Even in Hopeville, there were pets. The stray cats who wandered in found homes, of sorts, with the stray human who had set up camp there.
"There aren't any feral cats," says Dawn Blaloch, a volunteer with the St. Louis Area Community Cat Coalition. "They're better socialized than my cats. They're the sweetest, most loving animals you'll ever meet."
So when word came that all the humans in Hopeville were being relocated in advance of the bulldozers scheduled to roll through this morning, it was clear that the cats had to go with them.
The St. Louis Area Community Cat Coalition works primarily with feral cats. They believe that the most humane way to rid the city of colonies of feral cats is not to exterminate the cats all at once, but to trap the cats, neuter or spay them and then return them to the colony sites, where they'll be watched and fed by human volunteers.
With a mass extermination, there's always a chance that a few cats will hide and continue to reproduce. Within seven years, Blaloch says, one female cat can produce as many as 65,000 descendants. But if the cats don't have any more kittens, the colony will die off naturally.
Similar TNR (trap-neuter-return) programs are already in place in Baltimore, New York and Oklahoma City. The Coalition had been working with the St. Louis Department of Health to set up its own TNR program here. When city officials discovered there were animals in Hopeville, too, they contacted the Coalition to see if the area would be a good site for TNR.
But, as the group discovered when a few of its members, accompanied by environmental health officers, first visited Hopeville on May 2, the cats and dogs there weren't feral at all. They were pets. A census determined that there were 53 cats in all, and ten dogs.
"The cats needed to stay with the people," says Blaloch.
And so the group got in touch with Catholic Charities, the organization responsible for relocating the humans. Coincidentally, the same day the Cat Coalition called, housing counselor Debbie Koeller had left messages with a few other animal rescue groups concerning the fate of the cats.
"It's really important for people to stay with their pets," Blaloch explains. "They've lost everything, but the animals stay with them. Once Catholic Charities was aware the animals were pets, they started looking for housing that would accept pets."
Catholic Charities also provided van transportation for the Hopeville residents to their new homes after members of the Cat Coalition pointed out that animals aren't allowed on buses or MetroLink.
The remaining cats, the ones without owners, have found temporary homes. The nursing mothers and their kittens are being fostered by Cat Coalition volunteers. (The dogs found homes, too.)
"We got all the cats out in time," says Blaloch. As of last night, only one cat had evaded capture. The group hoped to get him out before the bulldozers rolled him. He already has his next life lined up, as a barn cat.
Blaloch was moved by the site of the Hopeville residents and their pets. "That people living in the direst circumstances were willing to share what little they had with creatures worse off than they are...I'm inspired by the generosity of the human spirit."