Dillon Beach author teaches empathy for cats

David Briggs
Linda Elder is a West Marin educational psychologist who recently published a children’s book on feral cats that focuses on different personality types and their responses to the problem of strays.

The three black cats foraging outside Tomales High School that Dr. Linda Elder noticed one afternoon three years ago did more than distract her from a game of tennis with her husband. They prompted a regional rescue effort.

Ms. Elder, an educational psychologist and Dillon Beach resident, began trapping and sending stray cats to a local animal clinic for spay or neuter procedures and possible adoption. Her work has helped lower the number of strays seen peering out from woods and dashing across the roadways winding along the northern coast of Marin.

“If someone has a better solution, I’d like to hear what it is,” she said as she reached into a bag of cat food to fill a wooden feeding shelter for a group of feral cats she regularly visits outside the high school. The cats are part of a large population whose uncontrolled breeding has stirred debates for years among animal rights proponents and those who view them as a nuisance and a threat.

Since 2009, Dr. Elder has sent more than 200 cats she has caught throughout Tomales and Dillon Beach to Marin Friends of Ferals, a volunteer nonprofit that performs spay and neuter procedures and other services at three locations in the county. And now, she is seeking a market for a children’s book she released last week that is meant to dispel misconceptions about what she calls “forgotten felines.”

“If we took this issue seriously, we could solve the problem,” said Dr. Elder, who gave a talk about feral cats to hundreds of middle school students in San Francisco after releasing Fair Minded Fran and the Three Small Black Community Cats on October 16.

The nearly 50-page illustrated book features three characters with contrasting behavioral traits—Fairminded Fran, the main character who shows empathy toward cats; Selfish Sam, depicted as insensitive, and Naïve Nancy, who is passive when faced with an issue. The narrative offers a glimpse into how people with different temperaments might approach a difficult issue, such as that of strays, found in diverse communities.  

It is meant to teach youth about “what we need to know about community cats through a critical thinking lens,” Dr. Elder, who is also the president of the Tomales-based Foundation for Critical Thinking, said. The internationally known nonprofit, made up of a group of educators and researchers, seeks to spread a discipline that studies human rationale into curriculums in educational systems throughout the world.

Though she takes a “hardcore” stance on domesticating stray cats, Dr. Elder did not use the book to comment on debates simmering between animal rights groups involved in rescue efforts and others promoting euthanization to control breeding.

Instead, the book illustrates a way of thinking that elementary students could use to “improve potentially every part of your life,” Dr. Elder said.
“When you come to a situation with critical thinking,” she added, “you notice things that other people may not notice.”

Critical thinking, as defined in one of Dr. Elder’s several pocket-sized guidebooks on the topic, is a form of art. It is learning to evaluate certain situations and issues with an astute outlook, considering a range of interpretations, concepts and other lines of thought recognized by experts as pillars of critical thinking.

Janet Williams, president of Marin Friends of Ferals, sees Dr. Elder’s new book as a “real refreshing” approach to educating youth about stray cats, many of which survive only two to four years without adequate food and shelter. After living in the wild for about 12 weeks, she noted, the cats grow too wary of people to live indoors.

“They’re the ones—the next generation, as they say—coming up” with a chance to help reshape public opinion of feral cats, said Ms. Williams, who has aided Dr. Elder with rescue efforts.

She and others at the nonprofit are seeking a market for the book, which already has received several reviews after turning up in schools and animal care groups like the Human Society.

“We really want to get the word out,” Ms. Williams, who has canvassed towns across the more than 800-square-mile county with flyers urging residents to send cats to clinics, said.

Fair-Minded Fran can be found in the classroom of Carmen Polka, who teaches her kindergarteners at a primary school in Loveland, Colo., the basic principals of thinking critically, “so when they need it, they can use it.”

Though her students may not fully grasp such material, Ms. Polka organizes classroom activities such as scenarios in which children must learn to share a disproportionate number of candy bars.

“The quality of your life will definitely reflect the quality of your thinking,” Ms. Polka, who received a copy at an annual conference held by the foundation in Berkley last summer, said.

Dr. Elder expects some criticism from readers outside the discipline who may argue the story glosses over the finer points of such a dense topic. But she hopes readers of all ages will develop a “sense of empathy” for stray cats. “If we can think empathetically,” she said, “then we’re more likely to be moved by reasoning.”

And “the really neat thing is, she added, “you can intervene to stop the suffering.”