They’d been treated like hardened criminals and insulted by the same police officers who were supposed to protect them, but Beverly Roberts and Mary Alston didn’t think they’d be convicted.
Not for taking care of cats.
“I felt it was very unlikely that we would be found guilty,” Alston told PITB, “with all of the evidence that we had on our side with the body camera footage, and we never broke any laws.”
Roberts and Alston were arrested on June 25, when a trio of police cars pulled up and officers from the Wetumpka, Alabama, police department confronted them. Police body camera footage shows the women, who had been caring for a colony of stray cats, were surprised by the tone and impatience of the officers.
What they didn’t know was that Wetumpka Mayor Jerry Willis was the one who’d in effect dispatched the officers to the small wooded lot owned by Elmore County, grounds that are open to the public. They didn’t know that the officers — who warned the confrontation was “going to get ugly,” told the women they’re “too old to be acting this way” and later joked that they were “a bunch of cops beatin’ up on some old ladies” — were told by the assistant chief of police to arrest them after Willis spotted Alston’s parked car and called the assistant chief directly.
On Tuesday, despite the fact that Willis’ role was revealed during a trial, and despite the fact that Wetumpka has no laws against managing cat colonies or conducting “trap, neuter, return” activities, Alston and Roberts were convicted of a pair of misdemeanors each. Lacking laws to charge them directly, the authorities instead accused the women of trespassing on public land and being uncooperative with the officers.
“That’s what I kept going back to – that feeding and trapping cats is not illegal,” Roberts told PITB. “I was not in the location I was [accused of trespassing], and I was sitting in my car talking to my friend. I was not feeding cats.”
During the trial, Willis and the police argued that they’d already told Alston and Roberts to stop interacting with the cats, and said the pair chose to ignore earlier warnings to stay away from the stray colony. They reiterated their view that the colony is a nuisance.
Roberts said she’s had her disagreements with Willis in the past about the way the town handles animal-related issues, but says Wetumpka’s animal control officer gave her and Alston his blessing to manage the cat colony at their own expense. The animal control officer confirmed that during the Tuesday trial. Public-private partnerships to care for stray cats are common in towns and cities across the US, with many elected leaders welcoming the opportunity to work with local rescues and volunteers.
Roberts and Alston say they plan to appeal their conviction, hoping a county judge will see the charges as “politically motivated” accusations. They pointed out that Wetumpka municipal Judge Jeff Courtney is employed directly by the town, not elected to the post by voters, and they believe they’re more likely to get a fair shake when the people deciding their fate aren’t serving at the pleasure of the people making the accusations.
In the meantime, the cat colony remains in Wetumpka, and the cats haven’t been cared for since late June.
“We are very worried about them,” Roberts told PITB. “A few animal lovers have said they would help, but we are not sure this will happen. I’m not sure there is enough food available to hunt. The weather is getting colder, and they need protein.”
Since the terms of the sentencing include two years’ probation, Alston and Roberts are prohibited from caring for the strays. Alston noted the irony of local authorities claiming TNR was exacerbating a “nuisance” while, in the absence of care and neutering, the free felines “are left to go hungry and continue to multiply and branch out searching for food.”
Roberts says she still finds it hard to believe Wetumpka officials refused to compromise or find a way to establish cooperative care for a community problem.
“I thought that they surely had more pressing issues to attend to,” she said. “I really thought the judge would dismiss it and tell the city to work it out.”
Top image credit Wikimedia Commons