Tallgrass to show ‘Catnip Nation’ a film about feral cats and their heroes

Sue and Ray Jones ended up in some pretty hot water when they gave water to a group of alley cats in Augusta, Kansas.

The story about the Joneses facing jail time and fines for that action is part of the documentary “Catnip Nation,” which will have its Kansas premiere during the Tallgrass Film Festival Oct. 16-20 in Wichita. The documentary, which runs about 75 minutes, will also be shown twice: 3:45 p.m. Friday, Oct. 18, and 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19, with filmmaker Q&A sessions following.

The documentary, which has won top awards at other film festivals, also will be shown at the Kansas International Film Festival at 5:25 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 14, at Glenwood Arts in Overland Park.

The Joneses are featured on the documentary’s poster, a take on the classic American Gothic painting, with Sue Jones holding a jug of water and Ray Jones holding a bag of cat food. An Augusta home is in the background.

Longtime New York journalist, author and filmmaker Tina Traster was already working on the film, highlighting what was happening to feral cat colonies and their caretakers in two East Coast communities, when she heard about the case of two senior citizens in Kansas who had each been charged with 21 counts of violating city ordinances for giving water to alley cats. If convicted, they faced jail time and fines.

Through the stories of feral cat colony caretakers, Traster is bringing “sunlight,” she said, to the contentious subject of trap, neuter and release, or TNR, efforts to control feral cat populations.

According to press material on the film, good Samaritans who are caretakers and advocates of TNR risk hostility, political persecution and legal actions.

The story of the Joneses being taken to court “was the essence of the situation,” according to the filmmaker.

“We follow their case all the way through and — spoiler alert — in the end they were victorious,” Traster said.

The film’s co-producer, writer and editor Lennon Nersesian spent several days in the area, interviewing the Joneses and others in the community and sitting in the courtroom as the case was heard.

The couple’s story of helping feral cats goes back a bit further than the court case that got Traster’s attention.

In 2015, Sue Jones, a former Augusta city councilwoman, was cited for providing boxes to shelter the feral cats that were living in the alley behind her interior design store on State Street. With the help of an area TNR advocacy group, Friends of Felines Kansas based in Wichita, the 12 cats in that colony were relocated to a farm in Sedgwick, Kansas, Sue Jones said.

Then the Joneses started providing water to another colony living across the street. Sue Jones said while feral cats can scrounge around on their own for food, finding a water source is harder.

That’s when they were charged with 21 counts each of violating city ordinances. In municipal court, they were each acquitted on 17 counts but were found guilty on four others and faced jail time. They decided to appeal.

“Compassion shouldn’t be an offense punishable in any way,” said Sue Jones.

After a year-long appeals process, the couple were acquitted in May 2018 by a six-member jury that took 15 minutes to render a decision, she said. Sue Jones is now working on a petition that the city of Augusta create TNR ordinances.

Wichita is working on creating TNR ordinances, and Cheryl Taskinen, president and TNR coordinator for Friends of Felines Kansas, said she hopes the film will help educate residents.

Late last year, the city’s animal control board tabled taking action on TNR ordinances. Taskinen attended the presentations the animal control board has made to District Advisory Boards, and she said more awareness is needed.

“I’m hoping (residents) will see the compassion of people who are caring for cats and what they put up with from the public and political people,” said Taskinen, who was interviewed for the film but does not appear in it.

‘Catnip Nation’ documentary screening

What: Documentary about feral cats and humane population control that includes the story of an Augusta, Kansas, couple who faced jail time and fines; part of the Tallgrass Film Festival

When: 3:45 p.m. Friday, Oct. 18, and 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19, with filmmaker Q&A following

Where: Wilke Family Center in First United Methodist Church of Wichita, 330 S. Broadway

Tickets: $10 single film admission, $8 for military, police, first responders, students and teachers; Tallgrass Film Festival packages are also available.

More information: tallgrassfilmfest.com