Illustration by Dale Stephanos
It's 7 o'clock on a dewy Friday morning as Paula Kotakis pushes through the brush just west of the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. She's wearing a green nylon jacket, slacks, and muddied black athletic shoes — her cat-hunting outfit. As she rattles a scoop of kibble, out ambles Gigi, a fat gray feline who inhabits the thickets nearby.
"Gigi's pretty butch," Kotakis offers by way of introduction.
Not butch enough, apparently, to frighten off a 5-inch-long rat. In the tall grass west of the museum, Kotakis pulls out a cardboard box she keeps stashed there. It contains two empty bowls, into which she now pours some water and dry cat food. The latter come from the plastic bin, jugs, and crates of cat supplies she always keeps in her car's trunk. Kotakis steps back, waits, then exclaims: "Look, there's a rat who came to get the food."
Sure enough, a brown-and-white-banded rodent creeps along the side of the box. Gigi crouches, then feigns a lunge toward the rat, which retreats strategically into the box and behind the food bowl. Gigi stalks away 10 steps, then stops, turns, and glares back at her food.
This underbrush encounter unfolds with surprising naturalism, as if these feral animals barely notice Kotakis. She might as well have melted into the landscape: She has come to this spot so frequently, for so many years, that these urban creatures seem unafraid around her.
For three decades, Kotakis has spent around 20,000 hours of her spare time feeding and caring for what she calls colonies of stray cats, which live in the park, on the beach, and in other wild areas of the San Francisco peninsula. Her fascination began 30 years ago when she started work as a night guard at the de Young and heard cats' shrill howling outside. One night, while making her rounds at the museum, she looked out a window and saw a ghostly male figure carrying four boiled chickens on a platter, with a clutter of cats in tow. "I think a year went by, and I kept thinking about him as this mystical figure, this crazy cat man," Kotakis says.
In 1983, she noticed strays frequenting the museum parking lot, and began leaving them dishes of cat food. "I became sort of hooked," she says.
Ever since, Kotakis has spent most of every morning and evening, plus several hours on the weekends, attending to the cats that gather to eat her food. She can recount the births, lives, and deaths of hundreds of feral cats she has cared for over the years. Yet, besides the extraordinary amount of time and hundreds of dollars each month she spends on the cats, Kotakis seems the epitome of normal. She is married, holds down a $60,000-plus-per-year job, vacations internationally, and has more than her share of charm and social grace. She's like the most enthusiastic volunteer at a church, one who is chatty and eager to talk about work, and explain in detail the true path to salvation — in this case, saving cats from euthanasia.
Kotakis is not alone in her dedication. She is one of more than 100 self-described cat caregivers in San Francisco who prowl the city's underbrush each morning and night to refill hidden cat dishes. They see themselves as a vital force against an alternative they consider unconscionable: having feral cats, either abandoned or born into the wild (and thus, unsociable and unsuitable for adoption) killed at animal shelters.
The feral cat advocates (Kotakis calls herself and her friends "feral people") say their real objective is to reduce the city's population of feral cats by trapping and spaying as many as they can, then letting the neutered animals live out their lives in well-fed, outdoor comfort. This, they argue, is the most humane and effective way to reduce feral populations. This approach — trap, neuter, release, or TNR — is San Francisco's primary method of dealing with stray cats. A lifetime of daily outdoor feeding is supposed to correspond to each cat's trapping and neutering, but critics of this approach point out that there's no "F" for "feeding" in TNR. Who guarantees that each cat will stay fed? Doesn't feeding animals in the wild increase their population? And what's to say that food left for them doesn't support other unwanted and unsterilized varmints such as raccoons?
I first learned about Kotakis and the rest of San Francisco's feral cat people after reading an annual report submitted to City Hall in February by San Francisco's Commission of Animal Control and Welfare. I was surprised to learn that a group of people I hadn't known existed — feral cat feeders — enjoy significant backing at City Hall. When they complained about the Golden Gate Park landscaping project that took away hiding places for feral cats named Mouth and Miss Piggy, the report noted that the commission extracted a commitment from park managers to inform feeders whenever they plan to dig up brush.
The commission also boasted of obtaining free backstage passes to the annual Outside Lands music festival, so cat feeders can reach felines enclosed by fencing, and is seeking to pressure goatherders — San Francisco routinely hires them to use their goats as eco-friendly weed-eaters — to allow feeders into the fenced enclosures they place around weed patches to be cleared.
When you also take into account the support outdoor cat feeders get from the Department of Animal Care and Control, it turns out that feral cat feeding seems to come awfully close to being a city program. As has happened in cities like Los Angeles, this could trigger laws requiring environmental impact studies for projects or programs with a potential to harm the environment. And it raises questions as to whether city officials are aiding activities with the potential for violating California law that makes it a misdemeanor to abandon a cat or dog.
Since 1993, the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) has run a program called Feral Fix, which dispenses tons of almost-free cat food and provides free spay-and-neutering services. The society calls upon 15 to 20 hard-core volunteers to help with trapping expeditions, says Laura Gretch, who heads up its community initiatives. Two volunteers told me that the SPCA maintains an e-mail list of 100 volunteer feeders and capturers.