Sara Buffington hasn’t lived in LOHO for two years, but she’s still a regular in the neighborhood, going there almost daily to take care of a few straggling, wild cats.
Buffington is the caretaker of one of the many feral cat colonies on the Northside.
The feline gatherings have drawn the ire of many Northsiders, who say the cats kill songbirds, spread disease and steal food from domestic pets.
The problem is evidenced by the large number of ferals taken to Big Fix Rig in Pearl each week to be spayed or neutered or to the Mississippi Animal Rescue League, where they are put down.
Buffington understands those concerns and has even taken heat for caring for the animals.
Even so, she plans to continue feeding the cats until the colony dies off through attrition.
“The biggest complaint is the cats getting songbirds,” she said. “When they’re starving, they cause more problems than when they’re being fed.”
Feral cat colonies are formed when owners abandon cats without having them fixed. The felines typically gather in areas where they can easily find food and shelter. Because they are not spayed or neutered, the colonies can grow exponentially in a short period of time.
Animal rights group PETA estimates that there are between 60 million and 100 million of feral cats living in the United States.
The group states that the animals “live short, hard lives,” and often die of diseases that would be routinely handled by veterinarians. The animals are also subject to starvation, being hit by traffic and being abused by humans.
Two schools of thought have emerged on how to deal with the colonies: trap, neuter and release (TNR), and capture and kill.
TNR includes trapping the cats, taking them to the vet to be spayed/neutered and vaccinated and releasing them back to their home colonies.Because the animals are fixed, new kittens are not born and the colony dwindles. A tell-tale sign that a cat has been spayed or neutered is a notch in its ear, put there by a vet.
Buffington and resident Jackie Ellens practice the TNR method and continue to take care of the cats even after they release them back into their colonies.
Ellens manages a colony behind her business, Southern Breeze Gallery in Ridgeland.
The colony is a mix of cats, including a yellow tabby named Willow, a black male cat named Midnight and a longhair yellow male named Tom.
She started feeding the colony about five years ago, when she was approached by what appeared to be a hungry cat and her four kittens. That cat turned out to be Willow, a shorthair that still lives in the colony today. Another group feeds the cats on Sunday. Someone else put out kennels and houses to provide the felines protection from the elements.
Ellens credits groups like Mississippi Spay and Neuter (MSN), which help with TNR efforts by lending traps and offering spaying, neutering and vaccinations at reduced costs.
MSN dedicates every Thursday to treating feral cats at its Big Fix Rig.
Currently, spay and neuter services are provided free, but the group does charge $10 for the rabies vaccination, said MSN Communications Manager Shelby Parsons. Spay and neuter services are currently funded by a grant received by the group.
Because such a large number of cats come in (Some days, it’s as many as 60.), the group will begin requiring reservations in December. Also, once grant monies run out, MSN will begin charging a nominal fee for spay and neuter, Parsons said.
For Buffington and Ellens, efforts are slowly but surely paying off. “I still feed seven cats,” Ellens said. “When I started feeding them, there was a population of (approximately) 20.”
Buffington has seen her LOHO colony drop from almost 20 cats to four. However, she’s been feeding the cats for years and is beginning to see some new cats make their way in. “I wish there was a better solution,” she said. “Until we find something better, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.”
Two national animal advocacy groups, Alley Cat Allies and ASPCA, support and promote TNR. PETA argues the programs are “acceptable when the cats are isolated from roads, people and other animals who could harm them.” At the same time, it argues that cats in managed colonies still “suffer and die horrible deaths because they must fend for themselves outdoors.”
Some animal shelters, like the Mississippi Animal Rescue League (MARL), euthanizes feral cats upon their arrival, because they are too hard to socialize and adopt out.
“I’ve been here 42 years and no one has asked for a cat that could bite and scratch,” said MARL Executive Director Debra Boswell.
While euthanizing the cats may sound harsh, Boswell said it’s equally harsh to place them in a small cage.
“They’re wild, not handled by people. They may acclimate to the person that is feeding them ... (but) we have to use nets to move them,” she said. “There are a lot of things worse than humane euthanasia. It’s better than leaving them on the street, in the cold and starving.”