The sun is just starting to peek through the trees in a wooded area of Bluffton as Jeanie's SUV approaches. When she puts it in park, cats begin appearing from the brush eager to see her.
She takes a head count as she starts her daily feeding ritual. Jeanie is a self-proclaimed cat lover who, along with a small team of caregivers, has undertaken the immense responsibility of nurturing and protecting Bluffton's community cats.
What is a community cat? "Feral to me means wild," Jeanie said. "Community cats, on the other hand, interact with people on a daily basis. Each one has a name, and each one is loved. Some were dumped here. Some were born here. Some just show up looking to survive."
Jeanie and her fellow caregivers Deb, Eileen, Joe and Kathy visit a handful of cat colonies twice a day, seven days a week, feeding as many as 60 cats. It's a labor of love they take very seriously, even venturing out to check on the colonies in the days surrounding Hurricane Matthew.
"It's an everyday job," Jeanie said. "They are going to be fed no matter what, even if it means my car is covered in branches and debris."
Jeanie and her comrades have outfitted each of the cat colonies with a main feeding station and several kitty condos. The caregivers also attend to regular kitty condo maintenance, which includes changing out straw bedding and mending a roof here and there.
To prevent the cat colonies from growing in number, they practice TNR or Trap-Neuter-Return. TNR means community cats are humanely trapped, brought to a veterinarian to be spayed or neutered, vaccinated, ear-tipped (in order to be identified as spayed or neutered), and then returned to their outdoor home.
"TNR is the humane solution for community cats, and these are lives worth saving," said Palmetto Animal League president Amy Campanini. "These colonies haven't had a kitten born in nearly two years. PAL honors the contributions these caregivers are making toward a compassionate, No Kill society."
Bluffton's community cats are like family to Jeanie, Deb, Eileen, Joe and Kathy. One cat named Domino is so friendly he jumps into the back of Jeanie's SUV every morning. "It seems he would rather be held and snuggled than eat," Jeanie said. "He jumps into my bag as if he wants to come home with me, but I know his colony is safe. This is his turf. This is his family."
These dedicated caregivers are making a difference in our community. They are taking action to make sure Bluffton's forgotten cats are not forsaken. They are determined to use their individual time and resources to do good.
"We can't stand to see any creature go hungry, and in this case, we can do something about it. We can feed them," Jeanie said.
To help abandoned, abused and neglected animals, join the No Kill movement. Adopt, foster, donate or volunteer at www.PalmettoAnimalLeague.org.
Lindsay Perry is the marketing coordinator at Palmetto Animal League.