By Tench Phillips, Naro Cinema
I never gave cats much thought. My wife and I were long-time dog people and didn’t really know any cats. But all that changed a few years ago when a neighborhood stray came into our lives. He was a young black cat that retreated from any human contact. Angela patiently befriended this skinny little creature and eventually caught him. She had him vetted and neutered. He tested positive for feline HIV, fairly common among male outdoor cats. We were given conflicting opinions on whether he should be euthanized. But his stoic grace, keen intelligence, and piercing green eyes justified any risk that we would be taking on.
We brought him into our canine household to keep until we could find him a home. Our two large dogs were upset with the intruder and we feared possible carnage. But he soon navigated our home and gradually tutored all the unknowing dogs and humans in the esoteric ways of the cat. He settled in and seemed to be genuinely grateful for his new home.
Since then we have trapped numerous outdoor cats and kittens who were living in the environs around Angela’s yoga studio in Virginia Beach. We have been fortunate to be able to find homes for all of the cats that could be socialized. Some have ended up living with us and have become part of our growing household. They have led us to discover a whole underground world of outdoor cats. And we’ve connected with a grassroots network of their caregivers.
Cats have lived in the world for some 25 million years, much longer than the primate lineage of homo sapiens. Their unique relationship with humans began some 12,000 years ago in North Africa and the Fertile Crescent, the geographic region where some of the earliest developments in human civilization occurred. One such development was agriculture. As people abandoned their nomadic lifestyle and settled down to farm the land, their stored grain attracted rodents. Middle Eastern wildcats preyed on the rodents and scavenged the garbage that all human societies produce–just as feral cats do today. Over the millennia, a new species of cat eventually evolved that naturally made its home around people: felis catus. Today all pet, stray, and feral cats belong to this species that we call the domestic cat.
For centuries cats migrated around the world in the holds of ocean-going ships. They were brought along to keep rodents from eating their food supplies. But cats propagate exponentially when left unchecked. Combined with the exceptional adaptability of cats, it has resulted in a serious threat to ecosystems by an invasive species. There are now an estimated 70 million feral and outside cats living in the U.S. and about the same number of family cats living in American households.
There’s been a long-standing and on first glance, a persuasive argument for the need to eradicate feral cats so as to combat cat overpopulation. But these programs aren’t popular for good reasons. Many people who feed and care for outdoor cats are reluctant to call the city’s animal control department for assistance because they don’t want the cats trapped and killed. As a result these outdoor cats have been left to themselves to reproduce.
Nearly three and a half million cats are brought to the 13,600 community animal shelters in the U.S. every year. Of this total approximately 1.4 million cats are not adopted and are put to death–nearly 40% of the total brought in. Of those, it’s close to 100% of all feral cats that are killed since they are not easily socialized and cannot be adopted. These shelters define these deaths as being ‘euthanized’. But the original meaning of this label was to describe the humane killing of terminally ill or untreatably injured animals. The term ‘euthanasia’ masks what really happens to healthy animals in pounds and shelters–they are killed. The number one documented cause of death for cats in the U.S. is being killed in a shelter.
More recently the introduction of programs such as ‘Trap, Neuter, and Release’ (TNR) have been promoted by some local shelters and such national organizations as Alley Cat Allies. TNR makes for great public policy and is why so many cities are adopting it. TNR stabilizes cat populations, greatly reduces the number of calls of concern about cats that municipalities receive, decreases kill rates at shelters, and saves municipalities money.
With so little funding being allocated by government to manage outdoor cats, citizen advocates have volunteered to take on the responsibility of caring for outdoor cat colonies and of trapping cats. In contrast to the killing of healthy cats by government animal control, the goal of these grassroots networks is to keep cats alive and healthy while reducing their numbers. The results speak for themselves. The population of cat colonies located in municipalities that participate in TNR is shown to level off and then decrease as the program gains exposure and volunteers.
So why is there still so much resistance to TNR despite the accumulation of evidence providing positive results? Well, there are legitimate concerns about wildlife depletion due to the release of cats back to the outdoors. There are also public health fears about cat colonies spreading disease to people. And there is the belief that outdoor cats live short lives of extreme discomfort and suffering; immediate death is considered a better outcome for them.
But let’s look at the reality of these concerns. Although cats hunt and kill birds, they prey mainly on small rodents. I’ve watched as my cats wait motionless for hours while waiting for voles or mice to appear from their burrows. Although my cats have infrequently caught birds in the past, they are much less capable of pursuit of active birds and mammals. And in comparison to the number of bird fatalities caused by collisions with mirrored glass windows in office buildings, cats are responsible for significantly fewer deaths.
Public health studies recognize that feral cats do not spread disease to people. Outdated policies based on fear, hype, and hysteria serve neither the public nor the cats, and will only result in more cats being killed. The majority of outdoor cats are healthy animals. They evolved outdoors and until recently have always lived outdoors. And of course their lives can be improved by providing cat shelters and food.
Although the legality of TNR performed by citizens and non-profit organizations was left unclear during the last Virginia administration, TNR has received legal protection in a recent ruling by state Attorney General Mark Herring’s office. This was a victory earned through the diligence of such advocates as Rob Blizard, the executive director of the Norfolk SPCA.
Rob has been at the forefront of raising awareness of citizens and government about TNR through educational programs and lobbying efforts. Norfolk SPCA is a no-kill shelter and has significantly influenced the policies of other Hampton Roads shelters and helped reduce the number of domestic animals killed. The shelter provides inexpensive as well as free programs for area residents to spay and neuter dogs and cats. PETA has also been instrumental in educating the public and providing low cost spay and neuter programs locally.
But how can we find more homes for adoptable cats? Many of us are excited about the opening of a new venue in Ghent whose mission is to partner with local rescue organizations and shelters to adopt out more cats. Catnip Cat Cafe is based on a business model that has proven successful in other cities. Cats will live at the cafe and be able to roam the cafe freely and interact with customers in a cat-friendly environment. Potential owners will get to experience the personalities of the cats in a public space. The cats will become more socialized to people and to other cats. It’s a win-win for everyone!
Now imagine if the experience provided by a cat cafe was taken outdoors and to the streets of an entire city. That’s the story told in the new documentary ‘Kedi’ coming to the Naro Cinema. It was filmed in Istanbul, Turkey where for centuries there have been multitudes of Turkish cats that freely roam the city. Claiming no owners, these cats live between two worlds, neither wild nor tame. They bring joy and purpose to those caring people who they choose to adopt. ‘Kedi’ will show on Wed, April 12 with speakers and discussion about the film and local cat issues.
Cats are quite unique among our animal brethren. I don’t know of another animal species that is quite so adaptable, perceptive, and intelligent. A cat can be fully integrated into the lives of humans and yet at the same time be completely independent and wild. We have heard the reasonable arguments that advocate for keeping our adopted outdoor cats inside the house. But it ain’t so easy. I challenge anyone to alter the behavior and willpower of an outdoor cat who has grown up on the streets and wants to return outdoors.
Indeed the whole idea of keeping cats exclusively indoors only became feasible during the mid-twentieth century with the advent of kitty litter, canned cat food, and inexpensive spay and neutering. Previous to that, the task of keeping active cats indoors could be a difficult and frustrating experience for both humans and cats.
Feral cats live healthy, natural lives outdoors, just as cats have done for thousands of years. Removing healthy cats that can’t be socialized from their outdoor home and into shelters is a death sentence–and there is nothing humane about it.
Yes, cats have been way too successful in colonizing the world. And yet the environmental impact of felines is insignificant when contrasted to the most destructive invasive species that the world has ever known–ourselves.
Upcoming Film Events at Naro Cinema
In addition to his acclaimed film Jackie, prolific Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain made this film about his country’s beloved poet Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) set in Chile in the fifties. Forced underground by the right-wing government for his communist writings, Neruda goes into hiding with a perseverant police inspector (Gael García Bernal) hot on his trail. Neruda cunningly plays with the inspector, leaving clues in a perilous game of cat-and-mouse. In Spanish with subtitles. Shows Sunday, March 19. Free admission provided by AARP.
REVOLUTION: NEW ART FOR A NEW WORLD
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution and the overthrow of the Russian monarchy by the proletariat, acclaimed filmmaker Margy Kinmonth (Hermitage Revealed) brings the artists of the Russian Avant-Garde to life. It tells the stories of artists like Chagall, Kandinsky, and Malevich – pioneers who flourished in response to the Utopian challenge of building a New Art for a New World, only to be broken some twenty years later by Stalin’s authoritarianism and the culture of Socialist Realism. Shows Tuesday, March 21. Presented by Chrysler Museum.
This is the story of an artistic genius and one of the most important choreographers in the world. Ohad Naharin has redefined the language of modern dance. Shows Wed, March 22. Presented with the Governor’s School for the Arts.
THE FREEDOM TO MARRY
The most surprising things about the same sex marriage movement is that, actually, it was carefully planned and orchestrated over the decades. This historical film is an intimate account of its key players, and a primer for revolutionary change. Shows Wed, March 29 with speakers and discussion.
THE AGE OF CONSEQUENCES
Through the lens of national security and global stability, a look at the impacts of climate change on increased resource scarcity and migration. Viewers go beyond the headlines of the conflict in Syria, the social unrest of the Arab Spring, the rise of groups like ISIS, and the European refugee crisis–and lay bare how climate change stressors spark conflict. Shows Wed, April 5 with speakers and discussion.
Hundreds of thousands of Turkish cats roam the metropolis of Istanbul freely. For thousands of years they’ve wandered in and out of people’s lives. Claiming no owners, the cats of Istanbul live between two worlds, neither wild nor tame–and they bring joy and purpose to those people they choose to adopt. The film just may change the way you think about cats and man’s relationship with them. Subtitled. Shows Wed, April 12 with speakers and discussion.
FlickIt! presents the following film events
These are the armies of the night clash in this stylized, poetic thriller from action director Walter Hill. Shows Friday, March 17.
The 25th Anniversary showing of Quentin Tarantino’s heist classic with a great ensemble cast. Shows Friday, March 24.
On April 4, 1984, the fictional hero of George Orwell’s classic novel begins the taboo practice of keeping a diary with “Down with Big Brother”. Shows Tuesday, April 4.
The staff of an independent record store tries to stop their store from being sold to a large, corporate chain. Shows Friday, April 7.