By Pat Foster-Turley
March 10, 2022
Caption: Two groups of feral cats at the Joe Carlucci Boat Ramp off Heckscher Drive have mysteriously disappeared.
Caption: The presence of vultures near the cat colonies was a foreboding sign.
Pat’s Wildways: Nature took its course
I knew when I got involved in feeding two feral cat colonies that they were alive at the will of Nature, and that “nature takes its course”. OK. So the two groups of cats at the Joe Carlucci Boat Ramp off Heckscher Drive have been captured when young, neutered, and returned to live out their lives outside. Occasionally a newly dropped off cat (DO NOT DROP OFF YOR CAT!) has kittens, and when they are old enough the mom is captured and spayed and the kittens are adopted out. The older cats have been there for years, living in the elements.
An army of anonymous volunteers feed and water these cats. Since covid began, Bucko and I have been visiting this boat ramp off Heckscher Drive every couple of days to add our offerings. I carry dry cat food, cat treats and a couple of cans of wet food for my special favorites. And I’ve given most of them names, simple names that I can remember based on their markings–Mask, Tabby, Crosseye, Fluffy, Tuxedo, Blackie, Morris, Longlegs, Paleface, you get the drift. My favorite I named Greeter, since he always came to our car first, and walked me back to the car when we left, even allowing for an occasional petting, unlike the rest. Most of these cats are too feral and afraid to be touched, but they have no problem accepting my food, and that of many others too.
There were at least ten cats in one group near the boat ramp and dumpster, the “Dumpster Group” as I called them. Near the gate, the “Gate Group” had another dozen or so. But no longer. Over the course of time they started disappearing. At first I thought that other people had fed them so well they weren’t hungry enough to come out of the bushes to take my offerings. OK.
Then vultures started hanging out. I saw them eating dry cat food, so I thought maybe that’s why they were hanging out—they were eating the leftover food. Little did I know that actually they were probably eating dead cats.
Bucko and I went on a two week vacation and when we got back to the boat ramp most of the cats were gone. Only two cats were at the Dumpster site. At the Gate only three remain at this writing. These three have long been covered in scabs and sneezing, but they are alive. So, by my tally nearly twenty cats have disappeared.
At first I thought someone had poisoned them, but they gradually disappeared, not all at once. I posted on the Heckscher Drive Facebook group about the cats, and some people guessed that coyotes got them. But these cats were living with coyotes around for years and had plenty of trees to climb up and away from predators. Finally I was able to connect with other cat feeders who also noticed their absence at the Joe Carlucci Boat Ramp and I learned of the security officer at the Jim King Boat Ramp across the road who has nurtured generations of cats around his residence there.
He has seen a similar die-off in his colony. Over there this began around Christmas when one cat died on his doorstep. Others followed or, like mine, they disappeared entirely, younger generations first. In two months’ time his colony of 24 cats dwindled to 4 and now only 2 are left. He has talked to veterinarians, and done a bit of research. It seems like a virulent strain of calicivirus would explain this. The symptoms of runny, squinty eyes, limping, sneezing, all fit the description of a strain of this virus that has caused high mortality levels in cat colonies in Germany, China, and Washington State, among other places that have reported on it.
We have no evidence. One remaining cat now has kittens. Soon enough she will be trapped with her brood and she can be examined by a vet. Until then, it’s just guessing on our part and even if we find out the cause there is nothing much to be done about it at this point.
Bucko and my trips to the boat ramp are now fretful but I just can’t abandon the survivors. Now I wear plastic bags on my feet that I discard after visiting them to avoid tracking the disease back to my own cat safely in our home.
Yes, “let nature take its course” is the mantra. But I never expected this course to be the sudden loss of 20 cats that I knew and named. All in two months. It’s another blow to my spirit right now, just when I least need it. So very sad.
Pat Foster-Turley, PhD is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]