A famous cat is dead and his owners are looking for justice after a melee at a Brooklyn park on April 4.
Chanan Aksornnan, 34, was walking her cat Ponzu in Brooklyn’s McCarren park when a boy around 12 years old set off a chain of events that lead to the cat’s death and a subsequent melee that saw Aksornnan and her boyfriend jumped by the boy’s family.
Some reports say the boy “intentionally pulled on the leash,” while others say he tripped over Ponzu’s lead with such force that the famous feline was launched into the air. A Facebook post to a group called #JusticeForPonzu claims the boy “came from nowhere, dragged the leash using his body.”
What the accounts do agree on is three-year-old Ponzo hit the ground hard and lost all his claws. Aksornnan ran and scooped Ponzu up, but the terrified cat had a heart attack and died in her arms.
“The family not only did not offer any apology nor remorse,” Chanan said. “They immediately began a verbal abuse which escalated into a physical assault. I got punched and kicked by three women.” Meanwhile, Chanan’s boyfriend was punched, his nose and glasses broke, and he required emergency surgery the following day.
The version portrayed by the #JusticeForPonzu Facebooker described the family as even more combative, with one of the boy’s relatives yelling “That’s what you get for walking your —ing cat, b—.”
It’s not clear what happened next — and it looks like police are still trying to sort that out — but a video posted to Reddit shows Aksornnan on the ground, with a much larger woman on top of her and another attacking her from the side while bystanders tried to pry them off the victim.
In the video, a person who appears to be Aksornnan is swarmed by a group of screaming women, who can be heard telling her, “That’s why you got no kids.”
One of the bystanders who tried to help, a 50-year-old man, was punched in the face for his efforts, suffering a cut on his nose as a result as the attacker pushed her way out of the crowd and ran.
In a brief statement, the NYPD said they were looking for “an unknown Hispanic female,” about 5’7″ and 200 pounds.
Several social media posts are portraying the incident as an anti-Asian hate crime and complained that police haven’t made progress for more than two weeks despite witnesses and at least one recording of the assault. The police have remained tight-lipped and haven’t said much besides confirming they’re actively investigating, looking for the attacker and hoping to speak with more witnesses.
“Never had a cat or wanted a cat before,” she said. “I believed the myth that they were cold and selfish animals.”
When her teenage son came back home one day with a kitten rescued from a “sketchy” house in a friend’s neighborhood, Julie didn’t want to let him keep the baby cat.
“I regret to say now that at the time I insisted that he go to the Humane Society,” July told PITB. “Two challenging teenagers and two elderly dogs with health problems were enough to handle.”
But Tux was special and needed a good family who would show him love. The kitten was the sole survivor of a cat family that was asphyxiated in plastic food containers, presumably by the home’s occupants, who left in a hurry one day.
There was one survivor mewing from the attic. The theory is that Tux’s mom was trying to protect her babies and got him to safety before she ran out of time and cruel humans ended her life.
Julie’s son named the cute kitten, and her daughter kept the little guy in her room. But she had a busy schedule between school and work, and Julie was the only one home most of the time thanks to a job that allows her to work from home.
“Even though I didn’t initially want a cat, I checked on him often hiding in her room and he started to let me pet him,” she said. “Eventually he started following me around, and soon hung out with me. [My daughter] was mad that he chose me and said that I stole him from her!”
Tux worked his feline magic, and Julie quickly became a cat person. His presence turned out to be a blessing for the family when their dogs died within six months of each other.
These days he rules the home like his own kingdom by keeping watch atop his tree house, stealing plastic bottle caps to play with, knocking things over (he’d get along great with Buddy!) and, of course, “scolding us when he perceives that we have slacked off with servant duties!”
“I never could have imagined the great love from Tux over the years,” Julie said. “He seems to understand so much of what goes on and he is my feline child! Yes, I might be a crazy cat lady now! He is smart and funny and so loving. As long as the humans know their place!”
Before the great civilizational clashes at Thermopylae, Plataea and Salamis, there was Pelusium.
The strategically important city on the Nile Delta was where the Egyptians under Pharoah Psametik III made their stand against the invading armies of Cambyses II, the king of Persia, in 525 BCE.
It was a sound decision: Pelusium was heavily fortified, with high stone walls and ramparts. The pharaoh dedicated tens of thousands of men to the city’s defense, lining the ramparts with archers, stone throwers and catapults designed to launch flaming projectiles at the attacking, lightly-armored Persians.
For his part, Cambyses faced the prospect of a long siege or a bloody frontal assault that would cost thousands of lives as his men were tasked with scaling the walls under fire.
But the Persian king knew the Egyptians were not only famously fond of cats, they believed cats were representations of deities.
In a shrewd early example of psychological warfare, Cambyses figured out a way to use felines to his advantage in battle.
Cats were everywhere in ancient Egypt: Goddesses like Sekhmet and Bastet were portrayed as lion- and cat-headed, while Egyptian artists and craftsmen produced statues, rings, pendants and hieroglyphic cartouches with feline imagery. The beloved pets of royalty and other powerful Egyptians were buried in their own elaborate sarcophagi, while regular people mourned the deaths of their family cats by shaving notches in their eyebrows.
Cats are found in virtually every significant ancient Egyptian archaeological site, often elaborately mummified alongside their humans, and Egypt is home to the largest and most enduring cat statue in the world, the Great Sphinx. Not only do weathering patterns show the Sphinx is older than previously thought, it’s believed the Sphinx was originally carved with a cat’s head, then later defaced in the image of a pharaoh. That theory is supported by the fact that the head is disproportionately small compared to the Sphinx’s body, indicating it was carved down from its original form.
Cambyses realized there was a way to turn the Egyptian fondness for all things feline to his advantage: He had his men round up thousands of cats and carry them into battle as if they were just another part of the soldier’s kit along with weapons and armor.
If they opted to fight they would be killing sacred animals who were avatars of some of their most important gods. If they surrendered Egypt would be subsumed into the growing Achaemenid Empire, joining the Medians, Babylonians, Elamites and other once-proud nations in bending the knee to Persia’s king.
They chose the latter, bringing about two centuries of Persian rule in Egypt and leaving the Persians with no remaining obstacles between them and the loose confederation of city-states of Greece.
The kitties, however, would have their revenge against the Persians, for it was a man named Leonidas (“lion”) who led the fabled Spartan warriors to the narrow mountain pass of Thermopylae, where they and a few thousand fellow Greeks held the pass for three days against an invading Persian army that was the largest fighting force the world had ever seen. (Herodotus, the Greek historian prone to patriotic exaggeration, said the Persians were a million strong, drinking entire rivers dry en route to mainland Greece. Modern historians put the number at about 300,000.)
Regardless, the Lion of Sparta and his men inflicted so many casualties on the Persians that the latter’s morale was shattered, and held the pass long enough to give the other Greeks time to muster their army.
When the Persians finally broke through they sacked Athens and rampaged through Attica, until they met an unstoppable force: All of Greece united under the co-leadership of Athens and Sparta, with 50,000 pissed off Spartan Peers leading the defense. The combined forces of the Greek city-states routed the invading army.
We’re sure the Greeks broke out plenty of catnip for their kitties to join in the resulting celebration, and Herodotus just forgot to include that little detail in his histories.
A California biologist who shot and killed 13 cats as part of a “predator management program” referred to the felines’ corpses as “party favors” in a celebratory email to colleagues, according to a copy of the email.
David “Doc Quack” Riensche, a senior wildlife biologist with California’s East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD), used a 12-gauge shotgun under cover of night to shoot the cats, documents obtained from the EBRPD show.
Riensche and EBRPD knew the felines were part of a colony near Oakland Coliseum managed by Cecelia Theis, a local woman who provided them with veterinary care, food, water and conducted TNR (trap, neuter, return) services to prevent the colony’s population from growing.
They did not warn Theis that they were going to cull the colony late last year, nor did they reach out to contacts in the area’s extensive local shelter and rescue network to trap and remove the strays, despite repeatedly stating that shooting cats is an absolute “last resort.”
“Good morning Lisa and Jeff,” the email from Riensche reads, dated Nov. 18, 2020. “I recently cleaned up more than a ‘bakers dozen’ of party favors in this resource protection area. With the conclusion of this wildlife management action, I am seeing some really good birds starting to re-colonize the area with the limiting factors now removed. Have a great week.”
Riensche, who disposed of the dead cats in trash bags that he tossed into a bin, signed off the email about the dead cats with a smiling emoji.
Although Riensche uses coded language in the email, the district’s own records, Riensche’s overtime statements for overnight hours, timestamped audio of dispatch calls and EBRPD’s own timeline of the cat killings all line up with the date of Riensche’s email and a spreadsheet documenting when and where Riensche shot the colony cats.
Tiffany Ashbaker, a volunteer with Alameda’s Island Cat Resource and Adoption, said she was horrified when she read Riensche’s email describing the dead cats as “party favors.”
“I was disgusted. Way beyond hurt,” said Ashbaker, who helped Theis trap, neuter, vaccinate and relocate the Oakland colony cats. “I find this to be unethical and he should be removed from his position at EBRPD because of it. I understand why we should try to have cats further away from the protected areas, but how they handled this was eye opening for sure.”
The cats lived between two auto dealerships in an industrial area separate from the MLK Jr. Regional Shoreline, a park in Oakland managed by the EBRPD. When Theis returned to the area to feed the cats on Nov. 3 2020, she realized several were missing. Over the following days more cats began to disappear, Theis and Ashbaker noted.
When Theis asked EBRPD about the whereabouts of the colony cats, a district staffer told her EBRPD wasn’t involved and didn’t remove any cats. EBRPD then amended its response, saying it had trapped the cats and brought them to local shelters.
But none of the local shelters had any records of taking cats from EBRPD, nor did they have the missing cats in their care.
EBRPD admits its biologist killed colony cats
Theis went to KGO, a local ABC News affiliate, and when a reporter began asking questions about the missing cats, a spokesman for the district finally admitted one of its employees — later identified in documents as Riensche — had shot the cats as part of the “predator management program.”
Theis said she felt “a horrible feeling in my gut” when she realized why the usually friendly strays and former pets of the colony were suddenly skittish. Riensche shot the colony cats over a series of nights, returning to the park in the late hours with a shotgun to kill two or three at a time.
Theis said she now understands why the remaining cats were so fearful and skittish when she came by for their regular feedings. One cat named Sherbert jumped on her car hood, and two others meowed insistently at Theis, “trying to tell me.”
“I feel this horrific feeling that they went through terror and were trying to tell me,” Their said. “They weren’t eating like they did usually.”
Some EBRPD board members have expressed sympathy for what happened, Theis said, but she described being “depressed” and worried because the district won’t give her any guarantees that it won’t kill more cats.
“We feel horrible about this, you know, this is really one thing that’s just really sad,” Matt Graul, the EBRPD’s chief of stewardship, told KGO in December, after the public first learned the cats had been shot.
Despite that, EBRPD ignored public records requests from the TV news station, and a spokesman for the district defended the cat culling, saying it was necessary to protect endangered birds who winter in the nearby marshlands.
Stray and feral cats “are not part of a healthy eco-system” EBRPD spokesman Dave Mason said, claiming his agency was protecting endangered wildlife in the area.
Public and animal rights groups demand an end to cat killing practice
After intense public backlash, including a petition with 70,000 signatures protesting EBRPD’s actions, several district board members were quoted in media reports saying they would end the practice of killing cats and would demand an investigation. Almost five months later, the district is instead moving ahead with a plan to contract cat-killing (and the culling of other animals like foxes and opossums) to a federal agency, and there has been no investigation.
Ashbaker, Theis, the non-profits In Defense of Animals and Alley Cat Allies, and local shelters have all demanded EBRPD stop killing animals entirely. District officials continue to argue it’s necessary to protect endangered birds, despite a lack of scientific evidence supporting the idea that arbitrarily shooting animals has any measurable impact on bird populations.
EBRPD has made one concession: It’s promised to reach out to rescues and shelters in the area for help removing cats before making the decision to deal with them lethally.
“While we’re pleased that the policy seems to be to work with local advocates as to prefer not to killing cats, we want to see a pledge that this never happens, ever again,” Fleur Dawes of In Defense of Animals said in February.
The district “should have been up front from the beginning, saying ‘This wasn’t what should have happened, [so] let’s make it right,'” Ashbaker said.
EBRPD has been unable to provide proof that the cats were killing birds on the marsh or that Riensche shot the cats on district property.
In response to a public records request for any documentation of cats preying on birds in the marshlands, EBRPD produced a single document from 1992, noting one incident with one cat about 35 miles south of the MLK Jr. Regional Shoreline where Riensche shot 13 cats in late 2020. During a survey some time before 1992, an EBRPD employee saw an example of “[California Clapper] rail predation” by “what we determined was a feral cat, in a marsh in the East Palo Alto area,” where it says “many cats are found.” The document mentions another cat that was sighted swimming “in flooded tidal salt marshes” in south San Francisco Bay, likely “foraging” for an endangered mouse species.
The district has not been able to produce any written guidelines or protocols describing how its employees determine if a cat should be shot instead of being relocated or brought to a local shelter, except for a vague summary of minutes from a 1998 meeting during which they claim the policy was approved.
EBRPD has been unable to produce copies of the cat-killing policy itself, despite several public records requests seeking that document.
In addition, in internal emails after a KGO reporter began asking questions about the cat killings, several EBRPD staffers questioned whether they have any documentation saying cat culling is an acceptable policy.
EBRPD internal discussion: Are we following our own rules?
In those same internal emails, which were obtained from EBRPD via public records requests, staffers wondered if the district was following its own rules requiring it to reach out to local shelter networks and receive approval from federal authorities to kill cats. One EBRPD official, assistant general manager of public affairs Carol Johnson, noted the document EBRPD used as justification “does not mention dispatching these animals,” and requires the district to “work with animal rescue organizations to help trap feral cats.”
“[The] question is, are we following the protocols listed in the document?” Johnson asked her colleagues in a Dec. 2 email. “I would argue we are minimally following through with the organizations and we have nothing to say lethal means is acceptable.”
Internal correspondence among EBRPD staff, obtained via a public records request, show worried staffers searched in vain for a written policy on killing cats before using a Google search to find another agency’s policy.
EBRPD finally produced a copy of minutes from a 1998 meeting with notes attached saying the cat-culling policy had been approved by the board, but if a copy of the policy exists, the district has been unable to produce it.
In December Mason said cats were only shot as a last resort and “[L]ethal removal only happens when feral cats are in the act of hunting wildlife on District property,” but none of the documents say the cats Riensche shot were hunting. Indeed, it would require an extraordinary stroke of luck for the biologist to find 13 cats preying on endangered birds in just a few nights.
Despite public records requests, the EBRPD was unable to provide proof that Riensche had consulted anyone before shooting the cats. Records indicate no one was notified until after Riensche killed the animals.
In addition, the cat colony sat some distance from the protected marshland: An office park, electric car charging station, at least three parking lots and a substantial body of water are between the cat colony’s home and the marshland. That’s a distance considerably longer than most stray and feral cats range from their homes, and domestic cats are notoriously averse to water or getting themselves wet.
Records line up with cat shootings
While Riensche uses coded language by referring to the cats he shot as “party favors” in his email to colleagues, it was sent on Nov. 18, the day after EBRPD’s own records show he killed the last of the colony cats. Internal documents from the EBRPD, obtained through public records requests, as well as the district’s own public timeline of events, show the dates the cats were killed line up with Riensche’s email. In addition, in audio recordings of his radio contact, Riensche advises dispatchers only after he’s fired the killing shots.
“Yeah this is Dave Riensche in wildlife at MLK, I just dispatched an animal down here, so if you get a call, it was me,” Riensche tells a dispatcher in one of the calls on Nov. 13 at 6:24 a.m.
EBRPD’s records show the only animals killed on that day were cats.
(Click the embedded audio to hear Riensche call dispatch on Nov. 13, 2020.)
Finally, according to EBRPD’s records, Riensche received overtime for working on nights that correspond to the same dates EBRPD says the cats were shot. [EBRPD document: TIMECARDS (REDACTED)]
Riensche, who has been employed as a biologist with the district for decades, is a prominent birder whose work involves protecting birds and other endangered species from predators wild and domestic. He penned a newsletter, Bird News, in the early aughts and is on record saying there’s “a wealth of evidence” that stray and feral cats are the primary danger to bird populations.
Shooting cats as a ‘first resort’
Riensche earned $182,951 in salary and benefits in 2019, the most recent year for which salary data is available for public employees in California. Riensche earned a base salary of $90,239 and $56,050 in overtime, including for overnight hours spent shooting animals in EBRPD’s parks.
An Oakland woman who wrote to the EBRPD after the district came clean about the cat killings related an anecdote about Riensche from 2019.
The woman worked with a local rescue that received a call from a parks employee who wanted help trapping and relocating a female cat and her young kittens who were living on or near an EBRPD park. The rescue volunteers were working with the EBRPD employee, making plans for the cat and her babies to be vaccinated and spayed/neutered, and even had homes lined up for some of the kittens, the woman wrote in a Nov. 25 email.
After visitors to the park saw the mother carrying a dead rabbit back to her kittens, “Doc Quack [Riensche] then reportedly told employees he was going to shoot the cats,” the volunteer wrote.
The mother cat “disappeared” and her fate was unknown, but the rescue was able to work with the EBRPD employees to get the kittens trapped. However, Riensche wasn’t happy with that outcome, she wrote.
“I was told later by an employee, that they were reprimanded for saving the cats and going outside of the EB Parks, to get this help,” the woman wrote in her letter to EBRPD. “Apparently, they should have just been quiet and let Doc Quack shoot the cat family.”
The connection between birders and cat killing
Cat killing isn’t unusual among birders. In 2007 a Texas man named James M. Stevenson — founder of the Galveston Ornithological Society — admitted killing dozens of cats on private and public property after coming to believe the cats were killing piping plovers, shorebirds who commonly nested in the area.
In a 1999 posting on an Internet bulletin board for bird lovers, Stevenson nonchalantly described killing many feral cats during his first year living on Galveston Island. He rationalized his acts as a way to restore the natural order.
“I’m sorry if this offends — but I sighted in my .22 rifle, and killed about two dozen cats,” Stevenson wrote in his message, titled “killer kitties; kittie killers.”
“This man has dedicated his whole life to birds,” Stevenson’s attorney said in his defense. The case ended in a mistrial.
Nico Arcilla, then known as Nico Dauphiné, was well known as a birder and outspoken critic of cats. A group of people who cared for strays near Washington’s Meridian Hill Park contacted the Humane Society after noticing food they left out for the cats “would sometimes become covered by a white powdery substance overnight.”
After the Humane Society and Washington police tested the substance and verified it was poison, they set up a stakeout and had cameras trained on the food bowls. Footage, which prosecutors later exhibited on trial, was damning:
“Dauphiné [Arcilla] can be seen approaching the bowl, pulling something out of a small bag, reaching down toward the food twice, and then leaving the scene,” a sciencemag.org report reads. “The next morning, police found the food covered with the same white powder as before, which tested positive as poison.”
[Click here to see video of Arcilla poisoning the cat food.]
Arcilla wasn’t just a prominent birder and anti-cat campaigner — she is a co-author of several frequently-cited studies claiming cats kill billions of birds in the US each year. Those studies, which have been used to justify cat-culling policies around the world, are highly controversial, with critics blasting them for poor methodology, a lack of hard data, and arbitrary numbers plugged in to estimate both the national cat population and the felines’ impact on birds. For example, the authors estimate a national stray and feral cat population between 25 and 125 million, an estimate so vague that any extrapolations based on those numbers are virtually useless.
Riensche has repeatedly cited Arcilla’s work in public and private documents arguing that cats are primarily responsible for declines in bird populations.
After a few days of patiently waiting, we finally have a winner in our unofficial contest from earlier this week.
Reader Romulo Pietrangeli got it right: None of the cats pictured in our April 13 post are real felines.
All nine images were created by the machine learning algorithm that powers the site This Cat Does Not Exist, a riff on the original This Person Does Not Exist, a site that uses generative adversarial networks (GANS) to create stunningly realistic images of people on the fly.
(Above: All six images above are computer-generated using the same technology behind ThisCatDoesNotExist.)
“I’m basically at the point in my life where I’m going to concede that super-intelligence will be real and I need to devote my remaining life to [it],” Wang said. “The reaction speaks to how much people are in the dark about A.I. and its potential.”
Because the internet is ruled by cats, it was only a matter of time before a feline-generating version of the human-creating algorithm was brought online.
(Above: More artificially-generated cats. Artefacts in the images can sometimes give away the fact that they’re fake, such as the third image in the second row, where part of the cat’s fur is transparent.)
A CNN article from 2019 explains how GAN technology works:
In order to generate such images, StyleGAN makes use of a machine-learning method known as a GAN, or generative adversarial network. GANs consist of two neural networks — which are algorithms modeled on the neurons in a brain — facing off against each other to produce real-looking images of everything from human faces to impressionist paintings. One of the neural networks generates images (of, say, a woman’s face), while the other tries to determine whether that image is a fake or a real face.
Wang, who said his software “dreams up a new face every two seconds,” told CNN he hoped his creations would spark conversation and get people to think critically about what they see in front of them. It looks like he’s achieved his goal.
Christopher Schmidt, a Google engineer who used the same technology to create fake home and rental interiors, agreed.
“Maybe we should all just think an extra couple of seconds before assuming something is real,” Schmidt told CNN.
Pietrangeli, for his part, says he can tell the difference: “All of the animal images,” he wrote, “lacked ‘aura.'”
Feline humor, news and stories about the ongoing adventures of Buddy the Cat.