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At Disneyland, a roaming group of cats keeps Mickey Mouse company

In theme park inspired by world's most famous mouse, it's the cats of Disneyland who have run of the place

Buford peeks through the greenery in Disneyland's Critter Country. Jane walks atop a perch near Main Street Station. And Giovanni majestically poses on the cliffs of Grizzly Peak, safely out of reach of park guests.

In a theme park inspired by the world's most famous mouse, it's the cats of Disneyland who have the run of the place.

"If I were a cat, there would be no better place to live than Disneyland," said Taylor Roberts, a freelance writer who still remembers his first sighting two years ago: a cat darting across a path in Fantasyland.

The 27-year-old started the Cats of Disneyland Twitter account that night, each tweet an imagination of the cats' thoughts. (One of the latest offerings: "If you insist on wearing flip-flops to Disneyland, you're really just asking to have your toes attacked by cats.")

A Disneyland spokesman declined to comment on the four-legged inhabitants of the carefully manicured resort, except to acknowledge that they exist, and a woman darted away without revealing her identity when caught feeding one of the favorite felines. But the theme park has been known to care for the cats, who reciprocate by keeping the mice and other rodents at bay.

It's a partnership that may go back to the days of Walt Disney, who, some say, first discovered scores of cats in Sleeping Beauty Castle and refused to let them be killed.

Over the years, the Disneyland cats have developed a loyal fan club. In addition to the @disneylandcats Twitter handle (8,000 followers), more than 18,000 Instagram users follow an account that features dozens of photos of felines lounging in front of the Indiana Jones ride, hunkered down at the Big Thunder Ranch Barbecue and walking with a purpose past a lamp in New Orleans Square.

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The cat cult mirrors other quirky Disneyland obsessions. Some allegedly scatter the ashes of loved ones on rides, visitors speculate over whether a basketball court really is atop the Matterhorn, and the truly obsessed look for mysterious "hidden Mickeys" camouflaged in the park's decor — some visible only if the light is just right.

An avid Disney fan, Roberts considers himself a conduit between human and feline — a role he hadn't anticipated when he abandoned his efforts toward a New York City acting career and moved with his wife to a home 10 minutes from the park.

After all, the couple had spent a week at the resort in 2011 and hadn't noticed a single cat.

Now he can't help but wonder: "Were they right under our noses the whole time?"

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Outside the park gates, the feral cats that wander the industrial corridors of Orange County's largest city live a less pampered, and more unnoticed, life.

Eve Hart, who founded the Anaheim Fix Project, is among those who tend to the city's non-Disney cats. The group of about 15 volunteers says it has caught about 80 "community cats," as they prefer to call them, to be sterilized, given a health check and returned to the same spot, their ears nicked to show other animal caretakers that they've been treated.

The group also helps "feeders," who bring food and water, making it less likely the cats will go digging through trash cans.

Hart came to their defense last fall when Anaheim's City Council outlawed feeding feral cats. She noticed an obvious conflict: The felines outside the theme park's walls may be marginalized, but how could the city threaten to starve Disney cats so beloved they had their own Facebook page?

"People love these cats and take pictures of them," she says she tried to explain to a city staffer. "And Disneyland provides five feeding stations for their beloved cats. And Disneyland credits the cats with keeping their rodent population down."

Along with animal advocates, the legions of Disneyland cat followers soon became political partners. By the time Hart met with Anaheim city officials to discuss the ordinance, more than 30,000 signatures had been added to an online petition that had been linked on the Disneyland Cats accounts.

City staffers insisted they intended the ordinance to be applied only in nuisance cases, and last month the City Council approved new language for the law, clarifying how feeders could get approval and setting standards for proper feeding. Hart said her group wishes the law had been scrapped but vowed to work with the city to be sure the cats will continue to receive food and care — be they inside or outside Disney's gates.

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Most visitors never notice the Disneyland cats, hidden away on rooftops or stretched out under groomed foliage. But those who keep tabs on the felines say they emerge as the sun goes down, sometimes befuddling visitors accustomed to the tightly controlled Disney experience.

Shawn Marshall, who creates videos and podcasts related to theme parks and conventions, noted that although nearby Knott's Berry Farm also has cats, they lack the Disney zeitgeist.

"Disney has so many subcultures and cliques and social groups, and so this is just one of those little groups of people that love those cats," he said.

Not even Hollywood stars are immune to the cats' charms. In a 2011 interview with Conan O'Brien, actor Ryan Gosling confessed, "There is a belief that Disney has been, uh, breeding an army of cats."

Gosling suggested that the Disney felines are specially trained "commando cats" released to prowl for mice after the last guest leaves — sparing Mickey and Minnie, of course. (And as things so often do for all things Gosling, the interview gave birth to a Tumblr page.)

Riely Cowdell, a Disney cat fan, went to the amusement park nearly every Wednesday for a year before realizing she shared the park with felines. She began to look for them during subsequent trips, keeping her eyes peeled as she rode the tram to the entrance and made her way through the park.

"It was something to do while you're just walking around or waiting in line, something to kind of keep you looking," she said.

With each visit, Cowdell and her husband searched for Francisco, the most famous of the Disneyland cats. In February, they learned that staff had been trying to trap Francisco and went to guest relations to try to put in a request for the cat's adoption. But she says they were told that cast members — Disney lingo for employees — had first dibs on adopting the felines.

With a photogenic tortoiseshell coat and captivating green eyes, Francisco receives special social media attention on Fridays. Photos are posted with the hashtag #FranciscoFriday. But on a recent Friday, most park visitors unknowingly stopped by the cat's turf near the Grizzly River Run to watch riders slide down the mountainside in rafts, not to look for Francisco.

Watching from a scooter with a front basket decorated with collectible Disney pins, 92-year-old John Knight said he had never seen a cat during his visits over the last 30 years. Or squirrels, for that matter, he said.

"I don't think I've seen a cat here or there or anywhere," Bart Bennett, 56, said of his past trips to the park as he waited with his wife, Melodie, 54, to see their children and grandchildren go down the ride.

Then, around 2 p.m., Francisco came into view, sliding up against the fence for a rub.

"Now I can tell people!" Melodie Bennett said, pulling out her phone to snap an image.

A woman came forward and yelled, and the cat ran toward her voice. She bent down and quickly scooped out two bowls of dry food and one bowl of wet to slide beneath the fence.

As Francisco — who many believe is actually female — gobbled the wet food first, the feeder declined an interview and scurried away. Francisco finished off the bowl, munched a few bites of the dry food and then retreated into the shaded landscaping to groom.

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A few miles northeast of Disneyland, in a dense Anaheim neighborhood, Andria Garcia tends nightly to about 10 cat colonies. "My ferals," she calls them.

Driving from spot to spot one recent evening, the trunk of her car filled with cat food, the 41-year-old stopped to pour five piles of chow on the sidewalk, one each for Oscar, Bearheart, Gracie, Comet and an as-yet-unnamed orange feline. At another residence, two plastic bowls of dry food and a silver tray of wet food went under a bush.

Like the Disneyland feeder, she, too, moved quickly. In a church parking lot, Garcia greeted a pregnant black cat whom she calls Mama. Garcia whistled softly. She clucked. The cat stared back.

"It's OK," Garcia said, dumping kibble through the fence. "Here."

If Garcia won the lottery, she says, she would build herself a house surrounded with little cat condos.

Perhaps the Disneyland cats already have something like that.

emily.foxhall@latimes.com

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