Tonight, while many felines are lucky enough to be snuggled against their owners on a comfy sofa or enjoying their favorite canned food in safe surroundings, another cat population isn’t quite so lucky. For years, the Washington County Fairgrounds has been home to a number of cats who were abandoned or became homeless for various reasons. Many fairgrounds visitors and River Trail users are familiar with the sight of the cats prowling the area or lounging nearby. No cozy sofa or friendly lap for these felines, but one group of volunteers is working to make their lives more comfortable.

Six years ago local resident Brenda Poynter felt compelled to help the cat colony and formed Friends of Forgotten Felines, a 501(c)(3) non-profit that now has over 20 volunteers. At that time, there were hundreds of cats, many sick or dying, and Poynter learned that there was no law in place to protect them. She realized that something needed to be done and took on the daunting task of helping the animals that, through no fault of their own, had become the downtrodden residents of the fairgrounds.

The Fair Board gave Poynter permission to care for the cats and an area where they could be fed and sheltered. The volunteer-built shelter provides protection from the elements, and feeding tables elevate the food to deter skunks and rodents. The cats are fed quality food, both wet and dry, consuming about 25 cans of wet food daily.The group worked to rehome animals when possible, and eventually, the colony was reduced to its current size of about 35 cats. The remaining cats are from that original group Poynter began working with, and sadly are not viable candidates for adoption. Although they may allow a quick pat on the back, they won’t tolerate being picked up or handled by a stranger.

A sign is installed near the shelter at the Fairgrounds

As reported in The Marietta Times, last month the situation changed when the Fair Board sent a certified letter to FFF, stating that the group had 10 days to remove the cats from the fairgrounds. Poynter contends that she doesn’t own the cats; the group has simply been caring for them and trying to keep the colony to its reduced size. The Humane Society isn’t able to take them since they cannot be crated or transported. And even if they could be transported, the Humane Society of the Ohio Valley is currently dealing with its own “housing crisis.”

There are many cats and too few vets with the time to spay/neuter at an affordable price.

According to Board member Amber Dennison, the HSOV shelter is full because years ago they decided they would not euthanize animals simply to create space. Instead, when someone wants to surrender a pet they are placed on a waitlist; people who find a stray are encouraged to do their best to find a home for it. To make matters more difficult, the local low-cost veterinary clinic lost its vet last year. HSOV staff now makes a monthly two-hour trip to Barbourville, WV for spaying and neutering. Dennison explained, “We try to give Friends of Forgotten Felines a few spaces in our transport and share appointments for their cats. But there are many cats and too few vets with the time to spay/neuter at an affordable price – especially when altering large numbers of animals.”

One cat, who is 20 years old, looks like a lion and has become a local icon

The shelter cannot accept truly feral cats (and some cats are mistakenly considered feral simply because they are scared and agitated) because staff members have been bitten in the past and the risk is too high. Dennison explained that there are new products becoming available that will help control reproduction, offering some hope for those trying to reduce the colony numbers. But to make a difficult situation even worse, both local shelters are experiencing an outbreak of Panleukopenia.This horrible disease is contagious and spreads quickly to young cats or those with compromised immunity. It is 100% preventable with vaccination and is usually brought into the shelter from the community. An infection at the shelter results in a quarantine and the shelter is then unable to accept new animals.

Is there a solution that will eradicate the problem while still permitting cats to live their lives in peace? Across the river, Williamstown passed the first reading of an ordinance to address its own feral cat problem. If implemented, the ordinance would result in the hiring of an animal control officer, and prohibit cats running at large and cat colonies within city limits. If a cat is caught and not claimed in 48 hours, the officer can have the cat euthanized. This “trap and kill” proposal is upsetting to many residents who are calling for the use of more humane methods.

One such method, used throughout the country with favorable results, is the “Trap, Neuter and Release” method, or “Trap, Neuter, Return and Monitor.” The HSOV has issued a statement that as an agency, they fully promote the use of TNRM as “the most humane, effective, and proven procedure for managing community cats.” Vice President Leight Murray explained that with TNRM, cats are captured, examined by a veterinarian, neutered, vaccinated and returned to their original colony. The colony is monitored and managed by volunteers (such as FFF) who will also help re-home young kittens or friendly cats. You can read more about TNRM at www.alleycat.org, www.aspca.org, www.bestfriends.org, www.neighborhoodcats.org, www.ohioalleycat.org, and related sites.

A cat peering from inside a hiding place

Returning the cats to their original location is important – cats are territorial, and they know where to find food and shelter in the familiar place. If placed elsewhere, they will likely leave to search for their old home, creating a scientifically documented phenomenon called the “vacuum effect.” The Trap and Kill method also results in the vacuum effect. According to the HSOV, “Trap-and-kill may reduce animal populations temporarily, but populations rebound as untrapped cats continue to breed, and nearby cat populations move into the newly available territory. The current overpopulation of community cats in cities across the U.S. attests to the ineffectiveness of this approach. This endless cycle has no permanent impact on cat populations, is cruel, wastes community resources and taxpayer dollars, and, most importantly, fails to meet the needs of the community.”

Our animals are not throwaways. They are former pets who lost their homes or strays that wereput out to fend for themselves.

While the situation may seem dark, it’s not hopeless. What can you do to help? If you live in a city that is considering the Trap and Kill method to control homeless cat populations, contact your city officials! Ask them if they are familiar with the more humane method and encourage them to educate themselves and consider other methods. Shelters need your help, too. There is an endless need for volunteers, funds, and resources. Consider volunteering at a shelter, or perhaps fostering animals until they find a forever home. If you can’t volunteer, donations are always welcome and most appreciated. And if you can’t make a donation, then please share their posts and encourage your friends and family to adopt a shelter cat (or two) when they are searching for a companion.

One of the cats that has called the Fairgrounds home

Amber Dennison invites the community to visit the shelter.“If you haven’t ever been to the shelter or haven’t been for a few years, please stop by.We have changed.We look, act, and are different,” she said. “We want adopters, volunteers, fosters.Our animals are not throwaways. They are former pets who lost their homes or strays that wereput out to fend for themselves. We give shelter, love, and food until they are adopted – that is where YOU come in!”

The Humane Society has a website, Facebook and Instagram page where they are always taking donations of supplies and funds.“We truly want to help the animals and the community, and we serve ALL of Washington County,” said Dennison. “Your help and support is so appreciated!”

At the time of publishing, Friends of Forgotten Felines had not yet been forced to remove the cats from the fairgrounds, so there is still an opportunity for community voices to be heard.

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