Here, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty ... 

With nation's first cat park, Colorado Springs aims to leave its mark

Editor's note: When trying to make heads or tails of this story, please note the publication date.

City officials are moving ahead with the cat park proposed for America the Beautiful Park, the Indy has learned.

The city had intended to renovate the park site for human use until unknown amounts of asbestos were found buried there late last year (News, "Yes, it's asbestos," Dec. 10, 2014). Now it could become home to the country's first outdoor site designated exclusively for the use of felines and their human companions, thanks to a determined lobbying effort by a local nonprofit group.

While certain levels of exposure to asbestos are known to be harmful to humans, the cat park project came together quickly and unexpectedly on the heels of a new report from Western Slope University's College of Veterinary Medicine, which found that similar levels of asbestos exposure in cats are actually beneficial, promoting increased mobility and approachability.

Those findings "came as a surprise to all the researchers who worked on this study, I think it's fair to say," said Corin Delgato, a professor of veterinary medicine and one of the study's leaders.

Not-for-profit advocacy group Front Range Free Range Kitties pounced on the results, mobilizing its hundreds of members on social media to lobby the city to turn the area over for the exclusive use of cats, and of their owners, who will have to wear respiratory masks while accompanying them.

"If being able to take my cats to a park and enjoy the same benefits that the city extends to dog owners means I have to wear a mask, fine," says FRFRK member April Lechat, who adds that her cats, Leon, an overweight orange tabby, and Cleo, a forbidding Siamese, have been excited by the prospect ever since they learned about it several weeks ago.

Asked how they learned about it, she says, "They just know."

Plans for the park are already at an advanced stage, meaning it could be open in just a matter of weeks.

The City Parks and Recreation Advisory Board signed off on the project; it was considered a use variance, which doesn't require City Council or mayoral approval. Parks board members said they agreed that if dog parks were allowed, cat parks must be as well. Some even expressed surprise that a cat park had never before been considered. But it does appear to be a first, even in a city long known as a beacon of inclusiveness.

"I've been through the charter and the city's master plan with a fine-toothed comb," Lechat says, "and nowhere do the words 'cat park' appear."

FRFRK meetings to craft the proposal that eventually met with the Board's approval went on for months, Lechat explains, and initially were challenging. Often each member wanted to work alone on a subcommittee. "They can be aloof," she says.

But in the end they were able to pull together.

The plans for the park's features are impressively detailed. It will have several enormous balls of string scattered across the grounds, which FRFRK members have already assembled working individually in their homes and garages. In spring, medical catnip will be planted abundantly.

"Have you ever seen dozens of cats in a park on catnip?" Lechat asks. "Neither have I."

Carpet remnants will be attached to the shrubbery. But there are also trees nearby.

"We've been in touch with the Free Range Kitty people," says Egon Leiter, a Colorado Springs firefighter and specialist in tree-cat removal. "We understand that there could be more calls for service in that area now, but we see that as an efficiency, having them concentrated like that."

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is investigating the possibility of stocking adjacent Monument Creek with rare suckermouth minnows (Phenacobius mirabilis), a slender fish with a conspicuous dark spot at the base of the tail fin. It inhabits shallow riffles and can also safely ingest asbestos, which means the felines in America the Beautiful Cat Park could have another diversion.

"Yes, suckermouths are endangered," says Parks and Wildlife fisheries manager Angelica Pesce, "but there's endangered and there's endangered. These are more just plain endangered."

Why aren't there other cat parks?

Several years ago, one was proposed in Vancouver, British Columbia. "There are over 12,000 cat owners living in Vancouver's West End, but there are no designated public spaces for the cats to roam free," reads the change.org petition to the city's mayor. "Cats should have equal rights to dogs and yet that doesn't seem to be the case in Vancouver." One petitioner said he was training his cat to help rescue people after avalanches. "Obviously having an off leash cat park would help tremendously. One cat park, who knows how many lives will be saved after avalanches ... maybe yours!"

The petition aimed for 50,000 signatures but garnered only 253.

Less than a year ago, the notion was still considered so outlandish, like ranching hippopotamuses, that it was the subject of a skit on the Comedy Central show Inside Amy Schumer. But like the U.S.' early-20th-century plan to import hippopotamuses, who would eat water hyacinths then clogging the Southern wetlands and in turn be meat, putting cats in the asbestos-laden America the Beautiful park has a compelling symmetry, just minus the hippos.

"It's really quite ingenious when you think about it," says ethicist Dr. Bette Katze of the Leipzig, Germany-based Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, via email.

But the park is not without its detractors.

"I just think it's unworkable," says Friends of Bear Creek Dog Park board member Tom Cane. "And when it fails, when all the cats run off, people will say, 'See, outdoor animal parks are unworkable!' And yet we have dog parks and hardly any problems. And we have zoos — those are animal parks, too, and you don't hear about the lions and tigers wandering off very often."

Initially, some said health concerns would prevent a cat park from being built. In addition to the asbestos, the area is expected to be a breeding ground for toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease that's often present in cat feces. It can cause serious health problems and, interestingly, a love of cats.

Then there are environmental concerns. The area around America the Beautiful Park sees thousands of migrating birds pass overhead depending on the season and it's not uncommon for them to alight there, searching for grass and water. And of course, cats and birds generally don't mix.

But Lechat says FRFRK has already addressed that problem. Helium-filled Garfield balloons will be tethered around the park's perimeter.

"That could work," says Hans Vogel, chair of the National Audubon Society's Cat Subcommittee, speaking by phone from the organization's New York offices, "but the trick, I think, is to keep the balloons quite high. A goose, for example, will rarely have encountered a cat at 1,000 feet. The unfamiliarity alone could be enough to divert it."

Other concerns have been raised by Earth First! the activist group, which also fears the effects of a concentration of outdoor cats. "When you think about a lot of them eliminating in one space, what you'll have is the ammoniac tang of cat pee times 50," says local Earth First! organizer Amanda Orina. "That's going to take a toll on the scent-scape.

"In the big picture, this is just more of the same old bourgeois collaborationist bullshit. But when you consider that just to the south you have the Drake Power Plant spewing coal emissions, it's hard to get too worked up about it."

She sighs.

"Coal dust, cat piss — some days, it's not worth leaving your yurt."

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