SALISBURY — As they exit their car at the rear of a Salisbury restaurant, Carol and Ellen grab the plastic container of food and walk toward the woods.
In the distance, they already see a white Siamese cat perched regally amid the brush, waiting their arrival.
The women step around an abandoned suitcase and past some discarded clothes and trash from the restaurant. Ellen says the place used to carry a terrible smell from a dead deer in the stream nearby. She called the sanitation department and rejoices on this day that the carcass is gone.
Carol and Ellen (not their real names) skirt away from the stream and over rocks. After easing down a small hill to an open feeding area behind some houses, Ellen starts calling, “Kitty, kitty, kitty.”
Meanwhile, Carol fills the plastic dishes with dry food, followed by a few scoops of wet food from a can.
The Siamese cat has shadowed the women during their short journey and now seems comfortable in the grass, waiting for food to be placed in a dish a safe distance away.
Other cats emerge, and Ellen calls out to the more fearful she spies still hanging back in some tangled vines. Pretty soon, the Siamese and other cats are eating, allowing Ellen to approach fairly close.
Ellen says this colony of feral cats numbers seven, and they are all spayed and neutered — thanks to her — except for the Siamese. That day is coming, she promises.
Carol and Ellen wish to stay anonymous because they recognize some people won’t understand why they feed and take care of feral cats.
Ellen daily takes food and sometimes medicine to seven different locations, four in Salisbury proper and three others closer to where she lives on the edge of town.
Carol, a retired veterinarian, spells Ellen on Wednesdays and Saturdays at the four Salisbury locations and fills in for her friend when she’s on vacation.
They are dedicated.
“I’ve been doing it for a long, long time,” Ellen says, guessing she has been looking after feral cats for more than 30 years.
While you might question why the women seemingly encourage feral cat populations to survive, they actually are working to reduce the numbers — in the most humane way possible.
Ellen follows a practice of trap-neuter-return that has gained traction nationwide, through groups such as Alley Cat Allies.
Neither Ellen nor Carol belongs to that group, which will even celebrate a “National Feral Cat Day” Oct. 16. But they understand the movement, which believes a catch-and-kill method is not only cruel, but ultimately doesn’t work.
The argument goes that feral cats should not be taken to pounds and shelters because cats left to the wild for long periods of time cannot be socialized and are not adoptable. So they wind up being killed at the pounds or shelters.
Alley Cat Allies also makes the case that when cats are removed from a location, new cats move in, or the survivors breed to capacity.
Ellen, Carol and others say feral cats can live healthy lives outdoors, have pretty much the same life spans as pet cats and have low rates of disease. Feral kittens, if caught early enough, can be socialized and adopted.
Ellen bides her time and chooses the right time to trap cats coming to her feeding sites. She’ll take a book and sit for hours waiting for a particular cat, or she will leave a trap and return, hoping she nabbed one.
The humane traps she uses are elongated, with food set in the back and a door that comes down once cats are inside.
“When they get in a trap, they’re real upset,” Ellen says.
She takes the captured feral cats home and depends on free spay, neuter and vaccination clinics when she can. The cats’ ears are tipped or notched, the universal sign for a neutered and vaccinated cat.
At the feeding stations, Carol and Ellen point out the notches on various cat ears.
Ellen says she has had success at socializing many of the cats, which she later gives away. The ones who can’t be socialized go back to the places they were trapped.
“We finally got rid of three stations,” Ellen notes, recalling a time when she was feeding 10 colonies. We’ve prevented a lot of cats from being born on the streets.”
Among her seven stations, she has winnowed down the number to about 20 cats total.
Carol and Ellen say cats can have at least three litters a year and up to 18 kittens annually.
“That’s way too many cats and not enough food,” Ellen says. “I can’t tame every one of them.”
As some of the cats she feeds become more familiar with her, Ellen gets close enough to apply flea or ear medicine, as needed.
She recently caught a feral cat she calls “Sally,” who is roughly 10 years old. Ellen has been feeding Sally about six years, and she noticed that something seemed to be wrong with the cat’s mouth.
A veterinarian friend sedated Sally, pulled some bad teeth, and Ellen returned Sally to her roaming grounds off South Fulton Street. There once were at least 20 feral cats here. Now there are only two.
“She has been a blessing to these cats,” Carol says.
Ellen stresses she’s not the only one feeding and trapping feral cats so they can be neutered and released. Her traps don’t always catch cats, either. She has had to deal with possums and raccoons on occasion.
Ellen has nine cats of her own.
“Some you just fall in love with,” she says, watching Carol put out more food and water. “I would really take all of these home if I had the space.”
Near another Salisbury restaurant, the women place food behind a large cypress tree, walk away and wait for the appearance of a mother and her white kitten. It doesn’t take long, as the cats emerge from brambles leading down to a creek.
“This is just like therapy for me,” Ellen says.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or email@example.com.
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