Cat colony facing the end

Todd Sheffler, left, and Lisa Marie Dorman, right, both of Markham check on a colony of cats near the Riverton boat landing in Front Royal on Thursday. The couple frequent the site and another one just a minute's walk down the road toward the Riverton Quarry to feed the cats and check on their welfare. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – A community meeting of feline lovers learned Tuesday that a beloved cat colony near a Shenandoah River bank will be gone soon.

The 60 or so cats at the site, some of them friendly to humans, some of them feral, will be rounded up beginning in the first week of March, officials from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the Humane Society told the audience of about 150.

Alberto J. Medina, a game warden with the state, delivered the message and recited a list of problems that he said have combined to turn the site into an eyesore, public health hazard and ecological abnormality, all of them attributable to the presence of the cats and misguided efforts on the part of some people to feed and care for them.

Medina said many cats over the years had benefited from the food and care they received at the site, but the time had arrived “to correct some of the wildlife issues going on at that property.”

Lavenda Denney, executive director of the Humane Society, said her organization will be able to capture the friendly cats and keep them in its shelter for adoption. Denney said the shelter’s live release rate for cats has risen to 92 percent in recent years. In a live release, animals leave the shelter by adoption, owner reclamation or transfer to another shelter with a live release rate of 90 percent or higher.

A cat peeks out from behind a line of tarps at the cat colony near the Riverton boat landing in Front Royal. Rich Cooley/Daily

The feral cats pose the biggest uncertainty looming over the demise of the colony.

Denney said her organization does not take feral cats. She and others at the meeting said they were confident that both feral and friendly cats could be captured humanely, using traps if necessary, but extended confinement of feral cats was another matter.

“You put a wild cat in a cage, it loses its mind,” Denney said, adding that shelter staff trying to manage them can be bitten and scratched by the fearful animals.

Tammy Tharpe Smelser, a self-described cat activist who organized the meeting, was among several speakers who urged the audience members to think about places where the feral cats could be relocated. Smelser said those at the meeting would have to meet again to work out a detailed plan for removing the feral cats.

Members of organizations from as far away as Middleburg that care for stray or unwanted cats attended the meeting.

“Relocating a cat colony is hard,” Smelser said. “It’s going take a lot of work and dedication.”

Nita Clewis, a volunteer with For the Cats’ Sake in Flint Hill, said finding one or more landowners willing to allow their property to be used as a new home for the feral cats was critical to the relocation effort. Clewis said her own organization’s shelter is already filled to capacity with 26 cats.

“It takes land, it takes money and it takes time and a coordinated effort,” Clewis said.

The cat colony goes back at least to the 1980s when Webb Davis, who formerly operated a nearby asphalt paving business, began taking care of abandoned cats he noticed at the site.

The colony has continued to attract cats and owners looking for a place to abandon unwanted pets. Davis, now 84, told the audience he had reached a point where he could no longer care for the animals.

“Now I want to see the cats taken care of, and I want to polish it off,” Davis told the audience.

The site is owned by a quarry, the ESSROC/Riverton Corp. The adjoining property, which includes the Riverton boat landing, is controlled by the county but managed by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Medina said uneaten cat food and other trash littering the site was attracting deer and bears, some of them disease-ridden and posing health risks to humans.

Medina said not everyone who stopped by to feed the cats was as conscientious as Davis in cleaning up after the cats were done eating. Some of those visiting the site either to feed or interact with the cats were interfering with the ability of fishermen and boaters to use the landing and the park, Medina added.

He also cited vultures descending on the area to feast on cat food and other scraps as a major problem. Medina said he had fielded reports of the birds defecating on tables and ripping rubber strips off of vehicles parked in the area.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com