ERWIN — As Judy King removed caged feral cats from the Margaret B. Mitchell Spay/Neuter Clinic in Bristol and loaded them into her car Friday morning to return them to their home in Rogersville, she did her best to comfort their cries, offering assurance that everything would be all right.
And King spoke with calm yet complete confidence, knowing she had a played a role in looking after the cats’ well-being.
King is the founder of Appalachian Feral Cat Allies, a local group that aims to reduce regional feline euthanasia figures and ensure feral cats receive the care necessary for them to live long, healthy lives in their territories.
King was born and raised in Alabama, though she moved away while in her 20s. Although she contemplated joining the Peace Corps, King opted to move to New Orleans, where she worked in the city’s school system as an occupational therapist. In 1980, King again packed her bags and ventured north, moving to Maryland, close to the Washington, D.C., area, where she continued her career as an occupational therapist.
When it was time for another move, King and her husband, Ken Kisiel, filled out a questionnaire to find the ideal location. The first recommended destination from the questionnaire was Johnson City. King and Kisiel made the move to the town of Unicoi in 2003 and have resided in the area since.
After the move to the area, King quickly set up an art shop on Union Street in Erwin, where she painted murals and taught art classes. After this venture, she began teaching art classes at the Clinchfield Senior Adult Center. She also served on the board of the Unicoi County Humane Society and hospice. But it was her work with the Unicoi County Animal Shelter that led King to her current undertaking.
King worked with the photography team at the shelter. The team is responsible for taking pictures of adoptable pets, with these pictures later posted to the Petfinder website. King said it was there that she came to the realization that a high number of cats, particularly feral and unsocialized cats that were deemed unadoptable, were being euthanized.
“It gets sickening after a while, the number of cats that are put down,” King said.
King felt compelled to take action to prevent the euthanasia of as many cats as possible. She began researching the work of Alley Cat Allies, a national organization that advocates the trapping of feral cats followed by spaying or neutering of the animals then returning them to the location where they were trapped.
King founded Unicoi Alley Cat Allies to carry out this mission locally. She, along with several other group members, held their first meeting in January 2011 to discuss the issue and what could be done. And it wouldn’t be long before they’d get their first crack at helping out.
King said she learned of a feral cat colony at a home along Nolichucky Avenue. The homeowner there had been feeding the cats, and when King, who was still working with the animal shelter at the time, called the homeowner, she said the homeowner began crying, expecting that the shelter was coming to take the cats away.
“I said ‘no, no, I want to help you,’ ” King said.
Following this and some other successful roundups in the Unicoi County area, King learned of an elderly couple who had a feral cat colony on their property in Carter County. King admitted there was some initial hesitation on her part to take on an assignment outside Unicoi County.
“But then I started to think ‘cats don’t know about boundary lines,’ ” King said.
That’s when the Unicoi Alley Cat Allies name was scrapped and King’s organization became known as the Appalachian Feral Cat Allies. While the group’s name may have changed, King said its mission had not — to cut down on the number of cats put down. King said the group now makes the efforts to assist anyone in the region who needs it.
Like Alley Cat Allies, the Appalachian Feral Cat Allies follows the “trap, neuter, return” mantra. Whenever contacted for assistance, King said she asks property owners several questions, such as the cats’ feeding schedule, if they know where the cats came from, and if the homeowner is willing to manage the cat colony.
“Our mission is to humanely trap, neuter, and return them and manage the colony,” King said.
The group sets out baited traps to snare members of the colony. When the cats are caught, they are taken to the Mitchell Spay/Neuter Clinic where the cats are “fixed.” After this, members of the Appalachian Feral Cat Allies return to the clinic, pick up the felines, and return and release them to where they were trapped. The ears of feral cats going through this process are “tipped” to signify the animals have been spayed or neutered.
Returning cats to the locations where they are snared is important, King said. She also said the common thought that feral cats are homeless is inaccurate, as cats tend to bond with their environment. She said return is also important due to what is known as the “vacuum effect.” When cats are moved away from an area that they have made home, other cats will move into this area to take advantage of the now-available resources and will mate to form a new colony.
“If I just take them and drop them off at some place, they’re in a state of shock and panic,” King said. “It’s just cruel.”
It is also because of this that King said the “capture and kill” method is ineffective and is less cost-effective than the “trap, neuter, return” method. She also said people feeding cats is not the problem, as they may leave a territory to search for food, but will return for shelter.
Male feral cats are capable of traveling up to five miles from their territory when picking up the scent of female cats “in season” and can impregnate several cats in a day including companion, or domesticated, pets, King said. The typical feral cat colony is around 12-15 cats.
Since Appalachian Feral Cat Allies formed in January 2011, the group has worked with more than 30 cat colonies and has helped more than 450 cats. King estimates there are around 10,000 feral cats in Unicoi County alone. The group receives some financial assistance from the Holly Help Spay and Neuter Fund and the Humane Society. The group is registered as a nonprofit organization, is incorporated in Tennessee, and is working to acquire tax-exempt status. But when it comes to helping out feline friends, King said cost is not an issue.
“When I hear about a colony, I don’t look at the bank account,” King said.
The group’s work is as much as about helping people as it is the cats. King said it is “humbling” to have people express their gratitude for the group’s work to help with cat colonies on their property.
“You realize what an emotional strain it is to them,” she said. “ ... You’re glad to be helping people.”
For more information, visit Appalachian Feral Cat Allies’ Facebook page.