By Abby Thornton
Buena Vista city officials have no solution for the growing number of feral cats that inhabit many of the city’s streets and sewers. The populace of homeless felines in Buena Vista has exploded recently and shows no sign of slowing down.
“They are proliferating left and right,” said Buena Vista City Councilman Steve Baldridge. “It’s starting to become a real issue in many parts of the city.”
A feral cat is a domestic cat that has either escaped from its home or has been abandoned by its owner. When exposed to the elements and left to fend for itself, a cat can contract rabies and become aggressive, making it “feral.” Rockbridge SPCA Director Tara Rodi said that feral cats pose a threat to people, especially young children who may mistake them for domestic cats.
“Cats are domestic animals,” said Rodi. “They’re supposed to be taken care of by people, fed by people, and have a home. When you take a cat out of its environment and expose it to our conditions – in the mountains, having to protect itself from coyotes – it’s going to get stressed out and it’s going to become aggressive.”
On March 17, the city passed a new ordinance that holds home owners responsible for exterminating varmints, such as mice and skunks, on their property. In accordance with the new law, offenders will now receive a letter prompting them to rectify the violation. If they fail to do so, the city will take possession of their property until the fine is paid in full. But some council members are concerned that the ordinance does not address the burgeoning issue of feral cats.
“The problem is that these are not peoples’ pets that we’re dealing with,” said Baldridge. “These are now wild creatures whose previous owners we can’t pinpoint and hold accountable.”
Rodi says that at the heart of the issue is the failure of many pet owners to spay and neuter their cats.
“Once a cat is out there and roaming around it can produce a thousand cats, so it can get out of hand pretty quickly,” said Rodi. “People are getting more relaxed as pet owners and they’re forgetting to spay and neuter their animals.”
But some citizens are taking the problem into their own hands. Mary Huffman, who owns a floral shop in downtown Buena Vista, has been a caretaker for a colony of feral cats in Glen Maury Park for two years now.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“Once a cat is out there and roaming around it can produce a thousand cats, so it can get out of hand pretty quickly.” -Tara Rodi [/pullquote]
Huffman provides food and water for the cats out of an abandoned storage shed that she found in the park. Additionally, she finds owners for some of the cats after she has spayed and neutered them.
“Since I’ve been a caretaker, the size of my colony has dropped from about 100 to around 20 cats,” said Huffman. “A lot of times I can find someone on Facebook who’s willing to adopt.”
While Huffman, who is just one of several “caretakers” in the city, has reined in the park’s cat population, she said that the issue is still raging in town, where dozens of cats reside in the sewers. Like Rodi, Huffman said that many Buena Vista residents neglect to spay and neuter their cats, which she chalks up to the area’s pervasive poverty.
“A lot of people [in Buena Vista] just can’t afford to have their pets spayed and neutered,” said Huffman. “Many cities have free clinics for this very purpose, but the closest thing we have to that is Cats Unlimited.”
Cats Unlimited is a non-profit organization in Lexington that spays and neuters cats at a reduced cost. The cat rescue group, which also finds homes for abandoned cats, spayed and neutered nearly 500 cats in 2015. Huffman uses the organization to spay and neuter the cats in her colony.
Huffman said that while she thinks there is nothing that the city can do to counter the problem, she said that more groups like Rockbridge SPCA need to step up and provide affordable options for spaying and neutering. Rodi said that the SPCA has plans to implement a reduced cost spay and neuter program next year.
“Right now we’re working on a ‘spay-ghetti and meat-ball’ fundraising event,” said Rodi. “The event will be an all-you-can-eat spaghetti dinner that will take place sometime next fall. Our hope is that it will raise enough money for us to get the new program off the ground.”
Until then, the city is relying on people like Huffman to keep its sprawling community of feral cats on a leash.