To Jim Stevenson, the cats under the San Luis Pass Bridge were more than a nuisance; they were a threat to the endangered birds he loved.
To John Newland, the toll taker on the bridge, the cats were family; he gave them names and spent his own money — hundreds of dollars each month — to feed them.
Stevenson is a prominent birder who owns a bed and breakfast in Galveston, Texas, that caters to birders. He is charged with cruelty to animals for shooting a cat he believed was preying on the endangered birds he worked so hard to protect. His trial in Galveston has become a magnet for the curious, who can't resist dropping in to hear the testimony, some of which has prompted laughter and disbelief from the jury.
Newland says Stevenson had no right to shoot the cat he called Mama Cat. Newland is an avowed cat lover, with four cats at home, who fed dozens of wild cats living under the bridge where he worked.
On Nov. 8, 2006, Stevenson used a .22 caliber rifle to shoot a cat under the San Luis Pass Bridge. Newland heard the shot and started chasing Stevenson's van, launching a wild chase that ended in an accident. Police responding to the scene found a cat shot in the back, and Stevenson was arrested.
It is not illegal in Texas to shoot a feral cat. It is illegal to shoot someone's pet.
The question for the jury is whether the cat that was killed was owned by Newland. He fed it, but he didn't get it vaccinated, and it didn't go home with him. So how could he own the cat?
Ted Nelson, who is representing Stevenson, says there are three key issues for the jury: Was it a feral cat? Does the cat have an owner? Did Stevenson know the cat was owned? If he did not know, then he is not guilty, Nelson said.
Nelson admits it was tough seating a jury in the case.
"Six or seven people got struck because they thought it was the biggest waste of their time," Nelson said. "They couldn't believe they got called down to court to talk about a bird and a cat. Much of those people were more dog people than cat people. Some of the people on the jury have cats and are professed cat lovers. I don't think it comes down to bird versus cat. I think it ultimately comes down to the law."
One woman who came to observe shook her head during some of the testimony. During a break in the trial she said, "I can't believe this is actually a trial. Cats have been killing birds for centuries and they are predators. This is just insane."
"Feral cat colonies are common throughout the United States," said William Clark, a wildlife biologist at Texas A&M University who has spent years studying feral cat colonies, like the one living under the bridge in Galveston. "It is a domestic cat that has gone wild. They aren't under the care of humans, nor do they necessarily want to be."
Clark said he doesn't think the cat lovers and bird lovers in this case will come to terms.
"It's too emotional. It is not getting down to the hard-core science of the issue on both sides," he said. "Each group is generally committed to their point of view, but at the same time feral cats can do damage to the natural populations of wildlife — there is no question about it. And at the same time there are people in these United States who are basically cat lovers — any cat. They just like cats and the two groups will never come together, they will never compromise."
The stakes are high for Stevenson. If convicted, he faces a sentence of six months to two years in prison, and a $10,000 fine.