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— 'Pst psst. Kitty kitty. Tsk tsk tsk."

"Not so loud! They'll hear...." It's 2:00 a.m. The only time we can feed our

illicit colony without alerting the neighbors. "Dzit dzit dzit."

At the bottom of the stairs, the lamps appear. Three pairs of eyes. As my wife Lita spoons out the cat food, the six lights bounce upwards, nearer and nearer. Our feral cats.

Except tonight they're acting strange. While Minou the tom hangs back, Phoebe and Chili, mother and daughter, come right into the kitchen. They seem unsteady in the light, but Chili, the scuzzy tortoise-shell, rubs against our legs, uttering short meows.

I feel uneasy. "Something's up," I say.

Our love affair with feral cats started two years ago with Sylvia, a black-and-white with a broken tail who'd been left behind when her owners moved. We first noticed her from the cries of her kittens in the neighbor's bamboo forest. We couldn't help admiring Sylvia's dedication to them. The way she endlessly hunted for food, leaping into alley Dumpsters to scour for leftovers. Hovering for hours, waiting to spring at a careless sparrow. For the sleek, lazy housecats around her, hunting sparrows was fun. Not for Sylvia. She took all the food back to her family. One day, she deigned to present her two surviving kittens to us, a sort of Elsa the Lioness proudly showing off her family.

Then Bob, in the apartment downstairs, decided Sylvia'd had enough roughing it. He adopted her and took her north with him to a new life of domestic bliss in Eureka.

We worried. We didn't know how Sylvia's kittens (whom we named Phoebe and Minou) would fare. We wanted to help. The trouble was, the kittens lived under the deck belonging to our neighbor, Mr. Chandris (not his real name). Mr. Chandris didn't like cats - especially feral cats. And our own landlord had a "no pets" clause in the rental contract.

We started leaving tidbits out. Not for anybody in particular. But who was fooling whom? Within weeks we had become food-source number one. Minou and Phoebe, and soon their love-child Chili, were installed. Part of the family. We started talking to them and about them as if they were children. Like so many atomized urban families, we joined in the anthropomorphic jive, needing someone to love, secretly hoping to break them, make them need us, yet attracted by their very wildness.

But then Phoebe had an affair with Big Daddy, the block's orange-coated bully. That produced the marmalade twins Genghis and Khan, and a tortoise-shell sister Shadow. It was beginning to get crowded at the top of the steps. And noisy. Cats meowed and hissed indiscreetly at 2:00 in the morning. We started worrying. How long would the neighbors let this go on?

* * *

"Shhh," says Lita. "What's that?" We wake up with a start. Voices, coming from the patio next door. We lift up the venetian blind and peer down through the bamboo forest. You can just see: the neighbor and a guy in some uniform, talking, gesticulating. Every second word seems to be "cat" or "trap."

"Oh God," says Lita. "They're going to take our cats away!"

Now, 18 hours later, our worst fears seem realized. The food bowls remain full. No lamp eyes appear after our surreptitious calls. We wait another night to see if they'll come. They don't. Next morning Lita goes down to Animal Control. Yes, they tell her, cats have been removed from that address. They've been transferred to the animal shelter in San Diego. They didn't look like candidates for adoption as domestic pets. Too feral. For sure, they have been put down by now.

Put down. Euthanized. Killed. Lita is devastated. "Even my little Chili?" she sobs. Chili had lain outside her bedroom window during eight long weeks when Lita was sick with bronchial pneumonia. "How could they do this?" Lita finally blurts, "Feral cats are just as human as other cats."

* * *

It's not just us. Coronado, it's safe to say, is passionate about its feral felines. Who can forget the battle of the playhouse cats? Eight of them, ferals all, lived among the sets behind the Coronado Playhouse theater for five years. Artistic Director Thom Rhodes loved them, looked after them, had them spayed and neutered, gave them names to match their personalities: Barry More, Olivier, Barbra Streisand, Eartha Kitt, Bojangles, Clawed Raines, Bette Midler, and Boots. They became so interwoven in Playhouse culture that patrons were used to seeing them wander across the stage in the middle of a play. "One of the best evenings I remember," Rhodes once told a local reporter, "was a play in which a husband and a wife stood at either end of the stage arguing. Barry More came out, looked at one, looked at the other, and shook his head. The audience roared."

Rhodes viewed them much as Coleridge's Ancient Mariner saw the albatross, a good-luck boon. In programs Rhodes would print "our extra special thanks" to "Barry More, Olivier, Barbra..."

So naturally, when the board of directors decided to get rid of them, all hell broke loose - especially after Barbra Streisand (so-called because she had slightly crossed eyes) was found shot through the heart with a speargun. The other seven had been lured into cages. Nobody knew who killed Barbra. Somebody offered a $500 reward for the murderer.

"Mrs. Eddy, what a truly evil person you are," said one of dozens of angry letters to the theater board's president, Vivian Eddy. "You must not have much of a life if all you have to do is make bad decisions about the fate of some of God's innocent creatures.... I and a number of my friends will never give another dime in support of the Playhouse.... You are truly a dreadful person."

"The whole episode was emotional. Just terrible," says Eddy. "But something had to be done about those cats."

"Even now, I can't talk about it," says Thom Rhodes, who left the theater shortly after the incident. "It makes me too emotional."

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