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]
Scabby sneezing cats wiped out by a horrific disease. Thanks for a good demonstration of just how incredibly inhumane trap-neuter-return is. The people promoting this should be arrested for animal abuse.
The events you describe are sad and hurtful whenever they occur and to whomever has been caring for these urban wild creatures. But I notice your “just when I need it least”. I send empathy at a personal sadness regardless of what it might be just now. This is a community of many others who can and are willing to reach out.
You’ve given so much, shared so much which I have appreciated. If I can give back, please let me know.
In the mean time I wills end this article to my sister-in-law who cares for your cats in much the same way as you.
Read this article and am profoundly sorry to hear this . Now wondering whether this is what has happened to my group. Little by little the colony that I’d been feeding nightly for over 7 years has dwindled. Since September, they began not to come when hearing my car. This seemed very odd but I continued to feed. In January, I finally stopped. No one was coming ,I actually saw the seagulls eating the food left over night. It’s been a long and expensive road, but I guess I’ve done my part. I miss going every night but it’s time. I do occasionally stop and feed a cat on the street, because it’s winter and food is scarce for them, but probably won’t start up daily feeding again. Submitted by Marci – Wildwood,NJ.
Pat, does this suspect virus have a vaccine our cats can get to protect them? My Boris is outside. Refuses to stay inside. I’m worried for him!
Witnessing the cycle of life up front and personal can be difficult, for sure. My heart goes out to you.
Also, note that we should not be feeding feral cats. The food is eaten by other animals and can make them sick. Perpetuating the lives of cats outdoors dramatically increases the numbers of wild birds that are killed by the cats. Feral cats can carry viruses, bacteria, and fungi that are lethal to other wild animals. It may seem kind, compassionate, or cute to feed feral cats, but in the big picture, it is doing more harm than it is good. And please keep your own household cat indoors, at best, or at least with a bell and sparkly collar on if they must go out. Thanks.
tragic news, so sorry to hear this.
Pat, I Enjoyed this article immensely as I have many of your writings. It offered a warm high and certainly a low. Poor kitties. I hope all good things come to you for your generosity of spirit.
So sad, Pat. Thank you for having such a caring heart for all creatures.
Really Pat? I’m appalled. Feral cats are destructive. They kill migratory birds, disrupt the environment and, have no positive value. They’re considered a nuisance & invasive species in all US jurisdictions. Please reconsider your support for feral cats.
Outside is a tough life for a cat. Ashame they werent able to be adopted and brought indoors where it is safe. I hope their diseases weren’t spread to other people or wildlife!
Sick cats going untreated and dying, and others left to die and spread disease. This is inhumane. You mention covering your shoes to avoid carrying the disease home to your cats, but others walking in the area may not be aware to take the same precautions. Other animals eating with the cats or eating the dead cats also may help spread the disease. TNR/RTF and at large colony cat feeding is domestic cat abandonment and neglect, a detriment to wildlife, and a public health and safety concern.