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Cat fight in the lap of luxury

A colony of wild cats finds care and feeding at the exclusive Ocean Reef Club. Nearby, an endangered wood rat struggles to survive. Coincidence?

CRAIG PITTMAN
Published June 15, 2003

NORTH KEY LARGO - The cats are waiting.

Hidden in the hibiscus, they twitch their tails and watch the road. Then a golf cart rolls up, and a woman in shorts and a polo shirt steps out. She fills one bowl with water and another with Kit 'N Kaboodle cat food.

At last the denizens of Florida's largest feral cat colony come into the open. They eat their fill and slink back into the shrubbery.

The world they occupy is not some grungy back alley but the Ocean Reef Club, an exclusive island community 18 miles south of Miami that boasts some of South Florida's wealthiest residents. Club membership costs at least $185,000, and waterfront homes can go for more than $5-million.

About 500 stray cats live amid Ocean Reef's 2,000 acres: tough old toms, scruffy kittens, wary females adept at avoiding people. They are the beneficiaries of a program called ORCAT, set up by Ocean Reef's homeowners, which spends more than $75,000 a year on their care and feeding.

To Ocean Reef residents, ORCAT is a huge success. To state and federal wildlife experts, it's a threat. The dispute has turned into quite a cat fight.

But if the wildlife experts are right, then Ocean Reef's cats have become a pain in the pocketbook for the federal taxpayers.

Blame geography. Next door to Ocean Reef is the Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammocks Botanical State Park. Across a road is the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Together they cover more than 8,000 acres.

Among the endangered species protected on that land is the Key Largo wood rat, a small rodent with cinnamon fur and bulging black eyes. The wood rat builds stick nests from tropical hardwoods such as mahogany, wild tamarind, black ironwood and pigeon plum.

Because the hardwoods have been cleared from most of Key Largo for development, the Key Largo wood rat was classified as endangered in 1984, as was a relative, the Key Largo cotton mouse. Despite the protection provided by 8,000 acres of preserved habitat, over the last decade the rats and mice have nearly disappeared.

ORCAT's cats may be responsible.

"It's a very serious problem for Key Largo wood rats," said University of Florida wildlife scientist Frank Mazzotti. "Releasing a feral cat in a natural area is like releasing a serial murderer in a maternity ward."

Two weeks ago, the state wildlife commission approved a controversial new policy to "minimize or eliminate the impacts of cats where they pose significant threat to local wildlife populations." State officials cited what has happened to the Key Largo wood rat and Key Largo cotton mouse as two reasons for trying to halt the spread of feral cats.

That didn't sway the cat advocates who packed the meeting. They accused state officials of being cat-killers. State officials denied the charge and promised killing would only be a last resort.

Biologists say the state had to do something. The plight of the wood rat has become so dire that experts estimate less than 50 remain.

Last year federal officials decided the only hope was captive breeding. Four Key Largo rats were trapped and trucked to Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials figure to spend $12,000 a year on the wood rat breeding program.

Yes, the taxpayers are paying to breed rats.

The first ones were born last month, on Mother's Day weekend.

Ocean Reef officials don't buy it. Ocean Reef's cats have no reason to invade the parks and kill the rats, said David Ritz, community administrator for the homeowners' association.

"In our 10-year experience, we're completely satisfied that our cats are fat and happy and don't stray from our feeding stations," Ritz said.

But biologists and environmental activists insist that even fat cats are driven to kill, hungry or not. It's part of their genetic makeup as predators.

In fact, Ocean Reef's cats were first brought there in the 1950s to knock off the rats overrunning the club.

"They thought the way to fix the rat problem was to bring in a bunch of cats," Ritz said. "Then in the 1960s we found out we had a cat problem. So they rounded them all up and killed them. Then in the 1970s, we discovered we had a rat problem. So they went around to all the pounds and rounded up a bunch of cats again."

Soon the rats were gone, but by the late 1980s Ocean Reef's cat population had ballooned to 2,000.

"The cats were out of control," Ritz said. They yowled all night, fought and made messes - all very bad for Ocean Reef's image.

"They were such an emaciated-looking group," recalled ORCAT president John Storm, who feeds nearly a dozen strays by his own back door. "It was a real black eye for this place."

Ocean Reef's woes were not unique. There are an estimated 60-million feral cats prowling the highways and hedges of America. Abandoned pets and their offspring, they survive on the scraps of civilization and any small animals they can catch.

In 1989, Ocean Reef's owners were plotting another round of cat slaughtering when Alan Litman intervened. Litman, an eccentric nature lover from Pittsburgh, lived part-time at Ocean Reef and helped found Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

"His two passions were crocodiles and cats," said Mazzotti, the UF scientist and a friend. At his home in Pittsburgh, Mazzotti said, Litman kept a 13-foot crocodile named Ernst in the basement, and he devoted a wing to feral cats.

Litman, who died in March, saved Ocean Reef's cats by launching ORCAT. He subscribed to a theory called trap-neuter-release. Females would be caught in humane traps and neutered, then turned loose. Since they could no longer reproduce, the feral cat colony would dwindle and disappear.

ORCAT is staffed by three veterinary techs. Once a week a veterinarian visits ORCAT's small office by Ocean Reef's sewer plant to perform surgeries and provide other medical care.

Such trap-neuter-release programs became popular in the United States in the 1990s. Advocates from national groups such as Alley Cat Allies, which has filed a legal challenge to the new state policy, contend that this approach is more effective and less expensive than killing the strays.

But wildlife experts decry the "release" part as bad news for birds and mice. Florida Wildlife Federation president Manley Fuller contends releasing even neutered cats back into the wild constitutes "animal pollution," and warned that Ocean Reef's cats may be violating the Endangered Species Act.

Ritz, who likes to call ORCAT's office a "cathouse," said park officials complain to him at least once a year about ORCAT's cats poaching wildlife.

"Every time one of these guys comes here, we tell them, "Hey, we've reduced our cat population by 75 percent. What have you done?' " Ritz said.

Still, ORCAT has been unable to whittle that number down to zero. Some females learn to avoid the traps but not pregnancy. Meanwhile, the guardhouse that keeps uninvited humans out of Ocean Reef has not barred an influx of abandoned pets, perhaps brought in by workers from outside.

So seven days a week, rain or shine, vet techs like Dana MacDonald cruise the club's grounds putting out food and water. MacDonald knows every cat. She knows they're waiting for her.

"They're generally always there," she said. "They don't venture far from the feeding stations."

But if they did choose to wander off in search of wilder fare, nothing would stop them - yet.

In the 1960s, when Ocean Reef was undergoing its first cat crisis, Crocodile Lake belonged to the Army. Soldiers stationed there guarded nuclear-tipped Nike missiles, awaiting war with Castro while fighting off hordes of bloodthirsty mosquitoes.

The missiles are gone but the buildings that housed them remain, now guarded only by turkey vultures. Federal officials hope to tear them down, just as they already have razed an elaborate cockfighting ring and a police target range that occupied the property simultaneously.

Their goal is to restore Crocodile Lake to something close to its natural state, in hopes it will revive endangered animals from the American crocodile to the Key Largo wood rat.

Captive breeding is a desperate last step in saving a species, and breeding rare rats is not as easy as it sounds. To prevent them from killing each other, a zoo staffer has to observe each mating attempt, said Deborah Pierce of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Federal officials hope to eventually have 24 rats producing offspring, which they would then release back into the wild, she said.

But before turning any captive-bred rats loose, wildlife officials want to ensure they don't fall prey to whatever pushed them near extinction.

The plan is to put traps around the outside of Ocean Reef and see what shows up. Cats with no owner tags will go to the nearest animal shelter. If they are ORCAT cats - identifiable by a notch in one ear - the shelter will be instructed to notify ORCAT.

But Ritz says he's not worried: "My guess is they're going to catch a bunch of raccoons."

- Times staff writer Richard Raeke and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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