YOU KNOW those articles that are like, “10 Crazy Things You Didn’t Know About Las Vegas”? I’ve always found that they typically contain facts I did know. I already know that Las Vegas is home to the world’s tallest observation wheel. I know that the Strip is actually in the unincorporated town of Paradise. I know that there are real flamingos behind the Flamingo.
Here’s something I didn’t always know: There are a lot of feral cats here.
Like, a lot. More than 200,000 — a number roughly equivalent to a tenth of the population of the city. You see them slinking outside of gilded lobbies, prowling behind gas stations. Or maybe you’re looking up — up at the signs promising money, shrimp cocktails, and sunset helicopter tours — and you don’t see them at all.
In 2015, my boyfriend and I moved from Montana to the Shangri-La, a cluster of white cottages in Downtown built in 1939. Picture Leave it to Beaver-style suburbia in the center of a city. Manicured bushes, tidy black roofs, and, looming over it all, the golden marquee of the El Cortez.
Our lives were exactly as ridiculous as tourists imagine those of locals to be. We hung out in casinos, bumming wi-fi and applying for jobs at other casinos. We took double-decker buses to the Strip and rode elevators to high floors of hotels for the views. We ate at buffets for Thanksgiving and saw Britney Spears light the tree for Christmas.
There’s a wedding chapel inside the Denny’s here, I texted my non-Vegas friends. Or, I’m drunk at a rooftop pool on a Tuesday.
There was a comfort in telling others — and myself — that living in Las Vegas is exactly what you think it’s like. The embodiment of those clickbait articles: A towering chocolate fountain! The site where Elvis first performed “Suspicious Minds”! The world’s largest sex bike! To believe in the clichés is to belong. New to the city, I longed for that.
But at bars it was always the same. Someone would ask, “Where are you visiting from?”
Here, I’d say. I’m from here.
One evening, I sat at my desk facing the alleyway that separated the Shangri-La from the El Cortez parking garage. Other people’s nights were beginning. Heels clicked on the cement, laughter echoed. And there in that dark river of an alley, six eyes glowed from the shadows. Three cats: two obsidian and slender as weasels, one shaggy and gray. When I went outside to look closer, they hid beneath a car, their eyes still watching me.
According to the Humane Society, if you deprive a cat colony of food, it won’t go away; the cats will stick around and keep hunting. Or find a sucker willing to feed them.
We became suckers, at first setting out deli meat, and then graduating to cat food, purchased from a market on Fremont Street.
“What kind of cat do you have?” the cashier asked one night as I set a can of Friskies on the counter.
“I don’t have one,” I replied.
The three cats did not belong to us, they belonged to Las Vegas, which is the type of ownership every new resident of a city wants: to be taken in, to be a part of it. Each night, the cats emerged from the parking garage and ate greedily. The two black cats came out first. The shaggy gray one hung back, always letting them get their fill. She was their mother, we realized. They were a family.
They were ever-present and invisible. Stretching out languorously in the vacant lot beside the Shangri-La during the daytime, disappearing when pedestrians passed through.
I began to see colonies of cats everywhere. Orange cats tiptoeing along the spine of a house, striped ones sunning themselves at Charlie Frias Park, a grey-eyed pair on the Strip, so close to a casino entrance they could have walked right in.
I went out cat trapping one night with C5 Community Cat Coalition of Clark County, an organization that traps feral cats, neuters them, and returns them to where they were found.
I met a C5 volunteer in Sunrise Manor, a Las Vegas neighborhood so close to Nellis Air Force Base that windows rattle when jets fly over. The cats, of which there are many in the area, don’t seem to mind.
We would be catching both kittens and cats, the C5 volunteer told me. The former would be kept for adoption and the latter would be returned, with a piece removed from the tip of the ear to show they had been fixed.
We met a woman who had a colony of cats mousing around in her dirt yard. It was easy to catch them — significantly easier than I’d expected. They weren’t afraid of us at all. We set the traps and they went in right away, as docile as house cats, only hissing and howling when they realized they’d been discovered.
When our lease was up, we moved out of the Shangri-La, traded the cottage for the kind of stucco apartment complex everyone in Las Vegas lives in at some point. Resort-style living with a sparkling pool.
I no longer felt like a tourist trying to blend in. I knew which casinos charged for parking and which didn’t. I didn’t need Google Maps to walk from Fremont Street to the Arts District. I had a Nevada ID, a library card, a gym membership — tokens proving I belonged.
But I couldn’t abandon those three cats. Not after all the times I’d gone to bed wondering if anyone else in Las Vegas even knew I existed, only to hear their meows outside, at first plaintive and then demanding. I was a constant presence to them, not just a traveler passing through.
I drove back to the Shangri-La with a can of cat food in my purse. Just as I arrived, a car pulled up. Someone in a hooded jacket got out, a large bag in their arms. It was cat food, I realized, watching them empty the contents.
True to form, the cats appeared, tails switching. After the car drove away, I walked over. Mercifully, they didn’t flinch at the sight of me. They looked healthy, their coats shiny, their eyes alert. All around them, tourists parked and headed out for the evening, the felines at their feet as unknown to them as the residents of Las Vegas, who also dwell in the shadows of gambling halls and steakhouses, out of sight but at home nonetheless. I took the can of food out from my purse, pausing for a moment, wondering if the cats even needed it.
Eventually I decided they did.