Written by Rebecca Jenkins
“Feral” is the term used to define a cat that does not belong to anyone and lives outdoors. Feral cats are the result of a domestic cat being abandoned or lost and left to fend for itself. The offspring of the domestic (not considered feral) cat are usually terrified of people and, therefore, never handled by humans.
It is estimated that there are 80,000 feral cats in Lancaster County. This number adds to the total of the nearly 60 million feral cats in the United States. There are roughly 112 million households in the United States. So, if every 1.87 households in the United States takes in an additional cat, the feral cat population would cease to exist. Seems simple, right? Wrong.
Though I, myself, am a cat lover, I understand that not everyone is. You also have to take into consideration those people who rent from landlords who may not allow pets to be in their homes, economic hardships, those people who are at maximum capacity allowed by law for pets in their home, and also those who are allergic to cats. The lifespan of an indoor cat averages 15 to 18 years, so that is also a long time to commit yourself to scooping litter boxes, supplying food and water, and providing love and veterinary care.
So what is one to do when one of these furry little animals show up at your door in the cold, rain, or even on a nice sunny day looking tired and hungry? Feral cats are subject to not only the outside elements but can easily become prey to hawks, eagles, dogs, and foxes—all of which are present in or around Marietta Borough and Maytown. The average lifespan of a feral cat is about 18 months.
It is estimated that Marietta Borough has hundreds of feral cats currently. While there are currently no ordinances in East Donegal Township in regards to feral cats, there are in Marietta Borough. Per Section 96, Article II, of the Marietta Borough Codes, it is not illegal to feed feral cats, but if you are feeding them, then you would become owner, custodian, or keeper of the cats. The Borough requires them to be on a leash (good luck with that for a cat) and have their licenses. Pet lovers are not allowed to have more than four animals per household.
So back to the cute, cuddly feral that shows up on your doorstep and what to do about it? I have personal experience with feral cats and Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR); however, my husband and I have been very unsuccessful at the “Return” portion of TNR. What this means is we trap the cat, or in our case entice them to come into our home with food or just plain curiosity, we get them neutered, and then we end up keeping them because we fall in love with them. While some are harder to tame than others, they have become a part of our family. We have done this four times, with my husband driving the one cat all the way out to Wisconsin to his cousin who was kind enough to take another cat in to her home. I spent a snowy Saturday afternoon talking to Mary Jo Hughes, who is a 16-year resident of Marietta Borough, and serves as a liaison between Borough residents and feral cats from the East Market Street area. Hughes has participated in TNR efforts herself and has been a “foster failure” on several occasions. When asked why people should care about feral cats, she stated they feel emotion and love and desire to be loved. She stated that Marietta Borough is better than what it once was in terms of humane treatment of feral cats and getting rid of the outdated thinking that cats are disposable. Hughes stated that feral cats do serve a purpose to a river town like Marietta because they help with rodent control and also bring residents together. Hughes told stories about several cats that have been “adopted” by various residents of Marietta. She also spoke of how a locally famous feral cat named “Zombie Cat” had been hit and killed by a vehicle recently on the east side of Marietta. Many community members were devastated over the loss of this lovable orange tabby cat. Another story she told was about how a resident who lost their home due to a fire came back after and fed the feral cats that he had always fed while living in the home, despite it no longer being inhabitable. This shows humanity at its best.
Long time Marietta resident and cat lover Stacia Hummel shared several stories with me about community feral cats. Hummel stated how there used to be a colony of orange cats that lived behind her on Hazel Alley around the carriage house behind what is now the bike shop. She stated that for a 2-year period she and several of her neighbors caught several cats for TNR and got the population under control. The roots of that colony went back to the 1980s and included cats with names such as Karma, Sqinch (or Lefty), BamBam, RowieZowie, Winnie, and Ossum Possum.
Another resident who has been active with TNR efforts in Marietta Borough is Kathy Bowman, who also owns and operates Riverbreeze Grooming on Front Street. Bowman estimates that close to 1000 feral cats in Marietta Borough have been neutered through TNR efforts of herself and other residents.
To be fair, the feral cats in the community do come with a cost. Cats are one of the top threats to U.S. wildlife, killing billions of animals each year. This includes between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds and 6.9 – 20.7 billion mammals annually. Then take into account that in seven years, one female cat and her offspring can theoretically produce 420,000 cats.
Fortunately, Trap-Neuter-Return is practiced successfully in hundreds of communities. With TNR, cats are humanely trapped and taken to a veterinarian to be neutered and vaccinated. After a speedy recovery, the cats are then returned to their outside home. Those cats that are friendly and socialized to people may be adopted into permanent homes.
In practice for decades in the United States, TNR is the humane and effective approach for stray and feral cats. Not only has it been effective for reducing the feral cat population, it improves the lives of the cats, improves the relationship with people who lives near them, and decreases the size of cat colonies over time. TNR is a solution that, over time, stabilizes the cat populations by instantly ending reproduction and by removing socialized cats from the colony. These socialized cats go into shelters and become eligible for adoption to loving homes 11 and those ones that go back into their colonies outside have improved physical health, stop roaming, yowling, spraying, and fighting.
Building a shelter for a feral cat can be life saving for the feline. A simple way to do this is to get a large Rubbermaid container and cut a hole in it large enough for the cat to fit through. You can then fill it with hay and/or old blankets. While this is not as warm as a proper house, it will keep them out of the wind, snow, rain and the extreme cold.
Helping Hands for Animals is a resource for friends of stray and feral cats. Helping Hands currently holds clinics every Tuesday and Wednesday. The clinics are designed for feral, free roaming, and community cats. The cats will be spayed or neutered, given rabies and distemper vaccinations, treated with flea, roundworm/ hookworm and ear mite treatment, and ear tipped for identification as “fixed” animals. The cost is $35 and an appointment is necessary. Helping Hands also offers traps for use to trap feral cats. The cats must be trapped and transported to their facility located on New Danville Pike in Lancaster. For more information on Helping Hands or to make a donation you may visit their website at www.helpinghandsforanimals.org.
It is important to know that there are several residents in Marietta that have helped and will help you with this process, which may seem difficult. Mary Jo Hughes is one of them. She can be reached by text or phone call at (717) 333-5363. Hughes stated that if a resident is having an issue with a feral cat and is in need of help posting on the Marietta Facebook Page has also proven to be an effective method in finding those willing to help.
Closer to home the Columbia Animal Shelter is scheduled to open up at the end of February. The former Vigilant Fire Hall is in the process of being repurposed as the new Columbia Animal Shelter, a state of the art adoption and low cost clinic facility. Their goal is that visitors will come in and leave with a new best friend, while also being educated with the knowledge to care for their newest family member. Judy McKonly was a long time compassionate animal lover whose dream was to build the best cat shelter in the country in Columbia. After she passed in August of 2017, she left $2 million to start the animal shelter.
While only residents of Columbia Borough may surrender cats to the shelter, the shelter has plans to offer a low cost spay/neuter clinic one Tuesday a month by appointment only. The shelter will function primarily as a cat shelter and will accommodate approximately 100 cats. The shelter will offer its feline residents enclosed outside areas, enabling the animals to go inside and outside at their own leisure. For more information or to make a donation you can log onto www.columbiaanimalshelter.com.
Trapping a cat and then potentially re-releasing it back into the elements of danger from other predators, trains, cars, and weather elements is not ideal, but over time has proven to be the most effective when it comes to population control. If there are enough humans who do put forth the effort to TNR, over time, the population of feral cats will taper off. Many kind Marietta residents are ones who put forth the effort to help control the feral cat population in the borough and have proven to be successful in their efforts. While it is not ideal to have a feral cat tearing up your flowers, defecating on your lawn, and killing wildlife in your backyard, it is important to show compassion for these animals as they are only resorting back to their nature and are truly capable of love and being loved.