Feral Cat Feeder To Go To Jail?

Los Angeles

Feral Cat Caretaker Faces Jail in Beverly Hills

June 23, 2009 : 1:12 PM
Cat Colony in Danger as City Prosecutes Humane Behavior

By Sandi Cain, Best Friends Network Volunteer

Each evening, the little group of 20 or so cats comes quietly padding into an alley in the lushly landscaped and star-studded city of Beverly Hills. The cats are hungry, but not starving thanks to area resident Katherine Varjian, 65.

It’s an odd juxtaposition—this group of homeless cats in a residential neighborhood so close to the L’Ermitage and Four Seasons hotels frequented by celebrities. But they’re the lucky ones. For the past 12 years, Varjian has fed cats in her former neighborhood, reduced the population through TNR and found as many as 40 cats and kittens new homes in any given year. She does it at her own expense. The effort should be a shining example of a successful feral cat community like others celebrated on these news pages.

Instead, Varjian could spend July 4—that most American of holidays—in a jail cell for violating a
City of Beverly Hills ordinance against feeding domestic animals that are not under her ownership or guardianship. Yet without her, they’d either starve or be picked up and taken to a shelter, where they’d cost the city money in maintenance and, possibly, euthanasia.

Neighborhood Driving Complaints Against Varjian
Some neighbors don’t care. About 30 people from the surrounding area signed a petition in January asking the city to force her to stop feeding the cats. On January 14, Varjian was charged with a criminal complaint. The neighbors say the food Varjian leaves for the cats is responsible for bringing cockroaches, raccoons and coyotes to Beverly Hills. Yet there are 16 parks in the city and Beverly Hills proudly touts its 23-year history as a “Tree City USA.” Current drought conditions send wildlife into many hillside communities seeking sustenance regardless of whether there are domestic pets outside.

The cat in this picture is just one of the many cats that Varjian has found a loving home for.

Varjian faced similar complaints in 2005, but the charges were dismissed. During the intervening four years, she continued to feed and maintain the colony without interference. She also took a 6-week feral cat workshop offered through
Los Angeles Animal Servicesthat is funded by PetSmart.

She has supporters—including veterinarians and neighbors, including one who said she should be given a medal by the city for the good she’s done.

“Katherine Varjian is an amazing woman and I really admire what she does. … We need more people in this world like Katherine,” said another neighbor, who adopted two of the cats. Another adopter wrote, “Thank you for your dedication to saving these homeless and hungry kittens and finding good homes for them.” None of these supporters wished to be identified for this story.

Good Deeds Ignored
Their opponents ignore the fact that Varjian has reduced the colony’s overall population; found homes for cats through
Kitten Rescue where she volunteers; and has for years paid for spaying and neutering the cats. They say she’s an outsider, though she lived in the neighborhood for 30 years and works nearby. They film her activities, try to block her from the alleyways and claim their children are in danger—all because of these 20 little cats.

It’s true that Varjian ignored a court order issued February 18 to stop feeding the cats. She’d pleaded with the judge to allow feeding to continue so the cats wouldn’t starve while the case was pending, but was denied. So she agreed to stop in order to stay out of jail. But she couldn’t let them starve. Now she’s the one at risk of a criminal record. Yet city documents indicate the municipal code section under which she is charged was deleted a week before charges were filed.

Her daughter Tina, an attorney who practices in the civil arena, is trying to help, but has met with resistance at every turn. Now she’s filed a motion to dismiss the charges as a violation of due process of law. According to public legal documents, Varjian was charged on January 14 with four counts of illegally feeding animals. She could face contempt of court charges for continuing to feed the cats. The section of the Municipal Code under which her mother was charged was deleted from the Code on January 6 when Beverly Hills finalized a contract with the city of Los Angeles to provide animal care services. Tina is hoping that will invalidate the charges.

Dona Baker, who started the feral cat workshop through LA Animal Services and heads the
Feral Cat Caretakers has offered to go to court on Varjian's behalf. "She's a reliable and responsible person," Baker said. Baker sometimes fields calls from Beverly Hills residents seeking feral cats to help reduce rodent populations.

Conviction Could Set Bad Precedent
But a dismissal won’t solve the bigger issue of the homeless cats. And if she’s convicted it could send a chill down the spine of TNR efforts in other communities—a step backward for community cats. It also would be a step backward for Beverly Hills, which could end up with a publicity black eye instead of being lauded for its humane efforts. Tina Varjian is hopeful that mediation with the help of feral cat experts will be the outcome.

One alternative for Beverly Hills might be to look to how this issue is addressed in the Bay Area city of Richmond, where three women have managed a colony with the help and support of area residents. They’ve conducted educational programs about feral colonies and even won over some members of the local police department. Instead, Beverly Hills will pursue this senior citizen.

The next hearing is scheduled for July 1, at which time Katherine Varjian could be sentenced to jail. She and her daughter request your support. “The authorities have the option of ignoring these violations because of the good that it does, or in throwing the book at her,” said Ben Lehrer of Kitten Rescue.” …They've taken the latter approach,” he said.

How You Can Help
• Contact the Beverly Hills Mayor, City Council and City Attorney’s office to voice your concern about this case, to encourage Beverly Hills to embrace TNR and community cats as a humane way to reduce stray populations and save shelter costs, and to encourage city officials to save court costs by mediating this case.

As always, polite, brief comments from those who live in the general Southern California vicinity are the most effective.

• To submit online comments via email, you must register on the
city website.

You may reach city officials by phone at:
• Mayor Nancy Krasne, (310) 285-1000
• City Attorney Laurence S. Wiener and prosecutor Maria S. Chung, at (310) 285-1055
• Vice mayor Jimmy Delshod and council members Barry Brucker, William Warren Brien, M.D. and John A. Mirisch, (310) 285-1013.

• You may also voice concern about the potential effect of the city’s actions on visitor perception about the city by contacting the Beverly Hills Conference & Visitors Bureau:
Kimberli Partlow.


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