Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Invisible War

Today's NYT reports the latest on James Stevenson, the Galveston bird-lover tried for shooting a cat, now apparently being pursued by cat-loving assassins.

'Texas: Bird-Watcher Leaves State
Published: December 1, 2007

'A prominent bird-watcher who was tried for shooting a cat to death said he left the state after someone shot at him. The bird-watcher, James M. Stevenson, founder of the Galveston Ornithological Society, said he had received death threats since his trial on animal cruelty charges. A judge declared a mistrial last month when the jury failed to reach a verdict. Mr. Stevenson told the police that he was standing on his porch Wednesday when someone shot at him. In his trial, Mr. Stevenson admitted shooting the cat but defended the action because he believed it was threatening endangered birds.'

As reported earlier, Stevenson, a leading regional amateur ornithologist, shot a cat under a toll bridge in an effort to save piping plovers who liked to hang out in the same shallow spot:

'Mr. Stevenson, 54, does not deny using a .22-caliber rifle fitted with a scope to kill the cat, which lived under the San Luis Pass toll bridge, linking Galveston to the mainland. He also admits killing many other cats on his own property, where he operates a bed and breakfast for some of the estimated 500,000 birders who come to the island every year.

'In her opening statement, Paige L. Santell, a Galveston County assistant district attorney, told the jury of eight women and four men that Mr. Stevenson “shot that animal in cold blood” and that the cat died a slow and painful death “gurgling on its own blood.”

'She said that the cat had a name, Mama Cat, and that though the cat lived under a toll bridge, she was fed and cared for by a toll collector, John Newland. He is expected to testify.

'Whether the cat was feral is the crucial point in this case. Mr. Stevenson was indicted under a state law that prohibited killing a cat “belonging to another.” Prompted by this case, the law was changed on Sept. 1 to include all cats, regardless of ownership.

'Ms. Santell argued that because Mr. Newland had named, fed and given the cat bedding and toys, the cat belonged to him and was not feral.

'Mr. Stevenson’s lawyer, Tad Nelson, admitted in his opening statement that his client went to the San Luis Pass toll bridge with “an intent to kill.” but that he had planned to kill a wild animal that was preying on endangered piping plovers. “This man has dedicated his whole life to birds,” Mr. Nelson said, pointing at Mr. Stevenson.

'The case has prompted emotional commentary on the Internet. Cat enthusiast blogs have called Mr. Stevenson a “murderous fascist” and a “diabolical monster.” Birding blogs have defended his right to dispense with a “terrible menace” and have set up funds to help pay for his defense.

'In an interview in a courthouse elevator during a break in the trial, Mr. Stevenson said heatedly that cat fanciers who have condemned him and sent him hateful correspondence “think birds are nothing but sticks.” “This is about wild species disappearing from your planet,” he said, adding, “I did what I had to do.”'

"I did what I had to do." And now have to flee the state, a fugitive from unknown snipers. Posing interesting questions about just how it is we are supposed to interact with, and intervene in, the dysfunctional ecology we have created.

This war between cats and songbirds continues, in your backyard. And only one side is armed. Have you taken a side?

I am a bird-lover myself. But I also love the groovy cat that shares my house, a Brooklyn stray now fat and happy after her transplant to balmy Austin. In the mornings I always find mysterious downy feathers in the yard.

Should I care? Isn't the interaction between these species the essence of what's natural? I understand, domestic cats are a byproduct of man's interaction with nature over the millennia. But haven't we also had a huge impact on the urban bird population? Isn't it a typical expression of our hubris to think that our degenerative impact on our local ecology can best be corrected by our further intervention? We are His stewards, right? Do you buy it? No easy answers.

As biodiversity continues to decline, one can foresee the emergence of secret bands of armed humans serving as self-appointed vigilante guardians of of the species that would otherwise be left to fight it out with each other. Al Catta. I may take on the chipmunks as my personal project. Or the voles, who tunnel in the thick weedy grass under freeway bridges.

For some reason this imbroglio brings to mind the amazing work of the brilliant comics artist Anders Nilsen. I recently discovered his work through Biq Questions #10, a beautiful bit of graphic slipstream in which a dazed human interacts with the detritus of his civilization and the sarcastic observations of the hardier avians that live off our trash. And are especially keen on donuts.

Check out this PDF excerpt from Big Questions #9, then spend some time watching what's really happening in your yard and your alley, and consider what your role in it is, and what those other creatures might be thinking about.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


insteresting post... but what is making me nuts is that amazing photo... where the heck did you find 'sniper cat'...?

please advise

howard_nyc atat yahoo dotdot com