Smoky, Chocolate Chip, Stubby Legs, Low Rider: Each of the 70 cats has a name, and Joe and Nellie Salinas know every one because they named them. And the pair plans to care for them.
As I discovered when I met them, Joe and Nellie are more than just cat people. They believe their Native American backgrounds — she’s Tlingit and he’s Yakima — tie them to the spirits of animals. This creates the perfect awareness to save the feline throwaways of Beacon Hill and other Seattle locales, where it’s a dog-eat-dog existence.
Street felines tug at their heartstrings since both have been out on the street. Individually, each has fought the demons of booze, and scoured for a dry space to crash or cook their heroin. Witnessing violence on the street and within their immediate families has shaped who they are. For now, Seattle is home, and they can’t resist helping stray cats, many of which are on the streets because owners failed them.
“It’s not the cats’ fault that they are on the streets,” Joe said one windy day while feeding five cats. “They are actually pretty darn aloof, clean and loving.”
Daily, the husband-and-wife team checks on 70 cats at 10 feeding stations. Their car is a virtual meals-on-wheels for cats.
The cats they watch over, said Nellie, are “fixed and have been vaccinated.” The human cat-rescue team gets some guff from a few residents, but most people applaud them for taking care of street cats.
The conundrum for me as an environmentalist is: Where should I stand on cats? I’ve had plenty of biology classes and field reporting on how many species, including avian, are killed by outside cats.
And I see the conflict born out in stories like the one from Atlantic City, New Jersey, where the Humane Society is feeding feral cats — some 300 on the beaches. This has led the city’s local Audubon Society, which purports that “cats endanger shorebirds and small mammals and caus[e] health concerns because of their waste,” to make a plea to get rid of the cats.
But Joe sees no ethical dilemma in feeding nearly six dozen local felines.
“If it weren’t for cats, the rats would take over Seattle,” Joe told me as he set out plates of three kinds of food and freshly cleaned water bowls at one of the feeding stations around Seattle. I’ve heard the same biological food chain logic from burly mechanics who feed strays for that very reason.
Street urchins The animals are all strays, abandoned by people who either have had to pack up and leave because of financial woes, or just by people who dump unwanted cats, said Joe, in “other people’s neighborhoods.”
Each cat has been taken to several veterinarians of choice for shots, de-fleaing, check-ups and spaying and neutering. They all have a snippet of an ear lopped off for easy identifying. Both Joe and Nellie communicate with each of the furry, aloof street urchins.
Some feeding stations are like those at the edge of Jose Rizal Park — Rubbermaid bins retrofitted to hold plates of several types of cat food, usually donated for the cause. Some private businesses, like a glass company in the International District, allow the Salinases to go onto the property and take care of the feeding stations.
Joe is a roofer. He apprenticed under his dad in Yakima and has done work around the state. Nellie has roots in Alaska and Port Angeles.
Their stories about felines are vast, since they have been actively feeding and caring for strays for more than 26 years, from north to south. Both have seen an uptick in the number of strays as the economy tips and regular low-income folk get pummeled.
“It’s a sad thing to see cats, who one time had families, left there in the neighborhood,” Joe said. “They want that human companionship, but then they are left on the streets.” He called one stray out of a bush-covered feeding station and shelter he and Nellie, with permission from employees, set up on the property of the Pacific Medical Center.
The pair gave up alcohol and drugs
14 years ago; they went going cold turkey: “Cleansing together, there has to be that balance,” said Joe. “It never works when one is getting high and the other is going clean. We did it together.”
And something else they balance together: caring for their cats.
The human-animal connection The cats they honor with food, water, vet visits and love. In return, the cats repay their dedication. One cat in particular, Ginger, “enlightened” Joe and Nellie on the ephemeral nature of man-animal connection. It was a “Guinness Book of Records” kind of a cat, and even the veterinarian had to record it for posterity by photographing what he said was the oldest cat — probably over 30 years old — he’d ever encountered.
“She came to our bedroom window for a week, and then one day we found her, dead, outside,” Nellie told me.
“She was about to pass on,” Joe said. “That’s why she came to find us and stayed outside our apartment.”
After all these years, Nellie and Joe have a lesson they want to impart about the cats of Shoreline, Beacon Hill, Rainer Beach, Lake City and elsewhere:
“They were put on this earth for a purpose,” said Joe. “It’s not them that are dirty. … It’s your own thoughts if you believe that. These animals are clean and care for themselves better than I did when I was on drugs and on the streets.”
And another lesson: “If you are homeless, it’s not a good thing to have an animal, a pet, because you are just too busy taking care of yourself to take care of a pet,” says Nellie “What happens to the animal when you end up jail?”
That animal might be the next Rocky or Sugarplum or Ginger, another cat that receives tender, loving care from Joe and Nellie.