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May 12, 2013

Feral cat situation getting worse, maybe dangerous

MERCER COUNTY — Joe Cooper moved up here from the city to enjoy his retirement in the country. All the 79-year-old man wants is a view of the lake, some peace and quiet and time to relax on his back deck.

What he’s got, instead, is 21 cats urinating and defecating on his deck, to the point where he can’t stand to be on it because of the smell,. And rather than peace and quiet, he listens all night to the hungry cries of feral cats roaming his property.

“And this isn’t my problem. It shouldn’t be my problem. This is a state problem, a township problem. But I tell you what I’m going to do, I’m going to make it someone else’s problem,” the East Lake Road resident said.

Feral cats - a domestic cat that has returned to the wild - are a problem nationwide and hundreds of animal protection agencies work diligently to try and keep the problem under control.

But in Mercer County, particularly in the last year, the problem is getting out of hand, according to Gerda Widmyer, director of Animal Advocacy, a tiny volunteer organization that struggles to capture, spay and return the cats. And with no funding, the calls for help far outweigh what the group can do.

“No one has any money. We need financial help. We’ve probably spayed and neutered 2,000 cats, but there are a lot more out there. And everyone keeps calling us, demanding that we do something. What would they like us to do?” she said.

Widmyer and her volunteers worked until 1 a.m. some nights, trying to trap the cats on Cooper’s property. Those they caught were kept in cages in Cindy Bodner’s garage and the $35 cost of getting each one spayed went on Bodner’s credit card, she said. “But we have to pay her back. And we try to raise funds, but we’re out of money,” she said.

Like similar groups nationwide, Animal Advocacy captures the cats, has them neutered and releases them back where they were caught. But in the case of the Cooper’s, they don’t want them back.

“This all started when the neighbor died, about three years ago. He had a cat. And no one to take care of it. So my wife started feeding it. Then we had two cats, then four, then eight and finally here we are with 21. My wife was just diagnosed with breast cancer. I don’t want this problem back,” he said.

Cooper said he contacted state Rep. Mark Longietti, who told him there is no state money available now for spaying or neutering cats.

“Twenty years ago, I would have shot them. But I can’t do that now. But I will tell you that I’ll gather them up, put them in the car and dump them somewhere else,” he said.

He also gave the organization $230 to help cover the cost of spaying some of those 21 cats.

“I can’t fault them. They work unbelievably hard. But I didn’t spend $200,000 on a home to come up here and spend my days scrubbing crap off my deck with a power washer from animals that I didn’t want. I can’t even go out there because I can’t stand the smell,” he said.

An even bigger concern, according to both Widmyer and Cooper, is the rabies risk. Widmyer said there was a severe outbreak of rabies locally in the 1940s and she fears it may happen again soon.

“I know that some of the animals we caught tested positive. Obviously they were put down, but there could be others out there we don’t know of. These cats are just breeding and breeding and breeding. We are in trouble in this county,” she said.

Cooper said he too is concerned for his safety. “I don’t want to get bit and end up with rabies,” he said.

Despite all his frustration, Cooper said he still can’t stop feeding them.

“I can’t stop my wife. And to tell the truth, I hate to hear them crying in hunger. Maybe I’m a little bit of an animal lover. It’s not their fault either. But something has to be done,” he said.

He said he also plans to press Sen. Bob Robbin’s office for some answers.

Widmyer said she’s often asked why the cats simply aren’t put down when they are captured. “We do euthanize the sick ones. But it’s more costly than spaying and releasing,” she said.

“We care. We want to do what’s right. But we need  help. People call us day and night to do something about these cats. Well, we can’t do much without some money.”

Occasionally a woman in Washington state will send between $600 and $1,000. “But we’re putting everything on Cindy’s credit card and that isn’t right,” she said.

“I think if people realized what was going on they would help,” Widmyer said.

Volunteers plan to return more of the cats this weekend to East Lake Road, but she knows she’ll be getting calls to take their place soon.

To donate money to the spay and release program contact Animal Advocacy of Mercer County, 285 Sherman Ave., Sharon.

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