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