Tending to the island's feral cat population
After years of working with the animals, Connie LaRue knows each of the cats that come by the “Cat Cottage” for morning feedings. At 6 a.m. on a rainy Wednesday morning, she points them out by name. The skinny black male hanging back by the gate is Tarzan; his striped sister, Jane, charges forward eagerly. Moses, a longhaired, vocal male, perches on the railing by the cellar door. There are cats of every size and color, nuzzling one another, peering out from under parked cars and walking effortlessly atop fence posts.
LaRue is one of several islanders who donates her time to the non-profit Block Island Volunteers for Animals (BIVFA). She and Jules Craynock, a retired oceanographer and certified veterinary technician, alternate weekday morning feeding shifts. Each morning, either LaRue or Craynock opens the garden gate at the “cottage” on Connecticut Avenue and, followed by a parade of hungry cats, descend down the stairs into what homeowner and BIVFA founder Lonni Todd calls “the bunkhouse.” The bunkhouse is a section of Todd’s basement that’s been transformed into a cat heaven, complete with everything from crates and bedding to scratching posts. Here, the felines gather to chow down.
Todd and the late Dr. Mary Bridge started the non-profit in 1994. Todd, then the Executive Director of the Island Free Library, was known for having a soft spot for cats, and people began leaving kittens in boxes outside of her office window. The feral cat population was booming. It was then that Bridge got involved and helped to establish the volunteer group. In its prime, the organization had multiple volunteers and feeding stations set up around the island. Now, however, there are only a few dedicated people left.
While the feral population is nothing like it was in the ‘90s, the group said, there are still several hundred cats roaming the island.
A certain number of cats are helpful in terms of controlling the rodents, but Craynock said the hunters also have the potential to dent bird populations and to carry rabies.
“There’s a balance,” Craynock said.
Most islanders make sure that their pets are spayed or neutered and receive the necessary shots.
“These animals on the island are, generally, pretty well taken care of,” LaRue said.
One of the problems, though, is that there is no full-time veterinarian on the island, and no facilities in which to perform the surgeries needed to control the feline population.
“Unless someone is taking care of it, it balloons,” Craynock said.
Todd said that some people simply put kittens in bags and drown them in one of the many lakes on the island, or use them as target practice.
“Some people think there’s no problem on the island because that’s their solution,” Todd said, visibly upset.
In addition, summer residents and visitors often bring cats or kittens to the island for their children to play with, Todd said, and then leave them behind. Every October, there seems to be a new crop of cats.
According to Rhode Island General Law, Title 4, Animals and Animal Husbandry, Chapter 4-24-3, Permit Program for Cats, “No person, as defined by § 4-19-2, shall own or harbor, within the state, any cat over the age of six (6) months which has not been spayed or neutered…”
However, there are no animal enforcement officers on the island. The police department occasionally deals with loose dogs, the group said, but it doesn’t have the capacity to deal with all of the cats as well. Todd estimated that the last attempt to hire an animal enforcement officer was made in the early 1990s.
The members of BIVFA are doing everything they can to help the animals and control the population. Craynock coordinates with a local veterinarian to treat any ill animals. Monday is usually vet day, he said. The volunteers also use “Have a Heart” traps to capture the cats, after which the animals receive the necessary surgeries and shots before being released. Many of the cats return for food, especially the younger ones, who were formerly domestic before being abandoned. The older cats are mainly feral or semi-feral.
Todd does not have the resources to care for any more animals; the shelter is full, she said, but she and the other volunteers will continue to take care of the existing cats. However, the organization needs about $1,000 a month to do so. Donations of any amount are greatly appreciated. Todd also has several kittens, which she’s hand-raised, available for adoption.
More than anything else, though, the group urges people to take care of their pets and take preventative measures. The Rhode Island Community Spay/Neuter Clinic, LLC in Warwick, offers subsidized surgeries for cats and dogs. Spaying or neutering a feral cat costs only $60.
For more information about the organization, call (401) 466-5303. For appointments with the R.I. Community Spay/Neuter Clinic, call (401) 369-7297 or visit www.RICSNC.org. Free transportation is available.