Feral cats lounged and strutted near homemade feline toys strung from a tree in the courtyard at Charleston Interfaith Crisis Ministries homeless shelter.
"I know them by name. They keep me calm," said resident John Parker. "I love them. If you show love, they return it."
Ten of the cats were trapped Wednesday at the shelter and taken to the Charleston Animal Society where they were sterilized and vaccinated. They were released back at the shelter Thursday morning, said Kay Hyman, Charleston Animal Society director of outreach and communication. Eight of the cats are females and two are males.
Stacey Deneaux, shelter executive director, said she didn't want the cats brought back. And she challenges the notion that feral cats are therapeutic for shelter residents.
"These are wild animals who live here because we have a dumpster," she said.
But a new controversial city law dictates feral cats be sterilized and brought back to the spot where they were trapped. Shelter residents, meanwhile, have grown fond of the felines.
"The people here at the shelter all relate to the cats because everyone here is homeless," shelter resident Marty Nelson said.
Residents are advised not to feed the cats, Nelson said, but he gives them scraps of leftover breakfast sausage. "Most everyone does, but they don't admit it," he said.
Nelson, 53, a recovering crack cocaine addict, said some of the feral felines are friendly. The residents express their affection for the free-roaming cats by giving them names like Chester, Buckshot and Scrappy. "The cats are therapeutic to a lot of guys who are treated like animals a lot of the time. They come out of jail. I think the guys can relate to the cats' predicament," Nelson said.
Shelter management sees the cats as a health risk because feline feces litter the grounds. Feline fleas that get on residents' clothes infest the building. Cat dander aggravates asthma, a common illness among the homeless, Deneaux said. For that reason, the shelter discourages feeding the cats, she said.
"It's something we've been battling for years. From a health standpoint, we really encourage them not to have any contact with the cats," she said.
Crisis Ministries facilities director Ricky King said the cats are generally not safe to pet. He pointed to a black cat sunning on a wall that he said clawed him. "She will cut you open in a heartbeat. As soon as she sees your hand, she will claw you," King said.
The new ordinance requiring cats to be returned to the area where they were trapped was adopted by City Council at the request of the Charleston Animal Society. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals funds the feral cat management program with a $100,000 grant. The town of Mount Pleasant and Charleston County also participate in the program and have adopted ordinances supporting it.
Advocates say the so called "trap, neuter and release" method works to reduce feral cats because they cannot reproduce. Euthanization does not work, they say, because other free-roaming cats move in to take over the same territory.
Hyman said female feral cats have up to three litters of at least five kittens annually. In 2009, the Charleston Animal Society euthanized 2,175 feral cats and 202 kittens. So far this year, the program has neutered, vaccinated and re-released 254 feral cats, including 160 females, she said.
Hyman said the cats at the homeless shelter relate to residents and provide some benefits to them. "The kids in the shelter are really attached to them. It's a huge benefit for them," she said. "They (cats) are feral, so they are wild. But that doesn't mean that when they are in their environment that they won't come up to people," she said.
In 2008, the Charleston Animal Society euthanized about 2,400 free-roaming cats. An estimated 1,000 to 1,500 of them would have qualified for the trap, neuter and release program. Cats that are unhealthy, too wild or deemed a nuisance will still be euthanized under the new program. Feral cats are generally not considered candidates for adoption, officials said.
The state Department of Natural Resources spoke against the free-roaming cat ordinance when Mount Pleasant Town Council considered and adopted it in March. DNR Regional Wildlife Coordinator Sam Chappelear told a Town Council committee the feral cat "trap, neuter and release" ordinance, like the one adopted by Charleston and Charleston County, is harmful to migratory birds.
"You won't get all the cats that are out there. It has not been proven to work anywhere else in the nation," Chappelear said. In addition to the threat to birds and other wildlife, feral cats carry disease such as roundworms, hookworms, rabies and distemper, he said.
Deneaux said that although she preferred that the 10 cats not be returned to the shelter, the trappers were called in hopes that the new city program will be a long-term solution to the proliferation of feral felines.
"Crisis Ministries and the Animal Society are going to work together to ensure that the best resolution can be reached long-term," Deneaux said.