POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. — As the sun recently set on a residential street in Point Pleasant, W.Va., the aroma of sardines filled the air.
Sardines? Yes, sardines. Some readers may be gagging at the thought while the mouths of others are watering. However, the sardines weren’t for humans but to attract the community cats living on the street.
Community cats, also known as strays and feral cats, are those felines which observe humans without getting too close. They are self-reliant and independent. Though some will allow humans to leave them food, they will not approach that food unless the human is a safe distance away. If the cat needs medical treatment, or spayed or neutered, catching them by hand is not an option because these cats have street smarts and highly developed survival instincts. Also, without spaying and neutering, their numbers only grow and overwhelm those trying to care for them or even those who don’t care for them, literally. For this reason, the issue of too many cats is not just one for cat lovers, it’s a community issue. There appears no way to adopt, rescue or euthanize, out of the pet overpopulation problem, but there is an alternative growing in popularity.
Enter the Mason County Kitty Korral, a non-profit organization which began last year and operates a trap, spay/neuter and release program or TNR. All the volunteers are admittedly cat and animal lovers, becoming involved because they are trying to provide a humane solution to cat overpopulation. Volunteers humanely trap the cats, transport them to a veterinarian where they are given medical care, including a rabies vaccine, spayed or neutered, then released back to their neighborhoods where they’ve learned to survive. They are released without having the ability to reproduce and by neutering the males, this reduces the urge to fight which reduces the spread of disease and injury. The cat colonies eventually die off of natural causes without overwhelming shelters which often don’t have the resources to domesticate a feral cat, which can mean a bleak ending.
Programs like the TNR offered by Kitty Korral can benefit everyone – cat lover or not.
On that recent night in Point Pleasant, residents gathered to show Kitty Korral volunteers Renee Wickline and Camala “Cammy” Simpkins where the community cats normally eat. A couple days leading up to Kitty Korral’s arrival, the residents were told to gradually reduce the food supply so that when trapping day arrived, the cats would be ready to eat.
Simpkins opened the back of her SUV to reveal stacks of humane traps. She lined the traps with rubber mats to protect the cats’ paws and allow for easy cleaning. Wickline steadied the traps while Simpkins opened a huge can of wet food for cats and plopped a spoonful inside the far end of the trap. She then opened a can of sardines, with Wickline turning her head to avoid gagging from the smell. Simpkins dipped into the sardines and created a trail of fishy goodness (or grossness) that was meant to lead cats further into the trap to spring the door shut.
Once “baited” the traps were draped with custom covers or blankets made by volunteers meant to calm the cat and create the illusion of being hidden – feral cats often hide as a means of survival.
The traps were set and then, the waiting began.
While sitting on the porch steps of one of the residents, Wickline and Simpkins were joined by faithful volunteer Dixie Flowers from Letart who had transported two feral cats from New Haven to be included in the next day’s journey to Help for Animals in Barboursville for care. The Kitty Korral helps cats from across Mason County, not just Point Pleasant, and had booked 10 slots for spays and neuters the following day. Wickline and Simpkins were hopeful they could fill them all but time would tell as the evening progressed.
“It’s a lot of hurry up and wait,” Wickline said when describing a night of trapping.
Simpkins said the group would like to be trapping twice a week instead of once a week – this is due to available appointments with veterinarians, which are in short supply themselves in rural areas. As Simpkins put it, the group has the money to spay and neuter more cats but appointments are sometimes a hurdle. As it stands, Kitty Korral books their appointments with Help for Animals in Barboursville three to four weeks in advance but is hopeful to work with local veterinarians as well, if possible in the future.
Of course, there’s a difference between animal lovers and animal advocates. When asked what pushed them to take up advocating for creatures who couldn’t on their own behalf, Simpkins said the tipping point for her was volunteering at the local animal shelter, answering call after call about cats. She then met up with Wickline and later Kathy Stone of Operation Fancy Free in Jackson County, W.Va., who had attempted to get a TNR group started in Mason County a few years back. Simpkins said Stone has been an invaluable resource with tips on how to operate the group and care for the cats. Though it has taken her a few years to do it, the colony numbers in Jackson County are down as are cats and kittens being euthanized, Simpkins said of Stone’s efforts.
Now a year into their venture, the Mason County Kitty Korral is a non-profit group with an official 501(c)(3) number.
Getting to that point, has required much effort and work on the part of a very small group of volunteers which operates off a small grant, fundraisers and donations from the community. When asked what is the most rewarding part of what can be a heartbreaking endeavor, Wickline said, “giving the animals a better quality of life.”
Simpkins agreed, adding, “Our goal is the better quality of life and to stop the overpopulation of cats.”
Flowers had never met Simpkins or Wickline but that all changed when she read about the group in the Point Pleasant Register.
“I love cats,” Flowers said about why she volunteers. “I saw the article in the newspaper (about a Kitty Korral meeting)…and I saw it, and I thought, ‘at last,’ …this is something I can do.”
Flowers went on to say trapping the community cats and getting them “fixed” made her feel good because it meant more won’t be born to “face the same fate” as others who died from disease, neglect or abuse.
Still, to some some TNR is a foreign concept but that doesn’t mean it can’t be useful.
Wickline said she’s had people tell the group to “just take all the cats” in a neighborhood and not bring them back but “we can’t get rid of them, we have no place to take them but we can stop it and cut down on it until there are laws where people are held accountable for their animals.”
TNR may not be the solution some people want but it is a humane solution that seems to work in other areas.
Though Mason County Kitty Korral does TNR for feral cats, it can also help with community cats who are otherwise domesticated for those who care for the felines but cannot afford to get them spayed or neutered.
Kitty Korral has trapped the community cats at the West Virginia State Farm Museum and plans on having upcoming fundraising events at the venue soon. They are considering a tacos and trivia night and picture with your pets night. They also plan to be out in the community more this summer at festivals and events, to let the public know who they are and their mission.
Back on that street in Point Pleasant, as the sun disappeared the traps started to snap and, much to everyone’s relief, an elusive female, a male and kitten were trapped. Also headed down to Help for Animals the next day, a domesticated stray from that same street, two cats from New Haven and multiple cats from another trap site in Point Pleasant. The 10 slots were filled.
According to the ASPCA, in just seven years, one unspayed female cat and her offspring can produce 420,000 kittens. The cycle for one local neighborhood was stopped recently by Kitty Korral.
“We will help in anyway we can,” Wickline said. “We will pick them up, you don’t have to pay for anything…it’s out there.”
Find the Mason County Kitty Korral on Facebook.
Beth Sergent is editor of Ohio Valley Publishing.