A loving new home would be just purrfect

Cartoon moggies Top Cat, Benny, Choo Choo and Brain did a good job fending for themselves - and frustrating Officer Dibble - but Suffolk's real-life alley-cats need a bit more help.

Steven Russell

Cartoon moggies Top Cat, Benny, Choo Choo and Brain did a good job fending for themselves - and frustrating Officer Dibble - but Suffolk's real-life alley-cats need a bit more help. Steven Russell hears about efforts to give them a better life

POOR old Stevie hasn't enjoyed a lot of luck. He was dumped from a car and, because a thyroid condition hadn't been ignored, lost his sight. He's also deaf.

Very poorly, and suffering from kidney failure, Stevie isn't expected to be around very much longer. Happily, donations from well-wishers have helped Suffolk cat-lovers make his final few months as comfortable as possible.

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Fortunately, it's rare for the Framlingham & Saxmundham branch of Cats Protection to encounter such callousness - though you don't need to look very far into the past to realise that love and devotion has sometimes been in short supply in Britain.

Deep-rooted superstition led folk to do some fairly horrible things to cats centuries ago, and even 80 or 90 years ago the animals were still commonly viewed as pests rather than cute companions.

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Then in 1923 an outbreak of rabies helped raised the status of the ordinary moggy. The disease brought importation restrictions and so breeders and cat clubs began looking more favourably at the humble version.

There was concern, however, that people often knew little about the needs of the domestic cat, and in the early summer of 1927 a meeting was held in London to discuss this widespread ignorance. It decided “that a society be formed to be devoted exclusively to promoting the interests of cats and that its name be The Cats Protection League”.

It's still with us, though the archaic L-word has been dropped, and today helps more than 140,000 cats and kittens each year, rehousing 55,500.

The charity has a network of 256 branches run by volunteers who foster cats, find new homes for them and raise money for the cause.

The Framlingham & Saxmundham branch last year rehomed more than 250 cats and kittens and also treated numerous ferals to some tender, loving care.

Such is the scale of the problem that the Home A Cat section of its website is working overtime to catch the eye of prospective new owners. The branch is currently spending more money than it's taking in - living off a legacy that won't last forever. Vets' bills were over £30,000 last year, including the cost of neutering - a bit of a killer.

Speaking of which, branch co-ordinator Gillian Clark has just taken some ferals to the vet for checks.

Gillian was one of those people who in 1989 got together to discuss their concerns about the growing number of abandoned and wild cats in east Suffolk. A local branch was formed under the wing of the Bury St Edmunds group. “Headquarters funded us with £250, I think it was, and three cat-pens, and we got started.”

Initially it covered a massive district, including Ipswich. In 2000 the county town got its own group and nowadays the Framlingham & Saxmundham branch takes in the postcode areas IP6 and IP12-IP23 - still a far-flung region, stretching from Southwold to the edge of Ipswich, and out to Stowmarket and Aldeburgh.

“We thought we might solve the problem but it's getting worse,” says Gillian. Part of the reason for more cats ending up on the street, she suspects, is the fallout from house possessions and the subsequent disruption to family life. Marital break-up is also a factor, as are new babies coming along, and the rise in pet-related allergies.

“And often they're pregnant and thrown out because of that. The males often get chucked out after about seven months because they're starting to smell - because they're not neutered and they're spraying (urine, to mark territory).

“People think cats can fend for themselves, but they can't. They might catch the odd mouse, but it's not going to keep them going; and they do need a home environment if that's what they've been used to.”

The branch has between 30 and 40 active supporters, all working as a team, with six of them able to foster cats. Demand for temporary accommodation outstrips supply.

“We've never ever been empty. You just about have time to clean them out properly before another one's sitting waiting to go in; and this time of year it's horrendous - there are so many kittens.”

The timing of the academic year doesn't help. At this time of year there are stacks of young ones needing a new home, but families who might want a cat put those ideas on hold during the holiday season, “which is sensible but makes our lives hard because we can't move them, so we're desperate!”

Mother cats and their broods are the priority in terms of temporary shelter - partly so the female can be spayed and thus stopped from adding to the feline population. “I've got one mum in at the moment; she came in with a litter of five kittens and she's already six weeks pregnant. 'This is the last lot!' I said.”

Much of this heartache and hassle could be avoided if owners had their cats neutered. You can see how the numbers can quickly stack up if an unspayed female is abandoned: the average number of kittens in a litter is five, and a female could have four litters in a productive year. Good weather plays a part - females come into season earlier if there is a mild winter.

There's no excuse not to have a pet cat neutered. Owners on means-tested benefits are likely to qualify for help with the cost from Cats Protection.

Gillian says a surprising number of people do not have their pet cats neutered. The branch has run campaigns to highlight the benefits; but there's just no helping some folk. They expect volunteers to collect the animal, take it to the vet, and bring it back later. “It's lazy-itis. They push you too far . . .

“And it's a myth that it's better for the health of the mother if she has one litter before being neutered. Their growth is stunted if they have a litter at about six months.”

On the whole, though, Gillian reckons we are good at caring for cats. “A lot of it is ignorance about what cats need, I think, rather than mistreatment.”

The worst part of her role is dealing with the odd person who has actually been cruel, “and having to be polite to them because you want their cat” - when what you really want to do is give them a piece of your mind.

Then there are those who report a stray cat but get uppity when they learn it can't be taken in immediately because there's no space, and could they possibly care for it for a while. “Sometimes you get the ones who say 'If you don't take it, we'll shoot it', which is emotional blackmail. I'm a bit hardened to it now. 'You can't do that; I've got your phone number now and it's against the Animal Welfare Act. So . . .”

Gillian - who hails from London - has always liked cats, but because her family wasn't animal-minded she had to wait a while before they featured in her life. The first of note was a feral - “such a character” - who was living around the River Lea and was effectively adopted by her cousin. When the relative moved away, Gillian became “mum.

She's now got a couple of her own here in Suffolk. Both were kittens born to cats being fostered. Having seen a number of people scratched and wounded, Gillian's very cautious when catching abandoned or feral cats, and has perfected her technique. Thick gauntlets help, too. To be on the safe side, those at the sharp end keep up to date with their tetanus shots.

“I had a kitten scratch my eye once, and the vet sent me to the doctor. I had some drops, but it was really only a precaution.”

Out in her garden the pens are full, as usual. In one is a mother - very thin - and five black-and-white kittens: strays brought in from a village near Framlingham by one of the branch volunteers.

Mind you, they gave her the runaround. It took about a day to catch them all. The last kitten disappeared under the car at one stage and was eventually discovered in the engine compartment.

Does she name all the fostered cats? “Yes! Most people name them. She came in as Mischief” - christened by the lady who caught her.

In the middle pen is another collection of inquisitive kittens. With their wide eyes, plaintive mewing and penchant for climbing the wire mesh, they're real heart-stealers.

“You can understand why people want kittens, but it's the adults I feel sorry for - the golden oldies,” says Gillian. Older toms are probably the most difficult to home. Prettier cats certainly stand a better chance of catching the eye of a prospective owner than the big, tatty and battered cats she today took to the vet: dubbed Shrek and Yeti!

What's the favourite part of her work with cats?

“I suppose it's gaining their confidence. If they've been mistreated, or been wandering, they can be cowering in the back (of a pen, say) and you coax them out of it. Get them into a new home and they think it's lovely. Then someone sends a photograph of them curled up on a cushion and you think 'Wonderful!'

“We had a mother and daughter, 11 and 10, who were depressed because they were in a pen for a long time.” Their elderly owner had died. “We thought we'd never be able to rehome them, but they've gone to a new home this last week and the lady said 'As soon as that cat touched carpet it purred.'”

IT'S not just abandoned or stray domestic cats that the volunteers care for - ferals also keep them on their toes.

Because they have never been socialised, and are used to living in the wild, they cannot become house-cats. Cats Protection aims to have them neutered, vaccinated, wormed and de-fleaed. Any other health issues are also sorted out. Then the ferals are either returned to where they were found or are put up for adoption at suitable locations. The charity says farms, smallholdings and stables are ideal.

“They're great company wandering around, as long as it's on their terms, and they'll stay if provided with two meals a day, but they're best at stables, say, where they can live a normal life.

“They don't want to be domesticated and live in a house. They're eco-friendly, really, because you don't have to have the pest controller!” says Gillian Clark.

“My colleague went to a farm yesterday; I don't know how many are there in the colony, but we've persuaded them (the owners) it's a good idea to have the cats back once they're neutered, and then you don't get other cats coming in. They won't be breeding and the colony will literally die out through old age.”

The Framlingham & Saxmundham branch has recently been trapping a big colony hanging around a caravan site, and many moons ago took 60 cats from Sizewell when the B nuclear power station was being constructed.

“It took us about three years.” Why were there so many? “The builders fed them, though it was instant dismissal if they did!”

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Each cat or kitten that moves on will have been vaccinated, wormed, de-fleaed and neutered if old enough

Cats Protection does not put down any felines, unless a vet feels it's the kindest solution because of a health problem

Home visits are arranged before a prospective adoption, to make sure the house and surrounding area are safe for a cat. Dangerous roads, for instance, are a concern

The Framlingham & Saxmundham branch has had a charity shop in Framlingham for nearly a year, which helps bring in money, attract potential new owners, and give out advice leaflets

For nearly two years now it's also been selling goods on eBay to raise funds - nearly £3,000 so far

Volunteers are always welcomed, as well as items to sell in the charity shop and on the stalls

The branch also offers membership at £5 a year. Members get four newsletters giving up-to-date stories and information on the branch and the cats in care

Contact details: 01728 723499. www.framandsax.cats.org.uk

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