In 2004, as Kandi Habeb and her husband were leaving a Parkersburg restaurant, a beautiful black cat caught her eye.
"She was getting out of a dumpster with chicken bones in her mouth," Habeb remembered.
With a cat of her own at home, Habeb picked up some cat food there and took it back to the dumpster to feed the cat and her four kittens.
Judy Deem of Parkersburg pets one of the feral cats she feeds on her front porch Wednesday.
Since 2004, Habeb has served as founder and president of the Save a Kitty feral cat program based in Parkersburg, which works mainly in that area but also in Washington County. Save a Kitty is a nonprofit organization formed to educate residents who are feeding the feral (un-socialized) and free-roaming cat population in the area.
In addition, Save a Kitty practices the TNR (trap, neuter, return) method. Feral cats are trapped in humane cages, spayed or neutered, and returned to their outdoor cat colonies.
To date, the organization has facilitated the spaying and neutering of more than 3,000 cats and kittens, said Habeb.
Feral cat facts
Feral cats have existed alongside humans for 10,000 years.
Because they are not socialized to people, feral cats are not always adoptable.
Feral cats can live full, healthy lives but are killed in shelters because they are not always suitable for adoption.
If they're socialized at a young age, feral kittens can be adopted.
In 2010 there were an estimated 800,000 feral cats and kittens in the state of West Virginia and 5,400 in Wood County, according to bestfriends.org.
Since Save a Kitty began spaying and neutering feral cats and kittens in July 2004, the Humane Society of Parkersburg has seen a 14 to 28 percent decrease in cat intake and euthanasia.
Source: alleycat.org, bestfriends.org, Humane Society of Parkersburg.
Save a Kitty feral cat program.
Founded in 2004 as a nonprofit organization to educate residents who are feeding the feral (unsocialized) and free-roaming cat population in the city of Parkersburg and surrounding areas.
Save a Kitty has overseen the spaying and neutering of more than 3,000 cats and kittens.
The organization's caretaker members feed and provide shelter for around 250 cat colonies in the Mid-Ohio Valley.
To help, donate cat food, used picnic coolers and Igloo shelters, and other items that can be found at saveakitty.org/wishlist.
For more information, go to saveakitty.org or call 304-488-4679.
Although members of Save a Kitty understand that feral cats must be euthanized when brought into a humane society because they are not adoptable, they are not in favor of killing cats and kittens.
"I do not believe in euthanizing a healthy cat whether it's feral, free roaming or a pet," said Judy Deem, the organization's secretary/treasurer. "We don't round up all the raccoons and skunks because we have over population."
According to Habeb, members of her organization provide food and shelter and monitor health issues for cats and kittens in about 250 cat colonies in the area.
Save a Kitty has approximately 250 members, including those who do caretaking.
Habeb takes care of 90 cats each day, at a cost of $15 per day.
"I go through a case of canned cat food and three fourths of a large, 16-pound bag of dry food per day," she said.
While doing some online research about feral cats, Habeb found the best educational information at www.alleycat.org (Alley Cat Allies).
Habeb learned that feral cats live and thrive in every landscape but are not socialized to people.
Feral cats don't belong indoors and are not adoptable, but feral kittens can be adopted into homes if they are socialized at an early age.
"Some of them are just dumped out, others get loose or get lost," said Deem. "Sometimes it's an accident, sometimes it's careless people, sometimes it's thoughtless people."
Many of these cats don't survive because they are killed by wild animals, cars and illnesses.
Fortunately, domesticated cats that become feral can adapt quickly to their new surroundings.
"They're very resourceful animals," Deem said. "They figure out a food source and where to go to be warm and get out of the weather."
More than a dozen feral cats have figured out that Deem provides food and warm "beds" on the front porch of her Parkersburg home off Route 50 east.
Every day the feral cats she feeds cluster at her front door, ready for their daily chow.
Normally flighty and scared, many of them shake off their fears in favor of the food that's coming.
After Deem scattered chow on a large tray Wednesday morning, she gave single servings to a couple of the more persnickety feral cats.
Peach, who doesn't like to eat with the others, received her feed on top of a barrel. Hissy Missy, a decidedly unsocial cat with one missing eye, was fed in the large cage where she feels safest.
Deem said she believes some of the feral cats she helps escaped from a hoarder's home not far up the road.
Abandoned cats and kittens can also be found at the Washington County Fairgrounds in Marietta.
"People dump off cats left and right at the fairgrounds," said Angela Tucker, 45, of Marietta, who takes care of a colony of cats that lives in the 4-H barn.
"It's not right. (Owners) need to do the right thing, try to find them a home and spay and neuter their animals," she added.
Although the race barn is where many of the feral and stray cats make their fairgrounds home, Tucker said she usually sees six to seven new cats a year in the 4-H barn.
"This year, we got 15 to 20," she said.
Tenderhearted and a cat fan, Tucker feeds the cats that end up in her barn. Every two weeks, she said she goes through 40 pounds of dry cat food and 10 to 15 cans of cat food.
Deem is another who has developed a soft spot and passion for feral cats and kittens.
After retiring in 2004, she was restless.
"I am not a sit-at-home, do-nothing person," Deem said.
Going to her first Save a Kitty monthly meeting that September, Deem realized this was a cause that she could support.
"I just got more and more involved, and now I'm up to my eyeballs in this place and I absolutely love it," Deem enthusiastically said.
Nowadays, she usually volunteers with Save a Kitty about 90 to 110 hours a month.
Rather than euthanizing a feral cat or kitten, Habeb believes in a concept called "TNR," or trap the feral cat, neutralize (spay or neuter) the cat and return it outdoors.
After Habeb began feeding the "restaurant" cat and kittens, she humanely trapped them. Working to socialize the kittens, she eventually found them adoption homes.
However, the mother cat was "very unsocialized," said Habeb.
"She wouldn't let me touch her. She was always very skittish and standoffish," she added.
Spaying the cat, she returned her to the restaurant site and cared for her until she passed.
Soon, Habeb realized that her resocialization and adoption efforts were heading the organization in the wrong direction.
"Our money and time was better served spaying and neutering cats than placing them in homes," she said. "There were so many and there weren't enough homes."
In May, Save a Kitty decided to bring its spay and neuter efforts to the feral cats and kittens at the Washington County Fairgrounds.
With permission from fairgrounds officials, the Rascal Unit mobile spay and neuter clinic from Columbus drove down to the site and performed procedures on 45 to 50 feral cats and kittens in one day.
"There's a complete surgical group inside that bus," Habeb said. "They have everything they need, down to their machines and a refrigerator."
Tucker was a volunteer at the clinic at the fairgrounds.
"It was awesome. They were well organized and made sure the cats were stress free," she said.
According to Tucker, the event was "very successful."
"Not only have the cats become friendlier but we have no more kitties we have to worry about. Before (the mother cats) were popping out kitties left and right," she said.
In conjunction with Save a Kitty, the Rascal Unit did five clinics in 2012-three in the spring and two in the fall.
Five clinics are scheduled for 2013, Habeb said, "assuming that we have the funds."
Those interested in helping Save a Kitty can volunteer to help with fundraising events that raise money to pay for sterilizations, which are provided free.
Volunteers are also needed to learn to humanely trap and then transport feral cats and kittens that are scheduled for sterilizing procedures.
Plus, Save a Kitty is in need of cat food, donations of used picnic coolers and Igloo shelters and Purina brand weight circles. Those interested in helping can call (304) 488-4679 for information.
Monetary donations can be mailed to Save a Kitty Feral Cat Program, Inc., P.O. Box 1442, Parkersburg WV 26102.