It went largely unnoticed in downtown San Luis Obispo, but early one morning this summer, an era lasting almost 25 years came to a peaceful end.
The story goes that many years ago, the San Luis Obispo Mission was given a special black cat whose job it was to take care of the mice "problem." Eventually, the cat wandered across the creek and moved onto the roof of what was then Creekside Toy Store. There it was well fed and cared for by the store's owner.
"Black Cat" soon brought home a girlfriend and thereafter kittens were born, and then more new girlfriends and more kittens followed. Friends and customers adopted some, but many stayed around to become known as "The Mission Creek Cats." Departing Cal Poly students were also said to have contributed to the population.
When I moved to San Luis Obispo in 1974, cats could be seen everywhere along the downtown creek area. If one was dining on a nearby restaurant patio, cats could be seen waiting and hoping for food morsels to be tossed their way. I recall several meals at Sebastian's Restaurant, launching pieces of meat to watchful felines.
One day in 1989, a fellow cat-loving friend telephoned to say that the cats there were now being humanely trapped, spayed or neutered, vaccinated against rabies, and then returned back to the creek. Being a cat lover, I immediately volunteered and began taking turns with several other locals to make sure the cats were fed every day. Most of them lived quite contentedly under porches, in bushes or drainpipes, or behind businesses along the creek plaza buildings between Chorro and Nipomo streets. The population of about 40 animals was eventually stabilized due to the thorough and successful trap-neuter-return program.
Over the years, many volunteers participated in caring for the cats on a daily basis: both men and women, businesspeople and homemakers--even several who drove in from out of town just to keep their promise to make sure the cats were fed every day. Most creekside business owners appreciated the cats keeping the rodent population under control, and the tourists happy. One restaurant owner reported having clients who visited SLO on summer vacations every year and always wanted to know if a "certain" cat was still around.
Two cats ended up permanently living on the roof over the Rhythm Cafe for several years because the tree they used to shuttle up and down on was unexpectedly cut down. Until the cats could be re-trapped and brought down, their main source of food became large meatballs that we prepared and threw up onto the roof every morning. For water, they drank from rain puddles in the winter, and dripping swamp coolers in the summer. Piles of dead leaves became their litter boxes, with all of the material decomposing over the summers.
As was predictable with stable, maintained feral cat colonies, their numbers eventually began to decline. A few disappeared without a trace. Some were adopted. Some were found dead. And some were humanely euthanized at a veterinarian's office when taken in with symptoms of illness or injury.
Hot summers and cold winters came and passed. The apparent signs of aging, arthritis, and debilitation were setting in. In the late 1990s, the creek population dropped down to 12 cats, then six, three, two, and finally just one in early 2007. Her name is Green Eyes--one of a litter of four kittens who were gray and white. Her eyes were the color of emeralds, setting her apart from her look-alike littermates. She is now about 16 years old.
She had several hiding places at her creekside home, sleeping in the patio behind the Gold Concept jewelry store, behind the surf shop, or under Novo's deck. But with warmer weather, increased creekside activities, and earthquake retrofitting, she ran out of places to hide and be safe. So the little green-eyed kitty was placed into a carrier and brought home for a restful retirement in her old age.
We had bid farewell to the creek with its memories of Black Cat, B-W, Mama Kitty, Baby Cat, Sky, Blackie Holland, Inky, Sadie, Big Daddy, Golden Eyes, Delila, Fred, Frank, Patches, Arnie, Mitzi, Siam, Toes, Roofer, Grayface, Clooney Brown, Tree Kitty, Dudley, Squeaker, Betsy, Tippy, and the others. May you all rest in peace.
And thank you to volunteers Ellen, Marje, Judy, Betty, Diana, Karen, Mark, Diane, Jan, and Anne for your many years of faithful and dedicated service to needy animals and proving, once again, that outdoor, homeless cats can survive--even thrive--with a successful trap-neuter-return colony management program.