This Year's CatCon Wasn't Just About Internet-Famous Cats

The spcaLA adoption fair at this weekend's CatConLA
The spcaLA adoption fair at this weekend's CatConLA
Photo by Kelsee Becker

There’s really only one person to ask about what CatConLA was like this weekend, and that’s the original cat lady — er, Catwoman.

“Awesome. Awesome, incredible. I don’t know why this didn’t happen before,” said Julie Newmar, who played the slinky feline fatale in the 1960s Batman television series, during her meet-and-greet at the convention this weekend. “People are so excited. Look at them!”

Droves of young men and women circulated past the lounge where Newmar was seated. Nearly everyone wore both a cat-themed shirt and a huge smile. They shook their heads in awe and clutched at one another, eager to chatter over the cat toys, cat clothes and other cat paraphernalia. Hundreds of vendors offered a dizzying array of cat-centric wares, including wine for cats (nonalcoholic, naturally), complimentary manicures featuring cat decals (human nails only), feline-focused fashion and a $400 litter box.

It was a quirky affair perfectly in sync with a burgeoning mainstream cat culture that makes being a "crazy cat lady" cool.

“The purpose of CatCon is to spread joy and goodness to cats and the people who love them,” said Susan Michals, the event’s founder. “It’s also about changing the perception of the cat lady.”

To this particular end, Michals brought in a platoon of cat-loving celebrity guests. In addition to Newmar, Kat Von D, Mariel Hemingway, Rachael Ray, Andy Milonakis and even cat celebrity Lil Bub made appearances or lent their names to CatCon events, which took place this weekend at both the Reef and the Theatre at Ace Hotel downtown.

Beneath the fun and pizzazz, an undertone of advocacy permeated the weekend's proceedings. Many people were just as eager to talk about their furballs back home as they were to discuss the welfare of cats living on the streets. As interest in pet cats continues to grow, so does concern for their homeless counterparts.

I mean, who could resist?
I mean, who could resist?
Photo by Kelsee Becker

L.A. is home to loads of cat owners and cat lovers, but it's also home to a rapidly growing stray and feral cat population. The city has literally millions more cats than it can handle. By some estimates, there is one stray or feral cat for every three city residents. (A stray is a tame cat that used to be owned by someone but now lives on the streets after running away or getting lost. Truly feral cats are totally unsocialized to people, rarely seen in daylight and can be aggressive.)

Cat-population experts estimate that 90 percent of these 1 million to 3 million free-roaming cats have not been spayed or neutered. These same experts report that the average litter contains four kittens, that the average mother cat gives birth twice each year and that she may begin to do so as young as 6 months old.

“Many people have thrown their hands up with the population issue,” said Madeline Bernstein, whose organization, Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles (spcaLA), hosted an adoption fair at CatCon. “As an industry, we’ve made progress with dogs but not with cats.”

Where do all these street cats come from in the first place? The first issue is that many people don’t take care of their own pet cats. “People, not infrequently, abandon cats much more than dogs,” said Peter J. Wolf, founder of Vox Felina, a blog on science and policy issues related to cat-population management.

“And with the math being what it is, as you can imagine, it doesn’t take long for their population numbers to get out of control.”

A second factor are well-meaning residents who feed L.A.’s street cats. People take it upon themselves to care for the animals, but in doing so they often make the population problem much worse. If the cats are intact, meaning not spayed or neutered, more food means more opportunities to reproduce. As the number of cats in a given colony balloons, enormous pressure is put on city institutions responsible for managing the stray and feral population.

Brenda Barnette, general manager for the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services (DAS), said it’s a problem the city knows far too well. “When our officers get a call that a neighbor has ‘too many cats,’ we often see a well-intentioned individual who started feeding the cats,” she wrote in an email statement. “The cats multiplied and the situation is out of control and is not good for the cats, the neighbors or the person who was trying to do a good deed.”

A third problem is that feral and aggressive cats can't be put up for adoption. They're simply housed for the statutory holding period and then put down when their time is up. Not picking up free-roaming cats keeps shelter intake numbers lower and reduces euthanization figures. Of course, it also leaves more cats on the street, unfixed and reproducing like mad, which ultimately exacerbates the situation.

Prior to 2010, the city had begun trapping stray and feral cats, neutering them at a facility and returning them to their territory to continue their lives without the ability to reproduce. This method, known as TNR (trap, neuter, release), drew the ire of the Urban Wildlands Group, which advocates for birds, squirrels and lots of other little critters that fall prey to free-roaming cats. The group sued and won. In the judge’s ruling, the city received an injunction against practicing TNR. Now, not only can DAS not perform TNR but it can't inform city residents of the private organizations that do, and it can't give shelter cats to TNR groups unless those groups sign an agreement not to carry out the “release” part of their program.

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When DAS does catch cats off the streets, especially feral ones, it more or less has one way of dealing with them. “We are faced with having to put those cats to death,” Barnette stated.

Euthanizing the cats en masse doesn't even help with the population numbers, the cat experts claim. Say the city goes in and eradicates an entire colony from behind an apartment building downtown. It won’t stay that way for long because cats respond to the “vacuum effect,” meaning that when a habitable spot is no longer one cat colony’s territory, another one quickly forms to fill the void. That new colony can easily grow to be larger than the one before it.

A much-needed nap after a long day at the adoption village
A much-needed nap after a long day at the adoption village
Photo by Kelsee Becker

The result is that city shelters often are bursting at the seams with cats, even as it puts down thousands of them — including feral cats and newborn kittens — each year. “I don’t think anyone would argue that managing those cats through impoundment, followed by lethal injection, is a good use of tax dollars,” Wolf, the Vox Felina blogger, said. Meanwhile, the street population continues to grow, more or less unabated.

To Wolf and his colleagues, it’s an intolerable status quo. Where the city is hamstrung, nonprofits and volunteer groups have stepped in to grapple with the cat crisis.

The largest among those is FixNation, an organization that carries out free TNR operations in as many parts of L.A. as it can reach. Located adjacent to the Burbank airport, the facility is abuzz on any given workday before 8 a.m. with volunteers bringing in the night’s catch. Multitiered carts roll by on the laminate floor, loaded up with blanket-covered wire traps. Petrified street cats are shrouded inside, unaware that they are the centerpiece of a debate that brings together areas as disparate as city budget politics and animal welfare advocacy infighting.

“Our mission is to reduce the population of homeless cats, sterilize as many of them as we can, and demonstrate that TNR and colony management is the way to go,” said Karn Myers, co-founder of FixNation. “We’re fixing anywhere from 80 to 100 cats a day now.”

Of the free-roaming cats that end up at FixNation, the majority  return to the streets within 24 hours of their trapping. Those that don’t are the ones deemed tame enough to get adopted out. Naturally, adoption is another piece of the puzzle in getting cats off the streets, but it doesn’t make enough of a dent because there are simply too many cats and not enough cat lovers.

You wouldn’t know it for the crowded scene at CatCon this weekend.

Myers saw the event as an opportunity to captivate an audience of cat lovers who may not even know about L.A.’s street-cat problem. FixNation had a very large presence at the convention. In addition to a floor-to-ceiling sign in the lobby at the Reef, the nonprofit had a 200-square-foot booth that was constantly packed during the weekend. Visitors were drawn in by a photo booth, as well as games and puzzles that encouraged winners to become “TNR heroes.” In addition to that, a portion of each CatCon ticket sale went to support the FixNation clinic.

“It really is an awareness effort,” Myers said. “We’re very grateful to [founder Susan Michals].”

Across the hall, spcaLA completed 97 adoptions at CatCon this year, nearly double last year’s figure. Here and there, all weekend, a family would head to the elevators toting a cardboard cat carrier with a 2-month-old kitten inside. The organization will follow up with a series of its own adoption events, after which Bernstein expects she’ll be out of cats at least until October. “Of course, with global warming, breeding cycles are happening more and more frequently,” she said.

And there are other ways advocates are attempting to get a handle on the cat population. Believe it or not, some parts of the country actually have cat shortages, and L.A. cat groups have begun transporting this city’s surplus to adopters in those regions. FixNation and spcaLA both have sent small groups of adoptable cats and kittens to areas where they are in demand, Myers and Bernstein said.

Could Los Angeles ever have a cat shortage? “It’s a stretch to think about,” Wolf said. “But it’s pretty remarkable to see it happening anywhere. It certainly gives us hope.”

The street-cat population is a problem that won’t be resolved overnight, but it’s no coincidence that spcaLA and FixNation had such a prominent presence at the biggest cat event of the year. For Michals, her convention is not only a fun event aimed at changing the popular perception of cat people; it is her contribution to the cause of rescuing stray and feral cats.

“It’s huge,” she said. “I wouldn’t be doing CatCon if I wasn’t concerned about kitties across the board.”

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