May 22, 2019

KEY LARGO — Robert Smith winds his way through the Upper Keys in the middle of the night caring for his feline friends. He has a lot. Over the last seven years, he’s been feeding feral cat populations in the area, a politically risky offense.

“There’s a one-eyed cat I look out for by the [Key Largo] Fisheries,” Smith said with shortened breath last week. “There’s also two black-and-whites there that I feed.”

After a short pause, he continued, “There’s a woman who lets me feed them outside her house.”

Smith was struggling for words to complete his thoughts after being attacked and beaten in the early morning hours the day before by an unknown assailant.

“My mind is still a little fuzzy,” the 74-year old said.

Smith also feeds stray cats in the woods between the Upper Keys Humane Society and Tradewinds Plaza. He has fed this particular colony countless times since he lives in the area.

He does his feedings in the middle of the night because there aren’t many cars passing by that might threaten the cats or cause the cautious felines to lose their fear of passing vehicles.

Around 2 a.m. Wednesday, May 15, Smith was confronted by a tall man who came from a trailer park across the street.

Smith says the agitated man began screaming at him that it’s illegal to feed the cats and that he personally has to euthanize feral cats. Further, the man insinuated he worked at the Upper Keys Humane Society, which is a no-kill shelter.

THERESA JAVA/Free Press
Robert Smith, 74, was attacked by an unknown assailant while feeding feral cats by Tradewinds Plaza in Key Largo.

Smith, familiar with the organization, said he didn’t recognize the man. He said he exchanged words with the man then turned to walk away. That’s when he says he was sucker punched on the right side of his face, which knocked him to the ground.

The road rash on his arm, the heavy bruising on his face and the broken line of molars suggest Smith hit the ground hard. Smith isn’t sure if he lost consciousness, but it was clear his assailant fled the scene.

His first task at hand, after regaining his footing, was to finish feeding the cats.

Smith then drove to the Circle K where he reported the incident to Monroe County Sheriff’s deputies. He described his assailant as a 6-foot-3 white man in his 30s with a fair complexion.

“My crime is feeding cats,” Smith said.

The following night, Smith returned to feed the cats.

“I’m not going to be bullied by this, I have to live my life. Plus, the police are doing what they can to find this guy,” Smith said.

Smith says he’s more concerned about the Tradewinds Plaza cat colony after some public criticism about a trap, neuter and release program that was recently begun there as a way to control the feral cat population. Some supporters of local wildlife criticize the TNR approach because it releases cats back into the wild where they can prey on local endangered species, such as the Key Largo woodrat, the Key Largo cotton mouse and the Lower Keys marsh rabbit.

“They took 39 cats from the Winn-Dixie and slaughtered them three years ago,” Smith said. “I just hope Tradewinds continues to work with Casting for Cats [TNR program].”

Anyone with information about the attack on Smith is asked to contact the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office at 305-853-3211. Callers who wish to remain anonymous can call Crime Stoppers at 1-866-471-8477. Tips may also be submitted online at floridakeyscrimestoppers.comor via a text message using the smartphone app called P3 Phone. Tips can also be submitted via social media such as Facebook, Instagram or Twitter using the @CrimeStoppers305 hashtag.

tjava@keysnews.com