OAKLAND — Six pounds of food a day.
That’s how much Diane Smith leaves out around the house at 208 Chestnut St. in Oakland. She says it goes to feed about 20 cats that live there and rely on her organization, the Sutherlin-Oakland Stray Cat Action Team, for survival.
With the City Council now developing a policy to deal with feral cats, the new owners of a historic home that has become Ground Zero for the city’s feral cat problem have told city officials they plan to occupy the house and begin remodeling next month. And, according to Smith, they don’t plan to maintain a colony of cats on the property. This tightens the timeline for finding a home for all the cats she’s been feeding, some of which have become stricken with diseases.
“I’m definitely feeling the pressure,” she said.
The house in question was built in 1888 and was once occupied by the city’s founder, Alonzo F. Brown. There’s been a cat colony near it for at least four decades, according to several Oakland residents. For years a woman who lived alone near the house set out extra food for the many cats that joined her own pets for dinner each night. Then, for about six years, an electrician and his family lived at 208 Chestnut and attempted to feed the felines they inherited with the property.
“They did the best they could,” Smith said. “They weren’t even cat people when they moved in.”
When hard times hit during the Great Recession, the family moved to Portland, and Smith said her group has been left to deal with the fate of these cats.
Smith and others declined to identify the new owners. According to the Douglas County Assessor’s Office, a California couple purchased the house in October 2013. Efforts to reach them were unsuccessful.
Neighbors of the colony brought health concerns and other worries to the council last summer. Since then, SOSCAT has taken steps to reduce the size of the colony. It’s trapped and neutered males, found several adoptive homes and had the tamer cats checked out by veterinarians. Smith has even looked at properties that might serve as a stray cat sanctuary.
“Most of these cats could be useful to someone, either as mousers or as house cats,” Smith said.
Retired pension analyst Lois Black said Smith seems dedicated to the cats in the colony, but she “disagrees completely” with her approach.
“I think they should be removed,” Black said.
Black drafted her own wildlife ordinance for the Oakland City Council to consider. Councilors didn’t support her call for registering cats, but expressed support for her measures targeting human behavior, specifically pet abandonment.
“The issue is the cats are being fed and cared for by sympathetic people, and as a consequence they remain in the area. And, if they’re not spayed or neutered, they multiply,” she said.
Black said when she moved into her house two blocks from 208 Chestnut five years ago, she had to replace all the sand in her sandbox, which she said had been used by neighborhood cats as a litter box for years.
She said where she comes from, San Francisco, pets that run loose don’t fare well.
“I’m a city person. I move here, and it’s difficult for me to understand everything that goes on in a small town. But this is something else,” Black said.
The issue isn’t restricted to one colony. Oakland residents speak of at least two others — one on Cypress Street and one in the hills outside of town. And feral cats aren’t just a problem in Oakland, said Scott Beckstead, a Sutherlin attorney and Oregon director of the Humane Society. “There are community cat colonies all over the world.”
A typical colony consists of both feral cats and former pets that have been abandoned or have run away, Beckstead said. Many cat advocates are now pushing to call these “community cats” or “homeless cats,” and urging humane treatment.
“‘Feral’ conjures images of a wild or half-wild animal,” Beckstead said. “Each one of those cats has their own personality.”
Beckstead has advocated for the Humane Society-backed position of “Trap, Neuter, Release” at City Council meetings. It’s an approach Smith has attempted in earnest with the colony at 208 Chestnut.
Smith said she was told by the new owner that work on the home would begin soon.
“They don’t want all the cats there because they have a couple of cats of their own, and they’re afraid of the interactions between them.”
• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at email@example.com.