By Anrew Soergel
Anyone walking the streets of downtown Lexington on a Saturday night will see two groups: students and cats.
The uncontrolled feral cat population is a problem for Lexington and the rest of the county, said Executive Director of Rockbridge Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Jane Cornett.
A “feral” cat is one that lives in a wild state after domestication and differs from a “free roaming” cat, which might be lost, stray or loosely owned, according to feralcatproject.org.
“It’s a problem everywhere, I think,” said Cornett. “Animal control won’t pick up cats like they get dogs. It’s much harder for them to catch cats.”
Downtown Lexington residents battle loud feral cats daily. Washington and Lee junior Kendall Wnuk lives on Tucker Street. He said stray cats roam underneath his house and his neighbors’.
“I hear them under my house all the time. I remember driving home late one night, and there were at least 10 cats on the porch next door—just sitting there,” he said.
Because some residents neglect to spay or neuter their pets, the cat population in Lexington keeps growing, said Rockbridge SPCA volunteer Mimi Knight.
The Rockbridge SPCA serves as a pound for Lexington, Buena Vista and the rest of Rockbridge County. The SPCA waives the adoption fee of older cats and offers two kittens for the price of one.
Cornett said these deals promote and encourage cat adoption.
“They’re everywhere. They live in the drains and in the gutters,” she said. “The [two-for-one] policy helps get more kittens to good homes.”
Despite the SPCA’s push to increase cat adoptions, the number has declined in recent years, said Cornett. In 2011, only 130 of the 1,311 cats the SPCA received were adopted.
The SPCA puts down more than 1,000 cats yearly, which is both a financial and emotional burden on SPCA managers.
“When I’ve gotten attached to an animal, and then I don’t see it anymore … I’ve learned not to ask,” said Knight.
Despite the need to free up space in the shelter, Beard and Cornett said they do not allow people from unfit homes to adopt. Potential adopters fill out paperwork that the Rockbridge SPCA uses to match suitable homes with available animals. For example, Beard said she hesitates to let students who are not Virginia residents adopt.
“We want to make sure when students bring an animal home that their parents actually want it,” she said.
SPCA funding comes primarily from Rockbridge County, but the cities of Lexington and Buena Vista also chip in. Just over 4 percent of the Rockbridge SPCA’s revenue pays administrative salaries, while more than 95 percent covers operating expenses and animal care costs.
The SPCA also depends on donations, which nearly doubled between 2011 and 2012. The Rockbridge SPCA received about $46,000 in contributions in 2011 and more than $114,000 in 2012. Beard said she is happy with this growth, but the shelter cannot function on donations alone.
The animal shelter has seven full-time employees. Knight said about 30 regular volunteers help the local SPCA run smoothly.
“This is a slow time,” she said. “We get a lot more volunteers in the spring and summer, when it’s nicer out.”
Adopted cats must be up to date on rabies and vaccines, a responsibility that often falls on the adopter, rather than the local SPCA. A clinic March 25-29 will distribute rabies shots for shelter animals and pets in the community for only $5.
“We don’t take appointments. We just say, ‘come and bring a cat’ and we give the shots,” Cornett said.
For Lexington residents battling unwanted, furry houseguests, Beard said preventing more feral kittens is the best first step.
“You have to spay and neuter, and you have to do it one at a time,” Cornett said, “Get every pet you have, and that way you can better control population growth.”
See Ashley Astolfi and Courtney Ridenhour’s story about the Rockbridge SPCA here.