Between the imposing condo towers and the picturesque sands of Miami Beach lies a conundrum.
Or as some advocates would put it, a cat-tastrophe.
The city just began the 12-month construction of a long-awaited paved walkway that will connect beachside paths in the north and south ends of the city. Pedestrians and cyclists will have a continuous north-south route near the ocean. Along the way, contractors are felling a large swath of invasive plants in the dunes — unwanted vegetation that, although bad for the shoreline environment, serves as shelter for a beloved colony of wild cats.
The project has sent some of the cats’ feeders and animal advocates into a fury, accusing the city of insufficient planning for the beach-bum felines. They are demanding that the city halt construction and develop a plan to accommodate the kitties by immediately replacing the removed plants or even creating a temporary fenced-in cat compound for the duration of construction.
Other cat advocates are taking a softer approach, trying to develop a compromise with City Hall to avoid prolonging a necessary project but still be sensitive to the cat colonies by adding more shady native plants under which the felines can make a home.
City officials insist that their contractor will not harm the cats while the plants are being ripped out, and they say they are working with Miami-Dade Animal Services to make sure the cats are spayed/neutered and returned so they can migrate to other dunes until native plants are rooted.
Emotions clearly run high among different animal supporters when it comes to these furbabies, complicating matters for a much-needed dune restoration that aims to safeguard the Beach from erosion and storm surge with well-rooted native plants.
There may be no perfect solution. But all sides say they are open to a conversation to find a compromise.
‘THEY ARE MY FAMILY’
Ethel Dominguez strolled along a sandy path west of the beach dunes Friday morning, kneeling down to drop dry and wet food.
Then came the cats’ meows. A few dozen eager felines emerged from the leafy vegetation.
She walked south from Allison Park, at Collins Avenue and 65th Street, near where Middle Beach becomes North Beach. There, underneath invasive beach cabbage plants, a ragtag colony of cats stays out of the intense heat. She bent the edges of heart-shaped leaves from sea grape trees to form bowls for the cat food. She carried the small tin with wet food all along the way, never leaving behind metal litter.
Dominguez has an emotional connection to the cats that live in the dunes, which walk up to her and purr as they nuzzle at her hands and chew on the food.
“They are part of my family,” she said. “Actually, I would say they’re my only family.”
As she walked along, she encountered a team of representatives from City Hall, Miami-Dade Animal Services and SOBE Cats Spay and Neuter, a nonprofit that focuses on fixing cats and releasing them.
Dominguez got into a heated exchange with Mary Thingelstad, founder of SOBE Cats, over Dominguez’s aggressive social media campaign criticizing the city over the plan. Dominguez and associates have taken to Twitter and Facebook to accuse the city of being reckless as contractors have begun work in recent weeks.
“You should’ve done research and thought more, but you didn’t,” Thingelstad said to Dominguez. “Now you’ve caused a huge problem here.”
Thingelstad later told reporters she was doing a walk-through with officials to show them where the cats live and suggest planting more tall native plants to give the cats shade.
She praised public works officials for being open to the recommendations.
“It’s really great to know that our city of Miami Beach is doing everything they possibly can to help the cats in this situation,” she said. “All the cats are fine, and we’re taking steps to make sure now that we put other vegetation in that is appropriate and that the cats will have shelter.”
The dunes between 53rd and 64th streets are in a bad way — so bad it could be dangerous if a hurricane hit the Beach.
They are overrun with invasive Scaevola taccada plants, commonly known as beach cabbage, and Brazilian pepper trees. Even the classic coconut palm isn’t a good fit for the dune system, due to its shallow roots.
Plants with sturdy, robust root systems prevent beach erosion and don’t become projectiles amid hurricane-force winds. Roots of native species, like sea oats and sea grape trees, are better at holding down sand and protecting upland properties from storms.
Margarita Wells, Miami Beach’s environmental director, told the Miami Herald it made sense for the city to address the dunes while building the beach path.
“What we’re doing as part of this project is a dune restoration. This entire area between 53rd and 64th has been primarily overgrown by non-native invasive vegetation,” said Wells, as she stood in the shade of the invasive beach cabbage plants. “It was planted when the dune was first constructed in the late 1970s.”
Apart from volunteer dune restorations in other parts of the city, which require lots of manual labor to remove thickets of unwanted greenery, the dunes have not been extensively managed since they were built four decades ago.
So the contractors are bulldozing large swaths of unwelcome vegetation. Piles of felled invasive trees lay in the dune just north of the 53rd Street access this week.
That doesn’t mean every native plant standing will remain. Wells said that for the sake of the beach path, between 10 and 20 native trees will be removed.
One of those likely casualties, a sea grape tree surrounded by sea cabbage, stood severely splintered amid heaps of uprooted invasive plants Wednesday. Branches of snapped reddish wood poked up from the debris behind a carpet of browned sea grape leaves.
Wells said a diverse mix of native grasses, shrubs and trees will be planted to replace the razed dunes, and the visual difference may shock beachgoers. As opposed to tall leafy plans framing beach access paths, people can expect lower-lying vegetation when the native species are reintroduced.
KEEPING CATS HAPPY
“A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.”
This quote, attributed to noted cat lover Ernest Hemingway, captures part of the mild cat fight brewing over the dune project. Some of these animals’ caretakers feel that while the humans fret over the details, the array of felines — mostly mixes of tabby cats, Maine Coons, and calicos — will likely be agitated by the construction and scurry away from the danger.
But others say the cats face danger if they migrate inland and try to join other feral colonies, where they may not be accepted.
Feral cats can disrupt ecosystems if they are left to hunt birds and other animals. That’s likely less of a concern for these beach cats, which are well fed by humans. But their presence in the dunes has feeders and cat advocates strongly imploring the city to be humane as it proceeds.
Both Dominguez and Thingelstad want the contractor to take special care while bulldozing block by block, making sure cats are not trapped underneath falling vegetation and providing a safe place for feeding stations to be set up. A city inspector said she has witnessed cats running away as the construction equipment moves slowly through the dunes.
A small colony of about 10 cats near Dominguez’s home, near the 53rd Street beach access, is returning at night so she can feed them. Still, she’s skeptical of the city’s intentions to follow through on its promises to hear her out, and she feels that the process will be traumatic for the felines either way.
Thingelstad insisted that the cats are resilient. They will run away from danger as the teardowns progress and return to be fed as native plants are placed in the dunes and new, safe feeding stations are established.
Despite the oceanside quarrel, both women share an awesome passion for cats. Thingelstad became emotional when she later described her work in the spaying/neutering program.
“It’s really hard to continually see the abuse and neglect of these beautiful animals,” she said. “And I’ve never even owned a cat before.”
City officials maintain that they are open to suggestions from anyone who feel strongly about the kitties.
“I think this is a learning process,” Wells said. “We’re in open communication with all of the different stakeholders that are passionate about cats.”