County Drops Ball on Feral Cat Program

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Shortly before he left office in March, outgoing Vice-Mayor Dan Andre told the newly elected Town Council that he hopes they continue efforts to help out with the feral cat population on Fort Myers Beach. Working with local volunteer Joanne Knobloch, he and Council member – now Vice-Mayor – Summer Stockton had obtained a $5,000 grant to start a Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) Program on the island, and a vet – Dr. Shivers from the Indian Creek Animal Hospital – willing to participate. That grant expires in August, so we decided to find out what, if anything, is happening with the program.

Stockton told us that, on June 29th, she sent an email to Town Attorney Dawn Lehnert asking what was going on.

“The last things that (former Town Manager) Don Stilwell told me was that the Indian Creek vet no longer wanted to be involved and you had told me that the County still had the grant money for us,” Stockton wrote in her email. “I saw Joanne yesterday and she said the vet does still want to be involved. So my question is do you know if that funding is still there?”

Lehnert replied that the vet had not replied to any inquires from either the Town or Lee County. When we spoke to Knobloch this week, she told us that the Indian Creek vet had filled out all the necessary paperwork to get involved, but the grant has been given to Lehigh Acres instead.

“Months ago, Lee County Animal Control tried to send a mobile vet to the beach,” she told us. “It was in the middle of season, road construction everywhere, and I had two days to gather up 30 cats, plus find a place for the van to plug in. I told them that’s impossible on Fort Myers Beach, that I needed to bring the cats to the vet and then bring them back, and that’s when I started having issues with them.”

Knobloch became involved in the island’s feral cat issue several years ago when, as a member of the Black Island Condominium Association Board, which includes the three high-rise resorts on the north end of Lover’s Key, she realized that the cats were becoming a problem at her residence. She did her homework and chose what she felt was the most humane way to deal with the cat issue.

“I knew that Lover’s Key Resort had hired Critter Control and they were sending the helpless creatures to ‘the gas chamber,'” recalls Knobloch. “I knew there was a better way to control the colony of 40-50 feral cats. Today, she cooperates with Lee County Domestic Animal Services to bring traps to the island that do not harm the animals. Once captured, she arranges for neutering and shelters the animals in her own garage for at least 24 hours before returning them.

“I currently have six cats at home, but I’ve retrofitted my garage area to meet current standards and codes,” says Knobloch, a 26-year resident of Fort Myers Beach. “Once the cats have recovered from the anesthesia, usually after 24 hours rest, I return them to the area where they were trapped.” She says this is the best way to control the population.

Beyond that, she manages five local feeding stations, plus numerous sites, like the one near her condo on Lover’s Key, where she can be found feeding the five cats that now live in that area, down from the 40-50 cats just five years ago. Her efforts the last five years have seen a feral cat population largely stabilized, as 150 cats have been neutered through Lee County’s TNR program, but she says she can no longer afford to spearhead local efforts alone and needs help from a local vet so she doesn’t have to take the cats so far away to be neutered.

Now Knobloch fears that she won’t be getting that help because Lee County Animal Control told her the funds ‘have been relocated’ to Lehigh Acres.

“Andrea (Rothwell, Clinic Supervisor from Lee County Animal Control) told me that Indian Creek never sent their paperwork in, and Indian Creek told me they had,” Joanne said. “Now Andrea tells me the money is going to Lehigh, which doesn’t make sense because she assured me those funds were for Fort Myers Beach only.”

Though she didn’t return our calls this week, Rothwell did tell Town Council at a workshop held in March of this year that she agrees that TNR is the best solution for feral cat problems.

“For many years, we trapped and euthanized, and that didn’t get us anywhere, as other cats came in to take their place,” she said. “So we decided to sterilize all the cats eating from that food bowl, and they will keep other cats away. This is working, but slowly. We do not advocate cats going to where they’re not wanted or to wildlife preserves, but there are plenty of marinas and places that do want them.”

Calls to the Indian Creek Animal Hospital were not returned this week either.

Meanwhile, Knobloch says she’s about to give up.

“I used to count on the county for free, dry food, but that resource dried up months ago, so I buy the food on my own,” she said. “I’ve been waiting and waiting for help, but nothing ever happens.”

Anyone who can volunteer time, materials or financial support is urged to call Joanne Knobloch at 239-463-6118.

 

Keri Hendry Weeg