Disneyland is a place of imagination, of escapism, a place where the unimaginable is a reality and fantasy comes to life.
So, it seemed funny to me that, during my last visit, I noticed almost everyone at a particular restaurant in Frontierland getting excited and shutterbug-ish when they saw a cat.
Not someone dressed in a cat costume, mind you, but a genuine, flesh and blood, living cat.
Had someone, instead of spending a few days apart from Mr. Whiskers, smuggled in their pet? Had the Disney fortune been left to a favorite cat, one that now walks Disneyland with an air of superiority, threatening to fire any employee that sasses back?
The truth is that Disneyland is home to numerous (no one knows how many, exactly) feral cats.
Well, it’s an ironic statement to make, but the truth is…Disney hates mice. The real ones, that is.
Not long after construction was completed on Disneyland, alley cats from all over Orange County realized they had a new place to live and so they went with a ‘Heigh-Ho-Hisssss’. Disneyland officials considered taking action against these new denizens (probably only because they had gotten in without paying), but quickly realized that what rodent problem that had begun was now long gone and under control.
So, like the ducks that fly in to swim in the gasoline filled, er…uh, rainbow colored water of the Rivers of America and the squirrels that subsist on hamburger buns and discarded churro remnants, the cats became permanent fixtures.
In 1957, Sleeping Beauty’s castle received a makeover–well, more like a gutting.
A walk-through attraction was added to celebrate the theatrical release of the animated feature of the same name.
Prior to this, the castle was simply something whose drawbridge you passed over and not much more. When construction began to modify the interior, however, Disney employees discovered the empty castle had become home to upwards of 100 cats. The immediate construction pretty much negated any long-term plans the cats may have had as far as living out their years inside of their own castle, but one thing did remain for some time: fleas. Lots and lots of fleas.
As time went on, Disneyland began to take a less indifferent approach to their unpaid, furry employees. Spaying and neutering were instituted (although I cannot find anything that says when this practice began) and with it came a more genuine sense of responsibility for the cats’ well being.
I have yet to find any official comment from Disneyland management on the subject, but several cast members on various forums have pointed out that all the cats are fixed, receive shots and are fed to keep them healthy. Shelters are also provided at various points of Disneyland because even the Disney Corp. can’t control the weather. Of course, they tried, but Mother Nature refused to sign a binding contract without receiving a cut of the lucrative churro sales.
For the most part, the cats are rather skittish of people (as we all should be) and generally won’t get too close to visitors at the park. However, if you do see one, go ahead and give it a big thumb’s up.
Well, because not only is it not joining the ranks of the unemployed (they have jobs for life!), but it gets pretty much the coolest home on earth.
Looking back at Disney’s long list of anthropomorphized characters, you realize that there weren’t many cats in the mix,…not for a long time, anyway. Sure, there was Figaro from Pinocchio and, of course, the Cheshire Cat, but not too many more. However, that was prior to the feral invasion of 1955.
After that, things changed. Maybe it was that Disney animators found inspiration in these friendly felines–or perhaps it was something that can only guessed at (my personal theory is that Disney was pressured by the feral cats who, by Dec. of 1960, had unionized and threatened a park-wide strike if their species weren’t given more exposure), but more cats were worked into the Disney world.
The Three Lives of Thomasina, a live-action film about a cat who dies more than once, was perhaps a not-so-subtle retaliation by Disney to the threats by the cat union (it is no secret that Disney was not a fan of any unions), but if so, the threat (much like the film itself) was lackluster and not worth remembering.
I tend to believe that the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp were meant to remind the feral cats of Disneyland that, although they currently work in exchange for free rent and removed reproductive organs, Disney could just as easily replace them with overseas labor.
Of course, outsourcing your rodent control to a foreign country is logistically insane, but Disney may have been hoping that the cats would have no idea where Siam was. To them, it may have been a new section of Knott’s Berry Farm.
Finally, in 1970, The Aristocats centered fully on cats and, although a poorly made retelling of 101 Dalmatians (in my opinion), it generated much attention to our feline friends and I’m sure resulted in many adoptions around the country.
Since then, Disney and the cats of Disneyland have lived in harmony.
Years down the line, don’t be too surprised if you see that Disney puts out The Feral-Aristocats movie or markets a line of toys around The Feral Catsketeers.
All feral and feral for all!
UPDATE I: Kim from FixNation.org alerted me to some OFFICIAL COMMENTS from Gina Mayberry, head of Circle D Ranch at Disneyland, who oversees the successful TNR (trap/neuter/return) program, facilitated by Best Friends Catnipper and FixNation.
UPDATE II: A newsletter discussing Disneyland’s dedication to healthy cats HERE