It was the shot heard ’round the animal-loving kingdom. On November 8, 2006, armed with a .22-caliber rifle, ornithologist Jim Stevenson caught a feral cat in his sights, pulled the trigger, and instantly became the most hated man among feline fanciers everywhere.
Stevenson said he saw a wild look in the cat’s eye as it stalked an endangered piping plover near the San Luis Pass Bridge. As the founder of the Galveston Ornithological Society, Stevenson wasn’t about to stand idly by and watch one of the millions of stray cats in America mince a federally protected bird.
Although at the time it was legal to kill a feral cat (the law has since changed), the prosecution argued that the cats were actually pets owned by a tollbooth attendant who fed them everyday. A year after the shooting, a judge declared a mistrial in the case when the jury failed to reach a verdict.
Eight months post-judgment, Stevenson, who teaches at the College of the Mainland and leads bird-watching tours across the country, talked to the Current about his champion status among conservationists and why everyone should be afraid of cat-loving extremists.
Are you referred to more often today as the man who killed the cat or the man who saved the bird?
I’m normally greeted as a hero with the environmental types. I don’t go out of my way to tell people who I am, but a lot of people remember the cat incident and are very complimentary.
What about cat supporters? Is it true that someone shot at you?
Yeah, that’s right. It’s interesting to me that there are people who would put the life of a feral cat ahead of a human being. These are the same people who turn feral cats loose knowing they are going to kill all kinds of species of animals and apparently not care.
Why do you think the jury couldn’t come to a decision in your case?
I think there were two kinds of people on the jury. There were those that simply thought shooting an animal like that was cruel, and regardless of what the law said, they were going to say that I was guilty. Then there were people who looked at the law and saw that it was a fairly easy call.
Did anything good come out of this incident?
Actually, I gained hundreds and hundreds of clients because of this. This story was in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times. As far as my business is concerned, it was a godsend.
Were you disappointed when a spokesman for the American Bird Conservancy denounced your actions?
I think that was a political farce. There were a lot of people that told me in confidence that they supported what I did, but couldn’t say anything publicly. Frankly, people are afraid of the cat-lover lobby, and they should be. These people are certifiably nuts. They scream and holler about the same cats that are getting run over by cars, eaten by coyotes, and dying of diseases. They are just reactionary people who are not considering the plight of those cats.
What was the biggest misconception about you personally during the time your story was in the headlines?
People said that I was proud of what I did. I was never proud of taking the life of an animal, but it was something that needed to be done. Let me give you a hypothetical: Let’s say that there is an endangered species of bobcat that’s living somewhere out in the wild and bird lovers are turning loose some alien species of hawk and these hawks are killing this endangered species. I would automatically be against those birds. This is not about cats and birds. This is about biodiversity. This is about saving what we have left.
It’s against the law now to kill any cat regardless of ownership. If you were put in the same situation as you were before, would you shoot the cat again if you knew you wouldn’t get caught?
`Long pause` I wouldn’t say that.
So, you wouldn’t shoot it?
`Long pause` I think that was a good answer. You’re a smart guy. I think you can figure out what I’m saying. •