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Daufuskie project reduces population of feral cats, could be model for county, says founder

Published Sunday, November 22, 2009

When Laura Winholt started the Daufuskie Island Feral Cat Project three years ago, she didn't know if her plan to trap, spay or neuter, and release the animals and manage their colonies would help reduce their population.

Now, she's certain her efforts, bolstered by the support of 32 volunteers and others on the island, have made a difference.

The work also could hold lessons for those elsewhere in Beaufort County who advocate tighter control of the pet population and the creation of a no-kill county animal shelter, Winholt said. She contacted Councilman Rick Caporale, a proponent of the no-kill shelter, about the project.

"There have been no kittens born in our colonies since November 2007," said Winholt, who started the project in April 2006 by tracking one colony of 39 cats on part of the island.

Within eight months, the program spread to 11 colonies of 109 cats across the island.

Today, there are only 69 cats in the 11 colonies.

"It ended up working out, but I was prepared to realize that if this does not work, my time is precious," said Winholt, a nurse and yoga instructor. "I'm not going to spend my volunteer time doing something that I don't believe in."

She based the Daufuskie project on tips listed on the Web site for Alley Cat Allies, an organization that seeks to end the killing of cats and ensure their humane care. It works this way:

Feral cats are trapped and taken to the Hilton Head Humane Association shelter for its free spay and neuter program.

The animals are checked for serious illnesses, then vaccinated and given a rabies shot. If a cat has a treatable illness, it is medicated. Those with advanced illnesses are euthanized.

The project gets medications and other tools at low cost from veterinarians, but volunteers also accept donations and hold fundraisers.

"It's a real community-builder," Winholt said."We have organizations on the island who support us."

The sterile, healthy cats are returned to the island, where they're monitored daily at one of 11 tracking stations outfitted with shelters, food, water and other supplies.

The cats are counted and observed for disorientation, wounds and sickness.

"All of the (stations) communicate with each other," Winholt said.

If a cat does not return to one of the tracking stations or shelters within three months, it is presumed dead. Many cats fall victim to other animals and accidents, Winholt said.

She knows that many animal groups do not support colony management. She has received notes from people who cite studies that show colony management is a misguided approach. Some wildlife defenders say these cats are unnatural predators, destroying vast numbers of birds and other small creatures.

"All I have to offer is four years of field experience," Winholt said. "It would not work if you didn't really consider all the aspects of managing a colony, and if you didn't have the volunteers and community support."

Her commitment to the project and the signs it is working -- fewer sickly feral cats rooting through trash bins and living under homes -- have inspired others to join.

Some residents complained when the project started, but this year, there have been no negative comments, she said.

"I thought I was going to go out and fix these cats, get a few feeders and I'd be done," Winholt said."But guess what? You're never done."

Fun  Stories about Learning how to Trap Feral Cats
 By Liz Smylie director of Edisto Spay/Neuter Program
     First, feral cats are the wild offspring of domestic cats and are the primarily the result of pet owners abandonment or failure to spay or neuter their pets allowing them to breed uncontrolled. A pair of 
breeding cats can produce exponentially 420,000 offspring in a seven year period.

     The first thing a trapper must do is oil their traps. Why? Because-
     A new volunteer to the program, Pat Parcell, was trapping her first feral cat. I showed her the routine of covering the traps with a bed sheet, so when the cat is caught the cat stays calm, then we set the 
trap with sardines for bait. I left her, going on to another trapping site.  Only minutes later Pat heard the sound of the trap door closing. She checked the trap and there was a beautiful young calico cat.  With a 
proud smile on her face she fully covered the trap with the sheet.  Then she sat down proud of her first catch.  Only to see the same cat running across the yard at full speed moments later..
     Shortly after that I drove up, Pat told me what had happened and then she said with a very disapointed face, “I am going home.”  I knew that would be the last  I would see of her.  My fault I had not oiled the trap and the trap door had  hung up....
Thankfully Pat did return and is a vital part of our program.
Another story of Learning to trap feral cats next issue.

Removing Cats to Protect Birds Backfires
Article in Best Friends Magazine  March/April  2009
Australia: It seemed like a good idea at the time. To save the native seabirds, all the feral cats on a unique Australian island were removed. But the decision to eradicate the felines from Macquarie 
Island allowed the rabbit population to explode, which resulted in the destruction of much of the fragile vegetation that birds depend on for cover.

       Removing the cats from Macquarie Island " caused a environmental devastation" that will cost authorities  24 million Australian dollars ($16.2 million) to remedy, Dana Bergstrom of The Australian Antarctic Division and her colleagues wrote in the British Ecological Society's Journal of applied Ecology.

      The unintended consequences of the cat removal project show the dangers of meddling with an ecosystem- even with the best intentions- without thinking long and hard, the study said.

   The cats and rabbits are all non-native species to Macquarie, probably introduced in the past 100 years by passing ships.



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