(Host) Winter cold snaps are especially hard on the many feral cats that populate Vermont. Feral cats are the offspring of abandoned house cats. They rarely make good pets. And most are terrified of human contact. But the animals have their benefactors, as VPR’s Susan Keese reports.
(Sound of traffic, woman calling a cat) “Kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty….”
(Keese) In the fading light of a frigid afternoon, Lydia Mahan, still in her office clothes, leads the way to one of Brattleboro’s feral cat colonies. It’s under a bridge in a busy part of town.
(Mahan) “Now be careful because it’s very icy here.”
(Keese) Past a dumpster, on a narrow ledge above the river, is a miniature shanty town of boxes and cat carriers stuffed with straw. There’s even a donated dog house. Mahan and a fellow cat lover put them here last fall. Mahan says at least eight cats are using the shelters. The only one in sight is a big gray cat.
Mahan suspects he may have been a pet once, mainly because he’s here, waiting for the meal she delivers daily.
(Mahan) “Hey, Frazier. See how his right ear has been cut a little bit? Yeah you’re cold, aren’t you babe?” (Sound of Mahan feeding the cat.)
(Keese) Frazier’s notched ear means someone has trapped him and had him neutered. There are vets who offer discounts to people working to keep these populations from growing exponentially. By some estimates, there are as many feral cats in the U.S. as there are housecats.
Mahan says their harsh, typically short lives are haunted by predators, parasites, frostbite and hunger. Brattleboro has no formal feral cat program. And those that do feed feral cat colonies tend to keep a low profile.
(Mahan) “There are people who would say it makes more sense to let nature take its course and if these animals don’t have enough food then yes, they will starve to death or they’ll get sick.
(Tracey Tryba) “Some people in the community would like the Humane Society to collect all the feral cats in the area and euthanize them all.”
(Keese) Tracey Tryba heads Brattleboro’s Windham County Humane Society. She says some people want the shelter to take in feral cats and find them homes.
(Tryba) “Which also isn’t very realistic because how do you find a home for a wild animal? And we also have to think of the safety of our staff.”
(Keese) Tryba says the cats can be dangerous to handle, not only because they’re wild but because they may carry rabies. She says her shelter’s had success finding homes for feral kittens brought in young enough. But the shelter can’t take in feral cats except to euthanize them.
(Tryba) “We do help people who are maintaining feral cat colonies by giving them things like cat food.”
(Keese) The shelter also offers spay-neuter help, but the procedures are still expensive. Tryba says she’s looking into grants for a trap, neuter and release program. Several places in the state already have them.
(Sound of cats meowing.)
One program is run by Shaftsbury’s Second Chance Animal Center. Feral cats brought here are not only neutered or spayed but given shots, and tested for diseases and parasites. Then they’re relocated to a feral cat colony.
The center relies on volunteers to host and care for the colonies it sponsors in undisclosed locations in southwestern Vermont. This one looks like an ice shanty with a yard, surrounded by a high fence. Though the center sponsors some free-range colonies, the cats in this one can’t get out. Second Chance Vice President Lesley Nase brings the cats fresh food and water.
(Nase) “Hi Guys, we’re coming in to take a look here. Good kitties, very good kitties.”
(Keese) The building is insulated with wood shavings and blankets. There are cozy nests for the cats to sleep in, toys, a scratching post and a door leading to the yard. Two tabbies watch warily, huddling close on a high shelf.
(Nase) “You can see how their ears are a little bit flat. If I reach out my hand, their eyes are getting wider, and they’re feeling threatened.”
(Keese) Nase says the real answer to this problem is for everyone to have their pets spayed or neutered. People who can no longer care for their animals should contact their local shelter.
Nase believes that many feral cats can be tamed, with enough effort and time. For those who’ll never learn to enjoy human contact, she says this is the next best thing.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.