The Central Library is closing in a few minutes, and outside in Maguire Gardens there’s the sound of a bicycle bell in the chilly evening air as several people are setting out what seems to be a picnic.
Around a dozen plastic plates and bowls are being laid out on one of the paths, with several more on ledges: the “Library Cats” volunteers are here to feed the 20-25 felines of their feral cat family.
On duty tonight is Martha Perez, who spoons out the food from a large Tupperware bowl and explains that it’s a mix of dry food and kibble, with some water added, and tuna on top.
A designer and florist who supplies blooms for the Jimmy Kimmel show, Martha has several cats—one feral, two rescues, and one inherited on the death of a relative—and she mentions her desire for another, something that her jovial husband Greg responds to with a smile, but no firm commitment.
“We started to feed them last year, when we met Valarie in the elevator of our building. Now we’re here Thursdays and Fridays, rain or shine!” she says.
Valarie Bermudez was the first Library Cat caregiver and advocate.
A former Hello Kitty designer also known for her velvet cat portraits, she left downtown for Texas during the pandemic, but as the social media and design maven for the LCs, she is still fully involved.
She thinks it’s possible a colony has been at the library for decades, but first saw them about five years ago:
“And it just made sense to start feeding them. It has been a labor of love, and I’ve worn many hats. I’ve also adopted three of them to add to my fur family.”
Tonight, the cats run, play, strut, and dash in and out of the bushes, always at a safe distance, with just one or two coming up to snack. Most are hiding, and Sharlee Moore, a retired oil company administrator from Indiana, explains that they tend to keep away when they see someone they don’t recognize:
“Sometimes they wait until we’ve gone before they eat,” she says, noting that the youngest, Frida, is “Queen of the Jungle,” an expert tree climber, and leader of this pack. She is often the first cat out of hiding, and usually gets first dibs at food.
“People have called us crazy cat ladies or even witches, because nearly all the cats are black,” Moore laughs, adding that many of the cats are in fact “tuxedo”, with splashes of white coloring.
Moore is the owner of the bell, which brings many of the cats running to her – at least when she’s on her own. She has been feeding them for several years too, and has a special set of brushes for some of them.
Besides Frida there is Bear, Pacino, Sabrina, Picasso, Mustache, Unique, Mickey, and Gia, but not all of the cats have names. This is also a “closed colony” of cats all from one family, due to the Library Cats’ TNR (trap, neuter and return) policy.
Not only does that approach follow city guidelines, but with such limited resources, the priority is feeding the cats and making sure they remain healthy. Two volunteers who usually cover South LA and Skid Row come along to say hello, and they note that cats can have several litters a year, up to eight kittens at a time. The consensus tonight is that TNR makes a difference, and saves the lives of many cats every year.
Only Mickey has eluded capture long enough to avoid being spayed, but sometimes cats are injured and require treatment. Bermudez was the previous main trapper, but now others including rescue organization Kitty Bungalow help out.
While the library staff and security guards often happily turn a blind eye to their unofficial cat colleagues, not everyone is on their side.
Concerns that they affect the bird population has been a long-standing issue, and not only is the spay and neuter policy rarely enforced, but city vouchers only go a small way towards the cost. Everyone also agrees that veterinarian fees are often excessive – if they will even treat feral cats – and that the city of LA could do more to help.
Martha then points out another challenge: slugs.
One of them is sucking on a piece of kibble, and she says they’re a problem in the fall, when the weather can be cold and damp. To combat this, she wipes Avon “Skin So Soft” lotion on the sides of the plastic bowls. It (usually) stops slugs, and repels cockroaches too.
The cats don’t mind roaches though:
“They love to play with them, and flick them up into the air,” laughs Martha.
Daily feeding costs are around $25/day, and the Library Cats rely on friends, family, and private donations, but frequently pay out of their own pocket for the endless cans and sacks, though everyone agrees that buying catnip is a treat:
“The cats jump around like mad – they just love it, and it’s so fun to watch,” laughs Sharleen.
As for the future, there were energized discussions about an art project shelter, somewhere hidden the cats can go when it’s cold or wet, and about making them more of a furry asset.
“They’re ambassadors for the library, and they keep the rodent population down,” says Martha, adding that many libraries in L.A. have a feral cat or two.
The Central Library colony are too feral to be adopted, but the Library Cats will always try to find a forever home for abandoned kittens that can be socialized. What they need most though is volunteers, especially to help with feeding time, as several helpers have left Los Angeles in the last couple of years.
If you want to learn more or make a donation, go to their website at LibraryCats.org.
“It truly takes a village,” says Valarie.
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. news, food, and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.