It’s sort of funny – not really the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions “South Beach,” but it’s a fact – Miami’s glamorous party capital is overrun with feral cats – more than 300,000 of them. Six cats crossed my path on the walk back to my apartment just off Collins Avenue last night (several of them black). In the morning there’s always one that’s sun-bathing on the stones of the patio walk, scowling at me through half-closed eyes and refusing to move as if she very well knows that her feline colony outnumbers the city’s human population by more than 3-1. Another pair of toms keep me up at night, yowling the hours away in contest for the sun-bathing fluffball that has no respect for my heavy footsteps by day.
It’s becoming a real problem according to the articles I read. Hordes of the wild cats are using the golden sands of Lummus Park as a giant litter box, causing a spike in cases of hookworm contracted by barefoot beach-goers. It’s gotten to the point that there’s even an official program sponsored by the City of Miami Beach. “CatSnip” as it’s called, consists of volunteer feeders, trappers, and spay/neuter specialists enlisted to coordinate an effort of “humane population control” – I watched a video presentation about it that was on loop in the Collins Express Trolley.
We had cats when I was a kid – four of them – Musie, Pickles, Smokey, and FuzzBucket (I named this last one). I think my sister always liked them a little more than I did. Each of the four had unique characteristics, but collectively they all had that same general feline disposition – you know, a certain haughty manner and cool skittishness, an air that they existed above the rest of the created order. The cats’ temperaments were always in sharp contrast to the easy-going dogs we kept at the same time. The family golden retrievers’ slobbery affection and bounding joy was met with arch-backed hissing and sharpened claws before an inevitable retreat to higher ground for some meticulous coat preening. The cats would come and go liberally, sometimes demanding affection and other times shunning my petting hands with decided disdain. They seemed an entitled species, four-legged drama queens born with a genetic selfishness and pride that insisted upon their membership in the finest echelons of society. The whole world existed to look at and accommodate them, and it never seemed quite good enough to do either.
I never thought of Miami Beach as being a cat colony. But I never lived there to observe it before either.
The Palace down on South Beach’s Ocean Drive has drag queen shows every evening. I watched one late one night after too many beers. The performer pranced around ferociously, tossing her hair, clawing at the air with painted nails, daring the audience to try to look away from her sharply outlined eyes. Then it was over. She was done with us – snatched up a couple twenties and retreated aloofly to the dressing room’s powder and mirrors. A few blocks down from The Palace where 9th Street meets Lummus Park is South Beach’s outdoor fitness arena – parallel bars, rings, jungle gym, and the “Leopard Tree.” The first time I checked it out there was a bikini model doing slow motion pull ups with a python around her neck for a horrified/fascinated throng of observers. The guys stick to the rings and parallel bars, arching their tattooed backs in trembling power while a crowd watches in silent wonder. It’s a grand display of chiseled muscle and tan skin, feats of beauty and athleticism demanding strict attention and appreciation. The whole thing is more performance than work out, but the fitness models basically ignore their audience.
South Beach has activity by day, but it’s truly a nocturnal creature. Ocean Drive knows its pastel runway looks better at night. The art deco hotels light up all pink and blue and the Lamborghini’s rev their engines unnecessarily between stop signs. That’s when everyone comes out to prowl with quickened pulses and eyes widened by the darkness. The girls swish their hips and click their heels down the sidewalks, their bronze beauty scoffing at modest clothes. Everyone spent an hour getting ready – flawless hair, meticulously matched colors, painted eyes – but there’s a cool indifference on their faces, as if to dare you to question their level of perfection. The line grows long outside Mango’s Nightclub, but the Versace mansion closes its gates at six to judge the sidewalk traffic from behind its pristine marble steps. It’ll be a few hours before SoBe reaches the zenith of its evening glamour and excess, but the self-conscious promenade has begun.
I walk the blocks of Ocean Drive and Lincoln Road in the evenings to watch it all go by. South Beach’s parade of vanity is supreme entertainment and a fascinating social study. I think of myself as apart from it all – just an observer because I’m from the down-to-earth steel towns of the northeast. I came south for some warmer air. But am I that different? Why did I come to this specific corner of Miami if I wasn’t drawn in by the extremes, intoxicated by the glitz, excess, and thick superficiality? If I’m honest, I too find myself walking the streets with chin held high in a carefully pressed shirt, coolly ignoring glances but all too aware of the least bit of attention.
Perhaps the city’s “CatSnip” program will work, and the feral horde will be under control in another 12 months. I hope it is so they can at least clean up the beaches and eliminate the health hazard for hookworm. But despite the efforts of the feeders, trappers, and spay/neuter volunteers, the feline occupation of South Beach may be more deeply seated than the city realizes. After all, cats know their own.