The Loews Cat Controversy – A Rally for Change and a Plea for the Rights of Outdoor Cats Nationwide
When the controversy with the outdoor cats residing on the Loews Orlando properties (the Portofino and Royal Pacific) versus the Loews management, specifically Operations Manager, David Bartek, began back at the end of 2011, it was originally a fight by a handful of cat advocates, myself included, and local organizations to keep them from being trapped and brought to a shelter, which would be an all but certain death sentence. Bartek actually reconsidered the decision and instead proposed his alternative – relocate them. While this may have seemed like a plausible solution for these cats on the surface, in actuality, relocating them would be equally as dangerous to their well-being and concerned parties quickly sprung to action to educate Bartek on the consequences of this newest decision with the assumption it would be a fair and rational discussion with him.
Months later, still with no resolve, the cause and concern grew and after a long and vigilant rally by cat lovers, feral cat experts, bloggers, veterinarians, reputable organizations such as Alley Cat Allies, CARE Feline TNR, and even the USA Today, we pleaded our case over and over with sound and logical information as to why it would be so detrimental to the welfare of these cats to have them relocated. The bottom line, the 20 or so total cats in question were part of a managed TNR (trap, neuter, return) program that was spearheaded in 2004 by bellman, George Ricci, at no inconvenience or cost to Loews itself. The cats posed no health risks to guests and being that Loews was part of a “pet friendly” chain, all we wanted was for the cats to remain safely on the properties. Realizing that the argument was falling on deaf ears by Bartek, the fight went straight up the chain to Mr. Jonathan Tisch, CEO of Loews Corporation based in NYC and Co-owner of the Super Bowl Giants.
The dedication to the cause was commendable and we remained hopeful that Loews would reconsider the relocation plan and as time went on and the cats were left alone, it appeared that maybe management was listening to reason and that we had a chance. In actuality, Loews was hoping all of the hype would die down so they could they could discreetly remove the cats without messy incident. When it became clear we were not lessening our efforts, out of nowhere, at the end of March, came the tiny little note found on the facebook page of Loews – due to “liability reasons,” trapping of the cats (by Critter Control) was going to begin immediately and the cats would be brought to Orange County Animal Services (OCAS). This, of course, unleashed a wrath of fury and concern from cat advocates worldwide and the “Save Loews Cat” page on facebook was born as the brainchild of Dorian Wagner of Your Daily Cute and co-managed by myself and Christine Michaels of Riverfront Cats as a singular arena to voice our concerns, offer advice on what could be done to help these cats, and to update people about what was happening to the cats. The page quickly grew, with a following of over 1500 fans in a matter of weeks (now at over 2200) and the support was incredible and undeniable.
Despite that, it became glaringly apparent that Bartek and Tisch never had any intention of compromise when it was discovered just how cruelly and inhumanely the trapping was being done. These cats that were once well fed, vaccinated, and sterilized were now starving, as employees who previously fed them were fearful of losing their jobs and the cats were coming into OCAS with bloodied noses, gashes on their heads, and covered in urine. The straw that broke the camel’s back, Loews issued a statement on April 6th, that not only was the trapping being “handled with the utmost care by experts,” but that no one had reached out to Loews with any viable solutions or alternatives for these cats, leading them to the ultimate decision of trapping them and bringing them to OCAS. This, of course, was absolutely a flat out fabrication and completely unacceptable and that is when Alley Cat Allies put the efforts into full gear and not only issued a scathing denouncement of Loews inhumane treatment of the cats, they initiated a petition that has well over 20,000 signatures of support and arranged for a protest rally that was held on Saturday, April 14th from noon to 2:00pm on the main street to the entrance of the properties.
I had never been to a rally, but of course as soon as we heard about it, Dorian, Christine and I (the South Florida contingency) knew that we had to attend and coordinated efforts to car pool. We brought materials for signage and even had a sign that was donated by feral expert, Peter Wolf, of VoxFelina. But even more importantly, we decided the best defense for protest is to arm yourself with logic and the truth. So, to be completely fair, we took it upon ourselves to quickly visit the Loews properties before the protest to see the situation from the eyes of Loews management. Just how badly overrun with cats were the properties? Would we see a child attacked right before our very eyes? In light of the way the whole situation was being portrayed, I was expecting to be tripping over cats the moment I stepped on grounds. Besides a very brief glimpse of a black and white cat we found (and by found, I mean the only reason we found this cat is because we were making a concerted effort to try and see one) there was nothing else. This cat was far removed from guest walking areas and wanted no part of human contact. The only other cat we saw, ironically, was on artwork hanging on the entrance way of the Portofino. Hard to believe this is what we have been fighting about for over 4 months…
Both hotel grounds are stunning and I am absolutely certain that these cats could have easily co-existed without any cause of concern to guests whatsoever. The amount of land each hotel is situated on is mammoth. Even if the previous areas where feedings were happening were an issue and too close to guest areas, if that was indeed the “liability” to guests in question, these cats could have easily had feeding stations moved somewhere else on property with very little effort. My summary – shame on you Loews. Nobody was asking for your property to be a dumping ground for new cats. All we have been asking for, all along, is to leave these cats be and let them live in peace and with dignity. Now, just what experts have been telling you will happen, is. Several of the current cats that have been trapped by critter control were not part of the original Loews cats and have not been part of a TNR program. This is what is known as the “vacuum effect.” Other cats move in to the now-available territory and because there is no managed TNR program in place, the breeding begins and populations escalate quickly. What is Loews answer to this? I am quite certain it will not be one that favors the life of these new cats…
The rally itself was a life changing experience and quite intense. The love, loyalty, and dedication to the cause was overwhelming. The Alley Cat team was headed by Anne Marie Vastano who flew in from Maryland and we had 68 protesters in attendance. Our facebook and twitter page was inundated with supporters following our activities all day long and local media came by for news coverage. But, here in lies the problem that has been the crux of the issue all along. This is David versus Goliath and we are literally fighting against a company that is NBC, Universal, hotels, diamonds, oil, and gasoline all rolled into one giant holding of power. Sure, we did get local coverage from Channel 6 news, but the slant was clearly not in our favor and the story ended with the same antiquated Florida statute that Loews has been touting as their argument all along (the Rabies Prevention and Control in Florida 2008 report states that the management of free-roaming cat colonies “is not tenable on public health grounds because of the persistent threat posed to communities from injury and disease”). News media is not going to risk upsetting the powers to be that are Loews, nor the backwards thinking of the State of Florida on this particular subject. I also know firsthand that a celebrity that will remain nameless that was originally going to help with the cause, backed out with an “I can no longer comment at this time,” when the story became more graphic in nature.
While I do understand this persons reasoning, it just really served to open my eyes as to just how unfair and complicated this story really is. 20 harmless cats whose entire world has been turned upside down for no plausible reason other than the plain fact one or two guys who don’t like cats are on a power trip. It just breaks my heart. These innocent trapped cats that have been intercepted by CARE Feline TNR are being fostered until a solution for them can be found and are not eating. They are disoriented and as one volunteer states about Skiddish, one of the trapped cats, “Skiddish is totally depressed and has a ‘sad face.’ Having lost her siblings and home and being in a new location is getting the best of her. She does not know she was “saved”, only that she lost everything.” Of course, that is part of the irresponsibly on the part of Loews. They are allowing the media to gloss the issue that these cats have been “saved” and will soon be adopted into new homes and magically become cuddly indoor lap cats. Unfortunately, because these cats have been living outdoors for so long, with little to no human socialization, they generally ARE NOT adoptable and that is why so many feral cats that are picked up by animal control are euthanized, rather than being allowed to be part of successful TNR programs that are available.
And that is really what the story is about. This is not just a rally for the Loews cats, it is a rally for outdoor cat communities nationwide who also need a voice and help. I and others, we have now become the Norma Rae for cause and change. This is about taking a stand and not letting corporate America bully us any longer and it is about educating people about the severe misconceptions about feral cats, a term we now like to refer to as “outdoor community cats.” It is also about responsibility – 70 million cats are on the streets and in shelters. Many outdoor cats are a direct result of people who have abandoned them for whatever reason and most of them are not spayed or neutered. We need to use our voices to make this stop and educate people that cats are not the sole root of the problem, our neglect and irresponsibility has contributed as well. We also need to share the news of just how successful TNR can be, that statutes need to be changed, and that there are numerous positive stories of outdoor cats that can co-exist within communities. Thank you Loews, at the very least for being our poster child for change.
On a personal note, I want to thank EVERYONE who has helped spread the word and stand up for the rights of the Loews cats. I have met some amazing people and am so proud of all of us. Alley Cat Allies and CARE Feline TNR have done a phenomenal job educating people and helping these cats – especially with volunteer efforts and keeping these cats safe. Vox Felina, Steve Dale’s Pet World, Best Friends Organization, Ingrid King of the Conscious Cat , Janea Kelly of Catster, Lorie Huston of animalCAFE and all the thousands of people who have joined the Save Loews Cats page and the outpouring of letters, phone calls, and emails you have sent on behalf of these cats. Christine Michaels of Riverfront Cats – a true humanitarian – because of her call to action, we are where we are today. George Ricci – the original caretaker to the Loews cats and reason these cats were so well loved and cared for, and Dorian Wagner of Your Daily Cute –thanks to her time and efforts, she has kept all of us updated with the most recent happenings on our Save Loews Cats facebook page. If I have missed anyone, it was not intentional – I thank everyone for any part they have played in this story, and probably most touching, Sophie, a twelve year old girl who has made videos about the cats asking for help. If only Loews management could have the insight and intelligence of this young lady, what a wonderful and compassionate world we would live in. (All the stories, updates, articles, and videos I have mentioned can be found at our Save Loews Cats page).