Must Cats Die So Birds Can Live?

Illustration by Bigshot Toyworks

All winter, Peter Marra’s children had been pestering him to get a cat. It was ironic, he thought as he walked up the snowy path to his modern farmhouse in Takoma Park, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. Especially now, when the country’s cat lobby had him pegged as the Josef Mengele of felines. In his years as a research scientist at the Smithsonian Zoo’s Migratory Bird Center, Marra had produced many studies on different threats to bird life, like glass buildings and wind turbines, but none received as much attention as those featuring cats. Since its publication in the January issue of the journal Nature Communications, his team’s paper, “The Impact of Free-Ranging Domestic Cats on Wildlife of the United States,” which placed the number of birds felled by felines at 1.4 billion to 3.7 billion per year, had been picked up by most major media outlets, including the New York Times. Marra was proud, although when he saw the front-page headline, “That Cuddly Kitty Is Deadlier Than You Think,” accompanied by a photo of a tabby with its jaws clenched around the neck of a rabbit, he braced himself for an onslaught.

Sure enough, the reaction from Alley Cat Allies, the country’s most powerful cat group, was swift and furious. “This study is part of a continuing propaganda campaign to vilify cats,” railed the group’s president, Becky Robinson, in a press release that, to the Smithsonian’s intense displeasure, made use of an incident in which one of Marra’s researchers was accused of cat poisoning to bolster a long-running claim that his group’s work was “a veiled promotion by bird advocates to ramp up the mass killing of outdoor cats.”

Within hours, comments on the Times’ website numbered in the thousands. There were the unabashedly ignorant: “I’m sorry. I must have missed the news flash that we’re having a shortage of birds.” The crazies: “My best friend is a CAT. How dare you suggest that CATS are killers.” The conspiracy theorists: “This stinks of anti-cat sentiment.” And the truthers: “If this is so, where are the close to 15 billion eviscerated carcasses?”

All day, hate mail had been pouring in, and as Marra opened the door, he glanced cautiously over his shoulder. “You cat-murdering bastard,” a late-night caller told the author of a similar study. “We’ve got you in our sights.”

Inside, his children were watching television. “Daddy, look at the cute kitty,” his daughter said, twisting toward him as a kitten appeared onscreen, playfully batting at something with its paws. Ah, yes, America’s favorite pet.

People love cats. Always have. The remains of Felis catus, small carnivorous mammals descended from Near Eastern wildcats, have been found in 10,000-year-old Cypriot graves and mummified by the Egyptians, who worshipped them. They’ve been the subject of poetry by fourteenth-century Thai monks, Victorian etchings, and many an Internet meme. At first, people kept cats around for their hunting skills—the ancient Greeks used them to police grain silos for vermin the same way New York City bodegas use them to keep mice away from the cornflakes. But mostly, it was because they’re cute. Cats have those aw-inspiring pedomorphic qualities—big eyes, round foreheads, snubby noses—that trigger a nurturing instinct in humans, and they can convey an almost human intelligence, as anyone who has ever found themselves in a staring contest with one can attest. Still, for every person who sees mute understanding in a cat’s eyes, another finds them creepy. Cats are strangely polarizing beasts, as capable of inspiring hatred as love. Those who dislike them see them as sneaky, moody, manipulative, even off-puttingly feminine. But to the majority, cats are beloved. Currently, nearly 90 million occupy roughly one third of American homes, and while modern cat owners might not use the word worship regarding their pets, there are signs that we are again living in an age of cat deification, the most obvious being that we allow them to poop in boxes inside of our homes.

While people are clearly committed to their cats, it’s not always clear that cats feel the same way. While they may be coerced into wearing a baby bonnet or playing the piano, they generally defy direction—hence the expression “herding cats.” They tend to give the impression of having their own lives, and because cats, unlike dogs, aren’t required to be licensed or leashed, many owners indulge them, allowing them to come and go as they please.

Perhaps because the sight of a cat slinking around on its own is so common, a surprising number of cat owners feel free to abandon them when they become a burden. At the end of each semester, college towns regularly see an uptick in the number of cats on the streets, and economically depressed areas are literally crawling with them. “After the housing market dropped, we found a lot of abandoned cats,” says Ken Ross of the SPCA in Putnam County, which is currently struggling with a large population of feral cats. Ferals are the homeless of the feline population, the down-and-out counterparts to the purebreds peering out from behind lace curtains. Wild and unsocialized, they survive by their wits and the kindness of strangers.

Illustration by Bigshot Toyworks

No one knows exactly how many ferals there are in the United States, but the ­ASPCA places the population at 70 million—and counting. Cats are extremely fecund: Left to their own devices, two can become 62 in three years. “When you have an area with a large population of these cats, they become a nuisance,” says Ross, who fields a lot of calls complaining about cats caterwauling, digging through garbage, defecating in gardens and sandboxes and spraying urine. The more informed of them express concerns about diseases such as rabies and toxoplasmosis, which results in neurological problems, including a mental illness associated with cat-hoarding, caused by a parasite in cat feces. What the callers want, Ross says, is for someone to get rid of them, but given the lax laws, he can’t be sure if the animals in question are strays or someone’s pet. Trapping them is too difficult and time-consuming for cash-poor Animal Control departments, and since cats, unlike dogs, don’t present an overt threat to humans, they’re generally allowed to remain on the street, where they continue to multiply.

“The population has tripled over the past 40 years. Tripled,” says George Fenwick. Wild of eye and George Lucas of hair, Fenwick runs the American Bird Conservancy, an organization he founded back in the early nineties after watching his neighbor’s cat decimate his backyard bird population. While birds are the group’s primary focus, cats are a close second. An early campaign, Cats Indoors!, encouraged cat owners to keep their pets inside, and the animals remain a bête noire. The killer instinct that makes them valuable in controlled circumstances, the Conservancy argues, is a liability on the streets, where increasing numbers of ferals are wiping out other species. “For every cat on the street, 200 birds are killed annually,” says Fenwick, a font of such information. Sitting in the ABC office above a Chinese restaurant in Washington, he rattles off types at risk: ground-nesters like California least terns, cardinals, house wrens, endangered species like piping plovers. “The important thing to remember is that even when they are fed, they still kill,” he adds. “They kill for fun.” Fenwick likens cats, who were introduced to the environment by humans, to invasive species like kudzu in the Northeast or pythons in Florida. “It’s an immense ecological problem,” he says.

It’s a problem without an easy solution, especially when more and more animal shelters are embracing the “no kill” philosophy, in which strays are rehabilitated and put up for adoption. “Socializing” a cat that’s been living on the streets takes a tremendous amount of commitment, and many are beyond it—as Ludacris says, you can’t turn a ho into a housewife—and there are too many of them for the shelters to take in and let linger. Euthanasia was never that effective, so as long as people abandon cats and let them run around unsterilized, the population will keep refreshing itself.

For the past several years, animal activists have been trying something new. Around the time Fenwick was setting up ABC, a former social worker named Becky Robinson was parking her car in Northwest D.C. when she came upon a clowder of strays in an alley. “There were at least 54,” says Robinson, who is tall and lanky with a ruffled pixie haircut. “I could tell they were related because they were all black with a white stripe here,” she says, running her fingers down the front of her shirt. We were sitting in the Maryland offices of Alley Cat Allies, the group she founded after that night to advocate on behalf of what she calls “the forgotten ones,” largely through promoting a practice called “Trap, Neuter, Return.”

As its name suggests, Trap, Neuter, Return—TNR for short—consists of capturing stray cats, having them sterilized, and returning them to the “colony” whence they came. There, they are overseen by volunteers who provide food, water, and handmade shelters. The hypothesis is that once the procreation cycle is curbed, the colony will die out naturally. In the meantime, the feeding and spaying stops the nuisance behavior that irritated the neighbors, who are encouraged to think of them as “community cats.” “This is about coexisting,” says Robinson. “This is about compassion. This is about humanity, how we exist, how we interact. This is about respect for life.”

Robinson speaks with a soft Kansas accent and the conviction of a preacher, and over the past two decades, Alley Cat Allies has persuaded the ASPCA, the Humane Society, and sundry nonprofit organizations to officially endorse TNR. Additionally, “at least 300 municipalities have passed some kind of law that embraces it,” she says. Including New York City, which in 2011 passed Local Law 59, sanctioning TNR as a method of feline population control. These days, the yowling stray that was once an iconic part of the cityscape has gone the way of Times Square’s Live Nude Girls. Now feral cats inhabit dwellings that mirror our own, from salvaged-wood spaces in Williamsburg to uptown shelters designed by famous architects.

Illustration by Bigshot Toyworks

The latter are the result of a contest held by the Feral Cat Initiative, a program of the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC Animals, which promotes TNR mainly by creating awareness. “The real work,” says Jane Hoffman, a former consultant who founded the Mayor’s Alliance in 2003 to curb the number of animals killed in shelters, “is done by individuals, out of their own pockets.” You can see how this sounded like a good deal to the Bloomberg administration.

“My husband thinks I’m having an affair,” Debi Romano, a fortysomething in a zebra-striped top, jokes to the group crowded into the Queens Library. Every night, Romano spends at least four hours driving around the outer boroughs, providing food and water to the 40 colonies of cats she manages. Romano runs a foundation called Save Kitty, and this Sunday morning, she and a partner are teaching a group of concerned citizens the basics of TNR: How to use a humane trap and how to calm the cat when it realizes it’s in a trap (throw a blanket over it); where they can take it to be spayed or neutered (the ASPCA, the Humane Society) and given an “ear-tip” (an Evander Holyfield–style slash across the ear indicating it belongs to a colony); and where to put it while it recovers (a garage, a bathtub). Afterward, the room buzzes with feel-good energy.

TNR is instinctively appealing: It seems logical, humane. Unlike previous methods of animal control—like rounding up strays and drowning them in the East River—it feels like a solution for the kind of people we believe ourselves to be now. “A compassionate people,” as Robinson puts it. “A nation of animal lovers.”

Of course, that’s only one way to look at it. “That is, if you’ll pardon my French, complete bullshit,” says Ed Clark, Virginia accent booming across the Upper East Side bistro he’s stopped at on the way to Greenwich, where he’s giving a talk to donors to the Wildlife Center of Virginia, the animal hospital at which he sees, on average, 250 cat-inflicted injuries a year. “Have you ever seen a cat kill a bird?” he asks. “They slice ’em right down the middle.” He traces a line up his stomach. “Whoosh.”

Clark, the voluble onetime host of Animal Planet’s Wildlife Emergency, is part of a group of conservationists who have watched the popularity of TNR escalate with horror. To him and his cohort, its supporters have made a terrible Sophie’s choice: By enabling feral cats to live outside, they’re condemning other creatures to horrific deaths. “They’re wearin’ blinders and whistlin’ in the dark,” he says. “They’re absolving themselves of culpability because they don’t have to see it. They just let it happen outside.”

Early on, Clark thought groups like Alley Cat Allies might be convinced that TNR wasn’t the answer if they were aware of the number of birds felled by felines. After all, they were animal lovers. So he invited National Geographic into the hospital’s morgue to shoot a year’s worth of avian corpses for a documentary, The Secret Life of Cats. But the sight of the hundreds of tiny bodies, laid out like victims in Pol Pot’s killing fields, did not have the chilling effect he hoped. Subsequent documentation of cat-on-bird violence, like National Geographic’s “Kitty Cams” project, in which tiny cameras attached to their collars caught pet cats in the act of murder, also failed to have an impact.

Clark understands the power of the cat. He owns several himself, and gets why birds don’t generate the same passion. “People don’t have relationships with birds like they do with cats,” he says. “The human condition is such that we appreciate animals that appreciate us.” But the cat lobby’s palpable lack of appreciation for their peers in the animal community rankled, and Clark has become embittered. “They say they love all animals. Well, no, ya don’t,” he glowers, taking a swig of Scotch. “With them, cats come first. Everything else comes second. Including people.”

Over the years, Clark, along with members of Fenwick’s American Bird Conservancy, the Wildlife Society, and the Audubon Society, among others, have waged a steady counter-campaign against TNR. Compared with what one conservationist calls “the powerful cat lobby,” this group is smaller and mostly male. “We’re like the underdog,” says author Jonathan Franzen, who serves on the American Bird Conservancy board. But they’ve become a thorn in the side of cat groups, who resent their undermining and rightly suspect them of trying to reinstitute a practice they believe is unacceptable: aggressive euthanasia.

“The bird community’s position is, we need to get rid of the feral cats, and that means cats must die,” Franzen says. “We feel bad about that, but we can morally justify that position, with all of the birds that they are indirectly killing.”

Illustration by Bigshot Toyworks

This proposal has received support from an unlikely ally, PETA, whose president, Ingrid Newkirk, argues TNR is more about making people feel good than cats. “It’s not a kindness, it’s a fantasy,” she says. “Homeless cats, they don’t die of old age. They get hit by a car, they drink antifreeze, somebody slings a brick or a rock at them. Why not, when you knock them down, just have them never wake up again? It’s a horrible decision, but it’s a nicer decision.”

“That’s ridiculous,” scoffs Jane Hoffman. “I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. Should I be killed?”

Since the animals in question can’t weigh in, the debate over which side deserves to live or die is left to their human representatives, whose antipathy for each other seems almost primal in its intensity.

Cat advocates say there are greater threats to wildlife than cats, like habitat loss, and that conservationists are only targeting them because of a deep hatred of cats. “It’s like speciesism, racism, whatever other -ism,” says Becky Robinson.

Conservationists say cat advocates are bullies who prey on people’s emotional attachment to cats in order to promote a practice that is detrimental to the environment and public health. They point to studies like California professor Travis Longcore’s “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap–Neuter–Return” as evidence that TNR doesn’t really work, and brandish reports about dolphins in Florida and otters in California infected by toxoplasmosis as proof of harm resulting from their irresponsible insistence on it. “This is not about bad animal behavior,” Fenwick says. “This is about bad human behavior.”

Cat advocates say the conservationists have wildly exaggerated the numbers in hopes of fulfilling a hate-filled agenda. “The bird people—” says Hoffman, who pauses to utter a disclaimer made by everyone herein, that these labels are unfortunate, that she loves birds as well as cats, but when it comes to this issue, one is either a bird person or a cat person, like one is Sunni or Shiite, a Blood or a Crip—“the bird people have distorted any research that has ever been done on the impact of feral cats.” They point to instances where they say TNR has worked, like on the campus of the University of Central Florida.

“That’s not a study,” sneers Ed Clark. “That’s a letter home from summer camp.”

But the cat people hold the trump card, and the conservationists know it. The likelihood of anyone other than Fenwick signing the order condemning masses of America’s favorite pet to death is slim. “You have to think about what we want as Americans,” says Robinson. Sure, she feels bad that cats kill birds, she says, but it’s their nature.

“But it’s not nature,” Fenwick explodes. “Cats are not native species.”

Robinson takes equal umbrage at this argument, which to her sounds frankly un-American. “What does that even mean, native species?” she demands. “Like the white man? Are we native?” she asks, gesturing at the space between us. “If we got rid of all the native species, all that would be left is Indians. And we did a good job of annihilating them.”

Immersed in their mind-bendingly toxic argument, the two groups fail to see the ways they could help each other. “It’s unfortunate,” says Bob Sallinger of the Audubon Society of Portland, Oregon, which so far is the only organization to reach across the aisle. “The American Bird Conservancy and Alley Cat Allies have dominated the issue, and they are mirror images of each other.” The Portland Audubon Society’s arrangement with the local feral-cat group, with whom they partner on PSAs about spaying and neutering and keeping cats indoors, has seen Sallinger shunned by his own people. “Ted Williams in Audubon magazine said we were intimidated,” he says, laughing incredulously. “Intimidated! We were one of the first litigants that triggered the spotted-owl wars! We’re not afraid of a fight.”

According to Fenwick, this is more than a fight. “This,” he says, sitting underneath a headdress spiked with replicas of feathers from the Bolivian blue-throated macaw, “is a war.”

And the way people at war behave makes the animal kingdom look like The Lion King. Last summer, Ken Ross was called to a crime scene in Putnam County. A dead cat had been placed at an intersection, its head severed from its body. Weeks later, another was shot in the back. Looking down at its limp body, he asked himself a question. “Do we have a serial killer out there torturing cats, or do we have a situation where the cats are such a problem that people are taking things into their own hands?”

In Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, one of the main characters, a birder, becomes so enraged watching his neighbor’s cat kill birds he kidnaps the animal and drives it to a shelter to be euthanized. The character’s indignation was so over-the-top that when the book came out, people assumed it was satire. In fact, an embarrassed Franzen admits, it was a “purely realistic” portrayal of the rage that wells up in the hearts of bird lovers when they find themselves pinned down, like the creatures they defend, by the stronger and more beloved species.

This was the sentiment that rippled throughout the bird community this spring, when bird people became aware of a bill Alley Cat Allies was trying to get passed in Florida that would protect TNR volunteers from charges of cat abandonment—an action that lent credence to bird people’s suspicion that the cat groups were more interested in what Fenwick terms “open-air cat hoarding” than an overall culling of ferals. In a fevered editorial in the Orlando Sentinel, Ted Williams suggested that Tylenol, which is poisonous to cats, be deployed on the local population. Much to the chagrin of cat people, the bill not only failed to pass, but Williams was only briefly suspended.

If any bird lover took him up on his suggestion, it wouldn’t have been the first time one was moved to violence. “When I find these little feathers, I’ve had it,” a 76-year-old Wisconsin woman told police after being convicted of poisoning a neighbor’s cat in 2005. “I love animals, but he drove me to it.”

In 2007, a jury deadlocked over the case of Jim Stevenson, the director of a Texas ornithological society, after he shot a cat menacing some rare plovers. “What I did,” he told the Times, “was right.”

The most high-profile cat-killing case in recent memory is that of Nico Dauphine, a 39-year-old research fellow at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Dauphine was already known in both the bird and cat communities when she arrived in D.C. in 2011, after a video presentation she’d done, “Apocalypse Meow!,” had circulated widely on the Internet. Now a newly minted Ph.D. from the University of Georgia, she had come to the city to work with Peter Marra on a study about the effects of cat predation on birds.

After Dauphine noticed that her new apartment in Northwest D.C. had a feral-cat problem, she sent a polite e-mail to building management expressing concerns about the skinny cats that gathered to nibble at piles of kibble left under the shrubs, and describing the older woman she’d seen feeding them while checking her mail. “Please do keep my name in confidence,” she added, “as I know from experience how emotional people can get from these types of situations.”

Not long after, Dauphine was arrested. The neighbor had found a “whitish-yellowish” substance on the food and called the Humane Society, which had it tested and found traces of rat poison. An investigation uncovered security-camera footage of Dauphine approaching the area. It looked like she was taking something out of her bag.

A cat-poisoning case would have generated outrage under any circumstances, but Dauphine’s position in the pro-bird firmament made it a full-blown scandal. To cat people, the incident was proof of what they’d been saying about the bird agenda all along, and they seized on her arrest with righteous glee. “Just as smoke usually is accompanied by fire, there is an inexorable link between the anti-cat screeds of birders and wildlife biologists and, finally, their taking of the law into their own hands,” wrote the Cat Defender blog. Alley Cat Allies was front and center of the news coverage, providing journalists with quotes and background on Dauphine’s anti-TNR writing, and Peter Wolf of the blog Vox Felina became the Nancy Grace of the trial, digging up anecdotes from neighbors in Georgia who accused her of, among other things, trapping a neighbor’s pet and bringing it to “a place where it would be killed in traffic.” Dauphine arguably made matters worse by hiring celebrity lawyer Billy Martin, the lawyer who’d unsuccessfully defended Michael Vick in his dogfighting case.

He was not on a winning streak. The researcher was found guilty and fled the city under a barrage of death threats. “Her career,” the judge said grandly as he imposed a sentence of community service, “will never be what it once was.” This was cold comfort to cat advocates who’d angled for jail time, especially when it turned out to not be quite true. Earlier this year, when Peter Marra’s “The Impact of Free-Ranging Domestic Cats on Wildlife of the United States” was released, cat advocates—who instantly dubbed it the “Killer Cat Study”—pointed to a passage in which Marra cites Dauphine’s work. Alley Cat Allies immediately mounted a petition demanding that the Smithsonian stop funding studies such as Marra’s, not least because of its reliance on the work of “disgraced researcher” Dauphine.

“I don’t really want to talk about Nico at all,” Marra says, sitting miserably in an interview accompanied by a publicist from the Smithsonian at the height of the furor. “I will say she is a wonderful person. And the evidence was far from conclusive,” he adds, with a sidelong glance at the publicist. “But this,” he says, placing a hand on the study, “has nothing to do with that. This is science.”

One would think that the bird community would have mourned a study placing avian mortality figures in the billions, but they were ecstatic at the opportunity it provided to reclaim their moral rectitude. “People were surprised, and relieved, to find the number was larger than anything previously thought of,” says Jonathan Franzen.

But cat people were furious. “They’re using old research and making these very large leaps into what these cats can possibly be doing,” said Becky Robinson a few weeks after the study was published. She was irked that the New York Times had covered it without including a counterargument. “How could legitimate media outlets be writing about that and not doing their fact-finding?” she said.

Truth be told, even bird people had problems with the study, which, as Marra admits, was really a literature review that used figures from studies conducted as long ago as 1987, multiplied by “estimated cat abundance,” to reach its impressive conclusions. “I probably shouldn’t say this,” says Kerri Ann Loyd, the University of Georgia student who conceived of the KittyCam, “but I wish they’d waited for some more research.”

Back in Alley Cat Allies’ Maryland office, Becky Robinson scoops up a black tuxedo cat who has wandered into the room. “Do you know what is interesting?” she says from behind his furry back. “That woman who wrote the Times article lives in Takoma Park. And Peter Marra lives in Takoma Park. How about that?” (Times reporter Natalie Angier dismisses the implication that she is the Judy Miller of the Cat-Bird War. “To suggest these studies are wrong, that’s just silly,” she says. “All you have to do is look at the cats in my backyard.”)

At the zoo, Marra pauses as he digests this new information. “Becky Robinson knows where I live?” he says.

With her sensible shoes and earnest demeanor, Robinson seems about as threatening as a high-school guidance counselor. But rumors swirling in the bird community suggest maybe he should be nervous. After all, look at what happened to Nico Dauphine. Privately, many bird people believe she wasn’t guilty at all. They suspect that her outspokenness made her a target, and that she was set up by Alley Cat Allies. Possibly with the help of the Humane Society. Possibly in some kind of false-flag operation. By his third Scotch, Ed Clark is ready to say it. “They were after her,” he says. “They knew her writing. They wanted to take her down. And they did it.”

“Do you recall writing about the issue of cat predation?” the prosecutor asked. It was day two of Dauphine’s trial on animal-cruelty charges. Things were not going well for the defendant, and they were about to get worse.

“Cat what?” interrupted the judge.

“Cat predation.”

“I didn’t know there was such a word, but fine.”

“In talking about the issue, cat predation,” the prosecutor went on, “do you remember writing, ‘Where is the outrage over such slaughter?’”

“That, uh, those were the editor’s words, not mine,” said the defendant.

It was one of many uncomfortable moments in a case that, as bird people had suggested, had a lot of holes. In the beginning, Judge Truman Morrison III seemed persuadable. After all, no cats had died or even taken ill as a result of being poisoned at Dauphine’s residence, and, as the judge himself had noted, the time line was off: Dauphine had complained to her building’s management about the feral-cat problem well after the night she had allegedly “taken matters into her own hands.” There were other questions, too. But the judge could only work with what was in front of him, and right now what was in front of him was an accused cat poisoner trying to get out of admitting she’d written a letter to the New York Times in support of another cat poisoner. This undermined her credibility, in his view, but it was the video that did her in. The footage from the security camera was grainy and incomplete. In one section, Dauphine’s neighbor Rachel Sterling, who the judge wouldn’t have known was affiliated with Alley Cat Allies, spends a few minutes “cleaning up” the feeding area, a bag in one hand, a white plastic spoon in the other.

A few hours later, Sterling’s husband George approaches the area, looks at it, then comes back with his wife. “I’m showing George the area where I feed the cats and explaining to him what’s going on,” Sterling testified.

“I don’t understand why she feels the need to show her husband, who already knows where she feeds the cats, where she found the poison when she’s already cleaned it up,” the judge said.

“If it were my wife, she told me she’d found poison, I’d want to see where it was,” the prosecutor responded. There’s one last shot of Sterling later that evening, with the bag and the white plastic spoon. “Are you layering food down?” the judge asked her.

“No,” Sterling said in court. “There was already food there and it was okay.” After finishing whatever she is doing, Sterling looks directly into the camera. Then there’s the last installment, the one that made the evening news. In it, Dauphine, in a striped winter hat and coat, is bent in concentration over the food. She seems to be taking something out of, or maybe putting something into, a bag. You can’t really be sure. Peter Wolf of Vox Felina called the video “a disappointment. You don’t even see her hands.”

But it was enough for Judge Morrison, who announced he had an “ocean of other cases to get to.” The fact is, he told the court, no one else had approached the area in the time period between Rachel Sterling’s putting down the cat food and the time she discovered the crumbly substance and called the Humane Society. “Nobody,” he told the prosecutor before issuing his guilty verdict, “except Ms. Sterling, George for a few seconds, and your client.” And the guy from the Humane Society. But it couldn’t have been any of them, right? They’re animal lovers.

Must Cats Die So Birds Can Live?