With her Kitty Bungalow Charm School for Wayward Cats, Simons and her assistants have for the past eight years intercepted, spayed, neutered and released or rehoused more than 8,000 feral cats in Los Angeles. As ongoing dilemmas of city life go, stray cats can rank up there with potholes and downed power lines; they are as much a part of the landscape as the trees and the traffic and the tragedies.
But when people talk about the at-risk members of a society, they usually forget about the wildlife. Shawn Simons doesn't forget.
His name was Mittens. Simons and her husband originally built a fence to keep out the mean, surly tomcat. Emblematic of the exploding cat population of the West Adams area to which they'd moved, Mittens one day just threw himself at their feet. Ravaged by mange and fatigue. Reduced from a rough alpha to a pathetic cripple. "My husband was really the animal lover," Simons says. "I didn't grow up with animals. I never wanted to be a vet. I never wanted to have a pony when I was little."
What she did want, however, was to solve a problem.
Simons, 49, a former reality TV producer, realized that she could no longer bear the rigors and inertia of that job shortly after she began rescuing cats. The original Kitty Bungalow Charm School for Wayward Cats — first located in a 1979 Travel Trailer, then a small coach house and now a 1,700-square-foot complex — was inspired by the street urchins in Dickens' Oliver Twist.
Simons quickly discovered that if she was only rescuing the kittens across the already overpopulated cat landscape, and not addressing the root of the problem, "I could do that for the rest of my life and only rescue the cats coming from my backyard," she says. During her time developing Kitty Bungalow, she's become an unusually aware and involved community organizer, learning about everything from hyper-local politics to no-kill shelters to the technique known as TNR (trap, neuter, return) — something she calls "the first real tool to solve the problem" of cat overpopulation in Los Angeles.
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While all those neutered cats might indicate a great success story for Kitty Bungalow, the reality is slightly more complex. "We're working on a proposal now to talk with some of the big organizations, like the ASPCA and Best Friends, about changing how funding is approached for TNR," she says.
Closing out colonies of feral cats is Kitty Bungalow's ultimate goal — not just allocating funds to various areas of Los Angeles, because cats in heat can be notoriously nomadic. If that weren't enough, the city of Los Angeles issued a TNR injunction eight years ago on behalf of local bird watchers, vexed that so many feral cats were biting their beloved birds.
This meant "no speaking about, no educating, no funding, no anything about TNR," which of course means that people who don't know any better — were they to look to the city for guidance — likely would take feral cats to shelters, where they're eventually exterminated. Also forbidden from recommending people to Kitty Bungalow are the ASPCA and Best Friends — both of which operate from buildings on city property.
It's a challenging, maddening and downright draining process — or, as Simons rather memorably puts it, "Charity is hard."