WHITEFIELD — A “huge feral cat problem” on Townhouse Road — to the tune of up to 100 such felines — could affect the health of domestic animals and people who come in contact with them, an animal control officer told selectmen last week.

Ben Cook, a Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department animal control officer assigned to Whitefield, discussed the issue at last week’s selectboard meeting, saying he’d noticed the problem about two weeks ago. A town resident, however, said it began more than a year ago.

The Townhouse Road resident, who declined to give her name to the Kennebec Journal, said at the meeting that she caught a kitten she found near her home in the previous week.”As far as I know, the (start) was probably when a now-deceased resident began to feed … their cat and any cat,” she said. “We didn’t really start to see problem until perhaps a year and a half ago.”

The resident said the cats have since spread out from that residence, but also from further down Townhouse Road.

“About springtime, one of the cats came down and apparently set up housekeeping under our home and had a litter of kittens,” she said. “I didn’t realize that this cat was probably in the same family as the other cats.

“Everybody started coming down and we had four more kittens coming down from somewhere,” she added. “At that point, I called animal control.”

Barn Buddies is a program from the Midcoast Humane Society that finds homes for semi-socialized feral cats patrolling barns for their caretakers. Molly, pictured above, was a Barn Buddy last year.

Cook said the feral cats could spread a number of contagious illnesses — like fleas, worms and upper respiratory problems — to farm animals and pets who roam outside. He said he suggested one resident take their cat to the vet because it was seen in the same area as the feral cats.

The ACO is not allowed to take an animal to the shelter after its capture if it requires medical treatment. Cook said if a sick feral cat is taken to the veterinarian, the town in which it is found, by statute, is responsible for the bill.

The resident said the kitten she caught bit her, displaying a small bite-mark on her hand. She said she was wearing gloves at the time.

“It wasn’t an aggressive, rabies-type thing,” she said of the bite.

Cook said cats are the third-largest carriers of rabies among animals in Maine, with bats being first and skunks second.

Trendy Stanchfield, the executive director of the Midcoast Humane Society that serves Lincoln County, said feral cats also face danger from inbreeding within the colony.

“If they are not contained or vaccinated, they can spread several things,” she said. “If they breed within themselves, they have genetic issues … that makes it difficult for anyone to save those litters.”

Stanchfield said the Humane Society’s Edgecomb campus has no more space for cats.The shelter assists residents and ACOs with trapping, and spaying and neutering feral cats, before releasing them back into their colonies. This program, dubbed “Community Cats,” is grant-funded and serves 40 towns between the society’s Brunswick and Edgecomb campuses.

Lt. Mike Murphy, who oversees the Lincoln County’s ACOs, said residents should not feed feral cats, as it only sustains them and gives them more time to multiply.

Speaking at the meeting, the Townhouse Road resident said people may be feeding the cats to keep them around so they are easy to gather when they call animal control.

Wendyjo McKay, office manager at Portland-based Friends of Feral Felines, however, advocates for the feeding of feral cats, calling the choice to not feed them “cruel.”

“They depend on humans to feed them,” she said. “Or else, they’re going to get sick.”

McKay said each cat needs about one cup of dry food per day and a constant source of water. She said food should be left in secretive places because the cats are intimidated by humans.

“They view humans as a predator; they don’t trust them,” she said. “They (could) eventually bond to their feeder because they don’t mean no harm.”

Alan Russo, another Townhouse Road resident, said the ACOs have captured a large number of the cats. The last time he saw a feral cat was a week ago, when a black cat scampered across his driveway.

“I think I’ve seen one go trotting through here a couple days ago,” he said. “They’re all black and I assumed it was one of that bunch.”

Russo, an alpaca farmer, said the cats are no threat to his animals, even though he has seen them in his pasture.

“Alpacas would chase them out of their pasture,” he said. “They’re just cats, they’re not vicious.”

McKay said spaying and neutering the animals is essential because they breed three times a year. The organization believes spaying and neutering feral cats, along with feeding them, “decreases their numbers quickly and humanely.”

McKay added that feral kittens could be socialized and adopted out if they are caught before they are three months old, and some feral cats could patrol barns for farmers. The barn acclimation process is something FFF helps with and usually takes about a week.

The Midcoast Humane Society also has a “Barn Buddies” program for less social cats who cannot be adopted as house pets. Stanchfield said suitable barn cats come in waves and aren’t always available. There is an ongoing list of interested parties that are alerted when Barn Buddies become available.

“When folks want a cat to control other animals for coming in, generally we can put multiple Barn Buddies into communities,” she said.

Murphy did not respond to multiple attempts to reach him for comment.

Sam Shepherd — 621-5666

[email protected]

Twitter: @SamShepME

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