By Bruce Burdett
The school nickname ‘Wildcats’ may be more appropriate for Westport than its authors had in mind.
They keep a low profile but feral cats are everywhere in Westport.
“Just north of Route 177 alone, I know of over 25 colonies of them, ” said Animal Control Officer Donna Lambert. These colonies range in size from a half dozen cats to 30 and more.
“And these are just the colonies I’ve been told about. There are certainly way more than that. And that is just one part of town,” she said. “It’s an absolutely huge problem in Westport and it is getting worse.”
Armed with a $1,000 Ronald Desrosiers grant, Ms. Lambert has set out to make what she admits is a small dent in an overwhelming situation.
Using human Havahart-type traps, she is capturing cats and sending them off to the vet.
The cats are checked for disease, spayed or neutered, given shots for rabies and distemper, de-wormed and given a nail trimming.
Homes are sought for those deemed adoptable. But others are in the trap-neuter-release (TNR) program are released back to the colonies where they were found. They can be identified by “ear-tipping” — the top of the let ear is removed.
It’s not ideal, Ms. Lambert admits, “but given the alternatives, it’s a win-win for the cats and for the people who live near them.”
The TNR program addresses what she says is a very real but mostly ignored public health issue.
“Left out there without rabies shots, they are a danger to people and pets,” she said. And after spaying/neutering they don’t impregnate pet house cass they encounter. “People talk about how fast rabbits reproduce — cats are every bit as prolific.” One cat produces kittens which produce kittens of their own — “from one can come hundreds.”
Treated cats are also “more calm and don’t mark or spray people’s property with that terrible scent.”
At best, the grant will enable her to provide this care for around 20 cats. “I am deeply appreciative of this money. I know it can’t stop the feral cat problem but it helps and I hope it calls attention to the situation.”
Ms. Lambert acknowledges that not everybody is happy with this solution. Critics say that reintroducing these top predators to the wild amounts to a death sentence for wild birds, chipmunks and other creatures by the thousand.
“I understand that concern and agree with it,” she said, but she says there really are few options.
“Westport has no shelter for cats — there is no place around that I can put them.” She always has a few at her own house awaiting adoption and she also has a small network of “foster homes” — people willing to take in cats temporarily while they await homes.
And while euthanizing is another option, “one I am not opposed to when it is called for,” she said that few veterinarians are willing to provide that service for feral cats by the carload.
“Most vets are increasingly reluctant,” she said. “They take an oath to try to save animals’ lives, not take them.”
Some of the colonies get a measure of care from volunteers, among them Habitat for Cats as well as people who have taken it upon themselves to feed a colony living nearby.
Though bigger than ever, the feral cat problem is nothing new — “just something the town has long chosen to ignore,” Ms. Lambert said.
The town has long had a dog warden, dog officer or dog catcher, but that was pretty much the extent of it — “dogs, not cats or other pets.”
She says the her title “animal control officer” marks what she hopes is a turning point. She deals not only with dogs, but cats, ferrets, cockatiels, farm animals — whatever comes her way. She recently provided food and shelter for two goats that vanished from a Westport farm and turned up days later some four miles away.
She knew the town’s cat situation was bad but had no idea of the full extent of it, Ms. Lambert said.
“You think you have a handle on it and then you learn about another colony, and another and another.” Not long ago, she worked with a New Bedford-based group to tackle a large colony off Davis Road.
“The closer we looked, the bigger it got” — the count there climbed to 75 cats.
The cats come from a variety of sources, she says. Some are lost house cats, many more are abandoned.
A bad economy and a lack of options contribute to the numbers. People who are out of work and have no money to spare suddenly find themselves burdened by a litter of kittens. “They try to put them up for adoption but find out they have to pay money for each cat to do that — if they can even find a place willing to take them. So they let them go.”
Ms. Lambert said she hopes the town eventually steps in to address the problem to some extent. Werstport needs a shelter, or at least access to a regional shelter that deals with cats.
“With stay dogs I find, we have Forever Paws. With cats — nothing.”
Individuals can help as well.
Ms. Lambert is in the process of setting up a town fund through which people can make donations to Westport earmarked for animal care — that fund won Board of Selectmen approval last week.
And donations of old clean towels and dry cat food are a big help, she said — these are farmed out to the various cat foster homes.
To assist with these efforts or in any other way, call Ms. Lamber at 508-991-9391.