends call themselves SoBe Spay-Neuter Inc. In two years, they have sterilized 2,000 of South Beach's estimated 10,000 strays, notching each one's ear to prove it. A start. Fleming says the result is a shrinking stray cat population in Miami Beach, an observation shared by city officials.
Still, Fleming has no illusion about the colonies dying away even if she controls their reproduction. Others keep coming. People discard cats like rubbish. People share their houses and yards with cats for years and never truly claim them. People move away and leave the cats behind with the unpaid rent. People tire of cleaning the cat box and lock the door. A house cat produces a surprise litter in the laundry room--oh, dear, put the kittens in the park where the little old ladies will feed them.
Fleming spends four hours a day on cats--an hour feeding and three hours trapping them for sterilization, or responding to calls of abandoned kittens, or trying to find homes for strays, or nursing the sick. Her concern is widely known in the neighborhood, and once she had to ransom cats stolen from her car. Can you imagine?
Her apartment is full of sacks of food, traps, cat carriers and, of course, her own seven house cats. Her bathtub sometimes squirms with rescued kittens. She spends about $5,000 a year on cat food. She pays the homeless to watch over her colonies.
If not for such people, cats by the long ton would go hungry, get sick, die. Or be killed. Los Angeles took in 25,609 cats last year. For lack of adoptive homes, 80%, or 20,375, were put to death. Nationwide, the toll reaches millions.
When it comes to cats and birds, German philosopher Georg Hegel's axiom seems apt: Tragedy is when two sides are irreconcilably right. Because just a short drive away, in Miami's Coconut Grove, Dennis J. Olle is a compassionate animal lover too.
He is conservation chairman of Tropical Audubon, the Dade County Audubon Society. In 20 years, he watched cats spread through every park in the region. He recorded a decline in migratory birds, a decline in water birds, a decline in resident songbirds.
"It's devastating," he said.
Granted, human regard for wildlife, for birds, is substantively different than for pets. House cats make people feel good about themselves; wildlife makes people feel good about the world.
A lawyer, Olle vaults from his desk without a backward glance. With a tour of local parks, he will demonstrate that birds need help too.