GALVESTON, TEXAS — Jim Stevenson says he is not the hate-filled serial cat killer he has been made out to be.
But if he was shooting the feral cats that roam the sand dunes of this picturesque Gulf Coast island, argues Stevenson -- the founder of the Galveston Ornithological Society -- he would be breaking no laws.
In his view, he would be performing a public service by saving the lives of beautiful birds at one of the nation's best bird-watching locales.
"These birds, virtually all of them, are protected by state and local laws. Do we ignore what is happening with these stray cats, or do we finally stand up and do something about it?" Stevenson said. "Sometimes you get pushed to a point where you can no longer ignore a situation."
Galveston law enforcement officials say Stevenson shot a cat to death this month near the San Luis Pass Bridge on the island's west end. They have charged Stevenson, who has traveled the world studying his beloved birds and written four books, with felony animal cruelty.
"This was a wild cat that was out there, and he felt it was endangering some birds, so he shot it. It's cruelty," said Galveston Police Capt. Edward Benavidez, who added that it was not the first report police had heard of cat killings in the area.
Stevenson, 53, halfheartedly professed his innocence during an interview -- while jokingly comparing his stance to that of O.J. Simpson in his now-derailed book, "If I Did It."
Stevenson's words, past and present, have cast suspicion on him and have stoked a passionate debate pitting cat fanciers against bird-watchers.
In a 1999 posting on an Internet bulletin board for bird lovers, Stevenson nonchalantly described killing many feral cats during his first year living on Galveston Island. He rationalized his acts as a way to restore the natural order.
"I'm sorry if this offends -- but I sighted in my .22 rifle, and killed about two dozen cats," Stevenson wrote in his message, titled "killer kitties; kittie killers."
"When we allow feral cats to roam free, we might as well be out there with BB guns plinking away at the songbirds ourselves," he added. "Regardless of what you think about killing an animal, you must ask yourself if one stray cat's life is worth more than dozens -- or hundreds -- of wild birds already bowing to the stresses of cars, TV towers, pesticides, loss of habitat."
In the interview, Stevenson did not deny writing the message, or killing numerous cats in the past around his small, big-windowed house near Galveston Bay. But he stopped short of confessing to shooting the cat the morning of Nov. 8, a crime for which he could get up to two years in prison if convicted.
He did volunteer that the night before, he saw the cat stalking a piping plover, a light brown bird with a white belly that is considered threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
"It really bothered me," he said. "I felt something had to be done."
A tollbooth worker named John Newland, who feeds the feral felines and considers them his pets, reported the killing around 9 a.m. He heard gunshots, spotted a bloody cat and saw a man speed away in a white van. Police stopped the van and found Stevenson with a .22-caliber rifle.
This week, Newland, 68, visited the flower-adorned grave below the toll bridge where he buried the feline he called Momma Cat. The white and gray tabby was pregnant when she was killed.
Nearby were buried several cats that Newland is convinced also died at the hands of Stevenson. "That's cruelty, if there ever was cruelty," Newland said of the killings. "I just can't get it out of my mind."
As he put out bowls of fresh food and water, a large black cat came up to Newland, brushed against his hand and purred. Since the shooting, he said, many strangers had stopped by the tollbooth to drop off money to help him feed the cats.
"There are a lot of cat lovers, I've found," he said. "Unfortunately, I've found that there are also cat haters."
Stevenson's arrest was not his first legal tangle over the treatment of animals: Records obtained under the Texas Public Information Act show that he was cited by Texas game wardens in 1996 for illegally capturing birds and possessing turtle parts.
This month's cat killing and the emergence of the Internet writings suggesting Stevenson may have killed felines in the past shocked some in this oceanfront city, population 60,000.
"We were very upset, as you can imagine," said Caroline Dorsett, the executive director of the Animal Shelter and Adoption Center of Galveston Island, which has an active group of volunteers that catches and neuters the wild cats in an effort to reduce their population. "I think it's sad that someone like this gentleman, who clearly cares a lot about one animal species, appears to think nothing of hurting another species."
Since spending two days in jail after his arrest, Stevenson, who edits the local bird-watching publication, "Gulls n Herons," has achieved a certain notoriety. He said he has received e-mails threatening to shoot him if he targeted cats. But he has also received messages of support, including one offering him bullets.
Stevenson has begun a legal defense fund that he plans to advertise on his website, and portrays himself as a martyr for frustrated bird lovers.
"Some people have said I created this whole mess on purpose. But I'm just a dumb Southern boy," the native of Tallahassee, Fla., said with an awkward laugh. "I'm just trying to help."