Once I started paying attention to the feral cats in my neighborhood, I saw them everywhere. A skinny gray cat hunkered down by the dumpster at the gas station, hissing every time I got too close. A longhaired Siamese mix sprawled out on my front lawn, darting away the minute I approached. A group of tiny black kittens played together on the sidewalk, unaware of the hardships the coming winter would bring. I was surprised that I hadn’t noticed them sooner — and I felt guilty that I hadn’t done more to help.
According to Leslie Birrenkott, development director at Meow Village, many people don’t think about feral cats because they don’t see them — and when they do, the cats’ presence is often less than desirable. Birrenkott is quick to point out that people’s reactions to stray cats is often unfair. After all, it’s not the cats’ faults they are forced to fend for themselves on the streets.
“I think people forget about feral cats because you don’t normally see them, but this is not a situation the cats got themselves into, this is a human-created problem,” Birrenkott says. “We need to provide the solution and not just let them starve to death.”
One way Birrenkott contributes to the solution is through her work with Meow Village. The Oregon-based nonprofit operates as a network of approximately 10 foster homes dedicated to rescuing cats and kittens, especially feral cats. The group focuses on improving quality of life for feral cats by providing food, water, and shelter, as well as spaying and neutering and finding indoor homes when possible.
Many cats come to Meow Village from dire circumstances involving neglect or abandonment. Birrenkott started volunteering with Meow Village after she rescued nine cats who were being kept in a metal shed in the middle of summer with no food, water, or ventilation.
“There were ants and maggots in their food,” Birrenkott recalls. “I couldn’t leave them there. I asked Meow Village for assistance, and they jumped right in and helped me.”
Meow Village’s intervention made all the difference for these otherwise doomed kittens. Unfortunately, one of them had to be euthanized, but the other two were adopted together and live at a winery. The remaining six live in Birrenkott’s yard, where her husband built a cathouse so they could have shelter but still enjoy the outdoors.
In fact, for feral cats older than eight to 10 weeks, an indoor/outdoor home, such as a barn, stable, or other outdoor structure, is often ideal, as these cats often cannot be socialized enough to make good house pets. According to Birrenkott, Meow Village is always looking for barn homes for feral cats. There is no adoption fee for a barn cat — and the cat is already spayed or neutered and vaccinated.
“We like them to take at least two cats so they have a buddy,” she adds. “All we ask that the new owners do is provide food, water and shelter for the rest of the cat’s life.”
If feral kittens are rescued early enough, however, they can be socialized and make great pets. Earlier this year, for example, Meow Village rescued more than 100 cats from the property of a hoarder. One litter of month-old kittens was very sick and infested with fleas. Two of them had severe eye infections; one was so bad that his eye was swollen and protruding from the socket, and the other was completely blind. Unfortunately the kittens’ eyes had to be removed due to infection, but the story has a happy ending.
“They got adopted into a home together, and the pictures of them are just adorable,” Birrenkott says.
More recently, a woman called Meow Village after she found an abandoned kitten alongside the road. His eyes were also badly infected, and his veterinary care would total more than $1,000. When Birrenkott created an online fundraiser for the kitten, she discovered the true depths of people’s kindness and generosity.
“We put up his picture, which was very graphic, but we felt people needed to see how bad it was,” she says. “Within 24 hours we were almost at $2,000. I was almost walking on air. Whether it’s $5 or $500, they’re giving from the heart, and that just means so much to us.”
After the kitten recovered, a loving family adopted him. To prevent other kittens from ending up in similar situations, Birrenkott encourages everyone to spay and neuter their pets. In fact, TNR is one of Meow Village’s primary focuses.
“Say we trap 10 cats, and nine of them are female,” she says. “We love that, because we’re saving I don’t know how many litters of kittens from being born. All the cats are so innocent, and it’s just heartbreaking that they’re suffering because of what humans have done.”
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About Angela: This not-crazy-at-all cat lady loves to lint-roll her favorite dress and go out dancing. She also frequents the gym, the vegan coffee joint, and the warm patch of sunlight on the living room floor. She enjoys a good cat rescue story about kindness and decency overcoming the odds, and she’s an enthusiastic recipient of headbutts and purrs from her two cats, Bubba Lee Kinsey and Phoenix.