Bird-Watcher's Life Threatened Over Dead Cat Prominent bird-watcher Jim Stevenson has fled Texas, saying he received death threats after shooting a wild cat. He believed the feline was hunting an endangered bird species.
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Bird-Watcher's Life Threatened Over Dead Cat

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Bird-Watcher's Life Threatened Over Dead Cat

Bird-Watcher's Life Threatened Over Dead Cat

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick.

This coming Sunday's New York Times magazine carries one of those only-in-Texas stories - a battle between bird people and cat people.

An ornithologist in Galveston, Texas, Jim Stevenson, shot a wild outdoor cat because it was eating a delicate little bird called the Piping Plover. Jim Stevenson was charged with animal cruelty. Two weeks ago the trial ended in a hanged jury. Today there's news that Mr. Stevenson fled the state after reporting that someone tried to shoot him.

Bruce Barcott wrote the story for the Times.

Bruce, welcome, and give us the details of this incident of Jim Stevenson shooting the cat.

Mr. BRUCE BARCOTT (Writer): Well, this is a fascinating little story. It happened about a year ago. Jim Stevenson is a well-known bird guy down there. He's sort of the birding guru of Galveston. And he went looking for birds around dusk near where Galveston Bay meets the Gulf of Mexico. He settled down and pretty soon he saw two Piping Plovers. Now, the Piping Plovers are little shore bird, and it's an endangered species. There are fewer than 1,800 nesting pairs still around.

So he watched the Piping Plovers for a while and pretty soon he saw this feral cat stalking the plovers. Well, Stevenson didn't want the plovers to become dinner so he shooed the cat away and went home. And when he went home, he started to get angry because he'd seen a number of these cats stalking plovers and other birds. So he got himself a plan, came back the next morning with his .22 rifle.

CHADWICK: Yeah, he got more than a plan.

Mr. BARCOTT: Shot the cat dead. The one thing he didn't count on was that there was a toll booth attendant working the bridge that morning named John Newland, who actually had been feeding these feral cats. Newland heard the shot, bolted out of the booth, they both got in their cars, and Newland chased Stevenson down the highway. Newland called the cops. The cops came and arrested Jim Stevenson, threw him in jail, and charged him with animal cruelty.

CHADWICK: Okay. So he said, look, bird numbers are in decline and certainly this particular bird is - truly, it's listed as a federally endangered species. Here is a wild cat, a feral cat, eating these things and saw him justified in shooting the cat. But boy, it started a real debate down there.

Mr. BARCOTT: It did. You know, it threw fire on a controversy that's been simmering between cat people and bird people for about 20 years or so. Bird people believe that basically cats are out there massacring birds right and left and cat people say, what? They're cats. That's what they do. They chase birds.

And in fact I asked some philosophy professors at different universities who teach environmental ethics, I said what would you do? Would you let the bird be eaten by the cat or would you shoot the cat? And kind of to my surprise, most of them came back and said, well, you know, you could make a pretty good case for shooting the cat. Not all of them would shoot the cat, but they said, you know, you really need to remove the cats from that situation.

CHADWICK: I have to say, you do write about this on-going battle for 20 years, but somehow I was unaware that this was going on.

Mr. BARCOTT: This has been going on for quite a while. It started actually back in 1987, when there was a study done by some biologists over in England. They essentially went to a small village and asked people there to record what their cats were bringing in. And what they've found was they were bringing in a lot of small mammals - what you'd expect, mice and such. But they are also bringing in a number of birds, and this set off alarms in the birding world and has sort of resulted in this battle.

If you go online - I mean you can find anything online - but you go online, you can find a number sort of extreme birding and cat sites where people are really going at each other. I found one site called Cat Defender, and its motto is exposing the crimes of bird lovers.

CHADWICK: You described yourself in this article as both a cat lover and a bird watcher. So how did you finally come down on this?

Mr. BARCOTT: Where I came down was I wouldn't shoot the cat, as Jim Stevenson did. But I think if I was in his situation I would try to do just about everything else what I could to remove those cats. If cat people and bird people work together and talk about specific situations where the cats are a problem, the feral cat people usually will work to remove those cats. That's, I think, where I would come down.

CHADWICK: Bruce Barcott's story on the bird-loving cat-killer runs in this Sunday's New York Times magazine. Jim Stevenson, the accused cat killer, remains in an undisclosed location.

Bruce, you spoke to him by the phone last night. What's he planning to do?

Mr. BARCOTT: He's planning to hang out somewhere outside of the state of Texas for a while. He has a number of birding projects that will take him around the country for a while, and he'll be all right.

CHADWICK: Bruce Barcott, thank you so much.

Mr. BARCOTT: Thank you.

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