"Do you favor the DNR take steps to define free roaming feral domestic cats by the previously mentioned definition and list free roaming domestic feral cats as an unprotected species?" This was the text of Question 62 brought before the Wisconsin Conservation Congress in April 2005. Though it passed by 6,830 to 5,201 votes, the question was ultimately defeated when the body's Executive Board declined to recommend the proposal to the state Natural Resources Board.
Using the firestorm of anger and ridicule that was touched off by the question as a starting point, the new documentary Here, Kitty Kitty explores the debate over how to reduce feral cats in Wisconsin.
"Here, Kitty Kitty is a movie about people, not cats," says director Andy Beversdorf, who notes one of his motivations for telling this story was the intersection of two different sides of Wisconsin that was brought about by this debates. "I grew up in the small, rural town of Friendship, Wisconsin," he explains. "I've spent most of the second half of my life in Madison. The cultures in these two places are much different but both very dear to me. When the feral cat issue surfaced, people from both rural and urban backgrounds were forced to mingle."
Beversdorf and editor Brian Standing started work on Here, Kitty Kitty at the Conservation Congress meeting nearly three years ago, and amidst the responsibilities of their families and day jobs, completed the documentary last November. Running for about an hour, the film takes a thoughtful look at both the plight of feral cats in Wisconsin and at the environmental issues raised by their presence in both the rural and urban landscapes.
The story skips around the state, capturing the impassioned testimony given at the Conservation Congress, as well as some rather bewildering comments made by various patrons at the Dane County Farmers' Market one summer Saturday. The heart of the documentary, though, consists of profiles of persons who are far more connected to feral cats than somebody who simple remembers this as another outlandish story from the Badgers State. This includes UW avian ecologist Stanley Temple, the Don't Shoot the Cat advocacy group founder and MadCat pet supply store owner Ted O'Donnell, the northern Wisconsin resident who was dubbed the "Merrill Cat Killer," and Dane County Friends of Ferals, among others. Though their stories, Beversdorf asks questions that led to the one posed to the Conservation Congress in 2005.
The Daily Page asked Beversdorf and Standing a few questions about the making of the documentary and the debate in Wisconsin over shooting feral cats. Their thoughts on these issues and others follow.
The Daily Page: What motivated you to tell this story?
Beversdorf: My biggest motivation for making a movie is that I think it will satisfy me to know that I've provided entertainment for people. When I heard that the feral cat issue would be headlining the Conservation Congress hearing in 2005, I figured it would provide drama, conflict, humor; that it might bring some interesting characters into the public light; and, that if I made a good movie about it, people would walk out of the theater saying, "well, I got my money's worth."
What was the budget for the film?
Standing: Total out-of-pocket expenses were approximately $1500. I own my own video camera and editing gear, and we made do with a lot of volunteer labor, including Andy and myself. We were fortunate that we could do all of our shooting in Wisconsin, which saved on travel costs.
The documentary begins with you asking people at the Dane County Farmers' Market about their thoughts on the issue of shooting feral cats. Were you surprised by the responses you received?
Standing: I was surprised. We picked a Farmers' Market more or less at random. Madison being Madison, I fully expected to get plenty of the anti-cat-hunting viewpoint. As it turned out, about a third of the people we spoke to adamantly opposed shooting cats, another third adamantly supported it, and a third said they had mixed feelings. I think it illustrates how complicated this issue really is.
That's why I love making documentaries. Once you start digging, you find that almost every issue you think is simple is actually quite complex. There's always more, sometimes many more, than just two sides to every debate. Conventional news media have a hard time with that. They like simple, well-defined conflict, with two opposing sides. The truth is always messier.
Beversdorf: I wouldn't say I was surprised. I don't think I had a, "I can't believe that person just said that" moment, but I was certainly amused by some of the responses.
How did you find some of your sources in the documentary?
Beversdorf: We just paid attention to the groups of people who were either in support of or against the proposed legislation. They were mentioned in the paper, on TV or at the Conservation Congress. Then we'd call the people who represented those groups to see if they'd talk to us, and after the interviews, we'd ask those people if we should talk to anyone else.
Standing: Well, some of the sources were fairly obvious. If you go to the Conservation Congress, and every third person testifying on Question 62 -- either for or against -- mentions Stanley Temple, a UW ecologist, it's pretty clear that we should go talk to Dr. Temple. If the "Don't Shoot the Cat" campaign is run by Ted O'Donnell, the owner of MadCat Pet Food stores, then clearly we need to talk to Ted.
Were you surprised by the level of access you received?
Beversdorf: For the most part, no. The one exception was Mark Smith who was the La Crosse firefighter who originally proposed legislation to list feral cats as an unprotected species. He declined to be interviewed because he had already received death threats and multiple phone calls, and I think he was just sick of all the chaos that entered his life as a result of the issue.
Standing: Not at all. I've been working on documentaries since 1986. I've found that if you spend time with people, get to know them, listen attentively and treat them fairly, most people are only too happy to tell their story. Many of the folks we spoke to in Here, Kitty Kitty complained about how the national and local news media treated them. Once we assured them that we were different, that we weren't interested in a simplistic black and white portrayal of this story, they welcomed the opportunity to speak their minds.
Who was most willing to talk to you?
Standing: Almost everyone was pretty willing to talk to us. We interviewed several public officials, who, I think, simply felt that talking to us was part of their job. Some people, like Stan Temple, Ted O'Donnell and Gordon King may also have seen this as an opportunity to set the record straight.
Who was least willing to talk to you?
Standing: Julie Motisi, the farmer from Rio, was a bit reluctant. Julie is my hair stylist, and I talked about the film while she was cutting my hair. She mentioned that she had rescued several feral cats, but had also had problems with other ferals invading her farm and killing her kittens. Andy and I agreed that she could provide an interesting viewpoint, bridging the gap between the two sides in the feral cat shooting debate. She was nervous about being on camera at first, but eventually agreed to an interview.
Why did you focus on the man from Merrill charged with drowning cats?
Beversdorf: Well, it's a movie about killing cats so we figured we should talk to someone who had killed a few cats.
Standing: Stan Temple put us on to Gordon King, the so-called "Merrill Cat Killer." King justified drowning feral cats he found on his property by claiming he was simply disposing of an invasive species, and cited Wisconsin conservation icon Aldo Leopold in his defense. In the end, King was acquitted of cruelty to animals, not because of a lack of evidence, but because it wasn't clear that what he did violated Wisconsin law.
Based on King's exoneration, it's not clear that dispatching feral cats was ever illegal in Wisconsin. If true, that would render the whole brouhaha over the Conservation Congress question meaningless. To paraphrase Macbeth, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
Why did you focus on the work of Dane Couny Friends of Ferals?
Standing: The Dane County Friends of Ferals seemed to us to be the most dedicated, "put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is" example of the many cat rescue organizations. Friends of Ferals espouse a "Trap, Neuter and Return," or TNR, strategy for controlling free-roaming cat populations. Whether or not their theory is correct (there are several arguments against TNR presented in Here, Kitty Kitty), at least these folks aren't content to just testify at the Conservation Congress. They're out there in the field, trying to do something. We found their sincerity and dedication very compelling.
Plus, we figured that following Friends of Ferals around was the best way to get some footage of actual feral cats. We weren't disappointed.
Beversdorf: They are the people who dedicate a large portion of their lives to saving the lives of these cats. They believe in their hearts that they are doing the right thing, that they are doing a service to local ecosystems and that they are making the world a better place through their efforts.
Gordon King believed that he was doing the same thing. We were interested in these two kinds of people who were using different methods to ostensibly achieve the same end.
There's a "Ballistics" credit for the documentary. Can you explain the shooting scenes in the film?
Standing: When Andy told me what he wanted for the opening sequence, I instantly thought of Mark Hanson. My colleague, Twin Cities filmmaker Matt Ehling, had featured him in his 2000 documentary Access. Mark is a serious gun aficionado. When we tracked him down, and told him what we had in mind, he was very enthusiastic. He is always looking for new and creative ways to shoot things.
Mark tested out a wide variety of rifles, shotguns and ammunition to get exactly the right kind of "splatter." It took dozens of takes to get it right. He was great, very methodical and systematic. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of firearms. That was a fun day.
Beversdorf: He owns some property in northern Wisconsin that he calls Waco North. It's a few acres with an old bus, a shooting range and a trailer full of guns on it. We spent an afternoon out there talking and shooting stuff. He's not that big of a hunter but he loves to shoot guns and talk about the way he thinks the world should be. He's a wildly entertaining character but much of the footage we have of him didn't fit the film topic. We've tossed around the idea of putting more of his interview on the DVD as bonus material.
What do you think of the appeals to environmentalism made by the parties in this debate?
Beversdorf: Excellent question, but I feel a little like I would be telling people what to think about when watching the movie if I answered this. Brian and I discussed this a lot while filming.
Standing: The one thing everyone we interviewed in Here, Kitty Kitty agreed upon is that Wisconsin's free-roaming cat population is much too large. It's a huge environmental issue. What should be done about it, though? That's where the sparks really fly.
How do you think this debate made Wisconsin look?
Beversdorf: I don't think the debate itself did one single thing to the way Wisconsin looks, because not too many people got a deep understanding of the debate. I think the media's coverage of the debate made us look like a bunch of redneck yahoos.
I can't speak for everyone, though, because usually people use the information they get from news stories to just back up the beliefs they have in the first place.
Standing: Unfortunately, the mainstream media's portrayal of this issue made Wisconsin look pretty bad. As with anything that happens between the coasts, the New York and Los Angeles media painted the debate as the scatterbrained ravings of a bunch of Midwestern rubes. This characterization suited the opponents of Q62 just fine, so they did nothing to discourage this assessment. Governor Jim Doyle said Wisconsin "was becoming a laughingstock."
Do you hunt? Do you own a cat or cats?
Beversdorf: I hunt deer and ducks. I don't own cats anymore.
Standing: I have hunted, but I don't personally enjoy it, and so have given it up. I have no strong moral objection to responsible hunting. Some of America's greatest conservationists have been avid hunters.
Ever since I met my wife almost twenty years ago, I've learned to appreciate cats. We owned two cats for many years. Both our cats died in the last couple of years... of natural causes. We're currently enjoying being pet-free, at least for now.
The world premiere of Here, Kitty Kitty will be held at the Majestic Theatre on Thursday, February 28. The screening begins at 7:30 p.m., followed by a question-and-answer session and a reception, with admission at $5. "I'm pretty sure that some of the 'characters' from the movie will be in the house as well so audience members will be able to ask them questions too," notes Beversdorf. Additionally, anybody buying a ticket to the film, moreover, will allowed to attend a performance by Har Mar Superstar and dumate at the downtown venue later that night at no extra charge.
Here, Kitty Kitty is the latest release from Prolefeed Studios, an independent documentary film cooperative in Madison founded by Standing, the creator of Why Are You Here, Christians for Equality, War Is Sell, and various other works. A trailer for this new film can be viewed here.
Prolefeed Studios has entered the documentary in several festivals, but they will not hear back from them for several months regarding selection. Beversdorf and Standing are also looking at submitting the film for screening on Wisconsin Public Television at some point. They also plan on releasing a DVD, which will be available for sale online as well as for rental at Bongo Video and Four Star Video Heaven here in Madison.