Ornitthologists don't often capture the national imagination. But when Jim Stevenson shot a cat he'd seen stalking endangered birds, he hit a cultural nerve.
People magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times dispatched reporters to interview the Galveston bird-watcher. They recounted in loving detail how, two years ago, he saw a gray-and-white tabby stalking piping plovers on the beach. After going home to check state law on feral cats, he drove his Galveston Ornithological Society van back to the beach and carefully aimed his .22.
A Galveston County grand jury indicted him on charges of animal cruelty, a felony. If convicted, he faced up to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine. The case ended in a mistrial on Friday.
In court last week, the legal questions were narrow. Was the cat actually feral? And if it was a pet, should Stevenson have known that?
But the larger story raised larger questions. Are humans responsible for all animals, or just for our pets? In the age-old showdown between cats and birds, are we now obligated to take sides?
What makes a cat owner?
Mama Cat, the tabby in question, was part of a feline colony headquartered under the San Luis Pass toll bridge. An elderly toll collector, John Newland, fed the cats there and brought them bedding and toys.
According to press reports, Newland didn't take the cats home. He didn't have them vaccinated, and he spayed only the few he could catch. Galveston law prohibits cats on the beach, but the members of the colony roamed wherever they pleased.
Under Newland's care, the colony was growing. Some members were abandoned house cats, but most had been born there, near the bridge.
Newland gave them snuggly names — Mama Cat's colleagues included Precious and Cuddles — but the wild-born cats were anything but snuggly. In front of a Wall Street Journal reporter, when Newland bent to pick up a black cat named Maggie, she clawed his face, drawing blood. And Maggie, it should be noted, was among the tamer specimens, one who'd at least let Newland approach her.
Were the cats Newland's pets? To me, that seems dubious. Feeding and naming animals is sweet, but it's not the same as taking full responsibility for them.
So were the cats wild? They weren't fending entirely for themselves. But they don't seem domesticated, either. They seem somewhere in between.
Piping plovers. Sitting ducks.
The birds Stevenson loves exist in a similar gray area. Piping plovers fend for themselves, but they also need human protection.
In 1986, the little orange-legged shorebirds were named an endangered species in the Great Lakes region, where fewer and fewer were spending their summers. In Texas, where they winter, piping plovers are considered threatened. According to the Nature Conservancy, "the species remains in serious danger."
Some species thrive around human beings, but piping plovers aren't one of them. They nest right on the beach, where their sandy coloring makes them hard to spot. Without meaning to, beachwalkers and off-road drivers often squash plovers' nests and eggs.
But pets pose an even bigger threat. Plovers' original habitats didn't include cats and dogs, and the birds have lousy defenses against those nimble predators. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the American Bird Conservancy and the National Audubon Society have all expressed alarm over the threat feral cats pose to the birds.
Faced with a cat, a plover's first instinct is often to stay still, to depend on camouflage that doesn't protect it against a hunter with a keen nose. And if stillness doesn't work, instead of flying away, the 2-ounce bird might then stagger down the beach, faking a broken wing to distract the cat from its nest.
Even a slow cat can catch a staggering plover. And to the cat colony under the bridge, the plovers at San Luis Pass must have looked like a buffet.
Stevenson considered shooting a feral cat to be practically a public service, a bit of volunteer wildlife management. He saw himself as controlling an invasive, non-native pest that was preying on an endangered species.
It was vigilante eco-justice, of course, and even in the name of biodiversity, you can't go around shooting cats on the beach — at least, not any more. Since September, a new Texas law protects all cats, both tame and wild.
In theory, laws also guarantee the safety of the plovers, too. Federal law protects threatened species, and Galveston doesn't allow cats on its beaches.
But cats are notorious scofflaws. They don't obey signs, and they don't worry about fines or felonies.
Enforcement is up to their owners. And if Mama Cat was John Newland's pet, then it was his job to control her.
Jim Stevenson was the animal lover on trial for his part in the San Luis Pass debacle. But he wasn't the only animal lover at fault.