There’ a lot going on in the world right now. A lot to worry about and even more to read about. With global warming, soaring unemployment, and the seemingly never-ending saga of the COVID pandemic, you would have thought the people in charge had enough on their plates without creating major dramas out of minor incidents. But apparently not. At least, not in Miami-Dade. In September, Dade County Park officials got themselves hot under the collar over a park, a few stray cats, and an elderly woman with a big heart.
Why This Woman Got Banned from a Park for Feeding Cats
Arlene Bercun, a 74-year-old resident of North Miami Beach, has seen enough stray cats in her time to know that most of them could benefit from a little human kindness. And that’s exactly what she’s been dolling out (along with some tasty titbits) at her local park for over a decade. And until now, the worst thing that’s happened is the occasional bout of kitty indigestion. That all changed in September when park officials decided enough was enough. Why they decided that 10 years was the breaking point, who knows. What we do know is the result – a temporary ban, a (now rescinded) trespass warning, and one very peeved senior citizen.
Bercun began visiting Greynolds Park nearly 70 years ago. In the past 10 years or so, she’s noticed more and more abandoned cats and kittens popping up. Determined to lend a helping hand, she started bringing food with her on her daily visits: once the cats began seeing her as enough of a friend to get close, she took to popping them in her carrier and taking them along to the Animal Welfare Assocation for re-homing. She even adopted a few of the cats herself, and encouraged her family and friends to do the same. For those cats that had become too feral to be successfully re-homed, she castrated them (not personally, you’ll be pleased to know) before returning them to the park where she’d continue to care for and feed them. Thanks to her efforts, the stray cat population in the park is now at an all-time low of 4.
COVID Strikes Again
When COVID struck, all the parks in the county closed, including Greynolds. The closure could have spelled disaster for the stray cats inside, but fortunately, Bercun didn’t see a worldwide pandemic as an excuse to take a rest from her daily chores. She continued to make her rounds at the park, keeping the cats well fed and watered while the rest of the world worried about face masks and hand sanitizer. And for a while, all was well. Until a park employee called Chris spotted her. “He pulled up and told me I couldn’t feed the cats any more, that he was going to call the cops,” Bercun recalled to the Miami New Times . “Some of the cats are ten years old. They’re like my babies.”
Incensed by Chris’s warning, Bercun decided to video him as he told her she was trespassing and could be arrested if she continued to visit the park. She did not, however, decide to take the warning to heart. Well aware of how much the cats relied on her, she continued to visit the park. Almost a month passed without further incident, but then, on September 20, she returned to her car after a daily feed only to find it had been blocked off by a golf cart, a police car, and a Miami-Dade Police Department officer. She was subsequently slapped with a trespassing warning and told never to darken the park’s gates again. Although Bercun had been slightly naughty in vising the park while it was closed, that wasn’t the reason for the park’s response- according to them, at least. Speaking to the New Times, a spokesperson for the park’s department claimed that the real reason behind the warning was down to Bercun’s repeated violation of a country code that specifically bans the feeding of exotic and native animals in a county park.
The park department’s treatment of Bercun may have been a little heavy handed. Some might even call it completely unwarranted. But if they thought they could sweep it under the carpet, they couldn’t have been more wrong. Bercun is clearly not a woman to take things lying down. Since the incident, she’s taken to social media to give her side of the story. In the process, she’s done a fine job of highlighting the plight of the many stray and abandoned cats that populate the country’s parks.
But despite becoming something of a social media hero, Bercoun’s hopes are simple. “My aim is to go to the park I’ve been going to for seventy years. It would be nice if I could go there to feed the cats. Other people scare them,” she’s said via eminetra.com, before adding the slightly more inflammatory “I want to see them arrest me for trying to feed starving cats.”
Thankfully, that’s becoming increasingly less likely. As pictures-of-cats.org notes, since news of the incident went public, Maj. Thomas Buchanan of the Miami-Dade Police Department has backtracked on the department’s initial actions and rescinded the trespass warning. Speaking to the New Times, Miami-Dade Police Department spokesperson Alvaro Zabaleta explained “Maj. Buchanan got wind of what occurred and discovered the cats are facing nutritional issues. In light of that, he felt the cats’ health is more important and rescinded the trespassing order.”
The Fight Continues
But Bercun isn’t completely satisfied with the response. Perhaps worried that the park department may still pose a threat, she’s called for them to issue a written notice declaring her right to feed the cats without further harassment. Once she gets that, she’s planning on taking things to the next level by fighting for the repeal of the county code that prevents people from feeding stray and abandoned animals in the county’s parks. “It’s not just me — it’s a countywide problem,” she’s maintained. Whether or not she succeeds, only time will tell. The one thing we do know for sure by now is that it doesn’t pay to mess with a senior citizen and her furry friends.
Photo by Arlene Bercun