RANSON, W.Va. (AP) — Jill Bonvillain wants to do more to help the untamed cats and kittens roaming her neighborhood.
But she knows that simply providing food and water for the animals is likely to create more problems in the long run, with an ever-bigger colony of feral felines and all their attendant woes: skinny, perpetually pregnant mama cats and their litters of weepy-eyed kittens; middle-of-the-night howling and battling over mates; the stink created by tomcats urinating to mark their turf; neighboring yards made into impromptu litter boxes; the spreading of fleas, respiratory infections and other illnesses; creatures struck by cars and killed or left to die; and more.
"It's such a huge problem," said Bonvillain, a Cincinnati native who works from home as a virtual office assistance. "Animal shelters are completely overwhelmed."
The feral cat problem in and around Bonvillain's Second Avenue neighborhood was largely under control thanks to neighbors who regularly spent hundreds of dollars to trap the cats and have them spayed or neutered before returning them to the colony.
But then early this summer, Bonvillain said, a family nearby moved out of the area, leaving behind not only an apartment ruined by some 17 cats but the animals themselves. Within weeks, three of the onetime pets had delivered litters of kittens.
"We called every shelter around asking for help and no one could take any more cats - they're full, overflowing," she said.
Bonvillain said one resident of the neighborhood said the animals would be "going bye-bye soon," a statement she believed implied wiping out all the animals.
"I know we have had instances in the area where people have set out antifreeze and other poison," she said. "It's an absolutely horrible death and there's also the risk that someone's pet could wander by, the poisoned food and be killed as well."
Bonvillain and the neighbors working with her tried to find a veterinarian who would spay or neuter the animals for free, or even euthanize the cats who are sick, but vet offices say they can't perform such services without money to cover their costs.
"No one wants to think about an animal having to be euthanized, but at least the death then would be humane," she said.
Through the Spay Today program, Jefferson County veterinarians offer discounted fees for spaying, neutering and other work, but the cost of paying for such care for a large group of cats quickly becomes overwhelming.
"The Spay Today fee for spaying or neutering runs more than $90 at some vet's offices in the county — and that's for a single animal," Bonvillain said. "Animals that are being fixed have to get a rabies shot, too, so that's another $10 or more."
So what's the solution?
Bonvillain, who regularly feeds the homeless animals that camp out down the street and tries to socialize kittens so that they might be candidates for adoption someday, also spends time trying to think of ways to combat the area's feral cat overload.
She'd like to see a greater understanding the community about the problem so that pet owners who let their cats outside realize the importance of getting their animal fixed.
"If young people who have to complete community service hours could spend some time in an animal shelter, there would start to be a much better appreciation for the need to keep this population under control," she said.
Another idea of Bonvillain's is to create a problem to manage feral cat populations by borrowing ideas from the biologists working on deer overpopulation.
"In some communities in Maryland, deer are given what is basically the birth control pill - and they've been able to keep the deer population in check," she said. "What if pet food companies were required to include hormones that block female cats from reproducing or keep male cats from wanting to reproduce? And then consumers who wanted their pets to breed could buy a more expensive cat food made without the birth control component."
Bonvillain also hopes more animal lovers in the community begin to pressure shelters in the region to do more to tackle the problem rather than merely react to it and talk with vets they know in hopes that more of them will begin to do all they can to find solutions.
"There are so many people in our community who want to do the right thing," she said. "They want to help but it's hard to know just what to do."