An open space question to the ‘Cats of BGC’

I HAVE been following the “Cats of BGC” issue as the only ISO 31000 trained risk, issues and crisis practitioner for communications and as a real-estate evangelist.

Third spaces have always been of special interest in my practice of real-estate marketing but the recent turn of events made me study and reflect on some pertinent legislation covering cats and third spaces.

Watching otherwise powerful international corporations melt under the heat lamps of social media is morbidly fascinating, a bit like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

But after learning about some of the surrounding details of this case, I find that this is as much an issue about the use of public spaces as it is cute kitties.

Parks, streets and walkways have always been places of uneasy negotiation. What is acceptable public use, and moreover, what are the responsibilities of those who use it that way? Be it skateboards on sidewalks or concerts in the park—there has always been a struggle between personal freedom, public safety and social responsibility. Sometimes these public spaces become makeshift refugee centers for the homeless and disenfranchised. In this way, our public spaces not only showcase dysfunctional parts of society, but also act as a public moratorium for our humanity in addressing these issues.

For those of you who don’t know: In February the cat-loving public went ballistic when Shangri-La BGC found a large group of cats (about two dozens, I think) had taken up residence on their property and began begging for food from tenant-restaurant patrons. As Shang is a five-star establishment, the cats had to go. They called a pest company who caught them, caged them and relocated them (there seems to be some skepticism about whether the cats came to harm but there really isn’t any proof, so never mind). An informal group with a Facebook page called “The Cats of BGC” and a cat NGO called Cara raised a complaint that these cats were “owned” and under the care of both groups. Cat lovers, social justice warriors and trolls piled on after that.

But unlike other stories in which this is the case of companies screwing up and attempting to sound off “sincere” apologies. I think it might just be possible that, for once, it’s not business that needs to say it’s sorry to the public, but the aggrieved cat groups.

Weird, right? But here’s why:

Up until this disappearing incident, I thought there were only two kinds of cats: owned and strays. If a cat is owned, it’s kept by someone, it has an address where it belongs. Moreover, its owner is specifically responsible for its care and is accountable for its behavior. Strays have no owners, no homes and are technically the responsibility of the municipality to “manage.”

But these cat groups are claiming ownership of the cats in the park and I guess the general vicinity. They assert their guardianship by feeding the cats, and having some of them neutered/spayed and vaccinated. So now there seems to be this third category of public semi-ownership claiming the right to use public parks as a residence for outdoor cat colonies. The larger mission seems to be protecting the welfare of the localized cat population, which is noble, but leaves some questions:

If collective ownership of a group (colony?) of cats is a thing, shouldn’t there be agreement or permission from the local government to use public property to house a cat population? Who is officially responsible for providing proper cat domiciles and making sure they have adequate food, or cleaning up all that cat feces? Wouldn’t it be appropriate for some kind of signage indicating that this park is a cat refuge? I think at the very least they could have marked the cats as theirs with a collar or something and let the neighboring properties know that these cats were under their care. I don’t think you can just feed a cat and declare it yours while leaving it in a public space and not make special arrangements. I’m not naïve, having a cultivated outdoor cat population is far better than having a feral cat population, but really, how can you expect anyone to know the difference?

But then, what about the cats that just wandered in? I’m told we have a huge number of stray cats and the population pressures are triggering ordinarily territorial cats to migrate, seeking areas with less competition from other cats. It seemed like these advocacy groups were not just protecting their “own,” but also declaring jurisdictional authority over all the cats in the area complete with handling restrictions (delivered publicly after the fact). If that’s the case, essentially these groups just made themselves the caregivers/owners of every stray that wanders in. Does that mean that every property in BGC is in some way public property if a stray cat wanders on to it, implying that property owners no longer have the right to say “no” to having cats on their property because removing them somehow constitutes abandonment?

These cat collectives seem to have funny notions of responsibility. A conventional pet owner is responsible for the well-being and behavior of their animal. So, if a group of cats “migrates” to a commercial property, seeking food, shelter, maybe safety, doesn’t that mean that colony wasn’t properly cared for? If so, who makes that determination, and who should be held accountable? It just seems like the cat folks were so busy yelling at Shang that they forgot to consider that all this heartache might have been avoided if they had just been a bit more communicative with their neighbors in the first place. Given limited resources from all parties, it seems like it will take the combined effort of the public, the government, private business and advocacies to manage this issue properly.

It seems obvious that an informal solution to collective cats is not going to work anymore. It’s time for the local government to step in and lay down some clear guidelines not only for the humane relocation of cats from a property that doesn’t want them, but also for individuals and organizations that want to step up to protect them. Or maybe all those cat lovers who were so vocal about their love for cats could step up and adopt a few. Or at least volunteer a little time and money. Like the song says: Sometimes love just ain’t enough.