Feral Cats Have Colonized a South County Nursing Home. Neighbors Are Pissed


Cats. They are animals of whimsical habits, selfish and standoffish, adorable and cuddlesome. But for neighbors living near a nursing home in unincorporated Sappington, they're nuisances.

The tension has persisted for years, says Christine Oldenburg, president and founder of St. Louis Feral Cat Outreach. She estimates that around 30 feral cats currently stalk the area, attracted to the routine feedings given by residents of the Tesson Heights Senior Citizen Center.

"That’s not uncommon for a nursing home," Oldenburg says. Although Feral Cat Outreach has worked with the nursing home to trap, vaccinate and fix the animals, adoption is generally not an option. These cats are too set in the wild ways. Instead, the felines are released and return to the area.

The problem is that they don't simply prowl around the nursing home. They get into people's yards.

The feral cat activity has gotten so bad that residents in the area have complained to St. Louis County Animal Control. Yesterday, one neighbor told Fox2 that the feral cats lie in ambush beneath his bird-feeder, and that he hasn't seen a rabbit in his yard for three years. A second neighbor told the TV station that he's trapped more than 95 cats, and another area resident complained that his wife's allergies to cats has effectively prohibited her from enjoying their own backyard.

But the issue poses a complicated problem, says Oldenburg, and she worries that recent attention from Animal Control doesn't bode well for either the feral cats or the people aggravated by them.

"We don’t have places for them to go," she says of the cats. And, she cautions, removing the feral cats will only invite more to take their place. "Animal control isn't going to catch 30 overnight, and as they take them away, more are just going to move in because there’s still going to be that food source."

According to Oldenberg, an Animal Control representative contacted Feral Cat Outreach last month to notify them of the neighbors' complaints about the cats. Then, last week, she says an Animal Control officer called again. She claims that officer told her that officers would start trapping the animals in a matter of days.

That warning led to a Monday Facebook post from Feral Cat Outreach.

"The nursing home residents love these cats and look forward to feeding them every day," the post read. "These cats are unadoptable and will be euthanized by the county."

However, county spokesman Cordell Whitlock contests some of the details in the post. He tells RFT that the county is not sending officers to trap the feral cats this week.

"In terms of allegations that we're trapping and killing these animals, we're not doing that at all, we haven't taken any action," Whitlock says. "Our only role so far in this has been that we've gone to the nursing home and we have urged their leadership to tell their residents to stop feeding these cats."

Whitlock adds, "I don't think we've gotten anywhere with that."

Contacted this morning, a senior center employee declined to comment, and referred questions about the feral cats to Feral Cat Outreach.

The lack of action and finger-pointing is disappointing to Oldenberg. She points out that St. Louis city passed a 2014 ordinance that formally committed the city to a "Trap-Neuter-Return" policy and established an advisory task force appointed by the health department. St. Louis County has no such system in place.

It doesn't help that the county's department of Animal Control & Care has been roiled by the firing of its director, Beth Vesco-Mock. Vesco-Mock was fired in March after facing broad allegations of " inappropriate conduct," including assertions that she had made racist remarks to staff. But Oldenberg says that Vesco-Mock was also supportive of a Trap-Neuter-Return policy, and that, before her firing, the director had contacted animal groups in an effort evaluate the county's stance toward feral cats.

For now, Oldenberg says, those conversations have stalled. She adds that the county's animal shelter has struggled for months to re-home a mere handful of feral cats. She wonders, "What are they going to do with 30 more if they go trap at the nursing home?"

The grim answer, Oldenberg suggests, is that the county will have no option but euthanasia.

"They're trying to say they're not going to euthanize the cats, but the county doesn't have a program for these cats other than to ask us to take them," she says. "I told [the county], the problem is we can't take them."

One solution, says Oldenberg, is for the county to enact a similar ordinance to the one passed by St. Louis city in 2014, something that would create a framework to handle situations like the one now causing tension. If cat advocates knew that policies were in place to ensure the animals weren't being given a death sentence, they'd be a lot more enthusiastic about working with the county.

And other cities in the region, she notes, offer "barn homes" where feral cats can live peaceably. St. Louis County doesn't have that, she says. Advocates would have to find fellow cat lovers in rural places willing to take on the felines.

Beyond that, the solution likely won't be as simple as asking the nursing home residents to refrain from feeding, warns Oldenberg. One Tesson Heights resident who regularly feeds the feral cats, she notes, is also living with dementia.

"When you tell her not to put five cans of food down, you’re not going to get a whole lot of cooperation," she says. "You can tell this old lady not to feed them anymore, but is she going to listen?"

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com

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