The cats—former pets, strays, and other assorted felines roaming Southern California—have been in Disneyland basically since the amusement park opened in 1955. They may have come originally to feast on bits of food left by visitors, but they probably stayed because there remain a limitless number of places to hide and hunt rats. Today you can spot them along the tracks near Main Street Station, or perched on the cliffs of Big Thunder Trail, or lounging around White Water Snacks. Disney didn't tell park visitors about the feral cat colony that came to inhabit the Happiest Place on Earth, but the company quietly instituted a policy of neutering, vaccinating, and tagging all the felines in the Magic Kingdom.
"They called us because they had some kitties that needed to be fixed," said Karn Myers, the co-founder of no-kill animal rescue organizations Best Friends Catnippers and FixNation. In 2001, Disney let Catnippers onto the park grounds to help run what's known as a trap-neuter-return (TNR) program, meaning the cats would be sterilized and monitored but not euthanized or evicted from the premises. The company wanted to keep it all under wraps, however. "We couldn't say a thing about the work we were doing there," Myers said. (Even today, Disney wouldn't comment about the cats for this article, though a spokesperson said there were about 100 currently roaming the Disneyland grounds.)In 2007, the partnership ended, and today the cats are taken care of by the park's workers with help from local veterinary clinics. There are feeding stations and shelters where the cats receive routine veterinary care, including flea treatments, spaying and neutering, and vaccinations.The cats were still unknown to the general public until 2010, when theLos Angeles Times published a report on what happens at the park after hours. It was an upbeat article that highlighted the hardworking efforts of Disney employees, but writer Hugo Martin said the company wasn't totally satisfied. "After my article appeared, [Disneyland representatives] said they got some positive feedback from animal rights groups but they wished it hadn't gotten so much attention," he told me. "As for talking to me on the record about this, they had no choice. I was walking around Disneyland at about 2 AM when I spotted cats walking around the theme park."
Since then, the amusement park has drawn praise from cat-lovers, who say that TNR programs are a way to control feral populations without throwing the felines into shelters—where most of them will inevitably be euthanized. Disney's treatment of its cats stands in contrast to Universal Orlando's Loews Hotel, which found itself caught up in controversy a couple years ago after it removed its feral cats and sent them to an animal-control center. TNR advocates condemned the move as"hypocritical and heartless,"but a hotel spokesperson told the Orlando Sentinel that according to Florida's Department of Health, "feral cats pose a continuous concern to communities due to the persistent threat of injury and disease," and that hotel's priority was "the health and safety of our guests and team members."
The problem with feral cats is that they can carry loads of bacteria, viruses, and parasites—nasty little critters that may cause rabies, toxoplasmosis, plague, tularemia, and murine typhus, among other illnesses. Even with TNR programs like Disneyland, some studies say, these packs of half-wild animals can still cause health problems in humans they come in contact with. And though they may kill some rats, they can also decimate local bird populations."They deserve to have a home," Teresa Chagrin, an animal care and control specialist at PETA, told me. "All of these resources should instead be put into preventing animal homelessness in the first place."Though it obviously doesn't support euthanizing strays, the famously strident animal rights group also opposes TNR programs, which it refers to as "re-abandonment." Instead, Chagrin said, "PETA would want the socialized cats to be given the chance to find good, permanent, indoor homes."Travis Longcore, the science director at the Urban Wildlands, a conservationist group based in Southern California, agrees that TNR isn't a solution. In 2008, the Urban Wildlands joined a collection of bird and wildlife groups to challenge Los Angeles's citywide feral cat policies; the coalition successfully petitioned for an injunction that barred city animal services from adopting trap-neuter-return programs pending environmental review. "TNR is about stopping euthanasia in shelters—it's not about animal control," said Longcore. "It goes to the moral determination that the lives of feral cats are more important than any of the consequences that may occur by leaving them outside."Judging by the controversy ignited by that 2010 TNR court decision however, Longcore and PETA are in the minority. Most animal rights activists seem confident that TNR is a humane and safe way to handle feral cats, and Disney seems similarly sanguine about the situation. Most park visitors, of course, don't care about all this—if they spot the cats at all, they'll just wonder what movie franchise the adorable feral creatures stepped out of.Follow Kyle Jaeger onTwitter.