BILOXI -- The cats seemed to know what was going on.
The women who always feed them were putting their food in a cage. No way they were going to go into it.
So on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, about a dozen feral cats -- Chucky, Barney, Tally, Halloween, Buddy and others -- were going hungry.
They have lived for years around the little shops and apartments in downtown Biloxi, near what used to be Biloxi Regional hospital. They have been fed faithfully by women who are devoted to them. But this Thanksgiving, the tables have turned.
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A note went up on a city building this week that said the cats, the food dishes and the little cat houses under the buildings have to go.
Karen Whalen, who has helped feed the cats for more than two years, found the note one day, and the next day, she found what she believes to be antifreeze, a lethal poison, in one of the cats' water bowls. She called the police. She said they told her she would have to know whoever did that in order to press charges.
Instead, Whelan decided to make an all-out effort to lure the cats into cages and move them out of the city.
The effort started Thanksgiving morning. By Friday, there were still no cats in the traps. An angry, hissing raccoon cowered in one, but the cats were all sitting outside the traps, hungry and complaining.
"I don't know what we're going to do," Whalen said. "Sometimes cats are just smart."
She was distraught. "Who would want to kill cats?"
No problem with them
Two businessmen and an apartment resident who watched the effort Friday said they have no problem with the cats, which have come to be part of the scenery around the little shops and businesses in historic downtown.
Bobby Mahoney, co-owner of Mary Mahoney's Old French House restaurant, said his business has been in the area for 50 years and he's never had a problem with cats.
These are healthy looking and well-fed.
No one at his business or in his apartments put out antifreeze, he said.
"It has to be somebody new to the area. I told the women to put the food by my Dumpsters," he said. "I like the cats here. They kill the mice. We've had those cats here for God knows how long."
But he said when someone gets a notion to do evil, it's hard to stop them. If the antifreeze doesn't work, they're likely to come back with a pellet gun when no one's around, he said.
Mike Cavanaugh, a local attorney, said the cats are no problem for him. He said some of them originated in an artist's home behind his office.
"He got ill and died. These are descendants from his cats," Cavanaugh said. "They're no bother to anybody. They're perfectly fine, as far as I'm concerned. They don't jump on people's cars."
Moving and moving again
Whelan and Lynn Strickler, who also is devoted to caring for and feeding the cats, said they have moved the food bowls from one building to another in recent months because of one complaint or another.
"They've been moved so many times recently, the cats are confused," Strickler said.
Since the threat, the plan is to have Beth Nethery with the SPCA in Stone County take them, and try to tame some of them for adoption. She said the others can be wild in the country.
That's if they get trapped.
On Friday, they were playing around in the bushes, unaware their lives are at stake.
They are friendly and the women can pet a few of them, but they bolt when someone tries to pick them up.
Their little paradise
Whalen is afraid the city wants them gone.
"The city doesn't have anything to do with cats," Mahoney said. "It's got bigger problems than cats running around a parking lot."
But the initial warning appeared on a city building.
Assistant Police Chief Rodney McGilvary said he was aware Whalen's call had come in, and plans to investigate.
"We'll look into it and see what we can develop, who might be doing this," he said. "But if they have no idea who it is" trying to poison the cats, the case will be harder to develop, he said.
Whalen lives near D'Iberville but works in downtown. She got involved in the cats' lives when the artist, Bill Johnson, was hospitalized and wanted someone to feed his cat. She later found Strickler and others who were feeding feral cats in the neighborhood. Strickler and Whalen worked with the Humane Society of South Mississippi's trap-and-release program and had them all spayed or neutered, so there's no chance they'll multiply.
Whalen sees relocating the cats as standing up for what's right -- doing right by them.
An apartment resident said he likes cats in general, so having these around is nice -- he's exposed to cats without having to keep a litter box in his apartment.
But playing the devil's advocate, he pointed out the women are feeding cats in some else's backyard, not where they live. Still, Whalen said, these cats have been here longer than many of the businesses and residents.
"This is their little paradise," she said. "Where's the law when we need it, the law that grandfathers in cats?"