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Unowned cats are being fed by people all over Lincoln County.

LINCOLNTON – In 2018, Lincoln County Animal Services launched a program through a $175,000 grant from the Petco Foundation. The trap-neuter-return program is designed to reduce the number of “community” cats capable of producing kittens in Lincoln County, is an essential piece of the puzzle in the animal shelter’s “no-kill” equation.

Community cats are outdoor cats that people feed without taking actual ownership responsibilities, including spaying and neutering, according to Lincoln County Animal Services Director Hannah Beaver.

Through the program, people are asked to contact the shelter’s program coordinator, who will arrange to have the cats trapped before taking them to a spay/neuter clinic free of charge. The cats are returned to where they were captured the day after their surgery.

In the 15 months since its inception, more than 1,000 cats have been spayed or neutered, vaccinated and returned through the program.

“There are places all over the county where people are feeding these cats, whether that’s two, five or 20, and sometimes they don’t even know how many cats they’re feeding,” Lincoln County Community Cat Project coordinator Michelle Bernard said. “In general, the people don’t mind feeding these cats, but if they’re not spayed or neutered they multiply very quickly and there become more cats than the property owner can afford to feed. The beauty of this program is that the cats are spayed or neutered, vaccinated and then brought back so that they can continue to be what I call ‘good feline citizens.’”

While the ultimate goal of the program is to limit the number of community cats in the county, that doesn’t mean that these “good feline citizens” are unwelcome.

“These cats catch mice, moles, rabbits that eat gardens, and what a lot of people don’t realize is that cats repel snakes as well,” Bernard said. “If they’re not reproducing and they’re not exhibiting the typical territorial behaviors that intact cats display, which includes fighting between males and the spraying of urine, they’re not a problem and they don’t require a whole lot of maintenance. All they need is some food once or twice a day and some fresh water, and they’ll hunt.”

Bernard, who’s coordinated the program since May 2018, and program volunteers often brings the traps a day or two in advance, allowing those who feed the cats to do the actual trapping.

“I’ve found that works better because the cats are accustomed to those people, so they’re not quite as nervous if the people feeding them set the traps,” she said. “I usually get traps to the people a day or two before they’re actually going to trap and have them set them up in the area where they feed them so the cats can see them and they’re not as scary.”

The program has received rave reviews from the community, especially those feeding cats who had become overrun with each new litter of kittens.

“I live out in the country, and it got to the point where it seemed like there were one or two new cats on my property every week,” Hannah Simone said. “The help I’ve received has been like someone handing me a million dollars because every time I’d see a new kitten I’d want to cry because it was just all becoming too much.”

At least 25 community cats have been trapped, fixed and returned to Simone’s property through the program. What was once becoming a nuisance is now a mutually beneficial relationship.

“Where I live in the country, there’s woods and huge fields behind my house,” she said. “These cats constantly bring in huge field rats they’ve killed and snakes that they’ve found, so it’s been great for my property. It’s not like these cats are just crowded around my house waiting to be fed. They’re constantly out-and-about and they’re not a nuisance at all since they help keep away rodents and other unwanted creatures that I don’t want around my house.”

Jackie Garrison, another Lincoln County resident, has had a similar experience with the program, with roughly 20 community cats trapped, fixed and returned to her property.

“We’ve got strays around here like crazy, and I always fed them since I’ve got cats of my own and I didn’t want them to go hungry,” Garrison said. “This program is really neat because the cats are fixed, they get their distempers and their rabies shots and all the paperwork is sent back with them when they’re returned. Then, if they find something else wrong with them that might be more serious, they identify that as well and let us know so we can keep a close eye on them and get them the help they may need.”

Community cats have been particularly beneficial in a Lincolnton community near Betty Ross Park, where abandoned homes had become infested with rats, which began venturing out to neighboring properties.

“There’s a few abandoned properties in that area,” Bernard said. “And of course, when there’s abandoned property, sometimes you get rats. The cats have been able to keep the rats in check, so it’s a win-win situation for everybody.”

There’s a waiting list for those with community cats they want to be fixed. To be added to the list, contact Bernard at 828-234-9425 or by email at communitycats@lincolncounty.org.

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