The Lost Cats of Poverty Gulch

Felines and their owners struggle to survive along Seattle’s wildest corridor.

Pete Morisseau is a burly man with an intimidating face. His head is square; his grip firm; his shoulders broad. He looks like the type of guy you'd want on the front lines of a barroom brawl, on the football field, or in a Middle Eastern firefight. He does not, however, look like the sort of guy whose heart turns to goo at the sight of a kitty cat—but that's exactly the sort of guy Morisseau is.Morisseau and his wife, Erin, are "both big cat people," he says. "We each had a cat while we were single, and when we moved in together [in Erin's] condo on Avalon [Way, in West Seattle], it was two people and two cats cramped into a small space."In January 2006, the Morisseaus purchased a large home near Longfellow Creek, a lush, wooded area that contains a miles-long trail that runs parallel to Delridge Way, a West Seattle thoroughfare that winds through a valley formerly known as Poverty Gulch. Here, the Morisseaus' existence is as pristine and isolated as life can be in Seattle. On their street, they only have one neighbor, and their house is surrounded on three sides by green space. Where the Morisseaus live could easily be confused for a riverside thicket in Louisiana. On a sensory level, it is worlds removed from downtown Seattle, when in fact it is but a 10-minute drive across the Duwamish away."One of the benefits of living here is you're able to retreat into your own personal world," says Morisseau. "We don't talk to anybody. We're like hillbillies."Shortly after they moved into their new home, Pete bought Erin a third cat for Valentine's Day. It was a purebred Russian Blue kitten that he'd had shipped from a breeder in Kansas. Erin named him Sacha, and he "quickly became a key part of our family," says Pete.In November 2007, the Morisseaus decided to take a road trip through the American South, culminating in a friend's wedding in Mobile, Alabama. As usual, they hired a housesitter to take care of their cats. One morning this caretaker left for work before sunrise, and Sacha escaped. When Sacha didn't return that evening, the sitter began canvassing the neighborhood, visiting shelters, and posting notices online—all in the hope of retrieving Sacha before the Morisseaus returned.His efforts would prove unsuccessful. When the Morisseaus got back from their trip and realized Sacha was missing, they covered the neighborhood's telephone poles with hundreds of posters containing Sacha's photo and their contact information. Sacha wore no collar, but he did have an identifying microchip embedded beneath his skin, and the Morisseaus sent flyers to every veterinary clinic in the area, asking them to scan the microchip of any purebred Russian Blue male who might wander through their doors.For at least a month after Sacha's disappearance, the Morisseaus dutifully journeyed to various animal shelters, looking for their lost cat. These visits are what Pete terms "the hardest part about the experience.""No trip to an animal shelter is a pleasant one; it would be naive to expect otherwise," says Pete. "But it's hard to prepare yourself for how mentally exhausting it is to keep going back. The county shelter [in Kent] reeks of urine, and each time you visit you have to fight the urge to bring a new cat home. Some cats are subdued. Some seem to know what's going on, desperate to make a connection with any human that walks by. Those are the hardest."Sacha has yet to be found, and probably never will be. But the Morisseaus got in touch with Sacha's breeder in Kansas, and last week welcomed the cat's brother, Boris, into their home.The Morisseaus' efforts to retrieve Sacha may have been exceptional, but their plight hardly is. Over the past year, it has been difficult to find a telephone pole on the streets which run adjacent to Longfellow and Puget Creeks that doesn't contain at least one flyer signaling the disappearance of a domestic cat. These hand-stapled pleas for help contain details and photos of cats named Yoshi, Pip, Estelle, Rocky, and Garbanzo—who left his Longfellow Creek home on August 15, the day his owners arrived from Lansing, Mich., to start a new life."[Garbanzo] was a brutal specimen, despite being rather small. He would kill just about anything," says Garbanzo's owner, Mike Forsyth. "The neighbors said they saw him about a week after [he left], but I haven't had any luck. It's like a jungle in West Seattle.""We do get a lot of [missing cat reports] from West Seattle," says Don Jordan, executive director of the city-run Seattle Animal Shelter in Interbay. "There's just so much habitat over there," he adds, referring to the peninsula's abundance of greenery.In talking to the owners of these cats, all of whom are believed to be dead at this point, a common suspected killer emerges: the coyote, which has thrived in the Delridge corridor far longer than either cats or humans. Like the early settlers, these non-native species are drawn to Delridge by the prospects of affordable home ownership and space to raise a family in. They come undeterred by the presence of urban wildlife in the area's manifold greenbelts, the lack of sidewalks, or the fact that every fourth home on each street is an architectural abomination. They come in spite of Delridge's reputation—though that's improved markedly this century—as one of the city's more hardscrabble strips.Welcome to the jungle, where some settlers are more willing to accept the consequences of their actions than others.Walk into Frank and Vicky Smith's home near the Puget Creek greenbelt, and you'll be greeted by two dogs, two cats, a ferret, and a hamster. "We have a zoo here," says the Smiths' 9-year-old son, Adrian.Frank is a Boeing engineer who's lived in the same Puget Ridge rambler for 23 years. He married Vicky, a Mexican immigrant, 10 years ago. Around that time, they took in a stray tuxedo cat named Rocky. Subsequently they adopted two more strays: a black bobtail cat named Doby, and George, a tabby with seven toes on each paw. Rocky disappeared in April, and the Smiths are convinced, based on purely circumstantial evidence, that he was slain by a coyote in what they perceive to be something of a bestial Holocaust inflicting the neighborhood."[Rocky] thought he was the king of the house," says Frank. "He'd attack the other cats, and spray too. He wasn't afraid of dogs either, so I can see how he wouldn't have escaped the coyotes until it was too late.""One guy I know saw a coyote with a [cat's] collar in his mouth," adds Frank, whose family plastered neighborhood telephone poles with over 60 flyers, describing Rocky as "very fat and friendly," to no avail. Frank says he also knows neighbors who've seen foxes roaming around nearby South Seattle Community College, in close proximity to both Puget Creek and the vast Duwamish Greenbelt.The notion of foxes hanging out in a highly populated neighborhood near a college campus might strike some Seattleites as the stuff of urban legend. But West Seattle, specifically the neighborhoods that rise up to the immediate east and west of Delridge Way, is simply wilder than the rest of the city—and has been for a long time.According to the Delridge History Project (delridgehistory.org), a repository of oral and photographic history maintained by the Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association, "South Seattle Community College was built in 1967 on top of Puget Ridge, where cougar, bear, quail, Chinese pheasants, fox, wild rabbits, and children once roamed the woods." The area has also long served as prime habitat for coyotes, which "have been around forever" and "are very adaptable" to changing environments, says Jennifer Convy, a coyote expert with the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS).Convy estimates that there are about 50,000 coyotes living in Washington state, an increasing number of which make their homes in metropolitan areas. A 2004 paper authored by Russell Link, an urban wildlife biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), seconds Convy's notion. "In Washington," Link writes, "these intelligent and adaptable animals now manage to occupy almost every conceivable habitat type, from open ranch country to densely forested areas to downtown waterfront."And occasionally, they like to eat pussy."Cats are thought of by coyotes as a competitor for prey," says Link. "A coyote is going to eliminate that competition."Coyotes are most apt to dispense with cats during their late winter/early spring breeding season, when they must protect pups not yet ready to fend for themselves outside the den. (This probably explains why the number of missing-cat posters near the Delridge greenbelts peaked early in the year.) But Kay Joubert, PAWS' Director of Companion Animal Services, feels that while coyotes are a threat to cats, they're used as a too-convenient scapegoat for owners who fail to consider other means of disappearance."The number of cats euthanized in shelters is 2–1 over dogs," says Joubert, who goes on to note that while 40 percent of lost dogs are ultimately reunited with their owners, the figure for cats is only about 2 percent. "If that were the statistic for a lost child," she adds, "it'd be completely unacceptable."Joubert's suggested remedies are either to keep cats indoors or to implement a "safe confinement plan" in which humans chaperone cats that are permitted to venture outdoors. Officially, Link toes just as cautious a line. But when asked if people who let their cats roam freely are morons, he admits that he hasn't always played by his own book."You're not being a moron; you're doing exactly what I've done in the past," says Link. "You have a cat that's unhappy indoors, and you want it to have an outdoor experience. That's fine, but you're taking a risk."In the early 20th century, the area now known as Delridge was called Youngstown. Its early inhabitants, according to the Delridge History Project, were "families of workers at the steel and flour mills, brick yards, and fishing terminals, as well as commuters to downtown Seattle." The steel mill, the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center (then the Cooper School), and the Skylark Cafe (formerly known as the Delridge Tavern) are the lone physical reminders of what once was. But the type of resident who lived in Youngstown back then still lives along Delridge today.When most Seattleites think of West Seattle, they think of bustling, picturesque neighborhoods like Alki, the Admiral District, Fauntleroy/Lincoln Park, or Alaska Junction. Rarely if ever do they think of Delridge."[Delridge is] out of sight, out of mind," says Ron Angeles, a West Seattle native who works for the city's Department of Neighborhoods as its Delridge Neighborhood District Coordinator. "When you talk to somebody in another part of the city, they have no idea where this area is, unlike Alki and the Junction. Here, you see this big American flag [in front of Food Services of America's headquarters on the north end of Delridge Way], and in back of that American flag, all you see is green. You think it's a forest."Back when Delridge was still Youngstown, White Center was another neighborhood that was "out of sight, out of mind" in relation to the rest of the city—and even to the rest of West Seattle. To wit, in his posthumously-published collection of autobiographical essays, The Real West Marginal Way, the poet Richard Hugo, who grew up in White Center, described this stratification thusly:"The boys of Youngstown-Riverside and the boys of White Center shared at least one concern. Many of us felt socially inferior to the children of West Seattle. There, directly west of Youngstown, sat the castle, the hill, West Seattle, where we would go to high school. What a middle-class paradise. The streets were paved, the homes elegant, the girls well-groomed, and, simply by virtue of living in West Seattle, far more beautiful and desirable than the girls in our home districts. Gentility reigned supreme on that hill."West Seattle was not a district. It was an ideal. To be accepted there meant one had become a better person," Hugo continues. "West Seattle was too far to be seen from White Center, but for the children of Youngstown and Riverside, it towered over the sources of felt debasement, the filthy, loud, belching steel mill, the oily slow river, the immigrants hanging on to their odd ways, Indians getting drunk in the unswept taverns, the commercial fishermen, tugboat workers, and mill workers with their coarse manners."Hugo goes on to portray bloody fistfights involving groups of "battlers from Youngstown and Riverside" who "seemed super-masculine." The Delridge History Project also makes note of these toughs, even organizing them into rival "Gulch Gangs" whose turf was split by Longfellow Creek and who waged war using rocks and slingshots.Youngstown was renamed Delridge in 1939, but a change in nomenclature couldn't alter perception. "They renamed it because of the bad reputation," says Randy Engstrom, executive director of the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center. "And that bad reputation persisted for another 60 years."In that span, the gangs remained, but the rocks and slingshots became bullets and guns. When Frank Smith moved into his Puget Ridge home in the mid-'80s, he says, "It was pretty rough. There were loud parties and drive-bys. We had several on this street [18th Avenue Southwest]." Similarly, Chris Laxama, who was in second grade when the Cooper School shut down in 1989 (it would reopen as the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center in 2006), told the Delridge History Project that, at that time, the neighborhood was "ghetto."To this day, the neighborhood is still wild at heart. Unkempt homes and lawns are as commonplace as tidy ones, sidewalks begin and end without warning, the greenbelts are extraordinarily bucolic, and longtime residents joke about having to dodge bullets when driving home at night along Delridge Way. This notion is of course hyperbolic, but nevertheless grounded in a pinch of reality. To wit, while Angeles says there is a near-unanimous feeling that the neighborhood has "turned the corner," he's quick to caution: "I can say that one day, and then you hear about gang stuff."Aesthetically, if there is a governing residential design principle on and around Delridge, it's that there is no governing residential design principle. Hence, any self-respecting architect or urban planner who tours the neighborhood would be wise to keep a barf bag nearby."It's been a free-for-all, and that's kind of what's awesome about it," says realtor Kristen Meyer, a former Sub Pop marketing specialist who moved to Highland Park in 1999 and whose cat, Warwick, recently died from natural causes at the age of 17."Being surrounded by Camp Long and the greenbelts, it's definitely a lot less finished over here," adds Youngstown's Engstrom, who lives on Beacon Hill. "Then you have the townhouses on Delridge. It feels like a frontier town."Nevertheless, the Delridge corridor has become one of the most genuinely diverse communities in the city—socioeconomically, ethnically, linguistically, architecturally, however you slice it. Seattle likes to think of itself as a place that can snap its fingers and make this sort of tricky cultural patchwork mesh into an instant liberal utopia, but the reality is far more complicated. Just ask the residents of High Point's new Hope VI–fueled mixed-income community, which replaced barracks-style low-income housing on the bluff overlooking Longfellow Creek. Here, lifestyle differences between upper-middle-class homeowners and nonwhite renters led to a heated, racially-tinged exchange on a popular neighborhood blog, TheHighPointBlog.com.While Angeles is optimistic that tensions on High Point will ultimately cool, he concedes that large-scale cultural experiments like that are "easier said than done.""People need to get to know each other, and that's more difficult to do [here] than in homogenous places, like most of Seattle," he adds. "Diverse communities come with a price."Jaime Curl grew up in the small town of Yelm, and was an English professor at Western Washington University before moving to Seattle to take a job with Expedia. He lived in the Central District for several years, where, when he moved in, he says, he was the only Caucasian on the block (things have since changed dramatically in that area). All things considered, Curl is neither a stranger to fish in water, nor to being a fish out of water.A year ago, with a baby on the way, he and his partner, Sarah, moved into a house that borders the massive Duwamish Greenbelt. Their home is roughly equidistant to South Seattle Community College and the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center, as well as to Puget Creek and its leafy, unfettered canopy.Curl (no relation to SW writer Aimee Curl) came to West Seattle with three cats in tow. Of the three, only one remains. Estelle and Pip, 3½-year-old sister and brother tabbies that were sent to Curl by a friend who rescues cats in Iowa, disappeared not long after their arrival, one after the other. Curl has a family of raccoons living near the rear of his house, but took the longevity of a 15-year-old blind stray he'd taken in to indicate that the 'coons likely weren't the ones who'd taken his cats. (PAWS' Convy says that raccoons actually "co-exist pretty well with cats," debunking a common urban wildlife myth.)As he was canvassing the neighborhood, Curl "saw all the missing cat flyers and thought, 'That's not a good sign.'" In response to his flyers, Curl says, "I got the strangest calls. One guy said cats were disappearing because people were picking them up and using them for lab testing."As many of his neighbors do, Curl suspects his cats met their ends in the jaws of coyotes. He says he's not going to consider replacing his cats unless he moves."It's too dangerous," he says. "I can't lose another one."In the meantime, Curl offers the following assessment of his current neighborhood: "It's kind of a crapshoot. One house will be really well-maintained, and the next one will have the porch falling down and three cars in the yard. People dump sofas, and the dump is only like a mile away. It walks the line of being in the city and rural. It's still at a crossroads—lots of different cultures.""In the CD, everybody took care of their yards," he adds. "My uncle, who's a landscaper, drove through [Delridge] and said there's hardly any curb appeal"—which might have something to do with the fact that there aren't many curbs.Even if Curl wanted to ramp up his efforts to defend his household from coyotes, there's little he could do. Whereas in other parts of King County it's perfectly legal to shoot a coyote if the animal threatens family members or pets, Seattle's firearm restrictions are sufficiently stringent to prevent such lethal combat."If there's a public safety issue or a conflict with your child or dog, you could club it over the head," says Link. "But you can't shoot it."In January of this year, a coyote was spotted in Discovery Park after it snatched a cat. Initially, government officials planned to shoot the coyote, but as with many predicaments in Seattle, their trigger finger was ponderously slow. Ultimately the coyote was allowed to remain in the park, as the attitudinal tide shifted from wanting to spare domestic pets from a predator to tasking humans with figuring out how to better accommodate a species that had been in the area a lot longer than they."We think that if we change the behavior of the human population, we can change the behavior of the coyote," Seattle Parks and Recreation spokesperson Joelle Ligon told the P-I.The messages here are clear: The coyotes of Seattle are here to stay. Humans must learn to adapt to the coyote, as the coyote has adapted to them, or move on down the road.When Kristen Meyer takes a first-time home buyer from the mainland out househunting, a familiar pattern emerges."They inevitably find three or four homes in Ballard or Columbia City that are in their price range. Then they get there, and you can just see the forlorn looks on their faces," she says, alluding to the fact that homes in Ballard and Columbia City that are priced in the $300,000 range are typically tear-downs or daunting fixer-uppers. Meyer says that "nine out of 10 of those people end up in West Seattle," just as she did, due to its relative affordability.This story is essentially my story, and not just for the real-estate part. I have two small cats, Quincy and Sylvester, both of whom I'm madly in love with. While 12-year-old Sylvester has long been content to remain mostly indoors, 4-year-old Quincy, a Missouri native who seems to be permanently wired on the feline equivalent of three hits of Adderall, is cut from a different cloth. His innate need to go outside is part of what motivated my girlfriend and me to move out of our Queen Anne apartment and bite the home-ownership bullet—a couple of blocks east of Delridge Way.We live above a ravine, and also very near Puget Creek and other large greenways. The potential threats to our cats' lives are right there in front of us, visceral as can be. And yet we can't bring ourselves to keep Quincy indoors, to forcibly insulate him from the life he was bred to live. That would be caving to paranoia, a slap in the face of nature.There are no sidewalks on my block, and the houses are the very definition of "crapshoot." One of my neighbors appears to have air-lifted the lodge off the set of Dirty Dancing and placed it on his property—a massive lakeside log cabin, only without the lake. And until very recently, another had a big green Dumpster in her side yard. Usually when people have Dumpsters in their yard, it's a temporary thing. But that woman's Dumpster went nowhere for upward of a year; only when she put her house on the market did it finally disappear.While my block is relatively peaceful, the home belonging to a Middle Eastern family across the street was recently subjected to the "worst act of graffiti" that the investigating officer said he'd ever seen. Even their cars weren't spared from the big red swooshes of spray paint, and the crime, although still unsolved, was clearly not the work of a random hooligan. Home businesses also abound: Down the street, an auto mechanic and a massage therapist both carve out a living a few feet from their doorsteps. And my next-door neighbors run a construction business out of their home. Rare is the time when there aren't at least a half-dozen gigantic pickups parked in front of their house, and it's not unusual for a full-on dump truck to be parked in front of ours.Since we moved in a year ago, our small front yard has served as a veritable bathroom stall for area hounds intent on taking a leisurely morning crap. We also happen to live near a registered sex offender. When I returned from the corner store the other day to find law-enforcement officials executing a search warrant on this person's house, it reminded me yet again that I should have checked the county database before I made my down payment. I firmly believe that individuals like this deserve a second chance without being unjustly demonized, but when that second chance is occurring a short distance from your lot line, and appears not to be coming off without a hitch, it's a little difficult to shrug off.The American Dream it's not. The American Reality is probably a better way to describe life along Delridge, for pets and people alike. Indeed, diverse communities come with a cost. But we hope that cost won't be too steep, and the reward will feel hard-earned. Those are the best kind of rewards anyway.mseely@seattleweekly.comEmma Breysse contributed to this story.

 
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