Arlene Bercun has been feeding cats at her neighborhood park for more than a decade. But a recent argument with county staff got her temporarily banned from the property on the threat of arrest.
Bercun, a 74-year-old resident of North Miami Beach, has been visiting Greynolds Park since she was four years old. She tells New Times she started feeding cats about ten years ago after taking home a kitten that had been dumped in the park.
"I kept seeing hungry cats pop up in the park, so I started feeding them. Once they got to know me, I'd put them in carriers and take them to the Humane Society," Bercun says.
Bercun says she has adopted several cats from Greynolds Park and found families to adopt others. If cats were too feral to keep, she'd get them spayed and neutered and take them back to the park, where she fed them regularly. By now, she says, only about four feral cats live in the park.
When the COVID-19 pandemic started, parks across the county closed, including Greynolds. But Bercun would still visit to feed the cats because no one was around to feed them. She says a park employee whom she knows only as Chris started telling her she couldn't be there.
"He pulled up and told me I can't feed the cats any more, that he was gonna call the cops," Bercun recounts. "Some of those cats are ten years old. They're like my babies."
On August 25, Bercun recorded a video of the employee telling her she was trespassing at the park and that she'd be issued a trespass warning and could be arrested if she returned.
Despite the warning, the septuagenarian continued sneaking into the park to feed the cats. But on September 20, Bercun says, she found her car blocked by a golf cart and a police vehicle on her way out. A Miami-Dade Police Department officer issued her a trespassing warning, and Bercun was barred from returning.
A spokesperson for the parks department tells New Times that Bercun was given the warning for violating a county code provision that prohibits anyone from feeding native or exotic animals in a county park.
News of Bercun's ouster quickly spread via Facebook cat-advocacy groups, with one post garnering nearly 800 shares.
The post included photos of the park employee who told Bercun she'd be arrested if she returned, and of a cat Bercun calls Smokey, who appears malnourished and sickly. Bercun says she attempted to trap Smokey before being banned so she could get the cat medical attention but wasn't able to catch her.
Bercun says the social-media attention prompted calls from people all over the U.S., expressing concern about the safety of the feral cats and anger that she'd been banned from a public park.
"My object is to go to the park I've been going to for 70 years. It would be nice if I could go in there to feed the cats. Other people scare them," Bercun says. "I wanna see them arrest me for trying to feed starving cats."
News of Bercun's situation came to the attention of Miami-Dade Police Department Maj. Thomas Buchanan, who rescinded the trespass warning, according to MDPD spokesperson Alvaro Zabaleta.
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"Major Buchanan got wind of what occurred and found out the cats are facing nutritional issues. In light of that, Major Buchanan felt the cats' health was more important and rescinded the trespass order," Zabaleta explains to New Times.
Bercun and her attorney, Lauren Turner, still intend to meet with county parks staff.
Bercun says she wants something in writing that says she can feed the cats legally without harassment. She also wants the county to change its laws so cats at other parks might be saved from starvation.
"It's not just me — it's a countywide problem," Bercun maintains. "Dade County Parks and Rec doesn't give a crap about the cats."