February 2018

For the Love of Cats: Fixing and Feeding the Ferals

Author: Linda S. Hopkins | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

Feral: A “feral” cat is unsocialized and tends to be fearful of people and keep a distance. Ferals are most often found living outdoors in groups known as colonies. The cats in a colony share a common food source and territory and may include not only ferals, but also strays—former pet cats who were lost or abandoned. Ferals, as well as strays, are increasingly referred to as “community cats” or “free-roaming” cats.

They’re everywhere: slinking around restaurants and fishing docks, crouching behind dumpsters, darting across golf courses, hanging out at apartment complexes, in gated communities, even in your backyard. Thousands of cats are roaming the county, scavenging for food, seeking shelter and—left unchecked—multiplying faster than you can say here, kitty, kitty.

But before you think about “rescuing” them, i.e. capturing them, bringing them home or dropping them off at the nearest shelter, think again. If a cat is truly feral, the most compassionate choice may be to allow him to live outdoors with his colony mates rather than trying to force him to exist indoors as a pet or, even worse, in a cage.

Domesticating a feral cat is neither practical nor advantageous, according to Stephanie Brumley, an employee of Beaufort County Animal Shelter & Control, whose real cat education began in 2000 at a hair salon in Port Royal, where her aunt discovered a colony of ferals. As an agile teenager, Brumley was recruited to help chase down the cats. “Back then, being young and naïve, I was trapping them and housing them and making them ‘nice.’ This was long before I saw the bigger picture,” she said.

Beaufort County, we have a problem…
The cat population is booming, and this is not good news for animal shelters already bursting at the seams with cats in need of permanent homes. Theoretically, a cat can give birth to three or more litters of kittens per year, with an average of four kittens per litter. Assuming her litters go on to procreate, many thousands of kittens could result. Even though all the kittens won’t likely survive, even a fraction of this number is too many.

Adding to the population explosion are irresponsible cat owners who abandon or dump cats and unwanted kittens out with managed colonies, Brumley said. Dumping a family cat is not only illegal per SC Law 47-1-70, it is cruel to the cat. If you have a cat you can no longer care for, please attempt to find a suitable home for the animal or contact one of the many area animal welfare organizations that help shelter and re-home such pets, including Hilton Head Humane Association, Palmetto Animal League (PAL), and Tabby House, Beaufort County’s non-profit all-volunteer-run satellite adoption center.

“Although the county has seen a slight decline in [feral] numbers over the years, it’s a very slow, gradual decline,” Brumley said. “You’re always going to have that person who lets an unaltered cat outside that’s never going to be socialized, starting the entire process all over again. It’s a never-ending battle.”

Control systems and solutions
In cooperation with area animal welfare services, several small groups of cat-loving, community-minded groups and many compassionate individuals are combining their efforts and working tirelessly toward the same cause: to reduce the feral cat population humanely—without killing them. Most are footing the food bill out of their own pockets and volunteering their time. They do, however, rely on donations for ongoing veterinary care.

One of the lesser-known operations that is making a huge impact, All About Cats, is a non-profit, 501© (3), self-funded program, founded by Claudia Kennedy, Althea Hicks and Julie Copp. Along with a group of dedicated volunteers, their mission is to care for and feed the homeless cats in our area, including trapping, altering, placing and providing medical care as needed.

Area animal advocates agree that the most successful way to control cat overpopulation is by promoting Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs. Here’s how it works: When a cat colony is identified, humane traps are baited, set and watched. Once the cats are captured, they get a ride to SNAC (Hilton Head Humane Association’s Spay Neuter Alliance and Clinic) or to Palmetto Animal League (PAL)’s community clinic, where they are tested for feline leukemia and FIV (the feline version of AIDS). Feral cats who test negative for these highly contagious diseases are spayed/neutered and vaccinated, free of charge. (Both SNAC and PAL offer free spay/neuter services for feral cats to be released back to the wild and low-cost services for pets.) In the case of the ferals, the vet will “ear tip” (remove the tip of the left ear) so it will be easy to identify which cats have been altered.

After everything is completed, the cat is placed back in the trap for a safe return to its colony or relocated as necessary. Subsequently, caretakers monitor the cats (volunteers visit twice a day), and by providing food and shelter, give them the opportunity to live among their own and be free. Once altered and inoculated, these cats are much healthier and can live contentedly for many years.

Cats who test positive for contagious diseases can sometimes be placed in special segregated indoor situations (According to Brumley, Pet Helpers in Charleston took seven FIV positive cats from Beaufort County Animal Shelter & Control that showed up post-Hurricane Irma); other times, they must be humanely euthanized. (The county’s overall euthanasia rate for 2017 was 12 percent—that’s all inclusive—dogs, cats and feral cats.) “The problem is, if you release them, they are spreading the disease,” Brumley said. “Our job, as a society, is to eradicate these diseases if the cat is not going to be indoors. The only time we euthanize for illness is if it is untreatable.”

Happy places for homeless cats
While feral cat colonies thrive in public places where a food source is available, a sanctuary program is the penultimate intersection of animal welfare and responsible pet ownership. Cat sanctuaries are protective habitats for cats that afford space for natural activity while also allowing separation of more vulnerable cats. Various types of fencing can be used, and shelter is available in different forms, along with multiple feeding stations. Unlike animal shelters, sanctuaries do not actively seek to adopt out or place the cats with individuals or groups, instead caring for each cat until its natural death.

Area sanctuaries work closely with each other and with local animal organizations and individuals who are managing colonies to evaluate needs and provide the best possible placement of the ferals. All About Cats maintains a sanctuary on Hilton Head Island. Daufuskie Island also has a loving constituency and large sanctuary program for cats.

According to Hicks, Hilton Head Humane and Palmetto Animal League are extremely helpful in fostering or helping place any cats that exhibit the potential for acclimating to a pet home. However, attempts to socialize them often fail, and many cats are simply happier living outdoors.

Live and let live
Want to make a positive difference for community cats and do something beneficial for the county, too? Here’s how you can help:

Identify uncontrolled colonies: Please report kittens you see in the wild or colonies of cats that are not being monitored by calling Beaufort County Animal Shelter & Control (843) 255-5010 or Hilton Head Humane Association (843) 681-8686. Someone will be sent out to mark the spot, and volunteers will monitor the areas and take appropriate action.

Allow cats back on the property: When cats are removed from your property for spaying and neutering, please allow them to be returned. The benefits, among others, include rodent and snake control.

Obtain a permit: If you are managing a feral cat colony, get a permit in case questions arise from the public or, in the event of an evacuation, so that cats can be accounted for and colonies can be re-established. Feral cat colonies can be permitted (no fee) by the Beaufort County Animal Services Department. For information, visit bcgov.net/departments/public-safety/animal-control/feral-cat-colony-requirements.php.

Volunteer to help trap and/or feed and monitor colonies or make a monetary contribution to an organization that is serving cats:
• All About Cats: facebook.com/allaboutlowcountrycats; (843) 422-5819. Donations c/o Claudia Kennedy, 4 Magazine Place, HHI, SC 29928.
• Daufuskie Island Cat Sanctuary: facebook.com/pg/Daufuskie-Island-Cat-Sanctuary; (843) 683-2531
• Beaufort County Animal Shelter & Control: bcgov/net/departments/Public Safety/animal-control/Donate.php; (843) 255-5010.
• Hilton Head Humane Association: hhhumane.org; (843) 681-8686
• Palmetto Animal League: palmettoanimalleague.org; (843) 645-1727

  1. Thank you! So awesome!! Love it!

    — Heather Holmes    Feb 14, 01:21 pm   

  2. Much thanks to all the individuals and groups mentioned in this awesome article for humanely making a positive difference for cats and educating people in the Hilton Head area! You are a shining example for other communities to follow.

    — Kristi Baker    Feb 14, 10:38 pm   

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