On April 4, Ponzu, a cat influencer with 34,000 followers on Instagram, was killed in McCarren Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, after a child allegedly attacked the animal in front of a fair amount of people. Ponzu’s owner, Chanan Aksornnan, also the owner of a popular Asian restaurant called Baoburg, was attacked by the child’s accomplices; her partner was punched in the face and had to have emergency surgery. Ponzu, beset by a heart condition which was aggravated by the assault, died of his injuries.
Every detail about the story, which first came to me via Greenpointers, a hyper-local publication of the sort that has largely replaced neighborhood newspapers, was both heartbreaking and also confusing. One might wonder why Ponzu, a cat, was out in a public park in the first place, but a closer look at his very popular Instagram account reveals that he was trained to walk on a leash and that being adventurous was part of his personal brand. Ponzu was arguably a part of Aksornnan’s family, which includes Mango the parrot, Tofu the dog, and another cat, Kimchi. The fact that Aksornnan identifies her pets as her children has seemingly been a source of contention for the local authorities, who are investigating the incident with the lackluster effort one can expect from New York City’s finest, as elucidated in a report from ChaRee Pim, a friend of Aksornnan, who posted about the incident on Facebook.
According to Pim’s account, the police have been less than helpful in finding the people behind the attack, placing the blame on Aksornnan for provoking the incident, and also taking issue with the fact that she referred to the cat as her “child” and that she was walking the cat in the first place. Though the local authorities say that they’re taking the attack seriously, Pim’s account of their response says otherwise.
The story—which gained traction via a post on Nextshark, other Instagram accounts dedicated specifically to Asian American news not covered by the mainstream media, and Reddit—has now been picked up by larger local newspapers like the New York Post, as well as People’s Pets vertical, both using the “influencer” bit as the hook. A GoFundMe for legal fees and other sundry costs, started by Ponzu’s family, has nearly reached its goal of $50,000, demonstrating that there is a community of people out there incensed by the tragedy, who also saw Ponzu as their own family. According to the Post, the woman in the video seen punching Aksornnan is Evelyn Serrano, and she has been arrested. Hopefully, Serrano’s arrest is the start of some closure for Aksornnan and her family, and ideally, the authorities will get to the bottom of what happened. Though the victim of the attack is Thai, the police have not called this a hate crime, unlike the myriad other acts of violence that Asian Americans have suffered over the past few months, fueled by anti-Asian sentiments stoked by the former president.
Ponzu’s death is not murky, but the circumstances surrounding it feel slightly charged in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on. McCarren Park, where Ponzu met his end, is a large public park at the north end of Williamsburg, a neighborhood that is beyond the point of gentrification and occupies a space that is more like self-parody. On warm days, the park is full of picnicking gentrifiers sharing space with families at the barbecue grills throwing birthday parties for their children. The ire directed towards Ponzu was not about his existence or his owners, but seemingly about the fact that he was a cat on a leash, walking as if he owned the place. This is what strikes me as so odd about the entire story, though I have no issue with a cat on a leash if the cat wants to be there in the first place. While I suppose it does violate some social norms for pets to see a cat strolling on a leash as if it were a dog, I can’t imagine a circumstance where I’d be so upset about it that I’d provoke an attack. I’ve lived near McCarren Park for a decade and have seen some things that are arguably worse, including but not limited to men on unicycles and slackliners—relics of late 2010s hipsterdom that still persist.
Ponzu was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and something about the temerity of walking an Instagram-influencer cat on a leash was a larger symbol of economic disparity. This is not to excuse the action, but rather an attempt to figure out why the incident still seems sort of fishy. Understanding sudden bursts of violence that result in tragedy isn’t easy, and ascribing blame to forces outside of ourselves is easier than admitting that sometimes, people are just assholes. Maybe it’s not quite gentrification at the heart of this matter, but something closer to collective pandemic fatigue, shared by all of us in different ways, that manifested in violence and ended in tragedy. Ponzu’s story is still ongoing and eventually, all the details will come to light, providing some much-needed clarity. RIP Ponzu, 2018-2021.