The stench of cat urine permeating an open field south of Fredericksburg seemed out of place.
A closer look revealed dozens of cats lounging on PVC pipes stacked on a square patch of grassy land. Some cats were using the pipes as miniature hotels, sleeping inside them. Inside a shed to their right, its door open, a whirring fan carried more of the overwhelming odor of cat urine into the air.
Each step through the grass sent cats scattering to hide. The cacophony of hisses and cat fights pierced the air. Some cats exited the tree line already with scars on their skin where the fur had been ripped away in fights. Two cats, both tabbies, were actively reproducing about 10 feet away.
Kittens appeared dehydrated in the 85-degree heat earlier this month, and some of their faces were raw around the eyes likely due to disease or infection. Dozens more cats were sprawled out underneath two work trucks for shade. Cats seemed to be coming from every corner of the property.
From an open square patch where the PVC pipes are stacked, walked a woman in jeans who identified herself as a direct relative of the property owners. The woman said she is a former veterinarian who stopped practicing after a brain injury involving an incident with a horse.
The woman said she’d been feeding the cats—at least 80 and possibly as many as 200—for years. She lugged a five-gallon bucket of dry cat food and said she spends several hours almost daily feeding the cats and filling pots of water.
The woman's mother and brother, who are part-owners of the property, declined to talk on the record to Patch. They would only say they will cooperate with Animal Control and a rescue organization, and they preferred that Patch not publish an article about the cat colony or their situation.
Local Rescue Groups Reluctant to Help
It won’t be easy to get local rescue groups and volunteers to return to the property after they came in January 2007 and spent a tremendous amount of time, energy and money spaying, neutering and releasing the cats back on the property. Some of the cats on the property are likely from the same batch from 2007, because rescuers clipped one ear each from those cats as a sign that they've been spayed or neutered. But more cats have arrived at the property and they've been reproducing.
"It’s a horrible situation and I don’t know what the solution is either," said one animal welfare worker who is familiar with the property but who asked not to be identified. "I don’t know that volunteers would be willing to step into that situation again."
Fredericksburg Patch has decided not to name the family that owns the property because the sheriff’s office said there isn’t much legally that can be done, other than to get permission to bring in rescue help. The property, south of Fredericksburg, is behind a busy highway and a few fast-food restaurants. No one knows why it has turned into a dumping ground for unwanted cats.
This is just one of numerous cat colonies in the area.
"I would say it is a significant problem, but at the same time, when people talk about it, there seems to be this sense that it is just an overwhelming problem and they don’t see what can be done about it. I get the sense it is sort of an uphill battle," said veterinarian Dr. Kathy Kallay, of Four Paws Animal Hospital and Wellness Center in Fredericksburg.
Trying to Help
Spotsylvania County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Mike Harvey said Alley Cat Allies, a national organization based in Bethesda, Md., is assessing the situation to see what action plan may be implemented for this specific property again. The Bethesda nonprofit organized the first visit in 2007.
"This is not something that is going to be resolved overnight, but my goal is to resolve it the best way we can for all parties involved, including the cats," Spotsylvania County Animal Control Director William Tydings wrote in an email forwarded to Fredericksburg Patch. Tydings met with the family last week on June 12.
Britt Cocanour, executive director of Alley Cats Allies, said when the nonprofit came in 2007, local veterinarians and volunteers stepped up to help. She said several local veterinarians did free work. She said records indicated just more than 60 cats were spayed/neutered, treated and released back on the property in 2007.
"My goal is that by the end of next week we will have been on the ground there," she said.
According to Alley Cat Allies, the U.S. feral cat population is estimated to be in the tens of millions. The group also says feral cat populations do not pose major risks to humans.
Kallay said that humans can contract worms from sick cats and there are potential health hazards with untreated feral cat populations. The U.S. Public Health Service has identified five diseases which can be transmitted from cats to humans, albeit rarely. Those diseases are:
- Salmonellosis: A bacterial infection that causes diarrhea
- Bartonellosis: Also known as cat scratch disease
- Cryptosporidiosis: Causes diarrhea
- Toxoplasmosis: Spread to humans via contact with cat feces
- Campylobacterosis: Another diarrhea-causing organism
But the biggest problem with feral cats that don't get spayed or neutered is that they reproduce so easily.
“Unfortunately, cats are great reproducers,” said Kallay, the local veterinarian. “One female can have up to four litters per year, with an average of about five kittens per litter. If you assume half of these kittens are female, and they can become pregnant as early as 6 months of age, you could end up with 60 cats by the end of the year from that one original female.”
Witness Says Cats 'Procreating and Fighting'
Elizabeth McCoy said she and her husband came upon this cat colony in January.
“When we drove up to the company’s property we were surrounded by cats ranging in ages between newborn to emaciated adults,” she said. “There were adult cats staggering towards our car. A few groups of adults were procreating and fighting.”
McCoy, a Spotsylvania County resident, said she met with one of the property owners and got permission to take one of the cats. McCoy said she did see a few dead cats and numerous others with injuries and illnesses.
“We were able to catch a tiny female kitten who my son named ‘Nightlight.’ After we got her we invested in kitten formula, dewormer, and flea shampoo. Nightlight only lived for 48 hours. I called the SPCA and was told that they were full and that they couldn't take in any cats at that time,” she said.
The Fredericksburg Regional SPCA used to have a feral cat trap and release program, but it was canceled a few years ago for lack of funding.
"It is a huge problem," said a person who is familiar with the program but said she did not have authority to discuss it.
McCoy said she returned to the property on May 25 to see if the situation had improved, but she thought it had gotten worse. The woman who feeds the cats was there.
“I walked closer to the group of baby kittens and saw a gray and white kitten with her right eye swollen shut and green snot on her nose and face. I was able to get her and we decided to leave, not wanting to upset the woman,” McCoy said.
They named the cat “Agna.” McCoy said she took Agna to Four Paws Animal Hospital in Spotsylvania County on June 1 to find out what was wrong with her eye and if she had any other problems. Dr. Kallay provided medical care to the cat.
“The vet diagnosed Agna with anemia, upper respiratory infection, ring worm, ear mites and an ulcer in her right eye,” she said. “Agna only weighed one pound and was thought to be 4 weeks old.”
McCoy took medications home to treat the cat and made another appointment for June, but Agna died on June 9.
“She was too debilitated by the time Ms. McCoy found her and we were not able to save her,” said Kallay, who treated Agna. “I had not been aware of that colony before she mentioned it to me, although I am aware of many other feral colonies that exist around the area.”
Kallay said she's been practicing at her Spotsylania location off U.S. 1 for six years and she hears details all the time about the cat colonies in the area, but she was not aware of this particular colony from where McCoy took the cat. She said feral cats are a problem all over the country and she isn't sure the Fredericksburg area is any worse, but people have tried to help.
"In my circle it is sort of common knowledge that it is going on out there," she said.
There's a Lack of Funding
Cari Bartz, founder of the rescue and advocacy nonprofit Shadow Cats Advocates, said she is aware of a colony of more than 400 cats near a trailer park in Stafford County. She said she’s spayed and neutered more than 250 cats near Bragg Hill and about 80 in a subdivision off U.S. 17 in South Stafford.
“It is horrendous,” she said about the feral cat population in the area. “It is beyond imagination. It is beyond your wildest dreams. I could trap and trap and trap until hell freezes over. There is no funding and that is the main problem."
This area only has one affordable spay and neuter clinic but the Kincheloe Spay/Neuter Clinic in Fredericksburg is overwhelmed, Bartz said. She often goes to Richmond to get the cats spayed and neutered.
“The expense is just overwhelming,” she said.
She also said the risk to humans is minimal, but a lot of people complain about the cats feeding from Dumpsters and the appearance that such colonies and the roaming cats have on communities.
“It is upsetting to see dead cats in the road,” she said. “You want to teach your children that it is important to spay and neuter and TNR (trap-neuter-return) is the only humane way to go about this. Somebody has to help these poor cats because there is a lot of suffering involved. It is a community problem and I wish everyone would just do a little bit to help.”
MEETING: Shadow Cats Advocates Inc. is having an informational and planning meeting from 1-3 p.m. Saturday June 23 at the Porter Library Room A. The nonprofit's mission is to aid, assist, protect and defend feral cats throughout Stafford, Fredericksburg, and Spotsylvania. Learn more about the group here.
DONATE: Shadow Cats Advocates has a donation page. Monetary donations can be sent to its mailing address: P.O. Box 514, Garrisonville, VA 22463. People can also make PayPal donations via email: email@example.com