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Cat lovers quietly care for wild colonies

Move over rabbits, it’s cats that multiply like crazy in Haywood County. According to the Haywood Animal Welfare Association, there are about 12,000 lost or stray cats in the county, nearly a fifth of the Haywood’s total human population.

To help curb growth of the “community cat” population, HAWA recently received a $10,000 grant from PetSmart Charities. The grant will fund spay/neuter surgery for about 200 stray cats.

Penny Wallace, HAWA president, said sterilizing the cats will make a “significant dent” in their numbers by the end of 2010.

In addition to sterilization, the cats will be vaccinated against rabies, treated for parasites, and have their left ear “tipped,” or squared off to show they’ve already gone through the trap, neuter and return process.

Since launching the pilot program, HAWA has been learning about the explosion of “cat colonies” across the county.

“Daily we’re learning about colonies of 20 or more cats,” said Wallace. “There are huge numbers of people in our county feeding the cats who won’t turn them over to the shelter because of euthanasia. Many of these people have been spaying and neutering the colony cats on their own dime for years.”

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Susan Kumpf, a field coordinator and volunteer for HAWA, is currently working with “cat colony caregivers” to humanely trap the cats before transporting them to Humane Alliance for the spay or neuter surgery.

Kumpf said it’s vital to establish a relationship with the cat caregivers since they can aid greatly in trapping the cats that trust them most.

“Sometimes we set them up with traps, stand back and let them do the whole thing,” said Kumpf.

The caregivers, who are usually retired people, those with fixed incomes, and cat lovers in general, have been very cooperative with the program so far — only after they are reassured that the cats will be returned.

“You have to really exude trust and shared care about the animals,” Kumpf said.

Two such caregivers, Ruth and Bill Green of Waynesville, started off feeding a couple of cats that seemed to be starving to death. Now, they take care of approximately 30 cats in their colony.

“We got more than we can handle,” said Bill. “I couldn’t name them all to save my life.”

Bill and Ruth have named a few of their favorites, however. Both say they have never gotten sick from handling the cats.

Though cat lovers obviously have the interest of community cats at heart, they do face some stiff opposition from those who prefer birds.

The American Bird Conservancy states that free-roaming cats kills hundreds of millions of birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians each year. They are exposed to injury, disease and parasites and are capable of transmitting diseases and parasites like rabies.

The ABC launched the “Cats Indoors!” Campaign for Safer Birds and Cats in 1997 to advocate keeping cats indoors, in an outdoor enclosure, or trained to go outside on a harness and leash.

According to the ABC, managed cat colonies don’t always decrease in size because cats that have been spayed or neutered, vaccinated and regularly fed will also live longer. Cat colonies also attract more cats, whether it’s because of the food provided daily or because the colonies serve as a “dumping grounds” for unwanted cats.

While Wallace admits that the community cats do kill birds, she pointed out that they also handle the vermin population very well.

“The real danger is when they’re not spayed or neutered,” said Wallace. “They expand exponentially.”

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