Feet on the Ground: Helping Strays in Southwest Virginia

Montgomery County is a community of animal lovers. Virginia Tech has one of the best veterinary schools in the country and there are tons of people who walk their dogs around the friendly suburban neighborhoods. However, plenty of animals need help every day, whether or not they have an owner.

Rosie Dugan has been a veterinary assistant for two years at the Blacksburg Animal Clinic.

“I’ve always been interested in stuff with animals,” said Dugan, who attended the Animal and Poultry Science program at Virginia Tech as an undergrad. “I wanted to work this kind of job because it’s the closest I can get to helping animals without having to go to vet school.”

On average, cats will need to go to a veterinarian once and dogs will need one to two visits.

Dugan says that some of the animals that come in as strays very clearly used to have a home. Things like having an implanted microchip, being spayed and neutered, or simply being more comfortable around people are signs that they were once adopted or at least cared for by a person. She says that many feral cats are brought in by people who feed them regularly on the street, not owners, who suddenly notice something is off.

“There are several feral cat populations in Blacksburg. When they come in, normally the people who feed them will bring them in,” said Dugan. “We do offer a 25 percent discount to people who bring in animals that are not their own.”

The strays that the clinic sees are most often from the Animal Hope Alliance, located in Blacksburg. They average 2 to 3 animals brought in a day from the AHA. The clinic also receives stray animals from the Blue Ridge Mountain Rescue, located in Blacksburg.

Berry Bartschmid is treasurer and one of the founders of the Animal Hope Alliance, which became its own group after splitting from the Humane Society of Montgomery County in 2005.

Bartschmid taught chemistry for six years at Virginia Tech and owned a small business; when she retired, she formed the group with several other local women.

“The ‘hope’ in Animal Hope Alliance is help, opportunity, protection and education. That’s what we try to do,” Bartschmid said.

The local shelter does not take surrendered animals and the Humane Society only takes them off a nine month waiting list, so Bartschmid said that the AHA is the most common place in the area for surrendered pets but, of course, they cannot take all of them. Most of the animals are cats, following a pattern noticed by the American association of Feline Practitioners that cat ownership has gone down over the past ten years.

Bartschmid says that her group is an asset to the Animal Control of Montgomery County because her group actually has the facilities to take care of feral cats.

“Community cats, they’re just a fact of life,” said Bartschmid. “Lots of people love them, it’s a problem if people feed them and don’t fix them.”

Bartschmid says that it is important for someone who regularly feeds a cat or a colony of cats to contact a facility that spays and neuters those animals. A pair of breeding feral cats can produce an average of 4.9 kittens per year.

One of the biggest problems Bartschmid sees is when people take care of these cats but then allow them to start “breeding out of control,” which causes further problems. Already, half of American cats, reaching almost 146 million, are feral or unowned. According to the ASPCA, almost half of those cats die during their first year due to disease, parasites or exposure.

The AHA sometimes have to take litters from the same cat or colony because of enablers.

“We don’t want to keep taking kittens from that cat over and over,” Bartschmid said. “The person with the kitten should’ve had that cat sterilized. It’s not cool in this day or time to let your dog or cat have puppies or kittens.”

While the AHA does not take dogs for adoption, they do adopt out animals to Petco and Petsmartm. They spend every Saturday there with their adoptable cats, but not all cats are adoptable.

“Space determines that. We’d put them all up for adoption if we had unlimited space. We try to bring in who we think will adopt quick,” Bartschmid said.

The AHA adopted out 409 kittens in 2016.

Bartschmid says that they will soon see an uptick in cats coming to the AHA because breeding season is in the spring and summer. Cats take about nine weeks to produce a litter and already, they have seen a new kitten come in needing to be fixed.

Bartschmid says she is always busy trapping animals, fixing them, helping people pay veterinary bills and educating the community on how they can help stray populations.

“Everybody we’ve ever helped has my phone number,” she said.

A new animal shelter on Cinebar Road will replace the Montgomery County Animal Shelter and is slated to finish before the end of this year.

There are multiple other organizations that help adoptable or otherwise helpless animals in the area, such as animal shelters themselves. However, making efforts to ensure that strays and community cats are healthy and are not breeding at unsafe rates is just as important. There are people on the ground taking responsibility for sick or helpless animals. Their jobs can be easier if owners and those who enable feral populations learn about the safest and healthiest way to keep community animals safe.