Mad Cats

A member of the cat community near Syria peaks out behind wood.

Gary Misch has had multiple pet dogs throughout his life and characterizes himself as “more of a dog person,” but as things would happen Gary and his wife, Rose, have found new roles as cat caretakers and leaders of a Madison County non-profit that serves felines in the community.

The Syria resident got his start in the community cat business when postmaster Judy Knighting retired. Knighting had been taking care of a colony of cats in the barns near Syria Mercantile where the post office is located.

“I live in Syria and get my mail at the store,” said Misch. “I got involved feeding them. At the time there were 19 cats. With the help of a Flint Hill group, For the Cat’s Sake we trapped, spayed and neutered the colony. I learned the value of a TNR [trap, neuter, release] program for controlling the population in a colony of cats.”

Misch and Culpeper resident Laurie Counts broke away from For the Cat’s Sake and decided to form their own organization to deal with unwanted and homeless cats with an emphasis on providing affordable spay/neuter surgeries. Madison Community Cats, commonly referred to as MAD Cats, was formed in 2018 and is an all-volunteer 501(c)3 that provides low cost spay and neuter services and operates a TNR program for community cats. Misch is careful not to use the word feral and defines a community cat as any member of the domestic cat species that lives outside. Community cats can be stray or feral, are not pet cats and live outdoors. Feral cats are community cats that haven’t had contact with humans and are fearful and unsocialized. Feral cats are usually unadoptable except as barn cats. A stray cat is a community cat that was socialized at one point but lost their home and dependence on humans. Madison Community Cats mission is to help deal with unwanted and homeless cats in Madison and Culpeper counties by controlling the cat population with low cost spay and neuter programs and assistance with feral and community cat populations.

Both Misch and Counts are concerned about the number of homeless cats in Madison County and are both active proponents of the TNR program.

“Cats reproduce rapidly,” said Misch. “It doesn’t take long for one unneutered cat to become a colony. Neutered cats are also much quieter; there isn’t the howling that comes with their mating. Often times people are willing to tolerate a small colony of community cats if they aren’t caterwauling, spraying and generally making a nuisance of themselves. Once the colony stops reproducing it will eventually die out.”

Counts emphasized that there are large numbers of unwanted cats in all rural areas, but the problem is particularly evident in Madison where the cost of spaying or neutering a cat can be prohibitive to people with limited income and limited transportation.

“Helping people afford spay and neuter services is key,” said Counts. “This year, we have spayed and neutered 142 cats so far. So many of the people we serve have a limited income, they are struggling to meet their own needs so helping them with vet care and feed keeps those cats out of the shelter. We have volunteer drivers to provide transportation for those that need it.”

She also pointed out that the community cats can often be a benefit, keeping rodents out of the barns and businesses where they live.

Both Misch and Counts point out that Madison County has a high population of homeless/unwanted cats and statistics from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services show the Madison County Animal Shelter euthanizes cats at a higher rate than neighboring counties. In 2018, 49 percent of the cats taken in by the animal shelter were euthanized, while Culpeper, Orange and the Madison Greene Humane Society rates were all below 20 percent.

“By trapping, neutering and returning these cats to their colony, we are keeping them out of the shelters,” said Counts. “These cats aren’t the ones likely to be adopted because they are older and often unsocialized.”

MAD Cats also works with colony caretakers to socialize and adopt out kittens. Kittens are vaccinated and neutered and then placed with The Animal League of Northern Virginia or the Humane Society of Arlington for adoption as the Northern Virginia shelters have fewer kittens.

MAD Cats provides food for several colonies of community cats and an active TNR program where Counts and Misch trap an average of five cats each week. Misch’s wife, Rose, is the primary fundraiser and is behind the group’s sock sales at local festivals and is working on a grant so the non-profit can continue to expand low and no-cost spay and neuter services.

“Our end goal is to reduce the number of cats and kittens relinquished to shelters,” said Misch. “We can do that by reducing the number of unwanted kittens, educating about the importance of spay/neuter, helping colony caretakers with food and shelter needs and fostering and socializing kittens from colonies,” said Misch.

The organization accepts donations and welcomes additional volunteers.

For more information about Madison Community Cats call (540)738-0160 or visit the MAD Cats Facebook page.

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