By Anika Lanser
On Sunday, July 1, a documentary entitled “Cat Man of Ocean Beach” debuted at the Free Union Church in Ocean Beach. The film chronicles the experiences and work done by the Fire Island Animal Welfare Society, following the organization’s President John McCollum. Created by recent University of Tampa graduate Evan Lauri and Pam Valdez, and directed by Lauri, the film follows McCollum on his daily journeys to feed, neuter and spay, and care for the wildlife of Ocean Beach.
The idea for the film came from Valdez, as she had noticed McCollum riding his bike up and down the block and had often wondered what he was doing. She encouraged her nephew Lauri to talk to McCollum and see “if maybe there’s a story there,” thinking it might be good inspiration for the young filmmaker.
McCollum came to Fire Island in 1975, when there were only a few cats running around Ocean Beach. Later, he joined the Fire Island Animal Welfare Society, an organization that cares for all free-roaming wildlife in the larger Ocean Beach area. Over the course of his work on Fire Island, the Animal Welfare Society has spayed and neutered around 400 cats. McCollum’s wife, Shoshanna, spoke in the documentary about the tough decisions they make in terms of the finances of the organization, acknowledging how hard they work to ensure that the Animal Welfare Society is able to keep serving the wildlife of the island.
The film opens with an explanation of where Fire Island is and what sorts of communities the island is home to. The film then cuts to a shot of McCollum riding his bike towards the camera as the cats of Ocean Beach emerge from the greenery on either side of the path to greet him. Other times, the viewer watches as McCollum ducks his head into bushes, dives under porches, and breezes past no trespassing signs, with the permission of the owners of course, to refill the cat food at his feeding stations around the Village. The film is full of shots like these. They are heartwarming to watch as McCollum interacts with a number of cats, explaining their personalities and calling them by their names.
However these moments serve a larger purpose in the film’s arc as the viewer begins to understand the breadth of the work McCollum has done across Fire Island to care for not just the wild cats, but the wildlife of Fire Island in general. McCollum speaks passionately about protecting Fire Island’s ecological future and limiting the environmental destruction caused by human influences.
The film makes clear that McCollum’s 42 years on Fire Island and passion for the environment and animals have given him a unique and close-up perspective on the ways of the island’s wildlife. In the film McCollum talks about watching generations of cats go by. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years and there are no 30-year old cats so there’s obviously turnover,” he remarked. Not only is McCollum caring for the island’s wildlife, he is attuned to the ecological shifts of the island and the changes in the ways that animals are existing in Fire Island’s particular environment. His work goes beyond simply feeding the cats, it extends into a sort of biological observation that allows him and the Fire Island Animal Welfare Society to better protect the island’s wildlife.
The respect filmmakers Lauri and Valdez have for McCollum came across not only over the course of the documentary, but also in their moving remarks at the film’s conclusion. Lauri thanked McCollum for his willingness to share his story and spoke about the friendship that blossomed between the two over the course of creating the documentary. At the screening’s end McCollum gave a brief address to the crowd about the importance of living with the wildlife of the island. He concluded, “Respect our Fire Island and if you don’t want deer in your yard, move to Brooklyn.”
John McCollum is the husband of Shoshanna McCollum, the editor of this publication. To learn more about Fire Island Animal Welfare Society, visit www.fireislandanimalwelfaresociety.org.