An Army of Cat Lovers Is Feeding L.A.'s Feral Felines. Should They Be?

It's 2 a.m. on a Tuesday and Janice Modin is in her Burbank driveway, cramming every square inch of her Honda Fit with jugs of water, cans of food and stacks of cardboard. It's a messy kind of Jenga that, having repeated it thousands of times, Modin is good at. On this particular morning, even the dashboard is stacked with Styrofoam containers.

Every day, from 2 to 6 a.m., the 74-year-old drives a carefully orchestrated 20-stop route that takes her winding through Burbank, North Hollywood and Sun Valley. From 5 to 9 p.m., Modin repeats the route with a few variations. She times her morning trip strategically to dodge traffic, to be mostly cloaked in darkness and to avoid angry business owners and residents who aren't cool with the swarms of feral cats Modin feeds.

At each stop she parks and hops out of her car, piles food onto the cardboard and watches with glee as the cats flock to feast. In places where all the cats don't get along, she hastily cuts disposable plates into quarters and puts a dollop of food on each, allowing the animals to eat in private.

Modin has been feeding these cat colonies for about five years, rain or shine, Christmas and New Year's. She's sacrificed travel plans, birthday parties and sleep. "I only missed one night last year, because my brother and sister-in-law had their 50th wedding anniversary," she said. "I went to Portland, Oregon, for one night."

Modin herself was married, but her husband died more than 20 years ago, suddenly, from a heart attack. The couple had no kids but did have three cats. Modin continued working, as a flight attendant, until the age of 69, and when she retired she was faced with a lot of free time. She took tennis lessons, worked in the garden, explored photography and volunteered at the Wildlife Waystation in Sylmar, where she helped take care of lions and tigers.

One day, as she was leaving a paint store, she spotted a man sitting on the sidewalk and playing with some kittens. Modin went over to speak with the man and volunteered to get them spayed and neutered.

From there, she began to expand the circle of cats she fed and had fixed — from a single litter to more than a hundred.

"Maybe they're my substitute kids," Modin says. "I guess I like to be needed or something."

The Kitty Bungalow has found homes for 750 kittens in about five years.
The Kitty Bungalow has found homes for 750 kittens in about five years.
Photo by Danny Liao

Modin is a "feeder," part of a large and largely unorganized network of cat caregivers who sacrifice time, money and human friendship to feed — and often spay and neuter — felines that live in the wild. Surveys conducted in other parts of the country show that anywhere from 8 to 26 percent of households feed cats they do not own. These aren't all devotees who sneak out under the cover of darkness to care for multiple colonies but may include your neighbor who simply feeds a hungry stray outside her back door.

But feeders might be doing as much harm as good. And the city's plans to step in and humanely reduce the feral cat population have been stalled for years by a legal battle.

There are a lot of feral cats in L.A.; though it's impossible to truly get a handle on the population, estimates of Los Angeles County's feral cat population range from 1 million to 3 million across the county — which could be as many as one cat for every four humans. The city is an enticing place for cats to live for many of the same reasons it is for humans: the warmth, the landscape, the plentiful food.

The cat-human relationship is not always harmonious. The Los Angeles Unified School District includes feral cats on its "Pest Management" guide and bans the feeding of cats on campus due to the risk they pose to children. The L.A. County Department of Public Health advises residents to avoid any interaction with feral cats because they might be carrying fleas infected with typhus, which can spread to humans through the fleas' feces or bite. Although it's commonly treated with antibiotics, typhus can result in complications such as hepatitis or intestinal bleeding. L.A. County documented 379 cases of flea-borne typhus between 2001 and 2014, according to the state Department of Public Health.

Feral cats may also carry toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease that's spread through a cat's feces. Symptoms often begin like a flu but in extreme cases can develop into seizures, brain infections and schizophrenia. Pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems are especially at risk.

A trapped feral cat at North Central Animal Shelter
A trapped feral cat at North Central Animal Shelter
Photo by Danny Liao

And feral cats pose a tremendous risk to wildlife. Each stray cat is estimated to kill dozens of birds every year — and outdoor cats are estimated to kill between 1.7 billion and 3.4 billion birds annually in the United States.

Historically, cities have tried to manage feral cat populations with one main strategy: elimination. This basically entails rounding up feral cats and euthanizing them.

An alternative to elimination, known as Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR), has been employed by cities nationwide as a way to reduce feral cat populations and drive down euthanasia numbers. TNR is exactly what it sounds like, and its intent is to keep cats out of animal shelters (where many will end up dead) while keeping their numbers down by preventing them from procreating. Supporters say the technique is effective and humane, but wildlife advocates and environmentalists say it continues to put other species, particularly birds, at risk.

The no-kill movement, according to Travis Longcore, science director of the Urban Wildlands Group, "is simply a decision that the lives of dogs and cats are more important than anything else that one might be considering."

In 2005, the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services was in the beginning stages of building its own TNR program. But a decade later, following a lawsuit and an injunction against TNR, the city's euthanasia rate remains higher than other major metro areas. In the 2013-14 fiscal year, L.A. animal shelters took in 11,723 cats; they euthanized a little more than 5,000 (including cats brought in by their owners). In 2014, New York's central animal shelter system took in more than 18,000 cats and euthanized 3,946 of them.

Although Los Angeles has been successful in reducing dog euthanasia rates — currently more than 80 percent of dogs leave shelters alive — that number drops closer to 55 percent for cats, says Brenda Barnette, general manager of L.A. Animal Services. Many of the cats that are euthanized are kittens, she says, often younger than 10 weeks old. Over the past five years, nearly 30,000 newborn kittens have been killed in L.A. animal shelters — compared to the approximately 1,000 puppies that have suffered the same fate.

"Not being able to spay and neuter the cats is a big problem," Barnette says. "We believe it's resulting in the needless death of cats."

When Shawn Simons and her husband bought a 100-year-old Craftsman home near West Adams, they had no idea that there were already tenants living on the property: a colony of feral cats.

"We started waking up in the springtime to little kittens pouncing around the yard," Simons says.

Simons now runs the Kitty Bungalow Charm School for Wayward Cats, which traps, neuters and releases feral cats throughout Los Angeles (last year Kitty Bungalow's team spayed 1,146 cats, according to Simons). Simons also works to socialize feral felines so they can be adopted. The Kitty Bungalow has found homes for more than 750 kittens in about five years.

But even with individuals such as Modin and organizations like Simons', TNR doesn't stand much chance of success until the city joins the effort.

In 2008, the Urban Wildlands Group and five other wildlife organizations filed a lawsuit against the city demanding that it refrain from implementing TNR until a review of environmental implications could be completed. In 2010, a permanent injunction was issued that barred city officials from talking about, supporting or facilitating TNR in any way.

In 2013 the city finally completed an environmental review and prepared a draft report detailing how its proposed citywide cat program would affect wildlife and the environment in Los Angeles, as well as how to minimize any negative effects. The review stated that when people feed feral cats, they are often inadvertently feeding skunks, raccoons and other mammals as well. As a remedy, all feeders would be asked to take "reasonable measures" to stop any animals besides sterilized cats from getting to the food.

Critics of the report said it failed to accurately represent TNR's real environmental impact. If the city wants to get the injunction lifted, it may have to conduct an Environmental Impact Report — a more thorough, costlier version of what it has already done — and the project may be stalled at least another year. According to Barnette, L.A. Animal Services doesn't have money in its budget to do the study anyway.

For almost as long as L.A. Animal Services has been duking it out with wildlife advocates, Vera Matz has been feeding feral cats at a large industrial complex on the outskirts of downtown. Matz, a 53-year-old graphic designer, says she didn't become a cat person until 2006, when she started giving her leftover sandwiches to the skinny cats that were dumpster-diving outside the downtown building where she worked at the time. Then one day, a pregnant cat got in Matz's car and she brought her home, where the cat gave birth to six kittens. After taking them to the vet, Matz posted pictures of them on Facebook to find them permanent homes.

Janice Modin goes out every night to feed feral cats.
Janice Modin goes out every night to feed feral cats.
Photo by Danny Liao

Matz doesn't work downtown anymore, yet more than a decade later she still makes the approximately 10-mile drive every night to feed the handful of cats that live behind her old building.

"I never set out to find them or anything," Matz says. "But sometimes I feel like maybe I was there for a reason, you know?"

Every night at around 7 p.m., Matz grabs her dog, Otis, and a Trader Joe's bag full of cat food and water to make the trek from her Baldwin Vista home to downtown L.A. Her only respite comes when, once in a while, a friend does the feeding for her. But it's not the commute that's stressful, Matz says; it's the fear of getting caught.

"I feel like I'm a criminal," she says.

Matz has clashed with the owners of the building, who have wavered between indifference, annoyance and outrage at her feeding of the feral cats. At this point, the handful of felines that call the lot home are all spayed, neutered and vaccinated, Matz says. But she imagines it's only a matter of time before management kicks out her brood and she is forced to relocate them.

"If they get rid of the cats, they think they've taken care of the problem," she says. "Wherever there's people and trash and whatever, there's going to be more cats."

Dr. Julie Levy, a veterinarian, researcher and professor at the University of Florida, is optimistic about the odds of TNR's success. In a 2003 study in which she measured the effectiveness of TNR on the university's campus, Levy found that a long-term TNR program, coupled with aggressive adoption policies, can help reduce stray and feral cat populations. However, TNR can fail as people begin abandoning unsterilized cats in the colonies.

Levy is a TNR trailblazer who in 1998 founded Operation Catnip of Gainesville in Florida. In 17 years, the nonprofit has neutered more than 45,000 stray and feral cats within Alachua County, she says. The euthanasia rate in Alachua County has decreased by 92 percent since the program — complemented by an aggressive adoption program — started, according to Levy's research. This may bode well for Los Angeles.

"Southern California is a lot like Florida in that both share a mild climate that facilitates successful cat reproduction, sensitive wildlife areas, rapid human population growth and development, and a growing public commitment to environmental protection and animal welfare," Levy told the L.A. Weekly via email.

Despite TNR's effectiveness in a small college town, the city of Los Angeles is a whole other beast. "The concept is sound," Levy says. "The question is whether we can scale it up."

Prior to 2010, San Jose, California, had a 70 percent cat euthanasia rate. The city then enacted a policy to neuter and release unadoptable cats. As a result, the city shelter has reduced the number of cats it takes in by 30 percent and increased its save rate to 80 percent, according to John Cicirelli, director of San Jose Animal Care and Services.

Shawn Simons, left, and Stacy Sanders of Kitty Bungalow Charm School for Wayward Cats
Shawn Simons, left, and Stacy Sanders of Kitty Bungalow Charm School for Wayward Cats
Photo by Danny Liao

Cicirelli says most of the feral cats they encounter know where to find food, where to sleep and how to live life as a street cat.

"From our perspective, the cat has everything else figured out," Cicirelli says. "Our role really is managing their ability to reproduce."

Although San Jose's population is less than a third the size of L.A.'s, Cicirelli points to other metropolitan areas that have robust TNR policies, such as New York City and Jacksonville, Florida.

Los Angeles Animal Services is working with the city attorney to figure out an alternate route for getting the TNR injunction lifted.

The city's TNR plan does account for areas where there are protected species and plants, and it designates these areas as no-feed zones, Barnette says. "We tried to map out certain areas that we felt should be protected," she says. "We're Animal Services — we like all animals."

But if it were up to Longcore, of the Urban Wildlands Group, the injunction would stand indefinitely. Longcore supports a feral cat policy that bans the feeding of stray and feral cats and establishes more stringent guidelines for cat ownership, such as requiring cats to be licensed and owners to keep them on their own property. He also thinks spay/neuter vouchers should be reserved for pet cats only, and people should continue to trap cats and drop them off at shelters — where they likely will be euthanized.

"There are legitimate and well-documented public health consequences of exposure to the cats themselves, and also fleas and feces," Longcore says, adding: "Every time you put out food and leave it, you are actually feeding raccoons and skunks and coyotes."

If feeding feral cats were to be criminalized, it likely wouldn't deter Modin, who fills up her car with gas twice a week for her cat-feeding route and goes through more than 1,500 cans of wet food in a month.

"I get up and I go to some of these places and I say I'm too tired, I can't do this anymore," she says while driving her early-morning route. "And then I see that little black cat running toward me. I couldn't not do it. I cannot not do it."

After 45 years as a flight attendant, Modin is entitled to unlimited passes on Delta Airlines, giving her the freedom to go anywhere in the world that Delta flies. But she refuses to leave town. There's no one else to feed her cats.

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