Feral cats elicit intense emotion. People either love them or hate them.
Some shoot or poison them, while others, like Sandy Goad of Titusville, devote impressive chunks of time and money helping feral kitties stay alive and healthy.
“I spend about eight to 12 hours a day on the cats and easily $20,000 a year,” said Goad, who cares for 125 feral cats.
Goad is vice president of the Space Coast Feline Network, a local nonprofit devoted to the humane care and control of the feral cat population in Brevard.
The group’s biggest fundraiser, “It’s the Cat’s Meow,” happens Saturday, Nov. 21, at the Space Coast Realtors’ Association Veranda Room in Merritt Island. The event, which features an all-you-can-eat buffet, silent auction, raffle and even Feral Cat Bingo, raises critically needed money that allows the Network to continue helping feral cats, primarily through spay and neuter clinics.
For those unfamiliar with the nomenclature, feral cats are domestic cats, but unlike pet cats, they are wary of humans, preferring to live outdoors. Unlike community cats, who once were people’s pets, feral cats are not socialized to people. Left to their own devices, they are prolific breeders that can start having babies at less than a year of age and can continue producing multiple litters a year for many years.
Research by national animal protection organizations such as Alley Cat Allies, the only national organization dedicated to the humane treatment of feral cats, points to trap-neuter-return, or TNR, as the most effective way to reduce the feral population.
With TNR, the cats are humanely trapped and taken to the vet to be spayed or neutered. They’re also vaccinated and ear-tipped, the universal symbol that this is a cared-for, sterile feral. The animals are then returned to their outdoor home to live out their lives. The yowling, spraying and fighting that annoys humans ends and the size of colonies decreases through attrition.
At shelters, where even the friendlies of pet cats doesn’t stand much of a change, ferals face a dismal future. Nationally, more than 70 percent of all cats taken to the pound are euthanized because there are not enough homes for them. For ferals, the figure is about 100 percent, because ferals are considered unadoptable.
No one really knows how many feral cats live in the shadows of restaurants or near the trash cans by Brevard county parks. Estimates run anywhere from 25,000 to 200,000. The Feline Network does point to a number that can be accurately counted, but it is doing its part by spaying or neutering 5,000 feral cats over the past four years through its TNR program. That’s 5,000 cats that will not contribute to population increase with more kittens.
The Feline Network traces its roots to, of all things, the space program. During the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo Space Programs era, feral cat colonies had flourished in the wilderness around the Kennedy Space Center facilities. When the cats began creating problems with space operations, KSC management trapped the cats and took them to local shelters, where the kitties were quickly euthanized. Despite years of this trap and kill strategy, the population of the colonies did not seem to be decreasing, so KSC workers, appalled by the killings, formed Space Coast Feline Network in 1996 to find other alternatives to dealing with the feral cat issue.
Many of the cats from the original KSC colonies found a home at the Feline Network’s Mims sanctuary, which currently houses about 100 cats. The group expanded beyond the original colonies to provide care, vaccinate and spay or neuter feral cats throughout the county. Working with Brevard County Animal Services and Enforcement and Alley Cat Allies, SCFN is now the predominant organization in Brevard County for feral cat colony management. The Network spays or neuters close to 1,000 cats per year and provides assistance to low income colony caregivers, as well as rescue and adoption services for the kitties.
The Feline Network also now faces the issue of neighborhood or community cats, once someone’s pet but now homeless strays.
“During the recession, people just moved away and left their cats behind, so now about a quarter of the cats we deal with were former pets,” Goad said.
How do you tell a community cat from a feral?
“What clues me in is when they start purring at you,” Goad said. “The feral keeps quiet and doesn’t want anything to do with you.”
Palm Bay residents Kathy and Roger Bean, who have been helping feral cats for about 30 years, are caregivers to one of the more than 500 registered feral colonies in the county.
“We’ve rescued many cats that have been abandoned and dumped in the woods behind our home,” Bean said.
Through TNR services from the Feline Network, the Beans’ colony has gone down from 40 cats to 13.
“When the cats first started showing up, we were on our own as to what to do and how and where to do it,” Kathy Bean said. “Then I learned about Space Coast Feline Network, and they’ve been such a blessing.” We’ve learned how to humanely trap each cat and get them to one of the spay/neuter clinics. Without their help and support, we would have been inundated in kittens.”
The Beans begin the daily cat rounds at 6 a.m., where the first batch of ferals gets fed.
“The second gets fed at 7 a.m. and they’re both fed in the afternoon around 4,” Bean said. “We have 11 water bowls around for them that get cleaned and filled all the time.”
As for costs, Bean estimates she spends more than $200 every couple of weeks to care for the ferals.
Folks who are not cat lovers don’t get why feral colony caregivers spend so much of their resources on these creatures, but for Bean and Goad, there is no question.
“It’s a passion,” Goad said.
“It’s the Cat’s Meow”
When: Saturday, Nov. 21, 5:30 p.m.
Where: Veranda Room of Space Coast Realtors’ Association, 105 McLeod St., Merritt Island
Highlights: All-you-can-eat gourmet buffet, shopping, silent auction, raffle and Feral Cat Bingo
Cost: $55 per person
Purchase tickets at scfntnr.org.