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Call of the Wild

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

In the approaching dark, Sandra Burgin pulls her extended cab pickup truck into a deserted parking lot behind a Pawleys Island area business and carefully scans the grassy area to her right.

When she doesn’t see what she’s looking for, she climbs out from behind the wheel, walks around the back of the vehicle and shouts a name.

“Wildboy!” she calls again and again, looking into the distance. It’s only a minute before a large, brown tabby cat comes running around a building and all but leaps into Burgin’s arms to be nuzzled and stroked. He’s entirely happy at the attention as long as it’s just him and Burgin, but if anyone else approaches, it becomes only too clear how he got his name.

For all he looks like a pet — well-fed and healthy — Wildboy is one of more than a dozen feral cats in the area that Burgin cares for. They live in the shadows behind Dumpsters, in the woods and in the ramshackle remains of abandoned buildings.

And without Burgin and people like her, their lot in life would be far worse.

A landscaper who lives in Hagley, Burgin, 49, is founder of Ferals in Need, a nonprofit devoted to animal rescue. The group feeds feral cats, vaccinates them, providing emergency medical care, treats them for fleas and heartworm disease and, when possible, gets them adopted. They also trap the cats and have them neutered in an effort to keep the population down.

It’s work that doesn’t always make Burgin and her partner, Brenda Moran, popular, especially when it comes to feeding. They said people have followed them to criticize them for aiding feral cat populations and have even called the Georgetown County Sheriff’s Office, falsely proclaiming it’s illegal to feed feral cats in the county.

Feral cats are a hot button issue in many communities, including the Pawleys Island area, with some people calling the cats a nuisance and claiming that feeding them only worsens the problem by allowing them to live longer and breed.

“I had a lady in Georgetown say we ought to take all the ferals and drown them in the river,” Burgin said, disgust and fury written on her face. She can’t understand people who think like that.

“Those animals feel pain just like people do,” Burgin said. “I think people tend to forget that God created animals and he created man to use their knowledge and wisdom to protect animals.”

That’s something she’s been doing her entire life, since she was a child growing up in Rockingham, N.C. She just can’t turn her back on an animal in need — a quality that was the basis for the start of her friendship with Moran, another lifelong animal lover. They met several years ago when they discovered they were both taking care of the same feral cat colony and decided to team up so they could coordinate their efforts and make better use of their resources.

Though the nonprofit was established only this year, Burgin and Moran have spent at least a decade taking care of feral cat colonies. Burgin has been taking care of Wildboy for about three years, trying to tame him with dedication and a steady supply of tuna. She hopes one day she will be able to place him in a permanent home.

“It took him a while to warm up to me, but now he’s like my baby,” she said. “I’d take him home with me, but I’ve got to get some of the others adopted first. I don’t have room.”

Without help, feral cats usually live less than three years in the wild, and their short lives are harsh ones filled with hunger, illness and pain from injuries that go untreated.

Even with help and a steady supply of food, survival is a struggle for feral cats as they contend with the dangers posed by cars, predators and cruelty from humans.

Someone has recently been shooting at cats in one of the colonies Ferals in Need care for, Burgin said.

“We don’t know who, but we’ve taken two cats in [for medical treatment] and they had buckshot in them.”

An abscessed tooth would have led to a painful death for another cat Burgin takes care of if it hadn’t been treated with antibiotics. Another would have lost an eye and probably died from infection without medical treatment.

Others have been taken in with broken bones, snake bites, ear problems that lead to deafness when untreated and myriad other ailments.

Burgin and Moran lost a substantial number of the cats in their care to the cold this winter, they said. A new mother called Precious froze to death while nursing her kittens in the attic of an abandoned house.

Burgin started looking for Precious when she noted it hadn’t shown up at the usual feeding spot. She figured the cat had gone somewhere to have her kittens and eventually tracked her to the remains of the house, but it was too late.

“She froze to death trying to keep her kittens warm and fed,” Burgin said, tearing up as she recalled how she found the bodies. All but one of the kittens died. The survivor burrowed underneath the mother and its litter mates.

Moran ended up keeping the kitten.

“Sandra and I talked about it and I said this is all we have left of Precious,” Moran said.

The two name every cat they take care of and both have small animal cemeteries in their yards where ferals are laid to rest underneath small markers.

“We grieve for every one of them,” Moran said. It seems to her and Burgin like someone should.

While spaying and neutering cuts down on the number of ferals born in the wild, many cats that end up in feral colonies are abandoned by their owners. Burgin has rescued kittens that were put in plastic bags and left in trash bins, as well as cats who have clearly lived indoors as pets for years only to be dumped like garbage and left to fend for themselves. That’s always terrible to see, Burgin said with a sad shake of her head, but it’s worse when the animals have been declawed and have no way to protect themselves. A declawed cat doesn’t stand a chance in the wild.

Georgia Olker of Hagley said cats are sometimes stolen from their owners and dumped. She and Tony Roberts are partners in caring for a feral cat colony between the Highway 17 bridges leading to Georgetown. Olker said she’s seen families turn up there looking for animals they believe were stolen. She said that has been a particular problem at Allston Plantation, where some residents don’t want cats in the neighborhood.

There are about 30 cats in that colony and Olker said it’s heartbreaking to see the things that happen to them.

“I’ve seen so many poor cats get hit by cars,” she said. “People see us out there feeding them and think they’ll be OK if they leave them there because they’ll be taken care of. People just don’t realize how dangerous it is for cats there with the cars and the wild animals.

“It’s just so sad. You almost want to quit because it’s so depressing when you see this animal every day and then something happens to it. It’s hard to handle.”

The situation is made even more frustrating for Olker because the city of Georgetown tickets people for feeding feral cats. David Parks Sr. received a $1,000 ticket last month for feeding a feral cat colony at Food Lion in Georgetown.

“There’s a $500 fine for abandoning animals, but there’s no one to enforce that,” Olker said. “Instead, they’re going after the people who feed them. There’s something wrong with that.”

Burgin shares her frustration.

“It’s such a mess,” she said. “I feel for David, because he’s spent a lot of his time and money on trying to help control the problem and now this happens. If they think the problem is bad now, with him not out there doing what he does, it’s going to be a lot worse.”

Burgin believes the work done by herself and others who aid animals is morally right, but said it also just makes good sense, and

that’s the argument she tries to make to people who don’t share her views.

“If you don’t feed these feral cats and keep them all in one place, you’re really going to have

a problem,” she said. “They’ll start scattering.”

They’ll be in yards and on streets looking for food, she said.

“Another thing a lot of people don’t know is that if a colony is cleared out, in no time at all another group of ferals come in, only these won’t be spayed or neutered,” Moran said.

Female cats can produce more than four litters every year, quickly adding to the feral population. This is the time of year when many cats will start producing litters and Burgin and Moran are working to trap the pregnant mothers before they give birth so they can be spayed before they are released and the kittens can be adopted.

The feral cat population in the U.S. is in the tens of millions, and trap-neuter-release programs are “the only proven humane and effective method to manage feral cat colonies,” according to the American Society for the Prevention Of Cruelty to Animals.

The town of Pawleys Island wrestled for years with solutions to what residents said was a growing problem with feral cats. It adopted a trap-neuter-release program in 2000 and got a $10,000 donation from a property owner in 2006 to help fund it.

“We’re finally getting to the point where the number of cats are down,” Mayor Bill Otis said.

Nancy Swinnie, an island property owner who is in charge of the program, set three traps in January and caught three cats, all of which were neutered. Traps were set twice last months. No cats took the bait.

In addition to controlling the resident cat population, interest in ferals outside the town may also be contributing to the reduced numbers.

“There are so many feeding stations around the county, people aren’t dropping off as many” on the island, said Mary McAllister, a council member.

Effects of feral cats on bird populations is also a common concern, and one that caused tension on Pawleys Island a few years ago.

Cats kill an estimated 480 million birds per year, according to estimates made in a recent analysis by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. But other issues, such as the decline of natural habitat and use of pesticides, have a greater negative impact on bird populations, according to the ASPCA. It says that “while feral cats do kill some birds, they prefer to kill rodents.”

Burgin and Moran said they have no doubt they’re making a difference with Ferals In Need, but they need some help themselves. Right now, they fund most of its operations themselves.

“We had a good response when we first started running this,” Burgin said, “but after two or three weeks, it died out. We’re buying most of the food and paying for the spays and neuters. It’s expensive. We’ve got big bills at Ark Animal Hospital and with Candy [Boyd of McNeal Veterinary Hospital]. ”

The group became a registered nonprofit in 2010 and Burgin said she’d like to expand and pick up care of more feral cat colonies, but without donations it’s not possible.

“We’re barely hanging on right now because of the economy,” she said. “We would love to do more, but right now we’ve got to keep it at a minimum.”

Burgin said she is willing to work with communities and residents to control feral cat populations by starting trap-neuter-release programs in exchange for donations.

In addition to funding, the group needs supplies, including dry and wet cat food. Burgin alone goes through six to eight large bags of dry food every month and 20 cases of wet food. She usually uses Friskies, because it’s both reasonably priced and of good quality, Burgin said.

“I don’t buy the store brands,” she said. There’s one of those that “even the raccoons won’t touch.”

Towels, blankets and paper towels are also on the group’s wish list, along with “cat houses” that can be put in the woods to offer shelter from the weather.

“We can’t use dog or cat igloos, because people steal them,” Moran said. “We’d like so much to prevent what happened to Precious from happening again.”

The houses “don’t need to be fancy,” she said, but should be heavy and sturdy.

For more information about Ferals in Need, call 240-5655. Pick-up for donations is available.

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