Joined: 24 Jan 2005
Location: on the right after the big tree
|Posted: Sun Sep 02, 2007 4:27 am Post subject: I had to choose who dies...
|This was a story that presents an interesting moral dilemma...
Texas Cat Fight:
Bird Lover on Trial
For Feline Felony
'I Had to Choose Who Dies,'
Mr. Stevenson Says;
The Toll Taker Gives Chase
By BARRY NEWMAN
September 1, 2007; Page A1
GALVESTON, Texas -- Before he pulled the trigger, before the car chase, before the cops ran him down and threw him in jail, Jim Stevenson had a calm look at the Texas penal code, and judged that it would permit radical measures in defense of a piping plover.
This month, a jury may decide if the 54-year-old founder of the Galveston Ornithological Society was acting within his rights when he impeded the progress of a bird-stalking predator by means of a bullet. Mr. Stevenson is due to stand trial for felony cat murder.
"There are people with the wrong perception of this," he said in his Chevy compact on a stormy morning, driving along a wide beach at Galveston Island's western tip, where curlews, egrets, stilts and herons strut in the tide pools. He stopped at the pilings beneath the San Luis Pass bridge: the scene of the crime.
"They see it as a choice," said Mr. Stevenson. "Does Jim shoot the cat or not shoot the cat?" A kitten poked its head out from behind a boulder. Bigger cats streaked away. "But that's not the choice," he said. "It's a choice of who dies, the cat or the bird. By acting or not acting, I had to choose who dies."
So Mr. Stevenson made his choice, and let fly his bird-watcher's fury at the national plague of feral cats. The American Bird Conservancy numbers kitties-gone-wild at close to 100 million, and claims they kill hundreds of millions of birds. It wants more wild cats euthanized and all house cats kept in the house.
A cat-activist movement led by a group called Alley Cat Allies traps and fixes feral cats and lets them loose again. It claims cats don't threaten birds any more than other hazards like tall buildings and windmills, and that sterilized colonies fade away. It's against euthanizing on principle. But birders say fixed cats kill birds, too, and newly abandoned cats make new kittens anyway.
For Mr. Stevenson, who has followed the argument for years, it finally came down to this: Are feral cats pets or pests? "It's not like I didn't think about that -- all night," he says.
The night was last Nov. 7. Tiring of the election returns, Mr. Stevenson drove to the beach, 15 minutes from his house. His headlights picked up a pod of piping plovers, an endangered shore bird. They were asleep, and a lame cat was creeping up on them. Mr. Stevenson flushed the birds. The cat skittered into the dunes.
He drove home and went online. Galveston's city code required pets to have tags. It banned them from the beaches. That cat had no tags and it was on the beach. Texas penal law made it a crime to kill animals, but only those "belonging to another." Mr. Stevenson slept on it. Next morning, he picked up his .22-caliber rifle, got into his Ornithological Society van, and went cat hunting.
Not for the first time. A bird-watcher's bird watcher, Mr. Stevenson has 5,000 species on his life list. He moved here from Florida in 1996 to lead bird tours, put out a bird newspaper and write bird books. He built a house in a copse where birds find food -- and so do bird-eating cats. On his own property, and therefore within the law, he has picked off at least a dozen.
"Point blank, right in the ear," Mr. Stevenson says.
On that morning, as he tells it, it only took a minute for him to spot the limping cat under the bridge. He rolled down his van window part way, rested the rifle barrel on the edge of the glass, and squeezed off a shot. "That cat dropped like a rock," says Mr. Stevenson, who then heard a "spewing of profane language" from up on the bridge.
It was the toll taker, John Newland. Mr. Newland, who is 69 and a former real-estate broker, picks up the story: "I ran out and hollered," he says. And while another toll taker called the cops, "that idiot took off. I said, 'I'm gonna get him. So I jumped into my truck and ran him down all the way to Jamaica Beach." Which is where Mr. Stevenson was met by four police cars.
Mr. Newland is now the prosecution's star witness. The grand-jury indictment, handed up in April, identifies him as the "owner of said cat," Mr. Stevenson's victim. Under Texas law, killing somebody else's animal without permission, no matter how, can buy two years in the pen. But the state's case depends on proving that the cats under the San Luis Pass bridge are Mr. Newland's pets.
He is down there with them most days after his toll-booth shift ends, sprinkling food from sacks into plastic trays. "Nobody else takes care of them," he said one afternoon at feeding time. "I've got to think of them as my cats." Mr. Newland has buried the cat-at-issue beside a pillar and marked the grave with paper flowers.
"Here's Maggie," he said as a black cat approached. He bent to pick her up. Maggie snarled and scratched at his face. "She's not real tame," said Mr. Newland, brushing away the blood on his cheek.
Some cats under the bridge are cuddlier because they are house cats that people dumped. But most are born on the spot, and most die young. Mr. Newland doesn't get any of them vaccinated or licensed. He hasn't heard of the feral-cat plague or programs to stem it. The only cats he gets neutered or spayed are the few he can catch.
"They're leery of those traps," he said, eyeing a stripy tom on the prowl. "That's the daddy. He's the one I'd like to fix, but I can't corner him. Worse than bin Laden." He emptied a can of cat food into a bowl and called out for his kitties. "They'll probably kill a bird," said Mr. Newland. "That's just a cat's instinct. But all I'm doing," he added, "is feeding some homeless orphans."
Galveston's assistant district attorney, Paige Santell, is positive a jury will agree that Mr. Stevenson killed Mr. Newland's cat. "I understand ownership as being care, custody and control," she says. Mr. Stevenson's lawyer, Tad Nelson, points out that people who feed pigeons in the park can't claim to own them, to which Ms. Santell replies: "They don't always feed the same pigeons."
The larger issue, Mr. Nelson says, is how "a person like Jim Stevenson, who has based his life on the preservation of birds" can be accused of cruelty at all. Mr. Newland has an answer: "I don't shoot owls and hawks that kill my kittens. It doesn't work that way. He's got no right to go out and just shoot any creature."
Yet when the legislature passed the cruelty law in 2001 it was only after somebody gouged out a puppy's eyeballs. In toughening the law this year, members said they were mainly thinking of the sort of person who might run over a cat with a lawnmower.
"In the minds of Texans," says Shannon Edmonds, a lobbyist for state prosecutors who helped draft the statute, "if you shoot something, that's not being cruel."
In his Chevy, tallying birds on the beach at San Luis Pass, Mr. Stevenson had his own definition of cruelty to animals: "Turning a house pet loose in the wild." As for Mr. Newland, he said, "I don't fault him for feeding cats he sees as hungry. All I fault him for is trying to run me off the road in his pickup truck."
Just then, Mr. Stevenson spotted a reddish egret wading in a tide pool. He lowered his window, rested his camera lens on the edge of the glass, and squeezed off a shot.
Change happens when we become aware of what we are already doing.