"Watch your step," Pat Lewis advises as she steps gingerly through the grass toward a wooden fence separating her backyard from that of her neighbor. A peek through a hole in the fence reveals a shady yard topped with chicken wire. Inside, several cats lounge on the ground; a brown and white cat sits inside a large cage. Pet carrying cases and carpet-lined scratching posts are scattered about.
A sharp odor drifts by, but it isn't clear whether it comes from the cat yard or from the poop that, despite Lewis' warning, has found its way onto an inattentive visitor's shoe. The culprit, Lewis guesses, is one of the feral cats that congregate around the property of her neighbor Judy Brock, who shelters or cares for as many as forty to fifty felines at her house on Berkeley's Fairview Street.
In a city with lax animal-control policies, Brock's unusual enthusiasm for the animals is at the center of an ongoing feud that has caused some neighbors to gripe and others to move away; it has also spawned several city investigations and raised questions about Berkeley's handling of complaints about residents who keep large numbers of cats.
Neighbors argue that Brock is running what amounts to an unsanctioned animal shelter. The cats' guardian denies their assertions and says she feels "terrorized" by her neighbors. Brock claims the cats inside her home and backyard are all personal pets or foster animals, and while she admittedly takes care of the ferals, she says they don't belong to her.
Unlike some East Bay cities, Berkeley places no limits on cat ownership, and after sifting through the various allegations and inspecting the house, zoning and animal welfare officials have concluded that while Brock is a passionate cat-lover, she isn't breaking any laws. Far from issuing citations, in fact, the city has given Brock money for her efforts to rescue cats from the Berkeley animal shelter, and animal advocates praise her for spaying and neutering ferals.
So if Brock is doing everything by the book, why all the problems? The neighbors complain that the feral feedings and backyard cage create an eyesore. Then there are the smells ... and the poop. Lewis says her neighbor hasn't done enough to keep the ferals from turning adjacent yards into litterboxes. The plethora of pussies, in fact, has created a literal "not-in-my-backyard" catfight.
When Judy Brock moved to Fairview Street in South Berkeley in 1990, she found it overrun with hungry and sick feral cats. "I wasn't an animal person then," she recalls. But one day after finding a dead kitten on her porch, something clicked inside her. She started putting out food for the ferals and then, she says, began following Berkeley's official feral policy of trap, neuter, and release.
Brock also began acquiring cats as pets, adopting regularly from the Berkeley animal shelter. In 1998, she cofounded an animal rescue organization called Home at Last, which finds new homes for cats and dogs that might otherwise be put to sleep. The following year, Berkeley City Council gave her fledgling organization an annual grant of $25,000, and last month boosted the figure to $60,000 for the upcoming year.
The nonprofit's efforts have been effective, says Kate O'Connor, head of Berkeley's animal services. Home at Last, she says, has helped the shelter slash its cat euthanasia rate by almost two-thirds, from 213 in 2000 to 79 in 2001.
Brock is also praised for her actions on Fairview Street. Dairne Ryan of Fix Our Ferals, a group that spays and neuters homeless cats, says Brock rounded up and fixed every feral cat in the neighborhood. Fairview resident Yolanda Maker says that thanks to Brock, the street has come a long way from the days when her grandmother would concoct homemade remedies to shoo away strays. "I am not a cat lover by any means," says Maker, "but I think this woman has gone above and beyond the call of duty."
Yet while the overall feral population on Brock's block has apparently decreased, it also appears to have become concentrated around her house. Feeding feral cats is deemed a nuisance crime in Berkeley unless the feeder spays or neuters them; beyond that, the feeder is not responsible for the animals. But, law or no law, Brock's next-door neighbors complained that her copious cats were running free and relieving themselves on their property. Brock responded by constructing the elaborate cage-like area in her backyard, but this only contained her personal cats, not the ferals. An HIV-positive next-door neighbor worried that he might get toxoplasmosis, a potentially dangerous parasite found in cat feces. He and his partner eventually became so frustrated that they moved, but only after getting a restraining order against Brock for alleged verbal threats against them.
Jennifer Kaufer, Brock's new neighbor, has turned her attention to the cats inside the house. She says she doesn't object to Brock's humanitarian work, but she feels Brock is running a de facto shelter from her home, making life difficult for Kaufer and her husband. At a June council meeting, Kaufer questioned why the city had earmarked additional funding for Home at Last, which she blames for farming out the city's unwanted shelter animals to her neighborhood.
An examination of Home at Last's financial statements shows that it spends most of its city funds on housing and medical care for its foster animals, which are distributed throughout the East Bay. Allan Katz, the group's director, says it has nearly 75 volunteers who provide foster care for rescued pets, and notes that Judy Brock is no longer one of them. "She hasn't taken a cat from the shelter in a year and a half," he says.
Brock is less clear about the status of her feline friends. She can't provide any exact numbers for what she calls "my population." She estimates that she has twenty personal cats, five foster cats, and around fifteen ferals that she regularly feeds outside her house. What's important, she says, is that she's in full compliance with city zoning and health ordinances. Brock, however, would not let a reporter onto her property to view the cats and their living conditions.
"If she were operating a animal shelter in a residential area, she would be subject to zoning regulations," says Michael Caplan, an assistant to the city manager. A 1999 advisory report by the Berkeley East Bay Humane Society determined that Brock "was not collecting cats, but had an active adoption service" at the time. However, every inspector who has visited her house since has come to a different conclusion: Brock may be housing an unusually large number of cats -- one recent estimate put it at forty -- but isn't running a shelter.
Cindi Goldberg, vice chair of the Berkeley Citizens Humane Commission, says she has visited Brock's house and found it to be a feline haven. "It's a nice house. I was impressed how content the cats were," she remembers. "It was more than contentedness. They were sublime."
Kaufer, who says she visited the house shortly after moving in next door, recalls a different scene. "There were cages everywhere," she says. "There were ten cats on her bed asleep, a cat on the stove, cats in drawers. It was unreal. And the stench -- I can't imagine how she sleeps in there."
Still, Brock has never been officially deemed a cat collector or hoarder, a person who keeps large numbers of cats in unhealthy conditions. Cat collectors make the headlines from time to time: One recent case involved a San Francisco woman charged with animal cruelty after two hundred cats were found in a home she owned in Petaluma. And officials from the Alameda County Coroner's office say they come across dwellings a few times per year where someone was living knee-deep in cats and their detritus.
Berkeley also has had its "cat ladies," such as an elderly feline hoarder who lived on Ellsworth Street for more than two decades. Rosemary Northcraft, who lived two doors down, recalls that the woman's home was filled with dozens of cats, and the street teemed with ferals that she fed. The ferals were eventually trapped and neutered, but Northcraft says the problem was only fully solved when the woman moved away. "The city did nothing," she says. "They have the ability to change policy, but they act as if they don't."
One possible policy change, suggests Kaufer, would be a city ordinance limiting cat ownership. Berkeley holds dog owners to four animals, but has no limit on cats. Some East Bay cities, including Emeryville and Fremont, require owners of multiple cats to acquire a city permit; the city of Alameda makes all cat owners register.
Glenn Howell, director of animal control for Oakland, which also places no restrictions on cats, says such regulations can help deal with the few cat owners "that get carried away." But he notes that such limits are a hot potato that few local politicians will touch.
Judy Brock and her allies assert that limiting or regulating the number of cats an individual can keep would violate property and civil rights. Such laws, says Ryan of Fix Our Ferals, would be difficult to enforce and would discourage those who feed ferals from participating in neutering programs. Neighbor Yolanda Maker says the cats inside Brock's home should be beyond regulation. "If Judy has 150 cats in her house , as long as she maintains them and there's no fumes and none escape, it's her right," she says.
Ultimately, Brock says her next-door neighbors should mind their own business and leave her and her cats alone. "They see it as an inappropriate lifestyle, but I can't see the actual impact on them," she says. Brock, after all, says she doesn't complain about their outdoor parties or their annoying wind chimes. So why should they care about how many cats she has? "They just don't like the idea of someone living like this," she says.
What her neighbors really don't like is the idea of living next door to someone living like this.
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