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Every evening after dark, Dorothy Rhoden dropped ten pounds of Purina Cat Chow by the Dumpster at Green Meadow Apartments in Texas City. Dorothy's mother had lived in the complex for 17 years, and Dorothy visited her every day. A pregnant cat had kittens on her mother's porch, so Dorothy fed them. Seven years ago, Dorothy began feeding all the feral cats every day, even when her mother had to move to a retirement home about two years ago.
Dorothy used to feed the animals in the morning, but a maintenance man asked her to stop, so she started going after dark. "There are a lot of people that say cats can take care of themselves, but most of them are starving," Dorothy says.
The first Tuesday in June, Dorothy went to Bible study, then drove to the complex and fed the cats. Texas City Police Corporal Ronald Scott had recently moved into the complex. He told her she was trespassing and not to feed the cats anymore. "I ignored him," she says.
She came back the next night and the next night and the night after that, and nothing happened. On that Friday night, Officer Scott spotted the 66-year-old woman by the Dumpster. He was off duty and out of uniform, so he called for backup.
She says she heard him mention that because she had fed the cats for more than three days, they were legally hers and she needed to be charged with not having rabies tags on them.
"You're full of shit," she told him. She was outraged that one minute he said she couldn't feed the cats, and the next he said that she was responsible for having them vaccinated.
She was handcuffed, arrested and taken to the police station.
Dorothy dreamed of creating Galveston County's first managed feral cat colony. Every Sunday she caught one of the cats and took it to Wydell Dixon, owner of the foster pet program Whiskerville, who had the cats spayed or neutered. So far 30 cats have been fixed, vaccinated and adopted into new homes.
"You get them, you look into their eyes, and then you don't return them. You can't," Wydell says. "The real wild ones, we would have to."
Their plan was to try to catch every cat, test it for feline AIDS and leukemia and, if the cat is healthy, then have it fixed and vaccinated. They would try to find homes for cats who appeared to be domesticated and lovable. The plan was to take cats who were truly feral creatures and release them into the nearby woods, where volunteers would feed and water them. Eventually, all the wild cats would be fixed, the colony would stop growing, and they would die out.
Operating a feral cat colony is hard work, says David Smith, director of Galveston County Animal Control. He's extensively studied and written about trap-neuter-release programs. But they're hard to monitor and maintain. "You're talking some money here," Smith says. "It's labor- and cost-intensive."
Last year, Dorothy and Wydell approached the former apartment manager and asked her to announce their plan in the complex's newsletter, so tenants could volunteer or make monetary donations. But that never happened. Wydell says management later told her not to come onto the property to feed the cats, just to take them away.
"My heart absolutely bleeds for these babies that are finishing their lives out in the weather," Wydell says. "Cats are survivors. If we stopped feeding them today, they're still going to survive. There's rats, there's birds -- that's what these bastards don't understand."
Last week, a feral cat jumped out of a tree in front of the apartment's on-site manager, causing her to fall and break her elbow, says Michael Powers, president of Madison Commercial Group, which manages the property. Powers says the management firm has been telling Dorothy to stop feeding the cats for about six months. "She continued to do it," he says.
The manager, who asked that her name not be used, says feral cats fight with possums, get into the garbage and onto porches. She says parents complain that they're afraid to let their children play outside because they could be attacked by cats.
"The feral cat population has gotten out of hand," Powers says. "There's too many of them."
The manager says she doesn't want to kill all the cats and she doesn't want them to suffer -- she wants them to have a better life. Company officials aren't keen on the idea of a cat colony or even anyone feeding the cats, because they want them gone.
Last Thursday night, animal control officers trapped ten cats. "I highly doubt you could trap all of the cats," Smith says. "That's what they want, but it's very, very difficult with a large colony of cats to catch them all. There's always some that are uncatchable -- ones that won't go in the trap because they're too wily or too wild."
If the cats aren't fed, they will leave, Smith says. "Cats are not dumb creatures. If there's not a ready food source they will seek it in other places, as do deer and elk and bears," Smith says.