Late in the evening, when the streets are quiet and the visitors have all gone home, the cats of downtown Mount Dora come out.
During the daylight hours, they are virtually invisible. They hide in alleyways, under buildings, and in the secluded spaces between trashcans and dumpsters that tourists don’t see.
Many people don’t realize they are there at all. Downtown’s homeless cats forage for food and move about in the vacant streets and alleyways, sticking to the shadows. Some are fed by local merchants, cat lovers with soft hearts who keep bags of food tucked away in their shops or restaurants to feed the lucky felines who have touched their hearts.
But not all of these outdoor cats are taken under the wing of caring merchants. And, while a few cats are can be wonderful, throngs of unattended, reproducing cats are not. That’s where LEASH, Inc. enters the picture.
The volunteers of LEASH are working in downtown to help reduce the population of feral cats. They need help to identify where groups of cats congregate (in cat colonies) so the cats can be trapped, neutered, and then returned to their original downtown locations. LEASH, Inc. is a nonprofit organization, concerned with the growing population of feral cats in Lake County. In Mount Dora, they are working in concert with our local animal control officer to reduce the number of homeless kittens born on the streets.
Cats that are trapped and neutered are microchipped to identify them as program participants – so that they may be returned to their colonies rather than be euthanized if they show up at an animal shelter. The cats have their ears tipped, as well, so they can be easily recognized as appropriately neutered.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, I met a group of LEASH volunteers downtown at One Flight Up that included Mount Dora Councilwoman Marie Rich, who championed the support of the City to enact the program in Mount Dora. The fact-finding mission of the afternoon: survey local merchants, gather information from people who may regularly see cats in downtown. Find out where cats are congregating to establish a plan, block-by-block, to address each feline grouping.
To find cats, the volunteers begin by speaking with the people who may see or interact with them. It is a systematic approach, wherein volunteers target a zone at a time (in this case a city block), sterilizing all of the cats that can be caught, and afterwards returning them to their home area. When the cats living within that block have been identified and addressed, the volunteers will move on to the next zone. The goal is to reduce the feral cat population humanely, over time.
And, while trapping the cats is a step; I learned that it’s not the starting point. And that’s just one of the things that makes this effort so special. The volunteers of LEASH are obviously cat lovers, sensitive not only to the animals, but also to their fellow cat caregivers.
As I walked the downtown with volunteer Karen LeHeup and LEASH board president Whitney Luckhart, that was clear. When they realized that a particular cat colony was adjacent to a small residential neighborhood, the plan to trap, neuter and return (TNR) grew to include personally informing the residents of that neighborhood about the plan. Realizing that one or more of the neighbors were probably feeding the cats, and were therefore invested in their welfare, LeHeup and Luckhart decided to walk door-to-door to let them in on the plans.
Merchant, by merchant, LeHeup and Luckhart walked their downtown blocks, visiting and explaining the TNR program. Some merchants, unfamiliar with the program, shut the conversation down, obviously hesitant to acknowledge what they knew of the cats in downtown. With intuition and patience guiding them, LeHeup and Luckhart carefully explained their motivations and methods – and the conversations always opened up anew.
LEASH, Inc. volunteers don’t just set a trap and then come back in the morning to check it. When I asked how often the traps were checked, Luckhart looked quizzically at me, shook her her head and said, “We stay with the traps until the cats are in them. We take the cats home and transport them for neutering, vaccinating, chipping and ear tipping the next day. I would never, ever leave a cat in an unattended trap.”
LeHeup and Luckhart tell of many nights spent housing their temporary charges, transporting them early in the morning for sterilization. If there are no complicating illnesses, cats are returned to their original locations the same day that they are treated.
So, fellow cat lovers, if you see someone patiently sitting in their car, peering into the bushes at a cat food dish, or staring intently in the direction of a dumpster you may want to give that LEASH volunteer a thumbs up as you go by. That volunteer’s mission is to see fewer kittens born on the street, taken to shelters, or euthanized. It’s a program with a heart that should gather support from animal lovers.
If you’d like to help, or would like more information, you can call:
(352) 507-TNR8, or visit their website at www.LEASHinc.org.
Melissa DeMarco, Editor (firstname.lastname@example.org)